A wild salad bowl

Published 10:08 pm Tuesday, April 21, 2015

At Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve on Saturday, forager Vickie Shufer, center, hands David Zayas and Betty Hart some wild food to sample.

At Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve on Saturday, forager Vickie Shufer, center, hands David Zayas and Betty Hart some wild food to sample.

When Vickie Shufer wants to makes a salad, she ventures into the woods.

Last weekend, the Virginia Beach-based naturalist, forager, herbalist and author led a small group on the Spring Greens Tasting Tour at the Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve.

David Zayas, one participant, said he volunteers at the preserve and lives around the corner.

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Betty and Lee Hart are from Suffolk. “Betty’s a member, and I’m just enjoying this day,” said Lee Hart.

Setting out around the Lake Ballard shoreline, Shufer revealed that many of the “weeds” people are so keen to spray dead with herbicides are actually quite tasty.

“Spring is when you get your greens,” she explained. “Greens are vitamins.”

Dandelions are one of the first edibles Shufer spots. Traditionally they’ve been used for tea or wine, but Shufer shows the leaves are a treat for the taste buds, too.

“All parts of the dandelion are edible,” she says.

A process repeated with each spring green she chances across, Shufer picks some leaves and offers them to her students.

The happy taste-testers discuss the effects on their palettes like they’re tasting wine: bitter, astringent, sweet, pungent.

“It’s pleasant-tasting,” Shufer says after proffering some delicate briar shoots. “You can get a lot in a short period of time,” she adds, stashing handfuls in a plastic bag.

Shufer’s interest in the outdoors started on the Kentucky tobacco farm she was raised on. (“People ask me, ‘Do you ever practice survival?’ I say, ‘I survived,’” she jokes.)

She obtained a Bachelor of Science in outdoor recreation in 1979, and a Master of Science in therapeutic herbalism in 2013.

Shufer says she has been teaching foraging about 35 years. The pursuit has taken her to Peru and Costa Rica, and she generally lets nature run wild at her home, providing a ready supply of items for the kitchen table.

“Where you gather is important,” she says. “Starting in your backyard is good.” But it must be away from where any pesticides or herbicides are sprayed, she adds — and far enough away to overcome drift.

If one doesn’t spray those plants that others might call weeds, they will go to seed and provide a bounty the next season, she says.

“All my garden is wild,” according to Shufer. “I don’t plant things, I just let things grow.”

Knowing what not to pick is important, Shufer says, but as a general rule, anything toxic will be too bitter.

“There’s only a few that are going to get you in trouble,” she says of the “real dangerous plants.”

“Wild hemlock is one of them. Wild carrot and poison hemlock — side-by-side, it’s hard to tell the difference. Members of the carrot family, I avoid, just to be on the safe side.”

About an hour later, the group repairs to a shelter with tables, and Shufer whips up a salad, dressing it with things like fresh lemon juice and light maple syrup.

It goes down well, the group agrees.