Let’s face it, many of us do a lot of driving. Kids that are back in school need to be dropped off and picked up. There is shopping to be done as you stock up on winter essentials and perhaps pick up a few gifts. There are leaf-peeping outings and traveling for fall holidays. You’re bound to be on the road at some point this season, so why not pull double duty and do a little roadside foraging?
I have assembled a list of five easy-to-spot-and-identify plants that even those with a lead foot can spot at a glance. Each has easily-harvested fruit that doesn’t take more than a few minutes to pick up so you can stop any time, even if you’re headed to work. So grab a basket and buckle up as we do a bit of roadside foraging this fall season.
I know of four apple trees that drop apples onto the road on my way to and from work. Big red ones, little yellow ones, a green one here and there—all within a few miles of each other. Apples are unique in this way as there are so many varieties out there, added to the fact that if you plant an apple seed you just don’t know what you are going to get. This is because apples don’t “true breed.” You may have a favorite variety and plant the seed from that apple but you simply won’t get that apple to grow. Why the apple does this is still up for debate, but hey, who doesn’t like a happy surprise?
Now, crab apples are the only apples native to North America, but with humanity’s love of apples, many more varieties have been found in woodlots or next to old farmsteads. This time of year, look for loaded trees and many apples littering the ground or even the road. Just make sure if you are harvesting that either the land is public land or you have permission from the land owner to do so. This is also a good time to remind you that you should check that anything you harvest hasn’t been sprayed with anything you wouldn’t like to eat.
The apples you will likely find while roadside foraging will not be big beautiful Red Delicious, but they may certainly taste a lot better. Perhaps use these for homemade applesauce, or apple butter, or in pies or tarts. Maybe dry them for apple chips in the winter. Apples are extremely versatile, so get creative.
For me, black walnuts are synonymous with the fall season. Mostly, because of the hours I would spend collecting them off the ground so my grandmother wouldn’t roll an ankle as she strolled along in her backyard. My grandmother would get a clean yard, and I would get ice cream toppings for a year.
Walnuts and hickories were staple winter food sources for Native Americans due to their high fat content and long shelflife. There is archaeological evidence that early natives actually cultivated orchards of walnut trees, even going so far as to build irrigation systems for their orchards which can still be seen today. Southwestern Ohio (where I’m from) has a lot of these “forts” as White settlers called them, that may have actually been locks and dams for these irrigation systems. But don’t just collect for the nuts, the greenish-yellow hulls are part of the fun!
Black walnut hulls, as anyone who has gotten that tar-like gunk on them can attest, is a very good dye. In fact, it was used to make ink in the colonial era, as well as a dye for fabrics and yarn. I even have a shirt I tie-dyed with walnuts (completely on purpose)! A little-known fact about walnut hulls is that they actually smell like citrus. Don’t believe me? Go put one next to your nose (but not too close) and give it a sniff!
When driving along the road, look for large, tall trees with many small leaflets that should be starting to turn yellow at this time of year. But the easiest way to find a walnut tree is just to run over the fruits themselves.
For a few weeks at the beginning of fall, look for these little yellow-green fruits called pawpaws… or Ozark bananas, hillbilly mangoes, Quakers’ delight… whatever you want to call them, do look for these uncommon gems while roadside foraging in the fall.
Pawpaws are “colonial,” so where you find one, you will probably find several. Look for a patch of short undergrowth trees with huge leaves that give the plants a distinct, almost wilted, look to them. Once you have pulled over, look for this banana cousin on the ground underneath the tree as they fall off when ripe. In a few short minutes, you can fill a grocery bag full and continue on your merry way.
Pawpaws do not have a long shelf life, though, so if you want to keep them for any length of time, scraping the pulp out of the skins and freezing is the best option. They can then be substituted in any recipe that you would normally use bananas in a similar ratio. It will be a fun fall twist on tired old banana breads and puddings.
Persimmons are my favorite fall forage on this list. I have a few trees around town that I frequent every year. Persimmons are a lot like apples in that they were probably planted by someone back in the day. So once again, make sure you have “persimmon permission” if your quarry is on someone’s private property.
As for identification, this time of the year, the persimmons will be orange and falling on the ground when ripe so look for the orange fruits with more strewn about the ground. I tend to pick up the ones I find on the ground as biting into an unripe persimmon is not an experience one tends to try repeating (although it is fun to watch it happen to other people).
Like pawpaws, your persimmons won’t last very long without preparation, so I recommend that you turn your harvest into preserves, jams, or jellies. You can enjoy it spread over warm toast as you sit by the fire this winter. You can even save the seeds to grow your own persimmons.
Now I had to throw in an oddball here. But let me first clarify that this is in no way related to poison sumac which, as the name implies, you shouldn’t be eating. Staghorn Sumac is a small understory tree with unique fuzzy branches, similar to the velvet of a deer, hence its name. The parts I harvest are the red berry “spikes” that grow from the end of the branches which make them so easy to spot from the road.
These berries are often a “last resort” food for birds and other wildlife, as there are other things they would much rather be eating. You can often find the berry spikes long into winter because wildlife just won’t eat them if there are other options around. Which begs the question, why put it on the list?
The berries, when eaten by themselves, have a “salt and vinegar” taste to them making for an excellent trail nibble, but the magic happens when you bring the spikes home. That is because you can turn it into a pseudo “pink lemonade” that will leave your friends scratching their heads when you tell them that there isn’t a single lemon in it. All you need is a couple of large spikes cut from the tree. Here is the recipe:
- 1 cup (about one large spike or several small ones) of sumac berries
- 4 cups of water
- Sweetener to taste
Clean and remove the berries from the branch and remove any leaves, bugs or debris. Put the berries in a large pitcher or bowl and add the water. Crush the berries with wooden spoon or mash in your hands if they are clean. Let the crushed berries steep in the water overnight. Strain, sweeten to taste, and serve.
The beverage tastes very similar to lemonade and the red berries give it a pink color that could fool your dinner guests into really thinking they are drinking homemade pink lemonade.
Heading for Home
The kids still need to be picked up, grocery shopping still needs to be done, and that fall foliage isn’t going to “peep” itself, so why not do some easy foraging from the road? From fresh apples to pink “lemonade”, fall is the ideal time to start storing up for winter. So the next time you are out and about, take along a roadside foraging basket and see if you can fill it up on the way!