Foraging Black Birch

When I was about 8 years old, David introduced me to Black Birch (also known as Sweet Birch, Betula lenta), which is rather easy to identify when the branches are broken or scratched, it smells of wintergreen. Yellow birch also has a wintergreen aroma but not as strong. David taught me that I could make tea out of the Black Birch bark. After a long hike, we took a young branch and broke it into small pieces (each about an inch long, the thickness of a matchstick), added it to boiled water and let it simmer for 10-15 minutes (it’s important not to boil the twigs themselves, as they will lose its aroma). The water turned this beautiful red and smelled of wintergreen; the tea was delicious!

As my passion for the natural world grew, I loved to share it with friends. I found I could keep their attention if I identified plants that we could eat along the way. After a long hike, I would harvest some Black Birch and make tea for my hiking companions. This always impressed them and was a good ending to a lovely hike.

What I learned later was that Black Birch has analgesic and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory properties. Methyl salicylate compounds found inside the oil are effectively absorbed and used by the body to naturally treat pain. Methyl salicylate is related to the compound from which aspirin is derived from, so it was a perfect ending to a long hike and relieved any muscle aches we had.

When foraging it is important to properly identify the plant before eating or tasting. Peterson has an excellent field guide series.

Audubon also has a great series

P.S. I don’t think you can have too many field guides.

All information is shared for educational purposes only and has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

It is too early to start mowing

As I was sitting outside soaking in the magical spring weather, I heard the sound of a lawnmower. The first thing came to my mind was, “Shit, not already!” I surveyed our lawn, already a beautiful lush green, and decided that it wasn’t that high yet. What is wrong with these people! It is the end of April and still cool in the evening. It can wait.

A week later, I heard the lawnmower again. The sound makes me very anxious, because once I start mowing; my life is committed to mowing 3 hours a week, every week until the fall (we have a rather large lawn, unfortunately). That’s a lot of time and fossil fuels (we have too much lawn for a push-reel mower) committed to keeping the lawn shorter than 4 inches tall. So of course, I start thinking of reasons why I should and can put mowing off. The first reason that came to mind seemed very reasonable. Mike did not check out the mower to make sure it is in good working condition. Therefore, it really didn’t make sense for me to start it up, because I couldn’t fix it, if it needed fixing. Heaven forbid if it broke while I was mowing.

A couple of days later, I heard the same lawnmower again. This time I noticed the beautiful buds on the Redbud tree, they were starting to open up. Then I surveyed the lawn for violet ~ there were starting to emerge too. Well, that was a no brainer and my best excuse for not mowing. There is no reason to mow a lawn until after the violets have been harvested from the lawn for at least five or more salads. Sure, I can go into the woods to harvest them, but nothing is better than harvesting flowers and herbs from your lawn. And you cannot harvest flowers and herbs after you have mowed over them, yuck! So folks, I have the best reason (besides using fossil fuels) for not mowing our lawn for a little while longer. I need to harvest my “lawn” first. It’s good to be a forager!

A salad made last spring ~ now that's the perfect reason to not mow the lawn.

My first spring salad of the year ~ now that’s the perfect reason to not mow the lawn.

Let’s see who’s there

If you have been reading my blog, I am sure you know by now that gardening and maintaining a garden is just not my thing. But when it comes to foraging, now that is more up my alley. Although, you can claim removing last year’s dead stems and leaves is actually “gardening,” I view it more like exploration. Because the very act of removing all last year’s detritus from my little medicinal garden is always thrilling. It reminds me of when I would take Mathew into the woods to see what critters were living under logs and rocks. We would very slowly and carefully pick the object up to see who was there. It was always very exciting.  That’s how I approach my little garden. Mind you, it is a very small garden perhaps only 10′ x 10′, but an enormous amount of love and intention goes into it.

waking up the gardenAs I started to remove last year’s detritus, the first plants to reveal themselves were Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and Catnip (Nepeta cataria). I think I could also see a very shy Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) peaking through. Since I removed everything that would impede their journey to the surface and as long as the weather continues to be “spring like,” I suspect now all the plants will have an easier time revealing themselves, and by the end of the week more will breaking through the earth.

Waking up Lady's Mantle

Waking up Lady’s Mantle

This will be the 6th year I will be nurturing the garden. Every year, I add one or two more herbs to get to know and learn. Some of them I had never worked with before, so it has been very interesting. Gratefully, most of the herbs love the garden, coming back and flourish year after year. Unfortunately, some have enjoyed the garden a little bit too much. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and Catnip (Nepeta cataria) adore the garden but since they thrive all over our land, there is no reason for them to take up space here.  Other plants have found their way into my garden and are welcome, such as Red Clover (Trifolium pretense). Several years ago, I learned how tenacious Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) was, silly me, I planted it in the center of the garden, thinking it would look nice. It really did until it started to crowd all the other plants who were stifled by its beautiful large overbearing leaves and flower stalks.  The next fall, we tried our best to take it all out so the other plants could breathe again. We replanted the Comfrey between Mike’s baby apple trees, where is will help the trees thrive. Comfrey’s root system efficiently mines potassium, calcium along with other minerals enriching the soil around it. We did not do the best job eradicating it from the garden, as it keeps revealing itself, less each year but nevertheless she is always there. Truthfully, I am not too sure that it is possible to totally eradicate Comfrey, but I guess time will tell. It is a fabulous reminder that we really cannot manage nature. One of the very reasons I am more of a forager at heart than a gardener.

 

 

Refreshing winter drink

Sumac bobs

As the temperatures drop in the northeast, so do the foraging opportunities. Generally, berries are collected during the summer months, except for the berries of the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina). Late fall through winter is the time to harvest these tart berries for a refreshing drink, which is high in vitamin C, A and antioxidants.

Drupes and notice the hairs covering the stem

There are many varieties of Sumac; the largest in the northeast is the Staghorn. The berries and branches are covered with hairs, similar to the velvet that covers the antlers of a stag (male deer), hence the name. Sumac is rather easy to identify during the cold weather months as their bright red berry clusters stand out on the shrub that can reach four to 35 feet tall. The berry clusters are technically ‘drupes’ and collectively referred to as ‘bobs.’ The drupes are pea-sized berries with hairs that are covered with malic acid. This is what makes grapes and apples tart and gives your Sumac drink its tart flavor.

Berries

You want to collect the bobs on a nice sunny day, several days after any rain or snow. The precipitation will wash the malic acid away, so the drier the better. It is easy to test for tartness, simply touch your finger to a berry then your finger to your tongue.

To make a refreshing drink:

  • Harvest a couple of bobs
  • Remove all the berries
  • In a bowl or Mason jar cover the berries with cold water and let it sit for at least an hour, the longer the better (do not use hot water, it will release the tannic acid and the drink will be too bitter)
  • Add sweetener to taste. But frankly, it tastes so good, we prefer it sans sweetener.
  • Enjoy!

Refreshing Sumac drink ~ yum!

When foraging, please remember to collect away from roads and areas that may have contaminated soils.

What do you like to forage in the winter? Please share and I will continue to share.

 

 

 

 

Wild Food

While hiking Mt. Battie in Maine, we came upon one of nature’s wonderful gifts ~ ripe blueberries along the trail. Nothing is better than discovering fresh fruit, especially blueberries, while hiking. Of course, we proceeded to “eat our way up the mountain.” Mathew was so excited about our great fortune that he just had to share and alerted other hikers to our discovery. One woman responded, “Oh, I thought we shouldn’t eat them.” Our response was, “Why?” She said, “They’re poisonous.” Fair enough; if you do not know what blueberries look like in the wild, it makes perfect sense not to eat just any berry that happens to be blue. Pokeweed and Belladonna have blue berries, and they are not something I would want to snack on.

Picking blueberries!

Picking and of course eating blueberries along the trail!

Nevertheless, I suspect her suspicion of foraging wild foods goes deeper. She did claim to purchase wild Maine blueberries in her New Jersey grocery store. Wyman’s of Maine has been selling fresh frozen wild blueberries since 1900. I think the fact that these delicious orbs did not come in a neat package from the grocery store might be the tipping point of whether a person decides to eat them or not. This really confused Mathew since he thinks of a grocery store as the “place where you buy processed food.” And he views unprocessed food to be generally healthier. I personally love the fact that we are eating something the minute it is picked, capturing as much flavor and nutrition as nature has to offer. Moreover, the blueberries had not been handled by anyone except me. Not all fruit and vegetables are washed/sanitized before they are put into containers for sale. As consumers, we must trust that the pickers/processers are using the highest degree of food handling safety standards. Unfortunately, things are not always perfect and contamination happens, whether a worker does not wash their hands after using the bathroom or the work areas are not clean. For me, picking my own fruit/vegetables is best ~ hey, I am a forager at heart.

blueberries

YUM!

There are wild blueberries all over the North America but Maine is the place to go. They have over 44,000 acres of wild blueberries. Wild blueberries have been harvested commercially since the 1840s. Interesting, there is more nutritional benefits to wild blueberries than cultivated ones due to their size. Wild blueberries are much smaller than the big, juicy cultivated varieties, maybe less than half the size. Therefore, a cup of cultivated blueberries will hold perhaps 80 or 90, that same size cup will hold more than 150 wild blueberries ~ and that is why the benefits of wild blueberries are technically greater. See, most of the nutrients of blueberries are packed into the skin. A cup of wild blueberries has a lot more skin than a cup of cultivated blueberries, thus packed with quite a bit more powerful disease-fighting antioxidants.

Foraging can be challenging for the inexperienced. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it. The thrill is indescribable and delicious to boot. Go with a knowledgeable guide and take a copy of the Peterson Field Guide: Edible Wild Plants. I promise you will not regret it.

 

All information is shared for educational purposes only and has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

 

 

 

 

It is too early to start mowing

As I was sitting outside soaking in the magical spring weather, I heard the sound of a lawnmower. The first thing came to my mind was, “Shit, not already!” I surveyed our lawn, already a beautiful lush green, and decided that it wasn’t that high yet. What is wrong with these people! It is only the first week in May and still cold in the evening. It can wait.

A week later, I heard the lawnmower again. The sound makes me very anxious, because once I start mowing; my life is committed to mowing 3 hours a week, every week until the fall (we have a rather large lawn, unfortunately). That’s a lot of time and fossil fuels (we have too much lawn for a push-reel mower) committed to keeping the lawn shorter than 4 inches tall. So of course, I start thinking of reasons why I should and can put mowing off. The first reason that came to mind seemed very reasonable. Mike did not check out the mower to make sure it is in good working condition. Therefore, it really didn’t make sense for me to start it up, because I couldn’t fix it, if it needed fixing. Heaven forbid if it broke while I was mowing.

A couple of days later, I heard the same lawnmower again. This time I noticed the buds on the Redbud tree, they were hardly visible. Then I surveyed the lawn for violet ~ none. Well, that was a no brainer and my best excuse for not mowing. There is no reason to mow a lawn until after the violets have been harvested from the lawn for at least five or more salads. Sure, I can go into the woods to harvest them, but nothing is better than harvesting flowers and herbs from your lawn. And you cannot harvest flowers and herbs after you have mowed over them, yuck! So folks, I have the best reason (besides using fossil fuels) for not mowing our lawn for a couple of more weeks. I need to harvest my “lawn” first. It’s good to be a forager!

A salad made last spring ~ now that's the perfect reason to not mow the lawn.

A salad made last spring ~ now that’s the perfect reason to not mow the lawn.

 

 

What’s under there?

If you have been reading my blog, I am sure you know by now that gardening does not come naturally to me. Foraging does. Perhaps I am approaching gardening differently this year, because the very act of removing last year’s dead stems and leaves from my little medicinal garden was thrilling. It reminded me of when I would take Mathew into the woods to see what critters were living under logs and rocks. We would very slowly and carefully pick the object up, to see who was there. It was always very exciting.  That is how I’m approaching my little garden this year. Mind you, it is a very small garden perhaps only 10′ x 7′, but an enormous amount of love and intention goes into it.

waking up the gardenAs I started to remove last year’s detritus, the first plants to reveal themselves were Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and Catnip (Nepeta cataria). I think I could also see a very shy Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) peaking through. Since I removed everything that would impede their journey to the surface and as long as the weather continues to be “spring like,” I suspect now all the plants will have an easier time revealing themselves, and by the end of the week more will breaking through the earth.

Waking up Lady's Mantle

Waking up Lady’s Mantle

This will be the 4th year I will be nurturing the garden. Every year, I add one or two more herbs to get to know and learn. Some of them I had never worked with before, so it has been very interesting. Gratefully, most of the herbs love the garden, coming back and thriving year after year. Unfortunately, some have enjoyed the garden a little bit too much. Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) and Catnip (Nepeta cataria) adore the garden but since they thrive all over our land, there is no reason for them to take up space here.  Other plants have found their way into my garden and are welcome, such as Red Clover (Trifolium pretense). Last year, I learned how tenacious Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) was, silly me, I planted it in the center of the garden, thinking it would look nice. It really did until it started to crowd all the other plants who were stifled by its beautiful large overbearing leaves and flower stalks.  Last fall, we tried our best to take it all out so the other plants could breathe again. We replanted the comfrey between Mike’s baby apple trees, where is will help the trees thrive. Comfrey’s root system efficiently mines potassium, calcium along with other minerals enriching the soil around it. Hopefully, we did a good job eradicating it from the garden. Truthfully, I am not too sure that it is possible but I guess time will tell. It is a fabulous reminder that we really cannot manage nature. One of the very reasons I am more of a forager at heart than a gardener.