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.

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!

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 2

blackberry in flower1 6-1-2016

Flowering blackberry vines at the beginning of June.

Now that I am familiar with the plants around me, as I wrote about in my last post, I want to get to know them in more depth.

This is like meeting someone you like and find interesting and want to get to know better. It takes spending time with them and getting to know who they are below the surface, what makes them tick, their good and bad points, what particularly makes the two of you click. All of this leads to friendship, connection, and bonding.

So it is with plants, or to begin with, one plant that you want to get to know better. You want to know its name (common name, botanical name), where it came from (native or introduced, in what part of the world it originated), what it does for a living and for fun (growth habit; annual, biennial, or perennial; actions and properties), where it lives (what kind of soil, light, water requirements), how it spends its days and develops itself (watching it over the course of a year). In this way to start to develop an intimacy with the plant that goes beyond mere acquaintanceship and deepens into true knowledge and friendship.

Many herbalists and plant people suggest choosing one plant and focusing on it for a year, deepening your knowledge and connection with it. This is a wonderful idea, but I have always had too many plants that I wanted to get to know at one time and a somewhat scattered attention span, so I have never done the in-depth thing, instead greeting and observing various plants around me. Over the course of several years I will then have gotten to know a number of plants, both wild and cultivated, through all the seasons of the year. I know them from tiny sprouts in the spring to mature summer plants, to winding down in the fall, to winter silhouettes.

Get Up Close and Personal

New growth at tips of hemlock tree branches. June 2016

New growth at tips of hemlock tree branches. June 2016

One of the best ways to get to know plant friends is to spend a bit of time with them, even just a few minutes. Many times when I am working in the garden, or taking a walk, or even rushing to the train, a plant will catch my eye and I will have to spend some time looking at it, closely examining it, maybe the one part that caught my eye—the new growth at the tip of the branch, the flower, how the leaves are formed and attach to the stem. Maybe just how the whole plant looks and grows.

Growing plants gives such excellent opportunities to observe them up close and see them at different stages. If growing from seed then I get to see what the seed leaves look like, the first true leaves, how the plant develops into its mature form.

If I am getting a plant that’s already growing I can see how it settles in and how it goes through the different seasons.

Weeding is a particularly fine way to get to know weeds, or simply the extra plants that are more than I have room for in my garden. Pulling plants out by the roots gives you a very fine view of the whole plant, and a better than usual understanding of the roots.

When I am picking or harvesting plants, in the garden or in the wild, I also get to closely observe them. It’s important to know what parts I am harvesting, and if it is a plant that will continue to be there, how to do so without harming it. Just the fact that I am that close to the plant means I can’t help but notice its form and growth habits.

Communicate/Meditate with Your Plant Friends

Spending time connecting with the energy of plants is hugely important for knowing them.

Doing guided meditations or shamanic journeys to connect with the spirit of the plants, to ask questions and receive answers, or just to foster a deeper connection, changes your relationship with them.

Paying attention to what you perceive about a plant, to any whispers you may hear when you are with a plant helps you know the plant better. You can check what you learn/hear/perceive with books and other herbalists, but also listen to your intuition. A plant may work differently with you than with anyone else, and have gifts for you to use and share that it doesn’t share with other people. Many people find that they have one or a few plants that are their “go-to” plants, that have an efficacy that seems to go beyond the usual.

Live with Them

Sometimes getting to know a plant is as simple as living with it in your environment, whether in your living room or greenhouse, your garden, the local park, or the fields where you walk.

Having a plant, or plants, in your living space really helps you to get to know it better. Paying attention to it, caring for it, gives you a more intimate connection. And if it’s in your garden and you are really caring for it, that’s living with it too, and gives you the same benefit of getting closer to it.

I have found that also having the plant around in its dried form, ready for tea, or the dried stems or even whole plant, allows me to get a sense of it over time. Just having it in my living space for months, sometimes years, before I even do much of anything with it. Just feeling my way into familiarity with it.

Use Them!

dandylion flowers in a jar

Dandylion flowers in a jar

Of course, living with them leads naturally to using them in the different ways that make sense to you: Teas, infusions, plant medicines of all kinds, salves and lotions and scrubs, wreaths, dream pillows, dyeing your handspun yarn or silk scarves or fabric you love, energy work or magic, eating it.

If you have come to a plant in a time of desperation because of sickness then of course you will be using it right away as medicine. But there may be other uses for the plant, or other ways to know it. When you are no longer in crisis, you can explore those avenues. Maybe it is also edible. Maybe it dries nicely for a wreath or arrangement. Maybe its energy is used for Magic or energy work. Or it is dye plant. Even just getting to know its medicine better will get you more connected.

Every use you make of a plant teaches you more about it, deepens your connection with it.

Here is an article that addresses some aspects of getting to know the plants by Steph Zabel of Flowerfolk Herbal Apothecary: “Thoughts on Knowing Plants (meeting them with your heart)”.

What have you experienced with a plant you especially like? Share in the comments section below.



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.

Observing the Plants Where You Visit: St. Augustine, Florida

crinum lily flower fla 1-21-2016

Flowering crinum lily in St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

“Send me outdoors and I shall be well-entertained.”
Iris P. Weaver

I got a fabulous Christmas present from long-time friends this year: a round-trip ticket to visit them at their condo rental in St. Augustine, Florida, in January. Besides the obvious pleasure of being in at least marginally warmer climes than New England, the trip was a chance to meet new plants and see a very different environment than I inhabit in northeastern Massachusetts. I always love seeing what the plants are wherever I am visiting.

Before I left I didn’t even know where St. Augustine was in Florida, and had to look at a map when I got there to discover that it is in the northeastern part of the state. I did know that it is on the ocean, as beaches were mentioned before I left.

In Massachusetts I also live near the coastline and beaches, and so know the coastal landscape and flora quite well. It has been fascinating to observe the differences between the two coastal areas.

I didn’t know that Florida has a range of climate zones. I had previously only been to Orlando and Miami Beach, and just assumed that Florida is warm, warm, hot year-round. Not so. There are actually several growing/climate zones, ranging from Zone 8a to 10b according the USDA Plant Zone hardiness map. A book I got (Florida Landscape Plants: Native and Exotic*) divides Florida into 3 zones: North, Central, South, but the USDA map is more nuanced, dividing Florida into six growing zones. I had no idea there was so much variation in temperature and climate in this one state! The USDA places St. Augustine in Zone 9a and Florida Landscape Plants in the Northern zone.

flowering aloe-Florida, 1-21-2016

Aloe in bloom, St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

I was surprised to find that there is not as much diversity of plants in St. Augustine, both garden and landscape plants and weeds/wild-growing plants, as there is in New England. I guess I thought that warmer automatically meant lots of diversity, maybe even more than in colder climes.

Nevertheless, it was wonderful looking at the plants and wondering what they were, or seeing familiar plants, some that live only in pots in Massachusetts (though of course some of them live in pots in Florida as well).

It was so different from the last time I went to Florida, almost 40 years ago. Not that I didn’t notice the plants then, and wonder at and appreciate them. But since then my connection with them has grown so much, and my knowledge and ability to observe have grown as well. I am able to see, know, and understand so much more about the plants that I am meeting, and able to make some educated guesses about the plants that I don’t know.

It is amazing, for a Northern gal like me, to see plants growing in the ground that in Massachusetts are sold in the indoor, tropical plants section of stores like Home Depot, and that must either live entirely indoors, be brought in before the snow begins to fly, or get treated as annuals. For instance, lantana grows wild as well as being a garden plant, and hibiscus bushes bloom everywhere in front yards and ornamental hedges.

Plants that live in pots or are annuals in New England

asparagus fern, Florida 1-2016

Asparagus fern with ripe berries, St. Augustine, Florida, January 2016.

As well as the lantana I mentioned that gets treated as an annual in New England, and the various tropical hibiscuses that also have to winter over indoors, there were other tropical plants in the ground in Florida, such as asparagus fern (related to our culinary asparagus), snake plant or sanseiveria, and philodendrons. Agapanthus, lily of the Nile, was everywhere, though it wasn’t blooming. I recognized it by its leaves. There were clumps of aloes by the sidewalk where we walked to the beach, and a few were just starting to bloom!

Live oaks and Spanish moss

spanish moss strand curly

A single strand of Spanish moss.

I was ecstatic to get off the plane and see live oaks and Spanish moss. For some reason I hadn’t seen them when I had been in Florida before. I had to ask to be sure the trees I was seeing were live oaks, because they have small, unlobed leaves that are very different from our oaks in New England, and from many other oaks. But the Spanish moss was unmistakable! I recognized it immediately.

Fresh living Spanish moss is greyish, with a slight greenish tint to it. It is surprisingly springy and alive-feeling if you’ve only ever encountered it as the dry stuff used for crafts and basket filler.

spanish moss strand stretched

A strand of Spanish moss stretched out to show growth pattern.

It has a very interesting growth habit. It has a rosette  of skinny leaves, around 4 or 5 of them. One of the leaves grows a few inches longer and another rosette grows out of it, then another one of the leaves grows longer and another rosette grows out of it, and so on. This is how you get a long strand of Spanish moss. This strand is actually very elastic—if you pull it out and let go it will quickly pull itself back into its somewhat wavy, curly pattern. It doesn’t exactly snap back, but springs back.

You get a lot of these growing together and they become long beard-like formations dripping off of trees, or sometimes even directly on the bark of tree trunks.

Palm Trees

There were so many palm trees! which I knew there would be. It was interesting to see how many different kinds of palm trees there are. Since I just didn’t know them well enough, I couldn’t tell if some palms were different species or just the same species at different point of development or growth. But I was able to tell a few kinds of palms were the same.

One ubiquitous palm is the cabbage palm, state tree of Florida, and a native plant. It was recognizable because of the falls of black berries hanging under the palm fronds. I also saw a palm which had tannish-yellow berries which looked edible and I learned in a book they were, but I didn’t buy the book, and the palm wasn’t in the book I got, so I don’t know its name.

Also, there were lots of palmettos, looking like very truncated palm trees, one of which is saw palmetto, whose berries are used medicinally.

Visiting a Historical Garden

blooming cactus, Florida 1-25-2016

Blooming, leafy cactus, seen on one of my walks; St. Augustine, Florida January 2016.

I went to a historical site, the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. It’s a family estate that was given to the state to be used for the enjoyment of the public 50 years ago. The woman who gave it to the state was a talented gardener and her gardens have continued to be maintained. They are lovely. I saw so many cool plants!

The gardens are beautifully laid out with a wide variety of both native and introduced/exotic plants. There were 2 species of bird-of paradise, one that gets about 4 feet tall, and one that gets about 20 feet tall! There was also a beautiful Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochea) climbing on a short fence near an orange tree. It has an odd, amazingly shaped and  colored flower. You can wander around for a quite a while looking at the broad variety and beauty of the plants.

Same Plants Down There As Up Here

 The Washington Oaks Gardens has an herb garden in raised beds near the parking area. There are some familiar plants included, such as thyme, rosemary, and mint. It was lovely to see familiar friends.

In various places I went I also noticed dandelions and chickweed, inkberry (a native holly), and gaillardia, also called blanket flower and another native.

What I found most interesting was to see the wide growing range of some the plants that I know so well in New England.

So what places have you visited and what plants have you seen that piqued your interest? Comment below (the problems with commenting should be fixed).

*Florida Landscape Plants: Native and Exotic 3rd edition 2014 University Press of Florida



Dreaming of Roots

exposed tree rootsAnd don’t think the garden
loses its ecstasy in winter.
It’s quiet, but the roots
are down there riotous.

I was talking about plants in winter with a friend recently and she asked about staying connected with them in the winter when all seems dead. It was a surprising question to me because I never think I am not connected with the plants, no matter what the weather or where I am.

I believe that plants have spirits and intelligence in their own way, and that we can connect with them on an energetic and spiritual level, as well as getting to know them in the physical realm. So I always feel in some way connected with my plant friends.

When my friend and I talked about it I mentioned that even in winter, there are plants that may seem dead but are simply sleeping. We may not even know they are there (plants that die back to the ground) or think they are alive, but they are very much alive, with their roots tucked away in the ground.

Roots are so important to plants—they help the plant get nutrients and water, keep it in place in the ground, keep it from falling over. Interestingly, roots not only pull things up out of the ground for the plant to use, but also pass things back down into the ground, such as carbon which then gets absorbed back into the soil.

Roots are also one of the ways plants can communicate with each other, by exchanging soluble compounds and by the threads of fungi that spread between plants. And that is just what we humans can measure with our physical tools.

I find the idea of roots very important in our human lives as well. We say we are putting down roots when we make a commitment to live in a place. We talk about being rooted in a place when we are firmly established somewhere. When we want to ground ourselves, we visualize roots growing from our feet deep into the earth. The concept of roots is about being grounded and connected, as is the actual experience for plants.

So dreaming about roots in winter is dreaming of the plants, those visible above-ground and those slumbering invisibly through the cold, knowing they are alive and feeling their spirits, their energy.

It is thinking of connections, those of people connecting with people, and those between humans and plants.

It is knowing that even when nothing seems to be happening, there is growth and life flourishing and nurturing below the visible surface.

(Image courtesy of Pixabay:

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!