Thursday, July 21, 2016

How I Harvest Wild Plants for Food and Remedies

Fireweed, clover, and yarrow on our
property in Southcentral Alaska
Many resources (books and online) that encourage readers to collect wild plants for food, medicine, and other purposes, neglect to describe WHEN and HOW to harvest, dry, and store them.  This deterred me for several years.  Then I met a delightful woman who has become my mentor - the go-to person anytime a cartoon-like “Huh?” forms above my head.   By trial and error, year by year, I am learning about the bounty in my midst.  My new enthusiasm combines elements of botany, gardening, wandering, observation, research, and cooking.  It is increasing my independence as well as my respect for Mother Nature.

Below, I answer FAQs that may help other novices who want to get started on simple preparations of plants they recognize as safe and not sprayed by pesticides.  The questions are sequenced from plant harvest to storage through preparation.

Q: How do you know which plants to use for what purposes?
A: Some I heard from locals.  Others I learned from books pertinent to my region (see below for more suggestions) - some reference books, but others knowledgeable history or even fiction. Then I researched support documentation.  I started with those plants I recognized, like dandelion, yarrow, fireweed, birch, spruce, and raspberry that are so distinctive no problematic look-alikes exist. I tested these for taste or remedy, and then expanded to learning about other plants I did not know about before.

Q:  When do you harvest roots, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds?
A:  I collect the desired aerial part (above the ground) when it is freshest, which can be a short week or two. (Use it or lose it!)  Leaves are best BEFORE the plant flowers (afterward, they get bitter, hairy, or tough). I select fruits and flowers with the best color/scent/flavor. On a plant with many flowers that ripen sequentially (like fireweed), I  pluck  only the best ones as old ones may be bitter.  If a recipe calls for “shoots,” this means the early spring growth, when the plant stalk is most tender.  Roots are best gathered spring or fall, before or after the aerial growth spurt, but I have not done much with roots.  I am starting to save seeds of gardened and wild plants by collecting them at the end of the season.  If they form in pods (like peas), I wait until the pod is dry to break it open and save the seeds in paper bags or jars.  If the seeds are damp inside the fruit or vegetable (like apples), I separate them from the fruit and air dry them.  (Not on paper napkins because they will stick).  Then I store the labeled seeds in envelopes or baggies.  So far, my germination rate is not as good as purchased seeds.

Q:  How do you harvest plant parts?
A:  Generally I use scissors or garden clippers so I don't pull up a dirty root ball or tear or crimp the stalk.  If I am harvesting several different plants at the same time, I separate them for easier cleaning and drying.  Spruce tips and most berries, I just pluck with my fingers.  For nasturtiums and roses, I pull the petals but leave the pods/rosehips, because I harvest them later in the season, too.   For bark, the usual practice is to use the cleaner, inner bark (cambium layer) by scraping off the exterior, with a knife or vegetable scraper, depending on toughness.

Q: How do you clean the plant parts?
A: This is an important question.  I read a stupid comment in which a commentator asserted that organic (or wild) plants don't need to be washed.  Pshaw!  Many wild plants are fertile ecosystems for tiny insects, like thrips, as well as larger ones, like spiders.  I, for one, can do without those protein sources and I don't want them crawling all over my kitchen, either, so I set up an outdoor work area next to a hose spigot.  I have a deep utility sink fitted with a screen, which functions as a big, flat colander.  In the spring, when insects are fewer, I separate the leaves from the stem before  washing, but in the summer, I spray whole branches at one time, leave them to drain, spray again, and then separate the parts I want.  The rest gets tossed into a bucket destined for future garden layers or compost tea.  Delicate plant parts, like flowers and berries, I soak, rather than bruise with a spray.

Q:  How do you dry them?
Passive dryer. See clover, yarrow, fireweed

A:  Some people buy an electric food dryer.   I don't have that.  I rely on two passive dryers I bought on Amazon for about $32@.  Each one is a tower of 5 round, 3 foot diameter shelves of  nylon mesh, surrounded by a net wall with an opening for inserting the plant materials.  I hang each one from a support beam in the covered but airy woodshed (by the attached Velcro strap).  So easy!  Then I loosely strew a layer of  plant material on each shelf, turning it every day or so until it is dry. My mentor observed that a space with better ventilation than mine can ensure faster drying and preserve the green or other color better than my set up.  I  label each shelf or plant group, because many leaves look similar after they shrivel up.

Plants with a very high water content, like chives and berries, do not respond well to this slow dry technique.  For example, chives retain a grassy texture and little flavor.  Instead, I chop them up and then cook/dry them in a 325- 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes. 

Q:  How long do you dry them?
A:  When the plant part is dry enough to crush easily in your fingers, it is shelf stable.  (I don't have much experience drying roots, so I can't speak to that, other than that anything thick, like bark or roots takes much longer than leaves).

Q:  How do you store them long term?
This summer's dried leaves stored in a shed 
A:  I store them in mason jars in a dark shed. Mason jars are glass (various sizes: cup, pint, quart) with two part metal lids:  a flat disk and a circular “neck” piece that screws down over the disk and onto grooves on the lip of the jar.  Because I live in Alaska, I do not have to worry about extreme or extended heat, but people in warm climates should put their stores in an indoor pantry or basement instead of in a hot garage.  Presume a shelf life of one year.  The dried leaves will not go bad (not go rancid) but will lose flavor and nutritional or medicinal efficacy over time. (This is true for your spice rack, too.  Date those bottles!) To get more material into each jar, and for easy use later, I usually garble it (break up into small pieces) first, so many of the jars look like they contain loose tea leaves.  I label the jars with the date, plant name and part (leaves, flowers). 

Q:  When should I use fresh plant material vs. dried?
A:  Dried plant matter is easier and more reliable.  A beginner should start with this - including herbs in the spice rack!  The issue with fresh plants is their water content. Vinegar or alcohol preparations keep the plant from fermenting, molding, or otherwise going bad, but in water and even honey, the plant will decay and mold.  Fresh ingredients, like mint or fruit,  should be filtered out after imparting their flavor if the tea/honey is to be stored for more than a few days (like a gallon of iced tea). Vinegar and alcohol will break down the plant material over time, too, resulting in little bits floating (usually unattractively), so after the flavor/color/nutrients have leached out of the plant and into the liquid in a few weeks (usually 3-6), I filter those, too.  To keep infused olive oils from going bad, I filter out the fresh herb (with cheesecloth, after a few weeks) and then add a stabilizing oil, like grapeseed, which confers a longer shelf life.  In general, I am increasingly drying ingredients for more consistent results.  

A final deciding factor is that some plants taste better/stronger either fresh or dried.  For example, chives and basil are better fresh.  Clover, mint, and fireweed all smell great fresh but taste stronger dried. 

Q:  What preparations would you recommend for a beginner?
A1:  Single ingredient teas with fresh plants.  Collect the edible leaves/flowers/fruit of a familiar plant, like mint, dandelion, raspberry, or strawberry from a location that is pesticide free.  Taste it both hot and cold.  Determine which you like/don't. I found early summer dandelion leaf tea much tastier than I expected!  It has a light citrusy quality and is amazingly good for you. Cleavers (bedstraw) tastes like a combination of vanilla and almond extract. Once you know the individual flavors, you can combine.

A2: Infuse olive oil, honey, vinegar, or water with flavors in your spice rack.  These products have already proved to be shelf stable, eliminating one worry.  An excellent resource for food products is Kami McBride's book, "The Herbal Kitchen" with 250 recipes for delicious oils, ghees, cordials, and vinegars, using ingredients you probably already own. Another fine reference is "Organic Body Care Recipes" by Stephanie Tourles.  It offers 175 recipes for facials, hair rinses, foot soaks etc that you can make from common home ingredients.  If you like the practice/flavors/ease of making a mint tea to drink and a rosemary tea as a hair rinse, you can expand to the great outdoors at a later date. 

Q:  What do these terms mean:  infusion, salve, tincture, tea, tisane?
A:  An infusion simply means mixing dry ingredients into something thick and wet, like olive oil or honey.  For example, drop garlic and Italian herbs into a jar of olive oil, shake it every once in a while.  The flavors will meld and intensify... deliciously, over several weeks. Or stir cinnamon and other spices into a jar of honey for added interest to tea or oatmeal.  Some infusions can be done cold (easy).  Others should be done by heating the liquid/dry combination first. A salve is an infusion mixed with beeswax to thicken it so topical applications won't drip  (like a lip balm or a preparation for cuts and burns).  A tincture is made with alcohol or vinegar which extracts more of the plant's compounds than water can do and is common for medicines to be administered with a dropper or teaspoon.   A tea/tisane is made by dropping the plant material into water and bringing it to a boil or a simmer.  I make some flavorful herbal teas to drink for pleasure (as you would expect) and others for cough and cold remedies, hair rinses and facial washes.     

Q:  What are your favorite preparations?
Some of this year's infused vinegars, alcohols, and oils
A1:  Foods:  My husband and I are big fans of infused oils.  I constantly replenish jars of garlic/herb infused olive oil and a hot sesame oil.  (Did you know that you can plant the cloves of garlic you buy at a supermarket? Yup, pointy side up, one inch below soil. My husband likes infused coconut oils (which harden below about 70 degrees).   I have concocted a honey infused with dried ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, and pepper that I dollop into milky tea as my version of chai. I cannot grow any of these tropical plants in Alaska, obviously, so I buy these ingredients.
A2: Hair care: I enjoy vinegar and water based hair rinses, which soothe the scalp and make the hair soft and fluffy.  I have tried recipes with rosemary, nettles, yarrow, and equisetum (horsetail).  I boil a tea, let it cool, filter out the plant material, and put a jar or spritz bottle next to the shower to use that week.
A3: Medicines:  I am studying herbal medicines that I can make from plants in my yard.  We have a number of infused oils for topical healing of splinters, bug bites, burns, cuts/scrapes/bleeding, and infections, made (separately) with plantain, yarrow, chickweed, and calendula, all of which grow easily here.

Q:  How can I learn about the native and useful plants in my eco-system?
A:  Most regions have “native plant societies.”  Look up that term and your locale.  Also, most state university systems have robust departments dedicated to agriculture and botany.   Some offer on-line and in-person courses, and many publish on-line extremely useful short (1-5 page) guides to regional plants - edible, poisonous, invasive, beneficial - including recipes and remedies.  I have enrolled in three on-line courses that have been very worthwhile:  Master Gardener, Permaculture, and Herbalism.  Each course was the equivalent of a semester long college class.  They cost between $300 - $800 each.  I particularly recommend them for people who are planning to move to an unfamiliar eco-system.  They will jump-start your awareness of your new setting, before you make changes that may not be in your best interest. Historical books about that setting - for example about what the native Americans or settlers foraged, can be great references.  

Q:  What have you learned by harvesting and using native plants?
A1: I think about “Miner '49'ers” and others who suffered from scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies, or who starved to death during the summer (like Chris McCandless in “Into the Wild”).  Contemporary or historic people who know about the native plants in their locales can harvest and prepare foods and medicines from plants all around them. Dandelion, for example, contains vitamins A, B complex, C and D!  And potassium and other nutrients.  Yarrow, shepherd's purse, and plantain stop bleeding, as I have appreciated a time or two!
A2:  Many of these plants are really tasty!
A3:  I now look at settings where I live or visit in a whole new way.  I don't just see “weeds” or “beauty” anymore.  I appreciate the fertility and resources.  This is enormously satisfying. 

Note:  My experiences have been very positive ones, but caveat emptor:  readers with allergies or in locations with poisonous look-alike plants, and stinging critters or snakes should start carefully.  Region-focused references are great.  Local teachers/mentors are even better

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