Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wildcrafting Wednesday

The weather turned on Sunday afternoon and Ottawa is experiencing a hot, sunny spell. That means it's just right for harvesting medicine plants!

I skipped off work a little early yesterday afternoon, so I could wildcraft before it got too late in the day. With baskets and secateurs I headed to the garden. I harvested honeysuckle flowers, violet leaves, cleavers, raspberry leaves, stinging nettle, horsetail and mullein leaves. Every available surface in my apartment is now covered in plants and it smells heavenly.

Finding the cleavers (Galium aparine) was a real treat. I've been looking for a good patch of cleavers for a couple of years now, after failing to get it successfully established in my garden plots. There are quite a few Galium species. Ornamental gardeners will likely be familiar with Galium odoratum, or sweet woodruff. In Ottawa, Galium mollugo abounds in the urban wild. I see it everywhere. G. mollugo does have some medicinal properties, and I plan to experiment with it a bit because it is so abundant, but it is not widely used in herbal medicine. G. aparine, however, is considered 'official'. It is a popular lymphatic herb, early spring tonic, and also used to treat cystitis. Topically it makes a nice wash for burns and other skin irritations.

You can tell G. mollugo and G. aparine apart very easily. G. mollugo, also known as hedge bedstraw, has a stem and whorled leaves that are glabrous, meaning smooth and glossy, whereas G. aparine is covered in minute, hooked bristles. This allows the weak stemmed plant to 'cleave' to nearby vegetation, reaching up for sunlight and spreading out. The stems on G. mollugo are more sturdy and tend to stay upright on their own. Both G. mollugo and G. aparine have pretty, white flowers. If you see a smooth Galium with yellow flowers, you've probably got lady's bedstraw. (In case you haven't figured it out yet, the bedstraws were historically used to stuff beds! They contain a substance that turns to coumarin when dried and smells like vanilla and fresh mown hay. I can imagine that this would be quite pleasant to sleep on.)

The tiny seeds of G. aparine are also covered in the same hooked bristles and if you are a dog owner, you may have cursed while trying to remove them from your dog's fur after a walk. Interestingly, as these plants are in the same family as coffee, if you have the patience to collect and roast the seeds, you apparently end up with a very decent coffee-like beverage.

You can also create a mat of cleavers and fashion a passable strainer from it. Milkmaids in the old-y days would filter hair and other debris out of milk from their animals with it. The other neat thing that most of the Galiums can do, is curdle milk, which is great if you're a cheesemaker. Lady's bedstraw also goes by the name cheese rennet because of this. Oh, and you can wash and lighten your hair with the yellow flowers of lady's bedstraw.

I just love these sweet, little plants and am endlessly fascinated by them. And I'm thrilled to have found that patch of cleavers!

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Pamela said...

Keep the posts on foraging coming! I am learning so much. It turns out I have raspberry canes and violets a hop skip and a jump from my back door, so guess what I will be doing after work!

Amber said...

Thanks Pamela, I will!
Raspberry leaf tea is lovely. Just one thing to keep in mind when drying it (and strawberry leaves): make sure all the plant material is thoroughly dry before using it. A mildly toxic chemical is produced as the leaves go from fresh to dry, so avoid wilted leaves that have traces of moisture left in them. Otherwise it is a very safe, gentle herb. Great for pregnancy too!
Oh and it's best to harvest them before they flower.