Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Of Roots and Divinity

We had mild temperatures in Ottawa last week and I made use of that little weather window by harvesting these wild carrot (left) and evening primrose (right) roots.

The more I get to know these two plants, the more I love them.  Considered a weedy annoyance to many, I actually encourage these plants when they grace my garden with their presence.  In fact, this year I prepared and planted a bed of wild carrot from seeds that I gathered and saved from a previous season.

The roots have an intense carroty aroma and flavour.  The cultivated carrot that we all know and love is just a domesticated version of wild carrot. They even share the same Latin name: Daucus carota.  Wild carrot, or Queen Anne's Lace, as it is also known, has many edible and medicinal uses from seed to root.  A word of caution though: it is extremely important to have a 100% positive ID with this plant.  Two of the most deadly plants in North America, poison hemlock and water hemlock, are in the same family, and have been confused with wild carrot with fatal consequences.  A mistake you certainly don't want to make, so be sure to familiarise yourself with this plant and its poisonous look alikes, if you want to harvest it.
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) is another plant with many edible and medicinal parts.  I love the sweet, slightly mucilaginous flowers in salads and tincture them for medicinal use.  I dry the leaves for tea, gather the seeds and eat them for the nourishing oil they contain.  The roots have a sweet flavour with often a sharp, peppery or slightly acrid aftertaste.  I suspect this varies depending on growing conditions and times of harvest.  This batch was very sweet with no sharpness at all.
Some of these roots went into a delicious beef stew along with some garden carrots and parsnips, and the rest I dehydrated to add to my pantry.

I've got a handful of years foraging under my belt now, a growing body of knowledge and a good sense of the effort and discipline involved in the practice.  I've been eaten alive by mosquitoes, burned by midday sun,  covered in mud, soaked by rain, with wet feet squelching in my boots, while scrabbling in cold earth with freezing hands. 

I know gathering is the easy part and have spent long hours cleaning dirt out of gnarly roots, garbling leaves and carefully preserving the plants so nothing goes to waste.  And still, the romance has yet to wear off.  I get such a thrill learning about and working with wild plants.  I feel deeply grateful to be in relationship with nature in this way and fiercely protective of the spaces where plants grow.  I pray that I do right by the ecosystems that I interact with and ask for the wisdom to be a beneficial advocate on behalf of the plants.

You can't tell just by looking at the pictures above, but those unassuming roots are sacred to me.  Digging them out of the earth on dirty knees, an act of worship.  Spreading their seeds a prayer and gesture of hope for future abundance.

I've visited some of the most famous temples and sacred sites in the world and attended hundreds of church services over the years.  Some have left me inspired and soaring, others dull and sleepy.  My desire to experience the divine led to study religion in university.  In all my seeking, nothing has brought me closer to understanding the interconnectedness of all things as the wild plants have, and I am humbled by that.

Well, I did not start off this post thinking this is where I'd end up!  And I guess it might seem strange or downright blasphemous for some, to find religious ecstasy in a pile of weedy roots but there you have it.  Some people look at the natural world and see dollar signs, some see the possibility to know the divine in all its manifestations.  No doubt there is vast spectrum in between.  When you pass your favourite plant, I wonder what you see?


Chloe said...

I think it's fantastic that you can find beauty and the divine in "a pile of roots". I'm glad I clicked over from Google Reader!

I'd really like if you published full feeds. Only the title popping up informs me that you've published a post. Sometimes I click to read it, sometimes I don't. If it was published in full, I'd always read it. :)

J.G. said...

I agree with Chloe on the "publishing full posts" idea. There must be some blogger.com setting that would enable you to publish full posts in the feed to save us google reader lazybums from having to click the mouse once in order to visit your site each time we're notified of a new post

Amber said...

Thanks for the feedback! I jiggled a thingamabob and tweaked a doohicky, and now that should give you full posts in the feed. I think. Let me know if not.

M said...

I love your descriptions of your connections with the wild plants! Although I'm not in a place where I can easily experience such things living in an apartment in Los Angeles, I do treasure the time I get to spent around nature and the plants in my life. I feel so much more connected to life and calmed by the cycles constantly in motion. I love the moments when I find a publicly accessible food plant - nature is providing one of our most basic needs!

Personally, there is no way I can stand in a giant redwood forest and not feel tiny and overwhelmed. Then I look down at the tiny blankets of moss below and I am amazed by the variety of scale, shape & sizes of plants right next to one another. As I see insects and birds interacting with it all, I am overcome with extreme respect for the way the cycles in nature work to bind them together and sustain each one.

daltxguy said...

Amber, you may be interested in this video, which spends some time making the connection between human culture and horticulture, including some thoughts on the relationship to worship and religion. (It's a video about permaculture primarily but he builds the case for why foraging is so engrained in our being )

Amber said...

Thanks M! I live in an apartment in a city too. Not nearly as big as LA, but still fairly urban. One of my favourite patches of plants is by a busy street in a used car lot. I don't harvest there obviously, but I love seeing the dandelions, lambsquarters, purslane and Shepherd's purse growing lushly between the car tires. :)

daltxguy, I love Toby Hemenway! Am definitely watching this in my free time today. Thank you.