Fall forage

Sunday about 20 plant nerds converged on Gompers Park, at the far-northwest corner of Foster and Pulaski, for Nance‘s final foraging walk of the season.

We walked into this thick stand of lambs quarters right off the bat; if  you’re looking, it’s at the south end of a little bridge at the southwest corner of Foster and Pulaski. Lambs quarters–aka “wild spinach, aka “pigweed”–are mildly spicy, good raw in salads or lightly stir-fried. It’s loaded with calcium and vitamins C and A, but not as iron-rich as garden spinach. Look for plants that haven’t yet gone to seed; if the leaves are red you don’t want it.

Just down the hill from the pigweed was a huge patch of yarrow (aka “milfoil,” or “roundwort”). Yarrow’s found just about everywhere,  It’s pretty bitter on its own, but medicinally useful as an antifungal. Make a tincture or infused oil and apply topically, says Nance–or brew a really strong tea and soak your feet in it to cure athlete’s foot. It’s also an effective styptic–a poultice made from fresh or dried yarrow can quickly stanch bleeding–and it’s believed to have analgesic and digestive benefits as well. But the herb is perhaps most famously used to brew some seriously strong beer

I can’t for the life of me remember what this is but obviously I thought it was interesting enough to ask this lady to pose with it. My notes say it’s yellow dock–but that’s not right. Yellow dock has long, slender leaves and a woody, yellow taproot. Anyone???

(While we’re waiting, let’s talk about yellow dock, which we dug up from the bank of a little lagoon. It’s a cleansing tonic–literally. It’s good for the kidneys and the liver, but it’s also a strong diuretic and laxative. Luckily, says Nance, “it’s hard to OD on it because it tastes so bad.”)

Hawthorne berries: used in teas, sweetened with honey, to relieve sore throats and slow diarrhea. They also make some yummy preserves that (according to Euell Gibbons, who provides recipes for Haw Jelly and Haw Marmalade in Stalking the Healthful Herbs) have the same medicinal properties as the tea.

Obligatory break for cute-baby photo. Note foraging-appropriate tutu.

The dandelion is probably the most common example of the adage “a weed is just a plant thriving where you want something else to grow.” Or, in Emerson’s words, “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” Young dandelion greens are tangy and slightly bitter and can be delicious raw; mix with boring lettuce to butch up your salad. Older, tougher greens are better steamed or sauteeed. Nance also recommends peeling and roasting the root, then grinding it up to make a nutty coffee substitute. I’ve never tried that tho, as dandelion coffee is also sadly caffeine free.

Some blurry creeping charlie (aka “ground Ivy”), used before hops as a bittering agent in beer.  Distinguished by its frilly edging, creeping charlie is found just about anywhere you look–just ask any frustrated gardener. It’s got a bracing minty smell when crushed that’s a tonic for nausea and dizziness. One summer, a while back, Nance was working with a landscaping crew of regularly hungover musicians who, she says, “had a lot of trouble with the bending-over-and-standing-up part of the job,” especially early in the morning. She used to make them smoosh creeping charlie in their palms and inhale to clear their heads.

Other plants found along the two-hour walk, which took us zig-zagging through the park then up along a sleepy tributary of the north branch of the river: wild senna, a POWERFUL laxative (“I tried it once and thought I had appendicitis!” cried one woman); plantain, which, when made into an infused oil, can treat skin problems and poison ivy and oak; burdock, whose sweet root is delicious pickled or stir-fried; chickweed, another good styptic poultice; hackberries, which have a dense, chocolately flavor; wild ginger, which, yum; garlic mustard, scourge of the upper midwest; and wild yams, about which Nance got very excited, saying “it’s AMAZING!!!” for “ladies” and their lady problems.

Then, when it was over, we feasted on wild-fermented sumac tea, sesame-pumpkin bread, serviceberry jam, and foraged plum puree, as well as a sweet-potato pie that one forager had been carrying around all afternoon, looking for all the world like some crazy woodlands waiter.