Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Wild Feast

A light but steady rain fell all evening long. The trees dripped, dripped, dripped. I sidestepped the puddles in the long dirt driveway that led to the country house, my eyes cast down to the forest floor on either side of the drive. Wild strawberry, raspberries, burdock, dandelion, mallow.... Could that be toothwort!?! No...but I wonder what it is. This is how I look at the world now.

Inside, the house was warm and cozy. The living room filled with our motley group, brought together by a shared interest and passion for nature and food. Our hosts, neighbours and long time friends of our teacher Martha, generously opened their door and space to us.

On the table lay a feast of food. Sorrel and dandelion soup, baked beans, molasses bread, dandelion jam, pickled wild leeks, toothwort horseradish, wild goddess chips, a wild salad with a new addition this week: Dame's Rocket. There was linden tea, rhubarb juice and hot maple sap.

We filled our cups and plates and settled onto couches and chairs. The room filled with the hum of conversation and laughter. A range of topics was enthusiastically discussed: the best place to find a certain kind of mushroom, where to get fresh local food, the problem with pesticides, herbal uses for common plants, recipes, cautionary tales, gardening tips and advice.

People went to the table for seconds, and someone new filled their vacant seat. New conversations started up, threads of a topic carried across the room and popped up in another part of the circle like the fruiting body of a vast mycelium.

With full bellies and sipping on tea, juice or hot sap, Martha got our attention. She asked us to each take a turn and speak a little bit about how we heard about her course, why we took it and how our interest in wild edibles came about.

The next half an hour was a complete privilege listening to everyone's stories.

There was the man who grew up on a farm and spent many hours outside baling hay and weeding gardens. He started learning about wild edibles because he got hungry working outside all day long and would eat whatever was around him. This worked out just fine until one day he ate a berry he shouldn't have. Now he knows better.

There was the couple who have long been outdoor enthusiasts and whose families both had appreciation for what nature can provide.

One woman was rekindling a lost passion from the 70's back to the land movement, inspired by her daughter's question, "Can I have your old recipe for making dandelion wine?"

A few people talked about how their gardens have changed over the years as they have welcomed and encouraged what other people would call weeds.

Everyone expressed a deep love and respect for nature and the environment.

I was especially touched by the story of the young man who lives in a suburban city outside of Ottawa. With his neck tattoo, leather jacket and beater car he looks incongruous in the bush. Yet when I heard him speak about his love of camping and the outdoors, and saw the eager passion he has for learning and absorbing everything he can about plants and nature, and how respectfully he listens to our diminutive, elderly teacher, I felt ashamed at how quick I was to judge by appearances. Hell, at his age I was smoking, drinking and dancing my nights away in clubs and bars. Oh sure, I loved nature too, but I had other things on my mind at the time.

We came full circle. Our stories all told, joined us with many common threads. No longer a group of strangers, now a little community, brought together through the communion of the table, sharing a meal not bought from the cold, fluorescent aisles of some large grocery chain, but from backyards, forests, gardens and the precious green spaces where the wild things grow.

We filtered out into the night. It was still raining, and the trees dripped, dripped, dripped. I could just make out the dull shine of the puddles down the driveway. It was too dark to see what was growing in the bush, but in my minds eye I saw wild strawberry, raspberries, burdock, dandelion, mallow... This is how I look at the world now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

So um, in case you haven't noticed I've been seriously geeking out on all things wild, edible, medicinal and herbal.

Last summer I was just discovering "my new favourite obsession". It mostly lay dormant all winter, although I drank tea from the mullein I collected and dried and it helped me through a couple of bouts of chest congestion.

I still have a jar of unused plantain seeds that I harvested and stored. I may never have a use for them, but it was good practice and they would have ended up at the mercy of the blades of the reel mower anyway.

Last year I picked wild flowers like violets and chicory to use for decoration in my home. This year I will pick them knowing they are so much more than just window or table dressing.

I used deliciously aromatic dried purple basil flowers in my vinegar hair rinse, and relished the smell of summer in the depths of February. And I dreamed of spring when things would turn green and the first wild and weedy edibles of the season would make their appearance long before conventionally grown food.

I am very grateful for all that I have been learning through my wild edibles course and our teacher Martha Webber is wonderfully spry, wise and generous with her vast storehouse of knowledge.

I am reading books like Reap Without Sowing (one of the only two new purchases I made last year) and Peterson's Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (a new gift from the ADGMD). I long to get my hands on more.

The Internet is a fantastic resource for information as well, and I thought I'd share with you some sites that are fast becoming favourites and others where I have found useful information.

Here are some herbal/plant sites that I regularly visit for help with identification and uses:

The online edition of the classic text A Modern Herbal gives very good descriptions of plants and is fascinating for the accounts of historical uses of plants. Some of the information still stands the test of time, but much of it is now outdated and no longer in accordance with modern medical science. I always cross reference the information here with contemporary sources.

The Plants for a Future database is one such contemporary source for up to date information. This is a fantastic site.

I also frequent the Alternative Nature Online Herbal site.

I just found Kingdom Planet last week, so I haven't spent much time here yet, but I think their pictures are useful.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has an Ontario Weeds Gallery. You won't find any information here on edible and medicinal uses of the plants, but this site is excellent for identification purposes. It includes lots of pictures and thorough descriptions as well as habitat information.

Similarly, Wild Flowers of Ontario is great for pictures to help with identification, but short on edible and medicinal information.

Ontario Wildflowers, however, has a whole page dedicated to some edible plants.

In my searching I've discovered some wonderful blogs, quite a few of which I now visit regularly.

I've long been a fan of The Herbwife's Kitchen. This was the first of the herbal blogs I began reading. My reading has expanded to now include, The Medicine Woman's Roots, Henriette's Herbal, Jim McDonald, Susan Weed, and Prodigal Gardens.

After an hour or few of reading through these sites I'm ready to bust out the gypsy skirts, let the wind blow through my untied hair and frolic barefoot through the meadows and woods playing a wooden flute and talking to the plants! ;) (Or at least look into signing up for a botany course this fall...)

I hope that some of you find the links to these resources as informative, fascinating and enjoyable as I do, and remember whenever harvesting or purchasing wild edibles, please do so with good stewardship, conservatively and sustainably!

Oh and if anyone has links to sites that they like, please share in the comments.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Independence Days Week #4

Plant Something:
- head lettuce starts, oak leaf lettuce seeds
- dill, chives, cilantro
- pole beans
- started soy bean sprouts

Harvest Something:
- still more nettles!
- dandelions
- violets
- Gill-over-the-ground
- chives
- soy bean sprouts
- Dryad's saddle mushroom, morels

Preserve Something:
- dried nettles, Gill-over-the-ground, violet leaves
- made violet syrup and vinegar

Reduce Waste:
- compost, compost, compost! (keeping coffee grounds and egg shells separate for specific garden use)
- stewed apples that were about to go bad
- saved water from blanching spinach, for stock
- set a goal for myself to no longer buy tea, rather I will grow, forage, dry and store all my own

Preparation and Storage:

- from the Great Glebe Garage sale: peat pots, larger seedling pots, two terracotta strawberry pots (I will use them for herbs), harvest basket, food scale, two large jars with flip top, sealing lids (these are going to be perfect for making infusions, sun tea, sumac lemonade...)
- learned to identify chokecherry, wild grape, mallow, yellow wood sorrel, Gill-over-the-ground, chickweed, cleavers, elderberry
- found a patch of wild asparagus!!

Build Community Food Systems:
- met some more allotment gardeners, including someone else who is interested in bringing people together for garden parties!
- The ADGMD and I stopped to pick violets and Gill-over-the-ground on our way out of the garden. The patch we found was near a garden where a couple and their young daughter were working. Curious, the mom asked what we were up to. I explained that we were picking violets and what they are useful for. The mom went back to work in the garden and a few minutes later the daughter came over and we spent the next fifteen minutes together. I told her all about violets and she ate some leaves and flowers. I showed her how to identify and use plantain for her mosquito bites. When we left the mom said thank you and explained that her daughter won't go near leafy greens and she thought it was impressive that she was eating violet leaves. I heard the daughter explain to her mom how to use plantain. It was a pretty special moment for me!

Eat the Food:
- dandelion fritters
- nettle tea
- soy bean sprouts

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fungi and Flora

After a cool and rainy start to the day, the sky cleared and the sun came out in time for another Wild Edibles session.

This week, Martha showed us the polypore mushroom Dryad's Saddle.
This mushroom is not highly sought after, being thought of as too tough to eat and not having much of a flavor by many. We collected a few to try anyway. Martha pared off the tender edge of the mushroom and lightly sauteed the pieces. There was just enough for each of us to have a small sample, and I have to say I really enjoyed the texture and flavor. It was quite meaty, not tough at all and it had a unique flavor that I really liked. I would definitely eat this mushroom again.

Growing nearby were some very unattractive false morels. These are toxic and should not be eaten.

True morels look like this (and they taste amazing!):

Moving from fungi to flora, we identified sarsaparilla. (Taxonomy and uses here.)

Here is a great tip for identifying chickweed (from this site): "Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of common chickweed is the single lengthwise line of fine white hair on one side of the stem, but switching sides above and below each node."


Common mallow


Little baby wild grapes and leaves.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Independence Days Week #3

Here is my update for Sharon's Independence Days Challenge. You can follow along with her's and other's updates here.

Plant something:
- marigolds
- a few pole beans (This may have been premature. They were calling for frost on Sunday night and the ground might be too cold for them to germinate. We'll see....)
- transplanted wild strawberries around the beans
- planted beet seedlings and oregano that neighbour gardeners gifted to us
- planted raspberries that some friends gifted to us
- planted cilantro seedlings in larger pots
- planted chive seedlings in planter box (My seedlings are terribly leggy and floppy from not enough light or deep enough soil. I think I will end up buying seedlings at the farmer's markets, and trying to start from seed again next year....)

Harvest something:

- violets
- nettles (probably the last of them as they are starting to flower)
- creasy greens

Preserve something:
- blanched and froze some nettles

Reduced waste:
- ate radish top greens (very tasty when lightly sauteed with garlic greens, salt and pepper)
- cooked beans in sun oven (set up before I went to work, came home to perfectly cooked beans!)
- trellised peas with found materials
- used comfrey leaves in and around garden plot as mulch, watering with comfrey and nettle tea)
- composted last years tomatillos that didn't freeze well at all even though everyone says you can freeze tomatillos

Preparation and storage:
- bought energy bars on sale (good until January only, so they are for short term emergency supplies)
- added more hydrogen peroxide to first aid supplies
- started cleaning out bathroom cupboard to make room for more supplies
- sorted through dried food and herbs in kitchen cupboard, separated food from medicinals, medicinals will now be stored in bathroom cupboard
- bought bulk, local soy beans from farmer's market

Build community food systems:

- went with friend to farmer's market on Saturday and Sunday
- hosted an open garden party at my allotment plot, offered mostly local, homemade refreshments, made tea with the sunoven, the cornbread I tried to make was not very successful

Eat the food:
- rhubarb apple cranberry crisp from freegan rhubarb
- used the last jar of frozen zucchini from last summer for muffins
- added violets to salad
- used creasy greens for saute

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Garbage Day

On Day 4 of my Buy Nothing New Year last year, I bought a box of 12 thirteen gallon, compostable garbage bags*. I got them on sale, but even then I still felt that at $5.99 they were expensive. However, since I had big plans for reducing the amount of garbage I produced, I figured I could stretch the bags out for about six months or so.

Today, sixteen months later, I took the last bag to the curb.

Here a some of the things I do to reduce my garbage:

Just because it's garbage day, doesn't mean I have to put garbage out.
One of the first things I realised last year was that I used to put garbage out every week whether I had very much or not. Garbage pick up happens every week in my city and I accepted the habit and convention of a weekly pick up, because, well it's an accepted habit and convention that everyone engages in. Once I decided to reduce my garbage output and had less and less to put out each time, the easier it was to get out of this mindset and the more time passed between when I took my garbage to the curb.

I compost all of my food scraps and lots of other things too. Hair, nail clippings, lint and trimmings from house plants are just a few things that can be added to your compost. Composting greatly reduces the amount of garbage I put out and allows me to keep my garbage in the house for long periods of time because there is no smelly food waste to rot and stink up the place. Sometimes I have a bit of dairy like cheese rinds, that can't be composted. I keep these in a little tub in the fridge until the next time I do take the garbage out. (Meat eaters might find this a little more challenging, but I have heard of people who will freeze their unusable meat scraps until garbage day.) For wet food that comes stored in plastic, like my local tofu burgers, I make sure to rinse the packaging well before I put it in the garbage container. I save butter wrappers in the freezer and use them for greasing baking dishes.

Refuse Reduce Reuse
I do recycle, but I see it more as a final resort or last option after I've done everything I can to refuse excess packaging, reduce overall consumption and reuse what I can.

I refuse excess packaging by choosing to buy whole, local, minimally processed foods and in bulk as much as possible. I avoid food and drink that comes in plastic tubs or bottles and try to stay away from tetra packs as much as I can. I buy milk and yogurt in returnable glass bottles. I bring my own shopping bags to the store, my own reusable produce bags, and reusable cotton bags or my own containers for bulk goods. I refuse to drink water out of plastic bottles. I carry my travel mug everywhere and if I forget it, I skip the disposable cup of coffee. I try to remember to bring my own containers with me to restaurants for leftovers or takeout.

I reduce waste by trying to consume less goods in general and when I do buy things I try to find them second hand. Second hand items mostly come with no packaging at all.

I try to buy quality goods that will last and apply the old adage "use it up, wear out, make it do, or do without" to the stuff in my life. I increase the lifespan of my stuff by taking care of it and mending, fixing and repairing when necessary.

I use cloth napkins, handkerchiefs, TP and feminine pads. I turn old t-shirts into rags for cleaning. I make my own household cleaners from vinegar and baking soda. When I finish a big jug of vinegar I rinse it well and fill it with water for my emergency water supply. I rotate this water regularly since the jug is plastic, and use the water to flush the toilet or water the plants.

I make my own toothpaste and shampoo. I buy handmade soap with no packaging. My deodorant is a reusable rock crystal and is the one deo I've found that actually works for me.

I bring refillable containers to my local enviro-store that sells dish soap and laundry detergent in bulk.

I look for the future value in 'garbage' and hang on to things that I think might be used in other ways. I save almost all of my glass jars to store food and dried herbs in. Other containers can be used for general storage or seed starting trays. I keep mesh onion bags and crochet handles onto them to reuse as produce bags. The plastic bags I do accumulate (from bread or prepackaged produce) I keep for crochet craft projects like the clothespin bag in this post, or I donate them to the ADGMD who uses them to pick up after his dog. I wash and reuse ziploc bags. I reuse aluminum foil. Pie plates make great liners to help keep stove top elements clean. I save coloured and tissue paper for gift wrap. I salvage newspapers and paper packaging from shipments at work for garden mulch.

These are some of the things that I've implemented over time to help me reduce the amount of garbage I produce. They have become habits deeply rooted in my day to day life, blending almost seamlessly into a normal routine that I rarely have to struggle to accomplish anymore.

It didn't all happen at once though and my habits are still continually evolving. Some weeks I do better than others, but I always return to the foundational values and goals I have set for myself. I constantly return again and again, week after week, month after month to the idea(l) of living more lightly, simply and thriftily, refusing, reducing and reusing as much as I can and staying committed to being open and learning every step of the way.

As Rhonda-Jean put it so well in this post, "You are responsible for your own waste, and no one can reduce or stop your waste but you."

What are some of the things you do to reduce waste? Do you still struggle with establishing routines or have your practices become habit? I'd love to hear your tips, advice, challenges and successes!

*I found that I was going for such long periods between putting my garbage out that my compostable bags began to decompose on me. Since most of my garbage was light and dry refuse I just chucked it into my bin and only emptied it into the bag on the day that I took it to the curb.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Ethics of Wildcrafting and Foraging

A reader left a helpful comment reminding me of the importance of practicing stewardship and care when foraging for wild edibles. Also known as wildcrafting- the word 'craft' meaning skilled practice and proficiency- there are crucial ethical considerations that must be employed in order to skillfully and sustainably harvest uncultivated plants, especially from sensitive wilderness areas, so that the plants and surrounding environment are in no way damaged.

Some obvious things to keep in mind include, proper identification and whether or not the plant is an endangered species, or if there are laws against picking the plant. If possible, stick to known invasive species in your area or other 'noxious weeds' that are edible. For instance, garlic mustard, mullein and dandelions are considered a nuisance to gardeners in Ontario. People spend whole days and plan events around eradicating garlic mustard and other 'weeds'. Harvesting these plants for edible and medicinal purposes is doing them a favour.

Also note the environment from which you are harvesting. Avoid harvesting from the sides of roadways, brown land (undeveloped sites where the previous use of the land may have caused contamination), private property (unless you have permission) and protected or other environmentally fragile areas.

These are just the basics to consider when wildcrafting or foraging. A quick internet search yielded many other ethical concerns to keep in mind and there are a number of good resources and articles on the topic.

I found this article on ethical wildcrafting from Henriette's Herbal to be quite informative. Some other helpful articles can be found here, here and here.

Foraging can be a fun and wonderful way to get in touch with nature, increase your local food supply and provide nourishment in difficult times or emergency situations, but it is important to follow ethical guidelines to protect yourself, and the surrounding ecosystem. Always strive for excellent stewardship and best practices to ensure a healthy, thriving environment!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Independence Days Week #2

Plant something:
I didn't plant anything last week, but I am hardening off my seedlings and will definitely get some planting done this week.

Harvest something:
Garlic mustard
Mung bean sprouts

Preserve something:

Dried thyme, nettle
Transferred sauerkraut from crock to jars in fridge

Preparation and Storage:
Replenished bulk oatmeal supplies

Reduce waste:

The ADGMD rescued demonstration rhubarb that no one else wanted, from an organic gardening workshop.

Build Community Food Systems
Went to first farmer's market of the year!

Eat the food:
Cream of nettle soup- So tasty!
Nettle tea
wild salad
Mung beans

Thursday, May 7, 2009

I went to the woods...

Update: Thanks to a reader comment and some further research there seems to be some toxicity associated with at least one kind of wild ginger. (There are about 10 different species all together.) This site notes that the species Asarum canadense, the kind found in this part of the country, contains Aristolochic Acid, which is "a naturally occurring toxin that can cause cancer, mutations in human cells, and end-stage kidney failure." In light of this information I suggest avoiding this plant for edible purposes.

This week's wild edible lesson was a field trip to this beautiful forest, carpeted with white trilliums.

Peeking out between the trilliums, we found a lot of Spring Beauty.
(My picture didn't turn out, but you can see what a beauty it really is here.)
I did however catch a good shot of the bulb like root, which if you have the patience to harvest enough of these tiny roots, you'll find you have a tasty alternative to potatoes.

I'm excited to learn about wild ginger.

If you want to make sure you've found the right plant, look for the distinctive and beautiful flowers at the base of the plant.

Then you can dig up the root. Though smaller and more labor intensive than the domestic ginger you find in the store, wild ginger root is deliciously pungent, peppery and very aromatic.

For local foodies out there lamenting the lack of local ginger, this just might be a viable alternative.

From what I can tell, the plant makes a good ground cover, and grows easily in shady, moist soil. I dug up a plant and I'm going to see how well it does under the shade of the cherry tree in my garden.

This is the leaf of the crinkleroot, also known as toothwort. Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the crinkly root, however I can tell you that it makes a wonderful substitute for horseradish. It would take a lot of time and effort to clean and process the roots, but after one taste, it's clear that it would be worth it!

After tromping through the forest for a couple of hours we walked to the edge of a nearby river and set out a wild feast of steamed fiddleheads and stinging nettles, a freshly picked wild greens salad, a sample of burdock root, Jerusalem artichokes with wild ginger and potatoes with crinkleroot horseradish. We washed it down with linden and nettle tea. For desert Martha made up a batch of tasty dandelion fritters. I am definitely going to try making these myself!

All in all, it was another fun filled and informative evening and I can't wait until next week!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Independence Days Challenge Update

Here is my first update for Sharon's Independence Days challenge.

1. Plant something
Jerusalem artichokes

(Not quite planting, but I did start some mung bean sprouts on top of my fridge.)

2. Harvest something

Stinging nettles

Day lily shoots

Chives, green onions, mustard greens, dandelion leaves

3. Preserve something

Dried nettles

4. Reduce waste

Carpooling to wild edibles course

5. Preparation and Storage

Bought hand powered food processor and antique hand powered food chopper/grinder from thrift store.

6. Build Community Food Systems

Gave one jar of dried nettles to a friend.
Chatted with garden plot neighbour.
Chatted with fellow wild edible participants.

7. Eat the Food

Sauteed fresh nettles in butter, shallots and garlic.
Made salad with greens, onions, chives and day lilies.
Drank nettle tea.

Ate homemade sauerkraut.