Sometimes I get an idea for a lesson that I am not qualified to teach. Edible plants was one of those lessons. I knew that the families (and I) would like to know more about the plants native to Texas and some of their uses, but it is not an area that I feel comfortable teaching. So, we signed up for a class with Earth Native Wilderness School in Austin. One of their teachers met us at a park and led us on a hike to find useful and edible fall plants.
First we stopped at a soap berry tree – a tree that has berries you can add a little water to and wash your hands. As we hiked, our guide pointed out several useful species, but one of the most surprising to us all was the wood sorrel. It has heart shaped leaves of 3, is ground cover, and when you eat it, it has a burst of citric flavor (like skittles).
The kids were the most excited when the guide told us that the berries of Turks Cap were edible. I think almost all of us have Turks Cap in our yard, and kids love being able to go outside into their own yard and graze for their snacks.
One of the boys in our group got a small cut on the back of his ear while we were hiking and our guide stopped to show us some quick first aid for minor cuts. Mealy blue sage smells good if rub a little in your hand. But if you smash it between your fingers, you can put it on a cut to clean the cut. You can also use the leaves as sage in cooking. I had no idea a plant as common as that could be so useful.
Our group had a great time hiking in a park we didn’t even know existed and discovering all kinds of uses for common plants we pass by every day.
Teaching people to eat wild plants is a tricky lesson to give. NO one should ever eat a wild plant unless they are an expert in plant identification in that particular area of the country. I have personally seen the aftermath of kids having eaten plants that looked like a plant their parent knew, but it was not the same plant at all. The girls were sick for hours and needed a visit from state troupers, park staff and an ambulance. In the end, they were fine, but it was terrifying because they ate a plant that was directly adjacent to a different plant that could have killed them in under an hour. The incident did NOT happen during a trip that I was leading. It was during a trip that I was attending with my own family as a parent. It was terrifying for me as a new parent at the time, and I have been very clear with our group’s families that they should not eat wild plants without expert identification first.
As an experienced outdoor educator, I know that I do not feel comfortable teaching others about plant identification when the plants are going to be ingested. Fish identification, yes, plants, no. So, we paid a guest teacher to lead this lesson and it worked beautifully. To other leaders out there: never fear asking for help with lessons if you need it. Other teachers are usually happy to help, especially if you pay them a small fee to teach your group.