Happy Chance! Also known as serendipity! Serendipity might roughly be defined as an unexpected happy or lucky encounter. It is also, I think a mind set, an openness to the world and what it has to offer. “Expect miracles,” my husband said once.
Of course even happy words can sometimes have a razor in them. A long time ago when the relationship I was in crumbled even further, I asked my love how he had met the other woman. “Serendipity!” he said with a sad quiet smile. I hated that word at the time. Serendipity, go to hell! I thought.
PEI red dirt road
Then again, the finding of wild herbs and wild food truly is sometimes a matter of serendipity. As I ramble along down this road or that, not thinking anything in particular, just open to whatever comes, things have suddenly shown up. This is not to say that there isn’t a strong probability that you’ll find a certain plant where you found it last year; the plant prefers this habitat after all, most of its seeds dropped here, its roots live here.
But there are also those come-by-chance herbs.
For example there was that time I suddenly came upon bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) on Lahave Island in Nova Scotia, a medicinal plant I had been searching for high and low. A cold tea made from bearberry leaves is often agood remedy for UTIs. I have experienced this remedy first hand and been able to help others as well. As a diuretic, bearberry is as effective, if not more effective, than cranberry juice which works as an astringent. Sometimes it is helpful to use the two in tandem. Consult Google!
A friend introduced me to bearberry out in Prospect Nova Scotia some years ago. And I found it again in Blandford NS. However, when I went back a year later, there was not a trace to be seen. Some years passed without a single sighting (by me, that is). Then one day last summer on LaHave Island in Nova Scotia, I was listening to two sparrows call back and forth, my mind and spirit lost somewhere, and when I looked down, there it was, bearberry, trailing down a rock. What a thrill to see it again!
Likewise, it felt like serendipity when I found Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) growing by the side of the road out in Mount Stewart, PEI.
Seven or eight years ago in the woods outside Halifax, a fellow I knew spotted a Labrador tea bush down near Long Lake. He greedily stripped the plant of its leaves as though he had found a vein of pure gold. To me, this plant he so eagerly plundered was indistinguishable from another species of Ericaceae, a shrub commonly known as sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia). Both vaguely resembled a scruffy form of rhododendron; both are about half a meter high with smallish oval leaves. But sheep laurel, which is poisonous (hence the folk name ‘sheep kill’) mists the glacial rocks of Nova Scotia early summer in a profusion of rosy blossoms, while Labrador tea is far less showy and far less common, at least here in the Maritimes.
Labrador tea has long been used by various indigenous people in the treatment of colds and stomach ailments among other things. It was also simply imbibed as a satisfying and mildly sedative tea (though it too can be toxic if used in too strong a dose). So my friend picked; I watched. And I thought to myself: I might like to try this tea sometime…
underside of Labrador tea leaves
Since coming to live on Prince Edward Island, I have, from time to time, examined the underside of various wild rhododendron-like plants in search of Labrador tea, well aware that should I find it, it would have to be used in moderation and under the guidance of one experienced in Labrador tea. The giveaway in identifying this plant is the rusty orange-brown underside and the way the edges of the leaf curl inward. I looked for it but what I always found was some kind of laurel instead. I concluded that Labrador tea simply didn’t grow on PEI, and there was no use looking for it.
Then one day, while driving through Mount Stewart, I noticed in the rear view mirror that my dog was panting from the heat. I had to let her out of the car. So I drove down a road, turned here, then there, found an empty dirt road a few km from the Hillsborough river and let the poor dog out. It was too hot for either of us to do anything but walk slowly in a kind of daze. As usual, I looked around at the dusty green things beside me, now drooping in the heat. Suddenly, a distinct curling-inward leaf swam into focus there in the ditch. I looked at the leaf’s underside—rusty orange/brown! By George, I’d found it! The last thing in the world I was doing that day was looking for Labrador tea. It was dumb luck. Yet it feels like the most splendid gift when some rare and desirable herb shows up right at your feet.
And so I wish the same for you reader. If you are out and about looking for medicinal herbs I wish you serendipity!