Forest Floor Connoisseur

Mike Smith has been the park superintendent at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park for almost three decades. He uses the land he lives on to gather food for himself and his wife.

By Von Barclay and Greg Olenik | 06/17/2013

Mike Smith has been superintendent at Droop Mountain Battlefield for 29 years, and he’s learned just about everything there is to learn about the state park. He could talk about the history and geography of the park, but he can also talk about how to live off of the land, and he may know more about that than anything else.

In his years on the mountain, Smith has learned where to find different plants and animals that can feed him and his family. In fact, he said that one year he tried to find enough food from the state park to last him all twelve months.

The experiment was a success.

Part of the thrill for Smith is searching the woods for food, but there are also health benefits to knowing exactly where the food on the table is growing.

“They’re always putting pesticides and stuff in the food, and while that may be better to make more, I don’t think it’s better overall,” Smith said. “I like to get my food from the stuff close to me as much as possible.”

He’s not alone, either. Smith has taken part in the Wild Edibles Festival in Hillsboro the last two years, sharing his passion for the wild with others who have gathered plants to create truly Appalachian dishes.

The event consists of a talk from a guest, a meal of foods that can be found in the woods, vendors offering their collected foods, and a hike through the woods.

West Virginia is conveniently one of the best states in the country to forage for food, so there is a wide array of plant life available to those who know where to look for it. Everything from dandelions to mushrooms can be found in the Appalachian Mountains, and some of those things can be used to make delicious meals.

“I’d say West Virginia is one of the best states to forage, especially here in Pocahontas County,” said WVU Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent Greg Hamons. “There are the various mushrooms that are edible. We’re late on plants because of the long winter, but those will be up in the summer. There are just hundreds of plant types.”

It’s not just about plants, either. Smith hunts for food, as well, and the state is not lacking on wild animals that can be used to make meals.

“We’ve got all the same animal species that you see across the state,” Hamons said. “We’ve got deer, squirrels, chipmunks, bear, turkeys, and all of those types of animals.”

But foraging for food can also be dangerous.

A lot goes into making sure the food gathered is healthy. First of all, the Appalachian Mountains are home to numerous poisonous plants. Even some foods, like pokeweed, have both edible and poisonous parts. The shoots of young plants can be cooked, but the root is poisonous, and any part of a mature plant is poisonous.

Coal mines also present problems. West Virginia is full of them, and they can cause harm to the wildlife living on them.

“If you’re wild gathering, you have to be sure it’s not contaminated,” said Rebecca Linger. Linger is a Pharmacy professor at the University of Charleston, and she also studies the medicinal values of Appalachian plants. “If you eat plants on what was once a coal mine, the plants will absorb the metals. You have to be careful with that sort of thing.”

Being a state park, Droop Mountain is safe from any coalmine contamination, and Smith has plenty of knowledge of the plant life, so he knows what he’s eating is safe.

That knowledge came from an interest he had growing up. His mother used to read him the cards that came with the popular candy, Sugar Daddy. The cards had facts about animals, and his mom would read those to him until he had them memorized. He was too young to read, so he shocked his grandfather when he recited the information on the cards.

His early interest never wavered. Smith learned more and more about the outdoors, until he was able to live a sustainable life on the wildlife around him.

“There are typically three rules that people who gather follow,” said Linger. “First of all, identify. You have to know the plants, because there are look-a-likes, and you have to be sure of what you’re eating. Secondly, location. You have to know where it’s growing and what it’s growing on. Third, multiplication. You can’t take every single plant of that species, or else there won’t be any left.”

Smith has made it almost three decades living this way, so he does a pretty nice job of following those rules.

Still, he and Linger both admit that foraging is not for everybody. There simply would not be enough resources for everyone to live that lifestyle. That doesn’t mean a trip to the grocery store has to be unhealthy, though.

Linger talks about “shopping the fringe.” The produce, meats, and dairy are all available along the walls of a grocery store. It’s the aisles, where processed foods are stocked, that can make a trip unhealthy.

Yet, for Smith, most of his produce and meat is available in the woods, and he likes to take advantage of that fact. Trips to the local Foodland are inevitable, but Smith doesn’t have to buy most of the things that he needs.

“It’s not that I don’t like bananas or chocolate bars,” he said. “I do. I just prefer things to be fresh and close at hand.”

Lucky for him, and all others that like to forage for food in West Virginia, the Appalachian earth has some of the most lush plant life in the country, and presents plenty of opportunities to find food.

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