By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Spring is an exciting time to be out and about, checking out exciting and beautiful native plants like this gorgeous trillium. The vistas across the Ozarks hills are still long and relatively unobstructed by leaves, while bugs should be at a minimum for at least another week or two. All it takes to witness one of nature’s finest seasons is a walk in nearby woods, river valleys or even farm fields. To get the most out of your native forays, bring along a field guide to trees, wildflowers or native plants, a pair of binoculars, and a friend or two for a fun-filled day of nature-watching. To get you started, here are a few interesting Ozark plants you may encounter on your spring walk-about.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
This delicious-looking chocolate-maroon flower belongs to the elusive pawpaw tree. Blooms appear in early spring. Each flower has 6 distinctly-veined petals that should make identification easy. Pawpaws are understory trees that produce deliciously edible yellow-green fruits shaped like a stubby, oblong banana. When ripe (late-summer) fruits are soft to the touch and can be eaten out of hand. While papaws do occasionally grow on dry upland slopes, they are most abundant and productive in riverine areas and floodplains with deep moist soils.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Virginia Creeper is an elegant non-twining, climbing or sprawling native vine most commonly found in shady woodland settings. It is an important and valuable native for wildlife, a wild medicinal for humans and quite beautiful in all stages of growth. Unfortunately, young Virginia Creeper plants such as this one are often confused with poison ivy and unnecessarily eradicated. Remember, poison ivy has 3 leaves, while Virginia Creeper has 5 leaves (technically, those 5 leaves are one palmately-compound leaf with five leaflets).
Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
Pokeweed is probably one of the most beloved and controversial wild edible and medicinal plants in the eastern third of the United States. Young poke is an important browse for deer and the berries are relished by songbirds and wild ducks (my domestic ducks would do backflips for pokeberries!). As for humans, recent studies verify that the plant contains cancer-causing compounds. Yet, those who have eaten young poke shoots and leaves for years swear that once cooked, poke is completely safe. To read more about the potential dangers of pokeweed and how to properly identify and process it for consumption, read: Pokeweed: Good Green or Toxic Weed? and A Walk on the Wild Side: Pokeweed.
Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra)
Now here’s a native plant that you definitely don’t want to eat! The Ohio Buckeye is a large deciduous tree found primarily in moist riparian habitats and lowlands, and occasionally in old fields and pastures. The 7-part palmate leaves give off a distinctively rank smell when crushed. The abundant yellow-green flowers of Ohio Buckeye appear in early to mid-spring and are followed by light-brown, leathery, globe-shaped capsules with blunt spines. As the seeds ripen, the outer skin splits into 3 parts, revealing three hard, brown shiny seeds. While this tree and all of its relatives (including the Red Buckeye, Yellow Buckeye and Horsechestnut) have been used medicinally, all parts are considered inedible and potentially toxic. Buckeye’s are probably best known for their seeds, which have long been carried in the pockets to bring good luck and to ward off rheumatism.
American Dittany (Cunila origanoides)
Have you ever gone hiking in the woods and smelled Italian food? If so, then you are already acquainted with one of my favorite native edible and medicinal plants – American Dittany. This widely versatile plant is closely related to oregano and can be used in almost every way that oregano, marjoram or thyme is used – including as an ornamental plant in the cultivated landscape. Young Dittany leaves are distinctively purple beneath, but quickly change to green as the plant puts on new branching stems. Read more about Dittany and how to use it in my article, American Dittany: The Wild Oregano.
Wild Mustard (Sinapis arvensis)
True Wild Mustard is one of those plants that pure-lawn enthusiasts and farmers love to hate. A non-native species, wild mustard and many of its other non-native relatives from the Brassica Family have aggressively invaded fields, pastures, ditches and gardens all over the world. All members of this family are both edible and nutritious, with some species being more palatable than others. If you aren’t interested in eradication, why not gather up the early spring greens and eat them as a lightly steamed potherb? Because these plants are often treated with herbicides, avoid gathering from roadsides, or from fields and pastures that you do not own.
Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium species)
There are three native species of wild blueberry in southern Missouri, including V. arboreum, V. stamineum and V. vacillans. All bear small, sweet, edible fruits that resemble cultivated blueberries in shape and color. While it is easy enough to locate patches of wild blueberries in open deciduous woods, gathering the fruit is complicated by the fact that so many creatures love the berries as much as we do. Shrubs reach 2’ to 5’ tall and bloom in April or May. Look for the distinctive white to barely pink bell-shaped blossoms and plan to check the ripening berries early and often.
Take advantage of the beautiful spring weather and get to know the wild plants of the Ozarks. Many are edible, some are medicinal and others are just pretty to look at!
© 2013 Jill Henderson
If you like native plants, then check out my book -
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.