The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Sustainable Living

Don’t Let End of Season Veggies Go to Waste! Making Nutritive and Healing Soup Stocks/Broths October 26, 2014

What the heck, broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli?  Into the pot you go!

What the heck, massive broccoli? Why did you never produce broccoli? Into the pot you go!

So its the end of the season, a very hard frost is on the horizon for the week and several lighter frosts have already occurred. You look out across your garden with its overflowing abundance. There are still beans, swiss chard, tons of herbs, celery, kale, cukes, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and more. And while some of these veggies can make it through a few hard frosts and will last well into the late fall (like kale) and some will last in the ground over the winter (like onions or carrots), for others, their time is very limited without a hoop house for cover. Even with a hoop house, some won’t survive another week outside.  And then there’s that pesky broccoli.  This year, my broccoli grew to 3 and 4′ tall, leafed out, got woody, and never produced a single flower head.  My friend and garden mentor says its likely because my soil is too rich; it never was forced into its reproductive stage.  Regardless, I have all this broccoli biomass and nutrients locked up in something not really all that edible. So, given the excess of veggies and the darn broccoli, what’s a homesteader to do?

Its simple: this is the perfect time of year to make a few huge pots of broth for the soups in the winter months. Take all of those extra veggies, even the ones that maybe had some frost damage or lots of imperfections, and toss them in a big pot of water. Take that pesky broccoli that never produced anything, chop it up, and get its nutrients into your stockpot and eventually into your belly!

 

Applying a bit of herbal knowledge, any kind of stock is better with a little nutritive and tonic herbs and veggies as well, so in addition to the typical garden vegetables, I also will add several kinds of nutritive and tonic foods to make the stocks more nutrient dense and healing–nettle, hen of the woods mushroom, turkey tail mushroom, burdock.  These are wild foods that are fairly abundant this time of year, if you know where to look.  And I think this step is important–if we work to make our foods as healing and nutritive as possible, we are better equipped to fight off disease and illness.  I always take the extra step to add nutritive plants and mushrooms to my stocks and gain their benefits each time I open up a jar of the stock :).

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

Kelsey (WOOFer) preparing chard for veggie stock

 

Vegetable Stock Recipe:

The idea is to fill a large pot at least 2/3 of the way full of veggies before you add water.  I don’t work with a specific recipe, but throw in what I have.  My last batch had this:

  • Whatever is left in my garden (this year, primarily broccoli stalk, beans, swiss chard).  Anything pretty much works here, different veggies will give different flavors, e.g. pumpkin will be much different than cabbage.  All turn out just fine though :).
    • With this, however, do be aware that the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage) should only be in the stock for about 45 min total.  Otherwise, my friend who is a chef tells me, they release sulfur compounds that give your stock an “off” taste. So consider adding these towards the end of your soup stock.
  • At least a few tomatoes (more for a more tomatoey broth) or a jar of stewed tomatoes if you are out of fresh ones.  This helps give the broth color and richness. Again, this is great for the end of the season.
  • Several large onions
  • Several large carrots
  • A bunch of celery stalks (I cut three whole plants from my garden for my huge soup pot)
  • Fresh herbs (thyme and sage)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • At least a foot-long piece of burdock root, peeled and chopped up (I dug this fresh from my yard for this purpose; more is always good)
  • A handful or two of fresh or dried stinging nettle (I had dried this earlier in the year)
  • A few handfuls of dried or fresh hen of the woods (miatake) mushroom or turkey tail mushroom (threw in some of each that I had fresh and dried)

 

The last three ingredients are the nutritive and tonic plants that provide amazing amounts of nutrition, making this super awesome healing veggie stock.  Burdock is a plant I recently discussed on my blog in my last post. Burdock has antioxidants, inulin (a prebiotic that helps reduce blood sugar, body weight, cholesterol), potassium, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, iron,  and lower amounts of many other vitamins and minerals. Nettle, likewise, has extraordinary amounts of vitamin K, along with vitamin E, calcium, and manganese and again lots of smaller amounts of other things.  Finally, hen of the woods has Naicin, Riboflavin, and Omega 6 fatty acids.  By adding these last three “wild” ingredients, I am supplementing the already powerful nutrition that the more standard garden vegetables provide.

 

If you don’t know where to get a large pot, believe it or not, you can sometimes find stock pots in a well stocked hardware store near the canning isle.  You want a stainless steel one or an enamel one.

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

Stock pot with awesome ingredients

I cook my veggie stock on low for at least 12 hours before pressure canning or freezing it.  You know its done once the veggies look drab, like the photo below (then you can strain the veggies, compost the veggies, and pressure can the broth).

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

Drab, spent vegetables going to the compost

 

Chicken Stock

The other stock I’m doing this year is a chicken stock.  This is a simpler stock, and consists of the following:

 

  • 2-3 pounds of chicken feet (procured from a local farmer at an extremely good price); you can substitute a chicken carcass or other meat bones
  • Three large onions
  • A pound or two of carrots
  • A pound or two of celery
  • Rosemary and sage
  • Salt and pepper to taste

 

And for this, I try to fill a stock pot up at least halfway with ingredients and the rest with water for the stock.  For this, I find that the ideal flavor hits somewhere around 12-24 hours.   For other kinds of bone broth (like chicken bones) I might go up to 48 hours.  But for the feet, a shorter cooking time seems better for ideal flavor.

 

This chicken stock recipe again uses up the material from the garden (especially the celery, which does not like getting too zapped by the frost) and in the case of my chicken feet, also uses a meat product that a lot of people don’t want.  Most of the organic, free range, local chicken I can purchase around here runs $3.50 or $4/lb.  For a whole chicken, it can be anywhere from $20-$30.  This kind of seems like a waste if I’m just making broth from it.  I can get the chicken feet for about $2 a pound, and since its only for soup stock, the chicken feet work much better.  And they really do make a great stock.  The deal is, of course, you have to look at chicken feet while you are making them and deal with the fact that there are feet in your stock.

Chicken feet in soup...for real.

Chicken feet in soup srock…for real.

The alternative would be to roast the chicken, enjoy it, save the bones, and use the bones for making your stock. The idea here is that by making a “bone broth,” you are extracting a lot of minerals and vitamins not found in the meat of the animals. This includes high amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, certain amino acids, and collagen.  By, again, cooking this broth over low heat over a period of days, you extract maximum nutrients and maximum flavors.

You can add the nettle, hen of the woods, turkey tail, or burdock (or mix and match) to your chicken stock as well, of course.  These recipes are very flexible and fluid.

 

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

Stock that has been strained, ready to go into the pressure canner!

 

After your stock cools, you can strain it and compost the veggie bits.  The meat bits I put out into the woods for some happy rodent or raccoon to come across.  At this point, I pressure can it (85 minute pressure can for quarts; 75 minute for pints).  You could also freeze it (again, if you’ll remember from my earlier posts, I don’t freeze much because the power grid is poor around here and we go days and days without power).

 

All winter long, I will be able to enjoy the richness of the veggie and chicken broths and stay healthy and warm.

 

Wild Food Profile – Burdock Root (spring and fall) October 20, 2014

Great Burdock (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Foraging is an important part of my spiritual path, as it is one of the ways that I build a closer relationship with nature.  I also think its an important part of the “oak knowledge” that druids should consider cultivating.  As we regain our understanding of the plants, trees, and herbs around us, we grow closer to that landscape.  By harvesting food from my backyard growing wild, I’m taking that landscape within and allowing it to nourish me.  This nourishment comes in many forms, and not all of them are physical. As our amazing spring returns after a long, hard, winter, I am so excited to get out there and enjoy  wild foods!

The early spring or late fall is a wonderful time for wild foods. From violets to ramps to dandelion greens and dryad’s saddle and morel mushrooms, the leafy veggies, edible flowers, and mushrooms are just amazing.  What I like about fall is that many of the things you enjoyed in spring are back again, for round two, before the winter sets in.

Today I’ll be covering Burdock.  My experience is with arctium minus (common burdock) but what I’m saying can also apply to other burdock species, such as great burdock (arctium lappa).  Samuel Thayer, in his awesome book Forager’s Harvest suggests that the great burdock is more tasty than the common burdock.  But I only have common burdock, and it tastes just fine to me!

 

Burdock and its Nutritive and Healing Qualities

Burdock is a wonderful plant, despite the fact that most people who encounter it only remember it for its spiny seed pods that stick to you–and everything else.  Burdock is often one of those plants that end up on various township and city’s “noxious weed” lists because of its seed pods.  And yes, they can be absolutely wretched and itchy if they end up stuck to your clothing, socks, hair, and so forth.  And yet, here is a plant that provides us with nutritive, healing food and medicine anytime the ground is not frozen solid.

Burdock primarily is a nutritive and metabolic tonic; that is, it is rich in minerals and vitamins, and eating it is beneficial for digestion.  It is best eaten fresh or tinctured.  For a complete list of burdock’s medicinal qualities, I highly suggest Jim McDonald’s discussion of burdock.  Grieve’s Modern Herbal also has a nice entry. Burdock is one of those great plants that you can eat like food, cause it is food, but it has such good medicinal qualities that its like medicinal food.  Its really great and, I think, is really unappreciated!

 

Identifying and Harvesting Burdock Root

You can find Burdock three seasons of the year–in spring, summer, and fall.  Burdock root is best dug in early spring or late fall in late fall. I have a healthy burdock patch on my property, and more comes up each year.  I let the seeds fall in the fall and try to push them into the ground with the bottom of my shoe (being careful not to have them stuck to me), because I want the roots and stalks for good eating :).

Based on some tincturing experiments by my dear friend Sara and consultations of some herbals and my herbal instructor, we’ve concluded that the inulin in burdock, which is a source of much of its medicine, is much higher in the fall than in the spring (the plant likely lives off of inulin  in the winter to survive).  Inulin is a natural carbohydrate found in many plants. So you will want to keep that in mind when gathering your burdock roots.

Late Fall Harvests: The leaves die back in the fall, sending their energy back into the roots.  After a good hard frost or two, the burdock leaves will mostly die back on the first year plants.  This is the time to harvest the roots, especially for medicinal purposes.  You can wait a while to gather after this point, however, eventually the ground will freeze and then you won’t be able to dig the roots deeply. Its easier to identify the burdock in the fall, with its huge green leaves and long skinny stalk, and fuzzy green (and later brown) burs.  Usually first and 2nd year plants will be near each other–2nd year plants die off and go to seed at least a month before the 1st year plants lose their leaves.

Early Spring Harvests.  Likewise, in the spring, the energy is still in the roots, where nutrients  were kept all all winter long, and the nutrients push those nutrients upward and outward and leafy greens and flowers emerge once more. Before that energy returns completely, however,  early spring can be a prime time to gather root crops like cattails and burdock.  Once the plants just peek above the soil (or the water, in the case of the cattail) then you are ready to harvest. The key with harvesting root crops in early spring is to harvest them early, just when you see them peeking up and can identify them.  The longer you wait, the more energy from the roots goes into the leaves, and the roots become less tasty and nutritive. .In early spring you want the early 2nd year plants (the ones that didn’t go to seed the year before).

While its easy to identify burdock in the fall, its still pretty easy in the spring once you know what you are looking for and where to find it–soft, light green heart shaped petals, usually growing in small clusters.  The spring clusters will first have two leaves, and then a small rosette.  They will have the distinctive burdock smell–slightly bitter.  They come up at the same time that the violets bloom, and generally (at least here) before the dandelions bloom. I knew exactly where to look this spring, just in front of my garden along the pathway.  Here are the rosettes of the freshly sprouted burdock plants.  These burdock plants have to be dug up, because eventually if I let them remain, they will grow burs and the burs will stick to me each time I try to enter my garden.

The following photos are from my spring burdock harvest.  The fall burdock plants have much bigger leaves!

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Once you find yourself some burdock rosettes, the real fun begins.  Ideally, you’ll have a long, narrow shovel (called a drain spade, like this).  I don’t have such a shovel, so instead, I put the shovel on one side of the burdock and jump on it, going as deep as I can.  Then, I do the same thing on the other side of the burdock.  One one side, I dig a small hole as far down as I can next to the burdock root, and finally, pry as much of it as I can up with the shovel.  Rarely does the whole root come up, but there is plenty for me to work with using this method.  The drain spade is MUCH better.  The key to buying a good burdock digging shovel is that it is sturdy–place your foot on the middle of it and try to bend the shovel.  If the shovel bends badly, its no good for burdock digging and you’ll break it on your first time out.

Digging Burdock

Digging Burdock

While you can get massive roots out of the ground like the one featured in the image below, these are usually more woody and a bit hollow on the inside.  Sometimes they can get long black cracks as well.  They are still ok to eat, but the younger roots, less than a year old, are much more easy to work with.

Huge burdock root!

Huge burdock root!

The day a friend and I were digging burdock, we filled up a 5 gallon bucket in less than 30 min.  We harvested in about a 15′ square area, and there is still a ton of burdock out there for the harvesting.

Bucket full of burdock!

Bucket full of burdock!

After we harvested the burdock, we didn’t wash it (you want to wash it right before you eat it to avoid any water loss–water loss is one of the biggest challenges for storing vegetables, even short term).  Instead, we put it in bags and stuck it in the fridge.  You also want to chop off all the green heads–the greens will cause water loss.  Storing in a root cellar would be better for this, but alas, I don’t yet have a good root cellar.

Burdock harvest

Burdock root harvest

Eating Burdock

To prepare burdock root, you’ll want to start by washing it well.  I use a carrot scrubber, which gets off most of the dirt.  I don’t wash my burdock until right before eating it.  Once you scrub the dirt off of it, you can peel it (I find peeling pretty much necessary b/c its impossible to get fully clean).  You’ll see that it looks and acts like a carrot–this is true for the whole preparing process.

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

You can cook it in the same manner you would a carrot, and it has a similar cooking time.  I sliced up this burdock root and threw it in a pan to saute.  I then added some leftover rice noodles, leftover pesto pasta, and topped it off with feta cheese.  Nums!

Burdock dish

Burdock root with rice pasta, pesto, and feta cheese

 

Flavor and Taste

Burdock root doesn’t show up a lot in western cooking, but in Japan, it is a highly valued ingredient (you can search for “gobo root” and find all kinds of awesome recipes). I think its really delicious in the right kind of meal.  I treat it pretty much like I would a carrot in terms of where I would use it.

In terms of taste, I find burdock to be very mild and slightly sweet.  It tastes kinda nutty and earthy, and I find that it compliments many dishes.  Since it also has tonic, regenerative, and nutritive qualities, its just great to eat when you can get it. Its also a fantastic food because traditionally one would have long ran out of carrots by this point in the year, and burdock root would get you through the “hunger times” of early spring.

 

Invasive Plants and Invasion Biology as Destructive Concepts: A Druid’s Perspective October 9, 2014

When people talk about plants, one of the common conversations that comes up is whether the plant is native or invasive. Invasive plants have taken on monstrous qualities of epic proportions, and people in organized groups nationwide argue for the eradication of invasive plants using harmful, chemically-based methods. The native plant community, whose conferences are sponsored by Bayer Chemical and Monsanto, advocate the use of noxious chemicals to deal with problem plants. I’d like to spend some time today discussing the “invasive plant” movement from a druidic perspective, where this movement came from, and provide an alternative perspective.  I’ll also note that while I think the term “invasive” is a problem, I haven’t yet come up with a better term, so I’ll use it in this blog entry.  I don’t think its a good term, however, and it creates more problems than it solves.

 

Invasives as a Cultural Construction: The Case of Autumn Olive

Let’s start with an example to see how these “invasive plants” are framed. When I was researching my recent post on Autumn Olive, I came across this video produced by the University of Maryland discussing the evils of Autumn Olive.  The piece opens with a pathos (emotion) driven argument that these “invaders” are scary, are “the nightmare that threatens your garden” and that one must be vigilant and protect one’s home and garden from such invasion.  This immediately puts humanity in an adversarial relationship with the said plant invader and encourages us to get angry and upset over the incursion of these plants upon the landscape.  When we move into the video itself, the narrator, who has a bunch of fancy titles, suggests that the autumn olives were “another good idea gone bad” and how they were once “promoted heavily” by state governments and the like, but now are “invaders.” So here, we have the obvious fact that we A) messed up the ecosystem to the point where we needed plants to help and B) brought these plants in willfully and systematically into the environment and C) didn’t consider the long-term impact of said plants before introduction.

 

Autumn Olive Berries

Autumn Olive Berries

The narrator continues by suggesting many things that, frankly, are not founded in reality. First, she argues that in every case Autumn Olives crowd out all native plants (an overgeneralization fallacy; tell that to the Boneset and New England Aster happily growing next to the Autumn Olive in my back yard). Perhaps the most ludicrous part is when she argues that Autumn Olive’s nitrogen fixing qualities are a terrible thing. As one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers in many ecosystems where it grows, Autumn Olive helps regenerate soils, particularly in wasteland areas where the soils have been degraded by intensive farming by adding nitrogen to the soil and allowing the soil to become more fertile for other kinds of plants.  In his book Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, David Theodoropoulos he demonstrates many cases of this nature: that if a native plant fixes nitrogen or creates compost matter its considered good, but when an invasive does the same thing, it is considered bad. The video narrator concludes by suggesting that the “easiest thing to do” to get rid of autumn olive is to cut it down and “treat the stump with a systemic herbicide.” Yes, that’s exactly what we should do to the poor plant we put here who is regenerating the ecosystem and providing us and wildlife with tasty free berries (note my sarcasm).

 

Autumn olive presents an excellent poster child for the invasive plants debate because it highlights many of the problems that an “invasion biology” mindset has concerning plants. Specifically, it illustrates the contradiction that is so inherent in nearly all invasive plant species: we brought it here, we introduced it, and we damaged the landscape so that it has a niche in which to grow. And then we become unhappy when it does grow and works to regenerate the problems we caused, so we treat it with chemicals that further damage the landscape, creating an even greater niche for the plant to grow.

 

The Origins of Invasion Biology

One of the striking things about the invasion biology movement is its connection with the Nazi’s xenophobic and genocidal thinking, as detailed by David Theodoropoulos in his book (and also discussed to a more limited extent on his website). The Nazis had a very similar “native plant” movement in Germany where they worked to eradicate the landscape of non-native plants; this, of course, parallels the atrocities committed in their attempt to eradicate humans from the landscape who didn’t fit their idolized image. Theodoropoulous argues that invasion biology is connected to the same kinds of destructive thinking prevalent in Naziism, that is, an easily identified enemy that one seeks to exterminate, an emphasis on genetic purity, the goal of preserving one’s lands, and a root cause of dissatisfaction with where things are currently.  I’d add to his arguments that it becomes easy to construct an enemy, get people angry with the enemy, and then work hard to eradicate it, all the while stripping them of the facilities for rational thought through fearmongering and intense emotional reactions.  From a rhetorical perspective, when we begin setting up multiple logical fallacies in order to generate hatred of plants (straw man arguments, post-hoc fallacies, either-or fallacies, overgeneralization fallacies) we get into a mode that allows us to react emotionally rather than reason logically about our interaction with our landscape.

 

Another problem with the invasives debate is that only certain kinds of plants or insects are targeted.  The European honeybee is an invasive species under many definitions–it outcompetes native pollinators such as the bumble bee. Despite clear scientific evidence for its invasive quality, we keep honeybees and they produce honey and pollinate crops.  And you never hear any invasive species people complaining about Apis Melifera. In the same way, I’ve seen Poison Ivy routinely listed on “invasive species” lists, despite the fact that poison ivy is a native plant filling and important role in the ecosystem.  Wolves suffer a similar fate–wolves are native, but we’ve done our best to eradicate them in the ecosystem because they prey upon farmer’s herds. What counts as an invasive, then, depends on whether it aligns with economic interests and how convenient or inconvenient it is for humanity.

 

The terminology problem continues within the scientific literature within the invasive plant community: practitioners cannot agree upon terminology or  what features actually constitute an invasive plant or animal. So not only do we have a straw man argument (a constructed enemy), we also have no clear definition of what we actually are rallying against, but by golly, we will rally against it.  The problem with fuzzy definitions is that they, like emotions, are easily manipulated to get one to behave in a certain manner–and as I’ll demonstrate in the next section, like everything else in our culture, this ultimately comes back to consumption.

 

Gotta love the dandelion!

Gotta love the dandelion!

Problems with Invasion Biology

All of the above things speak to the destructive origins of the invasive plants thinking, and this thinking leads to a series of problems.

 

Invasion biology as a profit scheme.  First and foremost, its important to understand that the invasive plant industry (and yes, it is an industry) is quite lucrative from the perspective of the chemical companies. Dow’s site, for example, promotes the use of chemical treatments of invasives in order to sell their products. Given their nature, invasive plants are nearly impossible to eradicate and continually and easily spread by human disturbance, the chemical industry has a cash cow of epic proportions–each year, one needs to buy and apply more chemicals to deal with one’s invasives in one’s yard. The more one distrubs the soil, the more readily the invasives will come–and so the cycle continues. The chemical companies have everything to gain by maintaining an adversarial relationship with the plants.  David Theodoropoulos provides evidence in his book that links executives from the chemical industry to the founders of the native plants movement (such as the Monsanto executive and creator of Roundup being a founding member of the California Exotic Pest Plant Council).  Profits are driving this movement, make no mistake about that.

 

Chemical controls are worse than the plants themselves.  What is worse? The damage that Autumn Olive or Phragmites cause or the chemicals and methods we use to eradicate them?  If I had a chance to let species grow or use horrible poisons to eradicate them, I will let them grow and find ways of co-habitating with those species. We do more harm than good in working to eradicate these invasives with chemicals.  We cannot poison the landscape in order to protect it.

 

Human interference and destruction of the land is the root cause.  The ironic thing about the invasive plant movement is that humanity is much more destructive on the ecosystem than any single invasive plant, or any group of invasive plants or other species combined. A few of these destructive tendencies are: the insistence in maintaining a perfect lawn with petrochemicals, the extraction and use of fossil fuels, the use of poisons that shatter the ecological balance of our waterways and reduce diversity, the injecting of hundereds of millions of tons of poisons into our watershed through fracking, the use of clear cutting, the prevalence of oil spills (and so on, and so on). Humans have much to atone for with regards to our relationship with nature. Human interference, to me, the root cause of the whole issue and is the bigger issue we should consider addressing.

 

Promotion of an adversarial relationship with nature.  I’ve written about this fairly extensively on this blog; the promotion an adversarial relationship with nature is going to continue to lead to our treating it harmfully, dumping chemicals on it, and generally not engaging in any kind of partnership with the land.  As long as we see nature as the enemy, we are, like the Nazis, willing to do anything in order to achieve our goals.  And that is an incredibly scary thing indeed.

 

Alternative Perspectives to Invasion Biology

Now that I’ve outlined some of the history and issues with the invasive plant movement, I’d like to offer some alternative perspectives, rooted in my own druidic perspective that “nature is good” and help to demonstrate my shift to more sustainable ways of thinking.

 

Nature is not a static thing to memorialized but rather dynamic and ever-changing. Wendell Berry argues in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture that sometime in the 20th century, our relationship with the natural world shifted from that of collaborators to that of museum preserverationists. At all costs, the US National Parks Service set about preserving nature exactly as it was at that moment, memorialized across time.  Or, if a habitat was deemed too full of invasives, habitats were “restored” through the mass dumping of chemicals and destruction of what was growing there.  And to this day, these practices still take place—the plants that are growing are removed, burned, chemically treated, and new plants are planted, those that are “supposed to be there.”

 

The problem with is that it is a completely unrealistic view of how nature actually works. Evolution is about adaptation and change; our fossil records show that throughout the many millennia of earth’s existence, the only one constant is change and the ability to adapt. Species that adapted to their changing surroundings survived, those who did not failed to survive. This is a natural process and one that has driven all life.  We are already seeing the effects of climate change with the migration of species to areas that are now warming (I think about the redbud tree that is now showing up here in Michigan).  Nature will adapt and evolve, its just what she does.

 

The invasive plant movement assumes that nature is, was, and always will be the same.  But even as far back as Charles Darwin, we see evidence of plant and animal matter being moved all over the globe by natural processes–bugs and animals and microbes riding on a log to a new island, birds carrying seeds 1000’s of miles in their beaks, and so on.  The difference is that humans have perpetuated the movement of species into new areas at a much faster pace and we have done this while systematically destroying ecosystems and wild areas.  Of course we are going to see cracks in the system–but, if we give her space and time, nature will adapt.

 

Adaptation

Adaptation

Nature is not something to be at a distance, rather, something we can interact with. The “nature as a static thing” view puts nature at a distance, rather than something that one interacts with. There is a local county park where I like to go, that has some amazing plants like diamond puffball mushrooms, spicebush, and a small patch of beech-oak old growth forest. There are 6’ wide paved pathways with another 4’ of mowed clearance on each side of the path. People run there, bring their dogs. But what I never see them doing is interacting—getting up close to look at a bug, or sit on an old stump. They stay neatly and perfectly on the path and even while they are in the middle of a forest, keep that forest at a distance. This distance leads us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and certainly allows us to have less empathy about decisions to slash and burn pieces of it that aren’t to our liking, or dump poisons all over it in the drive for trying to put things back the way they were before we messed with it.

 

Finally, this view eradicates any idea of nature as a “commons” that benefits all, where the careful management of natural resources is something that is the responsibility of all. The commons view, used extensively in feudal England, suggested that many of common lands were available for general use (foraging, harvesting trees using coppicing as a method, putting flocks to pasture), as long as that use was kindly and in balance.

 

With the rise of the “nature as a monument” movement, we’ve forgotten how to be in partnership with each other and with the land to promote long-term balance and harmony; this is perhaps no more evident than in the invasive species movement.

 

Most “invasives” are slowly regenerating our landscapes from damage that WE have inflicted. Invasives often work to regenerate damaged soils [see my dandelion post] and do so quickly and effectively. They do often outcompete other native plants that have been previously growing there (and in many cases, were recently removed due to human activity).  They often have benefit to us and to the ecosystem (see Timothy Lee Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine for a fascinating discussion). The idea that we can somehow preserve the landscape as it once was is, frankly, in my opinion short sighted and pointless.  The landscape changes, and it changes far more often due to human activities – humans can wipe out a forest far more effectively and quickly than buckthorn can.  Most of the role of the invasives are to regenerate the damage that we have continually inflicted.

One one of my recent herb walks was in this area with acres and acres of native plants that had be re-introduced by a local state park service (I don’t want to know what they did to eradicate whatever was growing there before).  As we walked up this hill, my herb instructor pointed out something quite interesting–the only place the “invasives” where showing up in the landscapes was where humans were causing disturbances.  In other words, sweet clover (which bees love) and star thistle (Spotted Knapweed) were showing up only on the edges of the paths where they were being mowed (these are the best plants from which bees make honey, for the record).  There were literally no plants of an “invasive” nature anywhere further inside where the soil wasn’t disturbed.  And this is true of many invasives, like dandelion.  They are regenerating the most difficult spaces, those that have no soil fertility, that have compacted soil.  They are paving the way for others to come.

 

Long-term Orientation.  As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the concept of long-term orientation also comes into play here. Because a great deal of the “invasives” grow in conditions where the soil is disturbed, if those conditions were to be removed, the invasives wouldn’t continue to grow.  I discussed the succession of dandelion in my earlier post, and the same is true of many of the invasives that people get uptight about: spotted knapweed, honeysuckle, autumn olive, and purple loosestrife.

Even for those invasives that are displacing native plants in the ecosystem–consider this.  Our planet is in a constant state of change and flux.  Species rise, species fall, and evolution is a constant driving force.  If we stop looking just at today and tomorrow and instead think about 100 or 1000 years from now, I think we can say that yes, the introduction of plants has changed, but nature will also find a way to balance the scales (provided that there are enough natural and wild areas where such evolution can take place).  The much greater threat to our long-term survival as a species and as a world is from human-led destruction, not from plants being introduced.

 

Nature is good.

          One of the common sayings within the druid tradition is that “nature is good.” Notice that its not “only nature that was here before we got here is good” or “some nature is good” or “native plants that are in nature are good.”  No, the saying is simply, “Nature is good.” This is the approach that I take. Whether or not we like it, decisions by humans and actions by humans have irrevocably altered our landscapes, not only from the introduction of non-native plant species but in the wholesale destruction and desecration of the land through the use of chemical means. The idea that we want to “manage” natural evolutionary and ecological processes is just another manifestation of the hubris that we are somehow above nature, and that nature can’t manage itself. If we buy this argument, then I think the best that any of us can do is to truly step back from the immediacy of the “native plant problem” and fight against the wholesale exploitation and nature, both in our immediate lives but also in our communities and countries.

 

The last point I’ll make is this: we have limited energy and time, and how we choose to spend that time can make considerable positive change in the world.  If I choose to focus my energy on eradicating invasive species in my yard and helping others do the same, I’m choosing not to focus my energy on something else that could have a more benefical impact. If we look at the magnitude of the destruction we are facing, it is not from invasive species in our landscape but from humanity’s relentless pursuit of consumer goods and greed.  If what I’ve written here makes any sense at all, I would like to suggest the following: focus on educating others, preventing destruction to begin with, and to working with the plants to regenerate and restore our landscapes.  Focus on educating ourselves and others about how ecosystems work and how we can better live in harmony in sustainable ways.  To me, this seems like a much more productive use of one’s time, and has a possibility for much greater good.  We can cultivate a positive relationship with nature.

 

Reclaiming Our Heritage and Connection With The Land: Herbs, Plants, and Harvests October 1, 2014

Path through the woods

Path through the woods: how many ancestors walked here?

As you might have noticed, my posts on this blog slow down considerably in the months of August – October.  This is because as a single homesteader, I’m quite busy bringing in the harvest canning, drying, and freezing;  preparing my garden for next year’s season; planting garlic and other fall crops; jumping in leaves; drying herbs; and generally enjoying fall, my very favorite of the seasons.  My posts will become more frequent as winter approaches!

 

I’ve been taking a lot of time to reflect this year, because this is the end of my 5th year as a homesteader and I’m coming up on 9 years as a druid–through these experiences, I’m really starting to feel that I am living the wheel of the year much more intimately and that I’m regaining something that my generation (and several generations before me) lost. Today I’d like to posit that many of the activities that I discuss on this blog, from finding wild foods to medicine making and growing and preserving the harvest is as much about reclaiming our human heritage and reconnecting to the land as it is about foraging a sustainable path in an increasingly unsustainable world.  In other words, these activities give us a window both into the work of our ancestors and also to the future.  To do this, I’m going to talk a bit about heritage, and the process of feeling like I am regaining some of mine with these practices.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers: What They Knew and What Went With Them

When I think about the kinds of things that were passed down to me as a child, I think about the time I spent with my grandfather Custer in the forest; where he showed me several edible and medicinal plants, where he taught me to see the tracks in the snow; where we would laugh and play in the forest. I only remember fragments, but I hold onto those dearly. I think about the lessons of my grandmother Driscoll, who would find a shiny penny face up on the road and bring it home and bury it beneath the front paving stones.  Grandmother Driscoll, who made dandelion wine she never drank, who trash picked and made many things from nothing at all–these lessons are all part of my heritage.  But there wasn’t a lot that they passed down; they were all too busy working multiple jobs, raising families, making steel in the mills.

 

My grandmother Custer taught me many songs, songs that her grandmother had taught her. One song she taught me was called “a froggy would a wooin go”;  I didn’t know it when I was a child, but I recently discovered that this song has roots as back as 1558….all those grandmothers passing down the song to their grandchildren. I think about that kind of history–500+ years of grandmothers passing on the song so that I was able to learn it as a child. And I’m glad for that tiny bit of heritage. But I also wonder what my great-great-great-great-great grandmothers knew and how they lived, I wonder what they knew about the kinds of things I’m trying to relearn–knowledge of root and stem and seed.  We have almost no family records, I have no idea of knowing what they knew, how they lived, who they were. Most of all, since I lost all of my grandparents before the age of 15, I wonder what I would have learned if they were still alive, or if I had had a chance to know my great grandparents, or their great grandparents. I wonder what they knew but did not think it relevant to teach in a quickly changing world. I wish, knowing where I am heading now, that I could have conversations with them, learn from them these skills, these ways of living.

 

I will also say, however, that my parents lived quite simply and, while I wouldn’t say they actively passed it down by teaching me the principles, we lived those principles growing up.  Canning and gardening were regular activities in our house. My uncle hunted and brought us venison and turkey.  We ate lots of zucchini from the garden.   I kinda just saw them as hobbies, not realizing their significance till later in my own path.  But I was grateful to have grown up with this framework as I began my own druidic and sustainable practice.

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

The Ancestral Lands of Western PA

Living Without A Heritage

I remember one day, sometime in the late 1980’s, my Grandmother Driscoll sat with tears in her eyes on the stoop where she buried so many shiny new pennies and she said to me, “Things were different when I was a child, Dana. Even during the depression, things were different.  People needed each other then.  We got on with very little.  We were a lot happier. There is so much I know that we don’t need anymore.”  Then we went inside and ate her homemade mushroom soup and made tiny doll clothes from repurposed fabric.

 

I remember looking back on this memory long after Grandmother had died, after they had all died (many due to the illnesses associated with steel mills and coal mines), thinking that I had literally no heritage. That the traditions and knowledge of my ancestors (primarily Irish, Native American, and German) were completely lost to me.  And truthfully, they pretty much were. Much of my family had come to America at least four or five generations prior to my birth; those who were Native had long since been forced to lose much of their own history or died trying to retain it.  Those that were Irish changed their names and eradicated their cultural practices due to discrimination.  The Germans had fared the best, and in my home region, we still had remnants of “Pennsylvania Dutch” folklore, cooking, and even, as I discovered only recently, a magical tradition called “Braucherei.” For all of my 20’s, however, I felt that I had literally no traditions to keep, no heritage to pass on.  This was, of course, compounded by the fact that I had rejected the religion of my parents (Christianity) and most of their holidays, and while I had tidbits of knowledge and songs from my grandparents, I felt like I was a person living with nothing.

Building New Traditions: Honoring the Land and Living Close to it

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods!

Dana and Dad cutting up Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms!

In the Tarot, the “tower” card represents a crashing down, a clearing of the way, with the opportunity to build anew once the dust settles.  In some ways, I kinda see this whole situation in a generational way: me as the 21st century product of the crumbling dust of the tower. I live in the remnants and shadows of the lost ancestral knowledge about how to live from the land, about how to build communities, about how to interact with each other; I live with the fragments of  traditions that hadn’t been passed on because of a rapidly changing world.

 

Through the work of the last five years, I realized rather recently that I was building something anew where I had perceived this empty wasteland of family heritage and tradition.  I became, thanks to two of my close friends and mentors, obsessed with reading old books full of old knowledge (the 1970’s has much to offer, but previous decades and centuries even more so).  I attended workshops, classes, learned by doing, talked to old wisened elders, learned everything I could (a process that shows no sign of ending anytime soon).  I also looked to my parents and their practices and saw their lifestyle with new appreciation.

 

I realized that I was building a new heritage that I could pass on by rediscovering the past, how others had lived, by studying the plants, by learning to grow and forage for my own food, but also melding those practices with druidry.  Druidry gave me the spiritual framework to understand the work I was doing and to understand and refect upon my practice it in useful and productive ways.  Druidry, with its own spiritual heritage paralleling the rise of the industrial revolution (and in many ways, responding to it) provided me with grounding and daily practices that helped me further understand myself and gave me tools to walk the tightrope between the worlds.

 

The other thing druidry and my sustainable practice was doing for me was helping me pull away from the heavy consumerist haze which had dominated the lives of so many of us growing up in the 80’s, falling into video game addictions in the 90’s and 2000’s (and yes…I was deep in fantasy land for way too long).  It helped me regain my footing, my connection to the land, my sense of self.

 

And now, I am starting to understand the power in returning to the land in whatever way one can–by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and cultivating close relationships with plants.  By making one’s own medicine to heal oneself.  By being happy that one has built up the calluses needed to do a few hours’ work in the garden.  By not only celebrating the wheel of the year, but understanding from a growth standpoint what happens to the plants after the Fall Equinox comes and joyously waiting the return of the Spring Equinox.  By learning the secrets of the soil.  By just practicing being happy and quiet and not running around like crazy all the time.  There is something so powerful about being even a little independent and self-sufficient.  Its a ton of hard work, yes, but it gives you something meaningful.

 

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Dana and Dad after visiting the beehives

Perhaps the most magical of all is that its not just me that has found this path–my immediate family, too, is transforming and regaining the oak knowledge of our ancestors.  Some of the photos I’ve shared in this post are of us doing various activities that we are discovering together–beekeeping, mushroom hunting, and so on.  My mom was the photographer in all of these images. We have, collectively, worked to rediscover and build a new heritage and tradition for ourselves that allows us to once again live close to the land and all of her inhabitants.  Last year, for example, I taught my parents about mushroom hunting–and they have become serious hunters, and now are teaching me new things.   This year, my sister and I are on parallel paths learning the ancient ways of herbalism and medicine making.  I have seen this same thing occurring in the lives of many other friends’ families–its if we are all waking up to rediscover our relationship to the land and working, as families, to build that knowledge once again.

 

I am so grateful to have found this path–not only does it give me ways of living that help me personally address the larger predicament that we face, but it also reconnects my entire family with the knowledge of our ancestors.  It enriches our lives. Even though the chain of knowledge was broken and many traditions were lost–druidic, sustainable practice can help us build new traditions and “oak knowledge” that we will be able to pass on.

 

On the Importance of Mentoring in Spiritual Life: In Honor of my Mentors September 21, 2014

Through the trees

Through the trees

Earlier this year, someone who had been a mentor to me for almost 10 years (almost 1/3 of my life) passed on very unexpectedly.  She was my academic mentor, the person who nurtured me and supported me through my entire Ph.D. and beyond as I became an assistant professor seeking tenure. Despite the fact that this blog is really about spirituality and sustainable practice, I think her lessons are important, and mentoring takes many forms, spiritual mentoring being one form.

 

I have always tried very hard to honor my mentors, to recognize their investment in my life, and to do the best work I can do to manifest their teachings and guidance in my life in positive and productive ways.  Still, looking back, I wonder if I said “thank you” enough to my mentor who passed on, or if she really understood what she meant to me and the others who she mentored. In honor of her passing, I want to spend some time discussing the role of the mentor, and honoring that role, both to honor of my mentor who recently passed on and for the mentors who are still in my life–you know who you are :).

 

Gardening is a good metaphor for a mentor, either in life, work, or in spiritual life.  In their early roles, a mentor is someone who takes a look at the soil you plan on growing something in, and says, “oh my, you don’t have nearly enough organic matter and nitrogen in this soil for anything to grow–yet. Here’s how you might get some more.”  And when you select your plants, let’s say, tomatoes, they may say, “Well, tomatoes require a lot more calcium than you currently have in your soil–what can you do about that?”  Or, “You know, this garden is really shady.  Tomatoes won’t do well here at all.  What else might you plant?” The work of the sowing of the seeds, of fruiting and growth is, of course, your own.  But a mentor might be there to help you prune away those non-producing water spouts from the tomato vines, and they are certainly there to provide trellising and support as needed. Could the plant grow without the mentor? Certainly, but it might not produce as much fruit, and it might be laying on the ground rather than standing tall for lack of support.

 

Mentors are the people who really help us see beyond ourselves, to open up new worlds, encourage us, and nurture us and help us grow.  Mentoring not always an easy task and its not always a pleasant one, however–for a good mentor is not only someone who nurtures and supports, but also is there to prune and tell us the harsh truths that we might not want to hear.  And the best mentors know that both praise and constructive criticism are necessary for growth–if we are only told what we want to hear, we live in a world of delusion.  Sometimes firm words to set us back on our true path are critically important. Mentors help us back on our paths with firm and gentle guidance.

 

Trees

So much to learn from the trees!  They too can be teachers and mentors.

I also think good mentoring is a careful process of knowing exactly how much to help, how much to let the person stumble and fall and learn on their own, and how to provide the right amount of support.  Its a delicate balancing act.  Mentors also recognize that different kinds of people require different kinds of mentoring–I happen to be a rather independent person who doesn’t like others to have too much control over my life.  My best mentors have always realized this and have taken a hands-off approach to working with me, allowing me to come to them when support or advice was needed rather than crowding me.  But others who work much differently may require much more hands on support and guidance; a good mentor recognizes how much support to give.

 

I think about those who have mentored me in my spiritual path, and I realize how important spiritual mentoring is.  Many druid paths are solitary ones, where we practice and learn on our own.  And while this is an extremely useful practice (and something I did for many years), finding mentors who supported me, suggested resources, and opened up worlds to me really helped me develop and grow in new ways.  Sometimes there is only so far one can get on one’s own, and even only a few key conversations or resources can really help one grow.  This is part of why I value mentoring so highly–I’ve seen its effects in my life both from those I mentor and from those who mentor me.

 

As a mentor, I believe its important to see yourself  in both the role of a teacher and that of a learner–you have to recognize that you have as much to learn as you do to teach.  I also have found that the best mentoring relationships are those that are rooted in friendship and mutual respect.  In the best mentoring relationships, I learn as much from those I mentor as they learn from me.  As a mentor, I might know more than they do about a particular subject and have a greater amount of experience, but my mentees always have new things to say, new approaches, and unique perspectives that add to my own knowledge.  This is the case in every kind of mentoring I do, whether its academic mentoring, garden mentoring, or spiritual mentoring.  And think this is also the case for those that mentor me.

 

And even though I often find myself in a mentoring role in my spiritual, professional, and personal lives, I am so grateful to those who take their time to build mentoring relationships and friendships with me.  If you haven’t yet taken an opportunity to thank your mentors recently and show your appreciation, perhaps you could take a moment to do so soon.  You never know how long they will be in your life–please do not take them for granted.

 

Wild Food Profile: Autumn Olive / Autumn Berry (Elaeagnus umbellata) + Autumn Olive Honey Jelly Recipe September 14, 2014

 About the Autumn Olive

Autumn Olive in spring (Courtesy of Wikipedia; I forgot to photograph this in the spring)

Autumn Olive (also called Autumn Berry, Japanese Silverberry, or Spreading Oleaster) is a bush that is native to China and is considered an “invasive” in the USA. In a good part part of the 20th century, it was used extensively by the US Army Corp of Engineers to hold hillsides in place from the growing highway system spanning the US and to fix nitrogen. The Autumn Olive grows exceedingly quickly; it can rise up several feet in a few months and bush out. It also spreads rapidly due to its berries being a favorite of birds. It is a nitrogen fixer, so it is often found in abused land areas or landscape areas that are regenerating (like old farmer’s fields or industrial sites); I should add that its one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers we have and it does fill an important role in the ecosystem.  It is extremely prevalent here in Michigan; I’ve also seen it in Indiana and Ohio and in the warmer parts of PA (like Bedford county). If you search invasive plant sites or talk to people, they will often call this plant a menace plant. And while this bush does spread quickly, it does have its benefits, especially in the form of beautiful, tasty, autumn olive berries with their incredible cranberry-like tart and sweet flavors.

 

The fruit is extremely high in lycopene (up to 17 times more than tomatoes, according to a USDA report described in the linked article).  The fruit also contain high levels of Vitamins E, A, flavionids, and fatty acids.  Underripe fruit are high in tannins and are very astringent, but as they ripen, they get much sweeter (especially after a bout of cold weather!)  I know that there are people exploring commercial cultivation of this plant due to the berries’ nutritional value and the plant’s ease of growing. And they are super tasty!

 

Harvested autumn olive in a "blickey" (a gallon jug with the top cut out; can be hung on a belt for easy harvesting)

Harvested autumn olive in a “blickey” (a gallon jug with the top cut out; can be hung on a belt for easy harvesting)

 

Harvesting Autumn Olive

After 3 years of growth, the Autumn Olive bears fruit. You should look to start harvesting it somewhere in September, usually around the Fall equinox (if you live in Zone 6a like I do).  A good year of fruit can have up to 8 lbs of fruit per bush (I have found that in Michigan, we only get this kind of abundance every few years). The fruit is really delicious and tart and not really like anything else out there. The closest thing I can think of is a cranberry, but autumn olives have no bitterness and are more tart.

Fruiting bush - notice the abundance!

Fruiting bush – notice the abundance!

Autumn Olives flower in the spring, and have quite a pleasant smell and nectar that my bees certainly appreciate.  Seeing how many flowers there are in the spring should give you an idea about how much fruit you will find in the fall. Sometime in early September to mid October, the berries ripen going from green to orange to a dark red. It is when the whole bush is red, a deep red, and the berries are ready to fall off (and you see the birds eating them), that they are ready to pick.  If you see orangish berries still on the bush, its not ready, and you should wait a few days.  Tasting the bush will confirm this–even the red berries on a bush with orange berries aren’t going to be a sweet.

Not quite ripe fruit

Not quite ripe fruit (notice the orange)

Be sure to pick ripe bushes before a big rain….if the fruit are quite ripe, they fall off the bush easily and a hard rain will knock them all to the ground. I had a bush I was enjoying this year, the first to ripen on my property a few weeks ago.  A big storm came and dropped them all to the ground before I was able to harvest them!

Each bush also tastes slightly different–some are more tart, some are more sweet, some are more flavorful.  When I am picking, I will go from bush to bush and taste a berry or two on each one.  When I find a bush that tastes good, that’s the bush I pick (they are so abundant that I can skip bushes if I want).  If the fruit on a particular bush tastes too astringent, wait a few days and come back–it should ripe up soon enough.  I love the diversity of flavors that the different bushes produce, and so, I have certain “favorite” bushes I visit each year.

Ripe berries ready to harvest and eat

Ripe berries ready to harvest and eat

In a good year, two people can pick a gallon or more of autumn olive in an hour or so. In any year, the autumn olive is absolutely worth your time to pick.  Autumn olive makes fantastic jelly and fruit leather due to its tart quality.

 

Autumn Olive Jelly

I’m going to walk you through the process of making an Autumn Olive Jelly, with photos, because this is one of the best ways to preserve these delightful fruits.  One thing about the jelly–the fruit juice tends to separate from the fruit pulp as it sets, so you get these interesting mottled looking jars of jelly.  I think they look kinda cool, but they might be a turn off (and frankly, that’s fine, because that’s more jelly for me).

Ingredients:

  • A bunch of autumn olives, washed
  • Pomona’s pectin (described in this post)
  • 1/2 cup  – 1 cup honey per 4 cups of processed berries

Equipment:

  • Hot water bath canner
  • 1/2 pint or 1/4 pint jars with new lids
  • Food mill
  • Masher (wooden or potato)

1.  Wash and prepare your berries. You want to wash your berries and also sort through them to make sure you don’t have any foreign objects, bugs, etc.  This process is called “garbling” (and I have no idea where that term came from).

Lovely fruit!

Lovely fruit!

2. Add them to a big pot and begin cooking. Add them to a big pot and put your burner on medium high.

Autumn Olives in Pot!

Autumn Olives in Pot!  That’s quite a lot!

3.  Cook and mash your fruit. You want to cook down the berries so that they are hot, and mash them down as you are cooking.  Make sure to stir often so you don’t burn your berries.  Once they get good and watery and they are broken up, continue onto step 4.

Mashing autumn olive

Mashing autumn olive

4. Use a food mill to remove seeds. You will need to get the seeds out of the mash, and I find using a food mill works really well for this purpose.  You’ll notice that the juice of the autumn olive tends to separate from the pulpy fruit and skin–that’s just how it is.

Food mill

Food mill

5.  Prepare canner and lids.  Measure out autumn olive juice and get it back on the stove.  You need to measure out your juice so that you know how much you have for the purposes of adding pectin. The juice will be this awesome beautiful pinkish red…it might have foam.  That’s ok.  I will explain what to do with that in a bit.

Foam

Foam

6.  Prepare pectin: add calcium water to mixture. You might notice that many recipes call for nearly 50% sugar.  I don’t find these recipes healthy; they are too sweet and full of calories.  The sugar masks the real quality taste of the berries.  I found pectin called Pomona’s pectin – it allows you to can with much less sugar or to can with honey.  So for this recipe, we are using  Pomona’s pectin.  You can follow the directions on the label that are specific for jelly (like using grape juice).  To use this pectin, you will mix up calcium water and add it to the fruit. Next you mix the pectin itself into the honey.  Finally,  you mix the honey into the berry juice and bring it to a boil for a short amount of time.  You can use the ratios on the instructions; I found that only a little honey is needed so I have been using 1/2 cup honey to four cups autumn olive mix.

Pomona Pectin

Pomona Pectin

7.  Add mixture into jars and hot water bath process for 20 min (1/2 pints). If you have foam at this point, you can skim it off and put it in a jar.  It will solidify, and then you’ll have a delightful treat to eat with a spoon. You can store the foam in the fridge and enjoy a scoop whenver you like.

8.  While jars are processing, lick the spoon and enjoy the leftovers in the pot. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step.

Num nums.

Num nums.

9.  Pull out of canner, wait till jars seal, and enjoy! You will notice that autumn olive separates a bit as its sets.  This is perfectly normal, but does look a bit weird.  The good news about it looking weird is that if someone is going through your cabinets looking for something to eat, they might be less inclined to eat your autumn olive jam, so I consider this a natural defense mechanism.  The jam is delicious!

Strange looking jam!

Strange looking jam!

Get as much as you can!

Get as much as you can!

Now if you strained this, you could probably get rid of the spoltchyness and only have one color of jelly.  But I like the way it looks, with its interesting patchwork colors and shapes.  Enjoy this often!

Finally, I want to direct you to also read Sam Thayer’s Autumn Olive page, because he has a lot of great info on this wonderful plant in terms of pounds per acre and so on.  He suggests that some are considering commercial cultivation of these wonderful fruits because of their vitamin and mineral content, nitrogen fixing ability to regenerate the soil, and potentially high yields.

 

Elderberry Syrup with Ginger, Cinnamon, and Clove: A Powerful Medicine to Keep Sickness Away September 10, 2014

Cluster of elderberry

Cluster of elderberry

It is that delightful time of year again, when the berries of the fall ripen, when the pumpkins grow orange on their vines, and when the elders are literally loaded with berries.  The elderberry tree is a fascinating plant, rich with mythology and magic.  The word “elder” of course has multiple meanings, but I like to think of this plant as my elder in a literal sense, that I can sit at the feet of the elderberry tree and learn much from her wisdom.  We were blessed this year with a bumper crop of these delightful elderberries, and I set to work making a medicinal syrup (I like to call it Elderberry Elixir) to aid in immune system support for the winter.  Last year when I made this syrup in September it went bad by the time January rolled around, so this year I got smart and decided to can it for longer-term storage.

 

You can make this recipe with dried berries instead of fresh ones.  Fresh elderberries have been reported by some to cause an upset stomach, but when you dry them or cook them they are perfectly fine and highly medicinal.

 

My herb teacher, Jim McDonald, taught me that Elder is particularly useful for the kind of immune system support one needs to prevent viruses from replicating throughout our bodies–the elder provides support to block that kind of replication.  It has a host of other health benefits, such as a high amount of flavenoids and for general support for colds, reducing the amount of time one needs to get through the sickness.  This Elderberry Elixir is a great and tasty way to take such medicine.  Jim has a fantastic write up on elder (both flowers and berries) on his site that I highly recommend you read! Grieve’s herbal has a complete listing for elder online here.

 

One of the reasons I prefer to pick my own berries is that it allows me to develop a relationship, hopefully over a period of years with many visits, with the elder as a species but also as an individual tree. Learning to find your own medicine if you are able, and spending time just sitting with those trees, seeing how they grow, picking their fruit and giving thanks, perhaps leaving an offering, is a critical part of herbal practice.  The plants are our teachers, our allies, and they respond better to us when we establish a relationship.  I kinda see it like the difference between having a conversation with a stranger vs. a very close friend–if you end up having a 20 min conversation with someone you just meet, you might have a good conversation, get to know the person a bit, learn a bit about their life. But if you ended up having that same 20 min conversation with a person you knew well, that conversation would be much different, likely much deeper.   Working with the plants themselves is a lot like that–the stronger of a connection you develop with a particular plant species over time, the more effective of a medicine it is going to be for you.  Elder is one of those plants that is quite abundant throughout most of the US, and its worth seeing her out and sitting at her roots and learning from her.  She has powerful, potent medicine for us, and many other lessons to teach as well.

Elderberry Elixir

Ingredients:

Fresh or dried elderberries (you can get dried ones from Mt. Rose Herbs).  The recipe is based on ratios, so you can get as many as you want of these. I prefer the fresh, but not everyone can get to them.

Fresh ginger, 1 TBSP per cup of fresh berries / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Cloves, 1/4 teaspoon per cup of berries / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Cinnamon: 1-2 teaspoons per cup of berries (depending on your taste) / per 1/2 cup dried berries

Honey: 1/2 cup per cup of berries / per 1/4 cup dried berries

Water enough to cover the berries

 

Instructions

1.  Remove your berries.  You  will have bunches and bunches of awesome elderberries after you go picking (or you will have the dried ones ready to go). One of the best ways to remove elder is to start by freezing the berries.  If you freeze them, they will come off super easily, and freezing will save you a lot of processing time.

Pulling off frozen berries

Pulling off frozen berries

2.  Measure your berries and add water to cover. Measure out your berries and add an appropriate amount of water to cover them up.

3. Prepare your other ingredients (except honey, that comes later). You will want to chop your ginger very fine.  You can use whole cinnamon sticks and cloves if you want as everything will be strained.  I like the powders because I think I get a better extraction that way. Add your ingredients to the pot.

You can use a food processor to quickly prepare ginger

You can use a food processor to quickly prepare ginger

Look at those lovely ingredients!

Look at those lovely ingredients!

4.  Mash up your berries and simmer your ingredients for 1-2 hours.  The longer you simmer your ingredients, the better extraction you’ll get of everything.  I like to cook this a minimum of two hours.  After you’ve cooked it that long, let it cool on the stove for a while (likely another 30 min to an hour).

Mashing berries

Mashing berries

This is a very good sized batch!

This is a very good sized batch!

5.  After it cools, use a strainer strainer to strain out the seeds, cloves, ginger and other “hard” materials.  If you are canning it, you don’t want to let it get too cool.

Strained syrup

Strained syrup

6.  Add honey.  Add your honey to the syrup at this point.  You can also choose to add honey to taste later in the process if you are using raw honey and want to preserve its natural enzymes.  I added my honey then canned it, so I did lose some of the raw honey benefit, but my syrup will stay good for a very long time, so I decided the trade off was worth it.  I could have canned or froze it without the honey, and added it in as I was taking it.

7.  Select a preservation method. I chose to hot water bath my elixir, mainly because when I made this last year at this time, I just stuck it in the fridge and then when I really needed it, it had gone moldy.  It will keep in the fridge for about 3 months, but that isn’t going to get you through the whole year till the elderberries are in season again.  So I would suggest either canning it or freezing it.  I chose to hot water bath can it–I followed instructions online for canning elderberry juice (1/4 headspace; 15 minute hot water bath processing time). The elders are very tart and contain a lot of acid, so the recipe is a safe one for hot water bath canning.

Ready to can the syrup!

Ready to can the syrup!

 

There you have it–a powerful medicine from a wonderful plant ally.  In terms of dosage, you want to take 1-2 tbsp of this a day; even more if you feel sickness coming on.  Its not “medicine” in the traditional pharmaceutical sense, so you can take a lot if you’d like.  I usually stick to the 1-2 tbsp per day and find that works quite well for me!

 

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 626 other followers