by Hope Horton
It was a cloudy morning during a precious 3-hour grace period between rainstorms. Six of us gathered at the Nest and dedicated ourselves to discovering the edible plant species living on just a small part of the Hart’s Mill land. Our guide, Kim Calhoun, has spent decades developing knowledge about and relationships with the flora in our midst, and we were excited about this chance to learn with her.
We shadowed Kim as she gently drew us into the particularities of the native plants that flourish on this land. Right outside the front door, within our grasp at the edges of the trails, towering overhead – it was impossible to stroll more than a few feet before Kim introduced us to another plant friend—delectable, medicinal, or simply beautiful. She had already whetted our appetites with a cold infusion of Japanese honeysuckle flowers, sipped in the living room before we set out. We filled a thermos of boiling water to take with us, because chances were excellent that we’d find ingredients to prepare a yummy tea to enjoy after the walk.
Meeting each plant friend was an exercise in close observation. Are the stems smooth or hairy? The leaves simple or compound? The edges serrated or crenelated? Is there a fragrance? Are they safe to taste, and what’s does the flavor evoke? What portions are edible, and what benefits do they bring? And this list barely scratches the surface of what we can be noticed and learned about the nature of the flora all around us.
We hovered over about 30 different plants–looking, touching, smelling, and even sampling –most of which were edible and/or medicinal. Here’s a tiny taste of what we learned. Persimmon tree leaves are full of Vitamin C. The sourwood tree leaves taste, well, sour, and add flavor to pesto. Wild St. John’s wort leaves contain hypericum oil which turned our fingers purple and can help with nerve pain and mild depression. Lobelia inflata, a very potent plant, has been used to help people to quit smoking. Violet flowers and leaves are an amazing food and medicine—chop them into a salad or dry and crush the leaves to make a wild greens mix with other plants. Also field garlic (good for colds), agrimony (helps relieve stress), resourceful person’s pepper for spice (see picture)…the list goes on.
We encountered poison ivy everywhere. Kim learned to call this native plant “sister ivy” from a teacher named Frank Cook who noted that when we hear the word, “poison,” we become fearful and shut down to the possibilities in the plant. Sister ivy teaches us to be mindful of how and where we are walking. It comes into disturbed areas to reclaim them and help them heal. It’s also great food for wildlife. And if you’re sensitive to it, just pick up some jewelweed, rub it on your skin to de-activate the oils. Or, or make an infusion that can be sprayed on or frozen into ice cubes and rubbed on your skin.
The Elderberry bush growing on the pond dam was the star of the show! The flowers are so beautiful and full of benefits too numerous to list. We pulled the creamy flowers from the stems and dropped them into the thermos with hot water to steep. After returning to the Nest, we sipped the gentle brew while reviewing all we learned on this cool and cloudy morning together.
Foraging is not for amateurs. It takes knowledge and experience to know which plants-parts-quantities-and preparations are safe to take into our bodies. In order to harness the medicine of plants, it’s important to develop a close relationship with them over the seasons. Are you absolutely certain that the plant is edible (or is it a poisonous look-alike)? Has the plant been sprayed or exposed to exhaust and other toxins? Is there enough of the plant to harvest sustainably? Today, we were in safe hands with Kim!
Kim offers classes and events in wild foods and medicine, yoga, energy work, and massage. Visit her website at abundancehealingarts.com