A Forgotten Piece: A documentary about my life as an herbalist

Life with a baby has certainly hindered my blog posts, so I apologize for the lack of content these past few months. I have been busy however, and wanted to share with you a beautiful video a University of Oregon graduate student made about my life as a forager, herbalist, and mentor. Andrea did a beautiful job piecing together my story along with clips of me foraging, making medicine, and Jasper of course. I want to share this with you all and give you a little inside scoop of my life and vision for living with the Earth.

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Pitch Wood: How a wounded tree can save your life

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It was the old bait and switch. Our four apprentices all aged 12 years were going to get a bit of a surprise that wet spring afternoon. This ‘outing’ was supposed to be their last hurrah to wind down their year long apprenticeship learning survival and naturalist skills. We told them to be prepared for a day hike – bring the necessities such as a water bottle and a snack.

After several hours of hiking the kids felt it was time to head back to the cars. It had been raining all day and was around 45 degrees on a moist Northwest spring day. That’s when we pounced.

“Oh by the way, you guys are staying the night out here.” Silence.

Then, “Wait, are you serious?”. Disbelief and fear began to permeate their thoughts as we assured them that yes we are serious and we better start making a shelter.

After an hour of finding a place to bunker down we made the decision that this shelter needed to be fire dependent and built to fit all seven of us. We brought a bow drill but the look of desperation on the kids faces made us relent and so we offered the “thumb drill” aka lighter.

If you have ever been in the rain soaked Pacific Northwest rainforest you would note that everything is dripping, soaking, water logged, and cold. So how does one make a fire out of materials found in the woods? There are of course the hidden away places, underneath logs, in hollows, or the lower dead branches of conifers. But these are still damp and take a lot of time to dry out underneath clothing and an immense amount of patience is needed when trying to blow a damp tinder bundle into flame.

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Walking along the trail I spotted a stump of a Douglas fir tree. It was only waist high or so but had long thin pillars sticking out like the sky line of a major city. I called the kids over and asked them what was strange about this particular stump. They made some interesting observations but hadn’t yet gotten to the point. Finally one of them touched a spire and noted it was very hard wood while the bottom of the stump was rotting out. I told him to take a whiff – “It smells like sap!”. What those apprentices smelled was pitch wood or “fat wood”, the resin soaked wood that is sometimes left behind after a tree dies.

Our Northwest forests are an amazing source of this phenomenon due to the massive logging industry and clear cutting. When a tree such as a pine, fir or Doug fir is wounded or cut down it sends sap or resin to the wounded area. In the case of our majestic Douglas firs these have the richest resins which makes it highly flammable. After a tree is cut down the resin will fill the heartwood (the inner living part of the tree) and make this inner layer hard, flammable, and rot resistant.

The key to finding this survival gold mine is keeping an eye out for the tell tale signs of stumps with pillars or spires that stick out while the rest of the stump is rotting away. Use your nose to detect the smell of resin then pull off the chunks. If you have a lighter try lighting it. If it is good solid pitch wood it will stay lit like a candle wick.

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I had the kids take off pieces from the stump and to scout out for others. Back at camp we began to shave off tiny pieces into a little pile. Once we collected enough fire making materials we lit a pitch stick and caught the little shavings on fire. The two girls began to very slowly feed the fire more pitch wood shavings then gradually began to add pencil lead sized twigs. The entire process took over an hour to achieve a self feeding crackling fire. Without the pitch wood we would have been stuck with damp tinder material which could have taken twice as long to make.

I have been saved by finding pitch wood countless times even in wet snowy conditions. I am thankful to the trees who provide us with so many gifts – even after they have died trees keep on giving.

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Harvesting Cottonwood Buds for Medicine

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Have you ever noticed that rivers just have that particular ‘river’ smell? Full of heavy, wet odors the smell seems to bring a sense of nostalgia and happiness for people. Whenever I pull out any medicines containing cottonwood buds I get the same reaction from people – the eyes close, a smile appears, and say “Wow that is amazing! It reminds me of something – like the river.”

Cottonwood or Populus spp., is a deciduous tree that grows natively in North America, Europe, and Asia. One of the reasons the smell reminds people of rivers is because it likes to grow in riparian areas. I often use this tree as an indicator species in drier climates to tell me where water might be in the distance. In the Willamette Valley we are bursting with trees since we are so wet, however in drier climates like in the Southwest it can be very useful; as they grow where even small seeps of water occur in a landscape otherwise barren of taller trees or shrubs.

Cottonwoods are in the Salicaceae family which includes many species of aspen, willow, and poplars. This plant family is special due to the salicylates they contain which is the chemical we seek for the medicine it provides for pain relief, anti-inflammatory, and fever reducing qualities. To learn more about using willow as medicine feel free to check out my guest blog on the First Ways website.

In my region of the Pacific Northwest one of the most common cottonwoods is the black cottonwood or Populus trichocarpa which is what I normally harvest. Winter is the time to harvest the leaf buds of the tree as they are not yet unfurled and contain the highest amount of medicine during this time. Once the leaves start to unfurl it is too late. My favorite time is right about now, mid February, because the buds are starting to swell and get exceptionally sticky and gooey.

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In order to harvest the buds sustainably it is best to wait for a wind storm that knocks off branches to the ground. It is always best to keep in mind that when one is harvesting leaf buds you are actually taking away the tree’s ability to get food from the sun. Removing buds from downed branches eliminates any harm to the tree by the wild crafter. Yesterday I went out along one of the forks of one of our major river systems to see what branches I could find. We had a wind storm about a week before and so assumed I would find some branches. The cottonwoods were intermingled with Oregon white oak, oso berry shrubs, blackberry, roses, and new spring greens. After searching for 15 minutes and only finding small branches here and there I found the jackpot. A cottonwood had completely lost its entire upper half and left a huge pile of its branches on the ground. Within two minutes I was able to fill my quart jar to the rim.

Cottonwood buds are maddeningly sticky and resinous as you will find if you go and start picking them. The resin is soluble in alcohol and oil which is why I only make tinctures and oils out of the buds. I use olive oil when making an herbal oil. Using the fresh buds (picked on a dry day) fill the jar about half to 3/4 full of the buds and cover all the way to the top with the oil. This can sit for 6 weeks or longer. I find straining it to be a real pain because not only are the buds sticky but they also stain equipment and hands so I end up just leaving the buds in the jar and draining off when I want to use it. The oil is extremely anti-microbial and so I never add any additional preservatives like Vitamin E oil like I otherwise do with herbal oils.

The oil can be used on its own, mixed with other oils, or turned into a salve. Due to its analgesic (pain relieving) and anti-inflammatory properties cottonwood bud oil is wonderful to use externally for arthritis and other inflammatory and painful conditions. I often use it for my muscle oil rub in combination with St. John’s wort and arnica oils. These are just mixed in equal parts. A popular salve can be made using this oil called Balm of Gilead. This salve makes a great addition to any first aid kit as it can be used to help heal wounds and burns as well. The salve can actually help skin regeneration from burns.

This year I have plenty of oil and so decided to harvest to make more tincture. Once again I fill my jar of buds 1/2 to 3/4 full then cover with alcohol. Because the buds are resinous I like to use a higher percentage of alcohol than 40%. Using pure grain alcohol I decided to do a 60% dilution using the ratio of 1:0.6. So for every ounce of pure grain alcohol I will use .6 ounces of water.

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I use cottonwood tincture as a great substitute for willow bark. In this area the native willows are not very high in salycilates compared to white willow in Europe and so cottonwood buds are the alternative. I use the tincture more for its expectorant properties for the lungs. This is a lesser known use of the plant and I find works wonders. I like to make a mixture of equal parts of cottonwood bud, elecampane, and mullein for folks who are dealing with dry persistent coughs at the end of a cold. Time and again I give the mixture to my clients and within a day or two the cough is gone – and this after sometimes months of coughing! The tincture can be used for bronchitis and other lung issues.

I add the tincture to my throat spray as it is very helpful with laryngitis and loss of voice due to the inflammation. Once again the tincture is wonderful to add to first aid kits as it is a great anti-septic and can help with skin infections or the prevention there of.

This is the perfect time of year for harvesting the buds so wait for that windstorm and have fun!

Useful tips:

– Reuse the same mason jar for oil and tincture. The resins ruin any container and are almost impossible to clean.
– Search for a large or several large downed branches instead of picking smaller ones.
– To remove the resin from hands I like to first rub olive oil until it starts to come off, then using soap and a scrub brush you can scrape the rest clean. Alcohol works great too. While harvesting be sure to carry some salve if you need to clean hands in the field. Or rub in dirt so that it takes away the stickiness until you get home.

Lilac Flowers – an Edible and Medicinal Treat

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Lilac shrubs have always been one of my favorite signs of spring. Growing up in Eastern Oregon we wouldn’t see the blooms until at least May, but here in the Willamette Valley we are blessed seeing them bloom as early as the beginning of April. Vases filled with freshly cut lilac reminds me of family, home, and my grandmother who passed on her green thumb to my mother and then on to me.

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My grandmother Vera Mezger circa 1940

Lilac or Syringa spp. (the common species is vulgaris) is in the olive family and is native to the Balkan Peninsula in Southeastern Europe. People emigrating from Europe brought the shrub to plant in their gardens in order to savor a piece of home. Here, out west, pioneers brought lilacs with them during the 1800’s and now you may find lilac growing wild in abandoned lots and homesteads.

Lilac fragrance is wonderfully intoxicating, however, it is very difficult to capture the scent. Synthesizing in the lab is the only sure way to get a true scent. Here is an interesting recipe on how to capture the scent at home: How to Make Lilac Fragrance.

The flowers are edible and have some medicinal qualities. I have to say eating even a single flower raw is a flavor exploding experience giving my mouth a slight astringency (drying to tissues), bitter, and heavy floral taste. I would say these are best for garnishes and edible flower displays on pastries rather than whole meals.

Medicinal uses are still a gray area when it comes to just the flower. Most resources that I have found (random blogs, pfaf.org, A Modern Herbal) list that the medicinal benefits of Lilac come from the leaves and fruit. Apparently, it was used as a tea or infusion historically, and has been used as a anti-periodic. Anti-periodic basically means that it stops the recurrence of disease such as malaria. There has been some studies that indicate a febrifuge action which may help bring down fever.

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The flowers themselves I can only guess based on my taste observations which include actions of astringency, aromatic, and perhaps bitter qualities.

Astringents tighten, draw, and dry tissues such as skin. So a wonderful application would be a cold or warm infusion to use as a toner on the face. Or using the same method but apply to rashes, cuts, and other skin ailments.

An aromatic action causes irritation to the place that it is touching (think GI tract) and irritation brings blood flow and blood flow equals healing! Eating the flowers raw may help with gastric issues such as flatulence or constipation. Making an herbal infused oil may be a great way to capture the aromatics for healing purposes and to make your own fragrance oil. (*Update* The flower oil I made turned out to be pretty gross. I recommend wilting the flowers heavily before adding to the oil. Remember oil and water don’t mix!)

At the end of the blog I have included some links to great recipes to try with lilacs. I decided to try my hand at two of them that I will share. Lilac honey and lilac infused oil.

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Lilac Honey

Jar size of choice (1/2 pint, pint, quart etc.)
Local, pure honey

Fill jar with freshly picked flowers with a little room at the top. Pour over honey to the top and cap. Allow to infuse for at least 6 weeks. No need to strain afterwards – eat the flowers along with the honey! Great for adding to recipes, spreading on bread, or adding to teas.

Lilac Infused Oil

Jar size of choice (1/2 pint, pint, quart etc.)
Carrier Oil – Olive Oil, Jojoba, or Sweet Almond Oil are options
Optional – Vitamin E Oil for preservation

Fill jar with very wilted flowers (make sure the flowers are as dry as possible to discourage rancidity). Cover with carrier oil and cap. Allow to infuse for up to 6 weeks. After 6 weeks strain and use in salve formulations or as a base for an aroma oil. Try combining with Lavender, Patchouli, or Jasmine Essential Oils.

Here are some ideas for using lilacs in cooking from other recipes online:

Lilac Jelly
Lilac Wine
Lilac Liqueur/Cordial
Lilac Infused Blueberry Syrup
Lilac Ice Cream

One more point of interest. Lilac wood is supposed to be one of the densest in Europe and has been historically used to make musical instruments such as pipes or flutes. We had to cut down one of our lilac shrubs I am sad to say, however we kept all the branches. I will choose one to make a pipe (hopefully one day soon) and will describe the process in another blog post.

Stop and smell the flowers!

Making Dandelion Wine – Part 2

Addendum to Supply List
Candy Thermometer (optional but handy)

Straining Infusion After 3 Day Soak

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It’s time to strain the future wine after allowing it to infuse for three full days. Now you will need to grab:

Medium Size Cook Pot
Strainer
Cotton Cloth
Ladle

I have a great large sized strainer that I usually use when I am making jam however the mesh size is still too large so I lined the strainer with the cotton tea towel. You might need another person to help you pour out the infusion through the strainer and into the cook pot since stoneware crocks are pretty heavy. I think I actually ladled out the first half to make it lighter so I didn’t spill it all over the counter. Once the entire solution was poured through the strainer and cloth I used the towel to squeeze the remaining juice out of the flower bits and composted the leftover mass. (FYI my white tea towel is now stained a lovely shade of yellow)

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Heating the Mixture

This section you will need:
1 large (or 2 small) Oranges
1 Lemon
Dried Ginger
Liquid Wine Yeast (I used Wyeast)
Candy Thermometer
Stirring Spoon
2 pounds sugar

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Bring the cooking pot to the stove and start heating up the solution. While the pot was heating I sliced the orange and lemon into small thin slices, rind and all, and added to the solution while stirring. Then I added the teaspoon of dried ginger and stirred again.

Lastly, I added the 2 pounds of sugar and stirred well until it was mostly dissolved. After speaking with an employee at one of our local fermentation stores we decided to go with using Dextrose for our sugar. Dextrose is pure glucose derived from plants (usually corn) and does not add any additional flavors to the wine that cane sugar or honey tends to do.

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I put the lid on the pot and turned it up a bit more so that it would come to a boil. Once at a rolling boil allow mixture to continue a slow (almost simmering) boil for 20 minutes. Don’t let it get out of control like I did as my boil ended up being more like an intense churning – a simmer is fine.

After 20 minutes I turned off the heat and allowed it to cool a bit before restraining again back into the stone crock. I would recommend using the cotton towel again so that the bits of ginger doesn’t get into the solution. I did not do that and so I have some bits in my fermenting wine.

Pitching the Yeast

Pitching yeast simply means adding yeast to the juice or infusion. Allow the infusion to cool which may take up to an hour to get to a cool enough temperature for the yeast to thrive. This is where the candy thermometer may come in handy to get the temperature down to a specific degree. I had some difficulty determining what was the best temperature to pitch yeast. Some say 60-70 degrees F while others talked about pitching at higher temperatures for different results. I decided to stick with the round number of no higher than 100 degrees F and waited until the thermometer registered 100 or below.

We got a wine yeast packet from the fermentation store that was also recommended by the employee. This was kept in the refrigerator until we were ready then it requires activating the yeast by slapping the bag so that it begins to mix and activate. Each yeast mixture or types of yeast are different so just follow the instructions on the bag. Add the necessary amount of yeast and stir.

Let the Fermentation Begin!

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I really wanted to get away with not having to get a carboy and airlock, mainly because I was lazy and didn’t want to pay for it. So for the first couple of days we just covered the crock with a plate that fit completely over the top so that limited air would get in but the gases could still escape. I finally broke down realizing that I did not want to risk getting wild yeast and other contaminates into my wine and so found a gallon size glass carboy and airlock kit for under $30.00.

The wine can bubble and ferment for as short as a week or for as much as 3 weeks. You will know it is done when it stops its bubbling. So far my wine has been bubbling for a week and half and has barely slowed down at all.

Stayed tuned for part 3 – bottling!

Making Dandelion Wine – Part 1

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Dandelion Wine is the spring classic beverage for wild food and wine lovers alike. For the past 5 years I have been telling myself “This is the year I will try my hand at wine!”, and then the Dandelion Flowers fade away with late spring and my window for gleaning has passed. I am pleased to announce that I have beaten the procrastinator and I did it.

Google has no shortage of variations on wine recipes so I wanted to record my own experience with some tips that would have been helpful for me in the beginning.

Supplies

2 gallon stone crock
Cotton tea towel or cotton muslin cloth (large enough to cover opening of crock)
Medium sized strainer
8 quart (at least) pot
Basket/bowl
1 gallon or larger carboy and airlock
Empty wine bottles with corks or beer bottles with caps

Ingredients

1 gallon dandelion flower petals
1 large orange and 1 lemon
2 pounds sugar (white, brown, honey, or dextrose)
1 package of yeast (wine yeast – follow directions on package)
1 tsp dried ginger

Begin by collecting the flower heads of Dandelions. The first step of this process really only needs the crock, flowers, and water so you have a few days to get the other items together.

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Harvesting Dandelion Flowers

It’s not as simple as just pulling off the heads from the stem! The trick is to get only the yellow petals and not (or as little) as the green sepals as possible because the green parts are quite bitter and will alter the flavor of the wine. My husband and I found two different ways to do this. The first way is mine. With my harvesting basket in hand I go out on sunny days when the flowers are in full bloom.

Side note – the Asteraceae Family have many sun loving plants including the Dandelion. They will actually open in the morning and close up at night. The fancy term for it is “sleep of plants”.

After popping off as many heads as I can in a few minutes with my basket I then grab another bowl to throw the discarded flower bits. Using my finger nails to slice the flower down the middle so that it will open flat I pinch off the petals pulling it away from the head of the flower until nothing is left but the green parts. FYI your hands will get very yellow and sticky!

Matt on the other hand used scissors (nice kitchen shears) to cut the green sepals and lower portions off leaving just the petals. His lack of fingernails made it difficult for the pinch and pull method.

It takes a lot of time and patience to get a full gallon of flower petals so my solution was to gather each evening after I came home from work and put them in a gallon size zip lock then froze the entire bag. It took me probably about 5 days to gather enough during the week then freezing to fill the entire bag full. I am lucky to have plenty of Dandelions in my yard to yield several batches of wine if so inclined. Do be sure you are harvesting from a place that is free of chemicals such as pesticides or herbicides.

Ants love Dandelions and seem to be a major pollinator. We found that if we came to a bunch of flowers crawling with ants to just leave the bowl full of freshly harvested flowers outside so that the ants disperse on their own. Formic acid (from the ants) will probably not be a great additive to the wine.

Once I gathered the full gallon of flowers I emptied the bag into my 2 gallon crock then boiled about a gallon and a half of water. Pour the boiling water over the flowers, stir, and cover with the cotton cloth. Allow the petals to infuse for 3 days.

This concludes part 1 of making Dandelion Wine. Keep an eye out for part 2!

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