Where wild things are safe to eat Foragers: Since 1995, Piney Run Nature Center's Ecology Club has been teaching youths about life along the trails.

September 07, 1997|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Nuts are still green and mushrooms too risky, but the young members of Piney Run Nature Center's Ecology Club foraged successfully last week for wild edibles.

Ice cream was the only store-bought fare when the nine youngsters returned to the center to feast on nature's bounty.

The ice cream was slathered with a syrup made from wild black cherries -- heated to remove the poison from their pits. It was washed down with a rather bland sumac tea -- brewed from the nonpoisonous staghorn variety.

The group of 9-to-13-year-olds set out after school Thursday. Clear fall-like sunshine sparkled on the lake and lighted the late-summer green that prevailed on the park's trees and fields.

The group was game to try any of the leaves and fruits pointed out by Deanna Hofmann, a naturalist at Piney Run, a Carroll County park and reservoir south of Liberty Road in the Sykesville area.

Pieces of skin shed by Charlie -- a big black rat snake that lives around the nature center -- drew only appreciative whoops and whoas.

Several youngsters said they'd been coming to the nature center programs for years -- and they know their wild things. Keen-eyed, they spotted and identified plants and animal tracks and burrows along the trails.

When Trevor Goss, 10, of Sykesville found a gall, Kyle Pennington quickly explained what it was: The plant's tan, ball-shaped deformity resulted from an insect growing inside. Kyle, a 10-year-old from Sykesville, also found a katydid.

Hofmann said the Ecology Club, begun in 1995 for children ages 10 to 14, is an open group that meets about once a month.

Kathryn and Sharon Fluss, 13-year-old twins from Sykesville, were first at the lakeshore to collect wild grapes.

Although Hofmann had warned them that people fishing might have been there first, Daniel Gonski quickly found more than a dozen.

"I got 15," said Daniel, 11, of Eldersburg, who shared his sweet bounty.

Other food sources along the trails were wood sorrel, tiny violet leaves and a few leftover wizened huckleberries. The wood sorrel was especially tasty, but Hofmann warned that too much of its oxalic acid could produce a tummy ache.

Native Americans and early colonists used these and other wild plants to supplement their supplies, she told the group.

"They depended on these plants. As far back as your grandmother, your great-grandmother, they may have had the job of going out to look for them."

Chickweed and dandelion may plague lawns, she said, but their leaves are edible.

"A lot of people still go out and pick dandelion greens early in the spring," she noted. Although the tender spring leaves become bitter in summer, dandelion often send up tender new leaves again in the fall.

"Most of the things we eat today started as wild plants."

Pointing out the dark-brown seeds of curly dock, she said, "you can add this to your flour to make it stretch a little further -- something the early colonists used." The red berries of the spicebush can be ground and used like allspice -- although they don't taste too good straight off the bush.

She also warned about look-alikes: demonstrating how the poisonous berries of pokeweed looked like the cherries that were the focus of their forage.

"These berries get beautiful and purple," she said of the pokeweed. "They look delicious, a lot like the black cherries. So you see how easy it is to mix up the two."

Thus, the only cherries they collected were directly off the trees in a picnic grove -- nothing from the ground.

Back at the nature center, Hofmann had pre-boiled some of the cherries into a dark, tart topping for the ice cream -- shared with younger siblings and parents who awaited the evening return of the foragers.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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