You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2009.

I’ve dropped a few blog links to the left there. I thought as I add others I’d write a bit about them and what they’re good for. So starting with the NZ ones:

Farmlet: a couple (one Kiwi, one Californian, and their baby) on a small farm in the Far North doing the back to the land, self sufficiency thing. Lots of practical posts about all aspects of their lives – farming, food, household management, the development of the farm and their lives there. They’ve been blogging for 3 years so heaps of posts in the backlog to delve into.

Johanna Knox: writer, mother, ethicurean, Wellingtonian, Johanna blogs about wild foods, solar cooking, publishing in the power down age, and general post-peak oil/climate change stuff. You can hear her on National Radio’s This Way Up some Saturdays (or see the RNZ website for the podcasts) showing Simon around the edible weeds in Welly. Johanna has several blogs on various things, including some good photos of weeds. She’s much better on wild plant recipes than I will ever be, so check out her blog of tasty treats and adaptations of conventional recipes.

Pohangina Pete: natural history blogger, fantastic photographs and explorations of NZ (wild)life. He gets quite a few comments from overseas, and has footnotes to his articles. Footnotes and links! Pohangina is in the North Island somewhere, not sure where exactly ‘cos you know that’s another country up there ;-)

Hmm, and they’re all North Island ones…


I went out today for dandelion roots. I knew of a large paddock that is kept mowed, that in the summer is covered in blooms.

I’ve always harvested dandelion root from gardens in the past, where it is pretty easy to find, the leaves are big, and it is often being dug out make way for something else (aka weeding). I’d harvested blossoms from the paddock so had a rough idea where they were. I wandered around for 5 minutes where I thought they should be, in the lusher, greener part of the paddock that seemed most advantageous for the dandelion and would give the most minerals to the root. I didn’t find any. At this time of year the leaves would be small and because the grass here is mown and left to dry it was hard to see what was growing underneath.

After a while I give up and wander over to the drier, more spartan part of the paddock. Sure enough, the dandelion are there in bulk. I start digging and soon find that for every five plants I get only one with adult roots on them. This makes me stop and think. It’s late winter/early spring, so there is very little growth above ground. The plants all have small leaves on them that are only just starting to grow after the hard frosts of winter. I look closely to see if the older plants have obvious crowns on them (the crown is the bit between the root and the leaves). That doesn’t turn out to be so helpful – some plants with obvious crowns have no adult roots. What I am finding is first year plants, that grew from seed last summer or maybe the summer before.

I want older plants that have been in the ground a few years and had time to dig down.

I look further afield, and now I see it. The older plants are dark green, and bulkier i.e they have multiple crowns growing. This may be a result of the paddock being mown several times a year. The younger plants are light green, much easier to see from standing up, and they generally have only one set of leaves on each plant.

This is a young plant, with only very thin roots on it:


This is an older plant, with a big taproot:



I heard a comment on National Radio the other day, where someone was asking what wildcrafting is. The term seems self explanatory to me but maybe it’s not such a common word so it creates some puzzlement? A NZ search of google for ‘wildcraft’ brings up only 40 hits! It is a common word in other parts of the world though, especially the US.

I’ve used it predominantly for the harvesting of medicinal plants from the wild for making herbal medicines but it can be used more broadly than that, eg for harvesting food or materials for crafts from the wild. I guess it’s specific to plants (and fungi). Harvesting animals is called hunting.

Many of us have experiences of wildcrafting even if we don’t call it that. Picking field mushrooms is common to many kiwis. As is blackberry harvesting. Many Maori have unbroken traditions of harvesting food, medicine and other resources from the wild.

Discussions about wildcrafting often go hand in hand with ethics. Unfortunately it’s been common in many places in the world for herbs growing in the wild to be over-harvested once the herb becomes popular and is commercialised as a medicine. Examples of this are golden seal, echinacea and slippery elm in the US. If you are buying herbal medicine that has been imported please check that the plant isn’t endangered and is being harvested ethically. See United Plant Savers as a starting point.

In NZ the situation is interesting because we have two systems (at least) of land-based herbal medicine here. One is native, the rongoa of Maori that is based around native plants that have evolved in these islands in relative isolation for millennia. The ethics are more involved than I want to go into in this post, but suffice to say that we are still losing native species so particular care is needed when approaching native ecosystems for medicine.

Alongside that are the common weeds and garden herbs brought here by Europeans in the past few hundred years but used elsewhere in the world for millennia as healing plants. Many of these introduced plants have naturalised, some locally, some in a very widespread way. Some are considered invasive pests – st john’s wort, perennial nettle – others are largely ignored until they bother someone eg dandelion*.

There are some general guidelines for ethical wildcrafting – take only from established colonies of plants, take amounts that won’t be detrimental to those colonies, don’t harvest rare or endangered plants. Be mindful of those plants needs to reproduce. Be respectful of the plants and the land you are harvesting from. Be respectful to the owners and kaitiaki of the land you are harvesting from.

*there is a native dandelion but I think most dandelions we see in NZ are the introduced species


I was out for a walk today and came across a willow that seems to be giving up its medicine to the local possum population.

You can see the teeth marks, and that they’ve stripped the bark to quite a height.

They’ve almost ringbarked the tree.

Those were fresh eatings.


This is an older one. There were a few of these on different trees. You can see the problem – the willow is getting ill inside and a deeper and deeper fissure is opening up. An interesting result from the meeting of two species considered pests in NZ.

You can also see the dark bark layer between the outer grey and the inner white. That dark layer is what you would be after if you were harvesting the inner bark.

Note also the short horizontal lines in the white inner part and how they are similar to the small marks on the outer bark. These are lenticels, structures in trees and other plants that allow gases to move in and out of the tree. Lenticels are more obvious on trees like birch or stone fruit eg cherry trees.

Willow is a strong enough medicine. It contains salicylates, chemicals that relieve pain when taken internally or externally. Aspirin is based on this. I’d love to know if this is specific medicine for the possums or if it’s food.

That’s hawthorn berries steeping in vinegar. I actually made this in early June but love the colour for now. There’s virtually no end to the delicious and wonderful vinegars you can make from plants. If you can eat it you can probably put it up in vinegar. Instruction post soon.


Most of the photos at the moment are taken on a cell phone, so apologies for the poor quality of some.

We seem to be having an early spring. I noticed some change as early as mid-July. The birdsong changed. That’s how I usually notice spring, by sound, the change to autumn is a smell (although chainsaws always seem very autumn sounding to me). One year I smelt autumn as early as late January. The point I am making is that the seasons aren’t dictated by the calendar.

The weather has also changed in the past few weeks. It’s been warmer. Still cold but not the bone cold cold that has people complaining (at least not where I am inland. I’m sure it’s still cold on the coasts). The other day I found a willow with growing buds. Not all the willows are doing that yet, but there’s one. There’s more birds around too – blackbirds, bellbirds, and flocks of small birds, finches and waxeyes coming into the garden. I’m guessing they’re after insects, which must be hatching in the new warmth. There’s been blowflies in the house, and an aphid landed on my hand while I was on the porch today. I even had bare feet for several hours today and got to walk around outside like that! There’s not much growing in the garden yet, but the small weed seedlings are just starting to appear.

All very spring.

So this is my plea: let’s not say that the first day of spring is on the first of September.

The beginning of August is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. These are specific dates, determined by the sun cycle which for all intents and purposes is a very regular thing. It’s what our calendar is based on.

In pagan circles this midpoint is called a cross-quarter date. In the northern hemisphere in Britain it’s a harvest festival, because it’s late Summer there. Here it’s a festival of returning light, as we start to notice the days getting longer and watching for spring. For some this is a specific solar date (the 2nd August). For others the celebration is connected to the lunar cycle, either the full moon or the dark moon closest to the cross-quarter day (so really it’s a meeting of the solar and lunar cycles).

I don’t know enough about Maori understanding of seasonal changes to write about it, except to say that it differs along the islands (Northland spring being not the same as Southland spring).

These are old markers of time, serving as practical tools for food and other resource management and as focal points for celebrating the human connection with the rest of life. The pagans have reclaimed these times to some extent, but many others also feel the need and pleasure of acknowledging the seasons as they change.

kia ora.