The Seed and the Story for April 4: Tatum, Wild Foods, and Medicine in Our Backyards

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, human rights,and community in Yell County, Arkansas.   The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier.  Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!  The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice.  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

Last week Billy Joe Tatum of Melbourne, Arkansas, a master of Ozark wild foods, passed away at the age of eighty. She researched and wrote extensively about wild foods, appeared on national television programs like the Tonight Show, and cooked for famous artists and politicians at her home she referred to as “Wildflower.”  Tatum first began learning about wild foods from members of the Izard County community where her husband took a job as a country doctor. In the rural community surrounding Melbourne, the tradition of foraging for edible and medicinal plants was alive and well. Over the years she began to learn from her husband’s patients how to locate and use these healing resources and incorporate them into creative dishes she concocted such as “Dandelion Bud Omelets” “Watercress Soup,” or “Apple Spearmint Salad.”  Much of this information can be found in her book, Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook:  An Illustrated Guide to 70 Wild Plants and Over 350 Irresistible Ways to Eat Them.

A few weekends ago I attended the first in a series of events entitled “Wild Plant Walk and Edible Foraging Series.” Led by members of Elevate Arkansas, an urban wellness center located in Little Rock, the walk took place in Allsop Park where we foraged for abundant springtime plants such as dandelion, clover, plantain grass, henbit, and greenbrier.  Elevate director Jeff Dempsey carried Tatum’s book along with us throughout the walk, turning to it several times and mentioning it as the best source for identifying and eating wild plants in Arkansas.  Thanks to Tatum’s diligent research, and her time spent learning from elders of the rural community, these traditions are alive and applicable, even in the big city.

Tatum traveled the world in search of wild plants, and in interviews and articles she frequently mentioned that you don’t have to hike deep into the woods to find an abundance of edible options.  Dandelion, for example, may be considered a weed, but they’re loaded with nutrients, have healing properties that lend to their reputation as a cure-all, and, better yet, they’re surprisingly tasty.  You can use them to make tea, mix the greens into a salad, or throw a bunch of the stems into some batter and fry up a tasty fritter.  On our walk we also sampled blooms from a redbud tree, which are in bloom throughout the state.  The buds are tasty on their own, but some people like to make them into a sweet jelly, which solidifies into the most beautiful deep shade of red.  My favorite plant we sampled that day was wood sorrel, a wild version of the plant I mentioned in last week’s column. This wild version is wonderfully tart, tastes much like a raspberry, and is absolutely loaded with vitamin C.

Foraging for wild plants is a learned skill, and you must be sure you’re correctly identifying the plant before you eat it.  It’s a tradition well-worth learning, and I’m thankful the kind folks at Elevate Arkansas are bringing this skill to an urban area.  We owe much gratitude to the late Billy Joe Tatum for her pioneering work and for reminding us that sometimes the best medicine is growing in our own backyard.   Do you forage for wild foods either in the woods or in your neighborhood?  Have you ever heard your elders tell of healing plants or remember using them as a child?  I’d love to hear about it.  To see images from the Wild Plant Walk and to hear the radio piece go here.

The next walk will be taking place this coming Saturday, April 7.  Visit Elevate Arkansas for information.

More readings:

Here is a wonderful post about Tatum’s life by one of her friends, the blogger at Jim Long’s Garden.  

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