Make It a Wild Summer
By Jasmine Kosele
For wildcrafters and other wild food junkies summer is time for the “main course,” when a treasure chest of rich, green, jeweled wild plants adorn the landscape. Wildcrafting is simply the “art” of collecting wild plants for food or medicine, and many common “weeds” are not only delicious and nutritious, but also offer a plethora of internal and external medicines. Creating your own holistic pharmacy is empowering, healthy, easy on your pocketbook, and a delightful way to get out and fully experience the glory of the season.
Still, safety cannot be overemphasized. You need to get to know your wild plant friends intimately. Clearly identifying your plants is the cornerstone to both safety and satisfaction. First, invest in authoritative guidebooks. The better ones will be very specific with details, and it’s recommended to cross-reference with at least three reputable books. It’s also smart to carry a magnifying glass when you begin crafting. Look carefully…. How are the leaves shaped? Are they spiked, toothed, serrated, smooth, prickly, or fuzzy? Look at the stalk, the stem, and the base of the plant. Do the leaves grow alone or clustered on the stalk? Examine the details of the flower. Observe the colors, shapes, smells, textures, and growth heights. Notice how these factors change depending on the plant’s growth cycle.
Pay attention and look closely at the plant’s environment as well. Is the area a wetland, dry plain, field, roadside, or seaside? Look around; are you in a field that may be sprayed with chemicals? Is the area clear of animal waste, which can harbor pathogens? Are you on private land? If so, inquire with nearby residents and get permission before foraging there. Take into account that some weedy plants actually grow the best in neglected and abused environments. Mullein, and St. John’s Wort are big healers that like the beating sun alongside the highway, railroad tracks, or in abandoned lots. These are not always terrible places to harvest, but ideally look for healthier landscapes.
Wildcrafting and foraging are exciting but don’t let your excitement overpower your good judgment. Trust your guidebooks, intuition, and common sense. Most important, NEVER use taste as an identifying marker. Some plants are poisonous or deadly! Also understand that not all parts of an otherwise edible plant may be safe to eat. If you are unfamiliar with or uncertain about a plant, connect with a reputable local herbalist who knows the area, or contact the USDA extension service for more information.
Two common “weeds” that most of us recognize are dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and chickweed (Stellaria media). Both are abundant from the spring through late fall, can be eaten all season long, and are vastly superior in nutrition to the domestic greens we usually consume. Dandelion is a safe, strong, thorough and deep healer. The whole plant can be eaten. The fresh leaves can be cherished in a great addition to summer salads, simply dressed with a light splash of cider vinegar, olive oil, and a little crushed garlic, or sautéed solo. Dandelion leaf has a strong affinity for the kidneys. It is a natural diuretic and rich in potassium, which can become imbalanced by conventional diuretics. A cooling herb, dandelion can help ease the symptoms of chronic inflammations, kidney complaints, digestive issues, and liver problems.
Chickweed also has much to offer as both a healthy food and a strong medicine. Best eaten raw, chickweed is rich in iron, magnesium, vitamin A, and many other goodies. Medicinally, chickweed has long been known to help hot and stubborn conditions like bladder and kidney weaknesses, stomach acidity, lung inflammations, and allergic reactions. Often incorporated into a salve for external use, chickweed helps with chronic skin ailments, while soothing skin infections and wounds.
There are many simple ways to preserve your plant medicines. Drying fresh leaves for tea infusions and making your own herbal tinctures, medicinal oils, and salves are great ways to ensure you will always have a full home medicine chest. When making any of these preparations always keep notes and record your weights and measurements for future reference or to adjust in future batches. You’ll be happier for it!
The oldest method of preserving wildcrafted herbs is drying, but drying can be tricky. Think ahead and plan to do your collecting on a dry day, preferably sunny or slightly overcast, and always after the dew has evaporated. Don’t wash a green leafy plant before drying; just shake off any residual dirt or dust. Tie up by the stems into smallish bundles and hang them in an airy place, out of the direct sunlight, until they are completely dry. When the plant is bone dry and the leaves can easily be crushed between your fingertips, crumble the leaves and stalks into a dry, tightly capped jar. Flowers and seeds can be dried by spreading flat on a screen and dried in a location away from the sun with a light to moderate airflow around them. Store your dried herbs in a dark, cool place and you will enjoy the summer’s bounty in healthy herbal teas all winter long.
Tincturing is a process that gradually extracts the medicinal properties from the plant by the use of a “menstrum,” which is simply a liquid or solvent that will dissolve a solid or hold its properties in suspension. For this you need only a jar with a watertight lid, your plant material, and either 100 proof vodka or apple cider vinegar as your menstrum. Fill the jar completely with either fresh or dried plant material. Pour the vodka or vinegar over the plant material, completely covering it, and seal the jar tightly. Give it a gentle shake every day and be sure to keep the jar filled with the menstrum liquid along the way, as the plant will slowly uptake the liquid. After 6 weeks, strain and decant for use as needed. Dosing will depend on your research and comfort level. I always recommend slowly introducing yourself to a new medicinal plant.
Making medicinal oils from fresh or dried plants is also easy and these can be a lifesaver for common issues such as muscle aches and skin complaints. The most popular plants for healing oils are calendula, comfrey, plantain, St. John’s Wort, and chickweed. Once you have collected your plant material, have a clean Mason jar and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil at the ready. Fill the jar with the plant material, pack tightly, and pour in the oil, making certain that the plant material is completely submerged. Run a knife or chopstick along the side of the jar to release any air bubbles that may be trapped. It’s important to tend to your oil daily to ensure that mold won’t form. You want to keep your plant material always submerged in oil. Using your knife or chopstick again, poke around in the jar to release any built-up gases and then add more oil if necessary. After 6 weeks, you can strain and discard the plant material and then you have your medicinal oil.
Once you have a finished medicinal oil, you can use some for making a healing or soothing salve. Although these proportions can vary depending of whether you prefer a firmer or softer salve, a basic recipe is 1 ounce of oil to 1 tablespoon of melted beeswax. (There are plant waxes available for vegans or sensitive people.) Gently blend the oil and the beeswax together and pour into salve container. As it cools it will firm up.
For wildcrafters, the desire to gather your clippers, basket, and gloves to go out and harvest is compelling—but always remember to honor the Wildcrafter’s Rule: Harvest no more than 1/3 of the total plants in any productive area. You don’t want to exhaust the source, and keep in mind that there are probably other foragers out and about too. So, as summer comes into its height, explore outdoors, be safe and be respectful, and enjoy your herbal journey merging with Mother Nature and her lovely, healing gifts.
Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America–Third Edition —Steven Foster & James A. Duke. This book includes over 750 identifying color photographs.
Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use —Rosemary Gladstar. Gladstar also offers online courses and instructional videos at: sagemountain.com
Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses —Alma R. Hutchens
Jasmine Kosele is a southern Vermont herbalist who previously lived on Cape Cod and grew up by the sea. She studied with well-known herbalist Rosemary Gladstar. Jasmine’s website is GardeniaGardensBotanicals.com.