Summer Happenings in the Wild Garden

The solstice is past. Already morning light streaming into the bedroom comes in just a just a touch later now. The nightly light show of June’s fireflies gives way to the cicadas starting to drone their high note of summer. The days shimmer with the kind of heat and haze that makes afternoon siestas in the hammock mandatory. It’s the time of year when words like ‘verdant’ and ‘lush’ are an understatement. My life in particular has become downright bucolic recently.

My partner Andrew and I have had the amazing fortune of renting the house on the Just Food property where my 1/2 acre garden is located. We moved in at the beginning of June and a month and a half later we are unpacked and in awe of our new living arrangements.

Farmhouse 003Being here is a dream come true. My commute to the garden has shrunk from 12 km to .5 km. I am surrounded by 150 beautiful acres of fields, forests and streams right outside my back door. (This pic was taken through my sunglasses. You can just make out the roof line of the house to the right of the barn.)FarmhouseField

I have a porch and a big front yard with a hammock under two shady trees.hammock 002 The kitchen is bright and cheerful. (This was taken around 6:00 am just as the first rays of sun came into the kitchen.)ElderBlooms 021 The living room is cosy.FarminJune 018 Farmhouse 009 Farmhouse 008 The bedroom is a simple haven of peace and tranquillity.FarmhouseBedroom I have an outdoor laundry line!!! The compost is right outside the kitchen door. Sometimes I see deer walking across the yard. Deer 002

I love what the place has to offer in terms of my workspace and flow. My apothecary is three times bigger and so much better organized because of the extra space.ApothecaryFarmhouse 015moving 033 There is more room for workshop and class space. I can offer longer, more in depth classes that have both an outdoor and indoor component, which means classes are not limited by weather and participants can gather and process plants on site all in the same class.ClassSpaceThe house is very accessible by public transit and there is a stop less than a minute away on a major route that can take you downtown in about 20 minutes. The post office, grocery store and library are a 5 minute bike ride away.

I’m so thrilled to have this space to steward, respect and care for, for as long as I am here. This feels like the proverbial next chapter in my life and for the Wild Garden, and I am excited to see how the story continues to unfold.

And as always, for those of you who have followed me on this journey, for a little or a long time, I am grateful. Every encouraging word and helpful tidbit of feedback bolsters my heart. I am honoured by each CSA member, student and class participant with the opportunity to share my love of the plants and to spend yet another day dedicated to work and study that brings me joy. Thank you for sharing in this, and if you’re in the neighbourhood, do come and stop by the farm to say ‘hi!’

The Just Food Farm Stand launches in two weeks on July 26th. This year it will run on Sundays up until Thanksgiving from 10 am to 3 pm. You’ll have a fantastic selection of local, organic veggies, honey, ferments, herbs, teas and more! We just started a Facebook page here, where you can stay up to date on our special events and what we have on offer each week.

This year’s weed walks have been very popular, selling out quickly. I looked at my schedule and managed to squeeze in an extra date. There are only four spots left for this one!

The Explorations in Plant Healing classes have been such a delight to host. Imagine spending an entire day immersed in and experiencing one plant in depth. The combination of field botany, nature awareness, theory and practice had one participant comment, “Thank you, Amber, for another wonderful session in the Exploration in Plant Healing series last weekend. I enjoy every part of the experience, especially the outdoors foraging on the farm and later making medicine together in the farmhouse. I also appreciate the attention we give our focus plant through reflections and researching the Materia Medica. It’s a magical place to be for the day!”

Spots are filling up in for the Foraging Families class coming up in August. This will be a fun-filled day of learning about wild plants, playing games and exploring the outdoors.

The Summer CSA is in full swing. I love planning for and preparing the boxes each month. And I’m already looking ahead to the fall anticipating wild crab apple butter, all things goldenrod, sticky New England Aster flowers, elderberry syrup, delicious dandelion…

Register for the Fall CSA here.

I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer and taking time to enjoy the wild and weedy things!


Foraging Safety and Human Fallibility

The May/June issue of Edible Ottawa goes wild with some great articles. Scott ‘The Mushroom Man’ Perrie of Valley Wild Edibles, talks about his passion for fungi and his new mushroom inoculation project ‘Fungus Among us’. The amazing work of Hidden Harvest is featured. And some of our best local farms are highlighted as well. It’s out now and I highly recommend you get your free copy today!
EdibleOttawa 003The Wild Garden even makes a brief appearance and I’m still floored to be in such illustrious company!

Flip to the back of the magazine and you’ll find a gorgeous spread of some common, wild edible foods that can be found in our area. I love the illustrations by Julia Kuo!

A quick glance at the spread when I picked up my copy, however, revealed a few mistakes. I feel the need to point them out, not to nitpick, but for safety reasons (incorrect identification of plants used for food and/or medicine can lead to serious harm), because my name is on it and I need people to know that I know what I’m talking about (most of the time!) and because I think this is a great cautionary example for foragers and wildcrafters of all skill levels, but especially beginners.
EdibleOttawa 001
The first rule of foraging/wildcrafting is always have a 100% positive ID before harvesting. The best way to get this ID is by spending A LOT of time observing plants in a variety of habitats, in different growing conditions, in all their growth stages, in all four seasons and reference at least 3 different sources (field guides, local floras, an expert, or trusted online sources). Don’t rely on just one source for an ID and don’t believe everything you read or hear.

The reality is, mistakes happen and humans are fallible. Herban legends get passed on untested from one foraging book to another until everyone vehemently asserts that common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) must be boiled in multiple changes of water before it can be consumed. (This is actually not necessary.) Talk about eating black nightshade and some people will look at you and wonder how managed to survive such a deadly meal. They’ve confused Solanum nigrum, S. americanum, S. ptychanthum, S. douglasii and other closely allied species with deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona) or bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). I was once told by an experienced herbalist that sumac is not used for medicine and is best harvested in the fall. (It has an exceptionally long history of use as medicine and is one of my favourite astringents. It’s best gathered around here in late July to early August.) Older foraging books often list multiple species of ferns as edible but we now know that many of them have carcinogenic compounds and high amounts of thiaminase, which breaks down thiamine and prevents the body from absorbing this important B vitamin. So now most foragers stick with the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). But even then there are exceptions.

There are some great forums on Facebook that discuss wild edible foods and medicinal plants (I especially like Ancestral Plants run by Arthur Haines). In these groups you have access to some of the best experts in the field (literally) who spend time and energy providing quality information for free. But there are also complete beginners making stab in the dark guesses, and everyone in between. Misinformation abounds on social media and it can be overwhelming to sort through it all.

I have corrected errors in the notes people have taken on plant walks with me. Somewhere in the transmission from my mouth to their paper, details got lost or confused. Not to mention that on plant walks I can’t always provide every single detail about every plant we discuss. I may leave out the odd contraindication (don’t drink red clover if you’re on blood thinners), confuse my scientific names (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum has been changed to Leucanthemum vulgare and maybe I forgot that) or even (shocking!) misidentify a plant. (A homeschool child once pointed out to me that the tree without leaves couldn’t possibly be a maple because it had last year’s linden seeds still attached to a branch. Oops!)

My point is, mistakes happen and when it comes to foraging and wildcrafting those mistakes have the potential to be harmful (Thankfully, most of the time, they are not). Wherever you are on your journey of working with wild plants, it is essential to cross-reference, double and triple check and be absolutely certain you have that 100% positive ID. Don’t rely on a single source of information. Don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s on the internet. And don’t believe me. While I go to great lengths to ensure that the information I provide is as accurate as possible, it’s still important cross-reference that with other sources. I’ve been at this for nearly a decade now. I have a knack for plant ID and I’ve taught myself some pretty solid botany skills, but in so many ways I still think of myself as a beginner. I’m still learning, making discoveries and yes, making mistakes. And sometimes beautiful spreads in excellent magazines are printed with my words, but things get a little mixed up in the layout.

If you make sure to take responsibility for the wild plants you touch and put in your mouth, do your research and observe the plants closely and frequently, your foraging experience will be safe, healthy and a lot of fun!

Check out these sources for more information on safety and foraging guidelines:

http://www.ediblewildfood.com/foraging-for-food.aspx
http://www.eatweeds.co.uk/safety-guidelines-for-edible-wild-food-plants
http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/?page_id=1675


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 aughts 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.

garden2

Pretty!

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

QAL

“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!

Motherwortsepals2

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.


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