YOUNTVILLE — To the knowing eye, a barren patch of nature can become a cornucopia of nature’s bounty.
More than two dozen students from Vintage High School trod through a nature preserve along the Napa River, amid trees and shrubs brimming with usually unnoticed acorns, nuts and blossoms. Leading them to the riverbank were their guides for the afternoon, an ecologist and botanist who called constant attention to the hidden treasure at their feet or behind their heads.
“I hope they can just experience our natural ecosystem and learn to appreciate the diversity that oak woodlands support, that you can find along Napa River even to this day,” said Shari Gardner, an ecologist for Friends of the Napa River who led the students on their Thursday visit to the Napa River Ecological Reserve.
“Hopefully it will capture some imaginations, and going forward, these students will appreciate the natural world,” Gardner said.
The Vintage students, members of the school’s advanced placement (AP) environmental science class, were given one of a series of annual school tours of the reserve organized by the county’s Regional Park and Open Space District.
Enduring a sudden midmorning shower, the students followed Gardner and botanist Jolie Lonner Egert on a serpentine path through the reserve. Here they stooped down to test the pungency of a mustard plant; there they glanced at a rock ledge bearing chicory greens that could flavor a Louisianan’s coffee; and elsewhere a few teens cautiously chewed the nuts of a bay laurel, listening as Egert described turning the nuts into chocolate-like truffles.
A jaunt down a mud-slicked path to the riverbank rewarded the visitors with abundant, dark clusters of wild grapes, on which they happily nibbled.
Elsewhere, the class took time to cull non-native weeds from parts of the reserve — interlopers like teasels, the prickly-stemmed plant known for rapidly crowding out other plants.
Just off the path they checked on acorns planted months earlier for a class experiment. The acorns had become rather shaky-stemmed saplings waving slightly in the shower-soaked breeze.
Amid a bounty once unfamiliar to most of the students, Egert also offered words of protection.
“If you ever eat wild foods, listen to me now — this is poisonous!” Egert implored the teens, grabbing a stem of hemlock. “It will kill you — not just pretend kill you, really kill you! This is what killed Socrates.”
She then told the story of the Athenian philosopher condemned to drink a brew of the plant toxin in 399 BC.
The idea of finding such richness in the wild seemed a minor revelation to Vintage students like Haley Kastner, 16, a junior enrolled in the AP class.
“I didn’t know that grapes grew wild, and also that we have a natural rose, a California rose, that grew here,” she said.
“We’re looking at the relationships between humans and oaks, and all of our wild edible and medicinal plants that are growing here,” said Egert, who runs the Go Wild ecological consulting firm in Fairfax. “My focus is on our relationships with the plants around us, how to improve our connections to the natural world.
“I hope they can learn that they are part of a web of life, that every breath they take is interconnecting with all of the life around them.”