Eating Your Way Through the Woods: Forest Edibles

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There’s something about a hike in the woods that drives questions from my kids. “What kind of tree is that?” “Why do the leaves only grow at the top?” “What kind of fish are in the stream?” I usually do my best to answer their questions—my frequent fallback is, “I’m not sure we’ll have to look it up when we get home.” And then we get home and the questions are often forgotten.


Eating Your Way Through the Woods: Forest Edibles


Hiking with a guide is a completely different experience. My three kids’ questions seemed to multiply with each step since there was someone there to answer them. We signed up for a guided hike with Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, based out of Hocking Hills, Ohio. Located about an hour southeast of Columbus, Hocking Hills State Park is the most popular in the state. The park is actually a series of geological wonders—like gorges, waterfalls, recessed caves, and caverns--spread throughout the hills.


Certain areas, including some state preserves, require a permit to explore. The permit process takes time and knowledge of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) policies. Jim Stratton, the man behind Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, worked with ODNR to have access to these permit-only preserves. He also enlisted the services of several naturalists as guides. Because these areas are restricted, you’ll find you’re the only ones on the trail. Oh, and that there’s really no trail at all.


Eating Your Way Through the Woods: Forest Edibles


The naturalist that led my kids to forge their own path through Little Rocky Nature Preserve was Dan Jones. Donning a well-worn hat and an easy smile, Jones kept his eyes to the ground during our hike pointing out various mushrooms, leaves, and a pinky sized toad. My kids followed Jones’ example and kept asking, “Over here, what’s this?” Unlike hiking with mom, the kids knew they’d get an answer each time.


What I didn’t expect is when Jones started picking out plants and passing out leaves and twigs for my kids to eat. “This is birch,” he’d say, “Give it a try, it tastes kinda like root beer.” Then he let them sample a sassafras leaf that also held hints of a root beer flavor. As a kid, Jones still recalls going on a hike where he helped collect sassafras leaves that were later used to make tea. He says the experience—when he was 3 or 4—was part of the reason he became a naturalist, and piqued his interest in what he calls forest edibles. (I should note that sassafras is no longer used in commercial drinks since a substance in it has been linked to cancer, but only when consumed in large quantities.)


Eating Your Way Through the Woods: Forest Edibles


Perhaps my kids’ favorite forest edible was the diminutive, heart-shaped wood sorrel. The soft leaves look like clovers and taste like peppery lemon. Once Jones showed my kids what to look for, I found them chewing on wood sorrel for the rest of the 3-hour or so hike.


Eating Your Way Through the Woods: Forest Edibles


So what should you do if you want to start snacking during a hike—without packing anything? Jones notes that you need to be careful before you eat unfamiliar plants in the forest. “Get a good guide book and start by picking out plants that are easily identifiable,” he says, like sassafras and wood sorrel. Of course, another option is to sign up for your own guide. At the Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, prices per person, per hike start around $20 for kids and $36 for adults based on the distance, duration, and season.


Since our hike about a month ago, my tween has taken to eating the wood sorrel she’s found in our backyard. She’s also discovered a patch of mint. We’ve started to use both in various recipes. Wood sorrel makes for a zesty topping for salads. And mint? I like to chop it and serve it on chocolate ice cream.






Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at


Photos courtesy and copyright Kristen J. Gough







Comments (1)

  • remorrison

    10 years 3 months ago

    Do you find as educators that we tend to incorporate as much adventure, vacation, travel, as possible during the insanely brief summer break?  Upon reflection, I absolutely find this to be true for me.

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