New England's Wild Edibles:
Stalking the Wild Banana
By Theresa Ludwick
Euell Gibbons my father is not, nor is he Henry David Thoreau, but he is a self-
made man with the accompanying -- let’s call them traits -- of a typical New
England native: self-reliance, creative resourcefulness and curiosity. He seems
to have always had an interest in natural lore, enough to pique my own
curiosity and appreciation of what I believe is a quintessential element of New
The woods of New Hampshire were my
playground and my school. In these
un-walled classrooms, I discovered
fiddleheads and “wild bananas,”
spruce tree gum and mica. In teaching
me about these things, my father casually
established in me a sense of connection
to nature and a hunger for exploration
When I was little, I unreservedly believed everything Dad told me. For example,
he told me once, “If you put pussy willows in the oven, they’ll come out as
kittens.” I tried it and it didn’t work, but Dad told me other things that turned
out to be true and encouraged my appetite for natural knowledge. Even so, I
learned to take what he taught me with a grain of salt or more, depending on
what it was.
Such as edible wild plants: the dandelion, the fiddlehead fern (or as we called
them, “hog breaks”). The latter has become a springtime delicacy to some, and
sells expensively in stores, but for me, steamed fiddleheads with butter was a
free and whimsical treat. Found in moist, shady areas, fiddlehead ferns are in
their coiled state for about 2 weeks before they unfurl into delicate, lace-like
foliage and are no longer edible.
Then there was the wild banana. On one outing, I watched as Dad firmly
grasped a cluster of ferns close to the ground and gave a vigorous pull. He took
out his ever-handy jackknife and extracted the little cream-colored, oblong root
at the base of the plant. “Wild Banana,” he announced. “Good with salt.” I tasted
it and almost believed him. Through research, I have found little information to
substantiate the edibility of this root. However, older members of my family
and community insist on its factuality.
The same applies to spruce tree gum (no salt added, but a sweetener would
sure help). With his jackknife, Dad would mine a sticky ball of accumulated
pitch from the bark of the tree and pop one into his mouth (or mine). Rubbery
and bitter at first, the gum transformed into a chewable, unique taste experience.
Always ready to move on to the next venture, Dad would seek out another tree
– the poplar – to find the perfect twig from which to make a whistle. Spotting
one, he would cut a round, fat, 6 inch length of twig and perforate the bark on
the circumference of one end. After tapping on the cut end to loosen the bark
membranes, he twisted it off and whittled an angled section of bare wood for the
mouthpiece and a notch for the air to travel through. With the notched bark
replaced on the end, the whistle produced a great sound that was perfectly
suited to my Pied Piper ambitions.
While living in the country, in a house that Dad had converted from a hay barn,
we once boiled sap from a few nearby maple trees and produced enough syrup
to cover several batches of pancakes. This is a keen and pivotal memory for me
because it was during this time that I began, in earnest, to forge a deeper
connection with my natural surroundings and to appreciate both nature’s gifts
and its frailties.
Among these “frailties” was the Pink Lady’s Slipper, New Hampshire’s state
wildflower. When in the proximity of this delicate beauty, Dad would remind
me that picking it was illegal. I carried this grave knowledge throughout my
youth, right next to the fear of the dragonfly that was surely hovering around the
corner, like a Huey, ready to perform surgery on my lips if I swore. I have since
discovered the inaccuracy of the commonly accepted Lady’s Slipper legend. The
long-held, erroneous belief that it was illegal to pick the Pink Lady’s Slipper
was likely promulgated by its name-association with the Ram’s Head and Small
Yellow Lady’s Slippers of Massachusetts, both of which are endangered and
protected under Massachusetts law. This notion has kept many a desiring hand
from plucking the pink one into oblivion, though, and that’s certainly not a bad
The Pink Lady Slipper does have a fragile, symbiotic relationship with a certain
fungus and, therefore, attempts to transplant one usually fail. On a country
outing recently, a stranger handed me a bouquet of three.
Though they are ethereally lovely, I was appalled and saddened that they were
not left alone to propagate a new generation of beauty. Photographs and
memories suffice for me.
A place called Old Hill Village, on the other hand, was not able to escape
endangerment and oblivion. The small municipality was built near the
Pemigewasset River in south central New Hampshire in the 19th century. When
Franklin Falls Dam was built for flood control in 1943, Hill Village became
susceptible to repeated flooding and was eventually abandoned and rebuilt on
The ghost-village became pastureland for cattle. Our family of nine often
trekked there for picnics, fishing, exploring, and the challenge of acquiring
butternuts from a giant butternut tree that stood alongside the path. With
pebbles, sticks and other debris hurled at the overhead branches, we knocked
down the nut casings (and sometimes each other). We then hammered (the
butternuts) with fist-sized rocks. The nutmeat is similar to walnuts in
appearance and has an appealing, delicate flavor.
I don’t know that my outdoor education was an uncommon one, at least not in
the days of my own youth. Today, however, with the alternative of spending
hours and days in front of the television or X-Box, I wonder how many families
miss the opportunity to explore and experience the rewards and surprises of
“wildness,” as Thoreau called it.
For my part, I’m glad mine didn’t.
About the author: Theresa Ludwick is a freelance writer whose work appears in several
magazines and newspapers. Though she currently lives in Colorado, she was born and
raised in New Hampshire, and enjoys writing about New England and its unique people,
places, and ideas.
|When I was little, I
everything Dad told me.
For example, he told me
once, “If you put pussy
willows in the oven, they’ll
come out as kittens.”