Friday, May 28, 2010

Local wild plants, medicinal herbs and foraging

When I first started learning about growing, foraging, harvesting and using medicinal herbs I had a case of "the grass is always greener on the other side".  It seemed as though all the most popular and most common herbs, (Echinacea, Goldenseal, Marshmallow, Ginger, Chamomile, Comfrey, Feverfew, Astragalus, Plantain, nettles and thistles) that grow in abundance elsewhere were not even hardy enough to survive our winters. Many of these plants are challenging to start from seed and then they require longer seasons than we have even to bloom. Many of the plants are grown for their roots, which are usually not large or potent enough to bother harvesting their first or even second year. So even trying to grow them is somewhat futile.

One day I was reading in an herbal about the benefits of Crampbark, and I was thinking how badly I wished that we had it up here and as I was reading the description I realized that what my book was referring to as Crampbark was what I had always known as High Bush Cranberry, which really isn't a cranberry at all. I realized that I needed to start focusing on what was out my back door instead of pining for the impossible for surely there must be other medicinally significant herbs growing here

I purchased the book Discovering Wild Plants, Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest by Janice J. Schofield. After finding most the plants and trees growing in our woods covered in this book, with every plant being used for at least one if not many remedies, I had a memorable epiphany: all plants have a purpose. All native plants and trees have medicinal relevance even if they just provide nutrition but are not traditionally used for any other purpose. Sometimes leaves are used, other times flowers, berries, roots or the bark. This was a huge realization for me. Looking back I am somewhat embarrassed by my  ignorance and naivety.

Since my earlier days of bemoaning everything that didn't grow here, I've learned that some of those herbs do grow here in the wild or may be wintered over once started from seed, and some of them are still worth growing as annuals even though I have to start them again from seed each year. Astragalus grows wild in our woods but it doesn't grow very large, and since the roots are used it would take a lot of plants to make a small amount of tincture. Plantain grows in disturbed areas and along road sides, it does well in fertile areas, like my old horses manure pile. Valerian grows here as well as Pulsatilla, Arnica, Yarrow and Wormwood. Some plants are not always recognized for their medicinal benefits such as Chickweed, Fireweed, Clover, Currants, Low bush cranberry or Lingenberry and Dandelions. One ingredient that I was sure must be something more special than the obvious was Red Raspberry Leaf (leaves off raspberry plants) Some of these medicinally relevant ingredients have been right in front of my nose without my realization of the purpose they served such as Usnea, the light green moss that grows on the trees, Birch Conch, Birch bark and leaves, Spruce tips, Poplar and Willow buds.

Herbs that are worth growing as annuals are plants that are harvested for their flowers (or leaves). Chamomile and Calendula come to mind, as well as Goldenseal, California Poppy and Borage. Some plants that I've grown in the garden, that I wasn't sure if they would winter over here are California Poppy, Mullein, Sorrell and Feverfew. Catnip and Borage seed often survive the winters and re-seed. Chives come back in abundance as does domesticated yarrow, in addition to the wild Yarrow. This year I have started true Comfrey and Nettles (yes stinging nettles) from seed with hopes that they may come back next year.

There are many plants growing on our property that are nutritious to eat, some more tasty than others. This is the time of year to be foraging for tasty young greens, although with all the heat and dryness we've been having they turn bitter quickly. Look for small plants growing in the shade, and away from roads. Some plants we've been nibbling on that I've been meaning to bring into the kitchen are dandelion greens, horsetail, fireweed and chickweed. Other edibles that grow wild in our woods  that we'll be snacking on this summer are bluebell flowers, rose petals and later rose hips, violets, cranberries, currants and raspberries. We'll be foraging for mushrooms later in the season. I'll also be picking and drying plants for tea. Among those growing wild are fireweed, strawberry and raspberry leaves.

Plants that are harvested for leaves can be picked any time but medicinal properties are usually
the strongest in new young leaves and before the plants flower. Try to harvest in the morning or evening or plants growing out of the direct sun. Shrubs and trees harvested for bark should be harvested in the spring or fall, when juices are flowing strongest in the trees. So either harvest your Crampbark now or wait till September. Obviously, now (or a month ago was) is the time to harvest spruce tips, willow and poplar buds while there are- were still new growths to harvest.

It's nice to know that while there are not yet mushrooms and berries growing in abundance nor is the garden providing, there are lots of highly nutritious greens to eat growing right out the back door. Sometimes it seems silly to spend so much time on the garden when there are so many plants growing all around without labor or our time other than snipping, washing and cooking with them. I find that the best uses for bitter tasting greens are blended soups, cook them with onions, garlic, potatoes and chives and blend them up, add milk, sour-cream or yogurt, and homemade croutons. Make a green dip by blending one or more greens, dandelions, chickweed etc, with garlic, chickpeas, yogurt, salt and pepper. Serve with tortilla chips or veggie sticks.

I was happy to walk up on Noah today, sitting and eating Horsetail and Fireweed. Of course if I purchased and prepared a salad with such bitter greens and served them at the dinner table he would protest. The spontaneity of just picking things growing around you and eating them on the spot is delightful.

Do you forage for wild greens? Favorite recipes anyone?

9 comments:

Mrs. Wayne Hunter said...

I really enjoy your blog!

I use medicinal herbs/plants and live up here. Labrador Tea (ledum) is abundant on our land! We have so many wonderful medicinal herbs and plants growing here, I refer to it as a wonderland!

One thing that I am considering is getting a home distiller for essential oils, especially for wild Alaska roses. Rose absolute essential oils are *so* expensive to buy that purchasing a distiller for years of use would be cheaper than buying more than one bottle over the years, in many cases, of the oil. Plus, having local wild rose absolute and using it in soaps would sure brighten-up the long winter days here and bring back summer memories.

Do you distill your own essential oils?

Emily said...

Not yet I don't, but I would love to some day. I started tea tree this year from seed and it is one of my most used essential oils for cleansers, wound wash etc. I would love to hear your experiences if you purchase one. I recently joined a Frontier buyers club that places bulk orders four times a year. I can't wait to start buying essential oils from them and have been holding out on buying any more small bottles until I can place an order.

How do you use the labrador? We have some and I recall in the village I use to live in, folks would brew it as a tea. Take care, Emily

Mrs. Wayne Hunter said...

Hi Emily,

Ledum Pal. homeopathy (which our family has used over the years) is good for bumps, bruises, bug bites, and is perhaps even the number one recommendation for puncture wounds (keeping them from getting infected).

I hope to gather some leaves for tea to use for coughs and colds and just to have a taste of Alaska sunshine in the winter :). I imagine that using the leaves in a rinse and poultice (depending on the use needed) would work as well as the homeopathy.

If you need some leaves and flowers, or even starts, you are welcome to e-mail me and run out here to our bogs to pick some. It's blooming up a storm here!

Sincerely,
Nikki (a.k.a. Mrs. Wayne Hunter)
pentucky(at)alaska(dot)net

sk said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for the information and inspiration. I know just what you mean about having the "grass is always greener" problem. I have suffered from that too! Florida, where I live, is too hot for many of the most used/loved medicinal herbs to grow but I'm interested in finding out about more medicinal natives. I would love to find someone teaching/studying this type of thing in my area...
Good luck with your herb learning!

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Marie said...

I am looking for a supplier for Labrador Tea and was wondering if possibly you'd like to supply this herb for me. Price per pound? Shipped to TN?
THank you,
Marie Morris
mariemorris60@gmail.com

Emily said...

Marie, I could probably go pick some still. It is the end of the season so I'm thinking the prime time for medicinal potency is past. Snow is in the forecast so let me know if you want me to harvest some and how much you are interested in. I'm guessing the shipping wouldn't be much as dried herbs don't weigh much - depending on how quickly you want it. Do you have a surplus of anything you'd like to barter? Emily

Ayurvedic Treatment said...

Wonderful post. Thank you for the information and inspiration.

Herbs are the basis for many traditional medicines.In kerla thats in India also we have so many most popular and wonderful medicinal herbs and plants growing here.

I really enjoy your blog!

Ayurvedic Medicine In India

zara said...

its a pleasure to read here! i love wild greens and i got to love and know them bit by bit over the last few years, especially when i started living outdoors all year and going on bike tours. i like to pick them and include them in what i eat, if possible every day, like on bread, in stews, salads... my favourite though is a wild herb salad with chickweed as a base and more aromatic/bitter/sour herbs, like dandelion, sorrel, plantain etc. mixed in, with just a bit of salt, oil, garlic, lemon, maybe mustard... love it! and lots of folk i live with now too that before wouldnt touch them much. so not sure what grows up where you are, but i guess also there there's greens to eat raw isnt it?
another recipe i like is battered broadleaf greens (filled with other herbs or thinstripped veggies, or maybe cheese if you like) and deepfried. yum!
greetings to the snow and ice land, keep up the good work!