The natural dyes used for acorn and black walnut bandannas are “wildcrafted”, meaning the dyestuff is foraged from the land where it grows wild and processed from that raw source into dye. My parents have been helping me collect these offerings from the woods around our farm in West Virginia. I sat down with them to talk about foraging for wild plants in West Virginia
Describe the Black Walnut and Oak trees:
Dad: Black walnuts trees grow along the edges of fields. Since we are on top of the hill they don’t have to grow straight up and therefore aren’t real tall, maybe 40-50ft with a large crown and dark, rough bark. Trees growing down in a holler are a lot taller and straighter. Oak trees are 60-80 ft tall, maybe taller, and grow both in open fields and forest. White oak has a white bark. We have a lot of species here.
Mom: Last year we collected acorns from White, Black, Red, and Pin Oaks. I’ve also seen Rock, Chestnut, Scarlet, probably more.
What can foraged Black Walnuts be used for besides dyeing?
Mom: Around here they are used to flavor cake and fudge. Gramma Fout would freeze them for this purpose so she could use them all year. Grandad Fout liked to sprinkle them on top of ice cream. They are thought of as a special treat. You only get them once a year and they aren’t sold in stores. It takes an awful lot of work to harvest and break them open. A lot of people say Black Walnuts are anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic. The hulls can also be used to stain lumber for small projects.
Does the harvest yield the same amount every year? Any idea what causes changes?
Dad: The difference from one year to the next has to do with the weather. A good year would have lots of pollination, lots of rain in the fall before the “bloom sets”. A late spring frost, after Mother’s Day, can damage the mast for the following fall. The yields are very localized because of the mountains and so the bloom and mast can be different just a few miles away.
Mom: If there is a heavy mast of acorns coming down in the fall it is said to be a hard winter coming. The wildlife here relies heavily on acorns all winter.
Dad: Besides wild animals you can also fatten up hogs by letting them roam free and they’ll eat many acorns that way. Sometimes you can even let cows eat a little bit. It will fatten them up.
Mom: But not too much early on for the cows, it will make them sick. Just a little towards the end of fall.
What other types of plants are popular to forage in WV? Why do folks still do this?
Dad: Morel mushrooms or hay-stacks. Ramps, a mild onion, best in fried potatoes with bacon grease. Many of the rural communities have ramp festivals in springtime. Huckleberries are up on the mountain. Other wild berries grow everywhere; blackberries are best for pie and wild raspberries are good right off the vine. In the late summer/fall people dig ginseng, or “seng” for short. They sell it by the pound for a high price, as medicine. High prices make it a competitive endeavor because it’s rare and only grows wild.
Mom: Elderberries are used for dyeing and wine. Poke greens and dandelion greens are popular for salad if you get them when they’re young and tender. Poke greens are good with onions as a wilted lettuce salad, served hot. People also make dandelion wine. You can eat the buds, flowers, and leaves of wild nasturtium and they all have a hot, peppery taste. It grows down there behind our barn. Grandad Neel and the older people we bought the milk farm off would use it to cure poison ivy by rubbing the stems and leaves on their skin. I think people still collect wild food for a few reasons. They are a local delicacy and foraging is a family activity that maintains regional traditions and culture. Foraging can be profitable now too since a good market has developed selling them to city restaurants.
Do you usually forage together or on your own?
Mom: We go together in the evening and separately during the day. You have to get them very soon after they fall or else they get worms and bugs, which is just nature’s way of getting the hull off.
What do you think about or talk about? Does it put you in a certain mood or state of mind?
Mom: We talk about other nuts, er people. Lots of times we talk about our daughter because we’re thinking about her or stories and memories of our parents. Grandad Fout would lay walnuts in the driveway and run over them with his truck, back and forth. He had a special pair of gloves he used just for hulling them and spent hours cracking them. It’s sort of addicting and you feel pretty motivated to get back out there to gather the best ones. It feels very natural this time of year, like mother nature wants you to be foraging.
Dad: A mood of contentment and pride. It is a perfect time of year to be outside as the weather is cool and sunny.