Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You mean *those* dandelions?

I was a lucky kid. We grew up surrounded by woods and fields and streams. We knew lots of the plants that grew around us by name, and they were part of our play, but not used in the home as food or medicine. My grandmother was from the days of horse and buggy, and she wasn't looking back. She embraced modernity with open arms and wanted nothing to do with the past. Every time she opened the chest freezer to withdraw some cherished out of season fruit or vegetable in one of those little waxed cartons (before they came in plastic bags), the look of supreme pleasure that spread over her face made it clear that she was never going to be making sassafras tea, dandelion greens or ANY foraged plant based foods or medicine in her house.
There was the disconnect. It happened right there. We knew the plants, but their place has been usurped by a love for modern convenience.Echinacea
As the years passed, we rediscovered a love for gardening, but in doing so, we looked for the new hybrids, the double flowers, and the colors that didn't exist before.
Then we developed an interest in herbs.
We started reading all the books we could get our hands on. My sister and I would each read a different book, swap, and then discuss. Over the winter, we studied field guides and memorized pictures of our long lost friends.
Early on, we started reading about herbs like dandelion, sheep sorrel, chickweed, and burdock. Burdock
Surely they couldn't mean the ones growing outside here! We were so removed from what we felt, that we would order these herbs from suppliers to work with. Catnip, rosehips, and chamomile came in bags. Things like shepherds purse and cleavers and elderberry were ordered. Why? Because we just couldn't believe that the ones growing in the yard could possibly the magical, mystical items we were reading about.Yarrow
And then one day we reconnected. At an IHA conference in the early 90's, I saw a Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook by Billy Joe Tatum at the bookstore. For three days, I looked through that book before finally deciding to purchase it (I'm tight with a buck - lol). Inside, I found recipes for all kinds of weeds - the same ones that grew outside everywhere.Stinging Nettles
That started my everlasting (and somewhat annoying to companions) search for various wild herbs whenever I am outside. If we stop at a gas station in another state, I am standing on the edge of the parking lot looking down at the weeds growing by the culvert. If we stay at a hotel somewhere, I need to wander along the edge of the cultivated lawn and look into the wild places. If I am driving somewhere, I am looking at the sides of the road as much as possible, and prefer the passenger side because it is safer for everyone.
The first year, I looked for chamomile, and found it everywhere.Chamomile
The next year it was elderberry.
In recent years, it has been blue vervain and linden. It is always something. I learn to see them by their color and shape, by realizing what plants they grow near or whether they like wet areas, or disturbed places, or shady, bright, hilly... Soon, if you look long enough you know where they are without actually seeing them. Step a little closer, and yup - there they are.
But the most important thing was learning that YES, it is THAT dandelion. It is THAT catnip, or elderberry or sheep sorrel. It is THAT red clover.Elderberries
At the time, we opened a shop and needed lots more of many of these herbs than we could ever forage or wild-craft ourselves. We tried gathering our own catnip one year, but we needed 10 or more pounds for the year and despite massive efforts only managed to collect a bit over a pound before taking over large portions of the workshop to bunches of drying plant material.
Now, without a shop it is very easy to gather what is needed for most things. Very few of the herbs that I use are not from this property - either wild or cultivated. I will never know all the plants that grow around me, but I do know that they are all important, and will keep learning them - one or two per year.Rosehips
Not everyone has the luxury of living where there are wild things outside the door, but I've also found chickweed and lambsquarters in a rooftop garden in Manhattan. Here at The Essential Herbal, we believe that if you're interested in herbs, it's a good idea to recognize that the dandelion you see is the very same one you'd use. It's great to get to know them!


Marlene Perry said...

Same here! We grew up on a small farm surrounded by woods, a creek and lots of weeds. My mom loved to go through the woods and find things that we could eat or were just different. We did eat dandelions (once!). BUT, she didn't cook with herbs or grow them. Didn't find herbs until maybe 10 15 years ago for myself.


Reggie said...

I love this article. A very inspiring one. For many years a lived almost completely absorbed by modern living and divorced from nature. Then, sickness came and I was forced to look back to nature (after hopelessly trying traditional medicine). It has been one of the most important decisions I've ever made. Nature is health; nature is our Mother.

Anonymous said...

What a great article! I'm not a gardener, but a friend of mine has become very much one over the last few years. Whenever I visit his home he points out some new herb or weed or food plant that I normally just know by tea bag or store container. I never expected to be so excited to see them in their natural and original state. He makes me teas every once in a while and this has inspired me to start my own garden . . . uh, very small garden--in three little pots, but I love those little plants and it's a start.
I also really enjoyed the story of you and your sister. How wonderful to have such a partner to explore and learn with.

Vicki Nelson said...

I do the same thing when I go anywhere. FINALLY, I found somebody else who does it!!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Do you also have the problem of telling whoever is with/by you "this is such and such, its good for such and such"?


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