Beyond blueberries: Backyard cornucopia revealed at native plants conference
Taking a walk with Ila Hatter is the outdoors equivalent of sitting beside a scrapbooker as she pages through the family photo album. Every step is a story, a meeting with a plant bearing its own history and its own place in the present.
“I think stories help you remember,” Hatter said. “They give you something to hold onto as you’re learning plants.”
Leading a group of attendees to the 31st Annual Cullowhee Native Plants Conference around the campus of Western Carolina University, Hatter stops by a sprawling grapevine. There aren’t any grapes on it yet, but to Hatter the plant is more than a supplier of fruit. Its leaves make excellent tamale husks, and during a hot hike it can also substitute for a spring.
“When I was hiking in Elkmont [in Great Smoky Mountains National Park] one time, I saw water running like it was coming from a spring,” Hatter said. Upon investigation, she found that the water flowed from a cut grapevine. Hatter later relayed the story to a Cherokee woman who she considers her adopted grandmother.
“She said, ‘I wish you’d gotten me some of that,’” Hatter said. “That was great hair tonic when I was growing up.”
Hatter’s knowledge of plants and the stories attached to them come from a lifetime of accumulating anecdotes like that. She’s never taken a botany class in her life, but her outdoors education began as a child in Texas. Her parents, who had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, taught her the survival skills of hunting and foraging, and later as a stewardess for Pan American World Airlines, Hatter made it a point to question the locals of each culture she visited about their food, their spices and where they come from.
Upon moving to the Southern Appalachians, she spent years learning under her mentor Marie Mellinger, a naturalist who served as plant advisor for the Foxfire book series, and she’s developed deep friendships with Cherokee people, internalizing their knowledge of native plants along the way. At age 72, Hatter keeps busy leading an array of botany workshops, walks and classes.
According to those who have been to her conferences or sat through her classes, Hatter is a veritable mine of information, bringing the medicinal, culinary and cultural meanings of plants together. Hatter herself, though, is quick to point out that there’s still plenty she doesn’t know.
“I’m not a trained botanist, so I ask questions all the time,” she said.
The backyard medicine cabinet
But years of study, living close to the land and asking those questions have done their work. Hatter points out the plantain, a tiny little weed whose uses range from a paste for sprained ankles to a cure for poison ivy. She stops at a staghorn sumac, whose red berries make a tart sun tea.
And she pauses at length in front of an elderberry tree, whose widely forked branches used to provide Native Americans with the perfect material for slingshots and doll cradles. The green berries still ripening on its branches will become a fruit that is powerfully tasty as well as powerfully medicinal. Its flowers can make eyedrops for glaucoma and dried flowers can make a tea to break fevers. Once made into syrup, the Center for Disease Control calls elderberry the strongest antiviral next to Tamiflu.
“As my husband jokingly said, if you don’t have the flu, use it on your pancakes,” Hatter said.
Elderberry pie, jelly and anything else are pretty good, too, but it’s best to cook the fruit before eating too much of it, Hatter warned. Too many raw elderberries can cause diarrhea.
Crazy plant love
Hatter’s audience, a group of plant enthusiasts with home states ranging from Alabama to New York to everywhere in between, listen closely and scribble notes as she tells each plant’s story. The chance to spend three hours learning naturalist lore from Hatter was a big draw, but with four consecutive days of plant lover paradise offered at the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference, the overall package was something none of the 269 conference attendees wanted to miss. Not even Mount Olive resident Barbara Bullard, whose husband was still in a cast after breaking his elbow.
“We got a ride from Mount Olive with another person coming for the conference because he couldn’t’ drive his car with his broken elbow,” she said. “That’s how badly we wanted to come.”
“People are really into it,” said Kim Eierman, a speaker at the conference who also attended Hatter’s session. “You feel like people understand your crazy plant love.”
Eierman’s expertise focuses on the importance of using native plants in landscaping, because those are the plants best suited to giving insects and animals the resources they need for all stages of life. For instance, non-native butterfly bush is popular for landscaping and great for providing nectar to butterflies, but it's useless for feeding the caterpillars that those well-fed insects would then produce. Appreciating native plants, whether in backyard landscaping or in wildland foraging, is all about understanding those inter-relationships.
“We’ve kind of lost those traditions of our own plants that we can eat and use medicinally,” Eierman said, “and it’s not just about us eating them. It’s about sharing with nature.”
Relationship with the land
An important point, Hatter agreed. Foraging is about sharing, not just taking. The three things to keep in mind whenever you’re thinking about picking a meal up on your way home, she told the group, are identification, location and multiplication. Be sure you know the identity of that plant you’re picking and that it’s safe to ingest. Then, consider the location. If it’s been sprayed with chemicals or contaminated some other way, go elsewhere.
And always, she said, be sure you’re not harvesting something that needs to stay where it is.
“Be responsible and pick the fourth plant,” she said. “Leave three so it will propagate.”
And when it does, she said, come back. Because while most people would consider pulling dandelions and lamb’s quarter out of the ground weeding, Hatter calls it something else.
“Your weeding chores are not really weeding,” she said. “You say you’re harvesting.”
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
It’s one of the world’s most prolific weeds but also one of its most versatile edibles. Hatter once won a dandelion cook-off — a competition whose organizer Peter Gail had collected more than 1,000 dandelion recipes from around the world — for her dandelion-and-ramps raviolis. The young leaves make nutritious cooked greens, the flowers contain a fat emulsifier that can be used to lower cholesterol. Sap from the stems removes wards and the ground roots make a caffeine-free coffee. And that’s just for starters.
“There really isn’t anything in the dandelion you throw away,” Hatter said, “except you have to pinch the little green leaves at the back of the flower to get the petals out.”
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin
Hatter keeps a jar full of spicebush berries in her kitchen to grind up for allspice flavoring. She also learned that the outside of the berry can be grated to get pepper flavor. As her Cherokee adopted grandmother said, sometimes “you got a lot of little hands you have to keep busy.”
Boiling wild game with spicebush twigs takes the gaminess out, and the leaves make an anti-inflammatory tea. But one encounter with a mouse that had recently feasted on spicebush berries convinced Hatter they might not be the thing for small animals.
“He was just sort of spaced out. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this mouse,’” Hatter said. “I picked up the mouse and I went, ‘He’s drunk from the spicebush berries.’
Plantain, Plantago major
It grows underfoot just about anyplace you might step, but this omnipresent weed is also pretty near omni-useful. Hatter once taught a conference where a self-described “one-herb man” presented her with a list of four typed pages of all the uses he had for plantain. It can be eaten as a cooked green, and the crunched-up leaves help relieve pain when applied to bruises. Hatter recommends wrapping it around a sprained ankle and grabbing a few leaves on the way to the doctor in the event of a snakebite. Sap from the leaves can also help stop itching from poison ivy, and the seeds are a laxative.
“For me, I like having it around,” Hatter said. “I allow it to grow in certain places.”
Elderberry, Sambucus nigra
Aside from producing berries whose wine is one of the strongest anti-flu medications in existence, elderberry flower stalks make excellent fritters when fried in pancake batter. Tea from the dried flower can help break fevers, and crushed elderberry leaves deter gnats. And that’s to say nothing of the delicious taste of elderberry wine, pie or jelly. Be careful though. Too many of the uncooked berries can cause diarrhea.
Sassafras, Sassafras albidum
Sassafrass has three different kinds of leaves, and it also produces three different flavors. The young leaves can be boiled into a lemon-flavored tea, and the roots have a root beer flavor. The powder from dried, ground sassafras leaves — called filé powder — is an essential ingredient for Cajun gumbo.
“It was called the good news out of the new world because it was so well thought of in Europe,” Hatter said.
Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida
Dogwood’s name evolved from its first moniker, dagger tree, so dubbed for growing wood that’s perfect for tool handles. Its roots are said to produce a pinkish dye. But its most important role comes from the fever-quelling properties of its inner bark and berries. In the Civil War, dogwood was often used in battlefield treatments.
“The dogwood was the fever tree of the native Americans,” Hatter said.