My formal herbalism and foraging training began in New York City where I was filled with purpose, but starved for nature. Though it may seem like a strange place to dive in, it makes perfect sense in retrospect. There was a gift in needing to connect where there was less; I paid close attention. When I began to notice, really notice, the beauty of so-called weeds that grew through the cracks in the sidewalk and learned about their ecological roles, medicinal gifts and incredible cultural history, a world of wonder opened up to me.
I was in awe, began to study intently, and as I learned, I was compelled to share with others. I began to reintroduce plants, trees, and fungi to my friends and family, and eventually to the students I would teach; I shared the benefits of healers like mugwort, dandelion, red clover, burdock, eyebright, pine, and other edible species we tend to overlook.
I invite you to take a new look at the land outside your door. You may be surprised at who and what has been there all along.
FIRST, SHARPEN YOUR SENSES.
Look at the plants and trees outside your door as though for the first time. Begin with mindful walks in nature—noticing the patterns of tree bark one day, and the small plants that grow close to the earth the next. Each day, attune your awareness to something different and use all of your senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing—intuition, and instinct to deepen intimacy with the land.
EXPLORE PLANTS USING THE DOCTRINE OF SIGNATURES
The doctrine of signatures is a theory that states plants are communicating their medicine through their shapes, textures, colors, and every other choice they make in their evolutionary process. You can use this theory to notice where and how plants grow: Do they prefer the sun or shade? What direction does a plant’s leaves or branches grow? Do they reach up and out or are they tucked in close? Does the plant grow counterclockwise or clockwise? Are the leaves smooth or rigid? We can also observe whether a plant offers food or medicine to others in the wild. Do they have a symbiotic relationship with fungi, birds, or other mammals or seem to grow alongside the same plants everywhere they’re found?
A SELECTION OF COMMON PLANTS & FUNGI
Burdock Roots access minerals held in the subsoil and like all taproots, have a nourishing quality as they act as a storehouse for vital nutrients. Since burdock is a biennial, the root is generally harvested in autumn at the end of its first year of growth or in the second spring. Known as gobo in Japan, the root can be stewed or stirfried while regular use of the tincture or tea can nourish the skin, lymph, kidneys, liver, and gallbladder and strengthen immunity.
Cattails are common in wetlands throughout the world, and many parts can be ingested. The green flower can be cooked while the young shoots can be stripped and stir fried. The pollen can be used as a flour and the tough, fibrous roots can be dried and ground or boiled down to separate the starch for sauces. It is important to note that these plants act as a filtration system and if in polluted water, they absorb pollutants which could be passed into our bodies if ingested.
Red Clover is found in sunny fields, urban parks and forest edges. This plant, in the legume family, is highly nutritive with significant amounts of calcium, magnesium, chromium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and vitamin C. Native to Europe, Western Asia, and northwest Africa, red clover has naturalized in North America and throughout the world.
Pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to North American deciduous forests. Pawpaw trees grow from the Great Lakes down to the Florida Panhandle and the sweet fruit ripens around September or October with the smooth texture and delicious flavor of a tart, blended mango and banana.
Pine needles are extremely high in vitamin C, perfect for fighting the common cold or to boost our immune systems in winter. The needles and twigs can be used for a revitalizing, clearing steam for congestion or a warming circulatory-stimulant bath for a winter chill or general aches and pains. Every species of Pine contains edible seeds that we call pine nuts. Harvested from cones, they can be used as a wildcrafted ingredient in pesto, but the seeds of most species are small and take time and patience to shell.
Nettles provide dense, but easily-assimilated nutrients: minerals: iron, potassium, phosphorus, silica, magnesium, manganese, cobalt, selenium, chromium, and sodium, Vitamins A, C, D, K, protein, chlorophyll, B-Complex (except B-12) and lavish amounts of protein. Regular consumption of nettles will strengthen and revitalize weak kidneys, thereby increasing energy.
Maitake mushrooms appear late summer into autumn around the base of hardwood trees such as oak, elm and maple. These delicious polypore mushrooms are easy to identify and have high protein content, concentrations of B-Vitamins, and are touted for their medicinal properties. Cook them in soups, stews and stir fries.
Mugwort has spread far and wide at forest edges and seasides, in vacant lots and city parks, through cracks in concrete, and in rural farmland, thriving along the boundary of wild and domesticated spaces. A bitter herbal medicine, this plant can repair overstimulated nerves and move the bile in our digestive system, helping us absorb nourishment. As a potent oneirogen, an herb that enhances dreaming, mugwort can help us awaken in the dream realm. And as a wild edible green, mugwort is best in the early spring, when the leaves are young and tender.
PRACTICE MINDFUL FORAGING
When gathering plants, make sure the plant you’re harvesting is who you think they are! It’s helpful to learn and work with a few plants, or even one plant at a time, to build confidence. Be mindful, and don’t harvest so many plants that you threaten the continuation of that particular population. Avoid gathering near roads, power lines, or areas that may have been exposed to fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, or other forms of chemical pollution. Mindful interactions initiate a relationship of reverence and open the door to deeper levels of intimacy with the Earth.
When planning for your foraging adventure, make sure to have some comfortable shoes, a bag or basket to collect your harvest, and a curious spirit to guide you in discovering the hidden plant wonders all around us. Happy foraging!