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July 31, 2014

For foragers and herbalists, Alabama is an oasis of edible plants

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Posted: Saturday, June 7, 2014 9:22 pm | Updated: 12:55 pm, Thu Jun 12, 2014.

Just over the bridge on U.S. Highway 431 heading into Gadsden is a small Texaco station sitting on a platform of sagging, cracked concrete. Behind the filling station bearing the logo of a once iconic brand is a seemingly decrepit wasteland of overgrown vegetation, railroad steel and fractured asphalt.

To Gadsden resident Darryl Patton, however, this is no wasteland. In the overgrown vegetation, he sees an oasis of wild plants, able to be used as remedies for nearly any ailment you can think of.

Patton is the protege of the late A.L. “Tommie” Bass, an Appalachian herbalist from Cherokee County who spent his life foraging the woods for raw herbs and plants and compiling a boundless mental catalogue of wild plants, their uses and where to find them. According to Patton, Bass was one of the best-known herbalists in the United States, and a descendant of an old mountain breed now considered extinct.

“What it boils down to is that the reason Tommie Bass foraged was for survival,” Patton said. “Wild plants back then were not considered unusual. It was a normal part of the everyday diet.”

When Bass passed away in 1996 at the age of 88, Patton made it a goal to continue his mentor’s traditions. His book "Mountain Medicine: The Herbal Remedies of Tommie Bass," which is now out of print, has sold on Amazon.com for thousands of dollars. As a result, Patton has emerged as one of Alabama’s premier foragers.

“What he passed down to me are the old ways of looking at plants as food and medicine,” said Patton. “It’s my job, I feel, to pass that on to the next generation.”

In Alabama, foraging is not an extinct practice, though few forage for their medicine and food on a daily basis. Tim Pfitzer, founder of the Birmingham-based company Herb Inc., is one forager who finds himself in the woods every day.

“I’ve been foraging really ever since I was about 6 or 7 years old and in the past 10 years, I’ve gotten really into it,” said Pfitzer. “Originally, my focus was gourmet edible mushrooms.”

Pfitzer, who is most familiar with the north Alabama region, said that Calhoun County offers some quality foraging.

“Right now we are just coming out of the watercress season,” he said. “But, we’re also coming onto a lot of different berries like low bush and highbush blueberries.”

Novice foragers walk a fine line when pursuing edible plants, Pfitzer noted. While anybody can wander aimlessly through the woods looking for edible plants, aspiring foragers should first learn what is safe to consume.

“There are some books by some local folks that are really helpful,” he said. “Most of what I’ve done is just gone out into the woods and found things and when I’ve found things I’ll repeat going to that location and go back the next season.”

Chris Bennett, a forager in the Pell City area who provides wild edibles to Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club, said there are edible plants nearly wherever you go.

“These days, even if you live in the city, there’s parks where there’s wild edibles growing,” he said.

Bennett’s passion for foraging was sparked by his interest in cooking with wild plants, but he began foraging long before.

“As a kid growing up in the ’80s, I guess you could say that I did some foraging but didn’t realize it,” he said. “I moved back down here from Chicago in 2005, mainly because I knew there was a lot of potential in Alabama for foraging.”

According to Bennett, a number of wild plants are just coming into season, many of which are edible including one of his favorites, wild strawberries.

“They are only around for two weeks and then they’re gone for the year, but they’re the most intense-flavored strawberry you’ll ever have,” he said. “It will spoil you.”

Also in season are sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, honeysuckle and another favorite of Bennett’s, pine needles, which can be used to make tea.

Bennett is working to finish his book, “Foraging Guide to the Southeast,” which he says will cover more than 120 different wild edible plants and be the first foraging guide for the southeastern United States.

“There’s just so much around us that is wild and edible,” said Bennett.

On Hepzibah Farm in Talladega County, Charlie Griffin and Frannie Kenworthy forage for wild plants to add variety to their weekly community-supported agriculture box, which are delivered to customers in Birmingham every Wednesday. Though they mainly grow heirloom vegetables, a hefty harvest of chanterelle mushrooms last season drove the pair further into foraging.

“I think one day we got about 13 pounds, which is a crazy amount for mushrooms,” said Kenworthy.

It gave them the confidence to spend this season expanding their knowledge. “We’re just adding to what we can identify,” said Griffin.

Like Bennett, the folks at Hepzibah Farm forage for more abundant plants, such as wood sorrel, but often find high quantities of sassafras, which was formerly used to make root beer.

“It’s amazing how quick it happens,” said Griffin. “Once someone’s pointed out something to you, it’s so easy to identify. Each one of these things keeps adding to the database and you don’t really forget them.”

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