FREDERICKSBURG, Va. —
Walk down any nature trail, field or patch of woods in the Fredericksburg area, and you pass by a veritable feast of edible plants.
But most people don’t know the difference between the edible and tasty false nettle, and poison hemlock — both of which grow along the Rappahannock River.
So, Hal Wiggins, a local environmental scientist, and Lytton J. Musselman, a botanist and professor at Old Dominion University, spent three years researching not only which common plants along the East Coast are good — and safe — to eat, but also where to find them, and how to identify and cook them.
The result is their new book, “The Quick Guide to Wild Edible Plants,” (Johns Hopkins University Press, $18).
“It’s just the essentials for people who want to go out and forage,” said Wiggins, who has spent much of his career prowling area forests and waterways as a scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ field office in Fredericksburg.
The book includes more than 50 edible plants, separated by category: greens, starches, grains, flowers and sweets. There are pictures for easy reference and recipes.
For example, false nettle — a mild-tasting green — can be substituted for, or mixed with spinach.
Orange day lilies are said to be especially good: The blossoms can be mixed with salad, pickled or fried, along with the small, tuberous roots, which, according to the book, have a “mild and crunchy texture.”
Many of the edibles can be found in and around marshes and wetlands. Abundant American lotus in tidal creeks along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers produce “delicious” seeds that can be eaten raw, or roasted.
There’s a chapter on a few common, easy-to-identify fungi — oyster mushrooms and hen of the woods — and how to cook them. Giant puffballs can be cut into steaks and fried.
How to make your own condiments — wild garlic powder, for example — and herbs to flavor cocktails, aperitifs and cordials are included, along with a section on poisonous plants to avoid.
Wiggins says Musselman, one of his college professors and mentor, contacted him a few years ago about another project that ultimately led to the collaboration on this book.
“He asked me for help on a project identifying and documenting native plants of the Chesapeake Bay,” Wiggins said in a recent interview. “Plants of the Chesapeake Bay,” by Musselman and David A. Knepper, came out last year.
Musselman then asked Wiggins to work with him on a volume on wild edible plants.
Musselman “told me there’s probably 50 books out there” on the topic, “but not one gives details on how to forage for it, and how to cook and eat it,” Wiggins said.
Along with field research, they scoured available books, “and we found that a lot of these purportedly edible plants aren’t worth the time.”
For example, lichens — a combination fungus and algae — are edible, “but just try getting the sand out of the things.”
Arrow arum, a prolific plant with arrowhead-like leaves found in area marshes, is said to be edible. Colonial English explorers described American Indians eating them.
“We tried five different ways to prepare them,” Wiggins said. One was acceptable, “but it was just too time-intensive.”
Wiggins says he and Musselman tried out recipes on each other and friends.
The authors note that the bounty from fields, forests, marshes and ponds is seasonal, though some are available most of the year.
An amateur historian, artist and avid paddler, Wiggins rents a small studio on a corner of the Friends of the Rappahannock building on Fall Hill Avenue to pursue his after-work interests.
He has written two other books on plants, “Virginia Wetland Plants,” and “Virginia Native Plants.” Wiggins is co-founder of the Fredericksburg chapter of the Native Plant Society.
Wiggins pointed out half-a-dozen edible plants on the forest trail winding through the FOR property.
He says he first got interested in eating wild plants in the early 1980s as a student at Old Dominion, “while getting the botany bug from (Musselman).”
One of Wiggins’ favorite wild foods: white oak acorns. The nuts were an Indian staple, and have fed deer, turkeys and other wildlife for eons.
But before they can be eaten by humans, the acidic tannin must be mostly removed by boiling the acorns several times and draining off the water. Shells removed, the nuts are dried in a warm oven on a cookie sheet, then ground into flour.
Wiggins adds honey to the mixture, then spreads it on a brownie pan and bakes it.
“It’s very tasty and nutritious — packed with carbohydrates and proteins. It tastes like brownies,” he said.