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Re-connections

Essay, 2015

Six adults cluster around a dense clump of veined and toothed leaves emerging from the ground. Last year’s seed capsules cling to 4 foot dead stalks like “dreadlocks” as our guide Jennie likes to say. Jennie is leading us on a spring wild plant foraging walk along the Pinetum Trail in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Dundas, Ontario.

Sage is excited. This was a plant she wanted to find today, to identify in its early spring stage, before the flowers come and the stalk gets stringy. When the leaves are so tender they can be steamed, sautéed or puréed into a delicate green soup.

Darko, a young, fit Torontonian with thick dark hair pulled into a half-ponytail and a shadow of stubble adds that in Italy, they use it as a ravioli filling.

Can we touch it? We stand back and even Jennie would like a pair of gloves.

But Hati plucks a small leaf, the size of a quarter, and strokes it between her thumb and index finger, she says in her uncertain English, to remove the hairs. In Bulgaria she remembers her grandfather would mince the tender young leaves and they would eat it with a boiled egg at least three times a week in the spring. You could buy it in the markets. They would also boil it in water for hair, for dandruff, and rinse out the soap with it.

We listen and learn.

Once upon a time, this exciting find was a plant known, used and valued by perhaps most people in Europe and Asia, maybe even most people in the world. You didn’t have to plow, sow, hoe, fertilize or irrigate nettle—it was wild and it was resilient. It was common knowledge that nettle greens were nutritious and made a healthy spring tonic. That tea made from leaves or roots could be used for ailments ranging from prostate problems to dandruff. That nettle stalks when retted released long fibres that could be spun into twine or rope or woven into durable textiles. When European settlers came to North America they carried nettle seeds with them.

Most of this nettle esteem has wilted through the years in North America. Although we know now that nutritionally the leaves can be compared to spinach: rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A, K, iron, protein and fibre and that many of the old remedies have been validated by medical science, most people don’t use it or want it on their property and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural affairs lists it as a weed.

Jennie knows the many uses of nettle. She’s even planted some in her garden, although she cuts it back before the seeds set so her neighbours won’t reach for herbicides.

As strong and vibrant as the plants she studies, Jennie Akse-Kelly, 46, is a wild forager. Which means, among other things, that Jennie knows how to handle a trowel.

“Digger!” she calls for the tool as she straddles a yellow dock or dandelion. She knows to use a long narrow taproot digger to pull up a dandelion root and a trowel to dig wide and deep to extract the long, thumb-thick meaty taproot of a burdock.

Jennie started learning about edible wild plants on weed walks with North Carolina herbalist Will Endres. Endres has been wildcrafting for 40 years and traces his own herbal mastery to 28 years of schooling with 5th generation Appalachian herb doctor CF “Catfish” Gray. Gray was born in 1917 in Jackson County West Virginia and is quoted as saying that his ancestors learned herbal medicine from the local Cherokee Indians. Something in that first experience, maybe something reflective, or healing or maybe something deeper, more spiritual attracted Jennie. She thought, “Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do.”

She studied with Endres for three years in North Carolina. Then she moved from the rural spaciousness of North Carolina to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. At first the concrete and traffic—the city—was disappointing until she realized that many of the same or similar plants grew there. She began to teach.

“I decided to do what Will did. Start teaching people. It will be never ending. So many people have not been connected to the earth. I feel like I’m racing against the clock. Not just me, I’m not the only one, but wow, a lot of people have never walked in the forest. Babies have never felt the grass because parents are afraid of laying them down on it.”

Last year, Jennie and her family moved back home to Canada. She leads wild foraging hikes and meet-ups in the great conurbation that stretches from Hamilton to the City of Toronto. And she’s busy. Sixteen wild plant walks so far this spring and the season has really just started.

Our group on this day is typical in its diversity. Mary and Jill are the elders. Mary is a quiet lady of 67 with a life-long interest in nature. She already knows the names of many of the plants and today is learning how she can use them. Jill is semi-retired and coy about her age, but admits to practicing 30 years of permaculture in her back yard. “We’ve never sprayed,” she says.

Hati is probably in her early middle years and although English is new to her, many of these plants are friends from the old country. Sage is also a youthful middle-ager. She wears a crystal around her neck, beaded bangles and has decorated her arms with tattoos of trees, and native feathers, snakes, birds and sun, moon and stars, and a floral celtic braid. She has been learning herbal medicine as well as wild food craft. Darko is the only guy, perhaps in his 20‘s. He has worked as a chef and last summer worked on a permaculture farm in Italy and developed an interest in wild mushrooms.

Our hike is 3 hours long and we walk less than a kilometre along Pinetum Trail. It’s a perfect sunny spring day, punctuated with the screeching trills of red-winged blackbirds. Many tender young leaves are bursting through the soil and leaf litter. We stop often.

It’s impossible to miss the round-leaved mounds of garlic mustard. They grow beside the path and in clearings like small green cushions. We could each collect a bucket full and not take it all. Garlic mustard crossed the Atlantic in the 1800‘s when it was introduced in Ontario as a pot herb. It is so fecund and aggressive in its expropriation of native habitat that it’s considered an invasive species, a “forest invader.” We are encouraged to pull it up, roots and all.

We all taste a leaf. Or two. It has a pleasant peppery taste that would enliven a salad of mixed greens.

Jennie eats a fist-sized bunch as she talks. “You eat the green tops…shake the bugs off, you don’t need to wash it…collect plants in a paper bag so the bugs can get out…if you use plastic the plants sweat and stick to the plastic…that’s not good for the plants and if there are any bugs in there they get trapped.”

“The root is like horseradish…it’s a tap root, which means it’s grounding and has high energy… the seeds are like mustard, you can use them in Indian dishes, or mayo…you can also use the greens as a poultice…chew it up and spit…it has antibacterial properties.”

Garlic mustard pesto
Crush garlic, slice up garlic mustard and also garlic chives if available. Puree in a food processor with olive oil and walnuts (or pine nuts). Add parmesan cheese. Boil the water for pasta!

There’s an ethic to wild foraging. Take only 10-15% of a plant (unless, like garlic mustard it is invasive, in which case you help the environment by taking it all.) Don’t take endangered plants. Leave plants for the animals that need them and for other people to enjoy. Be respectful.

In her Wild Weed Walk handout Jennie writes “Before harvesting, ask the plant if you may take it and pick it with the intent of the herb to share its power for the benefit of mankind.” This guidance feels ancient and spiritual.

In other ways, plant foraging is unmistakably 21st century. Avoid collecting near paths in the dog poop zone because, well, poop, and because so many dogs take medications that can be excreted in the urine. Avoid parking lots or areas with lots of garbage or cigarette butts. Avoid areas with signs of herbicide or pesticide use. For more information, look it up online. Jennie connects with her followers on Meetup.com.

“This I don’t know.” Jennie squats over a small mound of feathery green. She caresses it, examines its delicate thin leaves, arranged in whorls around the main stem. “Oh yeah! Oh good.” She stands up and looks around. “OK, calling all foragers!”

Jennie rolls a 5 cm stalk of this mystery herb between her thumb and forefinger. The square stem of this plant is distinctive and easy to feel with this “twizzle test.” Sweet woodruff is another European import, although not as aggressive as garlic mustard. We add a handful of feathery shoots to hot water.

Nearby is a yellow dock, yet another weedy plant of European origin. Sage is recruited to dig up the root and Jill scrapes off the dirt and slices it into another thermos of hot water. Although yellow dock leaves can be eaten when young if they are boiled in several changes of water, it is the root that has a history in herbal medicine as a liver detoxifier.

We sip our teas from small plastic cups. The sweet woodruff tea is refreshing with a sweet hint of vanilla. The yellow dock tea tastes bitter, as Jennie says, “like Chinese medicine.”

“Well,” says Jill. “I wouldn’t run out and make this.”

When we stop and talk about dandelions, Jill is more enthusiastic. She remembers eating dandelions as a child. Now, she juices them. The entire dandelion plant is edible, although the leaves get bitter with age. Sage has made “coffee” from the roots. It takes a lot of dandelion roots, pulled, cleaned, roasted and ground, to make a carafe of coffee. “It’s so worth it,” says Sage. Dandelion root coffee is thicker and more textured than the substitutes you find in health food stores. More like real coffee. She enjoyed her last batch until it went mouldy in the jar. She advises, “Make sure you dry it well.”

Dandelion syrup
Soak two double handfuls of flowers overnight in water. Bring to a boil then remove the heads. Add sugar, 2:1 water to sugar. Boil liquor until it’s thick enough to spread like honey.

Many of the foragers who come on Jennie’s walks are interested in using wild collected plants for food. “People want to take more control of their food,” say Jennie. “People are more aware, and concerned about, the additives in their food as well as issues about genetically modified food. On top of that, even if you eat well, you may be eating something that was harvested last year from big mono-cultured factory farms, and traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to reach you. That’s not very ecologically sound. Properly foraged food is brimming with nutrients—it’s simply far superior to store-bought food.”

Jennie thinks that from May to September she could supply up to 80% of her family’s food from wild foraging, adding just protein from fish, or eggs. The caveat is “if they would eat it.” Her young daughters are at that discriminating age when all food is subject to review.

Developing the palate for wild fare is something that can be learned. And for some wild foragers, new tastes are part of the attraction. Foodies look for new tastes. Last August, the Globe and Mail published and article called “Taming the Wild Green” in which five Canadian chefs presented their favorite stinging nettle dishes. Chef de cuisine Kristian Eligh of Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver makes a Stinging Nettle Puree served with slow-cooked elk loin with rye dumpling, braised cabbage, bacon and juniper jus.

Stinging Nettle Gnudi
Steam a bagful of young nettle shoots to neutralize the stings and strip off the leaves. Blend in a food processor with a tub of drained ricotta, 3 egg yolks, salt, garlic powder and flour to make a light dough. Form into balls with a teaspoon. Drop into boiling salted water and remove when they float to the top.

On the way back to our cars, we stop to taste the mild white root of burdock (tons of minerals, high in iron) and the pungent bitterness of the medicinal plant, Greater Celandine, used for digestive tract problems.

“Doesn’t it taste like I just tried to kill you?” asks Jennie, laughing.

Darko is sitting on the ground, peeling an egg. He has a bagful of garlic mustard and a clipping from a wild gooseberry to grow at home. He is relaxed now, with this group of older women. As we continue walking, he and Jill discuss the fine points of hugelkultur, permaculture garden beds built on piles of branches or whole trees.

“Ah, the beauty of the outdoors,” he says. “Too bad you’ve got to be a drone sometimes.”

Jennie will be in the outdoors again in two days, leading another plant walk, this time in Toronto. Next week, she will lead a “flash forage” to collect freshly fallen magnolia blossoms to infuse in honey. And in May she will lead walks at least every weekend for some of the 187 wild foragers in her Meetup group. She is driven by a desire to reconnect people with nature.

“Most people have some distant memory of at least some of the tastes and smells welcome across in a class.” But she is especially worried about children. “I think the next generation won’t have those memories. Few kids even get a chance to sit in the grass anymore, much less roam for hours in fields or forests.”

She’s really teaching for them. Because they are the generation who will carry the wildcraft teachings, the knowledge and nature ethic that percolates through human memory. They’re the ones who will carry it into the future.