Tag Archives: wildcraft

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Recipe: Wildcrafted Herbal Blessing Oil

A herbal blessing oil is a simple magical tool that you can make that directly comes from the living earth. The herbal blessing oil can be used to bless tools, seed balls, trees, yourself, other people, or anything else you like. You can include it as part of your Druid’s Crane Bag. Your own unique blend of herbs and wildcrafted ingredients will make it an amazing and potent tool for your practice.  While druidry doesn’t use oils extensively, other traditions, like the American folk magic and Hoodoo, use oils a lot to dress candles and do other kinds of energetic work.

 

Choosing Plant Material

You can harvest material from one plant or from a variety of plants and combine them. Here are some possibilities for you:

  • Lavender, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Balm, Majoram, – Garden herbs that offer healing and protection.  Add one or more of these as a blend.
  • Mugwort, Yarrow, St. Johns Wort, Goldenrod, Aster – Field herbs that offer protection, vision, and inspiration.  Mugwort is particularly good for dreaming.
  • Needles from White pine, eastern hemlock, and/or blue spruce – Tree herbs that offer strength, consistency, and vitality

You might also look at my series on sacred trees ( Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Oak, and Birch) to create a specific tree oil that will be useful to you and the work you are currently doing.  You can also refer to my longer list on smudge stick making for details about many plants and their uses.  You can also refer to any good magical herbal, like John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of Natural Magic or Beryl’s Master Book of Herbalism.

The oil in my photos is a journeying oil for dreaming and deep journeying work.  It contains mostly plants I grew and dried myself, but also some wildcrafted ingredients.  The recipe is: mugwort, bay leaves, rosemary, tobacco, lavender, borage, and heather.  Given that its winter here, these materials have been preserved from earlier in the year.

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Plant material for a dreaming/journeying oil

Gathering Materials

You want to gather fresh or dried plant material.  Fresh material can be obviously gathered in season; you can purchase or dry your own plant material otherwise.

Gathering Material. At a time of power (full moon, one of the eight holidays, another day of significance) go out and gather aromatic plant material. Aromatic plant material is that which has a high concentration of volatile oils (which is what essential oil is made from). When you crush the leaves of a plant or needles of a conifer and you can smell that wonderful smell, this is an aromatic plant. Even if its winter, you can gather conifers to make a potent oil.

You can gather your plant material from a variety of places a cultivated garden, an abandoned lot, an edge space, a field, or a forest. Before you gather your material, ask for permission from the plant and use inner listening skills to see if you can gather–I do not advocate taking any plant material without permission and an offering (see this herbal blend as a potential offering). If you are given permission, make an offering  and then harvest a small bit of the plant.

Purchased material. If you purchase your material, make sure it is organic and ethically sourced.  You don’t want any chemicals in your blend, and certainly, no suffering of the land.  Even though you purchased it, I suggest still making an offering to the land in thanks for the herbs before proceeding.

Dried material.  You can also use home-grown and dried materials from your garden or wildcrafted.

 

Making Your Oil

Fresh plant material. Once you’ve gathered your plant material or have obtained dried material, chop up the plant material into small pieces (1” or so in length). Spread the plant material out on a baking tray or similar surface. Allow the plant material to wilt on the counter indoors for a day so that some of the water is removed from it (wilting it in the sun will strip it of the aromatic oils). Wait till it dries out at least partially to reduce and/or eliminate the water in your sacred oil–water makes the oil go rancid.  It shows up like small bubbles at the bottom of the oil.

 

Open Up a Sacred Grove. Open up a sacred grove for magical crafting; as I described in my hawthorn post. You don’t have to do this, but I think if you are making an oil for magical purposes, its good to do so with intention and the right energy.

Making your Oil. Get a pint jar or other glass jar.  Using a pair of scissors or a mortar and pestle, break up the large plant material/grind up the plant material.  You can do this while changing, loosely pack the plant material into the jar. Now, take a good quality olive oil or other shelf stable oil (fractionated coconut oil or almond oil are other good choices) and pour the oil over the plant matter until it is completely covered.

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Pair of herbal scissors with multiple blades easily cuts up dried plant matter!

Infusing your oil. Let the plant matter infuse in view of the sun and moon (like in a windowsill) for at least seven days.  If the plant matter is wet, you want to infuse it no longer than 7 days.  For dried matter, you can infuse it longer, up to a single lunar cycle.

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

Coconut oil is being used for this recipe

On the seventh day, get a fine strainer and strain the plant matter out. If you don’t have a strainer, 1 ply of a paper towel can work, but it takes a while to drip through. Sometimes, a cheesecloth or thin paper towel (one layer) can be used to get final bits of plant matter out. Getting out as much plant matter is critical because plant matter will make the oil go rancid much faster.

 

Finishing Your oil: At this point, if you want, you can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil. You can get a small portable bottle and take the oil with you. Store your oil in a cool, dark place.  It will stay good 1-2 years.  Make sure you label it carefully and write your recipe down so if you want to make more, you will remember how to do so!

 

Using Your Oil

Here are just some of many uses for this kind of oil:

  • Put it in your crane bag or in a bottle necklace and take it with you to bless trees, rocks, or any other aspects of nature on your journeys.
  • Consider using it to support meditations and dreams; you can dab a bit on your temples before meditation, dreaming, ritual work, journey work, and more
  • Dress candles with it, using traditional folk methods.  Dressing a candle means putting oil on your finger and holding the candle in front of you.  If you bring your finger from the bottom of the candle and up, toward you, you are “bringing in”.  If you do the opposite, and move your finger away from you and down the candle, you are “removing”.  You can do this and then burn the candle (I like the little 4″ chime candles for this purpose).  Use this for healing, meditation, and more.

I hope this is helpful to you as yet another druid tool for your crane bag!  Readers, can you share any additional tips for how you’ve used magical and sacred oils in your practice?

Introduction to Wildcrafting and Foraging, Part II: Places to Gather, Ethical Harvesting, Avoiding Pollution, and Foraging as Spiritual Practice

This is my second in a two-part series on how to wildcraft and forage successfully. The first post dealt with supplies for foraging, resources and how to learn the skills, and understanding timing. This post will talk about places to gather, avoiding contaminants in the landscape, the ethics of harvesting, and the spiritual side to foraging and wildcrafting.

 

Where You Gather: Kinds of Property

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wild blueberry bushes in a bog!

Wildcrafting obviously requires you to go out into the land and find what you need. There are different kinds of places you can go—your own backyard/land, parks, abandoned lots, friends’ land, and so on. Each location has some benefits and as you start wildcrafting and foraging, you will find your own spots that you will return to again and again and again. Here are some of the kinds of places that I go:

 

My own land. Since I know it best and am out there every day, I can observe the changing landscape as the seasons pass. I know the history of the land, I know how much of a particular plant is usually in season, and I can know how much to ethically take since I’m the only one taking. So obviously, if you have your own land, this is a wonderful place to harvest. A lot of people don’t have access to some acreage, however, and this leads us to….

 

Friends/Neighbors/Family Private land. If you can’t harvest on your own land, or don’t have your own land, finding other private land (such as that of friends, family, or neighbors) you can harvest from is really a great thing. You can ask them about the land’s history; you can harvest without anyone else around, you can know just how much to take, and you can share the joy and abundance of the harvest with others. I have found that if I approach a friend or neighbor about wildcrafting from their land, they are often not only willing to let me onto their property but also interested in learning more (and yes, this often even works with complete strangers!) This creates a space to teach them about the sacred medicine of their own landscape, which only deepens their appreciation for the land. I have also found that for those who already value their land, they love it when you appreciate and value it also. For example, there is a spot I harvest cattails from along a road for making paper each spring, and a couple walking there had the land across the street. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them, and they invited me into their property. I was not only able to gather more cattails there, but also found a bunch of recently dropped willow branches to make a basket and some cattail shoots for making a nice stir fry. They were excited to learn about their property and invited me to come back anytime. I’m reminded here of my 85 year old neighbor who has an 80-acre farm; we tap trees, harvest apples, forage for herbs and berries, and so much more there—and he’s so happy that someone else values it.Of course, one does need to be careful of who one asks—some people just don’t want others on their property. There also might be a gender bias in this—my good friend, who I harvest with often, says that people are much more likely to say yes to me than to him alone (he has long hair and a beard and maybe he looks a little unscrupulous).

 

Public lands. Not that long ago, the idea of a “common” land (or “the commons”) was quite a strong one. However, in the 20th century that idea largely shifted and now the emphasis is on pristine preservation (Wendell Berry discusses this concept much further in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture). The idea is that the land will be soiled if someone takes something from it—and this is true, in a manner of speaking, because few people today know how to harvest and take ethically. Yet these intensive obsessions with pristine preservation sit side by side with the push to sell of public lands, to allow logging, mineral rights, fracking, and more. These are all products of industrialization–the disconnection of people with the land, the commodification of goods and wealth into the hands of the few. So when one enters public land, one needs to be aware of the laws surrounding that land. If you are to take nothing, take nothing. A lot of state and local parks have this kind of arrangement–do not take anything. However, most state game lands function more like the old commons—you can limited amounts of game, you can cut limited amounts of fire wood, you can pick mushrooms, and so on—and they are great places to wildcraft. Many local parks, likewise, have no laws against harvesting. However, to be an ethical harvester you do need to be aware of overharvesting, of chemicals, the lands history, and so on.

 

Secret harvest spot

Secret harvest spot

Where You Gather: Kinds of Ecosystems

In addition to the kinds of property that you are gathering from, you also want to think carefully about what ecosystems you will be gathering from. For example, a swamp or marsh is simply going to have a different ecosystem and plants than a deep secluded forest or an abandoned farm field. This is why I mentioned I have several “spots” that I like to go to–many of them with multiple ecosystems. Another thing to think about, stemming from permaculture design, is the understanding the value of the edges and margins. That is, the edge where the forest meets a field is often a very rich and diverse ecosystem.

 

Here is just a short list of where I find what plants that I gather to give you a sense of this:

  • Edge of Pond/Lake/Near Water: blueberries (in a bog); highbush cranberries (edge of a bog); horsetail (medicinal, edge of lake where there is a sandy soil), beach plums (beach on great lakes), cattail (edge of pond, swampy areas), boneset (edge of water, medicinal), marshmallow (edge of water, medicinal), joe-pye weed (in shade or swamp, medicinal)
  • Edge of Forest: black raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries (all edibles), mulberry trees (edible), stinging nettles (edible and medicinal), staghorn sumac (medicinal; also good for smoking blends), autumn olive (edible), violets (edible, medicinal), poke (medicinal, great dye plant), dryad’s saddle mushrooms (edible),
  • Deep in the Forest: black birch (medicinal); chicken of the woods mushroom (edible), reishi mushroom (medicinal), blueberries (bush style, edible), maple sap (edible), acorns (edible), hen of the woods mushroom (medicinal/edible), stoneroot (medicinal), mayapple (edge of forest, edible), ramps (edible, over-harvested so only gather if they are abundant)
  • Fields/Wastelands: St. John’s Wort (medicinal), goldenrod (medicinal), milkweed (edible), yarrow (medicinal), scrub red pine trees (resin for incense making), blackberries (edible), elderberries (medicinal/edible), new england aster (medicinal), dandelion (medicinal/edible), burdock (medicinal/edible)
  • In the Suburbs/Landscapes: walnut (edible, medicinal), serviceberry (edible), various crabapples (edible), various other crab fruit trees planted as decorative (edible), eastern white cedar (often planted as an ornamental; medicinal and for smudges); plantain (medicinal, be careful the lawn wasn’t sprayed)
Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Now I think the above categories are fairly self explanatory, all except the last one. The suburbs, the exerbs, the little strips of plant life along the strip mall, in the cities, etc., are typically NOT prime foraging grounds. Primarily this is because of pollution (see next section). However, people sometimes plant really nice trees there—various crab apples and serviceberries (and serviceberries are WELL worth finding and making into jam and baked goods). One of my favorite serviceberry spots is literally at the start of this posh subdivision, about 30′ back from the road. Another favorite serviceberry spot is in the parking lot of the library…you get the idea :). So while there are limited foraging to be done in the city and suburbs, fruit is one of your best bets. Tree fruits are also one of your best bets because trees are rarely sprayed where things on the ground, like plantain or dandelion, are usually heavily sprayed.

Toxins, Chemicals, and Pollution

If you are harvesting anything for internal use (medicine, edibles), you want to be aware of any chemical toxins in the landscape or area you are harvesting from. Toxins are not always easily to spot and can reside invisibly in the soil, so it takes some creative thinking and sleuthing to understand what may or may not be safe to eat.

 

Around houses and buildings. Soil near foundations of older houses and buildings often has lead because lead paint was used at one point and flaked off. You don’t generally want to harvest anything next to an older house that will be eaten (or plant anything, for that matter, that you are going to eat). Obviously any factory sites are really off limits for foraging.

 

In Swamps/Wetlands. Roots can often concentrate toxins and chemicals, and roots in swampy areas or lakes are particularly suspect.  Remember that plants like Cattail function as the cleansing plant for a water system–this means if there are toxins, they are going to be heavily concentrated in the cattail plant roots.  So, if you are harvesting roots or edibles, especially in swampy areas, look for the nearest body of water and see what is sitting upstream (like a polluting factory).  Even in what appears to be a pristine swamp or wetland, you might not realize that a factory 10 miles up the river is dumping into the waterways. Using maps (and especially online maps) is really helpful for this.  This is why I like to harvest catttails and other such roots and tubers from private lands that I have vetted well and from very small wetlands.

 

Pesticides, Herbicides, and other Sprays. There is also the issue of home and agricultural pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While most tree medicine is off the ground, I would not harvest anything on the ground a subdivision where everyone poisons their lawns with chemicals weekly. Likewise, I would not harvest too close to any industrialized, conventional agriculture (e.g. huge fields of corn or soybeans or other chemically-sprayed and GMO crops). These fields are covered in chemicals and those chemicals can easily drift to the surrounding landscape.  And this sometimes sucks, because the best stand of staghorn sumac I know is right in front of an industrialized agriculture soy/corn field.  Alas, that’s how it goes sometimes.

 

History of the Land. Its also really useful to know the history of the landscape. If there used to be a factory that is now abandoned and torn down, you may not want to harvest there.  This is actually one of the biggest impediments to urban farming in places like Detroit–so much of the land was poisoned with factories that people aren’t sure if its safe to grow in their soil.  Regardless, use your common sense and intuition to figure out where is safe to harvest.

 

The Ethics of Wildcrafting/Foraging: Taking and Giving Back

Ethics are another area of concern to the forager and wildcrafter.  Why?  Because in the last 150 years, humans have done a very good job at taking and taking and not a very good job of giving back.  And as I mentioned in part I of this series of posts, humans have largely lost our understanding of the ecosystem, knowing how to live in balance from the land.  Most of us live completely disconnected from it, and we haven’t developed an innate understanding of the land’s rhythms or ways.

 

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Closeup of Black Raspberry

Understanding Abundance and Scarcity. One of the first things that important to understand from an ethical standpoint is the concepts of abundance and scarcity. There are, at times, great amounts of abundance in the landscape. There are also times of great scarcity (e.g. winter, less abundant seasons, droughts).  When things are abundant, we must remember that we are not the only ones who depend on that abundance and that whatever we take is being taken from others that may need it for sustenance. This is why I so strongly suggested in my first post that you begin learning how to forage or wildcraft by understand ecology.  Even if things are very abundant, you want to limit what you take.

 

How much to harvest: the 30% guideline. I use the 30% rule for most harvesting of non-endangered, very abundant, native plants. I generally will never take more than 30% of something that is in an area for one harvest (e.g. if there is an apple harvest, I will take no more than 30% of the apples). However, this rule is not a hard and fast one to be applied in all circumstances but rather a guideline. If a plant is not very abundant in the area, I might only harvest 5% or even less. Sometimes even a 10% harvest can do substantial harm to a plant that isn’t very abundant. For example, if I’m harvesting roots, depending on the plant, it might kill the plant, so harvesting roots is very different than harvesting berries (which are designed to be harvested). If I’m harvesting leaves, like nettle, I can harvest a few from each plant safely and leave the plants themselves intact (in fact, nettles can be bent down to the ground and then they will regrow new shoots you can harvest!) So I’m constantly thinking about the individual plant, what I’m harvesting, how resilient it is, and what I can do so to cause the least amount of disruption to an ecosystem. At the same time, some plants, like garlic mustard or autumn olive, can be harvested in greater abundance due to their current dominance in the landscape (I talked about my take on invasive species here). For these plants, I harvest all that I can. You can also think about seasonal harvesting–if its the end of the season and a big frost is on the horizon, you can safely harvest more than the usual 30% (especially if you are only harvesting leafy material, and not seeds or roots).

 

Leave spaces how you found them. Another ethical issue involves how you harvest–and here, the guideline is to leave areas as you found them. If you are digging roots, dig your roots, and then when you are done, put the soil back and scatter leaves on the forest floor. The idea is that you want to be as least as a disruption as possible on the landscape. This is true in general every time we enter an outdoor space, but its particularly useful when foraging or wildcrafting. The idea here is that we need to be mindful stewards of the land.

 

Help the Plants Along. Another method I use to engage in ethical harvesting is to help the plants I’m working with propagate themselves further. For example, if I want some young milkweed pods for eating (they are awesome, and you can treat them just like okra) then I will return later in the year to that spot and as the milkweed seeds are turning brown, I will scatter them carefully. This means that while I have taken limited pods to enjoy in my curry, I have returned to the spot to help the plant propagate. If I’m gathering berries, I may throw a handful of ripe ones into a new space to help them establish there (especially when nothing else is growing there). This not only pleases the plants but ensures future abundant harvests for all.

 

I think with each of these categories, the key is approaching the landscape with knowledge, with reverence, with respect, and with an understanding that you are not the only one who is taking or depending upon that land for sustenance.

 

Foraging and Wildcrafting as a Spiritual Practice

My foraging partner and dear friend wrote an article last year for the AODA’s new annual publication, Trilithon, that examined the spiritual implications of foraging from a druidic perspective. He argued that foraging allowed him to practice two key spiritual aspects important to nature-based spirituality: cultivating stillness and cultivating focus. I’d like to explore those implications for a bit here and consider some additional areas.

Choice dryad's saddle

Choice dryad’s saddle mushroom–easy to spot with mushroom eyes!

As meditation. I find no greater joy than picking berries from a bush in the summer or fall. I remember last year, I spent many hours sitting with autumn olive bushes and harvesting their delightful berries. This was a meditation, where the repetition of picking the berries and putting them into my blicky (see last post) allowed me to still my mind and simply be in the moment. In my spiritual tradition, we recognize both sitting meditation and walking/movement meditation–I think this can classify as some of the latter.

 

As Communing with the Plants. A second thing that harvesting gets you, whether you are harvesting violets for tea or medicine, or harvesting thousands of autumn olives, is time to simply be with the plants.  To touch them, to give an exchange, to commune with them. This is really valuable–and the plants love giving of themselves to those who revere them. And we take that bounty within and it sustains us; it allows us to further build our connection to them.  The power and importance of this act of communion cannot be understated.

 

Understanding Nature as a cycle. When you get into foraging, you begin paying much more attention to the rain and temperatures (especially for mushrooms), when the weather warms up and the ground unfreezes, or when the frosts come.  Foraging asks us to really pay attention to the weather and seasons in ways that we do not normally do; this can give us deeper insights into the landscape around us, into the cycles that govern our lives.

 

As a way of seeing. One of my mushroom teachers taught us about “mushroom eyes” that is, we had to focus our gaze to see the mushrooms in the forest rather than seeing other things. You can walk through a forest without seeing any of the mushrooms in it (especially those that are small, on the ground, and non-colorful). This practice of putting on one’s mushroom eyes has profound spiritual implications, in that it asks us to shift our vision, to see differently, to see with intent.

 

As self-education. Knowledge is an important part of any nature-based spiritual practice. Foraging and wildcrafting allows one to learn about the landscape and become attuned with it. Its also an amazing way to learn in a way that others can benefit from.

 

I hope the information I’ve provided in the last two posts is helpful for you on your wildcrafting and foraging journey!