Monday, April 29, 2013

I'll be in the Wild Garden


Hi!  I'm over here now.  Do come and visit.  :)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dear Unstuffed,

It's hard to believe that we've been together for over 5 years.  I remember when we first got together in 2008, the year that I bought nothing new.  That was such a big year of change for me.  I freaked out about climate change and peak oil (still do sometimes) and overhauled my life to lower my environmental footprint any way I could.  I was ready for the economic system to collapse at any moment (still am) and stayed up way too late reading the Oil Drum and the Archdruid report (in bed by 11 these days).

I became...um...a touch overzealous, strident even. I think I turned off a few friends.  But not you.  You stuck by me through it all.  You were such a good support.  I could turn to you anytime and pour my heart out.  You would listen, not saying anything, not judging, just being there for me.

You were there when I discovered permaculture and a new-found desire for gardening.  You encouraged my rapidly growing obsession with wild food and healing plants, and I loved how I could talk and talk and talk to you about things like weeds and hedges and compost.

It was because of you that I got involved with Transition Ottawa and without you I don't think I would have gotten my permaculture design certificate, started gardening on my allotment plots, taken an herbal apprenticeship, begun leading walks and workshops, and quit my job to start my own business.

I am grateful to you for so much, which is why this is so hard for me to say.  Unstuffed, it's over.  I'm sorry, but I just think that we've outgrown each other.  I've changed so much and it's time for me to move on.

To be honest...well...I've started another blog.  It's still really new and there's a lot of work to be done yet.  I'm still getting to know it and how to use it, but I think we'll be really good for each other. 

Unstuffed, it's not you.  It's me.  I hope we can still be friends.  So if you want to hang out sometime, you can find me here.  You're the best.

Love,
Amber

Monday, March 25, 2013

We Like Lichens!

As members of the Ottawa Field Naturlists' Club (the oldest natural history club in Canada), the ADG and I recently attended a lichen workshop led by renowned, local lichenologist Irwin Brodo.  He gave a brief presentation on lichen basics, including a definition of just what the heck lichens are.

"The most significant thing about all lichens is that they are two plants, not one.  Each lichen plant body or 'thallus' is a biological twosome composed of a fungus living in intimate contact with an alga.  The relationship involves much more than the mere contact or even relative position of the constituents; it results in the formation of the entirely new, self-sufficient, functioning unit which gathers raw materials, manufactures food, conducts an exchange of of vitamins and growth substances, and often even reproduces as if it were a single plant."   Cooool!
Many lichens are highly sensitive to air pollution and the presence or lack of lichens in urban areas can be indicators of pollution levels in a city.
He discussed the the structure and different parts of lichens.
I thought the distinct algal layer was really interesting.
Rhizines are hair-like structures that anchor lichens to the substrate and they come in different shapes and sizes.
After the presentation we spent some time looking at various specimens under the microscope.  Irwin had a box of numbered but unlabeled samples for us to view, and a key to common, urban tree lichens of Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.  Our challenge was to key out and correctly identify the lichens under our lens.
After two initial misidentifications, the ADG and I got on a roll and correctly identified four in a row.  Some lichens were best identified with the addition of sodium hypochloride or potassium hydroxide.  Applied to either the cortex or medulla, a colour reaction might occur changing the test area to yellow, orange or red depending on the genus and species, which was very helpful in getting a correct ID.
It was fascinating to look at the different lichens up close.  Many were stunningly beautiful under magnification, especially the specimens with fruiting bodies.
By the end of the afternoon, we both remarked about how tired we were.  I actually find plant keys to be exhausting because they require such focused attention.  Add to that a couple of hours staring into a microscope and it's no wonder we were ready for a nap!

It was a great way to spend a late-winter Sunday and I'm really glad to have had the opportunity to learn a little more about lichens.  I will definitely look more closely at these amazing organisms.  Next, I want to learn about which lichens are edible!

Here are just a few common, urban tree lichens you can find in the Ottawa area:

Evernia mesomorpha

Flavoparmelia caperata

Candelaria concolor

Graphis scripta

Phaeophysica rubropulchra

Friday, March 15, 2013

Getting to the Root of it All

I recently had the privilege of presenting at the Ottawa Herb Society.  The theme for the evening was all things roots.  I talked about root coffees and wild roots as food, and I spent a little bit of time talking about roots in general, from a more botanical perspective.  I'm sharing the handout I prepared, here.  I hope you enjoy it!  Oh and if there any botanists reading this, feel free to correct any of my amateur mistakes.  :)


It’s easy to be overcome by the sensual beauty of brightly coloured flowers, or relax in the shade of dense, lush leaves, but it’s in the roots where magic and mystery happen and the alchemy of life occurs, transmuting one life sustaining substance into another.  Unless we make the effort to observe what goes on beneath the soil, all these processes go unwitnessed by most.

But roots have important and fascinating stories to tell.  Their shape and structure is complex and immense.  Like icebergs, there is often much more below the surface than would appear by looking at what grows above.  The nutrients that roots absorb are relatively fixed and immobile, therefore roots will frequently extend out in branching patterns to expose as much of their surface area to the soil as possible.  Some long ­lived trees have roots that reach down to 100ft deep or more.  If you were to take the total surface area of the roots of some plants, including the root hairs, and stretch them out in straight line, the distance covered would reach thousands of miles long!

Let’s take a look at what is going on underground.

Functions of roots:
  • ­anchor and support plant in soil
  • absorb water and minerals
  • conduct water and nutrients to stem to be transported to rest of plant
  • receptacles for food storage
  • responsible for vegetative reproduction
Root systems divided into two categories:
      1. derived from primary or seed root
  • ­ first root that comes out of seed typical of dicots 
  • ex. tap roots: main root from which smaller branches arise, thick and fleshy, store carbohydrates (starch, inulin) as food 
  • ex. fibrous roots immediately divide into cluster of approx. equal thickness, can be swollen, fleshy, tuberous i.e. day lily
    
     2. roots that are derived from some other way­- adventitious roots
  • ­ability to sprout roots from parts of plant that are not actual roots (ex. layering)
  • roots that originate from stem, leaves, old woody roots, branches or root that develops from old root organs
  • typical of monocots
  • types of underground stems: 
       rhizome: stem growing more or less horizontally below ground level­ thick and fleshy or woody, bearing scale leaves roots produced from nodes and buds in leaf axils
     tubers: swollen tips of stems, connected to parent by thin roots
     corm: enlarged base of stem, orientated vertically in soil
     bulb: thickened leaves, called scales forming a storage organ

The root­-rhizome structure
Typical of forest plants, this root structure consists of the rhizome, which is the horizontal,underground storage chamber, from which feeder roots grow in a hair­like mass.  Examples of this include goldenseal, Solomon’s seal, blue and black cohosh and bloodroot.

Not all roots exist below ground.  Aerial roots, aerating roots and prop or stilt roots are examples of roots that grow above ground. Some plants are parasitic and their roots adhere to the host.

Roots also develop amazing, mutually beneficial associations with soil bacteria and mycorrhizae (fungi that colonises the host plant’s roots).  In mycorrhizal associations, the fungus absorbs nutrients from the soil and releases them to the plant cells, as well as extending the root’s reach.  Fungi in turn receive certain enzymes that they require to break down and use lignin and cellulose.  These mutually beneficial relationships are of such  importance that some plants are so dependent on the presence of mycorrhizae in the soil, that the absence of the fungi impedes the plant’s ability to survive.


Harvesting Wild Edible and Medicinal Roots
You don’t have to look too far outside your backdoor before running into a wild edible or medicinal root.  Dandelion, burdock, chicory, yellow dock, evening primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, elecampane, nettle, day lily... I have harvested the roots of all these plants within a short bike ride from my home.  Many of these plants are weedy, non­native and even invasive and can be harvested without too much concern for damaging plant populations.  However you still need to take into account the plant’s ability to reproduce and grow well.

Familiarise yourself with the plants in your region that are rare, endangered or at-risk and harvest with great care or avoid altogether.  Many spring ephemeral, forest plants fall into this category (ramps, spring beauties, blue cohosh...), as they grow very slowly and only for the short period of time in early spring before the trees leaf out.

Remember, when you harvest a root, you are taking the life of that plant.  Learn which plants can regenerate from the root crown (the top of the root, from which the stem arises) or rhizome and replant these whenever possible, as appropriate.

Michigan herbalist jim mcdonald describes an excellent technique for harvesting the roots of Solomon’s seal without killing the plant:

“Find a plant and trace down the stem till you feel the root in the soil. Very often the roots are quite close to the surface, and if this is the case, and there's not a lot of clay to deal with, you can harvest with your fingers ­ if not, hope you've got a small trowel... The front of the root will have the bud of the next year's growth, while the back can reach upwards of a foot behind the stem. Trace back two to three inches from the stem and sever the rear portion of the rhizome with a knife or trowel (or break it with your fingers), and pull that portion up from the ground.  I find that if I run a finger underneath the roots as I'm pulling it up, I can collect it more effectively.  It will be a creamy white color, and appear to have knobby knuckles indicating the previous year's stalks (I've collected plants over 13 years old). Because the growing portion of the plant is never removed from the ground, plants harvested in this manner show no signs of impact or distress, and will continue to grow unimpeded by harvesting.  Very often, new shoots will grow from where the root was cut, which means more above ground plants, more flowers, more berries, and so more seeds. Also, any pieces of the back of the root that break off will likely, as well, continue to grow into new plants.  Collected in this manner, you'll have more plants growing where you harvest than were there when you started, and that is indeed a good feeling.”

Most roots are harvested in the early spring, ideally before the plant begins putting out too much new growth, or in the late fall after a couple of frosts (there are some exceptions to this).  Roots are storage chambers for nutrients the plants require and these nutrients are at their highest amount when the plant is dormant and drawing little energy from the root.  The roots of biennial plants, (those that take two years to complete their life cycle) should be harvested in the fall of the first year after the plant has spent its growing months drawing and storing energy in its roots, or the spring of the second year before the plant takes all that stored energy and puts it into
flowering and going to seed.

As with all wildcrafting, avoid harvesting in contaminated areas and know that roots will often contain the greatest concentration of heavy metals and other pollutants.

Roots can be preserved, prepared and enjoyed in any number of ways.  I love roasting dandelion and chicory roots for a coffee substitute.  I add the dried roots of Queen Anne’s Lace and evening primrose to my winter stews.  Fresh burdock gets thrown into my long simmering bone broths.  Elecampane is decocted and made into a syrup for coughs.  I tincture yellow dock roots to support the liver, aid digestion and stimulate the bowels. I love working with roots!

What are some of your favourite roots and ways to use them?

Sources:
Wild Roots: A Forager’s Guide to Edible and Medicinal Roots, Tubers, Corms andRhizomes of North America, Doug Elliott
Plant Form: An Illustrated Guide to Flowering Plant Morphology, New Edition,  Adrian D. Bell with Alan Bryan
Solomon’s Seal, jim mcdonald
Images: Wikicommons




Sunday, March 3, 2013

Snow, Seeds and Anticipation

I'm visiting my mom in Barrie.  She had cataract surgery last week so I made the trip to spend a few days with her to help out while she recovers.  It's a cold, grey morning with a light snow falling as I sip my tea.  Winter is old, I can feel it, but we haven't broken her back yet, as my father said to me yesterday.

I borrowed my mom's van (she's a parrot head, so it comes complete with a Margaritaville license plate, Jimmy Buffet bumper stickers, plastic lei hanging from the rear view mirror and a shark sitting on the dashboard), picked my dad up and we headed to Penetanguishene.

Being away from Ottawa this weekend, I missed Seedy Saturday.  As soon as I realised this tragic turn of events, I searched feverishly online for one happening close to my mom.  When the one in Penetang popped up, I sighed with relief; the day would not go unmarked by me.

Held at the Karma Marketplace, with only two tables, it was a fraction of the size of the Ottawa event, but the folks who were there were no less passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated.  And I got some really cool seeds: chufa nuts, fibigia, magenta spreen, sorghum, along with calendula and echinacea.

I'm excited to have new plants to experiment with!  Surprisingly though, I am not yet impatient with the weather.  It might be because I still have so much reading, planning and researching I want to do, or perhaps I am content with nature and the time she chooses to take to move from one season to the next.  I am in no rush.

That doesn't stop me from getting off on garden porn though.  I am pretty much smitten by the Bealtaine Cottage permaculture gardens in Ireland, and I'm ready to run off and declare my undying devotion to the woman in the videos with the soft, soothing Irish brogue.
There are 87 of her videos on youtube, so yes, it can snow here just a little bit longer, but maybe not too much, because already I can sense a spreading feeling in my chest, an expansion across the collar bones.  There's something akin to anxiousness or nervousness in it.  My breath quickens, my heart beats a little faster.  I pause for a moment, take a deep breath and try to put a name to it.  Ah yes, I know this feeling.  It's anticipation.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Living in a Wild Garden

I arrived early at the main branch library for a seminar last night, and with those spare minutes, made a beeline for the botany section and browsed the the titles on the shelf, head slightly tilted to the left, quickly scanning the book spines for something of interest. I found this delightful little gem and snatched it up.

Living in a Wild Garden was written by UK author Roger Banks and published in 1980.

Opening his story he writes, "This then is the ground I wish to cover in this book, the triangle between the obvious rural charm of wild flowers, ordered cultivation in the garden, and the kitchen. Usually it is a rubbish dump but I make no apology. In an over-tidy world it is on just these waste lots, often at the city centre, that one may find something of interest, useful or good to eat."

Later he recounts how Cousin Mary turned them on to nettles. "When she said, 'We must all eat stinging nettles; we did in the war. Find me an old glove', we did and thereby crossed unknowingly in another, older, more delightful world of people who are always on the look-out for something free to eat rather than being tied by the nose to the dreary compulsion of shopping."

Ok, clearly this is a man after my own heart!


He gives a Lebanese recipe for dandelions in oil called Hindbeh.
     Boil 2lbs of leaves until tender, strain and squeeze out excess moisture
     Mix with 1/2 cup of oil, 1 1/2 cups of chopped onions and salt to taste and fry, stirring occasionally
     Hindbeh should be served cold with lemon.

To make a tea from the lime or linden tree, "simply gather flowers dangling from low branches on their little 'aeroplane propellers' which later will whirl the seeds away on the wing...Dry them on a tray and store in a jar, using a good pinch at a time in boiling water like ordinary tea." 
I love his description of horseradish leaves: "...the leaves of the horseradish are some of the most beautiful I know; up to two feet long, each arches from the central growth almost describing a semi-circle like a palm frond.  It is V-shaped with a tooted fringe which grows so strongly from its central rib that it develops a rhythmic undulation, all dark green with well defined veins yet, because of this serpentine growth habit, the light can be seen alternately to shine through it and be reflected from it in the most subtle way."

Roger gives a fascinating account of Bishop's Weed, or Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria).  Often despised by gardeners for its aggressive spreading nature, he reminds us that this is an ancient food plant, having been discovered in the stomach of the Tollund Man, who lived in the 4th century BC.  I gather it every year, dry it and include it my herb salts.
He includes a number of medicinal plants and their uses in the book.

I love this drawing of chicory.  All of the artwork in the book is a joy to look at. The writing style is warm, inviting and humorous. I'm glad I stumbled upon the book and look forward to making my way through it in the next few weeks, while I dream about living in my own wild garden!