Taking a walk on the wild side

A trek through western Pennsylvania’s woodlands reveals an array of wildflowers

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After the harsh winter everyone who spent the season in Western Pennsylvania experienced, the emerging greens, pinks, yellows and purples of spring make the piece of the earth we call home look like a different planet.


And a big part of the word “planet” are the letters that form the word “plant.”


Before the tree canopy produces abundant shade, wildflowers blossom in woodlands during the sunny days of April and May, and many people delight in seeing what emerges from the forest floor.


While working in my kitchen, I had heard a radio interview about foraging in one’s own backyard for food. Yes, we’ve all heard that dandelion greens are a nice addition to the salad bowl, and a caller encouraged the adventurous to munch purslane, a fleshy-leafed succulent I’ve pulled out of the ground as a weed.


But the interviewee also mentioned an invasive but edible species known as garlic mustard. One of the detractions to multitasking – in this case, scrubbing a stovetop during the radio show – is that the only visual image is stove grime, brush and cleanser. Yes, the radio website provided photographs, but that assumes one remembers to look at it later.


However, one trip to the woods can be worth a thousand words.


Washington County’s parks department Superintendent of Recreation Jeff Donahue has, over the years, spent time giving tours of public and park lands, and it seems there’s no question he can’t answer. So as he tromped through underbrush recently at a state game land in western Washington County, he was only too happy to answer a reporter’s question about a particular plant I’ve seen locally, one that has sprouted in recent years in my own yard, and one that I cut by the bucket load to provide greenery to augment purchased blooms at dozens of tables during a church function.


“That’s garlic mustard,” Donahue said of the tiny white flower cluster atop a stalk of green leaves.


Donahue revealed the garlicky aroma by biting off a leaf, and mentioned that no naturalist wants these around because they crowd out native plants. I later learned garlic mustard has made the Plant Conservation Alliance’s Alien Plant Working Group’s “Least Wanted List,” which said the plant was first recorded in the United States about 1868, from Long Island, N.Y.


“Once introduced to an area, garlic mustard outcompetes native plants by aggressively monopolizing light, moisture, nutrients, soil and space. Humans are also deprived of the vibrant display of beautiful spring wildflowers,” according to the alliance’s website.


A few moments later, Donahue stopped in his tracks when he heard a sound.


“Hear that?” he asked. “That’s a turkey gobbler.” He trilled back to the bird, which may have imagined a hot-to-trot date had stumbled into his territory.


Sadly for the fowl, it was merely a pair of sweaty humans about to ford a tributary of Ten Mile Creek and climb a hillside home to trillium, yellow and purple violets and a tiny pink, five-petaled blossom known as “spring beauty.” The Brooklyn Botanic Garden website states that spring beauty “is also a delicious vegetable. It may be the definitive tater tot. Native to moist woodlands, sunny stream banks and thickets in eastern North America, this low-growing plant has tiny underground tubers that can be prepared and eaten just like potatoes. Indeed, another common name for the spring beauty is the ‘fairy spud.’ ”


The turkey was not the sole form of wildlife in the woods that day. A screech pierced the relative quiet, but it emanated from this reporter who spotted a snake silently slithering behind Donahue but right across my path. It was thin enough to be a garter snake, but what it lacked in girth it made up for in length, and we had no doubt interrupted its sunbathing.


“I thought you were having a heart attack,” Donahue said.


I turned my attention to umbrella-like May apples not yet producing their white flowers, and bright magenta wild phlox.


Further up the hill, we came across our camouflaged objective. It was scattered amidst purple wild larkspur. The Botanical.com website says that the larkspur flowers can be used to make ink, but the plant is poisonous.


Donahue and I were stalking the wild morel mushroom. The morel is technically not a plant, but a fungus. As a guide to the morel, Donahue looks not to the ground, but to the trees. In this part of the country, the morel is often found beneath the crown of a dead elm tree, which the naturalist identifies by its furrowed gray bark.


An educator at heart, Donahue didn’t pluck the first morel he saw.


He coaxed, “I see some morels. Can you find them?”


At last I spotted one. It’s grayish brown and it grows among grayish-brown bark chunks and dried leaves. If it weren’t for the light yellowish or creamy-colored stem, I might never have seen it. A smaller morel could almost be mistaken for a wrinkled nutshell.


Having seen the gourmet mushroom, it made me wonder if it’s legal to forage in state game lands. Donahue said we were in the clear, but it never hurts to confirm.


Tom Fazi, information and education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission Southwestern Region office in Bolivar, Westmoreland County, clarified what you can and can’t harvest.


“Mushrooms and fruits of berry-producing plants may be picked from state game lands,” Fazi said. “You can’t dig up plants, so there’s no removing plants, flowers or trees.” That means gathering of ramps, also known as wild leeks, is not permitted from the state’s public lands.


On farms that allow public hunting of animals, “It’s up to the owner when it comes to plants,” Fazi said. “The safe bet is, don’t do it unless the owner says it’s OK.”


Told about the mushroom hunting, Fazi cautioned, “You better do your homework. Don’t go picking willy-nilly. They can make you sick.”


Fazi has taken a walk on the wild side when it comes to dining, sampling tightly-coiled fiddlehead ferns. “They’re not bad,” he said. “One of my buddies who’s into this wild stuff sauteed them in a pan with olive oil.


“It’s really pretty fascinating the things you can eat.”


Fiddleheads were evident in the gamelands in Washington County. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Publication, “Facts on Fiddleheads” cautions that “Under no conditions should fiddleheads be consumed raw.”


Fiddleheads should be boiled or steamed prior to use in recipes which use further cooking methods like sauteing, stir-frying or baking, according to the Maine experts. Health Canada and the United States Center for Disease Control both have investigated a number of outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of raw or lightly cooked fiddleheads.


Perhaps it’s best if you stick to berries and morel mushrooms when traipsing through state gamelands. And don’t forget to beware of the snakes.


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