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A piece of shagbark hickory bark peels from a tree in Sells Park | Photo by Tre Spencer.

February 28, 2023

Fruit of the Land

The new foraging generation: environmentalism in modern Appalachia

By Tre Spencer | Senior Writer

Luscious flora and dense oak trees encapsulate Sells Park in Athens, which weaves through various shale and limestone rock formations deeply connected within Strouds Run Park.

Inside the forests of Strouds Run lies towering chestnut, oak and persimmon trees that have existed for hundreds of years — alongside numerous different species of edible mushrooms and lichens such as liverwort and turkey tails.

Foraging is the act of gathering foods such as fruits, nuts, vegetables or fungi from the wild, and it is a process that has occurred for thousands of years.

Ridge Cook peered over a rocky overlook showcasing thousands of years of natural erosion, plant evolution and ecology surrounding Athens and other portions of Appalachia.

As a senior studying field ecology at Ohio University, Cook has developed a deep connection with the region's wildlife and plant ecosystems.

"Foraging is a great way for a lot of people to get into plants," he said. "It's exciting to go out and pick something and eat it. You don't have to (do the) gardening part, the hard work. I think that in most cases it's a good educational thing to do."

Sporting a colorful mossy-green jacket and rugged hiking boots, Cook identified local edible plants and explored what the park had to offer.

Foraging: Cultivation and History in Appalachia

For avid explorers like Cook, the land can be vastly abundant if foragers are knowledgeable about common edible plants to harvest and the seasons in which they grow.

"Foraging is a way of getting out into your local ecosystems and interacting with plants and fungi by making meals out of them," he said. "Foraging in recent years, in this area, has been a pretty big thing."

In Southeast Ohio, various species of edible fruits, vegetables and flowers can be found while foraging, often in the spring, summer and fall months.

Besides the notable pawpaw or ramp, other less commonly known edible plants can be found in the region. Some of those items include European wild carrots, huckleberries and plantains.

For a larger range of edible plants, an urban harvesting map can be found online, which features several data points of harvestable plants across the region. The map was created by foragers who logged their own discoveries.

Foraging has long roots intertwined within Appalachia culture. It recently reemerged as a viable pastime and a way for people to connect with their local environment.

Historically, Appalachian settlers like Daniel Boone traversed the Appalachian Mountains, hoping to find new land and economic fortune. Many people followed in his footsteps and learned how to live off their land by fishing, hunting and foraging.

According to "Ginseng Diggers," a book that describes the history of herb cultivation in Appalachia, the earliest European settlers arrived in the 1750s and 1760s.

In Kentucky, American Ginseng became one the first products that allowed settlers to pay taxes, acquire more land and create their own businesses because of its rarity—much like gold rushes in California and other western states. It was so profitable that it was traded on a global scale and became a much larger lucrative business, and Daniel Boone was a massive contributor.

Ginseng is a plant that has many pharmaceutical benefits to those who consume it: it can help boost your immune system, reduce the risk of cancer and improve mental performance. Pharmaceutical companies typically sell ginseng in capsules, liquid extracts and tablets for easy consumption.

Herb gathering and foraging became a critical part of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia's history and is still a common practice today.

The Foraging Generation

Today, foraging has grown in popularity with young people—many forage to address environmental concerns of food production and understand the habitats surrounding them.

In a journal published last year by the American Society on Aging, generations like Y and Z have had the largest concerns about climate change and global warming compared to prior generations. Younger people have increasingly become more concerned with the environment and their personal impact.

For many younger people living in Appalachia, foraging has evolved from a hobby to a simple way to connect with the environment and lower their carbon footprints, especially for those interested in sustainability.

An avid environmentalist and sustainability marketing coordinator for OU, Isabel Stitchick uses foraging to learn more about Appalachia and the environment and supplement ingredients for dishes she makes at home.

As a junior studying environmental science, she was never interested in foraging until she came to OU but began researching the local ecology of the region. As her curiosity began to unfold, she developed an interest in edible plants that she could find while foraging all while staying environmentally conscientious.

“It's cool that you can maximize your self-sufficiency and completely self-sustain yourself out here. I just started immersing myself in the culture of foraging and I think that's when I found a community, interest and a love for it.” —Isabel Stitchick

Like Cook, Stitchick has become an avid forager and is learning about the importance of gathering as it relates to Appalachian identity.

Unfortunately, another portion of Appalachian identity has become food insecurity as people have lost access to local, healthy fruits and vegetables. As the ginseng harvesting boom of the 18th century dwindled and the plant became endangered, so did local economies that were once thriving from its cultivation.

In turn, with a combination of socioeconomic factors and job loss, poverty and food insecurity rates have remained high compared to other parts of the country.

Community Access

Community Food Initiatives, based in Athens, has implemented educational programs, mobile grocery stores and community gardening spaces to help residents get direct access to local fruits and vegetables sustainably to combat the growing food insecurity dilemma.

Susie Huser, director of outreach at Community Food Initiatives, said the organization's mission is to foster communities where everyone has equitable access to healthy, local food. She also said she believes its members work toward a vision of resiliency in their communities with thriving, sustainable food systems.

CFI offers a community gardening program that provides residents with plots of land that they can use to grow their own vegetation. This opportunity opens the doorway to planting native herbs, fruits and vegetables of Appalachia.

"I think the community gardens are essential for holistic access or access to holistic wellness in the community," Huser said.

Personal gardens and community gardens have begun sprouting in Appalachian towns over the country.

In a study from the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, a community garden created in a rural portion of Appalachian Pennsylvania resulted in increased well-being, experiential learning opportunities and personal accomplishment.

From cherry tomato plants to numerous herbs, many plants can be grown in personal or community gardens, including mushrooms which are typically harvested from the underside of logs and towering trees.

Cook and Stichick have both grown fond of foraging. Stitchick specifically enjoys foraging for chanterelle and morel mushrooms to use in her own cooking.

"We have great mushroom populations here, and I was going out late summer and finding pounds and pounds of chanterelles," Stitchick said.

Chanterelle mushrooms are a type of wild fungi that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, which are each safe to consume and cook with. Most notably, they are native to Appalachia. Stitchick said she typically uses them for cooking and in pasta dishes.

Unnatural Exploitation

However, with the recent uptick of new foragers, the exploitation of native vegetation has also continued to increase.

The combination of exploring regional history relative to the local environment, and the boom of young, uneducated foragers, has presented its challenges.

Cook said despite the educational benefits of foraging, a dark side remains from the overharvesting of native plants that are good for the local ecology.

"I have mixed opinions on (foraging)," Cook said. "Because on one hand, it's a great way to get outdoors and it's good for your mental health. But on the other hand, there's people who will go out and collect as many plants as possible for their economic value. And that's the dark side of foraging."

In Ohio, foraging for wild mushrooms is legal if the mushrooms are collected in state parks, wildlife areas or forest lands. For larger collecting purposes, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources features a collecting permit that foragers can apply for.

Like Cook, Stitchick said she believes there should be a balance between foraging and the natural processes within those local ecosystems.

“There's a fine-line between sustainable and exploitative, and I think as long as you're conscious of your actions and how you're affecting the environment around you, then forging is absolutely sustainable.” —Isabel Stitchick