I knew from the tone in my sister’s voice that my mother would be dead before I got there. I changed out of my muddy orchard clothes as fast as I could and threw some overnight things into a bag before running out to the car. The phone rang again before I was halfway down the driveway. I didn’t want to answer. But I answered. “She’s gone, Sam. She’s already gone.” And I responded, just as I had before, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I solemnly walked up the driveway to tell my children, for the third time in three months, that one of their grandparents had died. After a long round of hugs I embarked on the lonely five-hour drive into an uncertain future.
I don’t know why it feels so important to say an untimely goodbye to a body whose life has already departed. But that’s just what I thought I needed, between repeated sessions of crying to Passenger’s Simple Song. And then I got the third call. “You won’t be able to see her. She’s an organ donor. They’re taking her body right now.”
Good call, Mom. Thanks for helping somebody. Suddenly she was a little more alive in my head—not so departed. Suddenly I was a lot more tired. It was approaching midnight. I did not want to donate my organs yet, so I decided it would be wise to get off the highway and sleep. Luckily I knew just the place, not a mile from the interstate exit: Token Creek.
My mother had first brought me to Token Creek in 1986. At the time, she worked in Madison and my father worked in Milwaukee. We lived in a Civil-War era farmhouse beside Lake Sinnissippi, a 50-minute commute for both of them, but in opposite directions. The summer babysitting situation, you could generously say, was a bit sketchy. If I was willing to get up at 5:30 AM, my mother would deliver me from that domestic chaos by driving me to her work and letting me roam Madison for a day. Her office was right next to Tenney Park, where the Yahara River exits Lake Mendota, and I was supposed to stay within the park. This wasn’t too hard for me, since at that time it seemed like the most interesting thing in town. Like much of my childhood, my mother’s proposition was Darwinian: I could have easily been abducted or drowned, but I wasn’t. I swam, fished for bluegills, watched birds, chased ducks, and picked mulberries until Mom got off work. Then we got vanilla soft-serve cones and drove home.
By the middle of July I was bored with Tenney Park, and I begged Mom to drop me off somewhere else. Somewhere bigger. Somewhere wilder. Somewhere with snakes and owls and fewer people. That’s when she found Token Creek.
It wasn’t what I had in mind: a mixture of fields and marshes with a muddy stream flowing through. There were only scattered brush and trees, except for a small lonely grove of bur oaks at the far end of the road. But it was better than Tenney Park. Token Creek was not in the city, and was rather lightly used. It fell far short of the excitement of Devil’s Lake or the Wisconsin River, but through my childhood it came to serve as a sort of consolation prize—if I asked Mom to take me to some coveted fishing or birding spot, and she was disinclined, she’d offer to take me to Token Creek as an alternative. And I’d usually agree, because it was better than staying home.
Token Creek did have a campground. When I was eleven, Mom dropped me and my sisters off there for one summer night—my first camping experience. We all crammed into a cheap K-Mart tent and pretended to sleep for a while before we started fighting. It was a blast.
When I drove past the park gate that warm August night with my window down, the air smelled familiar. I had not been here in over a decade. Two apartment complexes had been built on the cornfields north of the park. The saplings from my childhood had grown into respectable trees, and the campground almost felt wooded. Crickets, katydids, and a great horned owl helped me fall asleep quickly.
The next morning was foggy. At gray dawn I walked barefoot, the dewy grass washing my feet, until I reached the boardwalk extending into the mucky meadow along the creek. I used to walk here sometimes with Mom, because I needed Nature and she needed exercise. I had traveled this path countless times and had come to think of it as the boring boardwalk in the boring park. But I took it anyway, so that I could think about Mom.
The soil is rich along Token Creek. That is an understatement: Moist prairies in this region boast what might be the most fertile soils on the planet. Almost every acre was drained long ago and turned into prime cropland. These few were spared by a looping bend in the creek that made it hard to maneuver a plow, and seeping springs that made it hard to drain. The annual growth here is as lush as you will see anywhere in North America—everything is huge. The giant ragweed towers twelve to fourteen feet, and the sawtooth sunflowers stand nearly as high before they begin to bend elegantly over. Stalks of purple angelica may be two inches thick at the base, the skunk cabbage leaves are monstrous, the jewelweed tangles are almost too thick to walk through, and the nine-foot stinging nettles sway in the wind. I had forgotten all this, and so I had forgotten to take it all for granted. I had even forgotten that Token Creek was boring. In fact, it was astounding, marvelous. I noticed plants that I had overlooked as a child, like Oxypolis rigidior, a muck-lover that looks disturbingly similar to water hemlock but has edible roots. I could now put names to some mysteries from my youth, like the gorgeous purple spires of Liatris pycnostachya.
And then there was the Token Creek plant. I grew up taking it for granted, too. But deep inside I always knew the Token Creek plant was special, for a bunch of reasons. One, it was enormous and beautiful: charismatic megaflora. The leaves were eighteen inches across, like those of mayapple but with pointed lobes, or like a giant Canada anemone. But the Token Creek plant was obviously related to neither; it grew a zigzag stem that rose above my head even as I stood elevated on the boardwalk, with clusters of small, white, five-petaled flowers. I knew this was something special because I wandered a lot of miles, and didn’t see it anywhere else. This plant was so exotic looking that I wondered if it was some ornamental garden escape. Eventually I found more, west of Madison along Black Earth Creek, where I rode my bicycle twice a week; here this plant formed a virtual seven-foot wall of white blossoms in July. I knew it belonged here. But it was always in the background, never the subject, and I didn’t look up what it was.
Sixteen years after I moved away from Token Creek, and three hours distant, I noticed a few of those great palmate leaves in a prairie at the base of a limestone bluff. And finally I asked, “I’ve seen you for so long—but who are you?” Only then did I look closely and ferret out a name: glade mallow, Napaea dioica. It took another decade, and the passing of my mother, for me to bump into glade mallow again, back here where I had first met the plant 33 years ago. There it sat, right beside the boardwalk, just as I remembered it. Except now I saw it for the botanical wonder that it is: a giant mallow singular in its genus, the only strictly dioecious mallow in the western hemisphere, confined to the richest soils of the northern Corn Belt, from Ohio to Minnesota, but with most of the population concentrated in a rough triangle formed by Madison, Chicago, and Bloomington, Illinois.
Glade mallow opened my eyes to the fact that Token Creek was an incredible place, despite the gas stations and restaurants breathing down its neck, despite the noise from the adjacent six-lane freeway and the airport just beyond. What had been my last choice of nature preserves suddenly became the first place I wanted to stop when I drove by Madison, all because of glade mallow.
I read everything I could find about the plant, which wasn’t much, other than a fascinating article from 1963 in one of my favorite periodicals, The American Midland Naturalist, written by Hugh Iltis. A botany professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his heyday Iltis was about as close as you can get to a celebrity botanist. He mentioned that glade mallow was generally uncommon but locally abundant, even weedy along railroad tracks, and remarked that it transplanted quite easily even in summer. He also warned that if its limited habitat was not protected it would soon be extinct.
It is precisely because of the plant’s rarity that I had avoided the obvious question: Can you eat this thing? It’s a mallow, and mallows are generally edible. No wild food books mention glade mallow specifically, but very few of the mallow multitude are mentioned in this literature. And while Huron Smith’s Ethnobotany of the Meskwaki lists four medicinal or topical uses for glade mallow root, no food use in mentioned. This comes as no surprise; the Meskwaki list of food plants was far from complete, and these people were displaced to Iowa from north of the Corn Belt in Wisconsin, and even here they had resided for only a few generations. There is essentially no other ethnobotany written for any Native people within this plant’s distribution—if it were edible, there would probably be no written record of the fact. Since the edible parts would be roots or leaves, there would probably be little archeological evidence of its food use, either. But surely glade mallow would be safe to taste.
A few weeks later I was back at Token Creek making the same nostalgic stroll down the same familiar trails when I saw my chance. A thousand people might have passed this inconspicuous scene without a thought—but to me it was the glaring beacon of a mystery begging to be solved, the proffered key to a long-forgotten treasure, waiting for my fingers alone, as if that distant summer day in the reign of Ronald Reagan when I first trod this path had been fate’s deliberate preparation for this grand moment. The trail had been mowed a couple weeks before. A glade mallow had been cut to the ground. From the root two erect petioles rose, thick as pencils, new and tender, their complex leaves folded upward at the top. I knelt beside the plant and spoke to it softly. “If they don’t think there’s room for you here, I’ll take what you offer me.” I plucked one leaf and chewed it from the base of the petiole. My mouth confirmed what taxonomy had suggested: It was food. I finally got to know the Token Creek plant. Now we are inseparable friends.
I am happy to report that Iltis’ dire prediction has not yet come to pass. Glade mallow still grows along the Sugar River where he took the photos that adorned his article sixty years ago. A few miles northwest it still abounds near Black Earth Creek, and along Scherbel Road near Salmo Pond there is a magnificent colony every bit as thick as it was when I first saw it there thirty years ago. Beside the road runs a power line, and as usual, the right of utility companies to annihilate vegetation for no explicable reason trumps rare plant conservation. Under this line many thousands of glade mallow plants are ruthlessly mowed each summer—in a single pass making more mucilaginous mulch than an avid mallow muncher could masticate in a lifetime. Tenaciously the roots have held their ground for decades despite the onslaught, sending up leaves but never going to bloom.
I did something naughty here, of which I am proud. You might want to try this, too. I brought my cooler. And a shovel. I dug up a bunch of these beleaguered roots from the road shoulder and found them a new home in the “Edible Wet Meadow” section of my property. The leaves withered, but vibrant new ones arose in their place shortly, just as Iltis had said they would. With a heap of grass mulch they are now thriving, holding their own beside the stinging nettle, cow parsnip, angelica, cup plant, and sochan. I will care for them. In May I will eat their giant new leafstalks in soup. I will visit them on humid July mornings at dawn, staring up through thin fog at two kinds of snowy flowers, and I will think about vanilla soft-serve, and I’ll say, “Thanks Mom. Thanks for taking me to Token Creek.”
A lovely patch of glade mallow at Token Creek
Sam Thayer is an internationally recognized expert on edible wild plants. His first book The Forager’s Harvest has sold over 125,000 copies and his second book Nature’s Garden is not far behind. His passion for wild food extends to studying the origin of cultivated plants and the socio-economic history of the human diet. Other favorite activities include running, bicycling, archery, fishing, cliff diving, swimming, photography, cooking, growing fruit trees, using scythes and other old hand tools, hunting, and anything with the family.