The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wild Foods

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1983-2012

Issue: September, 1983

Within a five mile radius in these Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I have picked wild strawberries, blackberries, wild peaches, apples, wild blueberries, wild currents, service berries, wild raspberries, made wine from wild cherries, picked two varieties of wild grapes, and many, many other foods.

The two varieties of wild grapes are: the larger ones that grow one by one on the vines, and the smaller variety, fox grapes, that grow in clusters. These grow in the woods and sometimes the vines grow high in the trees, making it hard to reach them. Sometimes you get lucky and find them growing closer to the ground.

Elderberries abound in this region and while they don’t have much of a taste as is, they make a good jelly or wine.

The wild rose hips in this area are small and mostly seeds, but still have a good lemony taste to them and add enough enjoyment to a fall or winter walk through the woods.

Watercress grows in many streams here in the woods. I like to carry a salt shaker with me, pull the cress fresh, wash it right in the stream it grows in and eat it right there.

There are hickory nut trees here also, but you will probably have a hard time beating the squirrels to them.

You can parch dandelion roots and grind them to make a passable coffee substitute. Wild chicory also grows here and you can add that to the “coffee.” The closest coffee substitute I have ever tried is roasted chick peas. It tasted just like coffee to me, only milder, more mellow. It took less cream and sugar to please me than real coffee. The chick peas need to be roasted until they are almost burnt and then ground and brewed like you would coffee.

Jerusalem artichokes grow all along the roadsides here. They are tall plants that are similar to sunflowers, but with smaller blooms. The tubers are the edible part. They have a similar taste to water chestnuts to me. They can be boiled and buttered like potatoes or even made into crisp pickles. Raw, they only retain their crispness for a day or so after digging, and are best used as soon as possible.

Whatever foods you are hunting in these mountains, you have one advantage over the lowlands. I suppose it’s the altitude but I have never been bitten by a summer pest of lower, hotter locations called the “chigger.” It is a tiny insect that will itch you to distraction.

There are many more wild foods than I have mentioned. These are only some of the more well known ones. If you are interested, you should be able to find books at your library or local book stores to guide you to the others.

Here in the Blue Ridge, man has not ruined nature and “Mother Nature” rewards us with a free, bountiful harvest, ours for the taking.

The Indians were the original conservationists. When they hunted an herb or food, the first one they found they left, and prayed to find another. In this way the plant would continue to reproduce for future generations, assured it wouldn’t become extinct. All it takes is a little care and future generations from now will be able to enjoy the same bountiful harvest we do.