If you hike one of the six exceptional trails that meander through Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area in Blue Springs, you may meet a lady, small in stature, but full of spunk and passion, wandering and searching along the path. If your curiosity gets the better of you, and you stop to visit, you are in for a real treat.
Frances Mathews may be a small woman, but her legacy is not. She may invite you to see the object of her scrutiny, indicating a tiny plant growing up through the cracks in the trail with the tip of her handmade hiking stick. As your eyes focus on the object she indicates, you may discover that tiny, pesky weed with succulent leaves that you have pulled from your own sidewalk on many occasions. With a smile she introduces you to purslane.
“This little plant is chock-full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is high in vitamin C, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium and contains more beta-carotene than spinach,” she explains. “If you can’t get past the idea that it is a detestable weed, you will miss out on one of the most nutritious plants on earth.”
Like the Missouri Department of Conservation, Frances is dedicated to sharing our outdoor heritage with the next generation. Foraging for wild edible plants is a tradition that she intends to keep alive. These strong convictions have become her legacy.
Frances has shared a lifetime of knowledge with visitors to Burr Oak Woods. She will tell you that these plants are a gift from the earth that we have all but forgotten. Learning about wild edible plants is so much more than an act of nostalgia. She believes that the more we learn about these nutritious and delicious treasured plants, the greater understanding we will have about nature and a healthy lifestyle. Foraging for them is also a fun family activity in nature that helps to stretch the family budget rather than break it.
A Natural Forager
Frances began her education as a 5-year-old girl. She vividly recalls the details of the first time she was allowed to forage for wild mushrooms and greens with her aunts, uncles and a neighbor back in 1936.
She woke up early that morning and kept watch, leaning out the windowsill with her chin resting on her crossed arms. When the car finally pulled up in front of the house, Frances grabbed a threadbare onion sack and bucket, hurried out the front door, and hopped into the rumble seat. She loved the way the warm spring breeze felt against her face as they wound their way into the country. Heavy morning dew sparkled on the grass.
It seemed an eternity before her uncle finally slowed and stopped the car. The ravine nestled between the wooded hillsides invited exploration. Like a butterfly, she flitted between one wildflower and the next, delighted. She picked violets and wild sweet William to create dainty bouquets while the adults searched for morel mushrooms.
Suddenly, she was called over. To her astonishment, the entire hillside was dotted with morel mushrooms. They picked the tender fungus until their sacks overflowed. Frances was afraid to take a step for fear of crushing one of these treasures. The afternoon warmed as the sun climbed higher in the sky, and the group spent the remainder of the day selecting tender green shoots from the moist, rich soil. Frances was taught to identify golden seal, stinging nettle and burdock. They picked spring beauty and redbud blossoms.
That evening they shared a meal of wild spring greens and fried morel mushrooms. To this day, Frances swears that it was the very best meal she has ever eaten. So began her love affair with wild edible plants.
Mothering, Mentoring and MDC
Frances grew up, married and became a mother, but she never lost her passion for exploring and collecting wild plants. She often foraged for wild greens to supplement her grocery store purchases. She became a Girl Scout leader for her daughter’s troop. As she introduced these young girls to edible plants, she continued to add to her own knowledge base. She still takes time each year to mentor Girl Scouts and their leaders in the Kansas City area.
Frances has noticed an alarming trend over the years, however. Each successive generation of children is getting outside less and less. Fewer leaders have the confidence to take the girls outside to explore.
Research indicates that this growing trend is detrimental to the health of our children and society as a whole. Frances encourages scout leaders to get these kids outside. Nature is a giant classroom and, if encouraged, children eagerly absorb each experience. When outdoors with a positive adult role model to mentor and guide them, they develop a deeper understanding of the natural world and are more likely to become good environmental stewards in the future.
In 1996, Frances became a volunteer for the Missouri Department of Conservation. It didn’t take long for her to introduce the staff of Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center to wild edible collecting. We sampled and learned to identify Jerusalem artichoke and cattail. Then gooseberries, smooth sumac, blackberries, pawpaws and persimmon… . The list continues to grow. Over the past few years she has become something of a guru to all of us. Her programs have grown exponentially in popularity.
The Wild Ones
Before long, the other volunteers discovered her message. She now has a loyal group of volunteers that work side by side with her to develop programs on a monthly basis, dubbing themselves the “Wild Ones.” They worked together to produce a Wild Edibles Cookbook titled Eat Your Weedies. This publication is so popular that they have a difficult time keeping enough copies on hand.
Not long ago, Frances and I met to brainstorm ideas for upcoming programs. We became excited about this idea and then that. Typically lively and animated, Frances suddenly became quiet. At last she looked up, misty-eyed, and said, “I have often pondered the significance of my life. Now I understand. My purpose is to share these traditions that have been passed down to us from our ancestors.” It was her mission to share the excitement and importance of these natural gifts with our children, she explained. It would be her gift to everyone who wanted to listen.
Camaraderie, support and teamwork have grown between Frances and the other Wild Ones. Each one of these volunteers plays a role in developing programs and in writing their book. As they meet at the Nature Center each week, present new findings and discuss new ideas, Frances sits back and smiles quietly, proud of her team and what they have accomplished together. She is confident in their abilities and is able to turn over the lead in programs to her counterparts.
Frances and the Wild Ones present a monthly program throughout the growing season. These programs include: spring greens, a spring tea room, a tour that focuses specifically on purslane, wild grapes, and an annual Soup and Fable program.
Soup and Fable is presented as if it were a fine dining experience. Autumn’s wild harvest is showcased, complete with menu, hostesses, black tie apparel, uniquely flavored soups, breads and delicate wild teas. The team shares interesting tidbits of information about the wild plants used for the evening’s fare and then our guests are invited to sample the main entrées. We conclude the evening with storytelling and music, sipping tea and taste-testing scrumptious desserts—all made from wild plants of course!
In each program, Frances shares a few ideas on where plants can be collected legally and safely. She cautions foragers to make absolutely sure that collecting is legal on a chosen area, and to avoid areas where pesticides have been used or salts and chemicals have been applied to roadways. One of the first lessons she learned as a young girl was to take a little, and leave a little behind for the next visitor. She also advises them to make a note on the location of the plant, so that they can find it again next year. She makes absolutely certain that the seed of conservation ethics is planted in the minds of her participants.
Frances and her Wild Ones teach their audience that foraging for edible wild plants is much more than adding interest and variety to our dinner table. This activity offers an incredible portal into the wilderness—to observe the world of a white-tailed deer, to hear the unique melody of a songbird, or to witness that field of native grasses decorated by the morning dew. It is a way to rediscover your own delight in the natural world and connect with others. Take the time to share this experience with your family and friends, children especially, and share in the legacy of Frances Mathews.
Foraging Tips and Safety
Nothing compares to the satisfaction of foraging for wild edible plants for the dinner table. Even in a fast-paced world, this activity creates a deeper understanding of nature and encourages a stronger connection to our ancestors and history—it’s also just plain fun.
Before you head into the forest, there are a few important points to remember: When foraging for wild plants, you must be able to positively identify a plant before you collect it. If you are not absolutely sure, leave it alone. Even if you are certain of your identification, a great rule of thumb is to taste only a very small amount when sampling a plant you have never tasted before.
There are lots of places where you can collect wild edible plants—along a creek, in the forest, on the prairie, in a field, even in your own back yard! Respect private property. Do not venture on to land without obtaining landowner permission. If you would like to forage on public lands, know the regulations that govern that area first. When you find the perfect place, make sure you find out whether pesticides have been used in the area and always wash your plants before you eat them.
Most important of all, make sure you collect only what you need. You are conservation! Leave some behind. Each plant species plays an important role in the ecosystem. Next year, when you go out, you will be one step ahead. You will know exactly where to find these delicious treasures. Happy hunting!
Cooking Wild in Missouri
The Conservation Department now offers a colorful new cookbook that emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients in tempting appetizers, fresh salads, savory stews, elegant entrees and delectable desserts.
Cooking Wild in Missouri, created by author Bernadette Dryden, can be purchased for $15 plus shipping and handling, and sales tax (where applicable) by calling toll free 877-521-8632 or visiting mdcnatureshop.com. You may also visit locations in our nature centers and field offices where MDC products are sold. See Page 3 for regional phone numbers to call for a location near you.