Tag Archives: berries

Sacred Tree Profile: The Medicine, Magic, and Uses of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus Typhina)

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

As we begin the march from summer into fall, the Staghorn Sumac are now in bloom.  With their flaming flower heads reaching into the sky, the Staghorn sumac are striking upon our landscape.  As fall comes, the Staghorn Sumac leaves turn fiery red before dropping and leaving their beautiful, antler-like, and hairy stems behind.  All through the winter months, the Staghorn Sumac stems stand like antlers reaching into the heavens, until they bud and spring returns again.  This post explores the medicine, magic, ecology, herbalism, craft, and bushcraft uses, and lore surrounding these amazing trees.

This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern USA and Midwest USA, centering on Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak.  For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Staghorn Sumac is a large shrub or small tree in the cashew family that typically grow 8-20 feet high, but can sometimes reach as far as 35 feet tall.  New growth on the trees will be covered with a velvet-like hair, very similar to new stag horns that are also covered in velvet, hence the name).  The leaves are opposite and compound, looking similar to black walnut, with almost a tropical look. Staghorn Sumac is probably best recognized in the late summer to early fall when a large, red, fuzzy berry cluster rises from the tips of the trees.

Staghorn sumac is known in some parts of the US as “velvet tree” or “vinegar tree.”  Velvet refers to the velvety texture of the fuzz on the outer branches that are first year (which is also where we get “stag horn” which refers to the stag’s velvet horns when they are first grown out).  I suspect that vinegar refers to its tart taste (I can’t find any references to people actually brewing vinegar from staghorn sumac, but maybe they did!)

Staghorn Sumac prefers full sun locations and disturbed soil, which is part of why they are so ubiquitous along highways and roads.  Here in Western PA, you can’t drive even a few miles without seeing many clusters of Staghorn Sumac.

The Staghorn Sumac is a delightful tree that sometimes often gets a bad rap because people think its Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  While the two do have similar looking leaves, the open cluster of white berries on the poison sumac is a way to tell the two apart.  Poison sumac also prefers to grow in wet clay-type soils, so you are most likely to find it in a swamp, bog, or another very wet area, where Staghorn Sumac grows in a much wider range of growing conditions.

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

According to John Eastman’s Book of Forest and Thicket, you can count the age of the stem by counting the number of branching angles from the top of the branch to the bottom of the crown – each new branching angle is another year of growth. Early in the season, the flower clusters are greenish-yellow and pollinated by insects, but later in the year, these flower clusters grow the bright fuzzy berry clusters, often looking like a flame.  You can often see these berry clusters persist well into the winter and early spring.  Eastman notes that nearly a hundred different bird species eat the berries including pheasant, grouse, turkey, crow, thrush, bluebird, catbird, cardinals, and robins.  The stalks can also be home to wasp species

Craft and Bushcraft Uses

Because Staghorn Sumac has a hollow stem on young plants and young shoots (similar to black elder) you can use it for any number of things.  Once the soft pith is removed (using a thin stick or thin dowel rod), you can use a longer hollewed stick as a blower to stoke the fires.  You can cut them shorter and use them as taps for maple trees (as Native Americans did, along with Elder), or sliced in small segments, as beads or decorations.  I haven’t yet played around with staghorn sumac as a possible flute, but I wonder about that as well!

The wood itself, when 2″ or more across, is stunningly beautiful.  This spring, my neighbor went to war with the Staghorn sumac grove on the border of our properties.  While I was absolutely devastated by his cutting of this beautiful grove of staghorn, he allowed me to harvest a lot of the wood.  Since then, I have been working deeply with this amazing wood and have been learning just how wonderful it is to work with.  Slices of the branches, trunks, and roots reveal brilliantly colored wood with green bands when fresh, eventually fading to darker olive and brown.  The wood has a fairly loose grain, so can be difficult to sand, but woodburns beautifully and is really unqiue and beautiful to behold.  Some of the slices that I sliced (using my miter saw) of both the trunks and roots are outstanding art in and of themselves.

Although I do not have personal experience with this yet, John Eastman reports that due to their high tannin content in the bark, leaves, and berries, Staghorn Sumac can be used for leather tanning (similar to oak, which would be a veg tan).

Edible and Herbal Qualities

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine and food

Staghorn Sumac is an absolute blessing to humanity and all life and has a wide range of uses from craft to beekeeping, from herbal to edible. The berries are high in Vitamin C and have incredible amounts of antioxidants, making them a wonderful healthful food. Here are just some of the uses that I have direct experience with.

Jim McDonald taught me much about Staghorn Sumac and its uses as an herbal medicine.  Staghorn Sumac is a fantastic astringent, and can be used in any cases where astringency is needed: when tissues are soft and lack structure or when moist/damp conditions are present.  Thus, Staghorn is great as a wash for acne or a mouth rinse for soft and bleeding gums.  It can be used to tone or tighten skin, for reduce inflammation, and remove oil from the skin. It can also be safely used internally.

If you are interested in making your own herbal smoking blends, Staghorn Sumac leaves, harvested when bright red in the fall, is a fantastic addition.  They will not only add color, but will produce a smooth smoke, especially due to their high astringency.  I often will make “beat the nicotine” blends for people and Staghorn is one of my main ingredients (along with lobelia, damiana, and mullen).

Staghorn Sumac also makes a great spice.  If you look into any middle eastern recipes, sumac berries are used to spice up hummus, chicken, and many other dishes.  Why buy sumac berries when you can forage them yourself!

My favorite way to prepare Staghorn Sumac is sumac-aid or Sumac ‘lemonade.  Starting in late July and into August, keep an eye on the Staghorn sumac berries-. As the berries go to a deep red (and ideally, before a big rain as the rain can wash away some of the tartness) gather up your staghorn sumac berry heads.  As you gather them, make sure to knock off any bugs living in them (I like to bang them on the side of my bucket to invite crawly ones to exit!) .  You can make some fresh and dry the rest. I like to dry out the berries (using a simple air dehydrator) and store in a jar till I’m ready to enjoy.  Crush up 6-8 heads and pour cold water over them.  Let them sit about an hour, then strain with a cheesecloth and add honey, maple syrup, or sugar.  You will have a delicious and extremely nutritious drink.  This is also a very cooling drink and is thus wonderful for those very hot and humid summer days.

I have not personally done it, but I know that some people also use Staghorn Sumac as a start to brewing a wine.  If you boil the berries, you lose a lot of the flavor, so you start with a cold brew and pitch yeast into it.  Here’s one such recipe.

Finally, because of the astringency present, the berry heads are my absolute favorite thing to use in my smoker for beekeeping.  If you dry out Staghorn Sumac heads, you can keep them for several years and when you are ready to open your hive, use them in your smoker.  They will smolder nicely and produce a very calming smoke (even better, add some dried chamomile).  My bees were always much calmer with this rather than the commercial crap they try to sell you to put in your smoker!

As a final caveat, Staghorn sumac is in the cashew family, and so anyone who has an allergy in that family (e.g. allergic to cashews or mangoes) should not consume any Staghorn Sumac.  I have also known folks with severe allergies who can break out if they handle or touch the leaves or berries, but this is pretty rare!

Magical Lore in the Western Traditions

Staghorn Sumac from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Sumac as a species more generally is used in the Hoodoo traditions, more generally for addressing difficulty and bringing harmony among people. According to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, you can make a homemade triple strength peace water by using sumac leaves and berries in a bottle of existing peace water and adding some of your personal fluids. Shake that bottle up and then use it in the house as a floor wash or spritz (any way you’d use regular peace water) (p. 194). Sumac can also be used in court cases–if you have already been found guilty, gather up nine sumac berries and put them in your pocket when you got to get your sentence. Your sentence will be lighter with the berries supporting you.

Beyond uses in Hoodoo, I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of Staghorn Sumac in the Western Magical traditions (which honestly, surprises me just a bit because the tree is such a beautiful and powerful one).

Using the doctrine of signatures and basic elemental theory, I can draw some of my own conclusions surrounding the symbolism of this tree. The bright red “flame” of berries, the firey bright leaves, the powerful astringency, and the connection to the stag are all indications of the connection to this tree to the element of fire, to the quickness of the stag, and to the sacred fires and smoke that this tree can produce.  Let’s now turn to the Native American lore to see what else might be indicated.

Lore in the Native American Traditions

Staghorn SumacWild eneergy.

Sumac was certainly used by Native American peoples for a host of sacred purposes.  For example, in “Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona” by Erna Fergusson (1931), the nahikàï is a wand used as part of a Navajo shamanistic healing ceremony.  It is sumac, made about 3 feet long and about ½” thick.  Eagle down is attached to the end of the wand, and it is burned off as part of the ceremony.  In the Hopi “Legend of Palotquopi” a young boy, Kochoilaftiyo, asks his grandmother what to do about a ghost that is coming to the village.  Young men in the village have been attempting to catch the ghost to no avail.  Grandmother has him go get a sumac branch, and with this branch and prayer plumes made of cotton and feathers, she creates a pipe and smokes a prayer over him that he might prevail. In The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, by Constance Goddard DuBois, (1908), describes an initiation ceremony where young girls are initiated as women into the tribe.  As part of this ceremony, a young girl is placed in a sumac and sedge-lined hole, where she says for three days, while members of her tribe dance and sing night and day around the hole.  This practice is part of a larger ceremony of womanhood.

There are also a few stories of bear. In the Musqauake legend, “Chasing the Bear” a group fo hunters are trailing a bear.  Eventually, they catch him and slaughter him on a pile of maple, and sumac ledge Bear is slaughtered on pile of maple and sumac branches.  According to this legend, this is why their leaves now turn “blood red” in the fall.  In a second bear legend, this from the Apache, called “Turkey makes the corn and Coyote plants it” a brother and a sister are hungry.  Turkey overhears this and shakes his feathers and fruits and food come out.  Bear comes and brings juniper nuts, various kinds of nuts, and sumac.

Magic and Meanings of the Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac presents a compelling tree to work with in a variety of ways: magically, herbally, through craft and bushcraft uses, and just as a great tree to spend time with.  Given everything above, here are some of the magical uses and meanings you might consider for Staghorn Sumac:

Energy of the wild.  Because of the strong connections to the stag, the staghorn sumac offers energy of the hunt, the wilds, and the energy of nature in its more wild form.  Staghorn sumac is a tree that expresses the wild energy of nature in all its forms.

Energy of Fire. Staghorn Sumac, perhaps more than any deciduous tree located in the Eastern US, has a  strong connection to fire.  The asringent properties of staghorn, its striking berries and blood-red leaves in the fall, and its bushcraft uses all speak to the strong power of fire that this tree holds.

Vitaility. A final conneciton, again tying to its ecological function as well as herbal and medicinal uses, is one of vitality.  This is a tree of life, of energy, of movement.  This tree colonizes damaged areas and brings life back into disurpted spaces.  If you are looking for a tree ally to vitalize you, consider working with Staghorn Sumac!

Dear readers, do you have experience with this tree? If so, please share–I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part I: Equipment, Resources, What to Learn, and Timing

I’ve been spending a lot of time talking about various wild foods and other kinds of wildcrafting and foraging on this blog, and I wanted to talk today about the principles of wildcrafting and ethical foraging more broadly. This post is the first in a series of two that focuses on introducing the reader to how to effectively wildcraft/forage, and is built upon my extensive experiences foraging and wildcrafting, which I have been doing in some form since childhood, but which I took up quite seriously about 7 years ago. This post offers definitions, supply lists, resources, what and how to learn, and information on timing. My second post in this series will discuss locations, avoiding environmental pollutants, and ethics.

 

Deep in the blueberry bog--an abundant harvest!

Deep in the blueberry bog–an abundant harvest!

Defining Wildcrafting and Foraging

Defining Wildcrafting: Wildcrafting is a modern term for an ancient practice. For as long as humanity has existed, we have gathered from the natural world for our food, shelter, medicine, clothing, ritual items, arts, and much more. Wildcrafting today refers to gathering materials from the land that you will use for various purposes, most frequently food or medicine, crafts, household items, natural building, carpentry, ritual items, clothing, and more. I often see the term associated with medicinal herbs, but there are many other possibilities for the wildcrafter. Non-food uses of wildcrafted items that I’ve covered in this blog include wildcrafted medicines such as jewelweed salve or various medicinal tinctures, smudge sticks, inks, baskets, and incense.

 

Defining Foraging: Foraging is a type of wildcrafting that is specific to finding food: wild food foragers hunt for food throughout the year (and I’ve covered many of my favorite foods one can forage for: burdock, black raspberries, violets, rampschicken of the woods mushrooms, and autumn olives, to name a few).

 

Other associated terms you might hear are bushcraft (a term for a variety of wilderness skills, such as shelter building, trapping, or fire making) and woodcraft (another term for skills associated with the woods).

 

Why Wildcrafting/Foraging?

Abundant harvest of black raspberry--one of my very favorites!

Abundant harvest of black raspberry–one of my very favorites!

This is a good question, and one that I get asked more often than one might expect.  For me, wildcrafting and foraging have numerous benefits, many of which are not material. First, as a druid, I enjoy spending time in nature, in stillness, in focus, and simply enjoying the natural world around me.  Wildcrafting gives me a good reason to get myself into the forest and the fields as often as I can. Second, I’ve been talking a lot on this blog lately about reskilling; developing the skills necessary to transition to a sustainable and earth-centered future. Learning once again to live off of the land, to live in harmony with the land, and to take only what is necessary is an important part of that path. This is what our ancestors did–and this is what we will again do–if we can learn to do it correctly and in balance. Third, I really enjoy the tangible benefits–the medicine, the food, the various craft items. I have tasted more new things and have been able to heal myself right from the land around me–these are empowering things.

 

Knowledge is critical to this path.  Not only knowledge of what you can take and use, but also knowledge of how that taking impacts the ecocystem.  And ethical forager is a knowledgeable one, connected to the land, and knowing their impacts.  So throughout these two posts, I’m really going to stress that you need knowledge to do this effectively.

 

Wildcrafting Supplies

Compiling some basic supplies will allow you to make numerous successful excursions.  Over the years, I’ve compiled the following supplies, which are useful and necessary:

 

Foraging Bookbag. When I got out foraging, I have a special “foraging” bookbag that I take with me with some basic supplies that are useful for finding food, medicine, and other kinds of things. The bag was one I purchased at a yardsale for 50 cents; it needed some minor repairs but works great.

Various storage - canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

Various storage – canvas bags, plastic bags, lemon and orange bags (breathable)

  • Essentials that are always in the bag include sunscreen, an essential-oil based bug spray, fire starting equipment, an energy bar, a can of pepper spray, a hat that easily folds up, a compass, fire-starting equipment, and basic first-aid supplies. I also bring water; usually I don’t bring much in the way of snacks because I can always find a few trailside nibbles (that is, unless I will be out for some time and then I will bring some other stuff).
  • Tools: The Hori Hori.  If you are only going to have one foraging tool-this should be it.  Its a Japanese gardening tool that has a serrated edge, a sharp edge, and can dig and cut.  I won’t leave the house without it! I purchased mine for $30 and its one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
  • Other Tools in the bag include a small hand saw that folds up to about 7″ in length; my hori hori of course, a pair of scissors, a smaller knife, and a pair of gloves. These are all fairly light. If I’m going out for roots or tubers (like cattail, ground nut, or burdock), I might take a long a little fold-up shovel or even a garden fork if I’m not going far, but those are quite heavy, and I add these only when I need them. The knives are for cutting various plant matter or mushrooms; the hori hori can be used for cutting and also be used for digging roots or limited sawing. The hand saw is for getting branches or barks (useful to cut up roots from a fallen sassafras tree, for example). The scissors are good for harvesting smaller plants or greens, such as yarrow or nettle. I usually use the gloves for harvesting stinging nettles, which I take every opportunity to get when I go out in the summer.
  • Storage. The foraging bag also holds many different kinds of smaller bags for bringing things home–a few larger canvas bags for nuts or mushrooms, a few mesh orange/lemon bags (particularly good for mushrooms because it allows them to breathe), plastic bags of various sizes that I re-use, and paper bags of various sizes. I keep all of these materials in the bag and then when I want to go out (usually at least twice a week in the summer).
  • Blickeys. If I’m going berry picking specifically, I may also bring a blickey or two (see photo), which can be created from a gallon plastic jug. You just cut part of the top off of the jug, so you can easy place things in.  You leave the handle intact, which can go around your belt.  They are super lightweight and free to make.  If you don’t drink anything that would have them, a quick trip down your road on recycling day is sure to procure an abundant supply.  Because I have a friend with a severe dairy allergy that I often share wild-harvested treats with, I only use ones that had water or apple cider (like the one pictured), not milk. So keep that in mind when making your blickey.

    The blickey--fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

    The blickey–fantastic for gathering nuts, berries, or flowers, repurposed and recycled

Clothing for Foraging. I also always make sure I am wearing long pants and a belt; sometimes I will also include a hat for the sun and my muck boots if I am going into swampy areas.  Long pants are a great idea year round–in the summer they can protect you from poison ivy (even the most experienced wildcrafter sometimes wanders into a patch unawares–like the time I was enthusiastically harvesting St. johns wort and realized that underneath the top layer of plants, there was a lower layer of poison ivy–thank goodness for the jeans and muck boots!)  For shoes I will wear hiking boots or the muck boots (the muck boots are really hot in the summer).  The belt can hold a blickey or my hori hori or both.

 

Company for Foraging. I have found that foraging is much more fun with a friend than by one’s self. If I mention to some people that I’m heading out for a few hours, I almost always can find someone who wants to come with me and see what’s out there.

 

Other Resources. I usually take one or two field guides with me (see the next section for ideas), depending on what I’m going for. Since I’m still learning mushrooms, in the last two years, I was usually carrying a compact mushroom guide and one or two other books, depending on the time of year and what I’m looking for. I often bring more books and leave them in the car, such as Matthew Wood’s Earthwise Herbals.  Field guides are particularly useful for plant ID.  What’s Doing the Blooming has traveled with me far and wide.

 

Resources/Books for Wildcrafting

These are resources specific to the Midwest and Northeast Regions–if you are in another region, I’m sure there are other good guides for you to find (and a local forager friend could be of help here!)

 

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Just a few of the books that help build wildcrafting and foraging knowledge!

Understanding Ecology. John Eastman has written a really good series of books on the place of many plants and trees in the ecosystem; and I highly recommend these works to anyone who wants to learn how to forage ethically and responsibly.  Why? Because if we are going to take, we need to understand what we are taking and how what we take fits into the ecological system–what insects or animals depend on the plant, what other plants are typically found in the area, and so on.  This is knowledge that our human ancestors intimately knew, and if we are going to engage in these kinds of activities, we too must understand it, first and foremost. The three books I’ve read from cover to cover that provide this information are: The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Swamp and Bog, and the Book of Field and Stream (they are the three tan/white books in the front of the photo). Honestly, this is a good place to start even before you begin gathering anything.

 

Wild Foods. If you are going to be looking for wild foods, I recommend Sam Thayer’s books: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. They are both available from his website (he self-published them, and they are the best foraging books I’ve ever read). I often have them with me out in the field and I study them when I’m not out and about.

 

General Plant ID. For flowers, there is a great and compact book called What’s Doing the Blooming? and its super useful for all manner of blooming plants (good for wild food, medicine, and even dye plants). Blooming plants are often fruiting plants later in the year, so you can identify them early in the season using this. Otherwise, any field guide with photos should be sufficient–there are some produced by the Arbor Day foundation on trees that are also useful.

 

Medicinal Plants. I took a four-season herbal intensive with Jim McDonald and that’s how I learned to ID many plants. I combined this with Matthew Wood’s two volumes, The Earthwise Herbal (vol 1 and 2). Usually if I need to find a specific plant, I’ll study it before I leave the house, locate it in one of my field guides, and then try to find it when I’m out.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root - an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations.  Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

Butterfly Weed / Pleurisy root – an awesome plant for medicine but also very needed by buttefly populations. Harvest with care and only when in abundance.

 

Dyes. There are numerous dye books and mushroom dye books that are also useful if you are going that route. Some that I like are: Dean and Cassleman’s Wild Color and Bessette and Bessette’s A Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyer’s Field Guide.

 

Native American food/medicine/craft books. Some native American books that cover medicinal or edibles are really useful in terms of recipes and information. I have a few out of print ones on my shelves, and they have taught me much about traditional uses (such as hemlock-hickory tea and how to make pemmican!)

 

Other crafts: What you are looking for is very dependent on the craft. Books on basketweaving and natural weaving will describe what to get for those crafts; pine-needle basketry will obviously be about pines, and so on.  Natural papermaking books will obviously teach you about what to gather for that (I have a few posts on natural papermaking as well). I haven’t found good books on foraging for incense supplies, but I do have some information on my blog here, here, here, and here about it. My post on smudge sticks perhaps is the most comprehensive in terms of wild plants you can burn that smell good (never fear! I am working on a much longer post on that subject in this upcoming year–still testing plants at this point!)

 

Foraging friend and example of gear

Foraging friend and example of gear

How to Build Knowledge

Only some of my knowledge on this subject came out of books. A lot of it came from learning from others–I walked at my grandfather’s side and later, my uncle’s side and they taught me much about plants as a child. Much later, I attended a full year of my friend Mark’s Eat Here Now” classes where he did a monthly plant walk at various locations. I attended several mushroom hunting workshops to learn the mushrooms (and would like to attend more). And of course, I attended my four-season herbal intensive (which included one day per month of plant walks out in the field).  I also went out with others who knew different kinds of things and we learned from each other. I talk to people about plants often–and am always ready to learn something new or teach someone else.

 

 I have found that focusing your energies on one area can lead you to success and allow you to, over time, build a very diverse set of knowledge about things you can wildcraft. Now, when I got into the woods, I am ready for anything–crafting supplies, dye plants, medicine, wild snacks, and treats, wood to carve, and much more. I focused my energies each year on learning a different set of things and adding to my repertoire–the first year, it was mainly art supplies and incense making–I gathered resins and found every berry I could and tested its dye and ink capacity. The second and third years, I focused on learning all of the wild foods I could and kept looking for dye plants and such. The fourth year, I focused on wild mushrooms and brewing, in addition to food and craft/dyes. Finally, this year, I added medicinal herbs (and will probably continue to focus on them for some time). I made it a point to go out into the field at least six times a month looking for what I was looking for and also paid attention to what was already growing at my homestead.

 

Its also a good idea to learn characteristics of plant families — the book called Botany For Gardeners, recommended to me by Karen (one of the frequent readers and commenters on this blog–thanks Karen!) can really be of assistance.  This way, you can begin to identify plant famillies and even if you find a plant you don’t know, its features will give you some clue as to other related plants.

 

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

Poison Hemlock (courtsey of Wikipedia)

A final point about building knowledge–one of the first things you should learn is what can cause you harm. I think first-time foragers should all learn to identify poison hemlock in ALL of its stages before anything else. Poison ivy gets a lot of notoriety, and frankly, can give you a bad rash and a few unpleasant weeks.  But Poison Hemlock WILL KILL YOU if ingested–and it has many look alikes in the Apiaceae family (such as Queen Anne’s lace/Wild carrot).  Even just touching or smelling Poison Hemlock can cause nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.  Recently, I was officiating at a friend’s wedding.  The bridal party were getting ready to pose for photos along a bridge on a trail.  I saw a huge patch of it right where people were standing and watched someone reaching down to touch it (it was pretty, in full bloom). I quickly pointed it out and had everyone move to give it the respect it was due.  Interestingly enough, a few months later, one of the people in the bridal party reached out to me to learn more about this plant and many others. Other plants I would learn quickly include the death angel/avenging angel mushroom, poison sumac, and poison oak. When you start looking for particular plants, also be aware of what plants may look similar to the plant you want ( a good foraging book, like Sam Thayer’s books, will teach you this).

 

What You can Wildcraft and Setting intentions

Truthfully, the better question is–what can’t you wildcraft? I’ve taken particular joy in learning as much as I can about as many plants as possible and their uses. For example, see my extended post on the dandelion. One of the things you want to ask yourself is–why are you wildcrafting? For medicine? For Food? For crafting?  This will determine, to a large extent, what you are looking for and what resources you will need.  You also want to consider the abundance of the plant and who else may be depending on the plant as a food source (more on this in Part II of this series).

 

Setting your intent: Wandering vs. Targeted Harvesting. Sometimes I go out wandering to see what I can find, while other times, I have a very specific harvest in mind. Determining this will indicate where I should go (e.g. a few days after a “weather event” to look for mushrooms; to the outskirts of a housing development to pick serviceberries, and so on). If I don’t have anything in mind, I will go to one of several wild areas and make it a point to return to the same area multiple points in the season to gauge how the crops are progressing.

 

When you are first learning, the other thing is that you might not know where to get certain things. These “wanderings” then, while time consuming, are wonderful times of discovery. They help you establish your “spots” for future harvests–look for abandoned apple orchards, berry patches, abundant fields, and so much more.

Nature's bounty - the crab apple!

Nature’s bounty – the crab apple!

 

Keeping records. I keep fairly detailed records of harvests and locations.  I know others who draw extensive maps so that they can find their mushrooms again the following year.  All of this is useful as you are learning–looking at your records from one year can help you figure out the locations and timing of where you want to go.

 

Wildcrafting Timing

Timing is a tricky thing in wildcrafting. Generally, the more often you go out, and the more time you devote, the more impressive harvests you will find. Each year can be its own wonky thing, and you can never be sure that the wild blueberries will be blooming at the same time (they, like everything else, can often vary by several weeks depending on the weather)  I find its better to visit early in the season and stop back often for things you really like than to miss the harvest entirely. For example, as I mentioned in my dandelion post, each year there is about 7-10 days of “peak dandelions” where they are blooming and abundant–and this is really the only time to make wine because its the only time they will be in the volume you need. If you miss the harvest–you’ll have to wait till the following season.

 

The other important thing about timing is that not everything is abundant each year. This is why we must take advantage of harvests when we find them and understand how to stretch those harvests out in times of scarcity. I remember, for example, the great apple harvest of 2013; the great st. john’s wort harvest of 2014, and the great berry harvest of 2011 and 2013 (and the lack of any berries to speak of in 2012 and 2014!)  Canning, drying, freezing, and other forms of preservation can allow us to enjoy the bounty even in years of famine.  A lot of people, as i mentioned in my earlier post, don’t really understand this. The supermarket is always abundant, and if you are going to share wild foods with them, I would suggest making them come with you on a trip or two so that they understand the work of it–and also the joy.

 

Stay tuned for my second post next week, where we’ll delve into understanding the ethics of foraging, discussing where to harvest safely, and more!