BANCO, VA. -- Though it's just a blip on Highway 231 as the traveler whizzes south in the Blue Ridge toward Charlottesville, this can be a rewarding place to stop. There is the Olive Mills Gallery and Antiques -- with a sign begging "Please Prettily" -- and a bed-and-breakfast farmhouse next door.
But even a sharp eye could not see the wild things that are going on if Ruth and Ed Smith are having one of their semi-wild weekends, scaled down from their totally wild weekends. Here, on the dirt road off to the right, Washingtonians invade the Smith preserve and turn into Wildthymers.
The Smiths' farm is made for foragers and grazers; it is unsprayed, uncontaminated, unpolluted. The crystalline water that nature-lovers dip out of the spring is so delicious, legend says, because a neighbor boy long ago drowned in it. Self-dipped, sparkling spring water is typical of Smiths' relaxed, natural weekends, where the dress code is hiking attire.
The food is also more civilized than you might have first thought; it's half-wild, half-mild. An earlier group of would-be wildings insisted on eating 100-percent wild with dire results. The human gut is not accustomed to a diet of all wild forage and shows its rejection in powerful, even punitive ways. From that time on, Ruth Smith has refused to budge when first-timers have wanted nothing but wild food.
There are two houses, one for guests, the other the hosts'. The large side yard of the guest house accommodates many different activities: natural dyeing, basket weaving, Christmas-wreath making, soap making, and the famous strawberry festival and waterlily pull -- if you help pull the invasive lilies out of the pond, you are entitled to eat strawberries till you drop.
The kitchen of the guest house is practical with spring water on tap. The dining room has a banquet table long enough to hold all the inspired wild food creations the weekenders can dream up. The living room features chairs around the walls and a fireplace of extraordinary warmth.
When the weekend food gatherers go out to collect what they later study, cook and eat, they divide into groups that each gather the leaves and/or flowers of only one kind of plant, bush or tree.
During a spring weekend, one group looked for violet leaves and flowers (viola papilionacea). Another searched for distinctive grayish-green lambs' quarters (chenopodium album). A third sought slender, swordlike dandelion leaves (taraxacum officinalis), while another cut leaves of plantain (plantago major).
Any or all of these plus chickweed, gill-over-the-ground, purslane, onion and garlic grasses, wild strawberry leaves, red clover, ox-eye daisy, and many others can be used to make what Ruth Smith calls her most delicious teaching aid -- weedballs. She stumbled onto this happy combination of ingredients and subsequently learned it has a venerable history as a spring tonic.
"I have always checked the literature," said Ruth Smith. "I don't just go out and try without having some documented proof that a certain plant is safe for people to eat."
If you like meatballs, you may not love weedballs. Try them anyway. You will find they are crunchy on the outside, with a fondant texture inside, kind of like a crusty quenelle, but with more character.
When the hunters and gatherers return to base camp with their bag, the "kill" is washed in spring water and spread out for identification and learning.
After everyone has passed the dandelion-vs.-plantain pop quiz, they steam the whole lesson for 5 minutes. Wildthymer candidates drain the greens, chop them up, add grated cheese, chopped onion, bread crumbs, bind it all with egg, shape the mixture into little balls, and pop them into hot fat boiling over the campfire. Then they pour themselves a jelly glass of Ed Smith's wild wine and sit back for a natural happy hour.
Ruth Smith is youthful, full of enthusiasm, especially when she talks about ethnobotany. She is slender and dresses just the way you would expect of someone who might at any moment stop her baby blue VW bug, jump out, scramble over a fence, and beat her way through the bush to gather a specimen.
Ed Smith was an Air Force pilot. The Smiths and their daughter, Carolyn, have lived all over the world. They bought the farm in the Virginia countryside in 1965 between foreign tours.
They shared the farm in those days with others who, like Ruth Smith, were Girl Scout leaders. Their first weekend they invited 15 Scouts for a camping trip. When the young scouting ladies arrived simultaneously with the new outhouse, all pitched in to dig the hole and help with the creosoting. This shared work set a pattern that continues.
An early interest in natural history accelerated after Ruth Smith read Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus." She recalls, "Little by little I started to learn. When a Scout group came out, we would experiment. I remember one time we drank several kinds of tea, pine needle and so forth. We thought we were pretty far out." In time, a class in edible food administered by the USDA and sponsored by Audubon Naturalist Society was started. It was 1974 and, "We had two field trips in town, half-days in parks where they'd keep seeing again and reviewing the same plants," said Ruth Smith. "They came two weekends, a month apart, to the farm.
"I have tried a lot of wild things. We make juice out of wild grapes. And one year I put a chocolate coating on them because I had read this was a delicacy, but our grapes have so many seeds that you got a little bit of juice and a lot of seeds.
"I have played with cattails, but you want to be sure your source is unpolluted. We cut the young, tender shoots in late April and stir-fry them. You have the female flower enclosed in a sheath at the top. While these are still green, they can be picked, steamed, and eaten like corn on the cob."
Smith cautions, "You always have to be careful about what you collect for eating and how you cook it. In late April I get milkweed (asclepias syriaca). Don't confuse it with dogbane (apocynum androsaemifolium). They look alike, but dogbane is a no-no."
Smith added, "A lot of wild food is famine food. It is not delicious; it is for survival. Like the waterlily roots: We tried two different kinds. We boiled them like for seven hours and kept throwing the water off. Then I chopped them fine, added mayonnaise, mustard pickle, hot pepper, every kind of thing we could think of. And the bitterness was still so resounding we couldn't eat more than a bite."
Not like the weedballs, however. This coming spring, Smith will be teaching at her farm a course on the North America Indian use of plants. It will be included in the USDA graduate school courses, and will be sponsored by Audubon Naturalist Society. WEEDBALLS (Makes 24 weedballs) 1 1/2 pounds wild edible greens*
1 1/2 cups dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons oil
In a small amount of salted water, cook wild edible greens until tender. Drain 1 cup of the cooked leaves well and chop finely. Add remaining ingredients, except oil.
Flour your hands and shape the mixture into small balls and saute' in oil until brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels.
*Choose among the following wild ingredients: Lambs' quarters (Chenopodium album), plantain (Plantago major), ox-eye daisy leaves (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), galinsoga (Galinsoga ciliata), bitter dock (Rumex obtusifolius), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta), chickweed (Stellaria media), cleavers (Galium aparine), dandelion leaves (Taraxacum officinalis), bitter cress (Cardamine), violet (Viola spp), autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata).