Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Of Forests and Food

Update: An article came out in the NY Times today about harvesting ramps (wild leeks). To make sure this plant doesn't go the way of American ginseng and goldenseal, ask about harvesting practices if you buy them at the market or order them in a restaurant, and don't get them if you don't get a good answer. If you harvest ramps, please practice good foraging ethics!

Rain, rain and more rain. I'm not complaining, but it does slow down the gardening activities somewhat and makes harvesting medicine plants pretty much out of the question. For that, you ideally need a few days of dry weather, and then you harvest on a sunny day around mid-morning, after the dew has lifted, but before the heat of the day evaporates volatile oils.
Normally at this time of year, I would be harvesting violet flowers and leaves, dandelions, nettles and horsetail among other things. But that's all just going to have to wait. It's an exercise in patience and acceptance.

I can and have been harvesting dandelion roots and roasting them for coffee. And I'm foraging for food plants as weather conditions really only apply in relation to the comfort level of the forager. I don't mind getting a little cold and wet for free food. Especially when I forage in the city and am only ever a few kilometers from the comforts of home.

On Sunday I walked to my friend's place, where I'm keeping three of my mushroom logs. There is a short woodland path on the way, and a large stretch of woods just beyond that. Down the woodland path I harvested some lush dandelion greens, violet leaves, bishop's weed that had escaped from a backyard, and a handful of balsam fir tips. At my friend's place, I harvested 5 big shitake mushrooms from my logs! I gleefully continued on to the woods. Most of the forest floor was submerged in water and I was muddy and wet within seconds, but happily waded deeper in anyway, listening to the splish of water and the sucking of mud at my boot heels. I had the whole woods to myself. I imagine other visitors were content to wait for dryer times.

Where the forest floor wasn't under water, the trilliums bloomed, white and purple. Trout lilies were everywhere. The yellow violets were in flower and the bellwort too. The false Solomon's seal was just budding out. I saw wild ginger and wild leeks. I found a tiny patch of spring beauty.

The wild leeks were abundant enough that I harvested just a few, very carefully, trying to disturb as little of the soil and surrounding plants as possible. I am acutely aware of how precious this ecosystem is in the heart of the city and I know that this particular stand of woods, surrounded on all sides by houses, apartment buildings, busy roads and a school, gets a lot of traffic from dog walkers, children, cyclists and such. Wild leeks or ramps take a loooong time to grow and get established and they are considered at risk in many places, because they are so popular and are often greatly over harvested. If you do pick them, it's better to take the edible leaf and leave the bulb behind, and never remove a plant with a seed pod. Knowing this, I felt like I had uncovered a most valuable treasure and felt humble gratitude as I gently replaced soil and leaf litter from the spot I had just cleared.

Leaving the forest, I found a huge patch of garlic mustard in the perfect stage to harvest for the young, second year stalks. I went to town on it, pulling it out by the roots with an equal amount of abandon, as the restraint I exercised with the wild leeks. Finding edible invasives is a different kind of feeling from the hushed awe of discovering a rare and elusive plant. It's like hitting the jackpot. It's a windfall of abundance. I went home with a massive bundle of it under my arms. I proceeded to spend the next four hours in the kitchen, processing and cooking all that food. But hey, that's what rainy days are for.

And the rest of the time that I can't be outside, I hit the books and scour the internet for more information. Lately, I've been on a pretty steady diet of all things related to permaculture. I signed up for a course in the fall to get my design certificate and I hope to learn as much as I can between now and then., Sepp Holzer's site and the Permaculure Research Institute of Australia are my virtual go-to destinations at the moment.

The more I read, learn and take my first tentative steps toward practicing permaculture, the more enamored I become with this incredibly elegant design philosophy. It's such a joy to discover and explore!

How are you spending these rainy days?

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Pamela said...

I love these posts. :) I have decided to start small with the foraging... learning all about dandelions!

I have read lots about roasting dandelion roots for coffee. They all say pretty much the same thing. If you could give me ONE tip on this, what would it be?

Amber said...

Hi Pamela! There are many variations on how to roast dandelions. This is what I do (sorry, it's more than one tip!):
I wash the roots in a couple of changes of water (the really muddy water goes outside to the plants, the clearer water I use to flush my toilet)
I scrub the whole roots with a brush in the last rinse.
Then I chop the roots into small pieces- the smaller the better.
They get another rinse.
I spread them out onto my baking tray and put them in the oven at the lowest temp, with the oven door propped open a bit, and I roast them until they are dry.
I store them in a jar until I'm ready to use them.
When I make coffee with them I grind them in my hand grinder. They're tougher than coffee beans, but grind up fine.
I LOVE dandy coffee, especially with homemade nutmilk and maple syrup. OMG.

Pamela said...

I tried it! Peter, K and I just had our first cup. They declared it drinkable and filled their mugs.

So, since this is the case, I plan on harvesting lots since there is no lack of dandelions all around the neighbourhood.

Thanks for passing on yer lernin'!

Amber said...

Yay for dandelion coffee!! I just harvested some flowers this morning to infuse in oil and last night I picked some leaves to add to a soup. They're such a sunny, cheerful flower. I love them. :)