Stewarding our Earth

Paul Tappenden reminds us that we can only take so much from nature, and to be mindful of what exactly we take…

Nature has no garbage dumps. In nature, nothing lasts any longer than it is needed, then it biodegrades to create fuel for further growth. Here is the perfect self-sustaining system that will continue for many more centuries, so long as there is water, air and sunshine. So how did we “creatures of nature” break away from this ideal balance, to become such a destructive force?

Nature supplies us with all our basic needs, so it is our responsibility to respect and protect the environment upon which we are dependent. Wise cultures realize that they are the stewards of the land and harvest responsibility, ensuring that their food sources remain healthy and abundant.

There has been a growth in the popularity of ‘wild foods’ in our society. For responsible foragers, nature can be a wonderful source of nutrient-rich foods and natural medicines.  However, as with every other aspect of human activity, there is abuse—especially when there is a profit motive involved. Entrepreneurs, with financial gain in mind (poachers) have been taking advantage of the growing demand for wild foods and medicinal herbs, such as Ramps and Ginseng. They have been over-harvesting and ravaging natural sources, to the point of threatening their existence. This is becoming the case in many areas where these species were once abundant. That is why I have been teaching primarily about harvesting invasive species, with the “If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em” approach. This way, plants like Mugwort and Japanese Knotweed become our allies, instead of just being garden pests.

Our existence on this planet is dependent on our working in harmony with nature and viewing ourselves as the stewards of our planet. Like the Hippocratic oath, our first principle should be “do no harm”. We should aim to leave no evidence of our presence, or leave a place better than we found it, if we are to live up to our responsibilities as the keepers of our planet.

Ramps growing in spring

Every Day is Earth Day

Wild Food Forager, Paul Tappenden, reminds us the Earth gives us gifts every day…

To those of us who love nature and her myriad, wonderful gifts, every day is Earth Day. We celebrate the seasons and all that they bring, and feel a responsibility to help protect that which is our very source of life.

Since becoming a forager and herbalist, I have made friends with many species and have studied their nutritional value and medicinal powers. The natural world is filled with powerful superheroes. These heroes don’t leap high buildings in a single bound, but have protected far more lives than Superman. They don’t parade around in tights and capes, but exert their super powers in very subtle ways.

As one who uses plants as food and medicine, I have become aware of their remarkable abilities, and have, of course, incorporated them into my life. I also feel that it is my duty to share this knowledge with others, especially the younger members of our society.

The main objective of Earth Day is to help spread respect and appreciation for this amazing planet that supports us and presents us with such beauty. One does not need to overlook a canyon or stand atop a mountain to observe nature’s beauty. It is possible to find great beauty on a single square foot of land, wherever nature has blessed the soil.

April is the month of rebirth (in the Northern hemisphere), when we can observe nature springing to life, and the world that surrounds us transforming, bringing with it sustenance and healing and promise of abundance.

Of course, I’ve already been out there grazing on fresh young greens and shoots, throwing wild ingredients into my dishes and just plain enjoying reuniting with familiar plant friends, watching their daily growth and marveling at the forces which bring us these gifts.  So, I am celebrating Earth Day today and every day, and hope that this annual celebration helps us appreciate all that we have been given.

Eating Violets

Wild Food Forager, Paul Tappenden, recommends a delicacy of foraged violets, with tips for how they can be prepared…

While I was walking around the neighborhood with our pups, I noticed some small patches of violets that were starting to flower. I’ve been seeing the leaves for a couple of weeks, but now that the snow has melted, the flowers are announcing their presence. Almost time to start gathering!

The leaves and flowers of Violets are both edible. They can be used in a number of culinary ways, either raw or cooked. The flowers make a colorful addition to salads or sprinkled over almost any dish before serving. I once chopped some up and added them to home made ice-cream.

A popular thing to do with the flowers is to candy them. For this, I will lightly whisk an egg white, stir in some confectioner’s sugar, then carefully dip each flower into the mixture, lying them each out on a parchment lined baking tray. I leave them in a very low oven or dehydrator until they crystallize, then use them to garnish and decorate cakes and deserts. It is very fiddly work and quite time consuming, but it makes a colorful presentation, and they taste great.

Another use I highly recommend is to gather a small jarful of violet flowers and to top it up with a mild vinegar. After a few days, the vinegar turns purple and takes on the flavor of the violets (as well as some of their nutritional goodness, which includes Vitamins A and C, and the anti-oxident and anti-inflammatory, Rutin.). Your friends will all wonder where you got such interesting and tasty vinegar.

I often use the leaves in salads, although I use them sparingly as they tend to be somewhat mucilaginous.  However, this property also makes them ideal for calming an upset stomach.

The Persistent Forager

WILD FOOD FORAGER PAUL TAPPENDEN REMINDS US THAT THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO FORAGE, NO MATTER THE SEASON…

For us foraging types, February is a very challenging month. It is about now that I am usually climbing the walls, counting the days until spring. Once the snows cover the ground, whatever greens are left disappear from view, so we are pretty much left with what the trees have to offer. With few other options to distract me, I use the winter to brush up on my tree identification and to explore possible uses.

Pines are very versatile. They provide us with their needles for making teas and resin (for myriads of uses). The inner bark can be prepared and eaten (although I have yet to try it). The bark is also useful for making baskets. Other conifers can be used in similar ways.

The inner bark of Black Birch makes a delicious wintergreen flavored tea, or it can be fun to chew on a twig while walking in the woods. Sassafras root bark has a similar flavor and was originally used in making root beer (hence the name). Ardent herbalists and woodland dwellers use this season to gather some of the medicinal polypores such as Chaga, that inhabit the trunks of dying White Birch trees.

Just recently, a friend introduced me to Hickory syrup. She arrived at my house with a bag filled with chunks of loose bark that she had gathered from a Shagbark Hickory tree. We put it in the oven for about half an hour to give it a slightly smoky flavor. Then we put the bark into a large pan with several cups of water and two cups of organic sugar and simmered it until it had reduced down to a rich, brown syrup. I dipped a fingertip in and sampled our creation. It was delicious. Every bit as tasty as maple syrup (but way cheaper).

Speaking of maple syrup, before this month is out, we may also be tapping the Sugar Maples and other likely candidates (such as Birches) for making syrups and sugars, or just for drinking (a pleasure that everyone should experience at least once).

So, as you can see, for the persistent forager, the season never really ends.

The Foraging Life: Off-season Training

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden ruminates on the foraging life and gives some suggestions for off-season activities…

As a forager, I never received any formalized training. I learned my craft by trial and error. In the beginning, it was more error than trial. But gradually it all started to make sense. Today, the inexperienced forager has a distinct advantage, in that there are now many more practitioners of the ancient skills. These folks now pass on their knowledge through teaching, workshops, social media, blogs and books.

When I started out, books on wild foods contained scant information, much of which was misguided or just plain wrong. Today, there are numerous experienced and well informed foragers who are making the most of the media platforms available. It is now far easier to learn to forage. I encourage you to take a book out of your local library during these winter months and read-up on foraging! You can prepare yourself well for springtime explorations by starting now…

When I first learned to cook (regular food), I knew how to boil an egg, make cheese on toast, and when I was feeling adventurous, how to prepare spaghetti. As I discovered other foods, like rice and canned beans, I began to expand my culinary horizons. Today, I use a wide range of ingredients and cook in several styles.

Foraged foods were much the same, in that I started out knowing and using only one or two plants, but gradually, I introduced new wild ingredients to my culinary portfolio, until I became a proficient wild foods chef. Again, I always encourage folks to take advantage of the increased time we spend indoors this season by practicing expanding their cooking repertoire!

I look forward to passing on some of the knowledge I’ve gained in these areas to the campers at The Nature Place Day Camp this summer, as I do every summer.

foragingforaging with basket

gathering sorrelblack walnuts

Autumn Olive Abounds

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden gives some tips for foraging autumn olive, and provides some photos for preparation inspiration…

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an “invasive” plant that originates from the far east. In the US they are escapees that have made themselves at home in the Northeast and other parts of the country. The berries (not actually olives) usually grow in large clusters along the branches of bushes. If you stop and study them, you’ll see that they are covered with silvery spots and that the dark green leaves are pearlescent underneath, making the foliage appear to shimmer. They are somewhat tart, but are highly nutritious.

Autumn Olives are rich in antioxidants, and one of the highest natural sources of lycopene (many times greater than tomatoes).

Lycopene is recognized for its anti-cancer properties and its effectiveness in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The seeds are high in vitamin E and Omega 3 fatty acid, so these berries are a powerhouse of goodness.

Their season has just begun in the Northeast, and depending on the location of the bushes, may well last into November. However, the majority of berries can be harvested between mid-September and mid-October.

The biggest mistake that foragers make with Autumn Olives, is to gather them too early. The problem is that the berries turn red long before they develop their sugars. The result is a very tart harvest, that can only be used to make sauces. Once they have fully ripened, they have a sweet/tart flavor, and make good eating.

When gathering them, it is well to note that the ripeness of the berries varies from bush to bush and often from branch to branch, so the wise forager will leave the less ripe fruit and return to harvest it at a later time.

They can be left to sit at room temperature for a couple of weeks without spoiling. In fact, during that time the unripe berries will usually

ripen. They will last longer when kept refrigerated and can be frozen as is. In fact, freezing then often sweetens them up somewhat. Also, frozen berries can be used throughout the year.


Important safety note
: there are many types of red berries ripening this time of year, some of them poisonous. If you have any questions in identifying autumn olive, please get in touch with us.

Poison Ivy & the Gem that is Jewelweed

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden fills us in on his poison ivy protocol and the joys of jewelweed…

A couple of years ago, I was out in my backyard doing a bit of cleaning up, without wearing gloves (not a wise decision).  However, I wasn’t bothered when I brushed against the Stinging Nettles, as they are my pals and I quite welcome their stings.  But then, I inadvertently brushed up against a sprig of poison ivy that was waiting in hiding.

Scratches from rose thorns don’t bother me much. Even the occasional bruise or abrasion doesn’t faze me. But brushing up against that Toxicodendron radicans makes me very nervous, and had me seeking out the antidote, without which, I am likely to develop a nasty, angry patch of itchy bumps, sores and blisters.  If I don’t treat them, they will stick around for a month or more.

Luckily, I have a poison ivy salve, made from Plantain and Yarrow, which works really well in clearing it up. Then again, I’d sooner not have to deal with it in the first place. That’s why I turn to my old pal, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), or occasionally, Pale Jewelweed, (I. pallida). I take the juicy stems and rub them thoroughly on the area I think has come in contact with poison ivy oils and it prevents the rash from developing.

Well, I hadn’t seen Poison Ivy in my yard for years, so this sneaky little sprig, got me by surprise. As fate would have it, there wasn’t a leaf of Jewelweed growing within half a mile of my house. What was I going to do? The solution hit me almost immediately. I spent the next 20 minutes cleaning out my freezer drawer, which gave me the chance to rearrange it and dig out some old forgotten items (many of which wound up in the recycling bucket). Now, I was able to organize what was left, with room to spare.

I guess you may be wondering what this all has to do with poison ivy. Well, while cleaning the drawer, I was able to retrieve a small freezer bag containing several dark green ice cubes. These were what I was looking for. I had found my much-treasured Jewelweed cubes. They shone with inner and outer radiance, as if to say, “We are here to rescue you.” And I knew that they would keep their promise.

I rubbed any area that I thought might have been exposed with the ice, paying special attention to the areas between my fingers.  Most of the ice cube was still intact after that, so I put it back into the bag and returned it to the freezer. It should last a very long time at this rate.

Every year, at The Nature Place, I make sure to show the campers how to recognize Poison Ivy and Jewelweed and teach them how to protect themselves in case of exposure to the former. Even the most susceptible campers can be kept safe from Poison Ivy rash.

Equinox

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden, reminds us what plants to look out for as the season changes…

Spring is upon us, and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen many signs of my plant friends coming back to life, not to mention all the spring bulbs that are sprouting and flowering in our front yard.

I’ve already paid several visits to the woods to photograph the Skunk Cabbage flowers, and noticed the young Watercress plants coming up in the marshland pools. I’ve seen patches of Snowdrops, with their elegant drooping blossoms and young Stinging Nettle leaves unfurling. It won’t be long before the Spring beauties will begin to appear, followed by the Trout Lilies. This is a very exciting time of year for those of us who love nature.

 The Spring Equinox is filled with promise. It represents a new awakening, and although it may snow like heck the next day, we are warmed by the sure knowledge that the days will gradually get longer and warmer, bringing life and color into our world.  Shakespeare did not pen, “Now is the ‘Spring’ of our discontent.” And with good reason–how can we be discontented when surrounded by such beauty?

After years of working with plants and using herbs, I am in no doubt about the many powers they possess–to the point that merely being in their presence can be potently healing. Their energies are undeniable, which is why I don’t need to actually consume a plant to absorb its medicinal magic.

I can understand why there are so many indigenous ceremonies attached to the equinox, which show thanks for having survived the winter and appreciation for all of nature’s gifts. As a wild foods diarist. I am thankful that after those long, seemingly barren winter months, I’ll now have lots to write about as spring bursts into life.

Pine Resin

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden, points out the many properties and potentials of pine resin…

During the winter months, when most signs of life have disappeared, I make good use of our local evergreens, particularly the ubiquitous White Pine. Besides having vitamin rich needles that make a tasty tea, it drops hundreds of pine cones.  Most of them are usually spattered with droplets of dried Pine resin, which can be scraped off and collected.

Pine resin is a very useful substance to have on hand. To begin with, it is highly flammable, which makes it very useful in fire making, especially when using damp wood. I’ve started a fire in a rain storm using pine cones and birch bark.

The resin can be melted down and used as an adhesive or a water-proofing sealer. By adding different fillers, we can create various media and glues. Hardwood ash, for instance, will make a hard epoxy-like adhesive. The addition of beeswax will create a more malleable medium, similar to tar.

The medicinal properties of Pine resin are extensive. It is anti-microbial, an anti-fungal and a pain reliever (especially for arthritis). It can be dissolved in oil to create an infused oil, that can be used in the treatment of chest complaints and cold symptoms.

These amazing trees have many more uses, including as a food.

Medicinal, Magnificent Mugwort

Wild food forager Paul Tappenden suggests the manifold manifestations of Mugworts medicinal magic!

After a day of heavy work, I was awoken several times throughout the night with leg cramps. Ordinarily, when I suffer from muscle cramps or pains, rubbing a Mugwort salve that I keep next to my bedside into the offending area generally puts a stop to the problem. However, when my body is particularly stressed, as on this particular night, it requires a more heavy-duty approach. At times like that, I may make a large pot of Mugwort tea, pour it into a hot bath, and luxuriate in the relaxing, aromatic liquid.

Another approach is to make some Mugwort tea and simply drink it. This is what I did throughout the day following the bad cramping. That night, I didn’t have a single problem with cramps and, as a bonus, I had very clear dreams. As well as being high in magnesium, Mugwort is calming and relaxing and kills intestinal parasites.

Mugwort has been considered a sacred herb by many over the centuries. In addition to the properties I’ve already mentioned, it can be used as a smudging herb, which when burnt, can kill 98 percent of airborne bacteria.

So, the next time you’re pulling that pesky Mugwort out of your yard or community garden, stop to consider the powers it possesses. You just might have a cure you’ve been searching for right in your hands.