Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Foraging ~ How do we learn?

Chickweed nestled under lavender in the snow.
Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that we have an innate sense of which plants are our friends. Some people believe that they actually call to us.
I'm often asked how I've come to know so many of the wild plants around me, so I've been thinking a lot about that lately, expecially since my silent, knee-jerk response is something akin to, "how can you not?"
Of course, it started out in childhood, walking through meadows with my brothers to play or fish in the creeks, avoiding "burn hazel" (my grandfather's name for nettles) and cow patties. We all knew poison ivy/oak on sight by the time we were 5 or 6. Both of those we learned the hard way. Along the way we learned which trees bore different fruits to eat when we got the chance. Playing in the woods, we'd gather dry pine needles to plug up the holes in our forts made from fallen timber. Sassafras leaves just smelled good as did angelica. We spent days adding food coloring to vases full of Queen Anne's Lace, and blowing the fluff from dandelion seed heads. In the fall we found milkweed pods and found ways to play with them. Poke berries were our "sidewalk chalk". Hollowing out the pith from elder stalks was just ... interesting, and we chewed the tender stems of grasses and grains. Seeds and flowers and fruits were always fun to dissect and inspect. I still remember my sister telling me a story about a fairy princess while gingerly taking apart a bleeding heart flower, with each part representing something in the story - finally ending with a bottle of champagne! Take one apart, and you'll find that.
Eventually, as we started gardening something else came into play. I really don't quite know how to explain this, but I could always tell a weed seedling from a seedling of something I wanted to grow. 'Course, if I was wrong, there'd be no way to tell, would there? Except that often, looking at a little sprout I'd think, "that's *something*", and leave it to grow into a flower or vegetable.
It wasn't until my 30's that I was really drawn to start using wild plants on a daily basis. Up until then, it was "kid stuff". Reading about plants, seeing pictures and descriptions would remind me that they were nearby and send me out searching. Sure enough! There they'd be.
Soon I was poring over field guides, and gathering groups of friends to trek into the woods. We'd all take our guides and find a plant of which we weren't certain. Then, we'd confer, trying to agree on a specific plant using several field guides. If that didn't convince us 100%, we'd take a leaf or two home for further research. It helped to have it physically available to note the stem, texture, scent, hairyness, etc.
It still takes me a couple of walks each spring to get my bearings. A few days ago there was a discussion about a cress that is rampant around here, but it took me a while to remember that we call it peppergrass, and to be able to envision how it looks in the summer and fall.
I tell people who want to learn to choose 5 plants their first year. Those 5 will give them plenty of information, and projects for a year. The next year there will be more.
This all just reminds me how lucky I was to be a kid in the 50's and 60's when children were sent outside to play all day. We existed among the plants and used them in our play. They were our toys, our teachers, and on occasion our sustenance. They waited patiently for me to come back to them.


Migoto_Chou said...

What a wonderful wonderful post! It brings back such happy memories!

I never realized that I was actually learning all those years. Poison ivy, poke berries, bleeding heart flowers...

This really makes me want to go out and play in the fields again.

Laura said...

This was WONDERFUL! It made me think of my childhood in the desert of CA where if enough rain came that year, we'd have tall green grass fields to run and play in. Ah! Such a delight!

Thank you for sharing this glimpse into the wild woods of PA and for inspiring me to keep an eye out for the plants that brave the concrete jungle of Manhattan.


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