Of spring flowers, forest nibbles and an edible feast…
Of spring flowers, forest nibbles and an edible feast…
Our May plants apprenticeship weekend got off to an early start for those of us who were able to camp out at Alexis and Bobbi’s place on Friday evening. Falling asleep to the sound of spring peepers and the pattering of rain on our tents and waking up to the sounds and smells of a glorious spring morning in the country was a great way to get into the groove of the weekend. Saturday morning, woken by a chorus of birds, cows and frogs, we had a relaxed outdoor breakfast and waited for the rest of the group to assemble. After a quick welcome and opening, and a chance to meet a couple of new participants to the course, we were on our way to a beautiful Grey County forest.
Our first encounter was with a patch of wild ginger, which prompted some good words from Alexis to add to our ongoing conversation about ethical harvesting. Wild ginger has some powerful medicinal properties to help with fever, respiratory ailments and indigestion, but it is a plant to be treated sensitively. With ongoing habitat encroachment, we learned that it is best to harvest wild ginger very lightly or not at all. Sometimes using a cultivated equivalent or a more common wild substitute is the best medicine! We also noticed that the ginger, normally a hardwood species, was growing among pines, and that other hardwood flowers were also present here. A fascinating example of tracking the human effect on the landscape: this colony is a remnant of a former maple forest that was logged for many years. We could see that the ginger was not as happy in the acidic soil of the pines as it would have been nestled among the maples that once covered this area.
We moved on to some more widespread and common species with large edible roots: dandelion and burdock. Again, Alexis prefaced the harvest with some wisdom on caretaking and ethics. Harvesting roots means taking a plant’s life, and so even more than taking other plant parts requires sensitivity and reciprocity: tuning in to the health of the plant and listening to whether it is ready to be harvested; and giving thanks, as is the time-honored practice of all cultures living close to the land.
Roots are best harvested before or after flowering: usually in fall, but potentially in spring. Dandelion is a liver and kidney tonic and a diuretic, meaning it helps move fluid through the body. It is particularly valued for this purpose because while it moves urine out of the body it also replenishes potassium. The bitter flavour of the leaves is also great for the body, stimulating digestion, and adding nutrients often lacking in a modern western diet high in sugar and salt. Burdock similarly has very bitter leaves, and its deep taproots are high in food energy, ideal for adding calories in any survival situation.
We moved along the trail and stopped to harvest some of the tiniest leaves of a basswood tree, and noted its multiple trunks and heart-shaped leaves. In the same area, we selectively picked some tender bright-green spruce tips to infuse in apple cider vinegar. At the foot of the basswood was a patch of daylilies, not yet flowering, adding another landscape tracking clue to the former homestead that was once tucked into this forest. We talked about the edible parts of the daylily and the importance of distinguishing them from non-edible species.
We moved out the forest into a small clearing, which held the crumbled stone foundation of another old homestead surrounded by more useful plants. As Lee and I slipped off to make a small fire, the others harvested catnip to brew for an after-lunch tea. Nestled among a grove of cedars, we ate a companionable lunch and later sipped the musky-smelling and relaxing tea.
Refreshed, we packed up and continued on our way, stopping to spend time with some bloodroot along the way – another beautiful native spring plant. We cut off the trail to find our way into a hardwood forest, and stumbled upon a small but incredibly diverse patch of native spring plants: blue cohosh, wild leeks, red and white trilliums, wild ginger, baneberry, Solomon’s seal, Canada mayflower. A group of us spent some time with our Newcomb’s guides and an interesting plant with its stem growing straight through its leaves, and a dangling yellow flower missing some of its petals: quite a challenge since the number of petals is integral to the book’s classification key! But with some persistence and intuition, we stumbled upon the identity of our mystery plant: bellwort. Other sub-groups spent time carefully harvesting some plants for our dinner, as well as checking out a patch of poison ivy, for future avoidance! Slightly down the trail, we found another beautiful plant with a white flower and spent more time with our Newcomb’s guides to discover that the plant was toothwort. We read about the plants’ delicious and pungent roots and dug up a few to add to our dinner. One of the roots was passed around for sampling, and was generally agreed to taste a lot like horseradish, with many exclamations of “so spicy! But so delicious!”
As we headed back to our cars, we had one final stop at a red elder to discuss the differences between this species and sambucus Canadensis, the edible black variety, which was not yet in flower. The name sambucus racimosa refers to the shape of the flower clusters on the red elder, which grow in rounded racemes instead of the flatter clusters of the Canadensis species.
We were done our time in the field, but our day wasn’t over yet! We headed back to Alexis’ place with our edible treasures, and spent a lovely evening together preparing and eating food, connecting, chatting about plants, and singing around the fire under a star-studded sky before heading off to our tents to rest up for what promised to be another full and exciting day on Sunday.
Written By: Malgosia Halliop – 2nd year Plants Apprentice