Participants learn about health, history and food at The Wild Edibles Festival
A Wild Edibles Festival was held at the Hillsboro Library Saturday morning. The event was the first in a series, part of the Calvin W. Price Appalachian Enrichment Series, through the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, and was sponsored by the Hillsboro Library Friends and the Pocahontas Nature Club.
Participants first gathered at the library for a presentation by herbalist Mimi Hernandez, then enjoyed a wild edible lunch at The Pretty Penny Cafe. After lunch, participants were invited on a nature hike along the Greenbrier River Trail for some hands-on foraging and plant identification.
Hernandez is the outreach coordinator at the Appalachian Center for Ethnobotanical Studies at Frostburg State University in western Maryland. Hernandez said the center's goal is to reconnect people with their mountain roots.
"The idea is to study native plants in Appalachia," said Hernandez. "Plants that have been here since before Columbus landed. We focus on native plant research, native plant conservation, historic preservation, and how it all applies to Appalachian culture."
Hernandez has been working for the center for about three years now, and approaches the topic from both a traditional and scientific outlook. She has a master's of science degree in herbal medicine, but was raised in a family that has always practiced traditional herbal medicine.
"I came into this as a clinical herbalist," explained Hernandez. "I got started because my grandmother was an herbalist, both grandmothers really. One in Mexico City and one from Colombia in South America. They both worked with herbs and I got to watch them doing that growing up. I was more inclined towards sciences, so I got my degree in biology and did more of a scientific pursuit of how plants work. Then, later, I got more into the traditional side of working with plants."
Saturday's event began with door prizes and a power-point presentation about indigenous trees and plants.
"Most of these would be common weeds you see in the spring," Hernandez said. "I wanted to relay how these common yard weeds can be useful in the kitchen, whether through salads or stir fries or teas or vinegars. In addition to covering the common weeds that you see all the time, I wanted to give a little bit of the history and folklore of foods in Appalachia. That's why we talked about American chestnut and paw-paws, they're not going to be on the hike, but they're still integral to the culinary heritage of the area."
Hernandez talked about the American chestnut and its impact on Appalachian culture. According to Hernandez, the tree was widely used by early Appalachian settlers. The protein and oil-rich chestnuts were used to fatten livestock, and many historic structures were built with American chestnut. The wood was easy to work with, naturally rot-resistant, and some of the branch-free boards measured up to 100 feet in length. Hernandez said in the early 1900s, a chestnut blight, caused by a fungus, devastated the American chestnut population, and it's now rare to see the trees in Appalachia.
Hernandez discussed acorns and their history in the area. She said native Americans ate at least 10 varieties of acorns, and there is evidence of communal grinding sites and grain storage bins.
"Native Americans would use tightly woven baskets, and soak the acorns in a river for three or four days and just let the cold water run over them," said Hernandez.
Hernandez explained how to incorporate foraged acorns into your diet.
"Acorns, they're very astringent," said Hernandez. "They make your mouth pucker up and feel really dry. Usually what people have to do is leach them in cold water. One way to do it, cover the acorns in water. Boil them for a couple of hours and pour off the water. Then you replace it with fresh cold water and allow them to soak for three or four days, maybe changing the water occasionally. Then you dry them and grind them into a meal, or you can roast them whole and salt them. You can use the flour for cakes or breads and muffins, flavor soups with it, use it as a sauce thickener, even a coffee substitute."
Hernandez addressed the more scientific aspect of how diet and health are intertwined. She said muscadine grapes, native to Appalachia, are packed with antioxidants and score even higher than blueberries on the ORAC [Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity] scale, a scientific measure of the concentration of antioxidants.
"You see all the antioxidant capsules and supplements, but there's really no better way to get antioxidants than in your food," said Hernandez. "You want foods with color; grapes, blackberries, blueberries, eggplant. That's where your antioxidants are."
Hernandez said berries are one of the healthiest foods she knows of. She said they can help reduce the chance of developing age-related diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia.
"I highly recommend berry picking in the summer," Hernandez suggested. "Berries are expensive on the market. If you have areas where you can go and harvest and stock up, go ahead and freeze some and put them aside. Eat berries every day in your diet, every single day. That's gonna be your best anti-aging, anti-cancer "pill."
According to Hernandez, antioxidants are a kind of fountain of youth. They reverse the aging process in cells and help prevent the development of chronic diseases. Hernandez said they slow the progression of cancer and can also help with depression and obesity.
"Antioxidants are known to quench 'free radicals,'" said Hernandez. "Free radicals are something that you get from pollution, smoking, bad fats in your diet, stress, inflammation in your body - they all cause a surge of free radicals in your body. They're unsatisfied little molecules floating around in the body and their outer shell is lacking an electron. What they need to do to be fulfilled is grab electrons from our tissue. As they grab electrons from our tissue, it changes - it deteriorates, it changes elasticity, and most importantly it can cause cancer."
Hernandez also talked about the benefits of the chemical resveratrol, commonly found in red wine.
"It's famous for creating the 'French paradox.' Why are the French always drinking wine and they don't have heart disease or obesity? A lot of that is the resveratrol in red wine, which is so good for the body. It increases our good cholesterol, which decreases blood clotting and improves blood flow."
According to Hernandez, another good source of resveratrol is Japanese knotweed.
"It's a very invasive weed but I do know herbalists that love Japanese knotweed because of the medicinal value. Many supplement companies are using Japanese knotweed now. It's edible when it's small, when these little shoots come out of the ground. They look like asparagus and have kind of a sour flavor, like rhubarb. You can cook 'em up in butter or coconut oil and they're really delicious and really healthy for you."
Hernandez answered questions from the audience and talked about other edible plants including garlic mustard, cranberries, cleavers, dandelions, nettles and chickweed.
After the information session at the library, everyone was invited to The Pretty Penny Cafe in Hillsboro for a special wild edibles lunch prepared by owner Blair Campbell. The menu featured sassafras iced tea, veggie lasagna, and a wild spring salad of local greens, water cress and violets drizzled with a ramp and apple vinaigrette dressing.
Participants then headed to the Burnside trailhead of the Greenbrier River Trail for a nature walk with naturalist Mike Smith to identify common edible plants.
The Wild Edibles Festival was Hernandez's fifth visit doing various workshops in Pocahontas County and she was pleased with how many folks came out for the event.
"I've been here several times, I love coming here because of how beautiful it is," said Hernandez. "The workshops are always very well attended, there's always a lot of interest in this area. The turnout exceeded my expectations. Last time I heard, a week or two ago, I was told there were 35 signed up and we might expect a few more. I guess there were 76 people there, so it was an extraordinary turnout."
Hernandez invites anyone wanting to learn more about wild edibles and Appalachian culture to visit her website, www.mimihernandez.com
"I do online training that is really accessible," she said. "It's useful for people that just want to get started knowing how to find plants, which ones are useful at home in the kitchen."
The next event in the Calvin W. Price Appalachian Enrichment Series, Warwick's Archaeology Days, is scheduled for May 5 and 6 in Green Bank.