Musings for Earth Day, or The Post in Which I Put Too Many Words in Parentheses, or tl;dr

Meadow willow (Salix petiolaris)

Meadow willow (Salix petiolaris)

I’ve had so many ideas for blog posts  in the last few weeks. I wanted to do another winter botany post, but then the snow melted. I thought about a post on early spring botany and how to ID seedlings and some plants by their cotyledon leaves. (Baby plants are sooo cute!) I’ve taken pictures of the plants that are up and growing in my neighbourhood. I want to show you what’s happening in the garden at the farm. Every day I find something that I’d love to share. (A lot of that sharing happens on my Facebook and Twitter pages.) As a new growing season begins, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with the plants and my environment. As Earth Day approaches, it feels right to attempt putting some of these thoughts into words.

2014 coppice stool

2014 coppice stool

Late winter and early spring in the garden has become a time of gathering medicinal bark and coppicing wood. Last year was my first attempt at coppicing the meadow willow that grows at the edge of my plot. This year I was back again, coppicing more. Oh my gosh. You guys! I have fallen completely and madly in love with this ancient practice (and its associated activities such as wattle fencing and hedgelaying). Like, I would marry coppicing if I could. Like, I’m seriously contemplating a coppice apprenticeship some day.  Like, if I believed in time traversing reincarnation, I would want to be reborn as a 17th century coppicing/hedgelaying dude in Wales or the Midlands or something. (“Mornin’ guvnah. Off to the copse to lay down some hawthorn pleachers. Cheerio!”  Except, people probably didn’t say things like ‘guvnah’ and ‘cheerio’ in the 1600’s did they? They probably said things like ‘sooth’ and ‘prithee’. I’m mixing up Marlowe and My Fair Lady.) Anyway, I am awed by the regenerative power in the root systems of these plants and their ability to send out new growth, and that when the top growth gets cut back, a corresponding mass of roots also dies back, building soil. I am fascinated by the fact that coppicing can keep trees healthy century after century, long beyond their natural lifespans. I am delighted that the products of this management technique include medicine, fuel and building materials that are sustainable, non-toxic and completely biodegradable.

New growth of willow rods from last year's coppice.

New growth of willow rods from last year’s coppice.

My partner called me while I was working with the willow in my garden the other week. “I AM SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW!”, I all-capsed at him, when he asked how I was doing. And I was. With wind and sun on my face, feeling the smooth bark under my hands, the scent of fresh cut wood in my nose and listening to the birds chirping their spring songs, I was full to bursting.

Reflecting on this later, I wondered why? What is it about this activity that brings me so much cup-runneth-over joy? In fact, I sometimes wonder how it is that I find myself, fresh out of youth at 39 and utterly enamoured and obsessed with the photosynthesising set. Is this weird? (Maybe.) Am I crazy? (Probably.)

New growth of willow rods from last year's coppice.

New growth of willow rods from last year’s coppice.

The other day I re-watched a video of myself from  two summers ago. I thought I might use it for some promotional material I am working on, but I decided not to post it. Olivier Asselin did a wonderful job on the video, and I think I mostly made sense, but there was one moment that I felt, I guess, a little embarrassed about. I talked about my wish to devote the rest of my life to the plants, in a big-eyed, overly earnest sort of way and well, in a world of hipster irony and cynicism, big-eyed earnestness does not play well.  Watching myself, I felt self-conscious and silly and shy. But I remembered that moment in the interview and I remembered that the emotion felt too big to put into proper words. I knew there was something more that I wanted to express, but couldn’t quite get out.

In the video I talked about my year of not buying anything new in 2008. (You know, in that era of the early aught’s where people were doing all sorts of year-long challenges to make the world a better place?) I talked about how that year introduced me to some pretty scary realities in the world, like the fact that we’ve used up all of the cheap, easy to get fossil fuels and the energy return on what’s invested is rapidly diminishing. I understood more about how the burning of those fuels contributes to a changing climate and how our resource management strategy seems to be: extract whatever the earth has got, at the expense of our flora, fauna, lakes, rivers, oceans, forests, air and most importantly at the expense of the lives of the most marginalised populations in the world, not to mention our children and our future. I learned a little bit about how the economy is like one big Ponzi scheme, money is loaned into existence and the whole system rests on the ridiculous belief that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible and desirable. (There’s a good summary of the issues here.)

As these realities sunk in, I got scared, depressed, zealous, horrified, indignant, judgemental, self-righteous, green, crunchy, granola, active, involved, engaged, really into permaculture, radical homemaking, self-reliant homesteading, prepping, gardening, canning… It was quite a year! And I found the plants. Or they found me. I’m still not sure. All I know is that suddenly they were everywhere and I wanted to know everything I could about them. I wanted, in the most earnest, big-eyed way possible, to devote the rest of my life to the study and stewardship of the plants.  Suddenly, it was the most obvious and sensible response to all the information I was taking in, which had completely shaken up my world view.  So I pulled up my sleeves and got to work creating a practical (and IMO, beautiful) antidote to the bleak and resource depleted world we seem to be on track for leaving to future generations.



The drought in California weighs heavily on my mind these days, (one of among many). It is staggering to comprehend that this is a state that for over 14,000 years was forest gardened and fire-stick farmed by hunter-gatherers to such abundance that it allowed for the highest population density in North America at the time. (Anderson, M. Kat (2006). Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge And the Management of California’s Natural Resources.) In less than 500 years ‘civilised’ humans have managed to drain it nearly dry.

My heart gets heavy and so darn sad when I think about things like this and the only thing I want to do in the face of it all, is find ways to live in the world that might lead to a  more balanced, co-creative, regenerative, closed-loop relationship with my habitat. (Lofty ideal I know, but the heart wants what the heart wants.)

My first attempt at a brush fence!

My first attempt at a brush fence! Laid 25 ft in a couple of hours.

And now I know why something like coppicing makes me so happy and why I feel so compelled to forest garden, wield a scythe, wildcraft, compost, work with plants and share what knowledge I can. It makes sense, down to my very marrow, to maintain these ancient practices into the future. It feels right and sane and essential to engage in work that can meet basic needs, while at the same time manage and sustain a thriving, diverse ecosystem for hundreds if not thousands of years, without exploiting or violating the rights of others.  It fills me with hope.  (Plus there’s the added bonus of actually getting to live out my childhood pioneer girl fantasies, straight out of a Willa Cather novel. I’m living the dream!) (And goodness please don’t think that I don’t value other types of work and pursuits. There are many important, necessary, noble professions out there, as well as many dedicated people in jobs they may/or may not love, but contribute so much in other areas of their lives. Most of us do the best we can to the capacity we are able. This just happens to be my story. It’s the only one I know.)

So, I don’t have plans to do anything special or different on Earth Day, but I know that my hands will be busy with some kind of ancient future work.

Brush fence from coppiced willow.

Practising with brush fencing before I try my hand at wattle fencing.



A Holy Public Secret


“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
~William Blake

I’m reading a lovely little book right now called The Forest Unseen, written by David George Haskell. This professor of biology spent a year observing a one-square-metre patch of old-growth forest in Tennessee and recorded his observations in a series of illuminating essays on the natural world. His premise was: observing the small, almost invisible aspects of nature can reveal the story of the forest as a whole in a rich and intimate way. Close observation invites the viewer to witness the hidden secrets of ecosystems that are otherwise unseen.QAL2I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially as I view the plant kingdom through my loupe. Seeing the small details come into focus under 10 or 20 times magnification fills me with no end of delight and awe and it really does feel like I am being let in on a secret. This kind of knowing feels special, as if I have passed through a threshold into a place where mysteries are revealed.Cone 013Ecologist and taxonomist Arthur Haines teaches that, “conscientious human interaction with plants, such as foraging in a careful and sustainable manner, can actually insure the survival of a plant species…” It is through interacting with the plants that we can truly begin to value them and their (our) habitats.

When you take this level of interaction with the plants down to the microcosmic level and reveal the mysteries awaiting there, I feel an unbreakable bond is forged. For me, it is a bond formed of wonderment, reverence and gratitude. A fierce protective instinct kicks in too, and a desire to nurture and care for the whole that is represented by the small part in front of me.cottonwoodbud

“If Nature Study is your goal,
Take note: a single part reflects the whole.
Nought is within and nought without,
For what is in is also out.
So grasp without delay this prize:
That here a holy public secret lies.
Rejoice in true illusion’s fame,
Rejoice in Nature’s serious game.
No living thing alone can be-
It only exists in company.”
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

And here’s the thing: these mysteries are available to everyone! Everyone has the ability to look closely and witness the ‘holy public secret’ of nature and discover the treasures waiting there.

This year I have designed a series of plant classes that I hope will give participants the opportunity to do just that. By providing the time and structure to cross that threshold into the realm of the unseen, each class will aim to make visible that which is so often invisible in our hectic, plugged-in lives.  Through a variety of lessons and activities such as nature awareness exercises, botany, herbal preparations and more, the full value of some of our most common, often widely disparaged plants, will be revealed. I invite you to come join me!

For full details on the classes or to register, visit here.

Winter Botany- Motherwort

Motherwort1Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is an herbaceous, short-lived perennial plant in the Lamiaceae or mint family. It is a fairly robust plant that can grow up to 5 feet tall, making it another good candidate for winter observation. Though most of the leaves will have withered away, the whorled calyxes persist, making this a fun and interesting plant to ID at this time of year. It is also easy to observe, even from a distance, the opposite branching pattern that is typical of the mint family.
motherwort2 This specimen has one pair of shrivelled leaves remaining, allowing us to view the opposite leaf pattern.
motherwort3 Look closely and see that there are two leaves per node on the stalk (as opposed to an alternate leaf pattern, where there is only one leaf per node). Also, notice the stem. It is square-shaped. This is another pattern of the mint family.

motherwort 004
In cross section it is easy to observe the four sides of the square stem. The stem of motherwort is hollow.
motherwort 010
Now let’s take a look at the calyxes. These are the only structures of the inflorescence, along with the occasional remaining seed, to persist in winter, the corollas (flower petals) having died back long ago.
motherwort4The calyx is the collective term for the sepals of a flower and it is the outermost part of a flower. The sepals are often, but not always, green, leaf-like structures that enclose a flower when it is in bud. In the mint family the calyx is made up of usually 5 sepals that are united or fused together to form a tube. In motherwort, these structures grow in whorled clusters around the stem, from the leaf axils. In this pic, half of the whorl has been removed to show 5 individual tube-like calyxes.

motherwort 017Looking down into the calyx, through the loupe, it is easy to see the five lobes of the united sepals. In motherwort the lobes taper off into slender, sharp spines. These spines are sharp enough to pierce the skin, so handle with care!


At the base of the calyx is the seed capsule which contains 4 nutlets, 3 of which are pictured here. They are three-sided and somewhat triangular in shape. The seeds are wider at the top and narrower at the base. Notice the fine, bristly hairs, just barely visible on the top of the seeds.
motherwortseedsMotherwort is a non-native plant that grows abundantly in disturbed soil, along roadsides, in fields and urban parks. Keep an eye out for its opposite branching and leaf arrangement, square stems and spiky, whorled calyxes.

Winter Botany- Elecampane

I love winter botanizing and observing the stark, beautiful remains of plants against a white landscape. Elecampane (Inula helenium) is an excellent candidate for observation because the tall, stout stems and fuzzy leaves persist most of the winter, well above even the deepest snow, as do the receptacles of the plant’s inflorescences.
Elecampane1Elecampane is a wonderful plant to experience tactilely, especially for kids. The  large, simple, alternate leaves, though brittle and shrivelled, should still feel soft and velvety on the undersides. Notice how the remaining leaves on the upper portion of the stem are sessile. This means the leaves lack a petiole (leaf stalk) and clasp directly to the stem of the plant.  The thick, round stem is also covered in fine hairs, but these may wear off over the winter.
elecampne2 As a member of the Asteraceae family, the composite flowers have some unique features, which are easily observed in Elecampane, even though the flowers have long since died. Involucral bracts are modified leaves (not to be confused with sepals) and ring the receptacle. Here we can see the outer bracts which are broad, curled under and covered in dense, short hairs. The inner bracts are long, narrow and glabrous (smooth and hairless).
Looking at the receptacle you can see the pits in the disk that held the achenes (dry fruits which contain a single seed).
Here is a close up view of the receptacle through a 20x loupe.
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Most of the seeds had dispersed, but these two found their way home with me. These achenes are long and four sided and attached to fine pappus hairs.
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These hairs are what allows the seeds to be carried long distances on the wind, an excellent reproductive strategy!
HandLensShots 012
Here you can see the woolly-velvety texture on the undersides of the leaves.
HandLensShots 013
And again through the loupe.
HandLensShots 018
Elecampane is native to Europe, but has naturalised through much of Eastern and Western North America. In grows in disturbed areas, fields and roadsides, especially in moist soil. Occasionally it grows in large patches pictured here, but often you will find single plants spread over a large area. I frequently see it at the edges of wooded areas. In the Ottawa area, look for it on the Carleton campus and in Brewer Park by the river.

Be sure to keep an eye out for this beautiful, interesting plant on your next winter walk and enjoy exploring and getting to know it!

Eastern White Cedar


Eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis, Cupressaceae family) is ubiquitous in the Northeastern North American landscape. It is especially common in urban settings. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the average urban dweller in the Northeast wouldn’t have to travel more than 50 paces outside their front door before encountering a cedar hedge. As a fast-growing, hardy conifer that holds up well in cold climates, it’s a popular landscaping choice for living fences and privacy screens in residential areas. It is so common that its presence seems a bit dull and boring, a little too homogeneous.


It is easy to overlook and undervalue something so banal. There is nothing exotic or rare about a plant that we see everywhere, everyday, so much so that we lose our awareness of it until it fades into the background as just another piece of the wall of green. What sacred mysteries could this mundane plant possibly hold?


But one only needs to, literally, scratch the surface to discover the wonders of this plant. Take a close look at the scaly leaves of a cedar bough. Studded along the upper and underside of the leaves are tiny glands that are just visible to the naked eye, but are best viewed under a hand lens. Each of these glands contain essential oils that are released when you scratch the glands with your thumbnail. The essential oil contains a number of chemicals including: alpha-pinene, alpha-fenchene, camphene, sabinene, beta-mycrene, limonene, alpha-fenchone, alpha-thujone, beta-thujone, camphor and bornyl acetate. (1)

These potent phytochemicals have many beneficial medicinal properties in the human body. They are antimicrobial, active against bacterial, viral and fungal pathogens. They have immune-stimulating properties and act as adjuvants to prescription antibiotics for upper respiratory tract infections.(2) Arthur Haines writes that cedar enhances the immune system through, “increased white blood cell count, increased cytokines and antibody production, activation of macrophages”, and that “taken prior to or at the onset of cold and flu symptoms, Thuja occidentalis has the capacity to shorten the duration of symptoms.” Cedar also has an expectorant action aiding in chest congestion, boggy lungs and phlegmy coughs.

Exceptionally high in vitamin C, one of the other common names for this plant is arborvitae, which means ‘tree of life’. Tales have come down through history, recounting how early explorers and settlers to the New World suffered from scurvy and Native Americans taught them to drink tea made from cedar and other conifers, to treat and prevent the disease. It is hard for us, with easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables all year round, to imagine now how deadly this disease was, and how miraculous such a simple cure would seem to those suffering from it. Tree of Life, indeed.

Topically, the plant is beneficial as a wash for wounds and skin irritations such as fungal infections. Traditionally, cedar has been used on warts and cold sores.The Eclectics used cedar for ulcers, bed sores, mouth sores, varicose veins and gangrene.  Some First Nations communities would dry and powder the leaves to use as a poultice for skin conditions.

Cedar is a scared plant to Native Americans and is used for medicinal, household and ceremonial purposes.  Traditionally, the Algonquin used an infusion of the leaves to give to children with colic. The Abnaki, Algonquin and Iroquois treated rheumatic complaints with topical applications of the plant. The wood was used for canoe slats and ribs. The bark was used for weaving and cordage. Leaves were used in steam baths and burned to fumigate living spaces and as incense fore ceremonial purposes. The tree was worshipped and revered for it usefulness.(3)

Incorporating cedar into your home apothecary is easy. The plant is soluble in water, alcohol and oil. Leaves can be harvested with the proper tools and care and dried for use as a simple tea. Keep your tea covered while steeping to prevent the volatile oils from escaping. I love adding cedar to my baths in the winter time for the warming, circulatory stimulating and mild pain relieving properties. Cedar foot baths are lovely too. I simmer a few good handfuls of leaves in a pot on the stove for about 20 minutes or so and strain the decoction into my bathwater or foot bath. As an herbal steam, cedar is wonderfully aromatic and helpful in breaking up sinus and chest congestion. To prepare, crush a handful of leaves into a large bowl and pour boiling water over the leaves. Being careful to not burn yourself, position your head over the bowl and cover both your head and the bowl with a large towel. Gently breathe in the steam. Pine and fir needles are a nice addition to this steam as are a few drops of essential oils such as eucalyptus, tea tree, rosemary, sage etc. Try regular applications of a cedar tincture on warts and fungal infections. Take small doses in hot water at the onset of a cold or flu. Cedar infused oil smells great and is also useful for fungal issues and other skin irritations. Making your own smudge sticks from cedar is easy. I use them at the start of my yoga practice and throughout the day to help focus my attention and shift my mood. Simply being near cedar has benefits too, especially for people with heart disease. Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes that, on a warm summer’s day, “the trees will release fenchone and both alpha and beta-thujone into the immediate environment. These chemicals are strong cardiac muscle stimulants and will help the heart in its pumping function…White cedar also produces camphene and camphor, which are broncholdilators and improve the breathing of all those suffering from chronic lung problems.”

The next time you pass that plain cedar hedge, stop a moment to admire a bough, scratch and sniff a leaf and inhale the essential oils and perhaps bring some home and get to know this scared plant.

Occasional, moderate use of this plant can be very beneficial, but because of the thujone content, cedar should not be used in excessive amounts for prolonged periods of time and is best avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding women.

For folks living on the West coast, Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) has similar uses.

Avoid harvesting from areas high in pollution and contamination and do not harvest from private property without permission.

(1) Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest, Diana Beresford-Kroeger
(2) Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants of the Northeast Vol. I, Arthur Haines
(3) Native American Ethnobotany: Daniel E. Moerman


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