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

 

 

 

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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

Here I am

Here I AmHere I am

 

Most days when I’m out walking the dog, I gaze at the river, look in the ditches beside me, and delight in the new green things crowding in on each other. walking along the river with SiI am curious about what’s what, have a wish to identify plants so that I will know them better. If I make a tincture or an oil out of a medicinal herb it is with a four year old’s enthusiasm for concoctions rather than a pharmacist’s careful blending.

Come winter, I am curious to try my “medicines” for this or that illness to see if any of them work. But were I to come down with something serious I’d beat a path to the doctor’s door quicker than you can shake a stick.

 

wild flower bouquet

Beautiful weeds…My earliest memories involve gathering wild flowers alongside my mother, a forager if ever there was one! Summer mornings I used to see how many different flowers I could find, and later, my wedding bouquet was composed of nothing but wild flowers: rugosa roses, Queen Anne’s lace, purple vetch and black eyed Susans, yarrow, daisies…It could not have been more beautiful cluster of flowers, ants and all!

 

As a teenager I encountered a delightful old forager on PEI.  Mrs. G lived with her elderly uncle, a fisherman, in a broken down cottage in Launching. We met her one summer after she rescued us on Boughton Island. Boughton Island

Boughton Island

The tide had come in and we were stranded on the island with a million and one mosquitoes for company! Mrs G, who was probably about the same age I am now, was as wide as she was tall. She rowed across the bar in her old yellow dory and brought us back to Launching, chuckling to herself about our foolishness.

old yellow dory

I loved visiting her after that. We’d sit in her tiny kitchen and drink tea and she’d tell stories about storms that swept huge waves across the land, how she had watched anxiously for her uncle’s boat.

Once, Mrs. G and I went out foraging for clams. We waded around in water up to our shins. Mrs. G wiggled her big feet down into the muddy sand, then kicked the big quahog clams up into the skirt of her loose fitting dress.

quahog clams

quahog clams

She managed to live much of the time off the land and the sea, and could cure herself of most ailments. She taught me to make a pudding out of Irish moss  Irish-Moss-     which is a seaweed full of carrageenan. It will thicken milk if you boil it long enough. I’m not saying this is a pudding you should serve to the queen; but it worked: the milk got thick. In our rambles through the woods behind her place Mrs. G pointed out this plant and that, and I wish now I could remember what she showed me. Those plants were friends to her. She never seemed lonely.

 

These days I have a similar feeling about medicinal plants. When I encounter something I recognize it’s like running into a beloved friend. In fact my dog looks back at me questioningly when I shout out “there you are!” to a patch of plump red clover. I’m pleased that they have arrived, and it’s almost as though they are pleased back. The generosity of nature feels personal to me: “How about some blackberries?” Nature seems to say. “Yes you’re bound to be scratched, but oh the juicy reward!”  “Have a wild lily of the valley leaf just popped up on the forest floor!”  “How about if I tilt in the breeze,” says a daisy, “so that the light shines through my white petals just so?”  “How about if I fill a whole meadow with a froth of yellow?” say the dandelions.

 

I hope reader, to include you in this delight, this friendliness of the natural world, this treasure hunt of foraging. When I make mistakes or claims that don’t pan out, forgive me. I’m a very amateur herbalist. If you read my blog at all, look at the first word to tell you what the blog’s about: Meanderings. Come meander with me; let’s see what we can find.