A walk in winter…or…”You’ll feel better if you leave the house”

“Go to the winter woods: Listen there, look,

watch, and the ‘dead months’ will give you

a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest”

-Fiona Macleod-

The new year is here and winter is showing itself in full force. The temperatures have plummeted and the snow flakes have been falling fast, the world outside looks like the inside of a child’s snow-globe, pristine and picturesque in its winter cloak. This is the time of IMG_8590year when curling up to a hot cup of tea and a good book seems like the most logical way to pass the time. But as much as I love books, I have found that they can only hold my attention so long before I get antsy and need to shake the winter doldrums. For that there is no better remedy than a walk in the cold, ambling and stumbling through the snows amid the fields and forests that lie in wait for spring. At first it may seem as if there is little to see outside in winter besides gray skies and snow, but if you slow down and look closer you will discover that the herbs and flowers that existed so boldly in the warmer months are waiting to show themselves, out amongst the cold winds and falling snows,.

MIlkweed
Milkweed Pods and seeds

Winter is a wonderful season to identify plants, a time when the above ground world is asleep and the green energy of life is now deep underground in a dormant slumber. Winter identification gives you the chance to know a plant in yet another phase of its life cycle. It is a useful way to locate wild edibles for spring harvesting, and a necessary skill for root harvesting in autumn when the plants have changed their forms.

Some plants such as milkweed are easy to identify after they have gone to seed but others like sweet cicely are not quite so easy to figure out. Luckily there is a book available to help you with the tricky ones. Lauren Browns “Weeds in Winter” is a must for winter plant excursions, its detailed drawings provide an excellent visual reference. It also contains a wonderful key to help identify many of the winter plants are found in Pennsylvania.th

Snow covered fields are full of many wonderful medicinal and edible plants, which makes them a perfect place to start any snowy hike. In the late months of summer and autumn, the fields and meadows of Pennsylvania are a bouquet of color and variety, but by October they have lost their luster, becoming an expanse of dull grays and brown.

Milkweed, the once choice food of the monarch butterfly has become a shell of its once grand self, only the cotton like seeds remain, clinging to the husk of autumns pod, waiting for a cold breeze to spread them on the wind. Goldenrod, gray with age is now the stately elder of the field. Its seed tops sway in the breeze remembering the August days when its golden crown stretched across the meadow as far as the eye could see. Wit the arrival of cold days the white umbels of Yarrow have turned a darkened gray and its once fragrant leaves, full of wound healing medicine are now clinging to the stem, shriveled and odorless.

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Queen annes lace

Nearly every field and meadow contains the skeletal remains of Queen Annes Lace, its birds nest-like top catches snowflakes as they fall. The Queens seeds have been pillaged by migrating birds, to be spread far and wide across the land. Mints still holding their faint aromas call back to the days of summer past, their square stems and

Aster
Asters

opposite leaves provide instant family identification even in winter. Asters of every size shape and variety can be found in fields all winter, though identifying exactly which particular species your looking at can be hard, as many of them have very similar characteristics.

 

Traveling From the meadow to the fields edge, you will inevitably find you have picked up a hitch hiker or two. The seed containing burrs of Burdock love to latch on like Velcro to any passing human or animal. They make a tangled mess of gloves and scarves, and are especially hard to get out of hair and fur. The taproots of young Burdock plants remain deep underground all winter, each one waiting for their second and final year of life when they grow from a hand full of basal leaves into five foot tall giants.

Mullein, a plant who truly loves edges and disturbed spaces often stands stark against the crisp blue sky of winter. An unlit torch made of tiny flowers, waiting for the spark and flame of summer to ignite its yellow brilliance. If you are lucky you may still find the

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Mullein

glowing sun colored head of a Dandelion poking through the snow. They’ve been known to blossom and bloom every month of the year. The early spring leaves of Dandelion are a great addition to any salad, and the bitter roots help aid in detoxification and digestion. All along the field edge you will find the thorny stems of many different berry bushes. Pennsylvania is home to many members of the Rubus genus, Blackberry, red raspberry, wine berry and my favorite black raspberry are all very common and very delicious. Come back in the spring and you are sure to find enough berries for a pie or jam.

Next, step beneath the trees into the quiet woods where in a few months time the early spring wildflowers will soon begin to show themselves. All around the forest floor lies the remains of the once growing world. Bare stalks, fallen leaves and dried up flower heads mark the spots where herbs and flowers once thrived beneath the forest canopy.

Rose bushes can be found throughout the forests of Pennsylvania in every season. After blooming their flowers morph into the burning red fruit of rose hips. Rose hips are a winter treat full of vitamin C, waiting to be added to your next pot of tea. Fallen hickory

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Rose Hips

and walnuts, though more abundant in the autumn can still be found in winter. Sometimes it takes cracking a few open with a rock to find one that has not been nibbled on by forest creatures.

As you walk the forest paths you will likely come upon Hawthorn, a thorny tree once planted as a living hedgerow that has spread far and wide. The vibrant red berries of hawthorn make great food for the migrating birds of autumn. But by the time the cold sets in all that remains is a few shriveled dull red remnants. Garlic Mustard in its many forms can be

Hawthorn Berries
Hawthorn Berries in Summer

found year round though in winter it is most often a small patch of rounded green leaves that exude a pungent garlic smell when crushed. The young leaves can be added to salads or stir fry or eaten as a trail snack as you walk. Onion Grass appears when the cold weather sets in, a green rounded grass amongst sticking out amongst the white snow. The bulbs beneath the ground can be dug up and eaten, while the tops can be cut up like chives. These are just a taste of the many plants that can be found from field to forest to your own backyard all winter long.

So when the snowflakes start to fall and the gray days of winter take hold, get outside, take to the woods, go find a field, get out of the house and explore the season. You will discover there is far more out there to see than you ever imagined.

***I stole the Line…”You’ll feel better if you leave the house” from a song by Worriers….Check them out…  http://worriersmusic.com/ *****

“Weeds in Winter” by Lauren Brown can be found for sale HERE on ABE.com or at your local library.

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The Forest in Spring

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.
A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges” -Aldo Leopold-

Walking into the Forest in spring is like a game of hide and seek, where flowers are always hiding and you are forever seeking. A short walk through the warming sunlight can quickly turn into a hunt for the tiniest of springs flowers hiding in the leaf litter of a thousand autumns past. A splash of yellow here, a drop of purple there each pushing its way into the light. Once you start noticing the paint drops of spring you’ll begin to see them everywhere and it will seem as if a camouflaged rainbow was pulled from the sky then scattered across the forest floor.
TheIMG_5182 earliest indicator that winter is waning and spring is around the corner is the arrival of Skunk Cabbage. Skunk cabbage is a plant that loves swampy wet areas and as you may guess from its name it smells like the musky spray of a skunk. Even when the snow is still on the ground Skunk Cabbage will heat itself up through a process called thermogenesis and melt its way to the sunlight. The young plant sticks up like a short spiraling spike of purple and green swirls, stark against the white of snow. Later in spring it will begin to leaf out becoming a large leafed cabbage like plant that is said to be a favorite food of bears coming out of hibernation.

One of the earliest wild flowers to show its self upon springs arrival is Coltsfoot. Each of its flowers is like a small yellow sun pushing through the leaf litter announcing the return of warmer days. Coltsfoot is somewhat of an oddity among plants as it produces flowers before it produces leaves. The leaves show up sometimes a good month after it has flowered.

ColtsFoot

Daffodils are another herald of the changing seasons. Though they are not technically a flower of the forest, daffodils can often be found there. For me they are an indicator species, marking places of human life that once were but are no more. Daffodils are a perennial/annual that comes back year after year in and around the place that a human hand once planted them. Where you find daffodils in the forest you can almost always find the remnants of human habitation, an old stone foundation, a fallen down spring house or broken milk bottles. Each clump of daffodils is a glimpses into the past.

Daffodills
If you wander the forest long enough you are bound to encounter Bloodroot. With a little patience you can watch its ritual of spring greeting unfurl. As the days slowly warm Bloodroot pushes its way up from beneath the earth up through the leaf litter. As it reaches skyward you will see that it comes prepared for the season wrapped in the warmth of its own leaf blanket. Soon enough its large leaf unfolds

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As the season gets into full swing more early spring wildflowers start to arrive, each one taking advantage of the sun that hits the forest floors before the trees begin to leaf out. The white flowers of Cutleaf Toothwort, Rue Anemone and Hepatica soon give way to many varieties of Trilliums each with its own color palette ranging from pale yellow to bright red. If your lucky you may encounter the Painted Trillium whose white flower petals looks as if they were each kissed by bright pink lips. Trilliums are a forest treasure that take their good old time to mature, often growing for 7 years before producing a flower.
Another of my favorite spring arrivals is the Mayapple. If you happen upon a healthy forest Mayapples can often be seen covering the entire forest floor. A sea of shiny green umbrellas casting shadows upon the ground. Their cream colored flowers mature into small greenish yellow fruits in summer, a delightful snack for the creatures who live in the forest.

May Apple
As you leave the forest keep your eyes peeled on the edges where the forest and field meet, it is here where you’ll find a variety of spring flowers such Purple Dead Nettle, Chickweed, and Dandelion. Many of these edge dwellers start to show themselves even when the air is still frosty, taking advantage of the open sunlight. Dandelion and Chickweed are often seen blooming throughout the winter as the snows come and go, their flowers giving us hope for springs arrival on even the coldest of days.Painted Trillium
This year as spring begins to blossom and the sunny days beckon you to the forest for exploration keep on the look out for these and many other early spring flowers that live among us. Soon enough they will show themselves to you.

Some other Spring wildflowers to look for: Dutchmans Breeches, Wild Ginger, Ladyslipper Orchids, Spring Beauty, Squirrel Corn, Virginia Blue bells, Trout Lillie’s, Jack in the Pulpits and many more.

Dandelions…They’re Not Terrible

“Every year, said Grandfather. They run amok; I let them. Pride of lions in the yard. Stare, and they burn a hole in your retina. A common flower, a weed that no one sees, yes. But for us, a noble thing the Dandelion.” -Ray Bradbury- “Dandelion Wine”

As far back as I can remember I have known the Dandelion, as a child I made wishes upon their seeds as I blew with all my breath. I popped the flower tops off with my thumb, launching them into the air while reciting “Mama had a baby and its head popped off”. I Dandelionstill have no clue what that means, but it’s safe to say no other plant has stuck with me as long as the Dandelion has. I certainly didn’t know back then that I was playing with a wonderful medicine and food.

Though the world views Dandelions as a common weed not even noble enough to be called a flower, it is truly a remarkable plant. Pushing up through grass or concrete this little ray of sunshine seeds far and wide, waiting to grow and thrive in some of the oddest and least habitable places in the world.  Native to Europe and Asia, the Dandelion has made its home here in the new world for some 400 plus years now, and despite everyone’s best efforts they are not going anywhere. It is one of the first flowers to bloom in the Spring though you can often find it any month of the year, its yellow face peeking through the melting snow. For beginning foragers and Herbalists it is one of the easiest plants to identify and learn. Its toothed leaIMG_3131ves can be various lengths radiating out from a rosette. French is “dent de lion” tooth of the lion. From the center grows one hollow stem with milky sap, atop it sits a beautiful yellow flower made of thousands of rays. Beneath the surface its brown/white taproot digs deep in the ground occasionally splitting off. After blooming the flower turns to seeds that are dispersed by the wind. Once identified you’ll find them everywhere!

Dandelion is a food staple from days since gone, it seems people forgot about it for the last 50 years or so and are just now rediscovering it as a table vegetable. Its considered one of the five most nutritious vegetables on earth. All parts of the plant are considered edible but the young leaves that come before the flower are the most tender and least bitter. The leaves get more bitter with age. The leaves are very versatile and can be used in many ways from salads and smoothies to stir-fries and tea. They are high in manganese, calcium, iron, vitamin C, Potassium and many other vitamins and minerals The root of dandelion when made into tea contain a long chain starch called inulin which is a pre-biotic. pre-biotics are food for the probiotics that live in our guts. The roots can also be roasted and ground then mixed with chicory or coffee to be drunk as coffee.  It is a great source of many vitamins and minerals including Calcium, Zinc and Iron. Finally, the yellow flower tops I flung willy nilly as a child are also edible raw or cooked. I’ve used them to make bread and wine.

 

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Dandelion Roots

When it comes to medicine dandelion is one of the most abundant and versatile plants. It can be used as a tea, vinegar, tincture, salve, poultice or just eaten outright. The bitter taste of its leaves alone stimulates all the process’s involved in digestion, from increasing salivation, to absorbing more nutrients. On top of containing inulin the root is a great blood purifier that aids in the filtering and straining of waste from the bloodstream.  It strengthens the livers function and promotes the secretion of bile. Dandelion pairs well with Burdock for cleaning the blood and clearing up many types of bad skin which often originate in poor elimination through the liver. Dandelion leaf helps remove uric acid in those suffering from gout, as well as swelling caused by edema through its diuretic actions. Topically the leaf and flowers are used for wounds, and fungal infections, while the sap is said to remove warts. Dandelion is a classic tonic herb that can be used daily, and a spring tonic that helps clear out the system after a long winter. So the next time you are looking out at your lawn wondering how to rid it of those yellow pests rethink the spray, and make a salad or cup of tea instead.

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Spring Tonic Vinegar

A few things to remember…Dandelions loves yards and waste spaces so make sure when harvesting, the area hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides. Also make sure that the area you are harvesting from isn’t polluted, avoid roadsides and city lots that often contain soil contaminants. These are often taken in and stored by plants.

 

 

Spring Seedlings

I wrote this a While Back for a Zine Thought I’d Put it on Here today!

 

Spring has arrived and with it came snow. Winters last gasp, but beneath the snow the world is waking up. Skunk cabbage is pushing up through the frozen earth in swirls of purple and green. Onion grass cropped close to the ground by deer grazing. Garlic Mustard adds another hue of green to the forest floor, while above the maples are tinting the treetops in red. Spring is here even if its shy and subtle. Soon spring Peepers and Wood frogs will be calling and chirping through the night. With spring comes the time for IMG_3012Gardening, If your like me you’ve combed through your seed catalogs all winter plotting and planning what you want to grow. This year I’m trying some new herbs, Meadowsweet, Spilanthes, Marshmallow and Borage, as well as some I saved from last year.
Each variety of plant produces a different type of seed. Dandelions are light and fluffy blowing in the win. Burdock seeds are Velcro-like and travel far distances in the fur of animals. Some seeds are tiny like Stinging Nettles, Others are large and thick like Passion Flower. Many seeds such as vegetable and flower seeds can be planted directly in the soil but for a lot of varieties of herbal seeds there are three main types of seed preparations to use before planting and germination. They are: Scarification, Stratification, and Light dependent germination. If your not sure what type of preparation a seed needs you can usually look it up online.
Scarification is usually taken care of in nature by birds and animals. After they eat the seeds the acid in their stomachs take off the outside hard layer and when they poop them out the seeds are ready to germinate. To do this process without the aid of mother nature, you can take some sandpaper or a nail file and scrape off the outside layer of the seed until you see some of the inside white of the seed (Its endosperm). This gives the seed an easier way to sprout through its hard shell layer. You can also soak scarified seeds in warm water over night to help them on their way.
Stratification is also a process usually taken care of by nature. When a plant drops itIMG_3010s seeds in autumn they fall to the earth and get covered up by dirt and leaves, they spend the winter under the snow, snug and cold and moist. The cold frost gets the seeds embryo ready to sprout when the weather warms again in the spring. To simulate this at home you can put your seeds in a plastic bag with barely moist sand in it. Put the seeds in their bags inside a paper bag then inside the fridge. Two months is often long enough to trick the seeds into thinking it was winter. Some seeds may require a longer cold period.
The third common seed preparation is Light dependent germination. Often these seeds are tiny, they drop from the plant and lay on the surface of the soil. The heat of the sun helps them to germinate. To do this its quite simple, plant your seeds on top of the IMG_3011soil and tamp them into the ground gently not burying them, letting them take in lots of sun and warmth. Be careful when watering this type of seed, use a mister spray bottle to keep them from washing away.
Now that Winter is gone and Spring is here, Go out and Get your hands dirty, watch your Seeds Grow and Grow.