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! Thanks 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. 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? 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 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.
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. 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). 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.
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 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.