I am a forager, and I am ready to help change our cultural ideas towards foraging. Currently, it seems to be either some crazy caveperson shit that went out of style millennia ago, cute peasant desperation or trendy yuppies foraging flowers for raw vegan cupcakes. Well. Foraging is actually a deep, dark, self-empowering and abiding source for healing our mind, body and spirit. OK? Powerful. Bam. Play-based or functional styles of movement and some “natural” or healthier diets, basically eating mostly whole foods and cooking them at home, when integrated flexibly into our modern lives, are both steps in the right direction. Herbal medicine can be a step in the right direction. But a missing link is time spent foraging. Now notice that I did not say hunting or gathering–both of which CAN be part of foraging, but don’t have to be. You can forage for something but choose never to harvest it out of respect for a limited or endangered plant, animal, fungi. Heck, you can forage for cashmere sweaters at the thrift store, wild ducks in a swamp or nice buttocks (look but don’t touch!) at the jogging path. “Take a mental picture, it lasts longer.” Get it? It is the behavior of scanning and seeking, not just the act of harvesting-and I propose that it is a nourishing practice. All movement is a key part of my anxiety management protocol. Herbal medicine is too. But let’s use ALL the tools, people. Here it is: I believe time spent in nature scanning the land for a particular plant, animal, fungi or insect has the potential to support healing in a deep and meaningful way. The action of foraging feeds a part of the brain that we’ve allowed to get a little dusty here. I hypothesize that using our vision like a forager gives back to us a type of healing unavailable anywhere else. It is an antidote to too much time spent in front of screens. Don’t believe me? Try it. Go outside and scan for something. Give it some time, an hour, 10 hours, whatever. Sweep your eyes back and forth across horizons. Learn to identify signifier species. Move up and down varied terrain. Hide. seek. Get too hot or damp, get a freakin bug bite, put something in your basket. It’s play! It’s work! It’s your birthright, baby. And I will say, though I don’t want to, that you probably should not eat anything you haven’t identified or-God forbid-have “identified” with some shitty cel phone photo in a freakin Facebook group. Remember, learning how to forage and identify plants is a life skill and should NOT be farmed out to some strangers who don’t give a rat’s ass about you. In fact, it is part of the medicine! Don’t give away your potential superpower to know plants. Go forth, people, and forage yourself into a brave new you.
Let me walk you through my Calamus harvest. I am standing in about a foot of mud and 6 inches of muddy water. I can’t see my feet, though I have faith they still exist. I plunge my bare hands into the depths of this muck and wrestle up a rhizome of Calamus which is about the length of my forearm and looks like something straight of a sci-fi horror movie….it’s a creature. I am covered in mud, bitten by insects and slightly nervous about slimy fanged amphibians. I toss the precious root into the bucket and do it again….100 times. It is the best F-ing moment of my life.
I am soaked to the point of dripping and when I finally get my feet free they make a rude slurping sound. Red-winged blackbirds are flitting around the swamp and I manage to get into the creek to wash off a tiny bit-mud is heavy, you know, and I have to carry about 100 Calamus (Acorus calamus) roots 1/4 mile home, uphill.
It takes a whole afternoon to wash, separate, cut, otherwise process and lay out to dry my whole harvest, and then I take all the plantable pieces out to tuck into my own muddy swamp to join my existing Calamus community. This is a great time to think about stuff, reflect, daydream, observe the rhizomes or just rock out to Beyonce.
This kind of work can be physically exhausting, but it is the type of exhaustion that speaks to who we are as humans, deep down, way back, before we learned not to let our hands disappear into the muck, trusting, and use nothing but their power to discern prized rhizomes from an alligator’s tail….the exhaustion of a successful forage or hunt. It is invigorating to the spirit, and this invigoration may be the main driving force that keeps me deep into medicine making, excited every day to do it again. It is this drive that makes me think of the hunt as a spa-type mud treatment rather than some scary “dirty” mess to avoid. I see the harvest as a workout and a therapy session.
I train for it, squatting and pressing so I can manage to get the Calamus rhizomes, whose many roots can easily be a foot long, up from the deep, by hand, while maintaining my balance on the wildly uneven surface of a swamp. I train so I can squat for an hour with my gluteus in 6 inches of muddy water and not fall in. I train so I can schlep the heavy buckets home.
And I can’t overstate how much the harvest is part of the medicine. The harvest is the teacher, and what demonstrates our oneness with nature better than being right there in it, in every way? The mud is a part of us all.
So maybe you’d like to know more about Calamus? This is the Calamus guy:
And for true Calamus-lovers–watch for my upcoming Calamus lovers’ gift set. It will be one award-winning Calamus Bitters, one jar of Calamus chewing roots (coins or larger pieces) and some Calamus rub for external use–all in a Calamus-themed gift bag. In case you REALLY want to get into it. Yeah, obsessions sometimes bear fruit.
Notes: Yes, I am harvesting responsibly, Calamus is “to-watch” due to habitat loss. The Calamus set will be ready in 2 weeks. It is a limited edition. No I am not positive that it is American Calamus. It is unsprayed.
Ah, spring. A time of muddy pants and chilly streams, rebirth and almost-losing-boots, discovery and fresh air. Here is a photo story of my recent Eastern Skunk Cabbage
(Symplocarpum foetidum!) root harvest. This is NOT about how to use it, though i have provided a GREAT link about use, this is just about the sheer joy of mucking about with plant allies!
First, a disclaimer. Maintain your critical thinking at all times. I make no claim for the safety or positive ID of these or any other plant on my blog, Do not trust the internet, and do not trust me. QUESTION EVERYTHING!!!!!!! please be aware of the dangers of overharvesting all plants and fungi, most especially those which are difficult to cultivate. Never take more than you need/will use, respect and appreciate these plants, and commit to helping their community and protecting their home.
I have been harvesting Ghost Pipe (Monotropa Uniflora) and Black Trumpets(Craterellus cornucopioides) lately. The two don’t have any relation that I know of yet they grow near each other, both in the shady forest on rocky hilly ground, as if they were a diorama of darkness and light telling us something about the world. I enjoy foraging, wandering about, looking for patterns in the leaf litter that indicates a fruiting, nibbling wild berries and listening to the collective birdsong. I love the deep shade, the canine company, the steep foothills.
We often call unusual plants or insects “otherworldly”–as if our own world does not provide enough stunning, amazing, mysterious and bizarre miracles?! I do find that most of us could use the message to open up to the unusual, the “otherworldly”, not in the sense of “fairies”, gods or shapeshifters but merely the reality of mycelium, symbiosis, codependence, relationships, and the way that in reality there is so much more going on than most of us acknowledge.
Everything from compost to mycoremediation, beneficial bacteria to natural cycles underlying every visible and not-easily-visible living thing. It is a joy to me to know that we are living atop and amongst unknowable natural worlds.
I do eat Black Trumpets and make medicine with Ghost pipe, but there are already excellent writings about both (see links.) so I won’t waste your time with those details.
So, let’s talk about the pipe. This plant has many names, but I'm going with Ghost Pipe becasue it has a translucence that one might find "ghostly"–it's seriously weird. One of few plants with no clorophyll, it is a mycotrophic wildflower in the Heath family—yes, same family as blueberries!–and lives in intimate relationship with the forest floor.
Ghost pipe is considered a plant with medicinal properties. Great information about use can be read here:
We humans can get so easily stuck in our own patterns, loops, processes and ways of looking at the world. We can seek out, disrupt, and welcome the unusual to break us out of that stuckness. But these disruptions are just catalysts, the curiousity must be there, underlying, waiting to be activated like mycelium waiting for rain. It’s there, We must be willing to allow it in.
“kids these days”! or so i’ve heard. we can’t connect. but are we, ourselves, connected? to anything? why do we wonder that we can’t connect to our children when we can’t connect to ourselves. they are imitating our own dumbass behaviors, and we are not showing them our best side.
can foraging bridge that emptiness, the hole in our hearts? the hole in our families? does a family-either a blood family or a chosen family-build bonds by watching television? by playing farmville, by catalog shopping or by microwaving burritos? or does a family build a strong foundation by roaming the woods and neighborhoods together, searching for plants or fungi, identifying insects and birdsongs?
i want to be open-minded and say-oh, hell a family can build bonds around reality tv. but my heart says no. because, my friends, out there in the woods it is a holy sacrament. eucharist means thanksgiving, and tasting the forest is a sacrament we can all share. flesh of my flesh? fungi IS the actual fruit of the actual soil, no leaps of faith needed. making or own medicine is a connection you will never find at the store. growing our own food feeds both body AND mind.
have we humans somehow evolved, in only 2 or 3 generations, out of our foundational need, our desire, our instinct, to forage for or own food? have we somehow evolved into a technological mindset which does not value touching, smelling, feeling the source? NO, we have not. the need is still inside of us. even with our brains held captive by modernity the communion is still valid.
becasue why would god, however you view them, not be in the fungi, in the insects, in the soil and muck and plants and stone? why would spirit not be found in a forgotten piece of woods where old TVs, underpants, loising lottery tickets and beer bottles snuggle with wild goldenseal, beautiful trilliums and rotting logs? why would the earth’s energy suddenly become unavailable to all people?
answer: it has not. the earth and its gifts are all around us and we CAN return at any time. we CAN choose to see what is all around us. we can choose to celebrate what is under this pavement. we can, right now, get off our asses and look behind the strip malls and dumpsters and see the spirit of renewal in action, pollination, turning of the wheel, rejuvenation, plants protecting soil, earth breaking down someone’s discarded undies, dogs eating dropped doritos, bees on “invasive” knotweed and pigeons bathing in puddles. it’s a clusterfuck celebration and it’s the foundation we can build our lives upon.
we can go to the taco bell drive-thru-again!–or we can finally choose to participate in the animal-vegetable-mineral magic that spends all day trying desperately to get our attention, taking moments away from safety and away from antibacterial panic hell to let reality in.
and, friends, reality tastes good.
One of my absolute favorite herbal medicines is Black Haw-Viburnum Prunifolium. It spent years in the Caprifoliaceae family amongst the lovely Honeysuckles and Elders but someone moved it to Adoxaceae, I’m going to need to mull about that one for a bit. The Viburnums are a pretty big bunch and also includes the more well-known Crampbark plus Nannyberry, Arrowwood Viburnum and Possumhaw. What’s a haw? It means fruit, as in “Hawthorne”. Oh, and it also means “a command to a horse, telling it to turn left”. Just in case you’re reading this on horseback.
So Blackhaw-it’s a shrub. On the large side for a shrub, with opposite branches and it flowers in late spring with tiny flowers not unlike the Elder’s flowers. I’d call it cream color, and the bark is grey and sturdy. It is a common shrub in my area of upstate NY but is native to the whole northeast and midwest area and has been, in my experience, pretty easy to grow in a moist to medium area with part to full sun. I have yet to see it decimated by critters and the haws are not super desirable because they are mostly seed-one big flat seed in each dark purple haw, sometimes called a drupe amongst botanical types.
To make medicine I harvest bark and twigs, taking just a bit from each shrub so as to not be a jerk, and tincture it fresh. I use it both internally and externally. I will make a liniment with rubbing alcohol for external use only and a tincture with grain alcohol for both internal and external use.
My most important use of Black haw tincture is to address spasms and muscular tension. Our muscles spasm for various reasons-tension, dysmenorrhea, “charlie horse”, injury, overwork, asthma. I take a high dose-1/2 to 1 dropper-internally for menstrual cramps and I’ll do so every 2-4 hours if needed. But all types of so-called uterine colic responds to Black haw including the pain of endometriosis, fibroids, threatened miscarriage, afterbirth pains, ovulation pains, and -I haven’t tried this-but Winston says testicular pains.
“As a uterine tonic it is unquestionably of great utility”-King’s American Dispensatory. Yup.
The urinary tract also responds to Black haw and I’ve started to add it to my standard UTI formula of Alder/Monarda tincture if there is pain of a spasmodic nature.
I also use it in tension headaches. I will use it straight up or mixed with Crampbark and Lobelia-a little bit internally, and a lot externally. In my first aid kit this blend is in a spray bottle-it is a great way to get tincture on places you can’t reach that well or-when you are in the throes of a debilitating tension headache or spasm- to just push the sprayer and avoid messing around with a dropper. I strongly recommend addressing tension and other headaches BEFORE they get bad, thus the joy of carrying such a blend about. Of course, no tincture will deal with all tension, and I recommend combining herbal treatment with deep breaths, tree time and whatever therapeutic practice works for you. My favorite meditation to use with Black haw is “let go”.
For neck pain I blend it with Goldenrod tincture-fresh flowering tops. Aviva Romm recommends adding Jamaican Dogwood bark for headache, which I love for menstrual headaches but is a bit more relaxing than some folks may want. Experimentation is always called for when formulating!
The Eclectics call it a specific for leg cramps and I have used it externally on very intense calf cramps to near-miraculous effect. It is indicated for restless legs, pregnancy induced leg spasm, pain from overwork or over exercise in all parts of legs, feet, and it has a place in back pain formulas.
Matthew Wood calls it a nutritive tonic which improves the powers of digestion and nutrition and Margi Flint indicated it for high blood pressure, these are 2 areas I have yet to explore but seem to make sense to me.
Black haw is an ally which has been used for a long time and has no reported negative qualities that I’ve found. It is a special plant which I love in every way and which deserves a place in our forest gardens, in our first aid kits and medicine chests.
As much as I love being outside in nature I enjoy a different type of foraging too. I like to go from one little market to another in my hometown (Providence!), usually on foot, pushing my rickety-ass little market cart and collecting treasures. That is what food is, treasure, worth its weight in gold really. Cause you can’t eat gold, baby, and food is devotion. Food is my expression of love, my reason for gathering friends and family, my voice.
I like the so-called “ethnic” markets the best, the little places. I like the people, the stuff, the skills needed to find what I’m looking for–or didn’t know I was looking for. I like the dust-covered monkey salves and knobby roots, the tiny dried fish and the salamis hanging from the ceiling. I like butchers that say “hey, mama” and buildings painted hot pink. I like mysterious pastes, stuffed peppers, tamales, boxes of dried peppers and stacks of tortillas.
I like chubby tomatillos, eryngium foetidum and the guy who effortlessly hacks up the whole roast pig with a butcher knife. i like chicken feet, i like live crabs and live ducklings in a box. chicory coffee, korean ginseng and slurpy noodles. i like old teapots and banana flowers and tubs of bean curd.
this satisfies my need to forage, my need to stock up and try new things. I just made a vat of recaito and a jar of curry paste. Bones are simmering with cinnamon, star anise, shallots and ginger for pho. nothing cures my cabin fever like good food, spicy, sweet, fun, healthy, delicious food made with love and a little adventure.
Oh, Chaga. Inonotus obliquus. What the hell is this stuff? It is a fungus which grows primarily on birch trees and allied trees in the birch family-some of my very favorite trees, of course. To call it a “mushroom” sounds absurd. It is a fungus, a fruiting body, and a firestarter.Chaga and birch seem to have a symbiotic relationship, swapping the mutual aid of healing with each other and whipping up a little batch of betulin!People decoct chaga for the usual amazing medicinal mushroom benefits like addressing cancer, supporting immunity and deep nourishment. It may, along with its home the birch tree, help address inflammation.
i hike through the birch and pine forests looking for standing dead or partially downed white birches to harvest chaga from. It is an odd and mysterious, dense, heavy chunk of space junk and can be quite difficult to pry off.i enjoy it as a decoction, perhaps with some roots and warming spices, infuse it into oils and make tinctures with it. i am working on a chaga-birch body butter right now and a warming chaga nutmeg massage oil.Chaga has an entry in the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s “cancer care” website. For more information on chaga check out Paul Stamets, Dr. Andrew Weil, Christopher Hobbes and Russia.
Ah, the making of medicines. I am a creator. I began my herbal journey growing weed with my dear friend Aymar, sneaking around with jars of water in or packs and visiting our sort of pathetic little plants–somehow that led to us sitting quietly, outside, listening to birds sing and watching rain fall. That was the medicine we needed, and our scrappy little harvest was a bonus.
After that I was a home herbalist, a family herbalist, and I was searching for the way forward. I decided to be an herb farmer. Moved to the country, planted a lot of Calendula. I learned to ID. I learned to forage. Amazing. But it was the making of medicines that spoke to me, more than anything else. After years of creating mediocre art, writing poetry, and wandering about it was the CRAFT of medicine making that struck me, that grounded me, that fulfilled me like nothing else ever had.
And though I do consult, I do teach classes, I do write about herbalism absolutely nothing recharges me like medicine making. Nothing reminds me that I am exactly where I need to be like making medicines by hand, like digging roots in the cold and muddy swamp, like wielding my precious digging knife and mucking up my boots. Bug bites, sunsets, chapped lips, hours on my hands and knees harvesting precious violet flowers or digging massive burdock roots. Mmmmmmmmmmm.Coming home, bags of bark, my thighs sore from squatting and hiking, my dog tired from “helping”, my nails dirty and hair full of thorny crap. Herbgasm.
Then the washing, the chopping, the glug-glug-glug of my liquor and the creative spirit flowing right into my medicines is just pure joy. Pure, unadulterated, present-moment, interspecies wonder. Elixirs? Blending? Oh, yes. And I’m shaking my jars to booty bass and I’m pressing every drop of juice outta last summer’s precious flowers…..there is no greater heaven. The tastes, the smells, the hands-on, the healing intention, wrapping them up and sending them off to wonderful people. I can’t see myself doing anything else. I am an artisan. The craft of herbalism is a beautiful and meaningful craft which feeds me deeply, and I am thankful to be right where I belong.
“Mycophobia is a cultural overreaction”-Garl Lincoff
Sooooo-fungi. Mycelium. Mushrooms. What’s up with them? Are they psycho killers? Should we be shaking in our booties at the likelihood that we will die from poisonous fungi? Um…. no.
A recent article circulating on facebook tells of a family who ate destroying angels and “almost died.” (They were saved by milk thistle seeds, which is somehow controversial.)
And the last sentence reads: “His family will only eat mushrooms from the grocery store from now on.”
Ya know, F that. Food at the grocery store is sprayed with all kinds of poison. Pumped up with diabetes-inducing sugars, fraught with blue lake number bajillion and obscene amounts of sodium and “flavor enhancers”. Food at the grocery store is hyper-preserved, factory farmed and packaged to the high heavens. And have we not heard of “recalls”? Peanut butter full of rat shit, ground meat full of “pink slime” and everything teeming with “allowable filth”. Yeah, safe.
I feel frustrated when people tell me to “be careful” when foraging for plants andf fungi. Yeah. No kidding. And should I be careful when driving, boating, drinking, eating peanuts, and ingesting (doctor prescribed!) pharmaceuticals?!?! All of which slay a zillion more humans than fungi?
I believe we can learn about fungi. I believe we can learn about wild plants. I believe humans are not as stupd as we act. Can we identify a banana? Can we tell the difference between an almond and a walnut? Or a poodle and a pitbull? Yes, most of us can. Can we learn to use an iphone, operate heavy machinery, program the damn VCR? Yes we can. So why do we think we can’t identify a destroying angel?
You don’t need to learn ALL mushrooms. Just learn those that kill. A small minority, I might add. Learn the clear sign of a poionous puffball. Learn the skirt of a destroying angel. Avoid LBMs. Never eat raw fungi. Always use at least 2 ID sources. (and this blog is sure as hell not one of them!!) If you aren’t sure, just don’t eat it. It’s not rocket science.
Often in our society we fear the forest, we fear the dark places, the unknown, we fear our own knowledge, our own hands. We overvalue the invariable. We overvalue the list of ingredients, the nutrition facts, the stamp of approval. And we project all this internalized crap onto fungi. And don’t tell me advertising has no hand in our panic. Don’t tell me big business isn’t eating our panic right up like fungi on a stump.
We CAN learn to recognize patterns. WE can learn basic botany. We are not helpless babies being manipulated by great evil lurking in the forest. And we can ingest stuff that doesn;t come from the supermarket. I have a few choice fungi that I have memorized, that I recognize and feel affection for. And, really, most fruiting bodies are just “eh” in the pan. (But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy their presence outside!)
Foraging for wild fungi and wild plants and is a passion, an obsession. It is not inherently dangerous with some common sense and a basic grasp of major pitfalls, patience, safety guidelines and idenitfication skills. People have died from way lamer passions.