This Day

blackberries and goldenrod

To be surrounded by blackberry brambles in the dense quiet of late afternoon! As we pick, a cicada’s buzz whirs out into the silence then stops; a few trees off a crow squawks, but no one answers.  Then the early fall stillness gathers around us again as we move carefully through the thorny canes.

To avoid the thorns I almost grasp a tall cow parsnip (Hercleum maximum),Cow parsnip

but remember in time that though these plants resemble their more benign cousins, Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), their sap contains furanocoumarins (say that with a mouth full of peanut butter!) which can cause blisters or burns on your skin.  If the blackberry’s thorns snag and catch you, hold that young poplar instead, and gently pull yourself free.

I steal a berrycropped blackberry closeup now and then: gritty with seeds, a slight bitterness beneath the sweet.  Sierra grazes below us, her dusty coat an armour against the thorns, her sensitive nose searching for what her eyes can not see, the fat ripe juicy ones. She wanders and nibbles with slow deliberation.Sierra eating blackberries

Some vague part of me remembers that blackberries (Rubus fruticosis), the leaves and roots in particular, are medicinal. The berries too of course are loaded with anti oxidants and vitamin C, but the astringent leaves and roots made into a decoction  have been indicated for diarrhea, mouth ulcers and many other ailments.

Still, it’s the berries we’re after today. Later, I will thicken the juice with pectin I made from some wild apples, and, with any luck, our blackberry jelly will be velvet soft, and dark as the bright interior of this day’s silence.


cropped blackberry jelly


Even If

Frozen river



 Even if what my farmer friend down the road says is true: that this weather we’ve been having –  freeze one day, thaw the next (this ominous deep swinging pendulum) – is bad news for the farmers…. Even if it means the garlic I planted with such anticipation last fall is a goner because of these crazy mixed messages—“Come on up, sun’s shining; start making glucose,” says the weather, “Feel that tug of green pushing toward the light.”

Then Zap! “Sorry,” says the weather to the emerging life, “Just kidding—temperature’s dropped 30 degrees, you’re rigor mortis, cold as stone; you’re not going anywhere….”

Even if it’s sleeting today – well, half sleeting, half raining, and there’s a slick of ice under the mushy snow so that you skid and lurch and wrench your back trying not to fall…. Even if everywhere you look there are dead spruce trees stretched across your path like pushy corpses…. Even if even my dog Sierra has the February blues…. Spring IS coming.

March snow 2

Or not.

A friend I love but seldom see said to me once “a drive in the country is not a cure for all things.” The same could be said for a walk in the woods this time of year – just a thing you do. Often when I walk Sierra on these cold, pre-spring days, it’s a get ‘er done business. I ignore the trees and brilliant green ferns flattened by snow. They ignore me too: “No expression, nothing to express.”* Either I’m preoccupied by a conversation with another person, or dulled by absence of light, absence of enthusiasm, or I’m hunched against the cold, not listening, not looking around.

But the other day my friend Diana and I paid a visit to “The Grandfathers,” a grove of towering hemlocks flanking a small spring fed stream.Grandfather We cupped the icy water and slurped. Then sat at the base of one of these giants sharing a thermos of hot apple cider. The tree’s roots grew on a hummock such that we could sit on either side of the trunk, high enough off the snow-crusted ground to be at ease. We gazed at the hemlocks in silence. When you start to pay attention to trees they pay attention back; or maybe they let themselves be seen, be felt. Their silence is full, not empty…And I know they’re alive and something is stirring within them….






I wrote the above reflection two months ago, longing for spring. Hard to believe it’s now April, and last night we got about 20 cm of snow. This morning the wind was as bitter as a cold day in February. Here I am still longing for spring two months later! But this is how it goes in the Maritimes.

Throughout February and March, Ice patterns 3-09 3the river in front of our house froze almost all the way across, then broke up into whimsical miniature icebergs. Slushy shelves of ice lay stacked on the shore. Then sparkling open water rushed out to the bay and made me think of summer, though I knew that water would freeze my blood in a nano second. Then the river froze over again.

Snow blew in, then melted away. In the melt times, there were massive amounts of gooky mud. With the almost warmth, almost spring, finches and chickadees ignored our feeders and went off on their own foraging expeditions. Cocky raccoons left the relative warmth of the old wood shed and sauntered into our yard like they owned the place. One fat acrobat swung himself up on to our porch roof one night and skillfully pulled the bird feeders down to the ground. On signal, skunks waddled out to partake of the scattered suet and seed, waving their tales above their heads like plumes.

One evening I pulled into the driveway at dusk only to hear a human-like shriek that seemed to be a cough or a gasp at the same time. Then there was another bone chilling husky shout. two foxesI heard, then saw, the panting rush of two bushy- tailed foxes tear-assing down the road, one after the other. Mating season.

More snow whirled in, then turned to rain. Sunny days turned to ice. Two steps forward one step back. It’s like this every year.

April 9 2018-1 snow blanket

As I said it’s April now. But even if we woke this morning to find the ground once again blanketed in snow, the day before there was a definite taste of spring. At MacPhee’s apple orchard, Rick MacPhee and his neighbour make maple syrup each year. There’s just this brief window when the nights are the right amount of cold and the days are the right amount of warm. Barry, Sierra and I schlepped through the wet snow to the MacPhee’s little sugar house yesterday and watched the sap boil and leap in the evaporator. Rick’s neighbour stoked the boiler with logs and the foaming sap shot in the air with the sudden heat. At the far end of the evaporator he lifted and lifted the thickening sap until it sheeted like jelly, then he poured it off. New warm syrup. That was its own kind of thrill. But even more wonderful was the cup of sap he offered us from the bucket outside the sugar house.

MacPhee's sugar house April '18 1

How to describe the taste of maple sap? Yes, it is reputed to have medicinal properties, in addition to the presence of calcium, potassium and magnesium. But the real medicine is in the taste. A clear, cold, faintly sweet, tree taste. This sap is the tree’s blood pumping upward. In spite of the ash grey of the leafless trees all around us, and the apparent stillness of the woods, a cold fresh surge of life is in that sap. I can taste it! Life is coming back to the world. Halleluiah.

Sap bucket April 2018

*from Robert Frost’s “Desert Places”


Buried Treasure


November.  These are the last days to dig for treasure, or bury it. My dog Sierra and I go out walking into the held breath of late fall. It’s silent and the sky is stone-coloured. Wild asparagus flames at the top of the cliff and tamarack’s last needles are a pale greenish-yellow. november appleThere are still a few small knots of brilliant orange on the branches of mountain ash, but most berries lie on the ground. A lone apple hangs from a dark branch. The world is suspended, waiting. No obvious treasure to be seen.



But a few weeks ago, before the ground thickened with frost, I dug or pulled up treasures in the form of yellow dock, dandelion, and elecampane roots. I was too late for one of my favorites which is wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis—cousin of ginseng). With its big canopy of five leaves and its right angle rhizome bulging at the joint, sarsaparilla tea made from the dried root is good for so many things, including, I discovered, flu discouragement! I tried it a few years ago, just when the first aches came on, and it worked! No flu. But the time to harvest wild sarsaparilla is in September. By now, it has shed its leaves on the forest floor and is unfindable.

You can still see a few yellow dock (Rumex crispus) though.curly yellow dock It is easy to spot this time of year because the once pale flowers are now the colour of dried blood. I find it satisfying to draw yellow dock out of the earth, not at all like the ordeal of digging burdock (Arctium), which seems to have a root that goes half way to China and which clasps the earth in an iron embrace.

Here’s how you harvest yellow dock , provided the ground is still soft. First approach the dock respectfully and look at its overall situation. Hopefully the surrounding weeds are not too dense. Then take the thin but tough stalk in both hands and pull slowly. You’ll feel the plant let go.

Once harvested, cut the root into small pieces before it dries out and gets so hard you have to take a chainsaw to it. After it’s diced, you can make it into a tincture (immersing it in alcohol for a month or so). Or you can dry the root pieces and use a few to make an infusion or a decoction.  Yellow dock, like dandelion, is said to be good for the liver and for detoxifying the digestive system. And, unlike most buried treasure, it is easy to come by. It is also held in high esteem by herbalists.

So that’s yellow dock. Another wonderful root is dandelion. One morning about three weeks ago I decided it was a good time to harvest some dandelion (Taraxacum officionale) roots. dandelion rootsThe moon was waning, so the roots were at their most vital. I jumped on the shovel and plunged the blade down into the cold soil past the dark green leaves. And then— a pirate’s chest full of muddy doubloons in the form of roots thick as your fingers. They shed their dirt-womb and smelled fragrant and bitter at the same time. Later, after I’d washed them, I roasted the dandelion roots slowly in the oven. Now I’ll grind them in the coffee grinder. How many grinders have I broken doing this! (perhaps mortar and pestle is better). Whenever need dictates, I can brew up a cup of delicious (well alright, not delicious to everybody) dandelion root tea.

Then there’s elecampane (Inula helenium) which I dug up the same day as I dug the dandelion. There is something magnificent, as well as a bit creepy, about an elecampane root.elecampane root It looks like a heart with arteries and veins attached. Once you wash the dirt off you half expect it to scramble away. And what a pungent tasting herb. Not as head-exploding as echinacea but very strong. I made elecampane honey some weeks ago and brought it over to my neighbor who has pneumonia (elecampane is specifically indicated for lung infection), having first checked to make sure it would not fight with the antibiotics he was taking. I expected him to wrinkle up his nose in disgust when he tasted the bitter honey, but instead he said, “Mmmmm, how often can I have a spoonful of this?” Which made me believe, rightly or wrongly, that this was a treasure meant for him.


Last week, instead of digging for treasure I buried it. I planted garlic cloves in one of our raised beds, and then covered them in a blanket of seaweed. The next day on one of our last unseasonably mild days, I stowed daffodils and tulips in the secret earth around the grape arbour. Now, over the long winter, in the cold dark crucible of soil, these bulbs will be transformed, and will, with any luck, blaze into treasures next spring.Tulips may 2017 pei Continue reading “Buried Treasure”

Beautiful By-goners

cropped QAL.jpg
Queen Anne’s lace gone to seed

It’s October.

rag weed gone to seed

Ragweed, ironically called Ambrosia – “food of the gods”  has done its best to fly into sneezes and water people’s eyes and is now, at last, a shadow of its former self.   Most other wild plants have likewise gone to seed. Yet how very beautiful this stage of life is!

Mind you, most ferns, so lovely in the spring do not age gracefully. They crumple and turn ever more brown, more wizened.

Old ferns 2-1
sensitive ferns

Then one day they’re gone.

cropped bracken fern
bracken ferns

Wait, I spoke too soon.  The burnt umber of bracken ferns has a definite flare.

Luminous goldenrods (Solidago canadensis) aren’t very glamorous in decrepitude. Their once blazing plumes shrivel into nondescript clusters of ashy grey.  Though occasionally those cloudy stems resemble trees frosted by moonlight; mostly goldenrod are homely this time of year.

But many plants, though they themselves are dwindling, produce seeds in a spectacular way.

Dandelion seed puff-1

Take dandelion’s (Taraxacum officionale) seed puff, for example.   What a gossamer little white sphere this flower becomes, one that will dissolve at the first breath of wind. Goatsbeard (Tragopogon dubius), with its complicated geometry, is likewise held together only by stillness.

goat's beard
goat’s beard

And note the gorgeous crown of Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) in her dotage. Each germ speck within this pale gold crown is rayed with tiny hairs. Queen Anne’s crown is like a hand holding a Milky Way of stars. Queen anne's lace crown-1  The seeds are said to be medicinal and are also used as flavouring. But utilitarian purposes aside, it is enough simply to behold such heraldic eleventh hour beauty.


What about milkweed’s   milk weed pod with fluff(Asclepius) pod,   each half, a sultan’s slipper bursting with silk-shrouded seeds that will sail down the wind, lighter even than the Monarch butterflies  monarch butterfly in flight  who preceded them.   I love the tear drop shape of the pod with its pointed end and the nest of fluff inside.


Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) too produces streamers. Those exuberant spikes of pink and purple become thin arms by September. Then comes a cobwebby miasma to float the seeds out, and finally, after the pips have left, a swirl of brilliant gold, coils around the once colourful stem.

Fireweed golden rings


On a more prosaic level there are Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album)

better lamb's quarters.jpg
lamb’s quarters in seed

aka “poor man’s spinach.” It was so prolific in our weedy garden this summer it was like a throw-out, a nobody. Yet it’s full of vitamins and minerals when young, and as pleasant-tasting as any other new green.   At first I didn’t recognize the gem-studded plant I encountered the other day.  But it was lamb’s quarters in a new dress, positively coated in seeds.


rose hip and roseGleaming rose hips surely rival soft-petaled roses for beauty. The hips are bright balls of hairy nuggets. If you are willing to take the trouble to extract the umpteen million hard little seeds from each hip, you can make a vitamin C rich tea or even a jam. Moreover, if you bite carefully into one of those rosy globes before it withers, you will encounter a delicious fruit – though there’s only a small burst of tart-sweet softness before you hit the seeds.

Most of the above mentioned are air travelers. Though some, like rose hips, fall to the ground. Then there are those, like jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) that explode!

exploding Jewel weed.jpg
jewel weed pods

Just last week, or the week before, jewelweed trembled with dangling pods that grew fatter with each passing hour. At last, all that was needed was a feather touch, and pow!  the case snapped back like a spring and spat its seeds out into this uncertain world.

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis), likewise, fires its offspring out into the world. I’d love to witness this. All I’ve ever seen is the empty shell in the fall, still holding a faint tinging memory of the explosive energy that blew it apart.

Seeds drop or drift, catch on a passing creature, or shoot into the air – millions on millions of them. Each one is a potential universe gathering energy into a knot of unbearable pressure until the sudden bang of creation implodes it into life. Now in October, when life gives way to death, I look at the fragile parents who offer their progeny to the dying living world. Their job is done.

But like an empty house collapsing in the grass, they are beautiful in their demise.old house collapse.jpg

QAL 2.jpg


Feed me, Seymour!

Grand Manan Swallow Tail light.jpgA few weekends ago some friends and I rented a cottage on Grand Manan Island. Our agenda was to eat, talk, and hike. We hiked a lot—through shaggy woods, and fields still rife with wild flowers, along vertiginous cliff tops, whales breaching in the water below. It was glorious. As always, we talked too much, sometimes shouting over each other in sheer exuberance. We also ate too much, at least I did. There were cabbage rolls and vintage tomatoes, pesto and homemade sausages; cookies and cake and chips, all kinds of cheeses and bagels, and, and, and! Did I mention the vodka and wine and cider?

Greed overtook me.

I’d argue that greed is a distinctly human problem. The 1995 musical Little Shop of Horrors features a gluttonous plant named Audrey II who offers the hero, money, fame and most of all, “the girl” in exchange for just a smidgeon of human blood, maybe a touch of flesh later on. Audrey 2 and SeymourBut as we all know, a deal with the devil starts out well and ends up badly. Audrey II, the cute little plant, is insatiable: “Feed me, Seymour!”

The thing is the playwright Howard Ashman had it all wrong. Plants are not greedy. On the contrary, Nature is abundantly generous. It is we humans, driven by greed, who take advantage of Nature’s generosity. No plant seeks excess in the crazy way we humans do. No plant amasses resources for self protection or tries to fill a spiritual vacuum with something material, or chases after pleasure trying to catch the wind.

Tonight, particularly in the face of those who suffer from want all over the world, I am pondering my own greed, my tendency toward excess.

We have way too much wood for example (we heat with wood, but still…). Last fall we ordered four cords, ran out in the spring and ordered two more. This fall, determined to get ahead of the game, we ordered six cords, even though we still had most of the wood left from last spring. Wood pile 2.jpgThe result is we now have the contents of a small forest in our front yard! I feel guilty whenever I look at all those stacks or maple and birch logs, the dry bones of what once provided a canopy of green shelter, and structured the forest floor.

“This didn’t come from a clear cut, right?” I asked our wood guy, coyly. But my innocence was as false as the pitch of my voice. I knew too well about giant harvesters and skidders. I’ve seen the acres and acres of strafed land in northern New Brunswick, the stark spikes of ashy wood in a wasteland no moose will ever graze. clear cut.jpgOf course our wood came from a clear cut. We didn’t say take it all, but we know we are complicit.

Reader, be careful about greed. Nature is, as I said, extravagantly generous. Plants in their season overflow across the landscape. Take as much as you want! they seem to say. Fields of dandelions, of clover, of yarrow.  I behold all this opulence  and feel like a kid trick-or-treating at Halloween, dragging a bloated garbage bag of candy behind me. Like a miser with her gold, I gather this bounty of medicinal plants and lay out my riches on screens to admire the day’s catch.  Chamomile and lemon balm, wild thyme and pennyroyal mint, rose petals, and purple heal all. On and on. Now there will be oils and tinctures and teas to make, jars and bags to label. Behold my stash of herbal medicine!tinctures, oils, and dried herbs


But forager, beware. Those delicate elderflowers gathered so enthusiastically in July will only last a little while. Elderflowers-.jpgBy next year they’ll be as medicinal as dry confetti. All you can do is turf them in the compost pile. Therefore, pick only as much as you’ll use this winter. Let the rest of those flowers become berries for the birds to eat.

And that only-as-much-as-you-need rule must be further modified, depending on the number of plants you encounter. Never take more than a fifth of what’s there, and cut the plant with a knife or scissors (remember to have such a utensil in your pocket whenever you go meandering). Don’t pull up the plant and destroy its roots. Cut the plant at the stem carefully,  gratefully.

Here’s something that happened to me recently. I was out walking through the woods after a rain shower and spotted the unmistakable pot-of-gold glow of chanterelle mushrooms under some conifers (they’re not particularly medicinal mushrooms, but oh so delicious). chanterelles_on_woods_floor.jpg  I bushwhacked my way there and knelt down to gather them. No knife. Oh well, a thumbnail will do. No, dear reader, a thumbnail will not do. As carefully as I tried to slice the mushrooms at their base, they were felled by my clumsiness, pulled right out of their leaf mulch. I stuffed those few into my pocket and wandered deeper into the woods in search of more, led by the fairy glint of orange. Here? There? At last, more chanterelles; I was sure of it. As I headed toward them, I stumbled into rabbit holes ducked under branches. orange leaves on forest floorWhen I finally came to the spot where the chanterelles were, they had morphed into orange leaves!

Now I know this is magical thinking, but I became convinced that my crude and greedy foraging practices, my disregard for the delicate mycelium just below the moss caused the chanterelles to disappear. Moreover, I got good and properly lost in those woods and had to let my dog Sierra guide me out.

Greed—some of us, alright, I, have these strange black holes in my soul. More always seems to be better. Store up for the hard days ahead etc. Buy a hundred rolls of toilet paper; it’s on sale; you’ll save ten dollars! One bottle of wine? Get a case. Ten beautiful paintings? Why not a hundred? More of that which gives pleasure means more pleasure, right? One brownie? Eat the whole pan!

This greed of ours, of mine, is connected not only to pleasure, but to time. The idea is that you can cheat the erosion of time by filling in the holes in advance. Greed is an exertion of power, of protection. If I have all this, I will be free, and if I am free, I can have all this. It is a shameful human thing, this amassing of material things, even the amassing of medicinal plants, which is my form of greed, specially given the desperate plight of so many human and non-human creatures in this broken beautiful world.

Unlike humans, plants are not greedy. They do not take; they only receive. They have no illusions about saving for a rainy day, or grabbing more than their fellow dandelion, which isn’t to say they are not competitive. But on some level, they know they will die and come back, over and over again. The rain will soak, the sun will warm, butterflies will land and flit away. And plants will simply live and glory in that flash of life that is theirs. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet… even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6: 28-29)field of wildflowers.jpg

Careless Senses (part 1)

Red-cliffs-of PEI-Canada

Oh September light! From now until the dreary dark of November there’s the most beautiful ache in the air.

This phrase from a poem I can’t remember: “…back to my careless senses…” Care-less senses?   Easy, unthinking senses.  And that word back. Back to where exactly?..



I experience plants mostly through my eyes. For example these past few weeks goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) kept calling to me, shouting really, into my eyes, “Us! Right here! In the ditch, a whole phalanx of us. Or here beside the river: our curling-over fronds, our holding of the light.Goldenrod in late afternoon.jpg Look at our yellowy gold! Streams of us, lakes of us, islands of us.”

I am always wondering what is this plant, or that one? There are the leaves: fern-like, or succulent, lobed or oval, smooth edged or toothed, opposite or alternating… leaf-characteristicsThe leaves help with identification. But the best way to know who is standing there in the ditch is to see the flower: its colour, shape and size. Once you know a plant,  you know it. That is, mostly…hopefully.

But that doesn’t come close to capturing the experience of looking closely at a plant, sharp edged in the bright air, the uncanny sense that the plant is looking back at you, not exactly looking, more like reflecting itself back at you, aware somehow of your gaze.

The other morning my dog Sierra and I strolled along the river. I shut my eyes and tried to walk sightless: sharp dune grass on the left, river on the right, tide coming in. pei_beach walk.jpgI slowed to a creep, bare feet groping along the sand, wary of empty crab shells, what my grandsons and I call “crunchers” for the satisfying sound when you stomp on them. I tried to get back to my careless senses, sans sight. Hard cool sand, spongy over the seaweed, screech of a tern as it slanted down the wind, wind that pushed softly on my body, riffled up little waves at the river’s edge. I heard those waves, felt that wind. Another step, and another, but it was too hard to go on; I opened my eyes. Sierra’s white muzzled face in the dune grass. I saw her seeing me.Sierra in the grass.jpg


Perception and the problem with words

But sight’s just the beginning of experiencing a plant; there’s perception.  In order to perceive plants it is better to be alone because you have to be quiet. It’s hard to perceive anything in the midst of cognitive dissonance (i.e. conversation). Plus sometimes senses overlap and you need to feel the fineness of that. There were those tiny wild apples by the side of the road, for example. crab apples on a branch.jpgI picked one and bit a chunk. My eyes had said that this small reddish orb with its brown warts was a regular wild apple; my tongue said so too at first, but then the sharp bitterness of crab apple crept in. Where are the words for taste?

That’s the problem with writing about the senses—words! A friend and I were out walking in a meadow a few days ago and I asked her to give me a word for the sound of the crickets all around us. cricket fieldThere’s chrrrr, I said, but that’s not right. She suggested reeeeeeee. But that doesn’t capture the pumping communal rhythm of crickets, the vibration, the serrated edge of their wing song…

When it comes to describing sensory experience, words are just plain inadequate!


Careless Senses (part 2)


The words for scent are devilishly difficult to come by. How does one describe the smell of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) for example? yarrow-There is an old greenness to the scent ; it carries a memory of roots and soil, of “the old brown earth” it comes from. But it’s fragrant too like the warm necks of horses. And yarrow’s smell mingles with its feel—the fibrous roughness of it—the way those tough grayish white florets scrub at the end of your nose.

There are the lovely perfumed medicinal plants like roserugosa rose 2 and valerian and meadow sweet. You inhale them, and something— a delicious heady wisp of scent— swirls up and around your skull and into your being. Do you ever walk through an invisible band of fragrance in the early evening, stop in your tracks, and say mmmmmmmm, what is that?

And then there are the plants that punch you in the nose with their volatile oils. Volatile—right word! Mint, vital fragrant mint (Mentha balsamea), and the itchy scent of thyme! Bayberry, sweet fern, sweet gale— breathe them in! There’s spruce and pine too, who smell like winter and go right to your lungs.

And what about when you stop by the side of the road, and pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides), pineapple weed.jpgcousin of chamomile, rises up from the ground and surrounds you with its fruity essence- a mixture of pineapple and dirt and rocks? Or you pass a stand of sweet grass…



When it comes to hearing plants, well, that’s another matter. I met someone this summer who put electrodes on a  plant and ran the wires to an amplifier.electrode on plant.jpg We waited and then heard a tentative sing-song atonal music that sounded like something from outer space.  Here’s a URL that discusses the music of plants in greater detail:   I wondered whether this watery music really was the plant’s song,  sounds too fine for our ears? Suddenly it ceased, and the large silence made what we had heard even more real.

I knew someone who found morel mushrooms in a place where no one else could find even one though there must have been twenty of us combing that same area. morel mushrooms.jpgHow did you find so many? we asked. At first he claimed he just came upon them, but when I pressed him, he admitted he had heard them. What did they sound like?  He paused for a moment and then said, kind of like bells.

I believe I hear plants sometimes as I’m ambling down the road, hear them rustling and shushing, but of course it’s just the wind. Mostly I hear them through my eyes or skin rather than through my ears. And I talk to them with the naïve belief that they can hear me even when I’m not speaking out loud. “Well Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare),” I say, “I missed you this year, you’re all done by now. Shall I pass you by?” tansy going to seed.jpgTansy doesn’t answer but I believe I hear it receiving my words, the way you might sense a corpse receiving your words.

This sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? The sort of thing a person should keep to herself.


Careless Senses (part 3)


What about tasting?  Here the rule is Stranger danger! Those of us who saw the movie Into the Wild some years back,  can not forget how Chris McCandless, delirious with hunger gobbled up what was probably wild potato (Hedysarum, alpinum) and then, already starving, he died.

Tasting is where things get tricky. A friend of mine tells about her toddler’s silence in the back yard many years ago and her relief at having a few minutes to wash the dishes. When she checked out the window however, she saw to her horror that the little girl was eating the beautiful ruby red berries of deadly night shade, gathering them up by the fistful and stuffing them in her mouth! deadly nightshade.jpgThanks to a frantic trip to the hospital, the child survived, but let it be known that eating, even tasting wild plants is not something you should do lightly.

A friend of mine wrote to me a few months ago about eating day lily buds. Her note struck a chord: I remembered hearing that such buds were delicious. Without checking or asking, I went out and started munching on every lily bud I could find. day lily buds.jpg  Very tasty! Not as peppery as nasturtium buds, more like a combination of fresh peas and celery. Eventually I thought maybe I should check about lilies, just to be on the safe side—by then I’d already eaten dozens of the pale orange buds! Oh my.    Google told me that some lilies are edible but others are quite poisonous; I was just lucky; you need to know what you are doing when you eat wild plants.

Speaking of lilies have you tasted the tender green leaves of wild lilies of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) in the early spring? wild-lily-of-the-valley-patch.jpg   All the sweetness of infant spring in a supple bright green leaf. And now in the fall that same little plant produces gleaming purple and bright red berries that have a brief flash of tart sweetness wild lily of the valley berries  though most of what you encounter with those berries is the seed. Worth noting is that cultivated lily of the valley has a lovely fragrance but is  poisonous. Red Wintergreen berries, slightly dry and withered, commingle taste and scent and are good for headaches, as is a tea made from the glossy green leaves.wintergreen berries

There are ghastly bitter things too that are, or can be, quite medicinal, like a tea made from old man’s beard (Usnea), which is good for bronchitis. Taste is not necessarily an indicator of whether the plant is safe to eat or not. You’ve got to make sure someone knowledgeable teaches you about a particular plant, or at least that you have identified the plant correctly yourself and researched its attributes.



Then there is touch. It is important to touch with care, the way you would a lover, half for your own pleasure, half for hers or his. Touch lightly as though your fingertips can hear and smell. touching a plant        To be predatory about plants, to grab them and yank them up is to miss their subtlety, not to mention that you may destroy them. Of course, some plants you don’t want to touch at all: poison ivy, and certainly poison hemlock. When we were kids, we hated stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).jewelweed.jpg Youch! A brush with a nettle was like a wasp sting. Fortunately, the nettles we stumbled into grew right beside a patch of jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) whose hollow stem contained an aloe like fluid that eased the pain.

When I harvest nettles nowadays (for it is a wonderfully medicinal plant), I wear gloves and long sleeved shirts. No touching! Yet I saw an herbalist once gently stroking the leaves of a nettle plant as though she were petting a favorite dog. The nettle declined to sting her.

Touch.  There is the feel of cones and bark, ferns and flowers. And is there anything softer than a rose petal? We merge with the things we touch. It is one of the best ways to know something.

In Conclusion…

Today I left Sierra too long in the car. Fear not, reader; the windows were open and the day was cool. She was only left there about two hours. But for her, the confinement of a car’s backseat, without consolation of a psychedelic panoply of odours when the car is flying down the road, such a confinement made her despondent.

Thus, by the time I released her from the car she was sense deprived and bored. We walked down the streets of Charlottetown where she listlessly smelled fire hydrants and pieces of side walk, but what was the point of any of it. Her gait was slow and unsteady. She had her mouth open and her head down. The world had turned to cardboard.

To remedy the situation, I decided to take her on a quick jaunt to Victoria Victoria Park early fall.jpg Park, a small woods that becomes a megalopolis of crows come evening, but is reclaimed by songbirds and squirrels by day. It is a very limited park but, as it turned out, it was sufficient. We entered the woods and Sierra’s ears lifted. She began to circle trees, stop and start. Her pace quickened. I watched her snuffle the base of a tree, her quivering nose taking tiny nibbles of scent. Who’s been here? What is this? And this? She loped ahead, fell on her shoulder, and rolled in the fragrant leaf mulch, then galloped back to me.

She was back, back to her careless senses. And these are the senses we must engage when we are out meandering.


In Praise of White Flowers

My mother loved white flowers— specially white lilacs and white roses. I, on the other hand, thought white a rather dull colour: bridal yes, but also vaguely funereal. white funeral flowers    White hydrangeas, white gladiolas, white chrysanthemums, meh. mehWhite seemed artificial, impersonal, no real kick of its own, not like glowing rugosa roses or wildly cheerful black eyed Susans , not like shocking red bee balm.rugosa-rose-3black eyed susan.jpgbeebalm



But a love of white flowers, medicinal white flowers in particular, has crept over me of late, like a slow tide. Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucas carota or wild carrot) is  truly lace! Its umbel is stunningly delicate, a fractal of blossoms with that tiny deep purple dot in the center to attract insects (that dot was said to be the drop of blood Queen Anne shed when she pricked her finger tatting lace).queen anne's lace

With its hairy green stem, single umbel, and lovely carroty smell, it’s extremely important to distinguish Queen Anne’s lace from its deadly cousins, poison hemlock (Conium maculata) and water hemlock. They resemble each other, but poison hemlock is usually much bigger, has a smooth stem with purple blotches, multiple umbels and, unlike Daucas carota, it stinks! Don’t go near water hemlock either. Both are poisonous.

water hemlockPoison Hemlock.JPG

Back to the queen. I’ve just now learned (from the internet of course) that you can make Queen Anne’s lace jelly, which seems a very genteel thing to serve on a scone, with a porcelain cup of  tea. cup of teaYou can also blend a tasty soup from the roots of wild carrot, this I know first hand, though I recommend throwing a few tame carrots into the mix as well, for the sake of flavour.

Queen Anne’s lace is exquisite, but I can’t help wondering why she so often shows up in the same places and at about the same time as homelier, stubbier, but not unsimilar looking yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Is the queen showing off? Of course not. I am giving these harmonious plants human characteristics. If you stand quite still in a gathering of various wild flowers you can sense the interconnection between them, almost like a faint hum… Nevertheless, at first glance yarrow seems far plainer and less gorgeous than Queen Anne’s lace. yarrow-      Yarrow’s dense clusters are crude compared to the frothy snowflake complexity of the queen’s blossom. Yet make no mistake; yarrow is a giant in the medicinal plant world. What’s more, with her light feathery green leaves, and her tiny daisy-like florets, yarrow’s beautiful in her own way.

Yarrow’s Latin name is Achillea millefolium which connects her to the Greek hero, Achilles. One myth has it that the hero’s mother dipped him in an infusion of yarrow when he was an infant, holding him firmly by the heels. Such was the potency of this herb that years later Achilles the soldier was protected from all injury thanks to his mom, protected except in the one place where she had held him, the one place yarrow hadn’t touched—   his heel. Achilles   And that unprotected spot was his undoing. Thus, yarrow has come to be associated with protection and boundaries.

Another story claims that the Trojan War, and perhaps many other battles, were fought in fields of yarrow so that the plant might be used to staunch bleedingfield of yarrow    wounds. It is a vulnerary herb and can coagulate blood almost instantly. You must be careful of course that the wound in question is entirely clean before applying a clean cluster of yarrow to the affected spot. But it is an incredibly effective healer; I know this from my own experience as well as the experiences of others.

Yarrow helps with the common cold as well. I’ve made teas from yarrow, peppermint and lemon balm for various friends and they’ve told me their condition improved. Yarrow also repels mosquitoes. A watered down yarrow tincture in a spray bottle does a fairly good job of keeping the bugs away, not perhaps as potent as Hector’s eucalyptus laced “fly dope,”) but still decent.

I love yarrow and find the heady earthy scent of it intoxicating. Yarrow smells like summer! It’s got a weed’s pushiness of course, barging into flower beds without even asking. But I have a hard time pulling it up. I tell yarrow, just as I tell that big splat of plantain there by the geraniums, ‘I’m glad to see you both, and I guess you can stay, but really, some of your infants have to go.’20170717_090540.jpg

And there are more white flowers.  A few weeks ago I met delicate-scented meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) for the first time at Bridget’s old farm house and snipped off a whole bag full of the blossoms, trying not to offend burrowing bees. Meadowsweet is anti inflammatory and also a remedy for acid reflux.Meadowsweet

Just yesterday I met valerian (Valeriana officinalis), her glory days past, her clusters dry and brown. But what a heavenly fragrance! I encountered that magical scent a while back before I knew what I was looking at, what I was inhaling. Now I’m curious about her. Valerian’s a nervine, but apparently a tincture of her root puts you to sleep OR wakes you up! depending on your intention—is this even possible? Can one’s intention sway the chemical effect of a medicinal herb?  Her root by the way (the part you use) is as stinky as her blossoms are fragrant.valerianvalerian root

July is almost over and now on my rambles I am looking eagerly for a tiny white flower called eyebright (Euphrasia). He isn’t entirely white. One petal has a small smudge of yellow on it, and the top curled-back petal is faintly lavender, plus this little flower has black lashes you can barely make out even with a magnifying glass. eyebright

What you see when you find eyebright in the ditch is a sprinkle of white. My eye has been bothering me off and on for over a month, and a tea of those eyebright blossoms, no bigger than specks, will soothe my eye; I feel sure of it.

There are many many more white medicinal flowers. And so I say, Bloom on white flowers, and let no one, least of all me, ever call you meh again!

Last wild strawberry

Last wild strawberry

Nature’s always making a liar out of me. Just yesterday I ran into an old friend who scoffed about my discovery of Labrador tea out in Mount Stewart. “It’s all over Cardigan,” he said. “It’s everywhere!” I sheepishly realized my so called discovery of the “rare” Labrador tea was the equivalent of saying, “Look at this extremely exciting spruce tree I just happened to see in the woods!”

last wild strawberry edit  Which brings me to my topic for today. The wild strawberry: gem in the weeds, ruby in hiding.  As of today, it’s officially eleven days after the wild strawberries usually arrive on PEI. Mom always said to look for them on Canada Day. And so far she’s been pretty well right. They come around July 1st, and by now they’re done, or should be. When I spotted one yesterday in amongst the tall grass, I said to myself, ‘that’s the last wild strawberry for this year…’ and prepared to write an elegiac homage to this sweet/tart little fruit, and ruminate on transience.

There’s nothing like seeing a whole swath of flowers burst forth in their own prime time. red cloverTwo weeks ago red clover was in its glory, so fat and sweet and purple (not red).


 Now it’s yarrow, one of my favorites, and purple heal all. And already there are the beginnings of bright yellow St Johnswort with its cool Latin name, Hypericum perforatum (the perforatum referring to the teensy almost invisible holes on Hypericum’s already miniscule petals).St Johnswort is filling the ditches, and Queen Anne’s lace is right behind it.


But I was not talking about the prime time, the big splash, rather about the ones left behind, after the party’s over. I love the stragglers, the last ones. There are still a few forlorn lupines standing like candelabra among their bean pod relatives. The lupine kids, too young and too late for the early summer ball, have just now put on their measly gowns. straggler lupines

                                                        Straggler lupines

The odd dandelion stands camouflaged amongst a blaze of hawk weed. Now and then you’ll see a lone red clover…

Even in their prime, there is never, in my limited experience, an actual swath of wild strawberries hiding.jpgwild strawberries, not even on Canada Day. That’s the dickens of them. They’re a one by one sort of affair. Hence, it’s always like finding a treasure when you spot them. In their season they give a clue by flashing a bright red leaf here and there to tell you “there’s something red down here—check close to the ground, peek under the leaves, you might just find something…” These berries are often in hiding, tucked under their serrated three leaf canopies.

The sun eats wild strawberries pretty fast. Either the sun, or maybe some tiny strawberry-mowing slug. In the last few days I’ve found a few berries gluey and slick as though someone’s been masticating them—too mushy for my basket. But mostly, they’re all gone.


Imagine wild strawberry jam! Mrs V, whose fisherman sons had a lobster pound behind her house, used to sell wild strawberry jam: wonderful on homemade biscuits already soaked in butter. It never occurred to me what that jam must have cost her—how long it must have taken her to crawl around on her old arthritic knees and pick enough berries for a few jars of jam. You don’t, or at least I don’t, gather wild strawberries in a satisfying handful like you would, say, blueberries. You pick each one separately, take off the stem right then, and pull the berry loose from it. It’s a fussy fussy process! Like writing a sentence word by word by word. Like a poem. The wild strawberries  around here, are about the size of pearls and are, in my estimation, about the value of pearls as well. One by one.

How precious that last strawberry was yesterday! It gleamed blood red amongst all the worn out green of a spent crop. I picked it tenderly, and ate it and felt the zing of it go through me. The last one until next year…

Did I say something about Nature making a liar of me? Today in my neighbor’s field there were all kinds of them! —you could almost, though not quite, say a swath. And big! bigger than pearls, sweeter than tart. My dog grazed beside me until I admonished her to go find something else to slobber on. There were a lot of wild strawberries out there. By a lot, I mean enough to fill a clam shell.20170711_102154-1.jpg

Maybe enough for a few strawberry tarts if I can bring myself to make some crème patisserie.

So, you lovely perfect last strawberry, it turns out you weren’t the last after all. You were just ordinary, like the Little Prince’s rose, one among many. Except that, like his rose, you belonged to me; so you seemed quite perfect, unique, not the last, or even next to last, but the one meant most for my eyes.

last wild strawberry edit.jpg