July 20, 2012

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Hillbilly Botonist

In the Missouri Ozarks, hills and hollows grow into each other. And for a moment one evening, at the intersection of two small ridge-top highways, they merge as time pauses.

That quiet and those hills spread over the 50,000 square miles known as the Ozark Highland, the only extended highland found between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. The region’s dense topography and remoteness allowed the Ozarks, over half of which lie in Missouri, to develop a rich ecology as well as a distinctive culture.

Twice in geologic history, the Ozarks were uplifted into a plateau, which prevented encroaching seas from submerging the region for its last 245 million years. Glaciers did not proceed far enough south to smooth over its topography, denude its land, or layer it with till. The Ozarks thus became a refuge island of plant communities pushed out of surrounding areas. Consequently, its flora is the most diverse, endemic, and species-rich of Missouri.

This flora flowered in Ozarks culture in various forms. Chicory coffee, prickly pearfruit syrup, Indian lemonade (from sumac berries), poke artichoke dip, and spice bush-flavored carrot cake were some of the Ozark wild-edible plant dishes Pat French brought for tasting at an Ozark wild edibles lecture she gave last summer. The chicory coffee grounds, light brown and made from dried and ground chicory root, were sweet with a slightly bitter aftertaste. The electric purple prickly pear fruit syrup tasted unexpectedly like honey, though less sweet.

Pat lives in northern Arkansas just south of the Missouri border and has spent a lifetimein the Ozarks. At 54 and retired from the Missouri Department of Conservation, she lectures on Ozarks wild edible flora: how to prepare and identify certain plants and when and where to harvest them. She calls herself a “hillbilly botanist,” having grown up using Ozark plants for food and medicine. “There are botanists and those that know a lot about plants, and I very much respect them,” she says. “They study them, they know all about their characteristics and taxonomy, but sometimes if you get them out in the woods, they’re not necessarily going to know which plants you can eat or what you can use them for.”

Pat grew up in the Irish Wilderness, a 16,500-acre area deep in the Missouri Ozarks in which Bishop John Hogan founded a settlement for Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s.

He wrote then of the area: “Nowhere could the human soul so profoundly worship, as in the depths of that leafy forest, beneath the swaying branches of the lofty oaks and pines, where solitude and the heart of man united in praise and wonder of the Great Creator.”

“We rarely bought food,” Pat says, recalling her time as a child in that wilderness in the early ’60s. Her second grade class was the last in its one-room stone schoolhouse. When the school, which still stands today, closed, she and her classmates were bussed to a small town thirty miles away where they were known as “the wilderness kids,” Pat says.

Her mother’s squirrel-hunting, fishing, wild plant-harvesting, and traipsing-through-the woods lifestyle was not always understood by Pat as a child. But in her thirties, a deep respect for it emerged and has grown into a passion. She honors her mother and grandmother, who passed on to her, along with some Cherokee blood, an intimate relationship with the land.

At Pat’s 36-acre bluff-top Ozarks home, plants native and exotic spread out from her doorway. Blackberry, elderberry, bittersweet, beauty berry, blue false indigo, black and blue sage, hollyhocks, horseradish, stevia, Solomon’s seal, and wild petunias are a few that inhabit the gardens layering up a path leading to an enclosed vegetable garden. Along the path, Pat points out a type of Desmodium plant. “When I was growing up my mom would make tea out of that for stomach cramps,” she says.

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