The Man Who Ate A Wetland

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Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) has a distinctive bark, changing as it ages

At Lake of Three Fires State Park in Taylor County, I wandered the floodplain on a beautiful Spring day, enjoying the natural beauty while I pondered history, culture, and plants.

At least in part, my thoughts were prompted by the name “Lake of Three Fires.” According to the DNR, it “…is named for a legend involving three Native American tribes that united for protection. It is believed that the three tribes held a council at this location, building great fires to signal their continued cooperation.” Knowing this historical background certainly increased my appreciation for the place. But then my thoughts lingered on how those people lived in this place, meeting their material needs from this environment.

When I’m not wandering wetlands, I work my regular job at Central College in Pella, and one of my classes is called “Ethnobotany: How Plants Save The World.” It’s one offering among many of these senior-level “capstone” seminars with communication skills and an interdisciplinary outlook. “But Paul,” you say. “What is this ‘Ethnobotany‘ anyway?” Actually, it’s the intersections of people and plants: how we use plants, and how our use of plants both shapes and reflects our cultures.

I really like this historical, practical, ethnographic approach. It’s true that somewhere out there might be the next-generation food crop, or biofuel, or the mythical “cure for cancer.” Surely such discoveries and their economic benefits are exciting and important. In fact, researchers in Iowa and across the globe do that work, every day. But on a nice walk in the floodplain, at a place named for the First Peoples (Native Americans) here, I thought about “traditional uses,” and what I found in the wetland, today.

DISCLAIMER: please, please, please, know with 100% certainty the identity of any plant you eat, and how it should be prepared. And, don’t harvest a plant unless it is sufficiently abundant at that site (and not imperiled as a species).

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Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) has cream-colored, smooth bark on upper branches. Fruits (golden-brown-colored balls) may persist over winter

The floodplain is dominated by the tall (canopy) trees: beautiful and familiar flood-tolerant species such as Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) and American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). As the Latin name for Silver Maple implies, it is…sweet! I make Maple syrup most years, and most of the trees I tap are this species…although, I tap in neighborhoods near campus, rather than in a wetland. I’ve read that Sycamore, like Maple, may be tapped and the sap used to make syrup. Never tried it…maybe one of these days.

Any native plant you encounter is likely to have dozens or hundreds of practical uses. For example, the Sycamore is listed in the Native American Ethnobotany Database as having 37 specific uses recorded from six First Peoples (Cherokee, Creek, Delaware, Iroquois, Mahuna, Meskwaki). These are mainly medical uses, but building material and tool use are also described. We should not be surprised that people living with a community of plants, in intimate contact every day, will discover many such uses. A good Ethnobotany class (like mine—hah!!) should describe how peoples in the past, and today, understand plants and how we can gather and use such traditional knowledge.

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Twig and fruits of Prickly Ash, Zanthoxylum americanum

Moving along, we find tangles of shrubs and vines reaching from the forest floor to a height over my head, especially in areas where the tall “canopy” trees leave gaps where light reaches the forest floor. A large shrub/small tree pictured here, has familiar paired spines and distinctive berries with fold-out coverings. Even though the colors have faded to browns, and the fruit no longer has the characteristic citrus smell, I recognize the “Toothache Tree,” also known as Prickly Ash, Zanthoxylum americanum. This is a fun “experiential learning” activity for Botany class: after properly keying it out, I mention the traditional use: local anesthetic! The berries numb the mouth effectively and for an hour or so. I wouldn’t say the effect is altogether pleasant, but it’s certainly memorable!!

Shorter woody plants include shrubby Willow (Salix),  Dogwood (Cornus), and Buttonbush (Cephalanthus). The database lists considerable medicinal uses, but as you might imagine, the strong, flexible, and durable qualities of these shrubs make their thin, flexible stems infinitely useful for weaving, tools, rope, fasteners, etc. I enjoyed reading about toys and whistles on the list, too.

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Gooseberry/Currant (Ribes americanum) still leafing out when I visited.

Brambles of vines make walking tough (I am scratched and snagged by the spines or thorns). I see a profusion of Currant or Gooseberry (Ribes americanum) which of course provide edible berries, not as sweet nor fleshy as some other species, but certainly tasty and healthful. Perhaps not these specifically, but indigenous peoples did dry berries for storage and year-round use, useful to prevent vitamin deficiencies (e.g., scurvy—Vitamin C deficiency) in winter perhaps.

Near the forest floor or in the marsh are various herbaceous plants: wildflowers or grass-shaped graminoids. The classic example here is the Cattail (Typha). Every edible wild plant guide highlights “nature’s supermarket,” since basically the entire plant is edible. (I’ll give my taste-ratings in parentheses). New spring shoots can be a salad green (meh), staminate spikes produce pollen which is collected and used as flour (haven’t tried this), new pistillate spikes can be eaten in a manner similar to corn-on-the-cob (yum!!), and the starchy tubers dug up and used liked potatoes (yuck: taste like mud). You might expect me to be an aficionado of wetland plant underground grazing, but the roots or rhizones of every wetland plant I’ve ever tried, always end up tasting like mud…no matter how carefully I wash or cook them. If there’s a trick to this, please leave it in the comments!

DSC_0131Ethnobotany is a great way to connect with nature, and with people (past or present) of another culture, and people with special knowledge and skills. I invite you to learn more: various organizations or clubs sponsor events, as might your local conservation board or nature center. Maybe one of these years I will get enough interest to offer my class at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory field station—that would be great fun! However you do it, I hope you learn about and enjoy this fascinating aspect of wetlands.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

5 thoughts on “The Man Who Ate A Wetland”

  1. Oh, the memories you’ve brought back. I spent a few summers as a nature counselor at a Michigan summer camp forty-plus years ago, and one of my obsessions was wild foods, both native plants and non-native weeds. I could tell stories, but will just say that my efforts to collect cattail pollen were not successful, partly because I tried to do it on foot. (Using a canoe might have worked better.) I will never forget the smell that rose from the mud as I slogged through it, and I deeply hoped no one would think that smell was coming from me. I think the campers back then would agree that for us, the entertainment was often better than the wild foods:-).

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  2. Yup, I’m no Euell Gibbons myself. I really see wild-harvested foods as a way to raise interest, and it surely does that. Maybe there’s a certain type of satisfaction, or even spiritual dimension too. Anyway, thanks for sharing the memories 🙂

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