Here’s some stuff I’ve been getting up to (that’s what blogs are for, right?) and which I presume you could be getting up to too:
1) – Stinging Nettles. Further to picking & eating them raw as a wayside snack / test of manhood, I felled this lovely bunch from a shady part of the local park (I guess they have more incentive to grow tall with a lack of light, plus the books say that they make better eating than those getting scorched in the full sun all day):
I snicked them off at the base with a knife, put gardening gloves on after the 3rd or 4th sting from the bristly stems, then flopped the lot of them over my shoulder and walked the 15 minutes home, people staring all the way*. Usually I’d just pick the lighter green tops off for food use, but I wanted to try my hand at making cordage from the strong fibres in the stalk. Here’s the Ray Mears tutorial I worked off (watch from 2:35):
Here are my stalks, stripped of newer, nice-looking leaves (in the bowl on the right) and older, nasty-looking leaves (in the tub on the left, covered in water to use as a plantfeed when well-rotted after a couple of weeks-or-so†). Gloves not really needed from this point:
I flattened them against the paving stones with my thumb before splitting them from the mid-point and peeling away the pith as Mears demonstrates (top-to-bottom, inner pith, partially split stem, fibres):
Then I hung them to dry, and a couple of days later they looked like this:
I tried to twine the dried fibres together as Mears shows, but they weren’t pliable enough to roll along my jeans so I settled on a threeway plait. I was in my usual doing-things-for-the-first-time mindframe of assumed competency and feverish annoyance when things don’t work out right away, so the result was a bit of an untidy rush job:
Still, not bad for a first attempt. A good length from 5 fibres (feeding a new one in as the old one tapers out) and it felt strong enough when I tugged on both ends.
I made a couple of really tasty soups from the leaves. Pamela Michael’s ‘Nettle Borscht’ recipe of butter-fried onion + nettles + vegetable stock, boiled for 10 mins, blended + cream to finish was my favourite. They also went well in bacon fry-ups, veg casseroles and omelettes. Oh, and I saved a couple of handfuls from the outset to dry for tea, but I’m not crazy about the flavour … seems like a bit of a waste of the incredible 25% dry-weight protein content too – I feel really nourished and full of a nice buzzy energy after eating nettles in one form-or-other. Sadly deceased herbalist & wild food guru Frank Cook said that it should be our ‘national food’ here in England‡ and I’m inclined to agree.
2) – Elder. These guys have been going mad with all the sun lately, poking out their lovely, delicious-smelling flower sprays almost everywhere I turn. I suppose that’s the first stage in the relationship: recognition – the brief interval in the year when a plant species takes it turn to do something incredible and un-ignorable – “Hey, look at me! Check out what I’m doing over here! I wanna be your friend! Remember this meeting and maybe come back to say Hi at another point in the year – perhaps I’ll have another special gift to offer you??!?” I finally went on a trip with my mum to visit my favourite Elder buddy on a field margin down on the way towards the river. He was practically groaning under the weight of berries last Autumn (October?) and this is the second year I’ve gathered his flowers – in fact I only just finished the last batch of tea (just dry the flowers, then infuse at will) which he helped provide:
Recently I’ve read about the importance of Elder as a ‘keystone species’ in plant communities. In The Vegetarian Myth Lierre Keith quotes extensively from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s The Lost Language of Plants, in which he ‘talks about archipelagoes of plant communities, groupings of intercommunicating plants around a dominant or keystone species, usually a tree. These archipelagoes form in response to mysterious and unpredictable cues, and often announce the wholesale movement of ecosystems.’ Keith continues:
Once established, the keystone plant then calls the bacteria, mycelia, plants, insects, and other animals necessary to build a healthy and resilient community. The keystone’s chemistries arrange the other species and direct their behaviour. “This capacity of keystone species to ‘teach’ their plant communities how to act was widely recognized in indigenous and folk taxonomies.” Elder trees are called elders for a reason.
Among many indigenous and folk people it is said that the elder tree ‘teaches the plants what to do and how to grow,’ and that without its presence the local plant community will become confused … Other indigenous peoples, recognizing the nature and function of keystone species, have said that ‘the trees are the teachers of the law.’ ” [Keith, pp.88-89; Buhner, p.183]
That was about the most awesome thing I’ve read all year. Elder also has a crazy diversity of medicinal applications, known as ‘the medicine chest of the country people’ (Ettmueller via Grieve), though so far I’ve only used the flower tea, fairly successfully, to sweat out colds and fevers before they get into full swing. I think next I’ll be trying out the leaves, which, according to PFAF’s Ken Fern, work to repel insects and are ‘very effective when rubbed on the skin though they do impart their own unique fragrance’. For edible uses, I made elderflower fritters (which tasted okay with powdered sugar, but didn’t agree with my digestive system – here’s a recent post, including recipe, on Nick Weston’s ‘Hunter-Gathering’ blog) and, after having a whole batch of laboriously-snipped flowers (the green flower-stalks taste bad) go mouldy, I decided to throw the next lot quickly into Elderflower Cordial. Robin was kind enough to link me to another Hunter-Gathering recipe, which I followed pretty closely apart from the orange zest and citric acid. So this is a load of snipped flowers + three lemons sliced & grated in slightly over 2l of water, brought to the boil for around 10 minutes:
I left the thing to infuse overnight, then strained through a jelly bag (squeezing hard to get all the juice out of flowers & lemons), added several squirts of lemon juice concentrate and 1kg sugar to the resulting cloudy yellow liquid, boiled for another 10 minutes before allowing to cool slightly and pouring into sterilised bottles. Voila:
To be continued…
* – Watching people’s reactions to my climbing trees, walking barefoot, smelling flowers, looking up at birds, and especially foraging for wild plants, I wonder if I underestimate the propaganda value of just seeing somebody engaged in these activities, behaving like it was the normal thing to do. Having rather shy & retiring personality traits (in the flesh, at least) I started out quite furtively with my nettles, trying to avoid other people, taking the smaller paths &c. Illicit activity. When I came to a main road, though, I had to give this up and actually started to enjoy my role as walking advertisement for a sane way of life. All the cars zooming past with quizzical expressions on those driving them, behind wheels, behind glass … why should I be the one to feel embarrassed? They’re the crazy fundamentalist revolutionaries, not me!
† – PFAF say: ‘The leaves are also an excellent addition to the compost heap[12, 18, 20] and they can be soaked for 7 – 21 days in water to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants. This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed[14, 18, 53].’ (link) My little tub stank out the whole garden after two weeks, when I finally spread half of it on the flower borders and dumped the rest in the compost. Weirdly, we had a couple of wood pigeons who seemed to love drinking the stuff – I had a good laugh when the one with a limp (who keeps coming back even though I’ve sworn that I’ll try to kill and eat him if he does) fell into the tub and got covered in the stinky sludge trying to flap his way out.
‡ – Watch him speak about nettles. Quote (0:27): ‘[T]he rest of the world of people who know nettles consider it an amazing healing herb, and it’s only here and other places in Europe that it’s considered a noxious weed. And it’s really important: any noxious weed you have around you is rare somewhere, and that’s really important to remember – and that, instead of thinking of it as a noxious weed, think of it as an incredibly abundant friend who’s trying to remind you of something.’