Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I've Been Learning About Wild Plants and Herbs

I have been teaching myself about the use of wild plants and trees and wild and cultivated herbs as ingredients in homemade personal care products (soap, lotion, etc.) as well as herbs for culinary and medicinal uses for about two years now.

An herb is basically any plant that is useful to humans in some way, therefore it may surprise you that common wild plants or even so called weeds you know are actually edible or useful in some other way. I had assumed the definition of an herb was something else which was more narrow in scope, but I was wrong. Thus, some weeds that Americans think are horrid to have in lawns or in garden beds (such as the dandelion) are actually nutrient dense foods and medicine when used in certain (easy to make at home) preparations.

I recall my husband being worried at my consumption of wild blackberries growing along the edges of our woods when he complained of the seemingly too expensive yet unripe and less flavorful cultivated blackberries sold at our local grocery store.

I remember my husband's fear of eating a hickory nut that I found laying on the lawn under the hickory tree, yet he had no qualms about eating the irradiated nuts from the grocery store.

Tender Dandelion greens 4/12/11 growing wild in my garden

 My husband complained that his mother bought two foot long tough dandelion greens from the health food store to make the family's traditional dandelion soup on Easter. I offered to go snip some tender young spring greens from our lawn and he recoiled in horror saying that if we took was what on our (organic) lawn we'd "not know what wild creature might have pooped on it". After I literally laughed out loud, I replied that on the dandelion farm we also don't know what wild thing might have pooped on it or what sprays and chemicals may have been put on it!

Wild Dandelion in bloom in my lawn 5/09/11

I was also going to make Dandelion Wine for the first time this year. That uses the blossoms not the leaves. However, I was very busy the week that I had hundreds at peak bloom in my yard and couldn't pull it off.

A problem with wildcrafting is sometimes the harvest window is incredibly short: peak can be one or two specific days. If you don't have time to harvest and prepare the it right then you can miss out on the harvest until the next year. Not all wild plants have a long growing season or when not at peak you cannot gather enough quantity to do what you intended to do such as the large quantity of dandelion blossoms you need to make a decent batch of dandelion wine. If you don't gather the hickory nuts within 48 hours of when they fell the squirrels may beat you to them.

The more I learn about the wild plants growing around my home the more horrifying the act of weeding or (gasp) spraying them with chemicals seems. The idea of pristine monoculture lawns or golf courses which requires poison to create is perhaps even more artificial or creepy than asphault-covered cities.

Although modern America is mostly now a go to work and get paid money, then go to the store to exchange the money for food made in some unknown place culture, it still seems stupid to me to let good wild food growing right in our yards and woods rot away uneaten. If I'm growing mint in my garden "for decoration" is it not silly to take our hard earned money to buy dried mint from the store to make tea from? If I have maple trees right on my property why must I pay $135 a gallon at the grocery store for prepared pure maple syrup?

Once you begin to grasp how practical it is to eat wild foods growing right under our noses on our own property you start to open your mind to the plant's other uses. Did you know a simple homemade tincture of oregano (made with an easy recipe of vodka and fresh leaves) can help cure viral or bacterial head colds and upper respiratory infections? Wouldn't you like to treat the source of the problem rather than just taking over the counter symptom relievers like a decongestant? According to Richo Cech in Making Plant Medicine on page 193, oregano is an "antioxidant, antiseptic, preservative, anthelmintic and antifungal". Who knew? And to think I thought oregano was just a flavorful addition for marinara sauce and on pizza!

Before I end the post I'll throw in one tidbit I learned. Wild plants that survive adverse conditions and grow against all odds are found to be higher in nutrition and other components compared to cultivated varieties. It makes sense if you think about it. Plants grown at a farm en masse in soils which may or may not be nurient rich soil, which may or may not have been picked at their peak, which might also not have been grown organically, can be inferior to strong plants that grew themselves in the wild free of human intervention and free of chemicals or fertilizers. Also, hardy plants that make it through a dry summer may be of stronger stock than some coddled farm grown product that is boosted up to grow with fertilizer.

So, that St. John's Wort growing wild along the edge of your lawn which you pick at its peak that you can make into a homemade tincture may be better for you than buying a St. John's Wort capsule product in the drug store. Ponder that! Consider the benefits of learing about the wild plants and how you can use them. I'm really enjoying the autodidact process and maybe you will too.


Ludmilla said...

We collect and use a lot of wild plants growing on our land. We also have a huge vegetable garden and most of our food comes from local sources.
If I have to spray (per the county's ag department) I only use vinegar.
It pains me when I see people buying and using all the chemicals pushed on them by Monsato and heavily advertise everywhere. Sad.

upsadaisy said...

Dandelions are my most favorite flower! I likewise find it very interesting that people will spray poison on them, yet go to the store and buy gourmet greens--nearly the most nutritious green you can find, right there, nodding its pretty yellow head. So sad. If all of us dandelion lovers keep spreading the word, maybe those lawns will all turn yellow. We can always hope.

floridakotan said...

I have been thinking along these same lines lately. Any specific books you recommend for beginners?

ChristineMM said...

Hi Floridakotan,
I love "Wildman" Steve Brill, although he's New York and may focus on the Northeast plants. He has not only a book but a large website and also you can find some YouTube videos.

There is no one perfect book.

You will also need a field guide for your area. This can cross over into weed identification books or tree ID books. Sometimes things edible as drinks can be wildflowers or herbs, so then there are more ID books to consider.

That is why I wound up owning more than a half dozen useful books!

Some books are best for ID while some that are good for explaining how to prepare them are not as good for ID purposes.

It's a pain in the neck to be honest.

There are many YouTube videos.

Look up "wildcrafting" on YouTube or the Internet.

A cookbook by Diane Feldt is helpful but there is nothing in the book to help with ID of plants so you will need a plant ID guide also. "Spinach and Beyond" is the title (available through the link on my blog for Amazon).

I also recommend you do edible food hikes and walks with locals to show you things in person. It is different to see things in person than to just see them in a book.

It is also tricky to ID plants by a book because some show the plant at one stage when it can look very different at different stages. Also most don't tell you when in the calendar year it will look like what they show, i.e. will only look that way in April and May and meanwhile I was out looking for that type of thing in August and September!

One more tricky thing is the plants are sometimes only usable, as I said in the post, in a small window of time and so you may be trying to hunt it down at the wrong month. If you read a Connecticut person's account that a nut is in season it may have gone by for 2 months in a more southern location!