Chris Chmiel has designed his life around wild edible foods. As owner of Integration Acres, Chmiel offers a complete product line built around the native plants of Southeast Ohio. Spicebush, black walnuts, ramps, persimmons, elderberries and wild mushrooms are just some of the naturally occurring foods he harvests, processes and sells to buyers nationwide.
And it all started with the humble pawpaw.
"It was like a 'lemons into lemonade' kind of thing," Chmiel says. "There were all these pawpaw fruits just rotting on the ground down here and nobody was really doing anything with them."
As a fan of the pawpaw, which he describes as a tropical tasting apple, Chmiel began processing the perishable product so others could enjoy it year-round. That was nearly 15 years ago, and along the way Chmiel launched the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, created the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association, and even got the State of Ohio to adopt the pawpaw as its official native fruit.
"People have been eating these native foods for a long, long time," he explains. "The Indians did it. The Frontier people did it. But it still is not mainstream -- you can't buy this stuff at Kroger's -- so it’s still kind of exciting."
Chmiel, like our ancestors, gets that good food doesn’t have to come from a supermarket. Each season, Mother Nature rolls out a fresh new crop of wild edible foods. From skunky spring greens to dew-dappled mushrooms, wholesome food is just waiting to be snatched up and eaten.
As a botanist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (O.D.N.R.), Rick Gardner spends hours in the field tracking native plants. When hunger strikes, he doesn’t have the luxury of reaching for the refrigerator for an apple.
“When I’m out in the field working,” Gardner says, “I’ll snack on black raspberries,
high-bush blueberries, huckleberries, grapes, wild strawberries. There are a number of wild-growing plants in our area that you can safely eat.”
When nibbling his way through the woodlands, Gardner strictly adheres to the forager’s code: If you don’t know what it is, leave it alone.
“You definitely have to be careful because there are some plants out there that are deadly,” he warns. “Just because birds and mammals can safely eat them doesn’t mean we can."
For an invaluable reference on the subject, Gardner turns to A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by author Lee Peterson. "It's a nice general guide," he says.
Along with two kinds of ramps, Gardner ticks off an impressive list of wild edible foods that pop up each spring. Popular ones include fiddlehead ferns, the tender unfurled fronds of the ostrich fern, dandelion greens, chickweed and numerous edible mushrooms.
“Morels are already popping up in Southern Ohio,” he says, “and should be showing up in Northern Ohio soon. Morels are generally safe to forage because there aren’t dangerous mushrooms that look like it.”
Summer is the season for ripe, delicious berries like the elderberry, black raspberry, high-bush blueberry and mulberry. In fall, Gardner seeks out the nuts of the black walnut tree, the berry clusters of staghorn sumac, pawpaw fruit, wild Northern Fox grapes and Jerusalem artichokes.
“Jerusalem artichokes are the roots, or tubers, of a wild sunflower,” explains Gardner. “They taste a little like a potato and can be sliced and put into salads.”
Just as important as knowing “what” to safely forage is “where” to safely forage. Gardner advises to steer clear of items that may have been exposed to pesticides and herbicides. Also, he snubs berries and fruit that are painted with bird droppings.
According to Gardner, permits are not required to forage wild edibles from any of Ohio’s 20 state forests as long as the items are not listed on the endangered- or threatened-species list, which is available through the agency’s website. Visitors may not remove any material from protected state parks and nature preserves.
"In Southeast Ohio, we look at our natural resources as an economic opportunity," says Chris Chmiel. "With historically lower education and higher poverty, we look at ways to use native plants in a sustainable way that doesn't deplete their populations."
This year's Ohio Pawpaw Festival will be held in Albany, Ohio September 16 to 18.
Sumac Tea (Indian Lemonade)
4 to 5 staghorn sumac berry clusters *
1 gallon cold water
Sugar to taste
* Examine sumac berries for bugs, but do not wash. Flavor will be washed away.
Place berry clusters in cheesecloth. Swirl in water for several minutes. Remove cheesecloth and berries. Sweeten to taste and add ice.
Source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources