A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The wild and wonderful world of plants

Foraged and gleaned pears and mushrooms

Canning, canning, canning!
      Time has passed way too quickly this past month, mostly claimed by the every day demands that make up the stuff of parenting: runny noses, bath times, swings to be pushed, and meals to be coaxed into picky mouths. The balance of our days has been spent frantically trying to keep up with the bounty of our garden and land. With little warning beans and cucumbers become too big and need to be picked and canned (now!) or become compost. A neighbor calls with the offer of an overflowing pear tree, available for harvest if we can get there in time. A flush of mushrooms will go to waste if we can’t find an hour to pick and process them. There is abundance all around us, and I find myself marveling at the miracle of the plant world: one tiny seed transforms itself over the course of months into a fruit bearing hundreds of more tiny seeds. There are such generous design principles at work in the natural world, and we are their lucky recipients. “As it is, plenty,” writes WH Auden. If we can only keep up! Although I do not possess the green thumb of a master gardener (evidenced by a yearly toll of dead house plants), one aspect of homestead living I love is learning more and more about the flora growing all around us: a seemingly never-ending education!

Beating the birds to the elderberries down by our creek

     Though our annual vegetable garden keeps us plenty busy, the longer we inhabit our land, the more we come to appreciate the uses of all the diverse native plants that already exist without us lifting a finger. One of those realms of use has been medicinal. As I write that, even my mind jumps to marijuana, which I am not talking about in this case! I am talking about the dozens of plants like elderberry, echinacea, goldenseal, St. John’s wort, mullein, comfrey, garlic, hawthorn, ginseng, yarrow, and so on. The list is long, and learning about their medicinal properties and how to prepare them has been one of my goals this year. I am not alone in this endeavor as many other folks in our community have been on a similar learning journey. We have been joining forces in making tinctures and salves and such of late.

     Surprisingly, the medicinal used of plants is also a point of common interest with our Amish neighbors. One evening when I was out on a stroll with Caris down the lane to a little bridge flanked by elderberries, we heard horse hooves approaching. Ira and Lena’s buggy pulled into view and as they passed us, they stopped and Ira hopped out with a knife and bag. “You weren’t going to get those elderberries, were you?” he asked me. Although I had been eyeing their slow progress ripening with exactly the thought of harvest in mind, it was easy to let them go to neighbors who have been very helpful and generous to us. Lena and I had begun comparing notes about medicinal herbs and their uses this summer, and when I lent her my copy of Rosemary Gladstar’s book Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, I think it must have opened up another world of possibilities for her. She meekly apologized now for not having it to return since she had lent it to a series of other Amish women who she thought would be very interested. “Where could we get more copies?” she asked me now. Without book stores or internet access, I realize this sort of information doesn’t easily make it into Amish communities. Without hesitation I offered to help her as I understand exactly her enthusiasm!

Horses making a compost delivery

     So, if all goes as it went last year, this winter I will be trying out garlic-mullein ear oil for Caris’s ear infections instead of plying her immediately with antibiotics, and elderberry-echinacea tincture instead of cough syrup, and black walnut-chapparal salve for ringworm (instead of whatever over-the-counter thing it was I reluctantly applied despite the pharmacist’s total ambivalence about whether it could be used on babies.) I confess to feeling rather clueless during our daughter’s first year in the realm of home medicine; her first fever sent me into a total panic, something I am sure every parent is familiar with. It feels good to be a little more empowered and educated in this one area, and to know that the arsenal of conventional western medicines are still available to us when needed as backup. If you too are interested in learning a little more about herbal alternatives, I have found a great online resource is Aviva Romm’s website- https://avivaromm.com. And if you are reading this having a little skepticism about deviating from the canon of western medicine, I offer this consideration: our water, soil, food-supply and medicine cabinets are now considerably contaminated from over-use of antibiotics (with no new strains available to us) and bacteria is only gaining in its resistance. Europe has much more progressive policies regarding use of antibiotics in livestock (ie-only used when animals are sick vs. to help animals put on weight more rapidly) and in their use with humans (ie, children are not automatically given them for ear infections). Clearly we still have a lot to learn, or perhaps relearn!

Caris paying a visit to her favorite Aronia berry bush

      Aside from the properties of plants useful for healing, there are scores of plants that are wild and free, edible and chock full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants for building up our health and vitality in times of wellness too! Some of the most nutrient dense plants our there are those considered to be weeds or are otherwise not found in grocery aisles. Dandelion greens, Curly dock greens, stinging nettles, Aronia berries, and the wide world of edible mushrooms. We just learned this year that Aronia berries are now classified as a cancer-fighting treatment because of their extremely high antioxidant content. This is nice validation for us for having planted a dozen Aronia bushes around our property. And despite their astringent, slightly bitter sweetness, Caris makes a beeline for them every time we go outside in the morning. She is a quick study in the department of wild edibles, and we munch our way through long stroller walks—black locust blossoms and clover heads in spring, mulberries and dewberries in early summer, wild grapes, Aronia and serviceberries in late summer, perhaps rosehips and autumn olive berries in late fall. Beats paying for Flintstone’s chewable multivitamins!

Sarah spinning natural dyed wool
     Last on my review of the amazing properties of plants, I cannot forget to mention their dye properties! For some reason, this is a realm that has always fascinated me, and thus I have been experimenting and studying about all that can be done with plant dyes. Plant dyes are the most stupidly easy thing to learn (obvious to anyone who has accidentally given themselves grass or berry stains) and also quite a complex thing: though plants rich in tannic acid (think acorns and oak galls, black walnut, barks of various kinds) have no problem fixing themselves to the fibers of natural materials (like wool, silk, cotton), most other plants need an intermediary chemical to bind with fibers and become permanent. Those chemicals are things like iron, alum, copper, oxalic or tannic acid, and several more toxic ones. Each chemical, or “mordant”, reacts slightly differently, altering the color sometimes considerably. So from one plant (or flower, bark, nut, wood, etc.) you can get a huge range of color. Those are the basics, and start throwing in different techniques of printing and wrapping and using hot or cold baths and so on and you have a hobby that could keep you busy for a long, long time! One fantasy I have is of planting a whole dyer’s garden specifically to cultivate dye flowers and plants. What keeps holding me up is the fact that our land is already so full of wild plants, flowers, and trees ideal for dying that I have more than enough to work with already! Here are some of my latest experiments, learned just this summer, to show what is possible with printing rather than straight dying.

Some new natural dying techniques using light sensitive willow bark dye, and maple leaves/ St. John's wort plus iron

     With my apparent enthusiasm for the amazing powers of plants, perhaps it will come as no surprise that one project I have been chipping away at the past month has been planting dozens of perennial bushes, vines, and plants around our house, focusing on things that are either edible, medicinal, dye-yielding, or that provide habitat and nectar for native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. With any luck, next spring we will be bursting with new growth and new possibilities to keep us busy for a long time to come!