What is Foraging?

What is Foraging?

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.

Cautions:

 

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.

 

Resources:

 

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.

Slugs

Slugs

Slugs – the one animal everybody loves to hate. Especially gardeners. These mobile eating machines can really do some damage to our carefully groomed plants. Most gardeners are waging perpetual war against them. But are slugs really as bad as they are made out to be?

Being a gardener myself, I have my share of sluggy-slimy woes. Every evening, at dusk, I go out and search my garden. Torch in one hand and a glass jar in the other, I hunt down those ravenous gastropods before they decimate my beloved seedlings. I scour not my young starts, but the grass as well, to catch the slugs waiting there in ambush. The following day, I release them about a kilometre from my house.

I can’t really tell whether the strategy is working. Every evening I collect roughly the same amount of slugs again. Where the heck do they come from? Nature’s slug supply seems inexhaustible – as if on tap.

But the other day, while on my daily slug patrol, it occurred to me that I actually know very little about these creatures. Quite shocking, considering that I have hand-picked about a million of them over the years.

‘Okay’, you might think, ‘what’s the big deal? What is there worth knowing about slugs, except how to get rid of them?’

Good question, and I had always thought along similar lines. But, as with everything in life, things become interesting the minute you invest interest in them. Before I knew it, I was going down a research slug-hole, discovering weird and wonderful facts about these strange creatures.
I watched way too many slug videos on YouTube and scoured the internet for gastropod-related papers and posts. To my growing amazement, slugs turned out to be far more interesting than I had ever imagined.

People, who study slugs, seem to be a special kind of nerdy and have a sense of humour, too. Just consider the term ‘gastropods’, the scientific term for all slugs and snails. There couldn’t be a better name for them. ‘Gastro’ means ‘stomach’, and ‘pod’ means foot. I can’t think of a more perfect way, to sum up what slugs and snails are all about.

The English word ‘slug’ is similarly general. There are gazillion species of slugs and snails. Currently, an estimated 65,000 to 80,000 different species exist, and they have managed to adapt to all kinds of habitats – even the desert!
In terms of evolutionary success stories, slugs are champions. Their family tree dates back to 495 million years ago, the late Cambrian period, when more complex life forms first evolved.  There are 721 known families of gastropods, of which only 245 have gone extinct. The others are still with us today – a remarkable feat in evolutionary terms. To put that into perspective, the class of primates, to which we belong, only emerged about 74 million years ago. (Homo sapiens has only been around for 300,000 odd years)

The very earliest slugs evolved in the ocean – like all life at that time. Sea slugs are truly stunning. If you have never seen them, do go ahead and check them out. They are out of this world! My current favourite is this cutie:

 

 

The sea-sheep dons a coat of leaf-like structures with which it can perform photosynthesis! But it did not learn the trick itself. Like corals, it acquired the ability by eating algae, which it integrates into its own body. Other species of sea slugs obtain toxins in the same way, which gives them a means of protection.

Our garden varieties of land slugs are neither as colourful nor as cute. But even so, they are much more interesting than we give them credit for.

Interestingly, the thousands of species of terrestrial slugs are not all closely related. It seems that slugs originally did have shells, but later lost them. Now all that remains is a vestigial ‘shield’, a kind of plate on their backs that they retreat into when they sense danger.

These squishy, slimy, globs of goo are incredibly vulnerable, yet that does not impede their survival. Their defence system is their slime.

Slugs produce two distinct types of slime. A thin one that oozes from the centre of their foot helps them glide and marks their trails. It guides them back home to their holes and also signals their presence to other slugs – which comes in handy when trying to attract a mate.

The other type of slime is produced from glands at the rear and front of their bodies. It is extremely thick and sticky, which makes it more difficult for predators to just pick them up. The slug simply glues itself to the spot. The slime is also distasteful to potential predators, such as badgers, thrushes and hedgehogs.

 

The slime plays a prominent role during mating, which for slugs is a very oozy affair. The interesting-looking keel-back slugs spin a slime thread from which both slugs suspend themselves during the act. Slugs are hermaphroditic, and thus have both male and female sexual organs. Both will give and receive sperm, potentially doubling the number of offspring.

You can watch their weird and wonderful love ritual here, courtesy of the incomparable Sir David Attenborough and the BBC. Thank you, Sir, you made my day!

 

Slug slime has also recently caught the attention of scientists, who have taken an interest in its properties. Slug slime is highly adhesive yet elastic and does not become brittle. It is also non-toxic, consisting of mucous and serotonin. The unique property of maintaining its adhesive powers, even on wet surfaces, makes it a promising candidate for a new type of non-toxic surgical glue.

In Britain, there are 40 species of slugs, but only about 8 of them do all the damage in the veggie patch. These little ‘mobile stomachs’ have a ravenous appetite, yet their evolutionary role is not specifically to destroy our gardens. We simply make it easy for them to access the juiciest, tenderest, and tastiest young plants. From a slug’s point of view, our gardens are a kind of Shangri-la.

Ecologically, slugs are important composters that help break down organic debris, and themselves morsels in the food chain, even if not very tasty ones.

Snails even form part of the human diet. I used to love them as a kid, until one day I got really, really sick on them. Slugs, however, only enter the human food chain accidentally by hiding in the lettuce and avoiding being washed off – due to their sticky slime. Slugs carry parasites, so the principle of ‘if you can’t beat it, eat it’, is not recommended, in this case.

But you are probably still asking yourself the one question we all want to know the answer to – how do you get rid of slugs?

To tell you the truth, I haven’t found the magic secret, but there are some methods that are somewhat successful.

Copper tape
Garden shops sell copper tape that supposedly deters slugs. Apparently, the slime reacts with the copper, giving them a little electric shock. I haven’t tried this method, so I can’t comment on it.

I have tried coffee grinds, eggshells, and dry grass cuttings as mulch.

A determined slug will not be put off by any of these, but is likely to look for a more readily available meal. I often leave bits of decaying plant matter lying around when I pluck weeds from my veggie beds, and I have watched slugs devour these. But, like beer traps, it might attract more slugs to the garden. Other gardeners insist that keeping a garden tidy is the way to get rid of slugs.

I have also noticed that slugs can smell a wilting plant, which they go for preferentially.

Sometimes, I leave things like chenopodium standing between my tomatoes. Slugs prefer this tender weed to the tomato plants, especially once the tomatoes are strong enough to create their own defence.

Eggshells, walnut shells, pine needles, and other prickly stuff deter them, to some degree.

Slugs shelter in dark, moist places, under bricks, tarps, and buckets or under planks that some gardeners put down as walkways between their rows of veggies. If you check these places before the slugs go for their forage, you can find a whole clutch of them without much effort.

Whatever you do, please don’t use toxic chemicals. They do kill the slugs, but also the birds and hedgehogs that either eat the slug or the pellets.

Even though we may not like slugs much, they do have a place in the ecosystem. Eliminating them would probably cause more harm than good. But only a few species are truly destructive. Most simply go about their business, or even feed on other slugs and their eggs. Slugs can’t help being born as slugs, any more than we can help be humans. We each have our niche but share an inherent right to exist on our amazing planet, which provides for both, humans and slugs. Slugs have been here a lot longer than we have, and managed to survive without totally decimating their ecosystem, despite their ferocious appetites. Judging by how our own insatiable appetite decimates nature, slugs will probably outlast us.

 

Summer Solstice

Summer Solstice

On the Summer Solstice, the Sun reaches the zenith of its annual journey. We celebrate the longest day and shortest night. It is a magical time: nature is blossoming. The veil between the worlds is thin: sprites and spirits easily cross between them and we may even catch a glimpse of the little folk.

The young Sun-God Bel has climaxed, and his powers are beginning to wane. Lugh is taking over the reign. He will ripen the fruits of the earth and transform the Sun’s power into sugar and starch that will sustain us through the dark half of the year.

At the Summer Solstice, we honour the Gods and offer rituals and prayers. We ask for protection, health, and sustenance.

But most of all, it is a time of gatherings and celebrations, of revelling around bon fires, and of dancing, feasting, and merry-making.

The herbs are now at their most potent, and we should gather our annual supplies.

Spiritually, it is a time to seek guidance by divination or retreat on a vision quest to hold counsel with the gods.

Star of Bethlehem (ornithogalum umbellatum)

Star of Bethlehem (ornithogalum umbellatum)

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.

 

Star of Bethlehem flower

 

 

History

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.

Foraging Daisy (Bellis perennis)

Foraging Daisy (Bellis perennis)

Foraging Daisy (Bellis perennis)

The dainty Daisy is a picture of innocence: it seems to have been made for adorning children’s heads. But there is a lot more to these lovely little flowers than meets the eye.

Etymology

The English name ‘Daisy’ means ‘Day’s Eye’ because the Daisy opens its flower head in the morning and closes it at night.

But the origin of its Latin name is a lot more surprising and somewhat controversial. Bellis means ‘pretty’ – an obvious choice for this little herb. But Mrs Grieves thinks it may have been named after a dryad known as Belidis. Another common name is ‘Baldur’s Brow’, linking the Daisy to the Norse Sun God Baldur. Another association links it to Bellona, a Goddess of war. Judging only by its appearance, this suggestion seems improbable, but its traditional medicinal uses give a deeper insight.

Properties of Daisy

Daisies first appear around the Spring Equinox, when the Sun enters Aries, which is ruled by Mars. The ancient herbalists used Daisy as a vulnerary – an herb to treat wounds, and as an anti-inflammatory and diaphoretic,  for treating fevers. Inflammation, fever, and wounds all suggest a ‘Martian’ connection.

Mars also leaves its signature on the taste sensation. The leaves and roots are quite astringent, almost hot, but very unlike the heat of chillies. Instead, it is a spreading, radiating warmth, not a blistering burn.

The leaves are a little rough and moist, and have a demulcent quality. The old herbalists found Daisy’s heat suitable for treating conditions characterized by retracted, cold phlegm. Daisies loosen congestive conditions caused by an excess of cold moisture -as the ancient herbalists would put it.

Modern clinical herbalists have all but forgotten the pretty English Daisy. They use her sister, the Ox-Eyed Daisy, instead. Both can be used for similar complaints. Ox-Eyed Daisies are an excellent remedy for chronic bronchial conditions, asthma, and whooping cough. It is also used to treat nervous excitability and, prepared as a lotion or ointment, as a wound herb.

Wild herbs are not only nutritious but also therapeutic – and none more so than the early spring herbs. They often provide just what our bodies need to restore vitality after fending off winter bugs.

Daisy as Wild Food

 

Recipes

 

Daisy in the Salad:

Daisy leaves and flowers can be added to spring salads. The young, tender leaves are rich in vitamin C, and their heat produces a diaphoretic effect.

Daisy Capers:

Conventional Capers are made from the unopened flower buds of the caper tree (Capparis spinosa.) But inventive foragers use the same method on other flower buds, such as Daisies or Dandelions (only use edible flowers!)

The basic recipe is quite simple:

Pick about one cup of Daisy buds, wash, and cover them with about 500 ml of salted water. Quickly bring to a boil and strain through a cheesecloth or finely meshed strainer.

Place the buds into a stone jar and pour 500 ml of boiling vinegar over them.

Make sure they are completely covered.

After about 4-5 days, pour the buds and vinegar into a pan and, making sure the buds are covered, bring to a boil.

Let them cool, jar and cover with jam cling film to prevent the buds from coming into direct contact with the air and turning mouldy.

Daisy Soup:

Daisy soup is quick and easy to prepare and can be made at almost any time of the year. Use all parts of the plant: roots, leaves and flowers. (Only use the roots if Daisies are prolific in your area.) Picking the plants is easy, but if you have heavy clay soil, be prepared for clots of dirt to cling to the roots, making cleaning them tedious.

Pick about 6-8oz of flowers (roots, leaves and tops), clean well and chop them up (not too small).

Quickly sauté them in a heavy pan with a few drops of olive oil.

Add half a cup of white wine or apple cider, let the alcohol fly off, and stir in 1 litre of vegetable broth. Season to taste and finish off with a dash of cream. Serve with croutons.

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