Understanding Wild Herbs and Edibles

Darryl Patton, The Southern Herbalist, joined us for the very first Homesteaders of America Conference in 2017. This year, we’re bringing that lecture, Understanding Wild Herbs and Edibles, out of the HOA vault and sharing it with you! Learn all about wild herbs and edibles from this amazing Master Herbalist.

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Understanding Wild Herbs & Edibles Transcript

My name is Darryl Patton. I go by the moniker The Southern Herbalist and I’ve been working with medicinal plants for about 32 years now. 

I was fortunate to study with an old man named Tommy Bass who gathered medicinal plants for 81 years in the southern Appalachians and was an amazing resource for medicinal plants. My passion in life is to pass this knowledge down to you because there are a lot of herb stores (nothing wrong with them), a lot of herbalists (nothing wrong with them) but they’re not a lot of herbalists who know the plants out where God has put them. 

I believe that’s important if you want to be an herbalist or a homesteader who uses wild herbs to know the plants. Because what happens if the North Koreans nuke us? You’re not going to have an herb store. What happens if health care gets too expensive? Can’t afford it? You have the woods.  

Tommy was born in 1908 into a sharecropper family and, as he often told me, if there had been welfare back then they’d have had to borrow money to get on it. They were that dirt poor and so for them going to the woods or the fields was not a trip you went on to go get something special. It was if you needed yellow dock go get some yellow dock and you went to where the yellow dock was. There was nothing special about it. It was just common, everyday knowledge among the people of that day. 

You may have ever eaten poke salads but if you go back a couple of generations everybody ate poke salad. We have become afraid of nature. In my opinion, we’re afraid to go out and forage plants because people think that they’ll poison themselves. Odds are extremely low that you will. There are about nine cases a year of poisoning from foraging that are serious enough to require hospitalization. Seven are by mushrooms. Two are by plants. Usually it’s poke salad or they didn’t wash the plant to remove the phytolactotoxins and they got real sick, went to the hospital, and wish they had never eaten it (and probably will never eat it again.) 

But it’s actually very safe to gather wild foods. By incorporating wild foods into your diet you’re doing two things: You’re adding a lot of variety to your diet because many of these wild foods are very nutritious. They’re very edible and tasty. They’re not just green tasting and they’re also extremely rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that can heal you. 

Everybody who has grown a garden and planted tomatoes knows what a tomato plant looks like. The very instant you see it, with or without tomatoes on it. The reason you know a tomato plant when you see it is for one simple reason. You know it because it fills your belly and makes your taste buds happy. It’s because you have a use for it. That’s why you know a tomato plant when you see it. 

However if you take a look at a little vine that grows all over the place, called cross vine, you have no use for it so you have no reason to really remember it easily once you find out. You don’t think, “Hey, I can use this with somebody in my family who has had chemo or radiation who has no energy. This will give them energy in about three or four days and they can get back up and walking again. You have a reason to store it in your subconscious mind and bring that information back. 

I have an herb school where I teach herbal medicine. We use math all of the time when doing tincture percolations and calculations. When I was in high school I did not like math. I couldn’t tell you what kind of algebra I took in 9th grade math because I was just chasing a girl. That’s only reason I took that class. However, if you ask me about geography, history, or government, topics I absolutely love, I can throw you facts out all day long because I value that knowledge and have a reason to be able to pull it back out. But that algebra? I just didn’t have a reason to bring it back out. 

If you have a kid that’s got the croup and learn that chestnut leaves from a Chinese chestnut or an American chestnut will help with that croup you will realize that is something useful to know and will also learn  what it looks when going outside. 

So my goal in teaching wild herbs is to teach you how to value them. It’s not very hard to work with them so I wanted to talk about a few wild herbs. Then I’m going to make some wild food pancakes that are really good. 

3 Criteria for Using Wild Herbs

When I first was learning herbalism I’d go up to old Tommy Bass’s house with a big old sack of plants. He would identify them for me. Then as time went by I started learning how to experiment and developed some rules that I teach which apply to both herbal medicine and also to wild foods. 

Easy to Identify

When it comes to wild herbs for food or medicine the plant needs to be easy enough to identify so you feel safe picking it. Everybody’s scared to death they’re going to poison themselves, which is not going to happen. 

High in Calories

The plant also needs to provide more calories than it takes to get something out of it. You’ll see a thick wild food book with 900 plants and 880 of them you’ll spend a thousand calories to gain 50 calories. However for things like acorns and yellow dock you can gather in a short period of time and get tons and tons of calories. Another one of my rules is that they are easy to store and will last all winter until the next harvest comes in. If it’s going to go bad on you it’s not worth gathering. When you learn some of these rules a whole world opens up to you.

Good Flavor

When you use wild herbs as food you want them to either taste good on their own or can be utilized in dishes that will make them taste good.

Once you learn a few of those rules and apply them it’s very easy to you know wouldn’t go hungry if the world came to an end because you know too many plants. 

A Word About Mushrooms

Back in the mid-1980s all the survival books really took off after Tom Brown got on the Tonight Show, which was the Facebook of the day. If you got on the Tonight Show that wrote your ticket. After that, everything was about hunting, trapping, and fishing. But there was very little on wild herbs. 

And don’t EVER touch a mushroom you’ll poison yourself looking at them. There was no food value in them and you’re liable to poison yourself. It was taught that there was no medicinal value in them so stay away from them.  The reason for this is because people had these blinders on about mushrooms, especially if your ancestors were from England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales. They were a mushroom phobic culture. Mushrooms were associated with witches. Old fairy tales show a big old toadstool, which was an Amanita Muscaria. (They’ve got red with the freckles on it and are a very good medicinal mushroom by the way. With one dose of it you can knock sciatica out completely. They are also edible if you peel the cap and cook it right, hallucinogenic if you want to get high on it.) People then couldn’t read or write and would teach their kids that if you get near that mushroom that witch is going to jump out grind your bones into flour and bake you in an oven. They were taught these things to keep them safe but we brought that mushroom phobia over with us. So unless you’re from France, Germany or some other places where they liked mushrooms we brought that unfounded fear.

Harvesting herbs

9 Wild Herbs You Should Learn

Cross Vine

In April, as you drive down the road, you’re going to see this beautiful semi-evergreen vine. It will have clusters of red blooms that look like tubes with yellow lips. That is cross vine. 

I had a lady that contacted me about her husband who had chemo and radiation and she asked, “What can you do for him? All he does is sit in his easy chair because he has no energy.” I sent some of the cross vine up and about a week later I had an email from her saying, “Thank you for giving me my husband back. He’s out in the garden.” I ran into him a few months later and he said “I drank about half a cup a day, good to go.” 

Back in the 30’s and 40’s when people still plowed with horses and mules they had a condition called “hide bound.” Basically, they worked them to death. So the kidneys would shut down, toxins would build up, the horse would lose its hair, flesh would stick to the bone, and the animal was on its way out. So they would give them an herb called pipsissewa or rat’s vein which opened up and flushed toxins out through the kidneys and they’d give them cross vine for energy. Three days later the horse would be plowing again.

So Tommy was smart and figured, “Well if it’s good for a horse, it’s good for man.” And, in general, except for cats which are wonky about medicines of any sort, you can go by body weight with animals, kids, and adults. So he would start using for people and realize three or four days later they had more stamina and energy. They may not want to run a marathon, but would feel better. 

A few years back, a graduate student from a huge naturopathic university out west came down and I showed him crossvine. He took some back with him and received permission to do gas and liquid chromatography on it in the lab and discovered it contained a chemical called reserpine. Reserpine is also present in Rauwolfia from India but it’s a very toxic medicine used for kidney ailments and is an antipsychotic. Crossvine contains trace amounts, just enough for the body to stimulate healing. 

For example, if you are trotting down the trail scared to death that something’s going to jump out and you look down and see a rattlesnake what’s the first thing that you do? Scream? No. Before that you immediately secrete a chemical called adrenaline. Every ambulance and ER in the country has adrenaline as a prescription controlled medicine also known as epinephrine that is your fight or flight syndrome. 

You can’t tell your body to secrete adrenaline. It doesn’t work that way. You have that mind-body connection that your sympathetic nervous system, your autonomic nervousness, immediately makes medicine. Your body has that ability to make its own medicine. Sometimes all it needs is that tiny little stimulus. So you give those little trace elements of some of these things and it’ll achieve that purpose.

Rabbit Tobacco

Next, let’s talk about rabbit tobacco, also known as “life everlasting” or “cudweed.”  It’s a wonderful plant. Different species in this genus grow from Florida to Canada and west to California. It’s common everywhere. If you have dry, stuffy sinuses you can either smoke it or boil it and inhale the steam. But blow the smoke out your sinuses and it will temporarily shrink the mucous tissue down and open your sinuses back up. If you take that same smoke and inhale it into your lungs it will cause a reflexive spasmodic action of the lungs. It’s very good for lung conditions. If you use it in a liquid form it does not cause that spasmodic action. Instead, it acts as an expectorant but it also shuts off the production of mucus. When you talk about drying herbs or herbs that dry the lungs they don’t necessarily (in most cases) dry them like a sponge. Rather, they shut off the production of more mucus so as you get the phlegm up and out you’re going to not produce more mucus. 

Rabbit tobacco is of my favorite respiratory antivirals. It’s very high in what are called terpenes- monoterpenes, diatropine, sesquiterpenes, triterpenes. These are very powerful antivirals specifically for respiratory viruses. It has an affinity for respiratory viruses such as colds, flus, viral pneumonia. I wouldn’t use it necessarily it for shingles or asthma because you don’t want to start spasming in the lungs.

In the spring and summer most people can’t identify because it blends in with everything. The top of the leaves will be green and underneath will be a silvery white. In the fall, they mature from the base up. They start to turn brown on top white on the bottom. That’s when you start harvesting rabbit tobacco because that’s when the terpene contents are at their highest.

Rabbit tobacco is also good for poison ivy or poison oak salve, as well as good for healing wounds. 

Solomon’s Seal 

In the late middle ages Gerard wrote that Solomon’s Seal is most excellent for strong-willed women who run into their husband’s fists. In other words, it was good for the bruising when you got soft. It was mainly used for women who had babies and their pelvic region had been stretched and the tendons and ligaments were stretched, torn, and bruised. It heals them and brings them back into condition. I use it with anybody that’s got any kind of sports type injury or torn ligaments and tendons. You can use it internally as a tincture and externally in a salve form and it will actually take a lot of pain out. It’s very good stuff. The root tastes like a cucumber so you can eat it if you so desire. Don’t eat lots because it’ll make you throw a kidney stone, but it’s a really good medicinal medicinal plant. I use it in some cough medicines and people use it for arthritis as well because it lubricates the joints and lubricates the lungs. 

Yellow Root 

Yellow Root is a plant that reminds me of Tommy Bass because it’s one of the first wild herbs he taught me. It’s also known as shrub yellow root because the further north you go out of Alabama and you hit Tennessee where they call goldenseal “yellow root.” Then you’ve got Barberry, Gold Thread out west, Oregon Grape, and Algerita. So common names will get you in trouble sometimes. You actually harvest the stems because they’re as medicinal as the roots and they don’t kill the plant. As long as you leave the root in the ground the plant will keep on spreading. If you take that scrape it it’ll be a yellowish-green color, especially when it’s fresh you can smell the scent of berberine in it. 

Tommy Bass got one visit from the FDA in his whole 81 years of doing this. I don’t know who did it but somebody called the Memphis office and said this man’s making claims for yellow root that it will cure stomach ulcers and cancer. 

A lady from the Memphis office came down. She said, “Mr. Bass, we heard this rumor that you’re claiming that yellow root will cure stomach ulcers.” And he looked and said, “Why yes ma’am, it will. It’ll kill them graveyard dead.” And she said, “You can’t say that. That’s a new claim.” He said, “Well ma’am, I’ve been doing this for 77 years and it’ll kill a graveyard dead.” She never came back. They dropped it. You know, it’s an old guy doing this stuff, didn’t hurt anything.

Three years later, Dr. James Duke comes along. He grew up in Birmingham and knew Tommy. His job was working with the government looking for medicinal wild herbs to study. He said, “Wait a minute. What causes stomach ulcers?” You used to think of drinking, and all that that can play a factor, but many stomach ulcers are caused by the h. pylori bacteria (helicobacter pylori bacteria). And his testing found there was a chemical that actually killed that bacteria. Guess what it’s called? 


Therefore yellow root would cure a stomach ulcer. Tommy didn’t know what  berberine was before he died but he knew from 81 years of doing it, his grandparents doing it, everybody in the south knowing yellow root would cure stomach ulcers. It will knock out a mouth ulcer canker sore. 

Yellow root is a wonderful liver herb. It’s great for the liver and gallbladder and good in salves. It heals and keeps wounds from being infected. And, believe it or not, it makes really good wine. As a bitter you would think it’d be bitter but it’s actually sweet. 

[If the bitter flavor makes it unpalatable, try to] grind yellow root up with the berberine content and mix it with mayonnaise. That is the critical ingredient. And the reason it’s critical was because it got that nasty tasting bitter stuff down your throat before you realize how nasty bitter tasting it was.


Chaga grows on yellow birch trees in the South. If you can find a white birch that’s the main one it grows on up North. Down South you have to be up in the mountains to find yellow birch and then it’s cool enough to let Chaga grow.  

Chaga is one of my favorite medicinal fungi when I work with people with cancer. This is one that all go on because it is a what you call a broad spectrum anti-cancer herb. 

If you’re familiar with the Russian dissident writer and doctor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he wrote The Gulag Archipelago.  He also wrote one called Cancer Ward. What happened was every few years the Soviets would ship him off to Siberia to shut him up and then they’d finally let him come back because of his fame. They didn’t put political prisoners in cells. They put them in prison camps. Siberia was your prison. I mean you were ten thousand miles from nowhere. If you got out, the villagers would hunt you down and kill you for the bounties. You were stuck. So they had these huge prison camps. It was like a city and you have every disease that pops up in a city that size. He had a bout with cancer and went into the village to look for black market medicine for cancer and could not find anybody with cancer. He said it was so low statistically as to almost be non-existent. He got to thinking well what in the world are they all doing the same? What are they doing the same ten thousand miles from nowhere? You couldn’t get coffee unless you were rich or the prison commander so all of the people in the Soviet system that were not in prison were drinking this beverage just like the natives did as a hot coffee substitute. If you’re not a coffee connoisseur you can convince yourself it tastes like coffee. It was that water decoction keeping them from getting cancer so eventually it became a prescription medicine for cancer in the Soviet Union.

What I do with Chaga is make a double extract which is alcohol and water-based because some of the chemicals are alcohol-soluble, some are water-soluble and then you combine the two. 

This causes a couple of things to happen. 

First, it has a thing called apoptosis. Apoptosis means every cell in your body is programmed to die at some point in time. It doesn’t live forever and it’s replaced. Cancer cells are just another living cell. They are programmed. Eventually they die and are replaced with more cancerous cells. It beats up the process of cancerous cells. It does not touch a healthy cell and there are absolutely no side effects. (Well, the only potential side effect of chaga is it also helps regulate blood sugar levels but I’ve never heard of any problems with it.) But it causes those cancer cells to speed up and die and not be replaced. 

It also has what’s called an anti-angiogenesis effect.  “Anti” – against; “angioes” –  the vessels; “genesis” – beginning. It shrinks and shrivels up those blood vessels leading to the cancer cells. And just like any living cell cancer cells need water, they need food, they need nutrition, or they die. Chaga does not touch healthy cells.

It’s full of different chemicals including superoxide dismutase, all the terpenes, beta glucans, betulanic acid. By the way, birch trees themselves are very good for cancer from the betulic acid in it.

Hen of the  Woods (Maitake)

Maitake is technically a fungus, not a mushroom but we call them all mushrooms. You should be fairly familiar with Hen of the Woods. In Japan it was known as one of the laughing mushrooms because it was so rare and so expensive that if a peasant found it you laugh because it was worth its weight in silver. 

Hen of the Woods is excellent for regulating blood sugar levels. It’s an immunomodulator and what that means is it resets your immune system so that your body’s not fighting against itself. It fights against what’s going wrong with your immune system. For example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis you don’t use things like elderberry. Elderberry is an immune stimulant. It’ll make it worse if you use too much of it. You can use things like echinacea which people think is an immune stimulant when it’s actually an immunomodulator that the government recognizes it for the treatment of ebola. They recognize it as an immunomodulator but there’s a lot of mythology surrounding it. Most of these medicinal mushrooms, not all but most of them, are actually immunomodulators. They’ll give you a strong immune system if you need it. They will dampen it down to where it needs to be if it’s too strong in fighting your body. 

Don’t confuse it with Chicken of the Woods which is orange and yellow and tastes like chicken. Chicken of the Woods is great but it’s an antibiotic. It is not an immunomodulator per se. Primarily, it’s really good to eat and much more common than Hen of the Woods. 

Hen of the Woods grows at the base of white oak trees mainly. Find a big old white oak and look at the base of it. They’re hard to find in Alabama, not real common but it’s an excellent medicinal mushroom. One of the best eating fungi that you’ll ever have. I love it better than morels by a long shot. They are excellent to cook with. You can actually powder it  and use it for soup stock. A lot of people will take the petals, that’s what they eat, but if you take that big thick core that everybody throws out you can actually either dry it and powder it and use it for soup stock or slice it real thin and make beef jerky. It tastes like beef jerky. 

Again I do a double extract when I’m making medicine with Hen of the Woods. 

Wild Ginger

There are two families that wild ginger comes in. One is asarum and the other is hexastylus. Hexastylus tastes better than the official wild ginger and makes a very good medicine.

Wild Ginger works in the same way that you use commercial ginger. Use it for nausea. It heats the body from the core out. It’s a good liver herb and good heart medication. The root smells wonderful. That’s where you think root beer. You can take Wild Ginger and make syrup with it then thicken that syrup and use it as a glaze on ham and step back, as they say in south, slap your mama. It is that good! In fact, I’ve got a class where I teach them how to make shag bark hickory balls and hard candies with wild ginger. It’s a really great antiviral. By the way, don’t give this to young kids who can’t control their core body temperature or somebody who is old and frail because it’ll cause seizures. They can’t stand that body heating up and, little kids especially, they’ll have what are called febrile seizures. I don’t know what the technical term is for old folk seizures. I always call them geriatric seizures. Some of you can have somebody 80 years old that can do a good diaphoretic and sweat no problem but then you may have somebody 65 that’s been in bad health for a long time. They’re frail and weak and you give them any diaphoretic herb it’ll make them have seizures potentially.

Wild Yam 

Wild yam is the family where the original birth control pills came from but what is so neat about this is in the 1800’s they had a condition called bilious colic. They thought it was severe cramping of the intestines rising out of the liver and gallbladder but nowadays we call that irritable bowel syndrome. They did have irritable bowel syndrome back then they just called it bilious colic. They used the root or the rhizome of Wild Yam for bilious colic. It acts as antihistamine to the intestinal tract. You take a tablespoon of this to about a cup of water, boil it and it makes a slimy reddish looking liquid. Take a spoonful every couple of hours. After a few hours it just knocks the spasming out completely. It’s extremely effective and works really well. 

Now Tommy Bass knew it even more so as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis which is an interesting thing. It works really well for arthritis but nobody ever uses it for that. I use it in some of my formulas for that and it works well.

Yellow Dock 

Remember, one of the things when it comes to doing wild foods is it needs to be able to be tasty by itself or be made to taste tasty. Well, one of the wild herbs that grows all over the place and can provide more calories than are spent harvesting it is yellow dock. It’s also called curly dock. The root and actually it’s in the skin sap too because of its ability to heal wounds. 

Yellow Dock is very high in iron. In fact, farmers in the 1800’s would put old horse shoes and nails around it the year before they dug it so that it would absorb the iron as it leached out to make it even better and then they would use it for medicine. When Tommy Bass’ moved in 1912, his first meal where they stopped at a creek was some fat back with yellow dark leaves as a green. You think of it like spinach or turnip greens. It’s actually in the winter time or in the early spring that it’s quite tasty. It’s not bitter at all. In the late spring or early summer it sends up a stalk with greenish-looking seed cases on it turn brown. Once they turn brown you’ll see fields of these brown stalks standing up. 

Yellow Dock is actually in the buckwheat family. So you can harvest their seeds and make pancakes, crackers, or bread with them. It tastes like buckwheat pancakes.The nice thing I like about it is the speed at which you can harvest it. I harvested 30 gallons a couple of months ago. It took me an hour and 10 minutes to snap the stalks, throw them in the back of the truck, drive home and strip them off. I got 30 gallons of seed and you use the entire husk. You grind it all up together. I just put it in my Vitamix blender and just grind it down as needed.  There are no oils in it so you can just leave it all year and it won’t go rancid like acorn flour will. So you substitute about a third of your mix when you’re making pancakes or waffles with Yellow Dock. There is no gluten in it so it won’t rise if you do too much.

Watch the video to see Darryl fry up a batch of Yellow Dock pancakes and answer questions from the audience!

Learn about wild herbs and edibles from Master Herbalist Darryl Patton at the first Homesteaders of America Conference in 2017.
Learn about wild herbs and edibles from Master Herbalist Darryl Patton at the first Homesteaders of America Conference in 2017.