Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Euell Da Man!

A recent walk with some friends around the Matteson Trail in Hampton stirred up some dusty old memories of Euell Gibons, the plant-eating naturalist and raconteur. He had several books published in the 60's and 70's advocating the consumption of all kinds of woodland plants. And though his books were popluar and he tried his darndest, he never really managed to get his long desired cattail craze started.

For some reason, I've always remembered his Grape Nuts commercial, especially the line about the wild hickory nuts. I seem to have a dim memory of staying up late, watching the old Tonight Show in my bell-bottomed pajamas, as Euell's commercial came on between appearances by Totie Fields and the Amazing Kreskin. It seemed awfully corny to me way back then, but now I'm all about eating off the land. From Euell's books I have learned that just about anything can be made merely tolerable by cooking in 3 changes of boiling water.

In honor of Euell, I'll be looking back at my last plant walk through his eyes, judging plants not on their beauty, but one of their more practical attributes - eatin'.

The Matteson Trail was named after Tess Matteson, a Native Plant Society member who had spent a lot of time cleaning litter along the trail and who also planted daffodils, hydrangeas, and other plants to cheer up the walkers and joggers who used the trail. The city repaid the favor by naming the trail after her. Winding its way around the Hamptons Golf Course, it's a fairly long trail and though I've only made it part of the way, it seems like it's full of interesting discoveries.

One of the discoveries I made was the several good sized shagbark hickories. This was surprising to me, since I had never seen any in this area before. I'm not sure why they like this spot so much. It was the shagbarks that made me think of Euell. I have an old copy of his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus in which he talks about hickories, but it's a bit confusing - Euell says he prefers shellbark hickory nuts (Carya ovata) above all others, but Shellbark is actually Carya laciniosa and Carya ovata is shagbark. Anyway, I've never actually tried any hickory nuts before, but you can bet your life I'll be there this fall to find out what they're like.

Growing in the shade of the shagbark were lots of Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema tryiphyllum) in bloom. Now if you dig these up,thinly slice the roots, and thoroughly dry them, you can eat them like potato chips or ground them into flour. If not completely dry, the calcium oxalate will burn a hole in your tongue.

Nearby we came across a couple specimens of spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa). The leaves of this little plant are "peppery pungent". You can add the tender leaves to salad, or add vinegar to the rootstocks to make horseradish. Has anyone tried it?

There were also mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) in a few spots, though I didn't see any with blooms. These cute little plants produce a single pale yellow fruit that can be made into jelly or added to lemonade. But be warned - the roots, leaves, seeds and green fruit are strongly cathartic and "should not be eaten" as my guidebook delicately puts it. Why oh why is there always a catch to these native foods?

Growing just above these low perennials were gobs of pawpaws (Asimina triloba) loaded with the pretty (some say) brown blooms, but I've said enough about those before.

Another understory tree was black cherry (Prunus serotina). Like the cherries you buy in the store, the stones contain cyanide, so be careful if you try them and maybe mix them with a little sugar. I hear they're bitter.

One plant we saw a lot of was corn salad. This is a nonnative invasive plant, so I encourage everyone to eat as much as possible. Again, I've never tried it but my guidebook says the tender leaves are great for salads as long as you pick them before the flowers appear.

At the end of the trip, we came across a very large stand of poison hemlock, which Tess had identified by its spotted stems and which she really seemed to get a kick out of. Poison hemlock, the herb used to kill Socrates, is another old world invasive but please...DO NOT EAT THIS! YOU WILL DIE!

So, many thanks to Tess for calling me up and arranging the tour of this interesting spot. When the revolution comes, I'll find my way down to Hampton, build a little lean-to deep in the woods and live off the bounty of nature.


Dr.Rutledge said...

Hi Phillip,

Beautiful pictures. Thank you for sharing them.

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Janet said...

Euell Gibbons!! You are dating yourself! Though I am too, I remember him very well! Sorry this spring got away from me and I didn't get to any of the nature walks. Very interesting post. I have lots of Shagbark Hickory on my lot in South Carolina. Never had seen them before.
(Interesting comment)