Foraging in Winter

White pine twigs and multiflora rose hips

White pine twigs and multiflora rose hipsIt’s winter, and most people think winter is a time when there is nothing to forage for and not much to see in terms of plant life. But there is plenty that can be foraged, and it’s a wonderful time to observe and make note of what is around.

When I think of winter plants, trees immediately come to mind. In my area of eastern Massachusetts the white pine and white or paper birch trees stand out, closely followed by hemlocks (a native tree), junipers (red cedar) and arbor vitaes (white cedar). All offer food and or medicine at various times of the year, and all are easy to see in a winter landscape, with or without snow,

White pine needles on snow

White pine needles
(photo by Kylee Foots)

My favorite tree for winter foraging right now is white pine (Pinus strobus). You can use different parts of the tree, including the inner bark and resin, but what I look for are the needles, which grow in bunches of 5 needles grouped together into bundles. I make tea with the needles and it has a lovely piney taste to it. I find it comforting to drink and I know it is helping me ward off colds and flus.

Seeds and Berries

Walking and observing I notice the seed stalks from so many warm-weather plants. They tell me where I can find those plants come spring and summer. But some of those seeds are also useful to use in the winter months. I can sometimes find the seed heads of Queen Anne’s lace, in their elongated nest-like shape, giving the plant one of its nicknames of bird’s nest. The seeds are carroty in flavor and are a nice addition to a hot dish. I have never seen any seed heads of poison hemlock (introduced Eurasian plant) which can be confused with Queen Anne’s lace in the warm months, and in any case does not have the same kind of seed head. PICTURE

I notice the small red berries of barberries and multi-flora rose.  Both Japanese barberry and multi-flora rose are considered invasive in our area, but I love them dearly, and appreciate that I don’t have to worry about how much I use them for my food and medicine because I won’t be depleting a rare or at-risk plant resource.

Japanese barberry has red berries, which makes it easily identifiable, and they can be used for tea. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list of teas to make.

The multi-flora rose hips—the red berries—can hang around for quite a while in winter, so if you didn’t collect them earlier in the fall, you can get them now (I am writing in mid-January). They are not that tasty right off the stem, but here is a fab way to enjoy them: when making a cup of tea, take a cluster of hips (no need to take them off the thorny stem) and place it into the tea as it steeps. They will give a little bit of rose hip goodness to you tea. After a few moments, or longer, the hips will have softened and can now be eaten. They taste like tart-sweet fruit and are so delicious! This is a treat only available in winter.

Walking and Noticing

When I am walking I like to notice all the plants around me. If there is no or minimal snow on the ground, I can see the leaves of biennials hanging out between their first and second year of life. I see the seed stalks of goldenrods and asters and sometimes spend time pondering which of those species a particular seed stalk belongs to.

I notice the oak trees with leaves still clinging to the branches, and note the different shapes and sizes of the leaves. Sometimes they are different species of oak, sometimes they are at different stages of how old the tree is. I also notice beech trees whose leaves cling onto them as well.

I look to see if there are freshly fallen twigs or branches of white pine, which I can take home for tea or other uses. The needles must still be a vibrant green, and it is wonderful that they will dry for later use, only losing a little of their luster.

I offer winter foraging walks where you can learn about these and other plants. You can find my information here winter foraging walks .

What have you observed on your winter walks or while driving? Is there anything you like to forage at this time of year? Let me know in the comments below.

Fire Cider for the Cold and Flu Season

Fire Cider for the Cold and Flu Season

Fire Cider Vinegar November 2021

Fire Cider Vinegar November 2021

It’s cold and flu season and lots of people swear by fire cider vinegar for getting themselves and their families and friends through the sniffly time.

You can buy fire cider vinegar at the farmers market or some stores, but if you are so inclined, you can make your won and customize it your taste or what you have available (though I think with its heat flavor isn’t as much of a consideration). Making your own is also much cheaper if costs are a consideration. and ingredients can be purchased with SNAP benefits!

Fire cider (often with “vinegar” left off the name) is an old way of infusing cold-and-flu-bug-busting herbs and making them palatable and easy to take. It was named over Fire Cider Vinegar over 30 years ago by Rosemary Gladstar, who began sharing her version of the recipe; it now has almost as many variation as people who make it.

You can take fire cider vinegar to help your immune system fight off what’s around, at the start of cold or flu symptoms (and sometimes it seems to stop them, though no guarantees), or it seems to lessen the severity of the cold or flu, though again no promises.

 How to take Fire Cider Vinegar (FCV): Most people don’t take it straight, but diluted in some way. Take a tablespoon or two (or a glug or two from the bottle is it in) and put it in a glass of water, juice, or a cup of tea–you decide how much it needs to be diluted. You can take it every couple of hours, or, when you are feeling better, a 2 or 3 times a day.

You can also use FCV in a mixed drink, or use it in salad dressing–for some or all of the vinegar portion.

Below are two recipes, one from my friend Charles Garcia (, a wonderful Hispanic herbalist, and one from me with interesting choices and no particular measurements.

Fire Cider Recipe from Charles Garcia

Ingredients (makes about 2 quarts):
2 glass quart jars
1 heaping teaspoon of black pepper for each jar
1 lemon in 4 slices (2 for each jar)
3 small slices of apple
1/2 diced red onions
16 garlic cloves (8 for each jar)
Approximately 2 ounces sliced fresh ginger
Approximately 2 1/4 ounces horse radish in 1 inch chunks
1 Anaheim or Serrano pepper sliced into 1/4 inch slices,
separate them into equal amounts for each jar
20 Allspice seeds split evenly for each jar
2 heaping Tablespoons of honey for each jar

Pack everything tightly in each jar. Fill with apple cider vinegar. Allow bubbles to escape and add more vinegar.

Seal and shake. Keep in fridge. Shake every day. After three weeks remove all solid material and keep the liquid in the jars and use as needed.

Fire Cider Vinegar ingredients, waiting for vinegar

Fire Cider Vinegar ingredients, waiting for vinegar

A Recipe for Fire Cider Vinegar by Iris Weaver

Take some garlic, onions, hot peppers, horseradish or garlic mustard root, any herbs that are anti-microbial or anti-inflammatory, etc., that are in your garden or cupboard, whatever else appeals to you. Use whatever amounts you like or have on hand. Warning: go easy with the horse radish; from experience too much makes the fire cider tooo firey!

Chop the herbs, put in a jar, top with ACV (organic and local if possible) and let sit at least 6 weeks. When you strain it out, add local raw honey if you like (some people add honey in with the vinegar while it is steeping). To me this is easy–no fussy measuring or worrying about having just the “right” herbs! Oh, and if you have someone who can’t do alliums, just eliminate the garlic and onions.

The usual herbs that seem to be the base of any fire cider recipe are garlic, horseradish, ginger, and hot peppers. But, again, use what you’ve got.

Dose: 1 to 3 teaspoons in water, juice, tea, several times a day. This is also great added to soups, stir-fries, and salad dressings (but be careful how much you use–hot, hot, hot!).

Suggested herbs and other ingredients (fresh or dried; organic if possible):

  • Hot peppers/chilis
  • Ginger
  • Horseradish, or wasabi radish, or garlic mustard roots
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Astragalus root
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Lemon Balm
  • Bee Balm
  • Peppermint/Spearmint
  • Oregano
  • Sage
  • Lemons
  • Oranges
  • Turmeric
  • Organic, raw Apple Cider Vinegar

Decide whether you want to make a quart, a half-gallon, or a gallon, and have appropriately sized jars, or use what you have!

Use organic citrus and ginger, and herbs if you buy them. Chop up your fresh herbs, onions, garlic, horse radish, etc. and slice your citrus if using (don’t worry about peeling it).

Fill your jar between 1/4 to 3/4 full with chopped ingredients, and then fill with apple cider vinegar to bottom of where lid sits. You can also add a bit of honey, you decide how much, in place of the vinegar and let it all infuse together. Put on lid and let infuse.

Make note of what herbs and ingredients you used and the date, Helpful for labeling and if anyone wants to know what’s in there.

Let it sit for 6 weeks or longer and then strain out the solids and bottle and use. Enjoy!

Dandelion Hunter–Book Review

Dandelion Hunter book coverSeveral years ago, a friend gave me the book Dandelion Hunter by Rebecca Lerner (2013), which promptly got put on a shelf with other plant books and forgotten. Then a few weeks ago a friend called and told me she was reading a book that made her keep thinking of me, and it was this one. I promptly went and found where I had put it 3 years ago and read it. It was a terrific read and very much worth having unearthed it.

“When it was time to eat, we set the food down on a long, low coffee table…It was an impressive display: rose hips sauce, roasted cattail, nettle, mushrooms, wapato, venison, scones, and even wild beer. Ariel…had infused this batch with yarrow and leaves from a juniper tree.”

This is a description of a Thanksgiving dinner the author held with friends at the end of her second challenge to eat only foods foraged in and around Portland, Oregon. Her original challenge, with which she begins the book, had lasted barely five days, at the end of which she was weak from lack of food. Her first attempt taught her a lot about what could or could not be found in the city and set her to exploring more about urban foraging.

Dandelion Hunter is an interesting, educational, and very enjoyable book that follows Rebecca Lerner as she begins her urban foraging, and learns what, where, and when she can forage. She takes us on the journey with her and along the way she imparts a great deal of information.

Lerner tells about the people she meets who teach her what plants to forage, and also how to forage free food (dumpster diving) and take advantage of road kill (not as gross as it sounds). She shares information on what the original inhabitants of the area ate and how they stored their food, dangers of heavy metals and other contamination in the city, guidelines for ethically wildcrafting, and some of the legal problems that foragers can face.

As she goes along, she mentions the many plants that she eats and makes into medicines, and introduces us to the odd and amazing people she meets. I really appreciated that she gives the botanical names of the plants, so that it is very clear which plant she is talking about, something I particularly appreciate as a foraging instructor.

Lastly, she talks about plants as intelligent beings, validating what I have felt for a very long time. Included at the end are some delightful recipes. Definitely worth taking time to read!





Dandy Dandelion Flowering

Dandelion flowers in a basket

Everything seems to be bursting forth at once, the delicious weeds and blooming trees, and the dandelion flowers with their sunny faces shouting “come pick me, come pick me!”

I ran out in a light rain this afternoon and harvested half a basket full, because tomorrow they will get mowed and my golden friends will be shorn of their rich tresses.

This spring I have been ravenously grabbing the weeds where I can and bringing them into my kitchen to put in soups and an interesting one-dish meal that includes onions and rice, eggs, and cheese, punctuated by the dark green of wilted leaves. It’s been garlic mustard and nettles, dandy leaves and jerusalem artichokes, wild lettuce and chickweed, henbit and ground ivy. Any thing that needs weeding or catches my eye that I know I can eat.

But one of my dearest loves, the dandelion, croons that siren song that can’t be ignored, and out I trot to continue my romance with that queenly little flower. Only the ants seem to be any competition. I have to be sure to shake them out of the flowers.

So I offer you a recipe or two to enjoy while the dandelions finish their spring rush. If you miss it, don’t worry. Dandelions continue to put out intermittent blooms right through to the fall, and sometimes even in December!

Dandelion Flower Cookies

Preheat oven to 375 o .
1/2 C. vegetable oil or butter, melted  (1 stick)
1/2 C. honey
2 eggs
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 C. flour, unbleached or whole grain
1 C. rolled oats
1/2 C. freshly picked dandelion flowers (take off the green sepals so that there are only yellow petals)

Blend honey and oil or butter and beat in the eggs, vanilla, and salt. Stir in flour, oatmeal, and dandelion flowers. Drop batter by teaspoonfuls onto a lightly oiled cookie sheet. Bake at 375 o for 20 minutes, until light brown.
Makes 40 approx. 2” cookies.
Adapted from The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail

Dandelion Nut Pancakes

dandelion nut pancake batter

Dandelion Nut Pancake batter

Use organic ingredients as much as possible.

1/2 C. finely chopped nuts–pecans, walnuts, or almonds
1 ripe banana
1 large egg
10 dandelion flowers, with green ends snipped off (if a little of the green sepal remains, it’s  fine)
Pinch sea salt

Mash the banana and mix in the chopped nuts and salt. Stir the egg well to mix yoke and white before adding into the mash, then mix in the dandy flowers.
Have a heavy frying pan or griddle hot and ready. Grease with butter, coconut oil, or extra virgin olive oil and drop in spoonfuls of the batter. Cook over medium heat. Serve with butter and maple syrup, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 2″ to 3″ pancakes.

dandelion nut pancake

Dandelion Nut Pancake, large

Adapted from a recipe I found online some years ago.

And finally, a wonderful way to make use of dandelion flowers is to infuse them in oil, to use for skin care products and massage. Herbalists say that dandy oil is particularly helpful for sore shoulders, and it is one of the oils Susun Weed recommends for breast massage. I wrote a post about making infused oils here.

There are many more recipes on-line and in books galore for cooking dandelions using all their various edible parts. What will you decide to make? Let me know!

Making an Herbal Tincture with the Folkloric Method

hand-made herbal products

Tinctures and other herbal goodies.

Making your own tinctures is very simple and a considerable savings over buying them. They are really useful in a number of situations, such as traveling, emergencies, taking an herb over a long period of time, and more. Some tinctures can also be used externally, in which case they are known as liniments.

The way I learned to make tinctures was to use fresh plant material, and this is what I do most often. There are times, though, when I do use dry plant material, and I will give instructions for that further down.

With the folkloric method there is no figuring out ratios or measuring out proportions of alcohol to water to quantity of herb. One puts together plant material and alcohol in a simple mix and lets it soak (macerate) for a few weeks or longer.

Generally, 100-proof vodka is used (though some herbalists prefer 80-proof vodka or will use other alcohols, such as brandy). Hundred-proof vodka is used because it has equal amounts of alcohol and water, and this is the mix that is often used for dosages.

The vodka is your menstruum, the liquid in which you are macerating your plant material.

Making the Herbal Tincture with Fresh Plant Material

For making tinctures in the folkloric method, you need only a few materials:
• The plant/s you are going to tincture
• A sharp knife or scissors for chopping plant material
• 100-proof vodka
• A clean jar
• Labels

yarrow tincture macerating

Yarrow leaves and flowers being macerated in 100-proof vodka.

To make a tincture with fresh plant material, you need to gather it from your garden, wildcraft it, or get it from a supplier, such as the farmer at your local farmers market. Coarsely chop or cut up your plant material. It doesn’t have to be really small, but it shouldn’t be really large pieces, either. You want the menstruum to have lots of access to the plant material.

Now lightly pack your plant material into a clean, dry jar just to the bottom of the lid ring. You don’t want to pack it tightly, but you also want more than a few sprigs of herb. The plant matter should be slightly springy.

Then pour in the 100-proof vodka and fill the jar to a little above the top of the plant matter. Screw on the lid.

Label your jar with the date, the herb, and the vodka that you used. Labeling is important because it assures that you know what herb/s and what oil/s you used. Don’t rely on your memory, my experience has proven that it is notoriously forgetful!

Check the jar in 24 hours and top-up the vodka if necessary, because the plants may have absorbed some and the level may have dropped.
Put your jar in a dark place to macerate. Let it sit for at least six weeks, checking it occasionally. Some herbalists say that a few days or couple of weeks are enough, but I believe that six weeks gives lots of time for the menstruum to pull out all of the plant’s constituents, and to really absorb the energy of the plant.

Some herbalists also like to shake the jar every day or every few days, sing to the plants or say prayers, etc.

After six weeks, you can strain out the plant matter. You can leave it longer without any problems. I have sometimes left tinctures macerating for a couple of years (or longer). In Chinese medicine, the medicine of the tincture is considered to be stronger the longer it soaks.

To strain, use a couple layers of cheese cloth or clean muslin, or a fine-meshed strainer or colander. I like to put a couple layers of cheesecloth in a strainer. Don’t use a coffee filter or paper towels, the pores are too fine and will clog up, and then you’ll be waiting all day for your oil to strain.

Squeeze any leftover menstruum from the plant matter with your hands or a spoon. (You can put the spent plant matter in your compost or fireplace or trash.)

Put your tincture into another clean, dry glass jar. Label this jar also with the herb/s, menstruum, and date. Light-protective bottles or jars, such as brown Boston rounds, are preferable to clear glass. If you use clear glass, definitely put your tincture in a dark cupboard protected from light. Light helps break down the tincture and lessens its efficacy.

Boston rounds--small bottles

Boston rounds: 1 oz., 2 oz., 1/2 oz., and 8 oz.

Store you tincture in a cool, dark place. You can put it in 1- or 2-ounce Boston rounds with droppers when you are ready to use it.

Using Dry Plant Material for Your Tincture

I don’t usually use dry plant material, but occasionally I have a need to. According to Susun Weed, dried leaves and flowers break down too much in the drying to make good medicines. Dried roots, seeds, and berries hold up to drying better and can be used for dry plant tinctures.

To make a tincture with dry plant material, use 1 ounce (by weight) of dry plant material to 5 ounces of 100-proof vodka. Let sit for at least 6 weeks before straining.
I have been making tinctures for many years now and have had good results using my home-made tinctures. Let me know what you have tinctured and how you used it, I’d love to know!

4 Or So Plants to Forage in July


Blackberries–ripe, unripe, and very unripe

Summer feels like the best time to forage, because there is so much to find and use. The other seasons do have their own offerings and delights, but summer feels like the jackpot. It reminds me of the unstinting abundance that Nature gives without our asking.

I think of July and August as “high summer”, when all the summer heat and plants and insects and animals are out in full force. June is more late spring and early summer, and September is late summer and early fall. So as June drifts into July and full summer comes upon us, I am planning what I will harvest for my cook pot or plate, and for medicine, and for drying for wreaths and other projects.

Safety First

A reminder: Always be sure of your plant and what its edibility or uses are! Just because it is “natural” doesn’t mean that it can be used in unlimited quantities in your body, or that it can’t make you sick, or worse.

When you are foraging or wild-crafting, always remember that you need to be sure of what plants you are harvesting, and what the proper parts to harvest are. For instance, some roots that are fine for eating (burdock, dandelion) are not yet ready to harvest for medicine; for that you’ll have to wait until fall. Daylily, which has shoots that are edible when they first come up in the spring, instead offers buds and flowers. And no part of pokeberry, with edible shoots in spring, is edible now. A few plants in the carrot family can be confused with Queen Anne’s lace or other members of the family and are deadly poisonous or can cause nasty rashes. My motto is “when in doubt, don’t.” Please be sure to use your plant and field guides!

Please note that plant geek friends of mine have said the smart phone apps for identifying plants are very unreliable, even useless. I would not trust my safety to a phone app. Use tried-and-true guides like Newcomb’s and Peterson’s and check with knowledgeable friends.

4 Or So Plants to Forage

So let’s talk about some of the wonderful plants that are at their peak of pickability, or close to it, at this time.

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.)

There are a number of species of amaranth; 2 species at least are used for food. At least one, Amaranthus hybridus, is also used medicinally.

One species, I’m not sure which one, is also nick-named Red-legs, as the lowest part of the stem and the roots are reddish. Ii is one distinguishing characteristic of the plant, and helps me recognize it plant when I am weeding the seedlings in my garden, and later when the plant is well-grown.

The leaves of amaranth are eaten: the young leaves can be used raw in salads, or put in soups, etc. I also use the older, bigger leaves in cooked dishes. July is the perfect time for foraging amaranth.

I also like to dry the leaves to use for soups and stews in the winter. For this purpose I am not concerned if I use older, tougher leaves, as the drying and cooking will take care of that. I may also save the stems to use in making soup stock, where I can use all sorts of odds and ends that would otherwise just get tossed. I put the leaves in paper bags, sometimes amaranth, sometimes in with other greens that I have dried for the winter.

Berries and Berry Leaves–Raspberries and Blackberries, leaves of raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries (Rubus spp. [raspberries, blackberries] , Fragraria spp. [strawberries])

Now is the time when the wild raspberries are coming into their own, both the black-cap, which some people mistakenly call blackberries, and the red raspberries. There are several species growing wild; all are edible, though some are bigger or smaller or tastier than others. Pick them and eat them out-of-hand, or take them home for desserts, jams, pies, smoothies, infused vinegars, or to freeze for use in the winter. (To freeze berries of any sort, lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and stick them in the freezer until frozen. Then you can slide them into jars or plastic bags that will last for months in the freezer.)


Blackberries in various stages of ripeness.

Toward the end of the month blackberries will be starting to color up nicely and soon be ready to eat. As with raspberries, there are a number of species around, and the same variations in taste and size occur with blackberries, except even more so. Some blackberries are big and juicy and sweet, not too seedy; others are small and very seedy, not that pleasant to eat. Blackberries that ripen in the shade also tend not to sweeten up much, so eating them is a bit more of a sweet taste gamble than raspberries.

The leaves of any species of raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries can be collected throughout the season and dried for tea. All of them make a pleasant tea, either on their own or mixed with other herbs.

One of the constituents in raspberry leaves is called fragarin, and I have noticed that when I have a jar of raspberry leaves that I harvested and dried myself, when I open the jar there is a wonderful fragrance that rises from the leaves.

Raspberry leaves are a traditional herb for pregnant women, but can also be a pleasant tea for anyone.

Daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva)

orange daylilies

The ubiquitous orange daylily.

Daylilies come to us from Asia, but have managed to naturalize themselves around human habitation–sometimes you will swathes of day lilies where an old house stood, or that somebody planted in a roadside garden and then left.

The most common daylilies we see, the orange ones that grow everywhere and a couple of the yellow ones, are easy to harvest and so abundant that it is just about impossible to eradicate them. They are very vigorous growers, as many gardeners will attest.

At this time of year, the easiest part to harvest is the flower–in bud, full bloom, and after it has started to wither. Use the buds in stir-fries or chopped into salads. Use the flowers (each one only lasts a day, hence the name “daylily”) to stuff with hummus or a cheese dip, or chopped into salads or to garnish a dish.

yellow daylilies

Yellow daylilies, not nearly as commonly seen as the orange ones.

My favorite time to gather the flowers, though, is after they have finished blooming and are wilting, drying right on the stem, though I have also dried buds and fresh flowers. The wilted flowers are perfect for harvesting to dry for use in the winter. I take them and place them in an open basket or on a screen in a single layer and let them dry completely, then store them in a jar or paper bag to use in winter soups, stews, and other dishes.

Most daylily flowers can be eaten. However, for drying purposes, the double-flowered varieties (with multiple sets of petals) can be too moist, especially at the stem end, and can mold instead of dry. The single-flowered varieties are much easier to deal with.

To use the dried flowers, snip or break off the tough stem end, then cut up or break up the flower and put it in soups, stews, etc. If using in a stir-fry, soak the pieces in hot water for about 10 minutes to rehydrate.

Lamb’s Quarters or Goosefoot (Chenopodium alba)

goosefoot clump

A patch of goosefoot/lamb’s quarters growing in the city.

Lamb’s quarters or goosefoot is growing vigorously at this time of year. The leaves are the part that are eaten, and if you find a large plant you will have a goodly amount of leaves for salads or cooking.

The white powder that is present on the small new leaves and the part of the leaves closest to the stem is not a disease, but a signature of the plant and can be ignored for purposes of eating. It does help in identifying the plant, however.

The mild-tasting leaves can be used raw in salads or used in cooked dishes in the same way spinach is used, such as quiche and spinach pie. I also like to use lamb’s quarters leaves in my soups and stews and stir-fries. They have a high water content and thus cook down a lot, so if you are making a recipe which calls for a particular amount make sure you have harvested enough to account for the shrinkage.

The young leaves are best, but I also use the large, mature leaves, though they can be somewhat tougher.

Lamb’s quarters are a bioaccumulator, meaning they can accumulate toxins from the soil. You need to be careful of the area where you are harvesting them so that you are not ingesting lead or other heavy metals or other toxins. Since they also take up nitrogen, be aware of places where fertilizers have been used, as excess nitrogen can cause problems in the body.

This is another plant I like to dry for the winter. I either bunch several stems together and hang them to dry, or strip off the leaves and dry them in my dehydrator. I then store the leaves in a paper bag for later use. When I use them, I crumble the leaves into whatever dish (usually some sort of soup) I am making and they quickly rehydrate and cook up.

I hope you get out there and find these or other wonderful plants for your kitchen or medicine cabinet. What plants have you foraged? What have you done with them? Let me know in the comments section below.

Happy foraging!


Learning the Plants, Part 1

foraging books on a shelf

Some of the foraging books on my bookshelf. I have three different books called Edible Wild Plants!

When I lead my foraging walks I am sometimes asked how I got to know so many plants, and I usually just say “over time”. I can’t at the moment remember how I learned so many plants and their uses, and certainly not in any kind of order. I’ve been doing it for so long, my process is no longer visible to me.

But my recent visit to Florida gave me the opportunity to see my process in action and remind me how I have done it.

The first full day I was there was capped by a visit to a bookstore to find a good field guide for the area. I couldn’t find an actual field guide (maybe I was in the wrong section), but after scanning several books I found one on garden and landscape plants that are grown locally that seemed like it would serve the purpose, and it did quite well.

I immediately started trying to identify the plants that were outside the door of the condo we were in, that were on the walk to the beach, that lined the roads. And I got to see my process in action.

When I want to learn about the plants in an area I start with a couple of good general field guides and look at all the plants I can. I want to know what every plant I see is, whether it is cultivated or a “weed” (wild-growing), large as a tree or as small as a couple inches high. So my first order of business is simply identification. I will find out about what the plants are used for later after I have identified them. In this way I know what a great many of the plants are that I am looking at, just as you probably know your neighbors, even if you aren’t friends with them. They’re in the neighborhood, you can identify them.

Once I have started to familiarize myself with the plants, then I start looking to see what they are used for: food, medicine, crafts, ornament and beauty, eh—it’s just there. These equate to your friends, your acquaintances, the people you can’t stand.

I now have a view of the environment around me that I can “read”, that is visible and known, identifiable and familiar.

Using Different Kinds of Field Guides

This is what I did when I moved to Salem, Massachusetts, a little over 30 years ago. I first got the National Audobon Societ Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Eastern Region. I went all over my neighborhood, getting down on hands and knees on sidewalks and lawns and leaning over fences to see even the smallest plants and the ones that were less accessible from the street. Everywhere I went I had a running commentary in my head of the names of the plants I was walking past. It was a good education, and after a few years I bought the next edition of the field guide, better than the previous one in some ways, lacking in others. I spent many hours looking through them both.

A few years later I learned about another field guide, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, which despite the name includes some shrubs and vines as well. I liked this guide even better than the Audobon guide, and it became my go-to for identifying many plants. It had become dog-eared and written in, with bits of pressed plants stuck between the pages here and there. I finally had to buy a new copy to use on my walks!

I also started getting more specific field guides about medicinal and edible plants, so that I could learn the more particular uses of the plants around me.

I got several edible plant guides which I still consult. Some are more comprehensive than others. I didn’t find as many medicinal wild plants guides, but there are a few.  The ones that are easiest to recommend are the Peterson Guides, both edible and medicinal, but there are plenty of others, and with the resurgence in interest in uses of wild plants, more books are coming out from contemporary authors.

In my experience, you need both general and specific field guides. This is because no one guide covers all the plants you will meet, and even when you have many guides you still will come across plants that aren’t included in any of your guides.

General plant guides help you identify the many different plants you encounter. They include medicinal and edible along with the other plants, and usually will not be identified as such in a general guide. You will find that the guide/s you are using will include useful plants that may not be included in the particular edible or medicinal guides you have. So if you are curious about the plants all around you, you will want and need one or more general guides.

For edibles and medicinals, you will want at least 2 or 3 guides for each, as no one guide covers as many of the useful plants as are out there, and different guides will give you different uses and different information for identification. You will get a much more complete view of the plants this way and a more thorough grounding in their uses.

Why Books?

By this time you have probably figured out that I am quite old school, using books for goodness’ sake. I don’t even own a smart phone!

So I am not offering you apps or websites in this article. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that books are what I know best. but I also think that in some ways they are easiest (maybe because I am old school). It is so simple to run through a book’s pages to find the different plants that are you looking at in the field. When you are flipping through, in the field or at home, you will be grabbed in print by other plants along the way and they will start to work their way into your brain without you even trying. I think it’s a great way to learn!

There are apps out there to help you identify plants. I haven’t used them and so can’t comment on them. I do know that in the foraging community there seems to be a consensus that apps that let you take a picture of a plant and then identify it for you are notoriously unreliable and very prone to wrong identification. This is not so bad if it’s a benign plant, but if you misidentify a poisonous plant it can make you sick or even prove deadly. So please use apps with caution and have additional means for identifying your plant/s.

Learning the Plants from People

One of the best ways to learn your plants is from another person. They can show you little details and answer your questions right on the spot. Often there are details that may not be covered in a book or video that are vital to identifying a plant and differentiating it from others, some of which may be non-edible or poisonous. A person may also be able to give you a broader picture of what the plant is used for, and even some uses that are unique to the person.

Fortunately there are gradually more and more people who are knowledgeable and offering plant walks and lectures so that you can get a thorough introduction to the useful plants.

My season for offering plant walks is April through October here in eastern Massachusetts, as that is when there are enough plants available to really observe and learn them. I will eventually also do winter-time walks, as it is useful, interesting, and fun to be able to identify winter-hardy plants, seedpods, and dried stems. It can help you find food and medicine in winter, and know where to locate the plants you want in warmer weather.

If you are interested in taking a plant walk, I offer Urban Foraging Rambles and other kinds of walks that you can find at

What plants have you gotten to know in your backyard and elsewhere and what books have been especially helpful? Please let me know in the comments section below. I love to know what your experiences are!

In my next post I will write about deepening your connection with and knowledge of the plants in your environment.

Happy foraging!

A few helpful, related posts:

Steph Zabel, a Boston-area herbalist and proprietor of Flowerfolk Herbal Apothecary has a blog post about getting to know your plants:

Nathan Carlos Rupley, a naturalist and forager, has reviewed a couple of good contemporary foraging titles:


Early Spring Musings

evening primrose rosette

Evening primrose rosette.

At the end of this oddly warm winter we are experiencing yo-yo days and nights of wildly fluctuating temperatures, sometimes in the range of 30 degrees in a 24-hour span. It’s great for the maple sugaring folks, but I wonder how the vast community of plants in general is doing.

Since we didn’t have much snow cover this winter I’ve been able to see the wild plants and weeds of lawns and fields that normally are buried in snow. They seem to have withstood the weather just fine, as many of them evolved, I think, to be impervious to a wide range of conditions.

A recent blog post from fellow herbalist Abby Artemisia made me think about what was underfoot as I walk to and from the train, and nose around the small greenhouse that is part of my housing development. The post, available here, mentions two of the plants already showing themselves in the Asheville, NC, area—chickweed and ox-eye daisy (the daisy is just putting out its basal leaf rosette at this point), then gives simple directions for making an easy infused herbal vinegar that can be made with any herb/s or wild plant/s of your choice. (A clarifying note: I generally use equal amounts of vinegar and fresh plant material, and less dry plant matter than vinegar with dry herbs.)

I have been seeing dandelion leaves and an occasional flower, mullein leave rosettes, garlic mustard, evening primrose basal rosettes, and many other plants popping up. With the high winds that have been sweeping through in recent weeks, there are large numbers of fallen twigs and branches of white pine, the needles of which make a great infused vinegar. Though chickweed is a cool-weather plant that you can even sometimes find outdoor in January, the only place I have seen it recently is the greenhouse. I also have a mullein plant that settled itself in the pot where my passionflower lives.

Even though it’s not yet officially spring, there are plenty of robust, hardy plants coming up that are perfect candidates for the vinegar jar, salad bowl, or soup pot.

What’s in your yard right now? Let me know in the comments section below.

And if you would like help learning to identify the plants in your yard or other areas, come take a plant walk with me! My walks start again in April, and continue through October. Check my class schedule for dates and locations.

Foraging for Winter Decorations

Holly with berries.

Holly with berries.

Decorating with greenery as winter settles in is an ancient tradition for people living in northern lands. Many ancient cultures believed that bringing plants indoors that stayed green when others were dead or bare brought in the magic of the plants, the energy of ongoing life.

When I was a kid I loved finding branches of greenery and putting them at the corners of windows, over the ends of the curtain rods. I don’t do this anymore as I am the one who has to pick up the fallen needles, but I do like to bring in greens and red-berried branches to decorate my home.

At my church this past weekend we decorated a number of planters with foraged greens and birch logs, a labor of love that resulted in a really fine-looking display, that is wintry and seasonal without being particularly Christmasy. I had a lot of fun helping to get these planters together!

Even if you live in a city or town, you can usually find bushes that won’t mind a little trimming and offer beauty for your home. Below is a list of a few of the shrubs and trees you can use for holiday decorating.

Red-berried plants: Holly, barberry, roses—rosehips.

Many holly bushes have clusters of red berries. It is the female plants that have berries, so if the bush doesn’t have berries, it is male.

Barberry bushes are widely used in landscaping and so are readily available for pruning a few branches. They have lovely small, dangling red berries, but the stems are very thorny, so handle with care or with a sturdy pair of gloves.

You may want to take those sturdy gloves with you to harvest rose hips, as many roses have very thorny stems. There are two abundant rose species growing around Eastern Massachusetts, easily found in the wild for harvesting hip-adorned twigs. The first is the seaside rose (Rosa rugosa), which has clusters of plump red berries the size of small cherries that are fabulous to see in any arrangement. If you don’t live near the ocean, some gardeners grow these care-free roses and you can ask for a few twigs.

multiflora rosehips

Multiflora rose rosehips.

The second rose that abounds is the multiflora rose, with numerous, very small (less than pea-sized) hips in clusters at the ends of many the rose’s twigs. They have a delicate appearance, but have study stems (and thorns!) and are marvelous to include in arrangements, or just use on their own.

There are many other roses that produce beautiful hips, and whatever you can find will be a beautiful addition to your arrangements.


Many species of spruce, including the beautiful blue spruce, are common in New England. Some species have drooping or “weeping” twigs, others have straight twigs; but all are prickly to the touch—they have “prickly handshake”. This makes spruce less than comfortable to work with, but it is pretty and sturdy when used in arrangements.


Pine, with its lovely long needles, is a beautiful addition to arrangements. There are a couple different species of pine, with differing number of needles and slightly different looks and textures, but all work well in arrangements.

Juniper and cedar

There are a few different species. Some junipers have blue berries, sometimes in somewhat of a cluster. Often these trees have rather spikey needles or very narrow leaves. In some ways they seem like the quintessential green for holiday decorations. All are great to use, but the branches with berries are particularly lovely.

Arbor vitae with cones.

Arbor vitae with cones.

Arbor vitae

This is a much-used native landscaping shrub or smallish tree, and thus easy to find. Some have pretty small cones, often in small clusters. The needles are flatter than other cedars. They work well in whatever arrangement you choose.


A shrub used a great deal in foundation and landscape plantings. It has flat, short needles that also grow on a rather flat plane on the twig. Because of this it appears to be rather sparse and therefore is not my favorite green for arrangements. But if it is available I will use it, as it does add some volume and greenery. Since it is easily found and planted in so many places, it is useful to keep in mind.

Depending on where you live and what grows around you, you will find other shrubs and trees to use for your decorating. Let me know what you do for your decorating. (If you can’t post below, e-mail me instead.)

But even if you don’t decorate, go out and enjoy the beauty and company of the bushes and the trees that give their beauty so generously!

Making an Herbal Wreath From Gathered and Foraged Plants, Part 2  

Plants drying hung on a pegboard.

Plants drying on a pegboard, using long hooks. I also use the usual pegboard hooks. (The wreaths are already dried.)

Herbal wreaths are so beautiful, and summer is the perfect time not only to be making them, but collecting materials to dry for future wreaths. In part 2 of Making an Herbal Wreath, I discuss how to dry and store what you want to save for later projects, and give you a list of suggested herbs, flowers, and plants.

There are many plants—herbs, flowers, “weeds”—that grow in our gardens or in fields, empty lots, woods, that are perfect for including in wreaths. Below is a list of some suggested plants. Don’t be limited by what is on there. If there is something you think might be pretty or dry well, try it! If it doesn’t work out, don’t let that discourage you, try something else next time. Experiment and have fun! Or just use what you already know will work.

Methods for Drying Plants, Flowers, etc. for Wreaths

There are a number of ways to dry to plants, flowers, and herbs for wreath-making. I will cover a few of them that are quick and simple, though I know there are others.

Hanging Your Bunches

The quickest, simplest way to dry plants, in my opinion, is to hang them in bunches. Simply pick whatever you are going to dry with at least 4 “ stems, tie them together with a piece of string with a loop at one end or put a rubber band tightly around them, and hang. Use just a few stems per bunch; if you make it too thick, things may not dry adequately.

Queen Anne's lace and a bit of yarrow hung to dry

Queen Anne’s lace and a bit of yarrow hung to dry (with Evening primrose leaves drying as well, they are for soup stock.)

They can be hung from pegs on a peg board, as I do, or pegs on any sort of coat-rack or board with pegs. If you have something with slats that you can hang from the ceiling, you can use unbent paper clips as hooks for hanging the bunches. If you don’t have anything else, you can use a coat hanger and unbend paper clips to use as hooks to hang the plant bunch on the hanger.

Be aware that the petals of your flowers will all point down or in the same direction, as they are being hung upside down. That means that if you want a flower with the petals spread out you will have to dry it by a different method, which I go over below. Flowers can look lovely with the shape they take from being hung to dry, but it may not be what you were expecting.

Laying Things Flat to Dry

If you have a window screen or, even better, a door screen that you can lay flat, you can simply place your plant material on the screen, remembering to place it in a position that will look good when it is dry. Remember not crowd your plants or allow them to cover each other, or they won’t dry well.

If you have a large enough basket, then that will also serve as a good service on which to lay your plant material to dry, and it will give adequate air circulation for good drying.

Other Methods of Drying

To have the petals of a flower spreading out from the center of the flower when it is dry, there are 2 things you can do.

You can take a bottle, such as a water or wine bottle, and put one flower into it so that the head of the flower rests against the mouth of the bottle. This way the petals will dry spreading away from the center. However, if they are long, they will then be pointing backwards from the center, so be aware of that.

You can also take a tray from a nursery that has a criss-crossed or hatched bottom. Many nurseries have these for customers to use in taking their plants home. The many small openings make it possible to stick a stem through the opening while the head of the flower cannot go through. Spread out the petals to dry and they will then be in a lovely circle around the center of the flower. You must prop the tray up on something so that there is room for the stems to hang down and dry. You can do a number of flowers on one tray this way.

Storing Your Dried Flowers and Plant Material

When you have dried your flowers and other plant material, such as seed pods, that you will be using later on, you will need to store it.

I like to use shoe boxes that I can label with the contents. If I have enough plant material I will sort it by colors and types.

A covered basket also works well for storing your plant material.

Plants to use in Wreaths

Here is list of plants and flowers to use in wreaths. Some can be used either fresh or dried, and some are better just used fresh. I have indicated whether the plants can be used fresh, dried, or both.

These are herbs, flowers, and other plants that can be grown in your garden or foraged/wild-crafted.

Legend: f=fresh  d=dried


Dried black-eyed Susans

Dried black-eyed Susans waiting to be used in a wreath.

Anise hyssop-f,d
Baby’s breath (gypsophila)-f,d
Basil flowers-f,d
Bee balm-f,d
Black-eyed Susans-f,d
Catnip flowers-f,d
Chive blossoms-f,d
Cockscomb (celosia)-f,d
Cornflowers or bachelor’s buttons-f,d
Delphinium, larkspur-f,d
Dusty miller flowers-f,d
Flowers of artemisias, mugwort, wormwood, southernwood-f
Globe amaranth-f,d
Lamb’s ears flowers-f,d
Mint flowers (all varieties)-f,d
Oregano flowers—f,d
Pearly everlasting-f,d
Queen Anne’s lace-f,d
Red clover-f,d
Sage flowers-f,d
Sea lavender-f,d
Some asters-f,d
Sweet Annie-f
Yarrow (all colors; cultivated and wild)-f,d

Leafy plants/herbs:

Artemisias-silver king and queen, silver mound, Powis Castle-f
Dusty miller-f
Lamb’s ears-f,d
Opal or purple basils-f
Sage (regular green sage is best, purple dries brown)-f
Sweet Annie-f

Seed heads:

Anise hyssop
Bee balm
Curly dock
Evening primrose
Hibiscus, hollyhock, some mallows
Lamb’s ears
Rose of Sharon

If you love herbal wreaths but aren’t able to make your own, I make beautiful wreaths and would be happy to make you one, or have you select from a few that I have already made.