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As the spring wildcrafting season hots up, or warms up depending on where you are ;-) I’m going to do more posts on what’s out there know. Not having time to write about the medicinal aspect, I’ll also do some posts with good resources on using these spring herbs for health and healing.

The elderflower is just coming out, so expect a few posts on that. Also Dec/Jan is St John’s wort harvest time but I thought I’d do an ID post before then so people can start looking now and watch it grow. Wild thyme is flowering, so I’m hoping to get some treats from that (wild thyme liqueur!). We seem to be having another big burst of growth in the past week, so I might go out and scout for new things flowering.

cheers,
lusach.

For a long time I’ve been wanting to learn/observe enough about the world I live in to be able to name the full moon each month according to what happens in nature at that time every year. This is a traditional practice in land based cultures – we know it in popular culture from Native American tribes. It’s a practical way of focussing on important natural events as well as keeping track of time (especially important in oral cultures). It also seems to be linked deeply to celebration.

Full moon naming is always going to be regional. This full moon (exact in two days) seems so obviously about the hawthorn blossoming, but maybe that isn’t true where you live. Perhaps hawthorns aren’t prolific where you live, or there is something else going on that is more pertinent. I’m also considering calling this moon Rabbit Moon because in the last few weeks the rabbits have all come out. However that seems like it could be something that varies much more according to how the season is going – the rabbits might peak much earlier or later depending on the weather, food sources etc. Hawthorn seems much more likely to be always (or mostly) blooming at this time. I could of course be wrong about that, I’ll have to wait for next year and the year after and the year after, and so on, to find out.

In the UK, the Hawthorn is called the May tree, because it flowers in time for the first of May (which is roughly the seasonal equivalent of the first of November). A traditional name so closely tied to a specific time suggests some reliability to hawthorn flowering.

Full moon naming should ideally be cultural too i.e. it should arise naturally from human observation and interaction with nature over a very long period of time. Because this is not currently important in NZ I have no idea what to call each moon, and it will be years before I can know if I am right about the names I choose, and even then the naming will have happened in isolation rather than arising out of our collective practice. But we have to start somewhere. It strikes me as one practical way of reconnecting ourselves with the land and re-establishing right relationship with where we live. One of the curses of the modern age is our lack of long time frames to understand the consequences of our actions. Learning how to name the moon again will help us hold a longer view in our hearts and minds. It grounds us not just in where we are today (or this year) but also in where we have come from and where we are heading.

What happens in nature to coincide with full moons is also dependent on the sun. The moon influences tides and hormones and all that watery stuff. The sun changes the world through light and heat. Both have an effect as they move closer and futher away. The sun over the year, the moon varying hugely from month to month. This month, the full moon is very close to the earth (perigee is on the 8th), which will bring big high and low tides.

This full moon is also closely linked to the cross quarter date of 31st October. It’s the point between the spring equinox (September 23, when the sun is half way between summer and winter) and the summer solstice (December 23, when the sun is at its height). But the moon dates move in relationship to the sun, so sometimes the full moon will be closer or further away from the solar marker dates. I have read somewhere that European pagan societies marked the year by the nearest full moon (or dark moon) to a certain solar time. So rather than the spring solstice exact, the celebration was at the nearest full moon to the spring solstice. We do this still with Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere (our autumn). Maori do this also with Matariki (the Maori/Polynesian new year), which for some iwi is the first new moon following the rise of Matariki/Plieades in June (a stellar marker rather than a solar one).

Back to hawthorn. In the UK it seems to have a long tradition as a magic or spiritually potent plant. This makes so much sense to me – hawthorn in bloom seems the epitome of how the Brits have envisioned the fairy realms:

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I had a cold last week, only it was a hot one. What I mean by that is that I had a rhino virus (a ‘cold’) where the symptoms were signs of heat in my body not signs of coldness. I had had a few days of coughing up gunk from my lungs following some dusty work earlier in the week. By mid week my face and head became hot, and my nose was very dry. I was also tired in the viral infection kind of way, and craving cooling foods and drinks. And I was coughing ‘unproductively’ (meaning phlegm needed to come out but wasn’t). This is quite different than a cold cold, where you might feel cold in your body and crave warming foods and drinks.

My two main remedies were sleep and mullein infusion. Sleep and/or rest is by far the most important thing to do to recover from colds or flu’s well. The body needs energy to focus on the immune response (both increasing immune cell responses and removing the breakdown products via the lymphatic system). If we keep up our normal level of activity it can make it harder for our bodies to fight the infection.

Mullein is a wonderful healer of many lung complaints, including colds, bronchitis and asthma. It’s useful for the whole upper respiratory tract as well, but seems particularly gifted when it comes to lungs. Nourishing, soothing and moistening to mucous membranes mullein helps expel phlegm from the lungs. It is cooling which made it perfect for this cold. I normally get cold colds and so don’t use mullein often as a cold remedy (I prefer thyme). But this week it was a blessing. I picked 5 large fresh leaves…

five leaves

chopped them into a pot, covering them with 2 cups of boiling water…

mullein simmer

and simmered gently for a while (with a lid on).

cup of mullein

That pot has had some infusion taken out – the simmering shouldn’t reduce the amount of liquid much, but it provides enough heat to help break down the cell walls of fresh plants (not needed if the plant is dried). Mullein needs to be strained through a cloth to remove the fine hairs that can irritated the throat.

You could make an infusion like this without simmering, using fresh leaves, or dried. Dried leaves give a stronger medicine, but I’ve been partial to fresh plant infusions of mullein recently. It’s easy to make, and the plants are in full growth spurt, lush and abundant where I am, so it makes sense to use them for medicine at this time when they are so vibrant. I make mullein leaf tincture to use at other times and find it effective with many lung problems too.

I also made some calendula infusion (about a handful of whole flowers to a litre of boiling water, steeped for half an hour, preferably longer), which I drank later in the day to help my lymphatic system.

calendula infusion

I drank several cups of the mullein infusion over the morning and afternoon, and the calendula in the evening. I had several naps during the day, ate a clove of garlic and vitamin C foods, and avoided exertion and stress. By the time I went to bed I felt fine. A few days later I got a bit chesty again (having been an idiot and overdone it work-wise), but another day of drinking mullein set me right.

If you have mullein local to you, try making an infusion and see what it is like. It’s good to get to know medicines before we really need them, and it’s good to be familiar with preparing them when we aren’t feel like crap. We’re much more likely to use them if we already have the practice.

mullein

The first of the californian poppies are blooming. The stunning flowers are so orange yellow they’re almost psychedelic:

new cal poppy

Californian poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is used in herbal medicine as a remedy for insomnia, anxiety, and pain.

Tasting the leaf, it is quite bitter. Not overwhelmingly so (I didn’t need to spit it out), but you wouldn’t want to eat alot. This suggests that it’s a medicine with some strength to it, but not immediately toxic. It’s generally considered a safe plant when used in moderation.

You can make a tincture from the whole plant in flower (including the root).

Finnish herbalist, Henriette Kress, says cal poppy helps people coming off opiates, by diminishing cravings – the alkaloids are similar to opium poppy but not the same. Cal poppy is related to the opium poppy but isn’t addictive. High doses of cal poppy may alter consciousness somewhat but not in a recreational way.

Cal poppy grows in hot, dry climates, and stands out in many sparse places. The flowers vary from orange to yellow to, more rarely, cream. Here’s a close up of the flower bud with its pink lower edge. Not sure if you can see this but there is also a delicate pink edging to the leaves as well. The leaf colour is a bit off (I really have to get a decent camera), but it does show the bluey green grey tone that is characteristic of this plant.

cal poppy bud

I swear up until a few days ago when I was driving round, there were no dandelions on the side of the road. And then suddenly, boof, there are zillions of them:

dandelion cluster

This is wildcrafter’s heaven:

dandy paddock

As soon as we get a full day with no rain and some wind to dry things out, I will be harvesting dandelion flowers to make an infused oil.

Myherbcorner blogger, Brigitte, wrote about dandelion oil recently here. I use dandy oil as a general massage oil especially for gentle pain relief.

Last year I found myself yelling at the TV when I saw one of Te Radar’s back to the land episodes. He was digging up dandelions, potting them up and trying to sell them at the local market. It’s actually not a bad idea, given what a useful food and medicine plant it is, but what made me yell was that a number of the plants he had weren’t dandelion at all. They were one of the dandelion look-alikes . It’s a really common mistake, almost as common as dandelion itself.

Dandelion and its look-alikes are members of the Asteraceae family. They have similar-ish leaves and similar bright yellow flowers. There’s quite a few look-alikes with confusing but intriguing names: catsear, hawkbit, hawsbeard, beaked hawksbeard, hawkweed etc (Hypochoeris, Crepis, Leontodon, and Hieracium spp).

Te Radar’s mistake was kind of funny, but kind of not too. If you are going to eat weeds, it pays to know which ones you are eating. As far as I know all the look-alikes, including Radar’s one (which was most likely a catsear) are edible but not particularly palatable. So you don’t really need to learn how to ID them because if you get one instead of a dandelion it won’t hurt you. There are some plant families where making such a mistake could cost you your life – I’ve mentioned the Umbelliferae family which contains such wild edibles as carrot, fennel, and sweet cicely as well as the deadly hemlock.

Being able to ID a dandelion is really useful though, not only for food but essential for medicine. Plus you can impress your friends when they point to a catsear and call it a dandelion.

Here’s how to tell a dandelion – Taraxacum officinale, from it’s cousins:
1. Dandelion blossoms are always one flower to one stalk. If there is more than one flower to a stalk it’s not a dandelion.

2. Dandelion’s have multiple blossom stalks that don’t branch. If there any branches on flower stalks, it’s not a dandelion.

3. Flower stalks are always hollow, and yield a white sap when broken. If the flower stalk isn’t hollow it’s not a dandelion.

4. Dandelions grow in rosettes from the ground. They never send up stalks with leaves on them. If there are stalks with leaves on them, it’s not a dandelion.

5. The leaves have no hairs on the rib on the back of the leaf (there may be a white fluff). This is a key to identifying dandelion when it’s not in flower. If there are hairs, it’s not a dandelion.

Dandelion leaves vary in shape, but generally have a classic jagged edge. Young ones may look rounder.

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I admit, I just wrote this post today so I had an excuse to post photos of these glorious dandelions in flower. This one show the classic toothed leaf of the plant (dent de lion is French for lion’s tooth. I don’t know if lion’s teeth bear any resemblance or if the French are being poetic).

leaf rib

The hairless rib on the back of the leaf.

flower and stalk

Non-branching stalk, one flower.

young dandelions

Young dandelions that don’t have any teeth yet.

Dandelion is a incredibly versatile plant. All of it can be eaten (maybe not the seeds), and all of it is medicine.  Things to do with dandelion at this time of year:

~ make dandelion blossom oil (fantastic for massaging tight, aching muscles, especially neck and shoulders).

~ make dandelion blossom vinegar.

~ use blossom buds in salads, stirfries and omelettes (add near the end).

~ harvest young leaves from non-flowering plants (better get in quick as they’re starting to bloom) and eat in salads or cook well  in garlic and butter and season with salt and lemon juice or vinegar. Once dandelion starts to flower the leaves get more bitter (this may not be a problem depending on your tolerance for bitter).

Most parts of the plant are high in minerals and vitamins, making dandelion an excellent addition to the diet.

Dandelion is a particular medicine of the liver and kidneys. The bitter taste varies in different parts of the plant and changes over the course of the year. Bitter stimulates digestion and production of bile. Dandelion can also make you pee more, so take care not to over do it if that’s likely to be a problem.

I went out today following my nose looking for weeds. My mood is good and I move past the harsh reality that I would have to drive at least an hour to find an intact native ecosystem or even a thriving mixed one. I will take what is on offer – there is comfort to be had from the land that is trying to heal. When I arrive there are 3 kahu hunting rabbits in the paddock. A good sign. One of the kahu is very large, which means it’s an older bird. But the rabbits are big too, I’d like to come back and see the hunt in action.

I wander around and down to the river. It’s all broom and willow and small plants of succession. It’s easy to understand why the river bed is the way it is (flooding limits what can grow here) but harder to make sense of the land up on the banks, rabbit riven, dry, sparse. The paddocks nearby are mown for some reason, but stock have been here too at some stage, which explains why there are so many rabbits (rabbits don’t like long grass) and why only the big trees, inedible shrubs and first sucession plants survive. There is no moving on.

Still it is a beautiful late afternoon and on my way back from the river I come across an oasis. It’s a large double willow. Underneath is a pile of what has been dumped earth and gravel, several metres high and four or five in diameter.. Over the top of this are the lush green plants, especially the annuals that bring advancing fertility each time they die and feed the soil.

I wander around the mound delighted in the abundance of edible and medicinal plants:

chickweed and hemlock

Chickweed – Stellaria media (the brighter green plant) and hemlock – Conium maculatum (the ferny looking one). Eat the chickweed and make medicine from it. Don’t do anything with the hemlock that involves putting it in or on your body, and take special care with look alike edible and medicinal plants from the same family (Umbelliferae) because hemlock is so poisonous. There was enough chickweed here today to eat handfuls while I was looking around. I took some care to make sure my handfuls weren’t mixed with hemlock though.

nettle

That’s the annual nettle, Urtica urens. A bit tricky to eat because it flowers so early and the leaves aren’t great on nettle once it’s flowering. But it makes fantastic fertiliser, so I am happy to see it in this garden.

mullein

Mullein – Verbascum thapsus. Darling medicine of dry lands, it’s a good general lung healing herb (more on that soon). Seriously not edible – furry and with small hairs that will drive your throat crazy – always strain herbal preparations through a cloth.

horehound

Horehound – Marrubium vulgare. Another medicinal plant, most well known as a cough remedy. Very bitter.

puffball:hand

Giant puffball!!! – Calvatia gigantea. I’ve never seen one of these before, they’re apparently a bit rare. It’s past its edibleness, but still a very exciting find. The white bits are the outer cover that has peeled back as the ball had puffed. The brown bit is spongy and sends of clouds out brown spores when you poke it. Even better and more delightful was that once I’d spotted this one, I saw half a dozen others, more decomposed, hiding in the grass:

puffball sludge

Yep, that is a puffball, collapsing in on itself.  They were spread out around half the mound. The puffball bit is the fruit of the fungi. The body of the plant, the mycelium, is underground. I don’t know much about puffballs yet (other than they are edible and the small species is yummy), but mycelium can grow over a much wider area than what you see above ground so I’ve probably been walking on puffball the whole time.

Fungi are the coolest of the cool, very important for ecosystem health especially ones restoring, and they make fantastic people food and medicine. Expect more raving posts about them.

yellow dock

Yellow Dock – Rumex crispus, aka curly dock (you can see the curl especially on the left edge of the leaf in the bottom of the photo). Medicine and food. This is a lovely young succulent looking plant. Possibly even a first year, as I didn’t see any old seed stalks from the autumn. This suggests that the pile of earth has been dumped recently (and this plant came in with that or grew up through).

broadleaf dock

Broad leaf Dock – Rumex obtusifolia (I think). Interchangeable with Yellow Dock, but for some reason I prefer the yellow. Again a young looking plant. The leaves of both docks are tart with oxalic acid. Some people have a higher tolerance for this than others, but if you like it cook it well like spinach. Most edible weed books will have ideas about cooking docks.

sheeps sorrel

Sheep’s sorrel – Rumex acetosella. Not growing in the garden but nearby. I wanted to include it because it’s related to the docks, and has a delicious sharp lemony taste making it perfect as a garnish or addition to salads. It’s on my to do list to collect seeds for inclusion in a wild greens salad growing mix. Sheep’s sorrel is a small plant, although these ones are a decent size. You can’t tell from the picture but the leaf is maybe an inch and a half long.

mystery bitter

A mystery plant growing out in the mown paddock and on the flat around the willow. I broke the cardinal rule of wildcrafting and grazed on this while wondering what it was (don’t do this at home folks i.e. never eat a plant that you can’t identify). It’s dandelion like, but isn’t dandelion. Possibly chicory, and perhaps it’s been sown in this place in the past. It was bitter but not as much as dandelion, and fresh.

willow branch

The beautiful tree that made all this possible. We have such a downer on wild willows in this country, but they are incredibly helpful plants. Not only are they medicine trees, but they assist degraded landscapes by keeping the water table high enough for other plants to grow nearby. A friend told me about this recently, and when I looked at this place today it was true that all around the tree, including on the north side, there is more lush growth than away from the tree. The lushness lasts well beyond the shade offered, and past the drip line.

After all that I lay in the grass and watched the sky and crescent moon overhead. It was hard not to think I had been brought here. You can take that literally or poetically, but there is no doubt that the more I open to nature the more it shares with me.

I went back to the peach tree and made tincture. Here’s the harvest. See if you can spot the bee.

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I chopped all that roughly, twigs included (but not the bee). Then I put it in a jar:

peach jar

I’ve packed it in more than normal (and it’s popping out) because the petals are so light that when the alcohol goes in the bulk reduces down alot. Normally you fill to below the top with plant and then to the top with vodka.

Here’s the tincture after brewing for a couple of days. The colour is extracted out of the petals within the first few hours, and then the tincture gradually goes a deeper colour over days. The tincture starts to smell of almond in the first few hours too, yum.

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There are some considerations about dosage with peach tincture, so please research this medicine if you want to try it out.

That’s peach blossom! Wild peach blossom! It’s an old tree and I don’t know if it produces fruit, but the blooms are fantastic.

sept banner

I wish we had more of these growing wild. And more fruiting peach and apricot in towns too, rather than ornamental cherries, which seem too ubiquitous to be attractive now (and what is with our obsession with growing fruit trees that don’t provide fruit?).

Not only is peach a great food for humans and bees, but it’s also good medicine. You can use most parts of the tree including the blossoms, leaves and fruit. The effect is both cooling and moistening, a double boon in Central Otago and other hot, dry places where these trees grow well. I make blossom and twig tincture and dry the leaves for tea. The tincture is a fine relaxing herb, helping diminish hot conditions. The leaf tea I am still figuring out. You can read more about peach medicine here.

Two other things about this particular peach tree. One is that it is growing in a dip in the land and is undergrown by yellow tree lupin (Lupinus arboreus). Any decent rain will have run off to the roots of this tree. And the lupin is nitrogen fixing which means it will be helping with the soil fertility. Both of those probably led the peach to grow there. I’d love to see trees like this in the wild taken care of, utilising the natural advantages already there (the tree grew because some things were right about this particular site) and building on that to plant out from this oasis of fertility. I’m not sure what goes well with peach but I’d guess any of the orchard companion plantings would be a good start. Central Otago is one of our most degraded landscapes, and it’s fascinating to see what grows here despite this. I love the tenacity of this tree to have established and survived for years without any help from us other than the original throwing of a peach stone. We could learn alot.

The other cool thing is that the trunk and branches have alot of usnea on them.

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Usnea is a medicinal lichen, very good for helping heal bacterial infections. There’s not enough to harvest from this tree (it’s too dry and the lichen is very short), but in the bush you will see it growing long and straggly.

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:

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This is an older plant, with a big taproot:

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