Friday, August 29, 2008

The World In My Own Back Yard


This is the value of networking. I got a phone call from a friend who is in our food co-op, asking me, "You're interested in herbal stuff, right?" And with my affirmation that I'm taking baby steps into herb lore, she shared with me an advert in the local paper for an herb walk offered in one of the upstate preserves. All of the querying and casting around for expert information on our local area netted me nothing, but the right set of eyes in the right place scored!

Tool Guy was just as excited when I told him about it and decided that this would be just the thing for a family outing...of which we haven't had as many as we would have liked this past summer. It meant getting up at 5:00am to pull together the day's food, but everyone was excited to go. I was nervous, because this was a place I'd never gone to before and we needed to be there at a specific time. The internet is a wondrous thing and so are the map websites, but I've learned very early that they aren't trustworthy. Sure enough. Halfway to our destination, we "found" the typo in the mapping program's instructions--someone must have hicoughed when they were laying it out. So we had to ditch the printout and resort to connecting our last dot on the printout map with what the Rand McNally atlas was telling us. With a lot of prayer and sweating, we rolled up to the kiosk to pay for our hike mere moments before the guide did. Whew! Tool Guy and Princess decided to meander off and explore the great outdoors on their own, but Bug and Dog felt that they were ready to wrap their brains around some serious herbaling.

I'll readily admit to being a neophyte in the realm of herbal lore, but I certainly realized how little I knew as I stood among the veterans on this herbal walk. One of our group, whose accent identified her as a world traveler, opened her flower guide, which parted to reveal pressed leaves that she identified as some things that she had found on a recent trip to Italy. Another in the group asked in astonished tones if the book was applicable over there, to which Greta replied that the flora was amazingly similar. Dog and I had a brief pangaea discussion while we slowly moved ahead...a mere two the next identified herb. It was slightly gratifying to be able to identify plantain and both Bug and Dog were quick with their offerings of the potential applications of it. Did me proud.


I was excited to find barberry identified. Our next-door neighbor had informed me that the profusions of them hedging our road were poisonous, but my herbal guide was of a different opinion. It does look to be a plant that one uses judiciously and I'll be exploring the precise harvesting and preparations, but the possibilities are impressive. She declared it a good substitute for goldenseal, which is not encouraged for wildcraft purposes, being endangered. Both of these have berberine, the attractive ingredient in goldenseal, though goldenseal has a higher concentration of it. Nice to know that the prickly shrub looming toward the back of my lawn has some valuable uses!

Wood Sorrel

As we meandered through the meadow, we never went far before stopping to exclaim over a find. Wood Sorrel was particularly appealing to me, since I'd seen it encroaching in my garden, as well as other spots in the yard. A plant that is good for liver support, it also has a sharply lemon taste. I'm planning on harvesting all of the opportunistic clumps of them in my garden and stick them in some olive oil as an experiment in a potential salad dressing. Hmmm....


Plantain has been my mainstay for poison ivy...especially since Dog seems to be magnetized toward the stuff this year. I'd heard references to Jewelweed as the herb of choice to remedy the unfortunate who ran afoul of sensitive foliage, but I never made the connection between that orangish-yellow flower dotting the ditches along my road with the pictures and descriptions I encountered online. I've come to believe that books and guides are but a poor replacement for a native informant for such matters. In his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan talked about hunting mushrooms and described how that, after having a live informant demonstrate, educate, and guide through the search process, those slippery distinctions between one kind and another kind became amazingly clear. Perhaps herb wisdom isn't quite so nebulous, but having someone point out to me these things enabled me to see them when I'd never seen them before. Tool Guy laughed at me on the way home as I exclaimed over this or that stand of herbs that I'd never connected with before. He told me that I sounded like an addict who was identifying places to score. Hmph. Troglodyte.

Jewelweed Pods

Dog and Bug were enchanted with Jewelweed, which also goes by the name "Touch-Me-Not" because of the delightful pods that, spring-loaded, will pop open with a touch. I had moved down the trail almost out of sight before I realized that I was light by two other sets of feet. They were lingering with some other enchanted adults, finding as many Jewelweed pods as possible. I won't even tell you about the frenzy they had with the silks in the milkweed pods. No wonder this two-mile hike took over two hours. Heh.

The walk wasn't limited to meadow foraging. We also found quite a bit of even more interesting things putting in an appearance in the deeper woods. These were undisturbed and protected, so we found some herbs that I'd heard were endangered, but never seen. Things like Trillium, Bloodroot, "Heal-all," and Solomon's Seal. Delicate stems of pink Indian Pipe poked up through the humus. When someone asked about the mushrooms we were seeing, she tickled us all with the quip, "There are old mycologists and bold mycologists, but there are no old, bold mycologists" and we returned to looking for the more shy herbs lurking in the understory of the forest.

The walk certainly whetted my appetite to learn more. After Tool Guy and Princess rejoined us (they lost themselves and found themselves in the woods on their walk), we decamped to find a picturesque picnic spot where we indulged in lunch meat wrapped in tortillas, fried chicken fingers, and the Hobbits gorged themselves on watermelon. When we got home, I walked through the yard, amazed at how much had been underfoot all of this time and I never knew it...all of these riches in my own back yard.

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