By Christina VanGinkel
Last year when my son entered a new school a few weeks into the term, he was given an assignment that all the other kids had received the first day of the school year. To collect leaves native to the area they lived, and to assemble the leaves, into a scrapbook or binder, with the name of the tree that the leaf came from, along with their scientific name. What we had first thought was going to be a hard project, turned out to be both fun, and quite enlightening.
The project called for family participation, gathering the leaves, and identifying them. My son went on to place at the state level with his project, which he ended up turning into a book that he will have for as long as he cares to keep it, because instead of just placing the leaves into a binder, he actually used Modge Podge on each and every one.
What this project also did, beyond helping him learn the names of many of the trees native to our area, is to foster an interest in all things green and growing. While he was still assembling the leaf project, he began to show an earnest interest in many of the other plants native to our home area, especially those that were edible.
Thistle berries for example, are a wild plant here in the Midwest that produces an edible fruit. That each fruit is covered in a thistle makes most people assume that it is not something you would want to eat. Not only can you eat them, he found out that they are quite delicious. He also found out that not only apples grow wild, but that there are plum trees that produce a small, tart plum that even though he was not able to find out if they are actually wild or planted from some past farmer that homesteaded our property, they still grow wild today!
Wild blackberries and strawberries grow both on the edges of sustained gardens, and literally in the grass of our own yard. Strawberries so tiny that I honestly thought they were just some type of weed until my son discovered that they were strawberries, wild, but strawberries nonetheless. It would take all day to pick enough of them to fill a thimble, but you could if you wanted to, and each of them would have more flavor than a full size strawberry that you could buy at any store. Blackberries on the other hand grow so big, that picking them by the bucketful in late summer is only dependant on finding the perfect patch of them. My brother once tried to transplant a few when he moved from his house where he had a good size patch that consistently produced thumb sized berries, into the edge of our yard where we lived. I assumed they had not taken root, but about three years later, when I went into the taller grass on the backside of our yard to retrieve a kids ball that had blown there, I remembered where he had planted them when I stepped right into a plant dripping with thumb sized berries. My cousin later told me that those must have been wild, that you cannot transplant blackberry bushes, but I know where he planted them, and they are one and the same.
Fruits are not the only plants that grow wild and abundant in the Midwest either. He discovered wild onions, commonly referred to as leeks, which are both plentiful and used in quite a few recipes. A bit milder, even somewhat on the sweet side, leeks are literally sprouting from the ground in different areas around our land. At least we now know what that smell is now when we occasionally encounter it out hiking.
Mushrooms, both inedible and edible, are also abundant, but I think the favorite plant that he discovered was edible, was dandelion greens. That was one I knew about, and as his interest in all things growing expanded, especially those things that you can eat, I told him how as a young girl my father would send us kids out in the early morning to pick the greens before the flowers opened. He said that once the flowers opened, the greens turned bitter. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. However, he always ate them in a bit of vinegar and seasoned oil with onions, or leeks, and fried bacon.