Apples, Plants, and ‘Shrooms Weekend Intensive.

We had a wonderful time this weekend exploring the biodiversity Appalachia has to offer.

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Botanist Mycol Stevens in his element surrounded by fungi and flora

The first day began with a multitude of mushrooms.

Our instructor; Mycol Stevens brought a bounty of various fungi from his recent trip the cookthrough the mountains of Western North Carolina. Boletes, Russula, Lactarius, and Chanterelles were only a few of the gems we explored. He covered identifying characteristics of many of the fungal families as well as some tips and tricks for distinguishing the tasty edibles from the intestinal tyrants. We closed the session with a wild food feast featuring chicken of the wood, goosefoot, boletes, and many more wild edibles; with a little onion, garlic, and rice thrown in for good measure.

Into the orchard we go!

IMG_1050We continued our journey with Dr. James Veteto, by touring the extensive orchard at AIMS. Did you know that at one time Appalachia had the greatest biodiversity of apples in the United States?

We learned about the various fruit trees cultivated at AIMS. The fan favorites were the Lodi and the Early Harvest apple varieties, mainly because they were ripe and could be eaten. I could go on and on about all the apple varieties we explored, but it is safe to say with 93 varieties the list would be exhaustive. There is great biodiversity in the orchards beyond apples. The list of fruit and nuts includes 3 varieties of cherries, plums, blueberries, walnuts, hazelnuts, pears, and various other berries as well.

No visit to AIMS would be complete without a tour of the Southern Seed Legacy Project.IMG_1114

IMG_1118A huge inspiration for the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies was born with the Southern Seed Legacy Project. The project began in 1996 at the University of Georgia when Drs. Robert E. Rhoades and Virginia Nazarea witnessed the erosion of the cultural knowledge surrounding southern crop varieties and their rapid disappearance. Dr. James Veteto, the Executive Director of AIMS is now the guardian of the Southern Seed Legacy which houses a collection of over 2500 seed varieties unique to the southern states.

Our tour took us to the “vault” of the seed collection. Jars upon jars of various seeds, hailing from as far south as Arkansas and many from our beautiful Yancey County right here in North Carolina. Our next stop brought us to the Seed Legacy Farm. It was alive with Red, White, and Blue corn, pole beans, half runners, cornfield beans, Candy Roaster squash, double wide half short tall long upside down beans. So much to take in, and each had the story of the family that preserved the variety. The Seed Legacy Farm is a living museum preserving the agricultural heritage and the cultural legacy that goes with it.

Day two: bring on the apples!

IMG_0930The second day began with a brisk harvest of apples from the orchards. Mycol was out with us again providing a demonstration of a DIY cider press which any homesteader could build for very little investment. Next, we moved on to learning home fermenting techniques. We processed a few bushels of apples into a rich froth of sweet and sour goodness. To this we added a decoction of local honey as well as some cinnamon, and lemongrass which Mycol grew at his homestead in Florida. Finally, we pitched some yeast and the future Cyser was taking shape.

What is this plant? It’s an Asteraceae!asteraceae

What a blessing it has been having Mycol Stevens out at AIMS. We began our plant identification class on the front porch of the AIMS homestead. Right out of the gate we had a plethora of plants to choose from, clearly we could have spent the entire workshop sitting on those wooden steps. Mycol dove into the most common plant families while lovingly referencing Botany in a Day, by Thomas Elpel. (By the way if you want to learn how to identify plants you must get this book.)

IMG_1128We moved to the orchard next. Among the apple trees things started to get real! Mycol broke out the Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Blue Ridge, complete with field notations from his brilliant teacher. For those of you not familiar with keying out plants, this can be a laborious process.¬†Mycol instructs us, “it is a game of Sherlock Holmes. The plants give you clues as to their identity, but you must have the curiosity to figure them out.” He goes on to walk us through the steps to decode a small plant growing among the apples. “Plants will tell us about imbalances in the system and you should get to know the ones outside your front door first. They will help you to learn all the rest.” says Mycol.

Our day concluded in the rich cove forest. Following our whims, playing a game of “I spy” with Mycol, pointing out plants then getting together as a group to identify the mystery. There are many rare plants in the Appalachian mountains, today we learned some, moreover we gained the tools to appreciate and protect them for generations to come.

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