The time of the grain harvest
Lughnasad marks the beginning of the harvest season. The fruit and vegetables are ripening, and the grain has turned golden. It is usually an intensely busy and happy time, especially for gardeners. The efforts of the early part of the year are paying off. But not this year.
The growing period, from spring to late summer, is fraught with danger. Late frosts can kill sensitive starts, or summer storms may ruin a crop in just a few minutes. A good harvest is always hoped for, but never guaranteed. This year, Lugh has been fierce. Countless wildfires have caused terrible devastation, scorched landscapes and draughts. Others have been flooded and pelted by hail the size of hand grenades. We need the Sun’s warmth and light and without water, there is no life.
Lughnasad or Lammas, in the Christian tradition, marks the beginning of the harvest season. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hlaf-mas’, meaning ‘loaf mass’. Bread and wine are the traditional sacraments of the Eucharist.
But harvesting the seeds is only one stage of the perpetual cycle of life. Ideally, the harvest should sustain and nourish us through the winter, when the Earth is barren and still. It must also yield enough to provide the seeds we need to start the cycle again next year. We reap as we sow, but we also sow what we reap.
Facing the unravelling climate catastrophe, we are grateful for anything we can harvest today. But we must change our practices and live more sustainably if we want this cycle to continue and provide for our children and children’s children.
We can no longer afford to ignore the changes that are taking place. We are facing an existential threat – unless we act now. The future potential for our species and life as we know it, lies in our hands.
The future starts now.
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Foraging – connecting with nature through the senses
I became a forager at the age of 5, and I suspect many of you did, too. My early childhood memories are filled with berries of all kinds: wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and above all, blueberries. They covered the forest floor so densely that it was difficult to set down your foot without squashing them.
The summer holidays were pure berry bliss as I munched my way through the landscape like an insatiable caterpillar.
These early sensuous experiences sowed the seeds from which, in time, my passion for nature sprouted.
Nothing can forge a deeper connection to nature and the land than such total immersion – learning by smelling, tasting, eating, feeling and playing with what nature provides in abundance. We learn by doing, observing and asking questions about what we can directly experience. These sensory impressions form the foundations of our understanding of the world.
We learn to understand processes, to see patterns from which we deduce meaning. Such intense observation creates a deep relationship with the observed. We are no longer separated, but deeply and empathically involved. A sense of familiarity and caring develops and gradually grows. A great way to stimulate this learning process is to become a forager.
What is foraging?
The term ‘foraging’ is often associated with animals roaming around looking for food. Different animals forage for different kinds of food. A hedgehog looks for beetles, snails and fallen fruit, while gorillas sustain themselves only on leaves.
As ‘civilized’ human beings, we mostly forage at the supermarket. Everything is always available, and most of us have lost any sense of connection to the cycle of the seasons and the different foods they produce – unless they are gardeners, of course. But before we began domesticating wild species of plants and animals, we incorporated a wide variety of wild species into our diets.
Picking berries or hunting for mushrooms is still hugely popular, especially in times of economic hardship. Some of us continue to forage for part of our diets – not just to save money on the grocery bill, but simply because we love it. We love the connection with the land and the variety of foods and flavours each season provides. Besides, wild foods tend to have a vastly superior nutritional profile compared to industrially farmed produce.
What are wild (plant) foods?
Wild food plants are simply edible plants that are not under cultivation. But the dividing line between wild and cultivated foods can be very vague. Many wild edibles are the undomesticated ancestors of the plants we find at the grocery. Some wild species used to be cultivated and sold on the market but are no longer grown today. Gardeners even curse them as weeds.
Some fruits and nuts are cultivated and found in the wild. The cultivated varieties are bred for specific traits and qualities, such as shelf-life. Their wild cousins tend to be smaller but are often more flavourful.
Whether we can digest any given wild plant is determined by our physiology. Certain plants that would kill us are perfectly edible for other animals.
How to become a forager?
Foraging is a skill that must be learnt like any other.
The best method to learn is to find a knowledgeable mentor or join foraging walks and classes in your neighbourhood.
But there is also much you can learn on your own.
Essential foraging skills:
Learn all you can about your environment
Observe closely, and ask questions:
What kinds of trees, bushes and wildflowers grow here?
Which animals feed on them?
Do certain plants always grow together?
What is the soil like, chalky or loamy, wet or dry?
Do you know what the farmer sprays on his nearby field?
Learn plant identification skills
Foragers must learn basic botany and become familiar with the transformative processes of plants. Learn to recognize them at different stages of their growth cycle. Some species are edible at one stage, but toxic at another.
Learn the seasons
Each season brings forth its special treats, but seasons are not fixed by a calendar. If you know how to read the signs of nature, you will recognize when the time to harvest a specific herb or fruit has come.
Learn how to care for your environment
As foragers, we are stewards of the land, not pillagers. We must not only take but also give back to nature. Remember that you are not the only hungry one out there. Others (human or animal) also depend on the gifts of nature.
Never ever rely on your intuition alone! Even deadly plants and fungi may look, smell or taste deceptively appealing!
Learning everything you can about your environment is the most essential skill a forager must develop.
Also, it is always recommended to test for allergies before tucking into a foraged feast. The body can be finicky when it comes to accepting foods it has never previously encountered.
And finally – knowing your land also means learning about other dangers that may lurk in the undergrowth: from snakes to insects (ticks!), to wild boars, or even bears, depending on where you live.
There are many very knowledgeable people out there that teach foraging as a craft – too many to name them all here.
But here are a few books that I think are particularly useful.
Please be aware, that each bioregion is different, with different microclimates and seasons and that there are major differences between the hemispheres and continents. Obviously, I can’t cover them all here. I focus on my own bioregion, which is Europe, and which overlaps to some degree with parts of North America.
Plant Profile: Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)
Family: Liliacae /allium family
I recently took up nature journaling, and when I sat in the garden looking for a suitable motif, I suddenly noticed a Star of Bethlehem growing at my feet. I had seen them in the vineyards many times, but hadn’t noticed them moving in with me.
Apart from giving them a friendly nod, I had never paid much attention to them. As far as I knew, they were not used for food or medicine; but hang on – didn’t Dr Bach revere this little flower and give it a prime spot as part of his Rescue Remedy formula?
I decided to take a closer look and dropped to my knees to study it in detail. I was immediately smitten by the Star’s sublime beauty and unusual features.
What is the Star of Bethlehem?
Star of Bethlehem is a small perennial bulbous plant of the Lily family (Asparagaceae). Its leaves die back even as it begins to flower. After flowering, its energy retreats into the underground bulb. During the ‘dormant’ period, it produces little bulbils that send up their own narrow leaves early in the following spring. The Star of Bethlehem is thermoperiodic, meaning that it needs to go through a period of low temperatures before it begins to flower.
The pretty, star-like flowers appear between April and June. The white petals have a green stripe on the underside that is only visible when the flower is closed. It looks as if the petal has fused with the sepal. But in fact, botanical descriptions of the plant say that the flower is composed of three identical sepals and petals, displayed in a single whorl. It is impossible to tell the difference, so botanists call them tepals. In the centre of the flower is a little crown of what looks like six white petals tipped by the pollen-bearing anthers. They enclose what looks like a little six-pointed star, from which the pistil protrudes.
Where does Star of Bethlehem grow?
You can find Star of Bethlehem growing in many places throughout Europe and North Africa. It arrived in the United States as a garden plant, which has naturalized to such an extent that the USDA now considers it a pesky weed.
Where did the name ‘Star of Bethlehem’ come from?
The origin of the name is attributed to various stories. The most obvious explanation is its widespread distribution in the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin. Pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem carried the dried bulbs as food. (But fresh bulbs are reported as poisonous to cattle.) Another myth claims that the flower sprung from fragments of the Star of Bethlehem.
Is Star of Bethlehem known by any other names?
Indeed, it is, but none as charming. Star of Bethlehem is also known as Sleepy Dick, Nap-at-Noon, and even ‘Dove Dung’.
Nap-at-Noon alludes to the flower’s habit of ‘going to sleep’ in the afternoon and on cloudy days. The name ‘Dove Dung’ seems a bit insulting, apparently implying that the white ‘splash’ of the Star resembles bird doo-doo. It doesn’t, and in fact, it is not a reference to the supposed likeness. Instead, the name is a literal translation of the Latin name Ornithogalum, which means ‘bird’s milk’, a common euphemism for avian excrement. The species name ‘umbellatum’ refers to the umbel-like flower.
Gerard describes it as a type of wild onion and quotes Dioscurides, who mentioned that the bulbs are edible. Both the bulbs and the green parts are sold at markets in Turkey (Central, Bulancak) (1). Yet, they are also many sources that claim it is poisonous. So, what is the scoop?
Is Star of Bethlehem poisonous?
Biochemical research confirms that Star of Bethlehem contains cardioactive glycosides that are potentially toxic. But further investigation showed, that they do not survive being subjected to digestive juices, which would explain the controversy. An early study published by Arthur Vogelsang in 1961 notes that the effect of Star of Bethlehem is quite different depending on whether it is taken orally or injected. To test his hypothesis and confirm that the coating prevents the breakdown of the cardio-active compounds in the stomach. He compared Star of Bethlehem with Digitoxin and observed that its extract slowed the heart rate to a lesser degree than digitoxin while increasing the strength of the cardiac contraction and the excretion of body fluid. Star of Bethlehem also caused less nausea. Overall, Star of Bethlehem is a gentle yet highly effective heart drug that can be given to reduce blood pressure, strengthen the pulse and increase the discharge of excess fluid. It is particularly helpful for patients that do not tolerate digitoxin well.
Note of Caution:
The specific growing conditions, such as exposure to sunlight, water and soil type, change Star of Bethlehem’s chemical composition.
Is Star of Bethlehem used homeopathically?
In Homeopathy, the Star of Bethlehem is known by its Latin name, Ornithogalum umbellatum. It is used to treat persistent gastrointestinal problems, such as upper abdominal pain in the epigastric (central abdominal) region, pressure, malignant tumours of the digestive tract accompanied by depression, and feeling drained and exhausted. It is also indicated for patients suffering from a state of nervous exhaustion with high sensitivity to all types of stimuli.
What are the indications for Star of Bethlehem Bach Flower Remedy?
For Dr Bach, Star of Bethlehem was one of the most treasured flower remedies. He used it as a go-to Trauma remedy to buffer the effects of shock, such as unexpected bad news, the sudden loss of a loved one, an accident or other traumatic event. It can also help when facing the pain of traumas past (PTSD). It is one of the essential components of Rescue Remedy.
Slugs may not be pretty or cute, but they do play their part in nature, and they are a lot more interesting than I ever thought!
The Star of Bethlehem is a small bulbous flower of the Lily family with many unusual features and interesting properties.
Daisies are among the most common spring herbs, but did you know they are edible? This article is about foraging Daisies, and how to use them
What gardening jobs are there to do in May? Actually, there are plenty. May is one of the busiest gardening months. Sowing, planting, weeding, maintenance and more – there is plenty to do.
The main gardening jobs in April are going to be planting, sowing, and weeding. Hopefully, all your plots are ready to go.
What gardening jobs are there to do in March? This is a quick guide to what to do and sow in the garden in March.
This article is about unknown uses of Theobroma cacao. This remarkable tree can offer even more than chocolate – as if that wasn’t enough.
This article is about the amazing nutritional superfood benefits of Cacao and high Cacao content chocolate.
This article is a short introduction to one of my favourite plants: Cocoa – Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods.
Even as early as February, there are things you can do to kick off the gardening season and get a nice head start.
I never heard of Lion’s Mane mushroom until I found one in the woods. I am so glad it came into my life – and changed it for good!
Growing a garden starts with knowing your environment and creating a map that fits the territory. There are a few basic perimeters.
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