Thursday, February 16, 2012

Asheville- A Glimpse of Spring

Kiely and I just off the parkway near the MST with Looking Glass Rock behind us
Oh Asheville! I visited with friends, savored amazing Asheville food and drink, and got out into the woods! I returned to portions of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where it parallels the parkway, meandering familiar running routes and hopping rocks down the river that runs through Graveyard Fields (thanks to this one above who prefers to pick his own path). I remembered the bliss of hiking through these mountains, spectacular vistas around every corner, and felt grateful to know them so well. They too have become a home for me.

Thank you to the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for putting on such a wonderful event for hikers and those interested in hiking/supporting the trail. It was awesome to meet fellow hikers Scot, Danny, Sharon, Heidi, and William and hear your stories. Good to know there is so much enthusiasm and love for the trail...and to all those interested in the plants of the trail, know that my book is in the works! Any help in regards to potential publishers and marketing would be greatly appreciated.

Above all, how sweet it was to walk the trails and see tell-tale signs of spring popping up from the mica-speckled red clay and drying leaf litter. Sweet as it was, mid-February is a bit early for some of these appearances. Friends expressed concern at what would happen with a cold snap that will inevitably come in the mountains before true spring arrives. But, the good news is that many of these plants are adapted to the cold weather and are nearly indestructible with their trailing interconnected root systems. I think these hardy greenies will do just fine.

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)
This wild edible was one of the first spring greens I exclaimed over while hiking on the River Trail at Warren Wilson College (my alma mater). Although called a "nettle" this plant is actually of no relation to true nettles (members of Urticaceae), however they are thought to resemble them due to their heart shaped leaves and hairiness. They are called "dead" because unlike true nettles, these do not have hairs that sting. Purple Dead Nettles are members of the Mint family (Lamiaceae), easily identified by their opposite leaves, square stems, and irregular 2-lipped (bilabiate) flowers. Found growing in dense colonies, they are a common weed throughout waste places, along roadsides, and in gardens. The above ground parts can be harvested and eaten raw or boiled with a change of water as a pot herb. Don't be scared by the hairs, simply make sure you have some water nearby to chase your trailside snack.

Bird's Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica)
Not far from Purple Dead Nettle, I found a carpet of Bird's Eye Speedwell, yet another wild edible. This plant is a member of the Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae), with Veronica being the largest genus therein. Though at first glance its flowers may appear regular (equal in size, shape, and color), notice that one petal is actually slightly smaller than the rest. The leaves are alternate and its stem round, both softly hairy, though not as much as the Purple Dead Nettle. I came upon this plant regularly while on the more "civilized" parts of the MST, as it is a common weed along roadside and on lawns. In this case, I found it underneath a cement bridge that crosses atop the Swannonoa River.

Wild Onion (Allium spp.)
And now the spice to add to your salad of Dead Nettle and Speedwell- Wild Onions. These are members of the Lily famlily (Liliaceae) and consist of various species such as A.cernum, A.canadense, and A.vineale, some refered to Wild Garlic as well. I find it difficult to discern just which I am looking at without seeing its flowers which will be 6- petaled and regular. Leaves are long and narrow and hollow (seen here) and arise from a underground bulb. Strong in flavor, they can be chopped up and eaten raw, sauted, or added to soups and stews as one would chives. There are poisonous look-a-likes, though all are odorless and will not have 6-petaled flowers growing terminally in umbrella-like clusters as onions do.

Among these edibles, I also found baby Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Chickweed (Stellaria spp.), and Common Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla).

Putty Root (Aplectrum hyemale)
Here is a non-edible that I came across that I feel still deserves some attention. A member of the Orchid family (Orchidaceae), this leaf will persist all winter and in the spring shoot up a pencil thin stalk bearing alternately stalked and slightly drooping tiny greenish-purple flowers. The leaf can be up to 10" long, though those that I have found are most often between 6-8", and 3" wide, easily identified by its parallel silver venation. It is an endangered plant, at least in NC, so if you come across it, handle with care! The name Putty Root results from the glue-like substance which the Native Americans found could be derived from its bulbs.

A view from the River Trail

Thank you Asheville. A week in the sun with clear blue skies, 60 degree temps, magnificent mountains and love all around did me good. And I'll have you know, Milford, I bottled up some of that bright southern sun and brought it back with me. So although it's presently snowing and gray and cold, I'm right now popping the cork and spreadin' it 'round, let it shine!