HOW IT ALL BEGAN...
Sometimes I'm called The Plant Lady, especially by kids. For over thirty years, I have been learning all I can about plants. No, I'm not a botanist, although I am interested in ethnobotany. I have felt driven to learn how plants are used and how those usages are the same or different in various cultures throughout time. And I feel driven to put what I learn in practice, whether as a dye, a medicine, a food, a spice, or a tool and then share the knowledge I've gained with others, especially children. Below is the story of how it all got started.
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To Eat or Not to Eat
I was finishing up another successful Wild Edibles Workshop, but this one was different. This time there were over a hundred adults in the morning sessions, and almost four hundred youth in the afternoon, a far cry from the usual ten to fifteen adults and/or children that I usually worked with. I was also teaching in a classroom at Northern Michigan University, instead of outside in the woods and fields near the shores of Lake Superior. But even more incredible for me was the fact that most of these people were Native Americans from all over the United States. They were part of the American Indian Scouting Association (AISA) and included both Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, and their leaders.
For my first formal class situation, it went surprisingly well. Many years of advanced preparation had certainly helped. So had my continuing hunger for more knowledge and quest for newer and better books. I began the morning session with the AISA leaders by stating that as far as I knew, I was of pure western European descent, but that I had always had a deep respect for the Native American culture and I felt honored to be able to share with them what knowledge I had gained. The participants, including a couple of medicine men, and one medicine woman, indicated that they appreciated my library as well as my knowledge. During the question and answer session, one gentleman, dressed in western attire, including a black cowboy hat with a snakeskin headband, asked the almost inevitable query, “How did you learn so much about wild edibles?”
It seems odd, somehow, that the real beginnings of my wild crafting education would be in the urban environs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a little girl, I lived only a few blocks from Washington Park with its playgrounds, lagoon, and zoo. Sultry summer days would be spent with my younger sisters and friends wandering around looking at the unusual jungle animals which always held us in awe: the lions lounging by their small pond; the hyena, whose laugh gave us the shivers; the giraffe with its impossibly long neck. But even more, we liked looking at the bison, the deer, elk and moose, or better yet, we’d go in to the aviary with its myriad bird songs, relishing the fact that most of these animals and birds were native to our country. Then we’d run out to the picnic and play areas, find the thickest clumps of bushes to hide in, and pretend we were Indian hunters, stalking the deer or buffalo. Best of all, though, we liked lying on the cool ground at the edge of the lagoon trying to catch crayfish. I still remember my Dad teaching us how to do it. He took a long piece of string and tied a small piece of liver to it. Then he had us drop the liver in the water between the gnarly roots of one of the old cedars or willows that grew along the shore. We’d watch the piece of liver closely, waiting for a fat crawdad to grab it with its claw. Then we’d jerk the liver up on shore, usually with the crawdad attached, and carefully grab behind its head, out of reach of the pincers, and drop it in a bucket of water. When we had about a dozen or so, we’d take the bucket home and Mom would drop them in a pot of boiling, salted water and cook them up for a snack. “Fresh water lobster,” Mom called them. All I knew was how good they tasted. Almost as good as frog legs I’d often get for my birthday dinner.
Mom and Dad tried to make our birthdays special. Instead of parties, they would take just the birthday girl (or boy) out to dinner, and we could have whatever we wanted to eat. Mom had always encouraged us to try different foods. That’s how I learned to eat and love frog legs and seafood, my favorite birthday meal. The frog legs tasted a lot like chicken, only a little sweeter. But I also remember a friend of my Dad’s bringing us a bushel basket of smelt one spring. My sisters and I learned how to clean them very fast, making a contest out of it, and Mom would fry them up for dinner and make home fried potatoes and fresh coleslaw to go with the crisply browned fish.
My Dad and Grandpa took me on my first fishing trip—I don’t think I was more than six years old. Grandpa and I had dug up some worms from his garden, and they had also bought some minnows. We put our gear in the ample trunk of the old gray Nash Rambler, and Dad carefully put the picnic basket in the back seat next to me. We went to the shoreline of the Wisconsin River and I climbed down an embankment that was as high as my dad was tall. Dad patiently guided my hands as I put a worm on my hook and then helped me to cast it into the river. I had to have been fishing in the shallow area close to shore, because I recollect getting my hook caught in the weeds. After a few tries, though, I caught my first perch. I remember holding it up with pride. I don’t know how many more fish I hooked, but between the bigger ones Dad and Grandpa caught and the smaller ones I caught, we had a nice mess of fish for supper.
As I grew older, my education about wild things to eat continued through books, including My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George. This survival story especially appealed to me at the time since it was about another thirteen year old who learned to live off the land by himself, gathering, storing, and eating plants, and learning how to trap and make leather clothes by reading books from a local library. I really wanted to be as self-sufficient and capable as this boy was. I tried building a snow shelter and even struggled to make my own bows and arrows, but the childish bow didn’t work very well, nor were the arrows very straight. Other books were about Native Americans, including Loon Feather and The Shining Trail, by Iola Fuller, both of which portrayed Ojibwe youths coming to terms with the clash of their own culture and that of the whites. From these books, I also learned survival skills, and gained a profound respect for the American Indian traditions.
I often began my workshops with the question, “Why do you want to learn about wild edibles?” The responses this time were the same as I received from smaller groups, and echoed some of my own reason
“It’s something I always wanted to know more about,” said one; “It’s a good survival tool,” said another; “This is something our ancestors have done and I want to know how to do it, too.
Personal experience had taught me that there were sound economical reasons for having this knowledge, and as I distributed the handouts I had made listing various edibles, their nutritional composition, and a bibliography, I related a few specific experiences to demonstrate the practicality of having this knowledge.
Because the primary focus of this class was plants, I touched only briefly on the edibility and preparation of animals and insects. I had brought most of my reference books, prepared color overhead transparencies, and had dug up many plants to display, such as shepherd’s purse, plantain, and milkweed. We discussed where they grew, the best times of the year, as well as the proper time of day to gather them and some of their uses. I explained that I usually took the class out to pick and sample the various plants, but the size of the class and time constraints wouldn’t allow that this time. Since many of the participants were not even from the Upper Peninsula, I assured them that many of these plants also grew in the areas where they lived, that there was even desert milkweed, and suggested possible books for the areas where they lived. I also touched briefly on how to use certain plants to dye yarn or cloth, as well as some of the medicinal applications of the plants: red clover for colds, yarrow tea or willow bark tea to reduce fever, wintergreen poultices to sooth aching muscles. I stressed the importance of knowing the proper way to make an ointment, a tea, or a poultice, and suggested publications that would help them to learn these skills. Then I was asked, “How do you know which plants are medicine and which ones are poison?” I answered, “First of all, you need to learn about the plants from someone with experience, as well as have books with clear pictures, not just sketches or black and white photos…”
I was in Michigan, attending Lansing Community College, when I began learning about the many uses of plants. No, it wasn’t a botany course, but a class on spinning and dying wool and other fibers. Peggy, the instructor, took us out in the fields and woods to gather various dye plants—lamb’s quarter, dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace, which yielded yellows and greens; blueberries for pinks and soft blues, and blackberries for reds and purples. I had known the berries were edible, but I hadn’t realized that lamb’s quarter was a wild spinach, or that Queen Ann’s lace was wild carrot. I had heard of dandelion wine, but didn’t know that dandelion root was used as a coffee substitute, or that the greens and crown were delicious when cooked, or that the blossoms would taste like deep fried mushrooms when dipped in batter and fried. Peggy also mentioned in passing that these and many other plants had been used as medicines and food by Native Americans. She even recommended a book, mostly to learn more about dye plants and methods: The Herb Book, published by Rodale Press. This was the first book in my reference library and it was put to use a little more than a year after obtaining it, but not for dying wool.
Almost two years after completing the spinning course, I was a housewife taking care of our two sons; my husband had recently been laid off from his job. At the time, our income was essentially non-existent. Nor did we have any medical insurance. And it was winter. The timing was perfect for both my husband and me to become ill with a particularly severe strain of flu. When we were finally able to keep food down, it went too quickly through us. Desperate for some relief, I searched through The Herb Book, praying I’d find something readily available that would help. I found out how to make and use oak-bark tea, which rapidly controlled the diarrhea. I don’t think I was ever more thankful for having a woodstove and the wood rack full of maple and oak. This was only the beginning of my herbal adventures, and as my knowledge of remedies increased, so did my education in wild edibles.
In the afternoon, I gave the same class in four sessions to the AISA youth, all Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, most of them Native American. In the conference rooms of the University Center they were rotating through several classes besides mine, including Story Telling, Drum Songs, Dance, and several others, so not all of them were able to participate in my class. It was an incredible intercultural experience for me, as well as for them, because of the many tribes represented. Besides the local Ojibwe, there were Seneca from New York, Apache from Arizona, Blackfeet from Montana, Fox from Iowa, to name a few. With all that I have learned by reading about Indian culture, my life seems to have come full circle, since I was now teaching Native American children and adults.
For the youth classes, I had taken time during the lunch break to obtain some more samples, hoping I’d have enough for each group to at least have a taste—cattails, fiddleheads, sweet fern tea, sumac “pink lemonade,” etc. I felt it was important that they have more of a hands-on experience. And if they wanted, they could take a sample of the plant—a leaf or small branch—for later comparison with plants where they lived. I also provided them with the same handouts that I had given to the adults.
When the time came to taste the plants or plant products, the majority of these young people were at least willing to try a bite of the plant or a sip of the beverage. I was pleased that most of them at least recognized a fair number of the plants, and I was saddened that few of them were aware of their edibility. It was very gratifying that only one student out of the four classes complained and asked, “You don’t really eat this stuff, do you?” I answered, “Absolutely. In fact, I even can some of the greens…”
When our sons were five and six years old, we lived in a mobile home park. One day, they came home with two friends and their friends’ mother. She was concerned because the boys were eating “weeds.”
“You don’t actually let your boys eat this stuff, do you?” she asked, handing me a slightly wilted plant.
After first making sure that the boys were sampling the right plants, I assured her, “Oh yes, that’s lamb’s quarter.”
Her next question wasn’t unexpected: “But how will they know that they are eating the right plants?”
]With my sons tagging along, I led them around to my garden patch, saying, “Come on over here, boys. See how these leaves are shaped? They look almost like a spearhead with jagged edges. And look at how the leaves grow on the plant, on opposite sides, but not exactly opposite; they alternate their location on the stem.” I then asked them, “Does this look like the plant you were eating?” They nodded their heads in answer.
I then warned them, ”This is a plant that you can’t mistake, but there are a lot of plants out there that look a lot alike. You should never eat anything unless you are absolutely certain that you know what it is.”
Looking at all four boys and my neighbor, I stated, “That’s the cardinal rule for foragers: If you don’t KNOW what it is, don’t eat it. If you only think you know the plant, don’t eat it until you check with someone who does know. What’s the rule again?”
Nodding their heads, the boys chorused the rule together and ran off to find some more weeds. I then brought the boys’ mother into my house and shared my books with her as we discussed the nutritive value of the lamb’s quarter they had eaten, which had greater nutritive value than its domestic cousin, spinach. When I told her they were eating “wild spinach,” she laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding! They hate spinach! Heck, I have a real hard time getting them to eat any vegetables.” She thought it was great that they were eating something besides junk food.
A few years later, we were able to move onto our own land up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, eleven and a half acres of scrub poplar and jack pine that had been clear-cut. The land had never been worked and was very acidic, so it took a year or two of soil improvement before we had a productive garden. A couple of my neighbors had huge, beautiful gardens and I offered to weed their gardens in exchange for vegetables, to which they readily agreed. I was delighted to find that the majority of the weeds were ubiquitous lamb’s quarter. That summer, I canned forty quarts of the “weed,” and we had two bountiful winters of delicious frittatas and quiches and a great accompaniment for other main courses, as well as the other canned vegetables, pickles, and wild berry jams.
The evening after the Wild Edibles Workshop, I was a bit tired from the long day, but I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Pow Wow, the finale of the AISA Conference, held at the Al Quaal recreation area in Ishpeming. I enjoyed the colorful spectacle of the many groups wearing their tribal regalia, beaded, feathered, dancing to the rhythm of the drums; for me it was the perfect ending to an incredible day. But I was also very satisfied with what I had accomplished, having been able to share the skills and knowledge I had acquired.
Over the years, I have been able to stretch my budget, enjoy a quick nutritious snack while hiking or fishing, or add to our meals while camping in the Mojave Desert, the mountains of Colorado, along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as on the shores of the lakes and streams of the Midwest. I have participated in and taught many classes on wild edibles. My reference library has continued to grow as has my own education. I have shared my knowledge with my children, and now I have the pleasure of teaching the skills I have learned to my grandchildren. But I am truly humbled at having had the opportunity to teach Native Americans some of the expertise their forefathers once took for granted. With my youthful desire to know more about the plants and animals around me and their uses, my longing to live in the country, and my seemingly innate interest in survival skills, more than once my grandparents had told me that I was born two hundred years too late, and I used to think that they were right. Now I know I live in the right place at the right time as I teach others to enjoy a cattail stir fry, or quench their thirst when hiking by eating service berries or bilberries, or by drinking a glass of “pink lemonade” made from sumac berries on a hot summer day.