A Summer Wander with Our Friends: the Plants

(Let’s Get to Know a Couple of Plants, in Depth…)

Summer and What Is Happening

Summer. What a fantastic time to get outdoors! This is the time of vacations—when we can take a break from our busy lives, spend time with family; the kids experience summer camp where lifetime memories are created.

So what’s happening in the summer in the natural world?

Birds are nesting all around us and raising their young. This is a great time to see lots of bird behavior…to see the parent birds teach their young how to fly. It is also a time to find baby birds out of their nests. The birds of prey are very active, seeking out those young birds to feed their young too.

The trees are in full leaf, creating shade for the plants below…also creating shade for us. There are so many different leaves: shapes, structures and textures that help to create photosynthesis, capturing the sun’s light with the pigment in the leaf called chlorophyll combining with carbon dioxide and water creating energy. These are little sugar factories.

The animals are rearing their young. A great time to be outdoors is around dusk or dawn—times of twilight (the magic hour)—to see the young foxes learning to hunt in the nearby fields.

The wetlands are exploding with life: newly-hatched frogs, turtles laying eggs, herons actively fishing, humans actively fishing; trout, bass and pickerel abound. Insects of all shapes and sizes—butterfly, moth, beetle, dragonfly, mosquito and more—are abundant. Birds and mammals, especially bats, and fish are delighted with the foraging potential.

Let’s Start Our Journey

Let’s start from our house. Go out the front door into our lawns. There is a plethora of wild edibles on many lawns. However before we go to the individual plant species that we will exploring, let’s pause to learn a little bit about foraging.

Historically, we’ve been foraging since the beginning of time. Our ancestors lived by their means of foraging as we are originally “hunters and gatherers.” As I make my way around interacting with native cultures and with mentors who have studied with them, I discovered that there is a deep relationship with the plant nations—from all types of food to fiber for rope, baskets and crafts, wild medicines for tinctures and salves, first aid and overall health. Every time you study and use a plant, you develop a deeper relationship with the natural world. The plants can be the foundation that connects us with all the things that are intertwined with which we are in relationship.

The Power of Native Knowledge

As we learn to look deeper at our neighbors, the plants, we also can recall how ancient peoples had an intimate relationship with plants as teachers and mentors, and many rites, stories and ceremonies were born through this connection. What I find as an incredible testament to our past is the deep knowledge of place that was, and continually is, fostered.

The Cherokee people had a deep understanding of 600 plants and their uses. The children, by their teenage years, knew 200 plants AND their uses. How many do we know?

Harvesting and Giving Back, What Is Our Intention?

When harvesting, it is important to realize that it is to be done with great care. Some people make an offering—tobacco, corn meal, a prayer, song or story. The Anishinabe use tobacco, but when Grandmother Lillian shared with me and others, she said to have the children use dry leaves that they can crush up to create a kind of fertilizer, and it was important for the children to get in the practice of an exchange.

In our classes, we let the children chose what to exchange, and sometimes it is a little bit of water or a hair from our head. With this kind of intention, there can be a link to help foster appreciation and respect for all species, not just plants. I strongly feel that if we pause in thanks and take the time to tune into our unspoken connection, we will learn much from our neighbors. To help put things in perspective, I like to point out that we wear plants and animals.

The Five “R’s”

It is important to remember where not to forage. This list will help:

  • Roadways: Highways, busy back roads, etc.
  • Rights of Way: Power lines and other easements.
  • Residences: If you don’t know if pesticides are used.
  • Railroads: There can be heavy toxins used to control growth of plants.
  • Rivers and waterways that use motor boats frequently.

Introducing the Plants

A friend of mine, Jeff Gottlieb, who teaches primitive skills, likes to categorize plants in three different ways. We have the “Grocery Store,” “Hardware Store” and “Drug Store.”

So let’s get back to our journey and meet some new friends, and if you already know these, let’s deepen that knowledge and reinforce the story we have that we can share with others.

In our yards, we have two wild plants that we will talk about in depth:

Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)—Leaves of this plant are more nutritious than many things you can buy [GROCERY STORE]. They’re higher in beta-carotene than carrots. The iron and calcium content is phenomenal, greater than spinach. You also get vitamins B-1, B-2, B-5, B-6, B-12, C, E, P and D, biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc by using a tasty, free vegetable that grows on virtually every lawn. The root contains the sugar inulin, plus many medicinal substances [DRUG STORE]. The specific name, officinale, means that it’s used medicinally. The decoction is a traditional tonic. It is supposed to strengthen the entire body, especially the liver and gallbladder, where it promotes the flow of bile, reduces inflammation of the bile duct and helps get rid of gall stones. This is due to its taraxacin. It is good for chronic hepatitis; it reduces liver swelling and jaundice; and it helps indigestion caused by insufficient bile. Don’t use it with irritable stomach or bowel, or if you have an acute inflammation. (Taraxacum comes from Arabic and Persian, meaning “bitter herb.”) Dandelion leaves’ white, milky sap removes warts, moles, pimples, calluses and sores, and soothes bee stings and blisters (excerpt from Steve Brill). There is so much more…

Cattail (Typha latifolia)—The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. This is commonly known as the “supermarket of the swamp.” As my mentor Tom Brown taught me, and I continue to share with kids and families in our classes:

• The leaves, flower heads, shoots and rhizomes are food [GROCERY STORE].
• You can make rope, baskets, hats and visors with it [HARDWARE STORE].
• You can use it for fire making for the tinder and the stalk for a friction fire named hand drill (personal experience…Earthwork Programs) [HARDWARE STORE].
• The mucilaginous juice is a barrier to protect from Giardia and also is a numbing agent [DRUG STORE].

You can easily recognize a cattail stand: white, dense, furry, cigar-shaped, overwintered seed heads stand atop very long, stout stalks, even as the young shoots first emerge in early spring. People sometimes confuse cattails with the very common grass-like non-poisonous reeds (Phragmites species), which form dense stands twelve feet tall. But reeds have flag-like flowers, and leaves originating along the stalks. When the two species compete, reeds tolerate more salt, and wins out on land. But they can’t grow in shallow water, like cattails. Caution: Young cattail shoots resemble non-poisonous calamus (Acorus calamus) and poisonous daffodil (Amaryllidaceae) and iris (Iris species) shoots, which have similar leaves (excerpt from Steve Brill ).

For more information on wild plants and their uses and classes, visit our website.