For all of the remedies that people pour out money to buy, how many of them can be found in their own backyards? Nearly all of them, according to naturalist and wildcrafter Ila Hatter, David Holt's guest on this episode of Folkways.

Wildcrafting is a term for the age-old practice of collecting plant materials in their natural habitat for food, medicine, and craft. Originally such activity was the only grocery store, medicine chest, and hardware store, available to man. But eventually the "found materials" became a source of income to buy what could not be "gleaned" from nature. People today continue to provide for their families by harvesting such things as moss, ginseng and other medicinals, natural dyes, mushrooms, wildflower seeds, berries, landscaping plants (and stones), and saps such as maple or pine.

A lush mountain path provides the perfect setting for Ila to point out several of these plant materials. Sassafras, for instance, makes not only a delicious tea but also an effective blood thinner. Yellowroot heals stomach disorders and was used during pioneer times for ulcers. Besides the willow tree, sweet birch bark relieves a headache because of its salicylic acid ingredient, but it also has a refreshing wintergreen flavor. Spicebush and sumac make good seasonings for food.

But identifying the plants is only the first step. Next, Ila demonstrates how common weeds transform into helpful medicines and simple foods. A bunch of jewelweed make a soothing itch-relief lotion. Later by a campfire, Ila and David feast on a meal of tea tonic, persimmon coffee, roasted trout spiced with sumac seasoning (which Ila explains how to prepare) and lemongrass, persimmon corn cakes, and a pear compote for dessert.

Ila has an extensive Web site for those who are interested in wildcrafting or showing their children how to use natural resources wisely. Opportunities for wildcrafting are not just found in the countryside. There are "wild" places in cities and in one's own backyard. Many landscaping plants and trees have fruit that goes to waste every year. Crabapple and quince are just two examples. In your own yard or in your neighborhood may be native persimmons, walnuts, fiddlehead ferns, dandelions and wild roses. In wildcrafting we are harvesting the bounty of the earth and should always approach collecting with respect and thankfulness.


Itch Relief Lotion

  • 1 C peeled jewelweed stems and leaves or 6 jewelweed ice cubes
  • 1 peeled and seeded cucumber
  • 1/4 - 1/2 C witch hazel
  • 1/4 C aloe vera gel

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Pour into blender and blend until well-mixed. Pour through a strainer into a bowl; discard pulp in strainer and pour the liquid in the bowl into a bottle. Refrigerate.

Tea Tonic (3-S Tonic)

  • Sweet birch
  • Sassafras root
  • Spicebush twigs

Strip sweet birch, and break up sassafras root and spicebush twigs. Combine all ingredients into pot of boiling water and boil until done.

Persimmon Coffee

Remove seeds from wild persimmon fruit and place on oiled baking sheet. Bake in oven until seeds turn a dark brown color. Take seeds and grind them until they make a coarse (or fine) powder. Put grinds in a coffee filter tied with a string and place it in a coffee pot with boiling water. Boil until water turns dark brown and emanates a rich aroma.

Sumac Seasoning

CAUTION: Be sure to get sumac berries that are RED. White sumac berries belong to the poisonous variety and should not be eaten.

Berries for seasoning should be picked on a day that is dry and sunny. Damp or wet berries will have a sour flavor. Pull berries off twigs, getting only the berry and not the small stem. Put pile of berries in a blender and blend for 1-2 minutes. The seeds will fall to the bottom. Take out the seeds and scrape the red berry pulp from the sides of the blender, and put into a spice container.


Wildcrafting with Ila
Ila not only has links and information about events and workshops on this subject, but also has an online store with cookbooks, material about natural remedies and more.

Wild Mountain Herbs
This service is offered for anyone wishing to learn more about wild, edible, medicinal and poisonous plants of North Carolina and Tennessee. Workshops are offered during the summer months.

NC State Cooperative Extension
North Carolina's center for information about plants and animals in the state.

NC Natural
In addition to a wildflowers guide, this informative website also links to events and forestry information.

And for those of you who want to learn more about working with wildflowers or even gardening, be sure to watch UNC-TV's premier gardening program Almanac Gardener.