By Sabrina Bates
While the Brian Brown Memorial Greenway in Martin serves as a getaway for people looking to get or stay healthy, it also offers visitors a unique opportunity to tune into nature. The trail serves as an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life and provides a chance to explore the community’s natural surroundings.
“Most of the plants/flowers (along the trail) are ones we all have in our backyard and never thought about being able to consume if we had to,” University of Tennessee at Martin Professor of Natural Resources Dr. Eric Pelren explained to a group of nature enthusiasts who gathered recently at the greenway trailhead to explore the trail and dive deeper into the list of edible, native plants Mother Nature has left along the way.
The edible plant tour was hosted by the Northwest Tennessee Local Food Network and its executive director Samantha Goyret. It offered community members a chance to explore the beneficial properties of plants that are considered weeds by many. Dr. Pelren examined the native plants and spotlighted the parts of the plants that are considered safe to consume. Some are flowering plants; while others produced a type of berry. All were edible.
Nestled along the sides of country roads, as well as the greenway, Queen Anne’s lace provides a showy flower that mimics lace. The flowers, which present with a solitary purple dot in the center, bloom from late spring to mid-fall on stalks that can grow more than three feet tall. Those who include carrots in their garden will find a resemblance to Queen Anne’s lace, which is identified as wild carrot.
Dr. Pelren explained the roots of the plant before flowering are edible. The root smells like carrots and feathery leaves resemble those of the domestic carrot. Roots are long, pale, woody and finger thin. They can be used to make soups, stews and teas. First-year leaves can be chopped and tossed into a salad, while flower clusters can be tossed into a salad.
Known as a stubborn garden weed, the common dandelion plant can also serve as a source of food. The entire plant can be safely consumed and is known to have antioxidant properties. Roots are steeped to make tea. The leafy greens can be consumed raw as a salad or even a sandwich topping. The flowers, which are edible raw or cooked, can be used to make foods such as jelly and wine.
It is common to see rabbits munching on clovers, but the red clover can also be served up for Homo sapiens. Leaves, stems and flowers of the species can be consumed by people. The Chinese and Native Americans believe the plant offers medicinal properties as well.
At one time the Chinese burned red clover as incense, and used the plant as a tonic for colds and to purify the blood.
Native Americans reportedly used the plant as a burn salve and to help treat bronchial problems.
Red clover blooms from late spring and sometimes last until late October. The purplish bloom is considered to be the tastiest part of this native plant.
When the pantry is depleted of the traditional garlic herb, one can walk out into the backyard and harvest his own wild, less-pungent replacement and pluck a wild garlic.
Wild garlic is a suitable replacement to garlic cloves, but it is recommended to add it to a dish at the end of cooking time to retain the flavor.
The flowers, stems and bulbs of the wild garlic plant are safe for consumption. The leaves of the plant give off the aromatic scent of garlic and some can smell the plant before even spotting it as the sun warms the flower.
The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and serve as a seasoning. When storing garlic, it is best placed in a glass of water, bulb-side down, inside of the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for about a week. Wild garlic is also said to have medicinal properties as an antibiotic and an aid in digestion.
Consumed moderately, the wood sorrel plant with three heart-shaped leaflets and yellow flowers can be considered a thirst quencher with a slight lemony flavor. The leaves, flowers and immature green seed pods are all edible parts of the wood sorrel.
Common uses include salads, soups, sauces and seasonings. It contains a mild, sour taste. Wood sorrel is also known as a diuretic and relieves indigestion.
Chickweed is not only a native, edible plant; it is multi-functional. Its presence serves to decrease insect damage to other plants. The plant grows in an intertwined manner with small, white flowers with a slight split at the tip of each petal. The leaves, stems and flowers of a chickweed plant are safe to eat. Leaves are used by adding them raw to salads and sandwiches, while stems and flowers can be used in cooked dishes.
The leaves and flowers of wild violet are known to have medicinal properties. A native wildflower that prefers shady areas, blue violets have the stamina to take over a lawn given ideal growing conditions.
The low-growing perennial features heart-shaped leaves and large, blue-violet flowers from early spring to early summer. The edible parts of the plant contain a high level of vitamins A and C.
The leaves can be tossed into salads or cooked as greens. Wild violet flowers can be made into jellies, candied or tossed into a salad.
Although many native plants are safe and considered healthy to consume, Dr. Pelren pointed out some plants that are not so safe for consumption.
“Leaves of three, leave it be, leaves of five, it’s groovy doovy,” Pelren shared with the group.
Pokeweed, for example, is considered a poisonous plant. The plant features a big stalk with green to red or purplish stems and a grouping of deep purple berries. While folklore offers stories of medicinal properties of poke salad, it is one that Pelren said families should avoid trying to prepare and consume.
Not all plants with dark purple berries that grow along the roadside are unsafe. During the summer months, wild blackberries offer a tasty treat and are worth the fight against thorns for the zest of this wild berry.
Blackberry fruit starts as a bright, red berry that ripens to a deep purple. It is safe to pluck from the vine and pop straight into the mouth, given the potential for pesticide clearance.
Other safe and tasty options for native edible plants include the wild grape (muscadine) and red mulberry. These are considered tasty trail snacks with healthy properties.
The edible plant tour was a guided walk, but community members can take advantage of a self-guided nature walk. Visitors will find opportunities to take photos along the way. Dr. Pelren helped plant many native species of flowers in the natural butterfly garden that present a colorful stop along the trail.
Visitors along the greenway can download the free app, iNaturalist, and geotag plants. The app helps identify plants and animals around the user.
Pelren also serves as the UT Martin Sustainability Coordinator, which connects the community to the campus through recycling projects and the solar demonstration site.
For more information about the sustainability center, visit www.utm.edu/sustainability.
To learn more about the Local Food Network and community projects, visit www.nwtnlfn.org.
Photo by Jennifer Cross