Wildcrafting: Each venture outside is a chance to connect with and learn more about plants
Note: I’ve used the common names for plants to provide better flow. The Latin names, essential for positive identification, are given at the end of the story.
Linda Diane Feldt | Contributor
I am about to go outside. Even before I have walked down my front steps, the weeds that have popped up and crept into my yard and that are a constant presence demand my attention. Not because they are a menace or an embarrassment. Here are food, medicine, flavors, smells, textures, and so many uses.
These volunteer plants have been coming into my yard for a quarter century. Every year a new plant dominates, every year I learn more about how to use and enjoy these volunteers. Mullein, chicory, yellow dock, motherwort, Virginia creeper, goldenrod, oregano, and so many more have all appeared, unasked and unplanted. And every trip outside I’m greeted by a change signaling the seasons speeding past; the plants themselves giving me the cues of what to harvest and when.
If I take my curiosity to the woods or a nearby park, there is even more to interact with. I’m plowing through brambles to catch black raspberries, reaching up into trees for mulberries and service berries, spotting with a thrill and then harvesting the bright yellow flowers of St. John’s wort that will turn the olive oil I put it into — purple with healing alkaloids and constituents.
Every maple tree is viewed with anticipation of the maple sap I’ve collected and used to sweeten oatmeal or drunk straight from the tree, or boiled for hours concentrating for maple syrup.
I enjoy a friend sharing a secluded hillside covered with onion-like ramps, digging up bagfuls with sticks until the smell of onion and humus blended and the abundance of this corner of the earth is mined. Later, cleaning the earth off each small treasure and blending them with yellow dock leaves and olive oil and nuts made a heavenly pesto that makes us giddy with pleasure.
It is soon time for stinging nettle, picked without gloves on a mound of ancient manure while llamas watch us with mild curiosity. Bags and bags of greens are ready to be eaten and frozen and dried and drank. The rich, potently green smell of nettle fills my kitchen for hours as I prepare that harvest for the freezer.
My hunger leads me to woods choked with invasive garlic mustard, where I am both angered at the spread that threatens so many other plants, while also enthused by this lusciously edible wild green that will add a bitter and garlicky taste to the dish I cook up later.
A stroll in the woods includes rubbing the wild carrot tops and enjoying the smell, identifying bergamot leaves before the plant flowers by holding the crushed leaves to my nose and hoping for that oregano-like scent. Observing the huge leaves of burdock I think of the earthy, solid flavor of the root, or the healing powers of the leaf applied to burns or scalds.
Some of the best moments of years past were my lover bringing some new plant to me to taste — taking some new wild edible from his fingers to my mouth — his gift of adder’s tongue rhizomes took me by surprise, their tiny strings poking through the forest floor like small albino staples.
A dog walk around the neighborhood is a discovery of rose hips, pears, crabapples, and more. People in their cars slow down to watch or occasionally ask, “What are you picking?” before speeding off again.
A morning is spent scrambling up and down a creek bed eating and marveling at an unknown berry — enough like a raspberry to be safe, but still unidentified until later when an old book mentions dewberry.
Collecting sumac berries from the canoe was a bright red moment one summer; the resulting beverage infused with the sour berries was a delight. Later, I was collecting and drying these berries for a condiment to be enjoyed all winter. Cattail pollen turned an apple crisp into a golden treat with a flavor uniquely sweet and dusty and yellow.
Over the short summer, a camping trip includes finding the wild food on the shore to add to dinner and lunch: plantain, garlic mustard, dandelion, mints and wild ginger all contribute to the trip and make us continually scan the river banks for more treasure. Even the taste of white pine — tasting more like turpentine than anything else — is a fresh and unique munch during a walk in the woods, and a potent diuretic. I admire it for being a source of fresh vitamin C during the winter.
A bike trip is sidelined to collect and open the hickory nuts that are scattered into the road and hidden in the grass. Each tiny morsel pulled from the intricacies of the nut hull is precious and sweet.
The wild and tamed medicinals are many; the echinacea in my yard is also nearby in the meadow. I preserve burdock tops and bottoms, as well as dandelion; valerian for relaxation, the smelly root preserved in alcohol; yellow dock root saved for accidents and trauma in a bit of olive oil, and so many more. Digging sassafras root yields pungent smells and tastes that last until much later.
The plants demand that I walk, bicycle, kayak, or canoe, moving slowly through the bounty and abundance of the seasons, continually observing, recording, tasting, gathering, collecting, and remembering as I move. There are sensory opportunities to experience the familiar and wonder at the plants I don’t yet know; to hear the changes with the wind and rain and the end of the season indicated by the dry crunch of leaves; to smell the dirt and all that is grown there, and each plant with its own distinct odor to experience and enjoy; and last, the feeling of not only touching the life in each plant part, but the textures and feelings stirred in me when each step is discovery and renewal.
Finding continuous opportunities to be nourished, healed, and invigorated with each venture out-of-doors is a feeling of connection, belonging, and deep appreciation and joy. I am about to go outside. That is where I’ll thrive and feel welcomed and at home.
mullein Verbascum thapsus;
chicory Cichorium intybus;
yellow dock Rumex crispus;
motherwort Leonurus cardiaca;
Virginia creeper Parthenocissus quinquefolia;
goldenrod Solidago canadensis and others;
oregano Origanum vulgare;
black raspberries Rubus;
service berry Amelanchier Genus;
St. John’s wort Hypericum perforatum;
maple tree Acer;
bergamont Monarda fistulosa;
ramps Allium tricoccum;
stinging nettle Urtica;
garlic mustard Alliaria officinalis;
wild carrot Daucus carota;
burdock Arctium lappa;
adders tongue Ophioglossum;
rose hips Rosa;
pears Pyrus communis;
crabapples Malus and others;
dewberry Rubus leucodermis?;
staghorn sumac Rhus typhina;
cattail Typha latifolia;
dandelion Taraxacum officinale;
wild ginger Asarum caudatum;
white pine Pinus strobus;
hickory nuts Carya;
Echinacea Echinacea angustifolia, Echinacea purpurea;
Sassafras Sassafras albidum.