Careless Senses (part 3)

Taste

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.

 

Touch

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.

Saint_John's_wort_flowers

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.

wild-strawberry-freezer-jam

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

Serendipity

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.

broken heart

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.

red dirt road

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.

bearberry-

bearberry

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.

Labrador-tea-plant

Labrador tea

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.

sheep laurel

sheep laurel

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

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.

 

panting dog

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!

serendipity

 

 

 

The Lowly Plantain

June 21

lupins

Lupins!  But I’m not going to write about them today. Well okay, maybe just for a moment. They’ve hit the stage this past week. They are a gorgeous invasive species, so gorgeous in fact that most of us say, bring them on! Those calendar colours of purple and pink, the odd white one and even rarer splashy coral one. This time of year they sweep across the meadows of PEI like a magician’s cloak, like a Caribbean sea. When you look at them closely, you see that their little heart shaped petals are often bi-coloured: the pink ones accessorized with fuchsia, the blue ones with purple. Surely, there could be no deeper purple than lupine purple! Blues and purples, purples and blues: lupines have got to be the most extravagant wild flowers in the whole opera, divas with swooping fronds. They are about as irresistible to a visiting photographer as a cinematic PEI sunset.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But today, June 19th, I am not writing about lovely lupins. I want to talk about their humble, one might almost say ugly, second, third, fourth,removed cousin: the noble, the magnificent the lowly plantain (Plantago major). Of all the medicinal herbs I know, plantain is the one from which I have experienced the most miraculous results. If you were to take a first aid kit with you into the wilds, you would be wise to pack plantain along with your band aids and aspirin. Of course you wouldn’t need to pack plantain, not at this time of year anyway. It’s everywhere! It arrived with the first European settlers, hence the Native name, “White man’s footprint.”

 

If spectacular lupin is balm for the soul, humble plantain is balm for the body—it will ease the sting of just about anything.

 

As I say, it’s not pretty, at least not in any obvious way. Plantain’s stringy ribs are conspicuous in its leathery oval leaves. When you tear a leaf from the main stem, the ribs pull out like strings in celery. Plantain is often dry and dusty; I am not sure why. It is not particularly pleasing to the touch either. Bugs, or some kind of critter, like it, so, more often than not, there are jagged holes in the leaves and the tips are chewed off. It is, as I said, everywhere so if one leaf is chewed, there’s always another one close by. Wherever there’s a spindly blade of grass that has somehow managed to crack the sidewalk or the parking lot, you will probably find  plantain there as well. How can something this ubiquitous, this tough and scruffy be so wonderful?

 

Plantain is the antidote to most stings, that’s how.

 

I’ve lathered my grandson’s mosquito bitten body with plantain oil or with chewed leaves and he was soothed at once. If a bee or spider stings you, you have merely to tear off a plantain leaf (most likely right at your feet), chew it into a gooey pulp (that doesn’t sound nice, and it isn’t particularly nice; plantain doesn’t taste that good—it’s not terrible but it isn’t good) and apply the pulp to the sting. The relief is instantaneous, miraculous! I chewed up a leaf for a boy I met at a wedding who had been stung by a bee. The reception was held at a golf course and I found some plantain on the green. He looked dubious when this chubby old lady offered him a slobbery piece of chewed leaf and instructed him to place it on the spot. But after checking to see that no one was watching, he tentatively placed the medicine on his arm. His relief was evident.

hornet #2

Last year I was out in Vancouver visiting my younger son. One day I stood waiting for the bus, minding my own business. I gazed down the road to see if I could spot the #55, or whatever it was, when out of nowhere, a hornet torpedoed down from the sky and stung the base of my thumb, then flew off to nail the next hapless victim. The pain was violent, wild; it was one of those stings where you could feel the venom entering your blood stream, coursing up your arm. I felt faint— really and truly poisoned.

 

The bus was due any minute. I searched among the pop cans, torn chip bags, broken glass flanking the Vancouver sidewalk. There had to be some plantain somewhere! At last, just moments before the bus pulled up, I spotted one, no bigger than a dime, covered in dust and saturated with car fumes, no doubt pissed on by dogs and other mammals—a sad little specimen. But I picked it at once, chewed it (I’m sorry Reader, but I was desperate) and applied the sticky dot of masticated plantain on my sting, then entered the bus, awkwardly fishing for change. Within seconds, the shrieking pain began to subside. I pressed this teensy bit of miracle to the angry swollen bite on my thumb, and it worked its magic.

 

There’s so much plantain everywhere (except on a Vancouver sidewalk apparently!) that it’s easy to dismiss to say, oh that again, ho hum. Just there, endless amounts of it in amongst the grass and bedstraw, clover and buttercups. But oh what a gift it is. Plantain, the humblest of them all and the most deserving of our praise!

Carpe Diem!

June 12

The best time to forage for medicinal plants is in the spring, before the mosquitoes, or in the fall after the mosquitoes. Unless you are in search of the flower itself, the rule is, I think, that it is better to harvest just before the plant actually flowers (dandelion greens for example are much more palatable before that soft yellow bloom). It is now June 12th and the mosquitoes have arrived, so I’ve got to act fast. Most wild plants have only a brief moment in the sun, sometimes a week or two; some, like coltsfoot say, only a few days.

colts foot

Coltsfoot

Here’s roughly the order in which things arrive in eastern Prince Edward Island: One of the first things I notice is coltsfoot. Tussilago farfara (good for coughs); it shows up in mid to late April and is an oddity because the small dandelion-like flower precedes the hoof shaped leaf, hence the folk name: “son before the father.” Coltsfoot stand there all by themselves at the side of the road, with their hairy brachiated stems, and miraculously draw nourishment from gravelly, dry, unfriendly soil. Sometimes there are still scraps of dirty snow at their feet. I managed to gather a few handfuls of blossoms in early May and stuck them in the freezer. My plan is to make a cough syrup combining the flowers and leaves. In fact, I recently discovered you can make sorbet with coltsfoot flowers. I must try that!  Me and my plans.

Horsetail

Horsetail

After coltsfoot, comes horsetail (Equisetum) which I always think of as a dinosaur herb. I put it in a category with other ancient plants like ferns and orchids. Horsetail’s initial pale green coloured spears, segmented with brown notches, sort of resemble worms with teeny pied cones on top. Soon the plant turns into a feathery thing that looks like a bottle brush or a miniature pine tree. You’ve got to nab horsetail the minute it moves from spear to green plant or it will have too much silica. My tendency has been to pick a little bit of horsetail, promising myself I’ll go back for more the next day, but then I never do. I haven’t ever actually used horsetail tea or tincture, though with my cracked finger nails and thin hair, horsetail might be a good thing for me. But no, I collect a bit of it, put the brittle plants in a brown paper bag, resolving to try the tea this year, but then either don’t get to it, or feel daunted by the silica content, silica being the chief ingredient in glass.

fiddlehead

Fiddle head: Beautiful but too far gone!

There are many spring plants I’m failing to mention here because I haven’t yet foraged for them myself. I’d love to try young cattails for example. I’m told they taste like cucumbers and have medicinal properties. The problem is they are only edible in the early spring and you need tall rubber boots and be willing to wade in swamps, or streams,  if you want to get them. And there are fiddleheads of course, full of antioxidants, which are a most delicious crunchy asparagus tasting vegetable—I love the fact that this brilliant green spiral, like the scrolled top of a violin, holds a fern inside! I only went fiddleheading once and tried my darndest to memorize the place we went (fiddleheaders tend to be secretive, not unlike fishermen, so you either have to have your own spot or sweet talk someone with the inside scoop to take you to her spot). But I forgot where we went, and again, you’ve only got a few weeks before fiddle heads begin to unfurl into lovely ostrich ferns, so I bought them at the farmer’s market instead. They are very tasty cold, marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

dandelions

Dandelion

After or at the same time as horsetail, come glorious dandelions (Taraxacum)! For the first time this year I made batch after batch of pesto with new dandelion leaves. Fabulous! You could eat it with a spoon—which I did. Dandelions are good for you in a thousand ways and are used in particular to detoxify your liver. As a diuretic, one of their folk names is “Piss the bed.” But I’ve eaten roasted dandelion tea and dandelion leaves and flowers and never had this problem. Because they come flooding in at the end of May and fill whole meadows, you think they will be here forever, that you can pick them whenever you please. Not so! You must gather them straight away. The rewards are great. Did you know, for example, you could make capers out of the buds of dandelions? Why didn’t I jump on those buds back in May? Now I’ll have to wait until next spring.

Japanes knotweed

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) companions horsetail and seems to like the same habitat. It grows so fast you can almost stand there and watch it. I’ve always dismissed Japanese knotweed as an invasive species (which, of course it is) and thought of it as a “bad” plant. But to my surprise I ran into someone recently, a gourmet chef in fact, who pickles the young tops to good effect and even makes a tart jam combining very young knotweed with strawberries. He let me taste some—it was divine. Next year…

 

From now until August, one wild plant after another will burst forth; often many new plants together will show up in the meadows and along the roads, and you must be ready for them. Unless you are foraging for roots, the best time to gather most wild herbs is when the plant is new and green and shimmering with life.

nettles

Nettles

It is now early June. When I finish writing this, I’m going to put on gloves and go harvest the nettles which were, mere weeks ago, tender and small, delicious in a tea, wonderful for soups, full of minerals. By now those same nettles are practically trees! –Up to my waist. And their once delicate little stems are thick and woody, and sting like hornets. In a blink, they will flower; then the game is up for this year. So I’ll go out there now, snip those nettles at their base, stuff as many leaves as I can into a pot of boiling water and make a brilliant dark green soup out of them. The rest I’ll tie together and hang upside down from the roof of the porch, or lay on a screen to dry, then hope to remember to make medicinal nettle tea some time down the road.  Me and my plans!

Elecampane

June 5

elecampane

Here on the eastern end of Prince Edward Island the day is cold and sky is pale grey, though it’s already June 5th. Through my window I can see some scraggly spruce trees rocking in the breeze. This gives me hope that the mosquitoes and black flies which have arrived in the past week will not be too troublesome today. I want to dig up my “lasagna” garden, an area I covered last fall with layers of newspapers, leaves, mulch etc. That lasagna patch of ground is not, I regret to say, the lovely plot of soft friable dirt I had anticipated. Rather, it continues to be a mat of roots as solid and dense as concrete! So much for all those layers! This digging will not be fun. But is digging ever fun?  Nevertheless, if I can soften the area enough, I will plant carrots, lettuce and onions there today, and, like Mr MacGregor, wait for Peter Rabbit with a threatening scowl.

lasagna garden

lasagna garden

One of the other things I plan to plant today is some elecampane root which I brought over from my wild jungle of a garden in Halifax Nova Scotia, the garden (if you can call it that) of our soon to be sold house. That back yard garden in Halifax is a sea of forget-me-nots, tulips that have gone feral, rocket, dreaded gout weed, feverfew, jolly yellow dandelions up to your knees, and, of course elecampane with it’s big pale green oval leaves and spidery veins. It resembles dock and comfrey and is easy to identify. Anyway, if these Haligonian elecampane plants manage to survive in their new Island home of clay-ish soil, I will dig up the roots in the fall and make a tincture with them, maybe a cough syrup too.

halifax backyard jungle

Halifax back yard jungle

You, reader, may also decide to make elecampane tincture, and you will no doubt do, just as I have done: consult Google, informer of all things. I haven’t actually taken elecampane as a medicine but have heard that it is helpful in the treatment of lung infections, coughs of various kinds, and bronchitis in particular. This winter I plan to give it a try, if not for myself, then for friends of mine suffering from lung ailments and willing to trust me with such a concoction.

elecampane flower

Elecampane is a handsome creature: tall and flamboyantly yellow, a wild flower who demands recognition by her sheer size and bright sunflower like blooms. This September or October I will harvest the roots (if they survive) when the moon is waning. The waning moon is apparently the best time to gather roots because the energy of the moon, as its light diminishes, is pushing downward, rather than pulling upward as it does when the moon is waxing.

elecampane root

I expect I’ll put the roots on a screen for a few days to dry them out before I chop them into bits. The pieces will go in a glass jar covered with the highest proof alcohol I can get my hands on. Then I will wait six weeks or so, strain the mixture and put it in a bottle with a label that says Elecampane, as well as its Latin name, “Inula helenium,” plus the date I dug up the roots. I love the Latin names for herbs as they so often point to stories. In elecampane’s case, the helenium is connected to the tears Helen of Troy, shed when she was abducted from her Sparta homeland by her lover Paris. As her tears hit the ground, golden Inula helenium sprang up!

 

It’s centuries since Homer wrote about Helen, but knowledge of elecampane’s medicinal properties also dates back to the Romans. More recently, 19th century herbalists as renowned as Maud Griev and Nicholas Culpepper recommended elecampane for various afflictions, and modern herbalists also subscribe to its efficacy. I’m definitely going to see if it helps with coughs.

 

I’ll put it on the side of that confounded lasagna garden, in amongst the other weeds and couch grass, and beside the fat self satisfied comfrey and the marching troops of nettles, I’ll plant those elecampane roots and see what happens. And if you have a cough, drop me a line: peiamateurherbalist@gmail.com