Walk into the produce aisle of a grocery store and you’ll find plenty of edible plants — lettuce, broccoli, oregano, kale — which in a lot of cases, aren’t locally grown.
But walk outside almost anywhere in the Lowcountry, and there are plenty of uncommon — and unused — plants that are just as tasty and beneficial to our bodies, according to seasoned botanist April Punsalan.
For over 25 years, Punsalan spent “thousands of hours” studying herbalism, botany and ethnobotany, learning about different plants and medicinal benefits. Using all the experience and knowledge over the two decades led her into her current venture, Yahola Herbal School, an online botany course “dedicated to teaching you how to connect with your local flora to improve your health.”
“I feel like after studying plants for 25 years, the next 25 years I just need to teach,” Punsalan said about starting the school. “Because I’ve learned so much that it’s time to share it. It’s just the perfect time.”
With her knowledge of plants, herbs and foraging, Punsalan views the outside world as a “natural grocery store that exists naturally beyond four walls” — a way to reconnect with Earth and what it produces.
Connection and reconnection is Punsalan’s ultimate goal with not just the idea of the natural grocery store, but also all the courses in Yahola Herbal School.
“My biggest fear is that if we don’t connect with it, it’ll be gone,” Punsalan said.
Constant urban and suburban development throughout the Lowcountry — check the weekly City Paper crane counts for an idea of just how much — concerns Punsalan, as the native plants in the area are being paved over, bulldozed and not being rescued for future growth.
“They say you should be living for seven generations,” she added. “And my biggest goal, or biggest emphasis, is to teach people at least 25 plants, or up to 50, that you can forage and use as food and medicine, that you can connect with all the time.”
According to Punsalan, many plant species found in the produce section of the grocery store come from only a handful of families.
The mustard family, or brassicaceae, for example, produce broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, arugula and horseradish, to name a few.
“We’re only eating from this small select group of families and aren’t getting the phytochemicals we need that are cancer-fighting,” she said. “We’re leaving our bodies vulnerable by only eating from these small groups.”
“We have a strong dependency on the grocery store — even me!” Punsalan added. “As a forager and a botanist, it’s funny [to me], because I’ll say to myself, ‘Oh, I want to make a smoothie. I have to go to the grocery store.’ And then realizing now, I can just go outside and harvest, or forage, what I need.”
“The times that I’ve done that, I’m very impressed or amazed by what’s available at all times, especially in Charleston.”
A lot of the native flora in Charleston, said Punsalan, can be found in empty lots, county parks, maritime forests, roadsides and even the perimeter of your yard. Nevertheless, foraging for these plants is a “tricky situation.”
“We’re not really encouraged to forage in those areas, but we can a little bit,” Punsalan said. “No one has said anything [yet].”
In your backyard
Here’s a selection of a couple of herbs and native plants native in the Charleston area that can be used in cooking, according to Punsalan. (Of course, always be cautious when consuming foraged herbs and plants.)
Eastern Horsemint (monarda punctata), a knee to waist-high plant with pink and yellow flowers and grayish green leaves. If in doubt, crush a few leaves, and if it smells like oregano, you’re right on the money — Eastern horsemint is highly aromatic. It is considered by Punsalan as a “native oregano” that can be used in tomato-based dishes like spaghetti or pizza. It’s found in coastal dunes, maritime forests and roadsides on Johns and James islands from August to October. The plant is naturally antimicrobial and can help to relieve gas and headaches.
Red Bay (persea borbonia) is a small tree with thick, leathery dark green and gray leaves. Red bay is also highly aromatic — crush a few leaves and if it smells warm and spicy, it’s a red bay. The plant can be used to flavor soups, stews and bean dishes. The tree is found along coastal sand dunes and maritime forests, and grows along Folly Beach’s Lighthouse Inlet Heritage Preserve Trail year-round. But the species is declining due to development pressure on the coast, according to Punsalan, so it’s recommended to only take what’s needed. Red bay is also antimicrobial and can be used to make teas to relieve nausea, diarrhea, constipation and appetite loss.
Yaupon (ilex vomitoria) is the only caffeinated plant in North America. It’s a shrub or small tree with leathery, elliptical leaves that are compacted and arranged alternately along the stem. New stems are often red, while older ones are gray to light beige in color. Small white flowers form on the shrub in the spring, while from October to November produce red holly berries. It can be found year round — best in June — in maritime forests, along beach trails in Sullivan’s Island, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms, as well as along roadsides in neighborhoods like Riverland Terrace.
Learn more about Punsalan’s Yahola Herbal School at yaholaherbalschool.com.