Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Before there were convenience, dollar, and grocery stores around every corner, Natives and settlers alike relied not only on agriculture and hunting for their sustenance, but foraging as well. Clayton, Georgia-based Cara-Lee Langston, Wildcraft Kitchen, was in Macon County recently teaching interested individuals how to accurately and safely find wild-grown plants for culinary and medicinal uses.
Langston attributes her interest in foraging and cooking with wild foods to her upbringing in Cape Town, South Africa, which she defines as a “culturally-diverse, stunning natural environment,” and adds, “My family and I spent a lot of time outdoors and enjoying traditional foods. Almost every weekend was spent exploring nature, hiking the mountains and beach trails of the Cape Peninsula. My parents are incredible nurturers who worked in the medical field so I always had an understanding and appreciation for health and wellbeing.”
She eventually immigrated to the United States and worked in food service and healthcare. She desired to use her knowledge of natural healing, so in 2011, she enrolled in the BotanoLogos School of Herbal Studies Medical Herbalism Certificate Program in Clayton and met Patricia Kyristi Howell, who became her herbal mentor.
“She really opened my eyes to the world of herbalism and taught me about the Appalachian plants that I now use for food or medicine.”
Langston notes that the Southern Appalachians are “lush” with forageable foods and also medicinal plants.
“Many herbalists refer to this area as the apothecary of the United States. There are at least 100 species of wild edible and medicinal plants that are endemic to our region, meaning that they are not found anywhere else in the world,” she said.
Some examples are sassafras, spicebush, sochan (which has been a “favorite wild green of the Cherokee,” according to Langston), morel mushrooms, chanterelle mushrooms, lion’s mane mushrooms, black cherry, bear huckleberry, paw paw, serviceberry, mulberry, smilax, black walnut, hickory, oak, beech, birch, persimmon, sumac, and more.
“Some edible or medicinal wild plants, such as ramps (Allium tricoccum/wild leek) and ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), are at risk of becoming endangered due to overharvesting,” she said. “I always share resources with my students to help them be better stewards of the earth and to protect at-risk plants by practicing ethical wildcrafting. The United Plant Savers are an excellent resource to learn more about this. For instance, the most ethical way to harvest ramps in our area would be to only harvest one leaf per plant (depending on the size of the stand or patch of plants) and to not dig up the root as the root takes five or more years to develop, and once you pull up the root the plant is done. Just like the root, the leaves have a great flavor too!”
She also helps people feel comfortable about foraging for nonnative invasive plants. “If you are going to forage for wild foods, why not become an invasivore? Consuming invasive plants is more sustainable and ethical than consuming native plants. Even kudzu is edible!”
The concern that many people have about foraging is that they might make a mistake and eat a toxic or poisonous plant or mushroom. She instructs, “When foraging for food, especially fungi, it is very important to get 120% positive ID and remember ‘when in doubt, leave it out’ as my mom always says. Thankfully, mushroom toxins aren’t transdermal and so you can handle a poisonous mushroom to study it closely. This is actually very important. You should never try to identify a mushroom (and this goes for plants too) by just one feature. You have to look at the cap, the fertile surface, stem, internal, and external color, spore print, the substrate that it is growing on, and its habitat or relationship to trees. No doubt, it takes time and studying great guide books from sources like Tradd and Olga Cotter at Mushroom Mountain, who is the number-one resource for mushroom education, mushroom products, and mushroom cultivation supplies in our area.”
Aside from poisonous mushrooms, Langston educates regarding various toxic plants as well. “One example is poison hemlock, which can easily be mistaken for edible wild carrot in its very young growing stage,” she said. “Also, a plant can have both edible and toxic parts. For instance, only the fruit of the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is edible when it is perfectly ripe (it yellows and falls to the ground) but all other parts are toxic. Some plants have toxic look-alikes too, so studying botany is an important part of foraging.”
Although Langston said her South African upbringing and focus on natural eating did not leave her when she moved to the U.S., healthy eating became a lifestyle after studying at BotanoLogos and then completing a master’s degree in Nutrition and Integrative Health.
Langston and her husband, Keith, grow specialty vegetables, herbs, and flowers.
“We also offer a plant sale in the spring and fall that features some interesting and unique varieties of heirloom tomatoes, medicinal and culinary herbs, and flowers.”
And, besides the Wildcraft Kitchen, which involves teaching adult workshops and offering programs for children, as well as leading foraging tours, Langston works in “food justice and nutrition education for a local food bank.”
Langston explained that foraging has been a skill passed down through generations in rural and mountain families, yet the interest in foraging and sustainability and self-reliance increased last year due to the pandemic.
“When grocery store shelves began to empty and seeds became harder to acquire, I think a lot of people realized the importance of heritage or resilience skills such as gardening and foraging and how easily we can suffer when the systems that were built to provide these vital things for us start to break down. I think many people realized or were reminded of the value of self-reliance.”
Langston enjoys not only making her own food from plants foraged and grown, but also making food for other people – and sharing recipes.
“I love to make pesto with spring and fall wild greens such as dandelion, violet, and chickweed. If you’re new to wild foods, you can also use half basil and half wild greens. I recommend starting slow with wild foods as anyone can have a reaction to anything and our bodies are more accustomed to cultivated or grocery store foods nowadays. It is best to get to know each and every plant individually and how it interacts with your body. We are all biochemical individuals after all.”
Wild Greens Pesto
1 cup fresh basil, washed and roughly chopped
1 cup wild greens such as dandelion, violet, chickweed, a few ramp leaves, washed and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup high quality olive oil
1/4 cup toasted nuts or seeds (I like pine nut, walnut, sunflower or pumpkin seed)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
Salt to taste
Add wild greens, basil (if using), garlic, and 1/4 cup olive oil to a food processor or blender. Blend until finely chopped. Add nuts, remaining olive oil, and Parmesan and blend until your desired consistency is reached. Pesto can be blended until smooth or kept chunky. Use on fresh pasta, pizza, roasted vegetables, chicken or fish, or in salad dressings and marinades. Store in the refrigerator for 5-7 days or freeze for up to 6 months.
Note: if you don’t have a food processor or blender, a mortar and pestle can be used.