Decades ago around Mantua in northern Portage County, there was an entire hill covered with Squaw Vine. The herb grew 6 inches deep and thick enough to fill a burlap sack in no time. One could just reach down and grab fistfulls of the string-like runners, with its profusion of dime-sized leaves and occasional red pea-berries.
It was one version of Paradise my father-in-law Guy Stewart used to talk about every time we went out to harvest the low-lying herb. But I never saw it as thick as in the tale he told. Instead, it would cover the forest floor in patches here and there. We would pull up the sparsely dispersed tendrils and end up leaving the woods with about a pound or two after a couple of hours. We always left some behind to regrow for next year.
The Squaw Vine, along with other plants we would collect from public and private lands around the area, would get dried, then bagged up in brown grocery bags and tape. Guy would ship it off to an agent in Iowa, or some other rural place where harvesting wild plants remained common practice. There had been a local dealer with a big barn in Rootstown, but he became quite selective in the plants he dealt with, then stopped taking Squaw Vine and eventually passed away.
We also collected Mayapple -- a big-leafed plant that grows 2 to 3 feet in shady patches in the forest. It yields rhizomes that are the source of a tumor-killing resin. The roots were easy to harvest, but we had no use for the semi-edible "apples" that sprouted from the flowers.
I learned about Squaw Vine, Mayapple and other plants we collected from books in the library, as the Internet had not yet been invented.
Guy didn’t bother with research, other than how they should be prepared for the buyers and what he could get for them per pound. He used to make long-distance phone calls to settle on prices -- back when such calls could cost a few dollars. Sometimes the buyers would reimburse him for shipping. Sometimes he would get stiffed. I had a feeling that he wasn’t really in it for the money.
One of the coolest plants we collected was Stone Root. It has rock-hard tubers that had to be washed, then broken into pieces before they could be dried. We would dump our sacks of roots into buckets of water, rub most of the mud away with our fingers, then use brushes for a final cleaning. After a rinse, we would use a hammer to bust them into smaller chunks against a cinder block.
Apparently, it’s used to treat urinary tract problems.
Guy built an 8-by-10 drying shed for his business, and filled it a couple times each summer with Tansy. Tansy is a semi-naturalized European weed that grows 6 feet tall and has bright yellow flowers. It only brought about $1.10 per pound dry, but it grew in such profusion in one patch we knew of that it wasn’t too hard to get 30 or 40 pounds worth. To do that, we had to gather about 100 pounds of fresh stalks, then stack it on wire racks in the shed to dry with a kerosene heater going full blast overnight.
I can tell you that packing up the big, square bales of product for shipment is quite satisfying.
I eventually gathered some Tansy roots and planted a patch by my house, only to have the market dry up the next year. I’ve since learned that the flowers in full bloom smell like something died!
Guy and I also collected Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Horsetail, Coltsfoot, Goldenseal, Burdock Root, Indian Turnip, Wintergreen and Wild Cherry and Sassafrass bark. I still collect Shagbark Hickory for barbecue flavoring.
I was Guy’s last partner. Other friends and family members had accompanied him in previous years’ excursions. We called it "going digging." My wife talks about going with him when she was 12.
Guy and I usually ended our trips to the woods with an hour or two at a local bar, full of cigarette smoke and loud country music on a weekend afternoon, where intoxicated patrons in the dim light would either stare at you or creep up close with a big hug, begging to be best friends.
Then I would go home and do weekend chores.
While Guy always maintained he was quite conservative and never harvested everything he could -- so as to preserve stock for future seasons -- I always wondered why we never went to "dig" in that legendary field in Mantua.
Was he overstating his case as a conservator of the scattered wild patches of plants that were his hobby?
I’m sure people today would say that it was irresponsible of us to tramp about and do what we liked in the wild. What gave us the right to determine how much of a harvest was sustainable?
I would hope such critics would at least give us credit for never taking the dog. She wouldn’t have been allowed at the bar afterwards anyway, even if she had been leashed.
Today, the harvesting of wild plants is generally prohibited or highly regulated, as people have proven themselves irresponsible.
But to this day, I can tell you where to find patches of all those herbs we used to gather. And I can point out patches that have been lost to development, along with other privileges of the past.
Eric Marotta can be reached at email@example.com, or 330-541-9433.