By Beth Teague
Most people see an ugly yellow weed. Ila Hatter sees a delicious – and nutritious – gourmet meal.
“Dandelions are probably one of the most nutritious veggies to come out of your garden,” says Hatter, a wildcrafter and interpretive naturalist who resides in Robbinsville, N.C. “They are an incredibly rich source of vitamins and minerals, and yet we throw them away all the time.”
Those who attend a seminar or nature hike led by Hatter just might get to sample a dish or beverage prepared from dandelions or other natural ingredients – and most are surprised at how unexpectedly tasty these so-called weeds can be.
“It’s fun for people to find out how good they taste,” she says. “Even picky teenagers will eat dandelion pizza sandwiches.”
Dandelions are just one of many natural resources Hatter finds in the wilderness to utilize for food or medicinal purposes. When she’s not working for the U.S. Forest Service and the Great Smoky Mountain Natural History Association, Hatter spends her time traveling across the south, presenting seminars and interactive explorations of the great outdoors. Her mission: to tune people in to the many ways they can make Mother Nature’s pantry and medicine cabinet their own. She says her work is guided by a quote from writer Henry David Thoreau.
“Thoreau wrote that the woods and fields are a table always spread,’” she says. “To me, that’s exactly what I do – that’s what I teach.
What is Wildcrafting?
Hatter says she is both a wildcrafter and an interpretive naturalist. Traditional wildcrafting – gathering native plants for use or sale – has been performed for many years, though Hatter says it was especially prevalent in the days of the Great Depression.
Unlike those early wildcrafters, Hatter does not forage the woods in the hope of making a profit. “In my case, I’m not gathering things to sell, but instead am using them for education – teaching people what these plants are, how to identify them, what the traditional uses are, what the potential market might be for them,” she says.
This is a central component of her work as an interpretive naturalist. “Interpretive naturalism is really what I do,” says Hatter. “I’m not an herbalist because I don’t grow herbs. Mother Nature grows them, and I simply collect them,” she says. “I’m not a naturalist, because that would imply a lot more knowledge of biology, knowledge about the fauna as well as the flora. What I do is in between – I combine my knowledge of the flora with folklore, telling interesting stories that go with the botany of what I do.”
She inherited many of these stories, as well as her overall love and respect for nature, from her parents, who wanted to ensure their child would grow to be self-sufficient. “They had lived through two world wars and the Great Depression,” Hatter explains. “They took me hunting and fishing and foraging. Some of my earliest memories were of gathering wild fruits with my mother and making jelly; and wild mints and sassafras for tea.”
This knowledge and love of nature stayed with Hatter during her early career as an airline stewardess, which she viewed as an exciting opportunity to learn about flora in new parts of the world. “I suppose I was strange stewardess,” she says with a laugh. “Instead of going out partying or sightseeing in different parts of the world, I spent my free time asking about trees or herbs used to prepare meals.”
She later made the transition from airline stewardess to graphic artist, a career she held for 27 years. “But I became a dinosaur in my field when computers entered the scene,” Hatter says. “Not wanting to go back to school to learn computers, I decided to be a more ‘hands-on’ artist.”
Her desire for something new led her to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where she worked as a decorative painter. Soon after moving there, she was asked to be a leader for Gatlinburg’s annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, and later served as an instructor in the University of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain Field School. These early experiences lay the foundation for her new career as an interpretive naturalist and wildcrafter; in 1994, she moved to North Carolina to continue her work.
Using nature every day
Hatter shares her knowledge with the general public through books and videos offered through her Web site and through various interactive seminars she teaches across North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Seminar topics range from practical tips for hikers who may have to find food or practice first aid while in the woods, to “Resources of Field and Forest,” which helps people identify natural resources used by our ancestors to cure common ailments or make food more palatable.
No matter the topic or audience, Hatter encourages people to learn about and take advantage of natural resources, particularly for nutritional and medicinal purposes.
“There is so much good food that surrounds us, but is going to waste,” she says. “There so many things that are readily available to us. And we’ve forgotten that there are an awful lot of wonderful flavors available in nature.
To introduce students to delicious and nutritious ingredients found in nature’s kitchen, Hatter often leads excursions to forage for ingredients, then prepares a full meal using what she finds. There’s always a few guests who have their doubts – but most leave the meal feeling as satisfied as they are surprised.
“After a full meal, they’ll lounge on the porch like hound dogs,” she laughs. “Everyone rubs their bellies and says how great the meal was – and no one feels the need to stop on the way home to grab a hamburger.”
She also offers tips for using natural ingredients for medicinal purposes. “It’s so important to take an integrated approach to health care – to have knowledge of both modern medicine and natural remedies,” Hatter says. “It behooves us to be more in control of our health; it saves the aggravation of always having to go to the doctor right away.”
She recalls an evening when her husband required medical attention, but couldn’t get to the hospital due to a severe snowstorm. ”He had had surgery and the incision needed to drain,” she says. “Something needed to be done, but there was no way to get to the hospital.”
Hatter remembered a remedy for mastitis that utilized compresses made from hot cabbage leaves and castor oil to relieve swelling and inflammation. “I thought it might help – at least it would give him some relief until we could get in to see the doctor,” she says. “But by morning, the incision had opened and drained on its own.”
As she introduces people to the wonders of wild food and medicinal plants, Hatter also focuses on the basic principles of responsible foraging: identification, location and multiplication.
“With identification, you must be absolutely sure that you identify what you’re about to ingest or put on your skin,” she explains. “With location, you must make sure area where you’re collecting is free of pesticides and other contaminates. Finally, with multiplication, you must practice what the Indians described as a ‘rule of four’: Leave the first plant you see because there might be another animal or insect that needs it for food for its young. Leave the second plant you see in case someone is coming along behind you – that person may be in desperate need of that plant, or may have a need greater than your own. Leave the third plant to reproduce additional plants, and the fourth one – you can take that plant for yourself.”
Hatter says she teaches these principles to prevent overharvesting, which has become all too common in forests nationwide. She refers to the summer of 2001, when the Appalachian region was flooded with requests from gourmet chefs for ramps – North American leeks with an aroma and flavor akin to onion and garlic.
“Ramps are a traditional spring green in Appalachia; they come up mid March to mid April, and it is a real tradition to gather them in the mountains,” Hatter explains. “Last year, ramps became an ‘in’ thing among gourmet chefs – interest went up, and ramp patches went down. Collection of ramps was banned in the Great Smoky National Park because there was a danger of over harvesting.”
Teaching for the future
With all of her books, workshops and videos, Hatter has one common goal: to maintain and renew the general population’s interest in the natural world. “There is an awful lot of wonderful knowledge that isn’t being passed on, that isn’t viewed as something valuable, and it is – it might even save our lives someday,” she says. “In the days of the Great Depression, people had to rely on resources around them; a situation like that could happen again.”
Though she enjoys working with groups of all ages, she views educating young children as an opportunity to encourage practical use and conservation of natural resources.
“Children are exposed to too much virtual reality – they need a dose of the real thing,” she says. “With children, in particular, if you get them outdoors, in nature, they will become friends of the forest. It is so important to have this information out there, to teach children to love nature; they can’t conserve what they don’t love.”
Beth Teague lives in Hickory, NC.
To learn more about Ila Hatter’s upcoming event schedule or to order her books and videos, visit her Web site: www.wildcraftingwithila.com.
Two recipes from Ila Hatter – you may publish both or just one:
(Winner of the 1995 National Dandelion Cookoff in Dover, Ohio)
2 cups dandelion greens
1/4 cup chopped wild onions (or spring onions or chives)
1 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup chopped mushrooms
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 package eggroll wrappers
1 can tomato soup
Cook dandelion greens with wild onions until soft; drain. Chop and mix with ricotta cheese, chopped mushrooms, parmesan cheese, and egg. Start 4 cups water boiling with chicken bouillon cubes.
Take 1/2 package eggroll wrappers and cut into 4 squares. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center of each pastry square; moisten edges with egg white. Place another square on top and seal together with fork tines around the filling. Trim off excess pastry, making square or round shapes. Simmer gently in bouillon about 3 – 5 minutes.
Remove with slotted spoon and set aside in bowl. Stir tomato soup into remaining liquid for Dande-oli sauce; pour over Dande-olis. Makes 18 – 24 Dande-olis.
Used for poison ivy, nettle rash, sunburn, insect bites or as a facial astringent.
2 cups Jewelweed stems, peeled and cut in 6″ pieces
1 cup mint leaves (optional)
1 cup Aloe Vera gel or juice
1 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1/2 cup Witch Hazel (optional)
1 cup water (1/2 cup if Witch Hazel added)
Put in blender or food processor and blend well, adding more water or Witch Hazel as needed. Strain and bottle in sterile jars. Keep refrigerated.
Similar recipes are available in Roadside Rambles, a collection of wild food recipes edited by Hatter. It is available for sale through her Web site, www.wildcraftingwithila.com.