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"Wild Ones" Teach Foraging in Missouri

Photo Credit: Shane Franklin
Photo Credit: Shane Franklin

Humans were once hunter-gatherers, foraging the wilds to feed their family. Through the generations of foraging grocery aisles, the hunter-gatherer instinct has faded from the collective culture. But this instinct can still be found strong, as KSMU’s Shane Franklin found after speaking with a Missouri woman. She leads a group in the mission of reeducating the public on the most ancient way of putting food on the table.

Francis Mathews is one person who truly knows the value of Missouri’s wild edibles. She knows what to eat, what not to eat, how to find it, and what season to find it in. It’s a skill that she has been developing since the late 1930’s.  

“I had two old aunts in Ray County. I tagged along with them, that’s where I first started learning that.”

Now she and a group of ladies, who call themselves the Wild Ones, hand off their combined knowledge to a new generation, at the Burr Oak Conservation center in Blue Springs. They meet for monthly lessons and group discussions, which are open to the public. Their main goal is to continue to compile information and educate the public on the great diversity and utility of Missouri’s plant life.

To name all the plant life the Wild Ones speak of on any given night would be a difficult task, but here’s a few you may learn about at one of their meetings: Crows foot, mullen, plantain, paw paw, purslane, wild artichoke, morel mushrooms, and that’s not to mention the wide array of nuts and berries Missouri offers to those who know how to find them.

“I think peoples gonna need to know what to eat and how to take care of what we have. I’ve been taught from my young age up that there’s something out there to eat if you know what it is and how to fix it.”

She says if you’re looking to eat healthy and save some money at the same time, then foraging is a natural choice. It’s a choice that is often overlooked.

One plant that Mathews suggests starting off foraging for is lambsquarters.

“Lambsquarters is one that is very mild and I think that most people would taste it before they would some plants, because it is a mild. A lot of plants are bitter to some people when they haven’t ate it before. They have to know how to take care of it.”

Some wild edibles can be bitter tasting. Mathews says that boiling them in salt water a couple of times before cooking can take away that bitter taste.

Even in an urban setting, Matthews says you can find edible plants. You just have to make sure your neighbors aren’t spraying harmful chemicals that could leak into your yard. If they do, Mathews says you can clean the plant with water and vinegar before cooking it. That should take care of the chemical residue.

Those who harvest vegetables from their garden most likely aren’t gathering weeds from their yard. Those same people this year are combating the scorching heat and drought that’s withered up so much plant life in the Ozarks.  Mathews had some insight on this too.

“The wild plants are surviving where the others don’t. I can go out in my yard, if I had to and I have crows foot, I have dandelion, I have wild carrot, your two different kinds of dock, the seeds and the plant and the root is all edible of that. All of that is still growing. I have observed through this hot summer that they’ll live where something else won’t.” 

Mathews says she domesticates many of these native plants by potting them, and placing the pots in her backyard. She says that in their native environment, these plants practically take care of themselves, and the pots keep the native plants from overtaking her backyard.

At her seminars with the Wild Ones at Burr Oaks, Mathews has plenty of suggestions on how to forage safely and sustainably. And even where the beginning forager could start.

“My suggestion would be to pick out five plants in a year. Follow that plant through a whole season and learn about just five plants at a time. Be sure you know them well, and how to use them and what they are used for.”

Mathews says you almost never want to take the roots, just cut the leaves. This way you can revisit the plant in the future. She says at first, make sure you go with someone else who knows the plants better, and always carry a good plant identification book with you. If you don’t know for sure what the plant is, then make sure you ask someone who does know, or take it to your local conservation area to have it identified. She also says to make sure you wash each plant thoroughly before cooking them.

For more information on foraging and preparing wild edibles of Missouri and the Ozarks, the Wild Ones have already written two books, “Eat Your Weedies,” and Tree-Mendous Gifts.” You can acquire these non-profit manuals by contacting the Wild Ones directly. Mathews says their third book about Missouri’s fruits and berries is nearly ready for release.

For KSMU News I’m Shane Franklin.