By BECKY LOCK
LIBERTY - Bibi Snelderwaard Brion's garden gives a new meaning to the term "salad greens."
Bibi Snelderwaard Brion, at right, tells a group about the common mallow, or cheeses, plant. Looking on are, from front left, Elke Plaxton, of Liberty; Lynne Hatch, of Covington; Jeanne Meringer, of Mansfield (obscured); Art Plaxton, Elke’s husband; and Jim Truax, of Wellsboro. Mallow gets its “cheeses” nickname thanks to the shape of its seed pod, which resembles a tiny wheel of cheese. The plant also has white or pale pink flowers with pink veins.
Want lettuce? You won't find it.
Instead, there's garlic mustard, wood sorrel, chickweed, plantain and a host of other plants that more often are considered weeds.
In Brion's opinion, though, they are just misunderstood - and underused - edible wild plants.
"I often don't go to the grocery store because I have my vegetables right here," says Brion, a Netherlands native who lives in Liberty with her husband, Scott.
On the last Saturday of every month, Brion welcomes to her farm anyone interested in learning about edible wild plants, such as how to identify them, when to harvest them and how to prepare them. The workshops cost $25 and include a tour of her garden, fields and stream bank.
After the tour, attendees are instructed in proper harvesting techniques and go out to gather ingredients. They then help prepare the plants and cook a simple meal. After that, it's lunchtime.
"You can find many edible wild plants close to home and you don't need to be in survival mode to enjoy them," Brion, 38, said. You can "use them like you would regular vegetables."
She hopes to share her knowledge and encourages people "to become more aware of all the great free food they have growing in their yards and lawns and to not be so quick to use herbicides."
On June 4, seven people attended a workshop rescheduled from the previous Saturday. With a leaflet in hand, the group traipsed after Brion in search of 15 plants, including jewelweed, burdock and stinging nettle.
Despite its ominous name, stinging nettle is a nutrient-rich edible plant - provided that you pick the right parts and prepare it the right way.
"The older leaves are covered with tiny hairs and most of them will sting" if they come in contact with skin, Brion said.
The hairs are like needles that inject a combination of serotonin, histamine and formic acid. Extracts of the plant have been used to treat arthritis and other medical woes.
Stinging nettle harvesters should wear gloves to pick the leaves, then boil them for two minutes. The water bath removes the chemicals that cause the sting.
"I was surprised to find out that people around here are very familiar with the dandelion green salad but were unaware of the edibility of stinging nettles," Brion said. "In the Netherlands, people are more familiar with stinging nettle soup and a little less with dandelion leaves."
During the most recent workshop, she made stinging nettle quiche, a recipe she developed on her own.
"I'm very proud of it," she said. "When I make it, it never lasts longer than half a day."
The recipe involves egg, cheese, bacon, milk, onion, pie or pastry dough, a few other ingredients and, of course, boiled and rinsed nettle leaves.
Full instructions and photographs can be found on Brion's website, www.foragingfoodie.net.
Stinging nettle is a North American native plant, but some edible plants are considered invasive species. For instance, Japanese knotweed is on the list of the world's 100 worst invasive plants. It also tastes like rhubarb.
Garlic mustard arrived in North America in the late 1800s from Europe. Settlers brought it as a source of food and medicine and to prevent soil erosion.
It spreads quickly and also is considered an invasive species. During its first year, the plant grows low to the ground and has a bitter taste. It grows higher during its second year and sports heart-shaped, deeply veined leaves.
"The best thing to do with it is eat it," Brion said. "I make a pesto with it."
It also can be eaten raw or cooked and added to soups. Mixing its tap root with vinegar produces a horseradish-like flavor.
"You didn't know you had this many edible plants, did you?" one workshop attendee asked another.
"No. I thought they were all weeds," replied the other.
Just as children here might eat wild strawberries and raspberries, Brion and her childhood friends enjoyed some edible plants in the Netherlands.
"There were big rosehips - must have been the rugosa rosa - the white flowers of the stinging nettle - Lamium album. I have not found these here yet. We'd eat the tiny leaves of a shrub that looks like barberry, but I don't know what it was exactly and, of course, raspberries, blackberries and dandelion flower petals and leaves," she said. "Unfortunately, edible wild plants were not a part of our daily diet."
Instead, they "were and are used much the same way as here, by enthusiasts and restaurants that want to offer special foods."
Judging by the reactions of the seven who ate the wild plant meal, there's a market for wild foods.
As the cooking began, an appetizing aroma filled the kitchen.
While some helpers peeled and chopped cattail tubers or washed milkweed shoots, others poured glasses of black locust lemonade, made from the tree's flowers.
"Every part of the black locust is poisonous, except for the flowers," Brion said.
The flowers, which bloom only for 10 to 15 days, need to be debugged after picking. They can be used to make cordials or other beverages such as lemonade, added to salads or used as a garnish.
Brion also measured dried dandelion root and brewed a hot tea.
"It is very earthy," she said, "but it is my favorite hot drink."
She offered sweet flag candy, made from a tall perennial plant that grows in wetlands. Its leaf and aromatic root have been used in homeopathic medicines and, according to Brion, "it was the main ingredient for the original Dr. Pepper."
Steamed cattails was the first dish on the table. Two ingredients - cattail shoots and melted butter - and just a few minutes of cooking time resulted in a platter that was devoured quickly. Raw cattails taste similar to cucumbers. Cooked, they resemble white asparagus but with a taste all their own.
"It makes you look at things a lot differently. You realize, 'I can have that for dinner,' " Jeanne Meringer, of Mansfield, said of the workshop and tour. "I'm interested in finding out what's free to eat, and I like learning from a person."
Study and stalk
Brion keeps her workshops casual yet engaging. She is happy to share a wealth of information about plants and she hopes to one day produce entertaining cooking videos and post them on her website.
About four years ago, she began studying herbs, alternative medicine and edible wild plants in earnest. She took an online herb course created by Michael Tierra, an author, herbalist and acupuncturist who helped found the American Herbalists Guild.
"One of the first assignments was to identify and use all edible wild plants in my area," she said. "I've learned everything I know from other foragers, books, my walks and experimenting."
She urges newcomers with an interest in edible wild plants to "check with a local expert whether a plant is edible or not. If you can't, read all about it and compare photographs in combination with botanical drawings to the plant you're looking to try and study their poisonous look-alikes so you can tell them apart.
"What also helps to gain confidence is to stalk a plant for a while and see it throughout its life cycle," she added.
Art Plaxton, of Liberty, took one of Brion's classes last year.
"He got me interested," said his wife, Elke.
In May 2010, Brion taught a non-credit course through the North Campus of Pennsylvania College of Technology. Her weekend tours and workshops are not affiliated with the college.
"I've learned a lot," said Susie Brion, of Liberty. "I pull weeds. My daughter-in-law eats them." Susie's son, Scott, is Bibi's husband.
Some of the wild plants in Bibi's garden also can be found in specialty grocery stores such as Wegmans. One of these is the Jerusalem artichoke, which is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem. It actually is a species of sunflower and can grow up to 10 feet tall.
"It's a favorite tuber in fancy restaurants in New York," she said. "We (her family) really love them. We eat (the root) raw or bake, steam or fry it."
The roots contain inulin, "a fiber that promotes the metabolism of fat and balances cholesterol," Brion said.
She prepared a Jerusalem artichoke mousse pie for the June workshop attendees, who deemed it "wonderful" and "delicious."
Many wild plants are crammed with valuable vitamins and minerals and "deserve a spot in the kitchen garden."
"To me, it just seems so silly to buy spinach and kale that had to be brought in from who knows where, while the lamb's quarters and stinging nettles that, if you're lucky, grow in your yard (and) are much more nutritious and free," she said.
Though some people cling to the convenience of a grocery store produce section, Brion suggests they take a second look at their own gardens and lawns.
"If you can get what you want when you want at the store, there is no real need to explore other food options," she said, "and when you don't explore, how will you know what you're missing out on?"