Foraging, Not Forging!

My boy asked what my plans were for the weekend and I told him about attending a foraging class with my sister, Annie. With a furrowed brow, he asked, “Mom, why do you want to know how to write someone else’s name?” Hmmmm…..

No, son. I’m going to learn about the benefits of different native plants in the area!

It was a gorgeous Saturday in the Upstate of SC. Annie and I met in Easley, SC to attend a foraging class given by Alex Garcia, instructor and director of Earth Skills. We were a varied group of individuals of different ages, backgrounds and interest in plant life and survival skills.

Have you seen the t.v. shows Naked and Afraid or Alone? In these shows people are dropped off in the middle of nowhere, (some with clothes and some without), and they must survive off the land and their wits. Well, there were a few of those type of people in the group. A few of the men were taking classes to earn their master’s designation in survival skills. I was not one of them.Then there were others in our group who were hoping to learn more about the medicinal properties of native plants in order to take on Big Pharm. I totally agree that we as a people have become captive to the big pharmaceutical companies and their drugs, but I am also a big fan of antibiotics, allergy meds and Extra Strength Excedrin. So, again, I wasn’t in that group.I went to this seven hour course because I really do want to learn more about the plants God made. I know He didn’t just create “weeds” for the sake of making us sneeze and looking pretty. God had a purpose. Before Pfizer and Merck & Co., people used the plants around them to heal and nourish their bodies.

And most importantly, I went so I could spend time with my sister!You may be wondering, “What the heck did you do all day?” Well, we followed Alex around as he excitedly found different plants. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to go far to see a gem amongst the grasses and weeds. We would pick a leaf from the plant and maybe taste it, but always taped a leaf in our notebooks, labeling and writing special characteristics for future identification. The leaf above is a Broadleaf Plantain. The website Edible Wild food describes it as “a perennial broadleaf plant that grows in many locations from spring to autumn. Not only is this a vital wild edible plant for overall good health, this wild weed can be used to treat chronic diarrhea as well as digestive tract disorders. Broadleaf plantain is packed with nutrients and is safe to ingest. If a person chomps on some fresh leaves, these can be applied to the skin to treat minor burns, insect bites or open wounds.” That’s pretty cool, huh?Got diarrhea? Got a rash? This plant is for you!This is mullein. It’s leaves are soft like lambs ears and it grows tall stalks in its second year. Some call this plant “Cowboy Toilet Paper”, but others advise against using it in this way or else you will have fine little plant hairs in areas you wouldn’t want little plant hairs. (Just sayin…) BUT if you have respiratory issues, this might be your plant. Seep the leaves to make a hot cup of tea. Or shape the dry stalk like cigar, light it up and breathe in the smoke to clear up your cough. We foraged for acorns without the caps to grind into a nut flour. Because of the labor intensive work involved with making the flour, look for large nuts and gather them before the squirrels do!We determined the “good” nuts from the “bad” ones by dropping them into a bucket of water and keeping only the nuts that sunk to the bottom. Then Alex demonstrated the survival method I’d use to turn the nuts into flour. Let’s just say that I would have to have LOTS of time on my hands and be able to think way far ahead of time to know that I was going to want acorn bread. Not only do the nuts need to be ground to a flour consistency, then it needs to be dried out in the sun. Ok, ok….I guess this could all be speeded up by using a Cuisinart and low temp oven, but I’m pretty sure a food processor won’t be in your back pack on your next camp out. Lucky for us, Alex brought some homemade acorn bread! Still warm from the oven, sliced with a drizzle of honey, it wasn’t too bad! It’s a hardy bread that will fill you up.We took a little field trip to a local pond where Alex showed us a different ecosystem of plants. Cat tails, for example, have delicious (so Alex says…I’ll take his word for it), rhizomes which are an energy rich food. The pollen from the brown cattail can be used as a flour supplement or thickener. Alex encouraged us to try some grass. Yup, just good ol’ grass. It doesn’t have much nutritional content but will do in a survival situation. Because we aren’t cows with four stomachs to ruminate the grass, one should only chew the grass to make a paste with our saliva, then spit out the cellulose. That could block you up. Not good. In the wooded area, Alex looked and looked for Sassafras. I remember as a young girl, my brother making me sassafras tea. Little did I know that this licorice tasting drink could do so much! Do you have boils, sores or rashes? Apply a poultice of sassafras leaves and cover the skin irritation. Rheumatism or gout? What about arthritis or headaches? Drink a cup of tea! Sassafras has great analgesic properties that are great for boosting our immune system. Snap a few twigs to brush your teeth and use as a dental disinfectant. Feeling sluggish? Chew a few leaves or have a cup of sassafras tea to boost your energy levels. The leaves are a diuretic which eliminate toxins, salts and fats from your body. Sassafras oil eliminates dandruff, head lice, repels insects, lowers blood pressure, and aids in sleep. Yet as good as all of this sounds, one must be careful!There are many potential side effects of using sassafras oil, such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, hallucination, elevated blood pressure, allergic reactions and a heightened risk of cancer, including risks for pregnant women and children. (Sounds like a pharmaceutical commercial, doesn’t it?)Even though we are a few weeks too late, next year we will be ready to ward off the flu. Here we are plucking a lichen called usnea, off this bush. It is in the same family as Spanish moss, the pretty grey moss that hangs from the trees in the low country. You know it’s the right stuff when you gently pull a stem of it apart and you can see a thin threadlike strand. (Alex would be so proud of me remembering that little tid bit!)Annie is putting her sample into a small jar, which then is filled with vodka. Alex says he puts his jar of tincture in his sock or underwear drawer. Do you know why? Well, this usnea-tonic needs to ferment for 10 weeks in a cool dark place and shook every day. So where can you store the jar that is cool, dark and that you can easily remember? Your panty drawer, of course! Anyway, after ten weeks of fermenting take a dropper full of the tonic three times a day for four weeks. Supposedly, we will be good as gold come fly season next year! Unfortunately, at the end of the day, Alex tested our recall skills. Dang it. I have to tell you, that by this time of day my brain had gone into silly mode. I tried to do a quick study jam session with my little notebook before it was my turn to identify the plants, but I seriously had a hard time. Eight plant species were flagged. Just 8! Surely I could remember 8. Forget about the fact that I tasted, touched, gathered, cut n’ taped, crushed, walked on, and heard about 50 different plants….So I came in last place for the recall part of the day. Oh well. So maybe I won’t send my application in for Naked and Afraid or Alone. Mark, the guy in the red shirt, retained the most info that day and was named King of Weed Eating! Good for him.

Me? Somehow, some way I still got a certificate. Yay me! I really did learn a lot. My class buddies were so nice. Alex was knowledgeable, patient, kind and a great instructor. I’m so glad I accepted Annie’s invitation to join her.

Acorn bread, anyone?

Thanks for stopping by!

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