Friday, November 27, 2015

Frosty Foraging

The McDade Trail in Milford, PA

Although our days have been growing increasingly shorter...I'm talkin' 4:30 pm short... and colder...I am grateful that I've still had many a perfect day for hiking and foraging. Although quick to darkness, these are days when the sun shines golden, illuminating the yellow meadows and contrasting the bare black tree limbs against bright blue skies. The colors of autumn seem to crisp and sharpen in the cold dry air, clarifying the landscape and its living inhabitants. These are days to be seized, hitting the trail to connect with that beauty. And what better way to connect with that beauty than by... well...eating it...or perhaps making medicine out of it.

Flowers of Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Once Summer's green starts to fade it's easy to forget that there is still a world alive out there. Energy is focused in roots and seeds and buds, encapsulated there, slowly strengthening and laying in wait for the days to lengthen and warm. There are also a number of plants that defy the norm, flowering in autumn and holding onto their berries through the winter. Wild food and medicine remains's just a lil less obvious.

Wintergreen with berry (Gaultheria procumbens)
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), a member of the Heath family (Ericaceae), is one that I have been particularly appreciating lately. It is one of our evergreens, offering us a bit of green all year long and a common sight  in our northeastern woods. One underground lateral stem actually supports many Wintergreen plants above ground, therefore where there is one there usually always are more. Look for this plant lining trails or deep in the woods, sharing space with Oaks (Quercus spp.), Birches (Betula spp.), Maples (Acer spp.), and other Heaths (Ericaceae). It especially enjoys the canopy of Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis), probably because of the acidic soil to which they contribute.

Although the leaves can appear to be whorled at the top of the plant, they are arranged alternately. Margins of leaves are subtly toothed and pale on undersides. In the spring, flowers number 1-3 and are waxy and white and urn-shaped, perched on nodding stalks that arise from the upper leaf axils. These flowers give way to red berries in the fall that will, to our advantage, persist on the plant through the winter to early spring. Leaves and berries will always smell of Wintergreen when crushed.

There's a number of ways to enjoy Wintergreen. Firstly, it makes a delicious and medicinal tea. Pinch off leaves, then slightly crush, and steep or lightly simmer in hot water for 10 minutes. You can use a loose handful to 1 pint of water. Wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, which you may be familiar with as a constituent in Birch (Betula) bark, which also gives off a minty aroma when scraped. Methyl salicylate acts as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, making it effective in alleviating muscular aches and pains. Wintergreen also has diaphoretic properties meaning that it is warming to the body and will encourage sweating, and therefore is useful in loosening tight muscles and breaking a fever, two issues we may encounter this year during flu season. To top it off, Wintergreen is an astringent, making the tea an excellent gargle for a sore throat. To make a more potent tea, pour a little hard liquor over your whole leaves and muddle. Oil of Wintergreen does not easily extract in water, but does quite well in alcohol. Allow the alcohol to do its work for about 30 minutes and then pour this mixture into your pint of hot water and proceed with the first method.

The berries are edible minty morsels as well. Eat them plain or try adding them to cookies, granola bars, ice cream or smoothies, as they pair well with chocolate and fruits.

The roots of a Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

Speaking of Birch and its methyl salicylate...this is also an ideal time to harvest this bark, which has all the same medicinal properties of Wintergreen. Simply harvest a small twiggy branch and scrap away the bark until you reach the inner hard woody core. Simmer the shavings, about a handful to a pint of water, for 20 minutes, and strain away plant matter. Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) has distinctive bronze peeling bark whereas Black Birch (Betula lenta) is the one Birch with smooth brownish-black bark and bearing elongated lenticels (these look like slender horizontal lines on the surface of the bark and are the pores through which the tree breathes).

Young Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) bark
And speaking of lenticels....Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is another tree that when young bears smooth bark and lenticels. Small branches will bear these as well. However as the tree ages, the bark will become rough and scaly, easily breaking off in "chips". A tea of Black Cherry bark makes an effective cough suppressant while at the same time opening the lungs due to its containing amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside. When this glycoside breaks down, the hydrocyanic acid therein is excreted largely through the lungs, which in turn stimulates respiration and sedates the nerves that cause one to cough. If the lungs are full are mucous it is of course better to expel this out of the body, but sometimes the lungs can remain irritated long after they have been cleared or sometimes during an illness one needs to sleep instead of spending the night hacking; this is when Black Cherry would be a suitable medicine. Harvest and prepare Black Cherry as you would Birch. Never ingest the leaves of Black Cherry as they are poisonous and can have quite the opposite effect, causing an inability to breath and ultimately suffocate.

Interesting that many of the plants that are available for harvest during our cold and flu season are inherently beneficial in fighting these very illnesses. So is a good hike and a dose of wonder. Everything you need to stay healthy in one trek.

But this is just a glimpse into the medicine and food available to us in our woods right now and through our frosty months. Good thing I'll be leading a workshop about these plants in December at a lovely lil healing arts studio called Whirled Revolution. I'll be offering a presentation on how to identify, harvest, and process the botanical beauties described above as well as many more. There will be a slideshow of photos to acquaint you with these plants, as well as bark, berries, and leaves for you to lay your hands on. A number of tinctures will also be available for sample. The more ways you can get to know a plant the better. And by the way...I do encourage you to connect with these plants by simply sitting with them and getting to know mustn't always eat them.

Click on the links below to learn more and to pre-register....I hope to see you there!

Plants for Winter Foraging
December 13th, 1:00 - 2:30 pm
at Whirled Revolution
1 Church Street, Sussex, New Jersey 07461