Burdock & Rose

wildly-crafted plant tales from herbalist, forager & author lisa rose

Tag: local food

Simply Sassy: A Mitten Gal’s Sassafras Rootbeer 

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The dunes of my childhood where sassafras grows in abundance.

While on a trail run through the dunes of Hoffmaster State Park this summer I realized that there is no other smell reminiscent of my West Michigan lakeshore upbringing than sassafras. That aromatic, spicy rootbeer fragrance of the sassafras floats on the breeze in the dew of the morning or after a wet, damp rain. It is one of those smells that truly defines my life.

You can imagine my delight when forager friend Sam Thayer recommended me to host a Minneapolis-based film crew to learn all about sassafras for their “How To Make Everything: Rootbeer” segment! I enjoyed taking the crew through the dunes woods of my childhood stomping grounds to gather the sassafras roots for their project. Check out our final segment on sassafras HERE.

Though it is fall and the leaves are rapidly falling from the trees, it isn’t to late to gather a few saplings to make a late fall batch of rootbeer! Want to make your own local rootbeer? Read more…

A Mitten Gal’s Sassafras Rootbeer 

Sassafras albidumSassafras is common along trails and beach areas and makes a delightful tea and culinary spice. Sassafras is a small deciduous tree that grows to heights of up to 60 feet or more in optimum conditions. It commonly has mitten-shaped, three-lobed and un-lobed leaves. Its bark is a rough and reddish brown, the aromatic roots range in color from white to reddish brown. The roots of a small sapling can be gathered in the spring or fall. Wash, chop, and completely dry them.

Here’s what you’ll need to make a simple syrup with sassafras and other woodland herbs for a refreshing batch of rootbeer soda pop.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup chopped roots of sassafras**
  • 1/4 cup burdock root*
  • 1/4 cup sarsaparilla*
  • 1 tbsp dry hops*
  • 1tsp juniper berries*
  • 10 wintergreen leaves*
  • 1 tsp dry ginger root*
  • 1 tsp spicebush berries (optional)*
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 cups MICHIGAN maple syrup

Directions:

  • Simmer herbs in a pot with 4 cups boiling water for 5 minutes, covered to retain volatile oils.
  • Strain
  • Stir in maple syrup, let cool
  • Add 1 part sassafras simple syrup mixture to 2 parts club soda and serve over ice or with vanilla ice cream
  • Sassafras simple syrup can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 weeks

*Some herbs can be gathered by hand from the wild, procured from your local health food store or ordered online. I like Mountain Rose Herbs as an online supplier for organic herbs. To learn more about sassafras or other herbs mentioned in this recipe? Check out my book, “Midwest Foraging.”

Claiming Our Place At the Table: Growing the Good Food Movement

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Each one of us has an important role to play in growing the good food movement in Grand Rapids. What’s your role? Photo by Ryan P. Photo

On September 21, 2001, a group of about 25 people representing all sectors of the food community – from farmers to schools to clinics to social agencies addressing hunger – gathered at what is now known as Feeding America West Michigan. With Groundswell farmer Tom Cary at the helm and with me taking notes, we collectively organized Grand Rapids’ first food policy council. We all recognized and outlined the myriad of challenges facing our fractured food system in Grand Rapids, including race, the built environment and socio-economic disparities, to name a few.

This community effort – over time – faced its own hurdles and challenges in the decade that followed. Programs in the community came and went, and today – while the food system landscape is completely different, the core issues faced then remain the same.

Since I published the local food documentary, Grand Rapids Food: A Culinary Revolution (History Press, 2013), citizens have continued to take up shovels to clear grass and concrete and build gardens. When policy gets in the way, citizens continue to appear at policy meetings to help coax our leaders to make change.

From the outside, it can appear that the local food system in Grand Rapids has taken off – from beer to markets, it could seem that the larger Grand Rapids community has benefitted tremendously from the various additions to the Grand Rapids food landscape. 

But has it?

For nearly 14 years to the day, I’ve been engaged in helping grow the local food community in Grand Rapids. It’s been a pleasure to call the Grand Rapids cadre of food activists my most dear friends – those working to increase access to fresh foods within the urban community through a myriad of channels – community gardens, urban farms, food cooperatives, a more effective pantry system – to name a few. 

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When stepping into the Wealthy Theatre on Monday for the Urban Roots local food community conversation I left my preconceived ideas, assumptions and past experiences at the door. I arrived open to learn of new endeavors and to be inspired by new faces on the front lines.

Surprisingly, I was glad to know only a few faces as part of the group. I was excited to hear about the experiences of other community organizations and people working for systems change in Grand Rapids. It was inspiring to witness the passion and commitment of others trying to make change in the ways they knew, yet humbling to realize the vast expanse of work that still is ahead, with many hurdles to tackle.

Addressing Systems Issues as a United Front 

In the recent opinion article penned by urban farmer and local food expert Levi Gardner, many of the issues raised with the Downtown Market are larger systems issues that face all of Grand Rapids – particularly those that are immediately relevant to food access rooted in socio-economic disparities, race and segregation because of our built environment. 

To be fair, the criticism the Downtown Market has received isn’t because the market isn’t a needed piece of food systems infrastructure for the local downtown community — it is. The Downtown Market has tremendous potential to bring people together, to be a welcoming space for people to learn and share knowledge. The Downtown Market has tremendous potential to serve the local community as a food hub, meet local access needs and provide an economic platform for vendors to be able to affordably participate in economic exchange. 

The Downtown Market has received criticism because the greater community  wants its leadership to rethink its outreach, its purpose, its messaging and how it engages a diverse set of audiences. The greater community has needs and is asking the Downtown Market to proactively help meet those needs. The community wants the leadership of the Downtown Market to be present and responsible for being part of the solution. And as a point of order: as a publicly funded institution, the Downtown Market leadership has an ethical obligation to do so, and to ensure it is inclusive of all backgrounds in an intentional way and to actively be a part of community conversations.  

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Growing Roots. Photo by Shane Folkertsma.

But let’s be real: This isn’t an issue that faces solely the Downtown Market. While it’s easy to critique a large organization like the Downtown Market, we all need to examine the ways in which we each engage and mutually support open and honest dialogue. We need to examine how we engage each other in the various aspects of our work, helping to make it accessible and inclusive and actualize co-learning.

My own food systems learnings have led me down the path to foraging, wild edibles and herbalism as a form of healthcare. Admittedly, I find that it’s easier to sit in the woods, alone, working with plants rather than people. But I know that its the education I have to share that I feel can help effect change and so I work in my community as a community herbalist and teacher about the natural world.

To that end, I, too, am holding myself personally accountable to consider how I design my work to address issues of race, culture, poverty, education, socio-economic disparities and health disparity in our City. To work in partnership with others in the community, rather than shy away from working at it alone because it is “easier” or without political (read exhausting) drama. And to invite others to be part of the conversation, and helping make a place at the table for many voices to be heard. 

It is only by working through difficult conversations and partnerships that we can grow. Stonewalling, boycotting and judgement won’t get us where we need to be. Repeatedly showing up and being open to arriving to new destinations will get us where we need to be. When we shut down – close each other out – we will go nowhere. 

We need process and intentionality, but we also need to allow room for organic growth. And be accountable for each other and help our organizations grow in the directions our community needs. 

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Grand Rapids’ New Mayor-Elect, Rosalyn Bliss, an active leader who helped champion the urban hen legislation in GR. Photo by Ryan P. Photo.

Leaving Room for Organic Growth

Intentionality is important. Each decision should be made with focus and purpose. But it is also worthy to be flexible and open to change and new directions. I leave you with a segment from my book, Grand Rapids Food, where a local gardener talks about the vision for their community gardening space. 

Amy contemplates the future of the community garden space. “I would like to see it be a place where the neighbors are investing their time. For what we have — the social aspect — It’s what draws people here. We have such a small space compared to other community gardens. But it’s perfect for our block — we aren’t trying to reach large scale. Certainly people can come from anywhere, but we want  the neighbors to enjoy this. To be their garden.  

“Beyond that? I don’t know. I think that is the enjoyment — that we have of these dreams. We just start in one place and keep moving forward. Which is exciting because people’s needs change, the neighborhood changes. I like that space to be open — it leaves room for creativity. Let’s keep the master plan in the shed.” 

It is my wish that you, too, can be inspired to move forward with intentionality and openness to continue to address the rooted issues that face our food system in Grand Rapids.

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“Midwest Foraging” Featured in Chicago Tribune

INTERVIEW Midwest Foraging_Chicago Tribune

 

To read the entire Chicago Tribune article, click HERE.

Summer Staycations: Foraging with Kids

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Collecting sumac drupes for sumac lemonade

There’s no better place on earth in summer than #PureMichigan. Summer vacation is a time to load the car and head to the lakeshore – bikes tied to the back and sandals in tow. The great thing about our Great Lakes state is that we are never more than 20 minutes from an outdoor adventure that can rival any escape to greater terrain up north or out west.

As part of your outdoor escape, get the kids, neighbor’s kids, and even dog outdoors to plan an foraging expedition to learn wild edibles. From bogs to dune habitats at the lakeshore, this is a great chance to expose children to parts of Michigan they’ve never experienced before AND teach them new outdoor skills.

Short on time and want an even lower cost excursion? Plan this endeavor to take place in your own backyard! There are many wild edibles to discover right outside your doorstep.

To begin to learn and identify wild edibles with the children:

Pick a place to explore: Let the kids select the plants around them to learn, sometimes the most adventures can actually happen right outside the back door in the yard!

Safety: Remind the explorers to never pick nor eat a plant until they can properly ID the plant.

Remind the children of the rules of foraging: Ask permission if it is private property you are exploring and respect the rules of any parks area.

Respect plant sustainability: Teach the children that we are stewards of the land and can help plants grow and propagate, especially native plants and never harvest plants that are on the threatened or endangered list.

Pack a foraging kit: Include a notebook, colored pencils, a camera and perhaps a snack, sunscreen and bug repellant (need an herbal recipe? check out my blog here).

Find the right expertise: Head to the library and select a few good field guides and consider picking up a copy of Midwest Foraging at your local bookstore.

Let this journey be kid-led. Let them explore the outdoors, make a plant journal and even let them get really dirty. Create a cool certificate or bad for those kids completing the adventure and celebrate them for trying something new. It’s low-cost, high-yield activity that offers lessons that last a lifetime.

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To find a trail: 

Thanks to the glaciers long ago, the ecosystems of Michigan area are very diverse. And what better way to learn about them than to explore them on foot with the family in tow?

In Kent County, the Kent County Parks Foundation and The Friends of Grand Rapids Parks offers miles and miles of maintained trails in its expansive parks network that local residents can explore free of charge. The State of Michigan also offers great resources for hiking. Headed north? Try the Leelanau Land Conservancy for ideas of local nature walks. Some programs offer walks free for area residents.

Be sure to add to your summer bucket list nature centers and eco-preserves to walk the trails and experience the land that might be different. Remember, many of these habitats may have stringent rules prohibiting foraging – be sure to use these areas as learning laboratories only, taking nothing and leaving only footprints.

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Gathering black raspberries in the hedgerow behind our house.

Click HERE for my kid-friendly Staghorn Sumac Lemonade recipe and for more easy tips for foraging with kids, visit WZZM13 Online: Staghorn Sumac.

The Magic Nectar of Maple Syrup

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Who doesn’t love that dark amber nectar of real maple syrup – the sweetness of the trees and one of the earth’s most decadent and natural sweeteners? Click HERE to watch me rave about syrup on WZZM13.

We treat maple syrup like it’s liquid gold in my house – a precious food that I love to use in cooking. Why is real maple syrup like liquid gold? Because it is! Not only do the sugar maple trees grow in relatively small range across the globe, but it takes up to 60 gallons of sap to produce just ONE gallon of maple syrup. Consider that next time you are incredulous over the price of real maple syrup in the market — most commercial brands are made entirely of corn syrup – not a drop of that natural sap. Cheap and totally not the real deal.

In its raw form, the sap is a drinkable beverage that endurance athletes are realizing has a similar content of electrolytes as coconut water – and local, too. The sap also contains trace minerals of zinc, manganese and some iron, and these minerals remain as the sap cooks into maple syrup.

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A variety of trees and species can be tapped to produce a syrup sweetener (maples and birches), but it’s the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) specifically that produces that sweet, vanillin flavored syrup we all know as REAL maple syrup.  The sugar maple grows as far east across Canada into Vermont, as far west as Wisconsin, and as far south as Georgia – making a heart-shaped area in the northeast in which superior maple syrup can be produced. Read more HERE to learn about the syruping process.

As a sweetner, maple syrup has half the glycemic load of refined or white sugar, making it a good choice for those minding their sugar intake (all of us, right?).

It’s delicious of course in pancakes, stirred into coffee, topped over oatmeal and drizzled over ice cream. But maple syrup has lovely savory uses as well – as a glaze for meats and fish, balsamic dressing, or drizzled atop stinky cheeses.

And the baking and candy making – oy – the candy making. My favorites are turning maple syrup into caramels and toffee. Super yum.

Maple syrup is also a useful sweetener in my herbal apothecary for tonics and tinctures, like my Dark Storm Bitters. The maple syrup can also be used as a base to make an iron-rich yellow dock syrup supplement for those needing an iron supplementation.

And these are just a few maple syrup uses… what are your favorites? Any special ways of using it in the apothecary?

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Maple Fleur de Sel Caramels 

What’s more decadent than a delicious caramel? Why, one that is made with maple syrup, of course! These classic French-style caramels are styled similarly to a Fleur de Sel caramel.

The use of maple syrup in lieu of the commonly-used corn syrup will require close monitoring as the mixture reaches 248 degrees, but results in a much more balanced vanilla flavor that’s worth the effort managing the viscosity.

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Ingredients: 

1 cup heavy cream

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, room temperature

1 teaspoon fleur de sel

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup maple syrup

Parchment paper, baking sheet or pan and a candy thermometer

1) Prepare pan with parchment, oil slightly – the caramel making process is a sticky one.

2) Bring cream, butter and fleur de del to a boil in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and set aside.

3) Boil syrup, sugar, water in a large saucepan, dissolving sugar and gentle stirring until syrup comes up to a boil.

3) Stir in cream, stir constantly and simmer until the candy thermometer reaches 248 degrees.

4) Pour caramel mixture into the prepared sheet, let cool.

5) Cut into strips or bite size candies, wrapping them in pieces of cut parchment, twisting ends.

6) Caramels store in a cool location for up to two weeks.

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Maple Syrup: A Forager’s Sweet Treat

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Can you hear the trees awakening? It’s maple syrup time for the farmers and foragers setting out to tap the maple trees!

Even though the land around us continues to be covered with a deep blanket of snow, there’s a shift in the trees. With warmer days and cold, clear nights, the trees are stretching their hibernating limbs and the sap starts to flow. The birds also begin to sing again. A sure sign of spring and maple syrup’ing!

Maple syrup harvest season begins when the weather stays above freezing for a few days with continued cold temperatures of 20 degrees or so overnight — usually toward the middle to end of February in the Midwest.

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The length of the sap season varies from year to year according to the weather, anywhere between four to six weeks and toward the end of the season, the quality and viscosity of the sap changes considerably and lessens in quality. This year, because of such a late thaw, we can expect a short and fast Sugarbush season.

Why is real maple syrup like liquid gold? Because it is! Not only do the sugar maple trees grow in relatively small range across the globe, but it takes about 60 gallons of sap to produce just ONE gallon of maple syrup. Consider that next time you are incredulous over the price of real maple syrup in the market — most commercial brands are made entirely of corn syrup – not a drop of that natural sap. Cheap and totally not the real deal.

 A variety of trees and species can be tapped to produce a syrup sweetener (maples and birches), but it’s the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) specifically that produces that sweet, vanillin flavored syrup we all know as REAL maple syrup.  The sugar maple grows as far east across Canada into Vermont, as far west as Wisconsin, and as far south as Georgia – making a heart-shaped area in the northeast in which superior maple syrup can be produced.

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Want to tap your own trees? To produce maple syrup in any quantity, first identify maples of the right size for tapping. Tap only mature sugar maples at least 12 inches in diameter, placing the spike or tap about 4 to 5 feet off the ground. Hang a bucket off the tap, check it daily.  It’s helpful to have the trees close to where you will be processing the sap; as hauling, storing, and boiling down the sap is quite an operation.

To make syrup you will need to boil the sap down into syrup. Boiling off the water from the sap is a lengthy process and it puts off a lot of moisture into the air. You can build a temporary sap boiler outside to boil the sap down into syrup, or you can collect the sap and deliver it to an established sugar shack in your area. Search for local farms and nature centers across the Midwest that may have them on their properties.

Just note – Don’t boil the sap inside your home! Boiling off the water will literally peel the papers off your walls and will leave a sticky residue all over the kitchen. Not good. Not worth it – even to make syrup.

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Once the sap is boiled down into the syrup, it can be poured into bottles and canned by water bath or stored into the refrigerator.

Inspired to do your own Sugarbush? For more information check out Michigan Maple Syrup Association for news on events and backyard sugarbush training. Want to visit a local Sugarbush? If you are in the Grand Rapids area, check out Blandford Nature Center’s event happening in March!

Wild Flavors of Thanksgiving: Chestnuts

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In Michigan and across much of the Midwest it’s a SNOW DAY! The snow out my window already blankets the ground with drifts in some areas over 2 feet deep!

This makes me glad for the season’s harvests that already are packed away in my pantry for hearty winter meals — the acorn flour, the fruit jams, the herbal simple syrups and the dried herbs for cooking and for tea. As I plan my holiday meals, I turn to the rich flavors of my autumn harvest to add wild flavors to my table.

One of my favorite flavors from the fall harvest for a forager’s Thanksgiving’s feast is the chestnut. The chestnut (Castanea spp.) is a delicious and nutritious edible, whose spiny shell can be found on the ground when the nuts ripen in late September.  Chestnut trees can be found growing along the edges of the mixed hardwood forests, in areas with well-drained soil and sunshine. Chestnuts are also a specialty crop for tree farmers. Check your local food guide for a chestnut grower who may have u-pick or who sells chestnuts at the farmers markets if you’d like to try this delicious fall wild edible.

With a neutral, buttery flavor, the chestnut is very versatile in cooking.  It can be dried and made into chestnut flour, cooked and pureed into a creamy soup. For me, I can’t do Thanksgiving, Chanukkah or Christmas without preparing simple, but classic roasted chestnuts. These delicious morsels can be savored steaming, right out of the pan or integrated into Thanksgiving’s stuffing. 

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Roasted chestnuts are a quintessential holiday dish (cue Nat King Cole) and is an easy appetizer that even the kids will enjoy. I like to roast the chestnuts in a heavy iron skillet on the stovetop (first score a slit with a sharp knife in the bottom of the shell to allow the moisture to escape). Once roasted, they can be easily peeled and enjoyed warm from the shell. 

With an abundance of gratitude, other wild foods that will find their place on my holiday table — nettles, serviceberries, acorns, autumn olive, wild apples, linden cocktail syrups and the needles of conifers to flavor my roasted meats. What foraged flavors will be on your table this season?

Weedy & Edible: Garlic Mustard

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What is the adage, “A weed is a plant that is growing where you don’t want it?” Abundant in areas of disturbed soil – at the forest’s edge, along roadsides, and on river floodplains – the Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata, Brassicaceae) is deemed by many as a noxious, invasive species, choking out native vegetation and spreading wildly across the state.

The National Park Service describes the earliest appearance of the Garlic Mustard on the Atlantic coast to be documented in 1868. High in Vitamin C and a nutritious bitter green, it is believed that it was brought along by settlers to the area of Long Island, NY for food and medicinal purposes.  Since that time in the 1800s, Garlic Mustard has spread south and west and has wrecked havoc on natural areas throughout the Eastern United States, particularly throughout disturbed areas within fields, floodplains, and woodlands here in the Great Lakes BioRegion.

What makes Garlic Mustard able to take over so much area in so little time? Garlic Mustard thrives on disturbed land and areas under development. It is winter-hardy biennial plant and can reproduce lightning fast in its second year with its ability to produce hundreds of seeds once it goes to flower. And once the plant sets its seed, the seeds can remain viable in the soil for many years.  So if you want it out, pull it as it sets out its showy white flowers (photo above). Be sure to replace the area with other plants native to the area to help reestablish the disturbed space and prevent another Garlic Mustard Invasion (that could be a band name, hehe).

Behind Every Vice… The Garlic Mustard’s Virtue

While Garlic Mustard continues to persist throughout our Great Lakes bioregion and threatens to crowd-out wildflowers and native vegetation, let us consider one of its virtues:  It is edible!

Like many early spring greens, the flavors of the Garlic Mustard are predominantly bitter. Different parts of the plant, as well the age of the plant can affect the degree in the bitter flavor.

Great Lakes Herbalist Jim McDonald believes that the Bitter flavors of plants, while having a negative connotation to many, may be one of the keys to our wellness.  Bitter flavors help stimulate digestion, bile production and can support healthy liver function. Other bitter plants that are beneficial to add into the diet include parsley, arugula, romaine, radicchio, endive, dandelion, and coffee. Best thing about Garlic Mustard as a bitter – it can be easily harvested for FREE with little concern of damaging its plant population!

The early basal roots are more bitter in the spring, the fleshy stems less so – and it is sweeter in the fall after a frost. The roots are slightly nutty, and the second year plant should be harvested just before it flowers… But don’t get caught up in these rules — if you are pulling it to preserve other plants in your garden or a participating in a pull, use it and partner it with other flavors like parsley, walnuts and lemon to suit your palate!

One of the most popular ways to prepare Garlic Mustard is preparing it as a versatile, delicious pesto. Variations on pesto recipes can vary to suit personal taste preference and the flavor of the Garlic Mustard that is being harvested.

Want to prepare a large batch? Pesto can be made without the nuts (they tend to taste rancid after thawing) and froze into ice-cube sized portions that will last for several months until the local Basil is ready for harvest here in Michigan.

The pesto can be added to pasta, used in soups (like a French soup au pistou), served on crackers with cheese as an elegant appetizer, or even used as a base for a wild foods pizza of local Michigan Morels, homemade soft cheese, and wild onion.

Basic Foraged Greens & Garlic Mustard Pesto

4 cups leaves, stems of Garlic Mustard (washed)

1 cup wild chives

1 cup wild garlic scapes

1 cup parsley (if desired)

1 cup walnuts

4 TBSP coconut oil

1tsp sea salt, pepper, squirt of lemon juice to taste

Add all to food processor, puree.  Check flavor, add parsley, salt, pepper to preferred taste. Serve over crackers, on pizza, pasta, soup… the ideas are limitless and the pesto can be used in similar ways to traditional basil pesto.

Wild Leeks: A Tasty, Precious Sign of Spring

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Spotted: Wild leeks, Allium tricoccum

Regionally, Wild Leeks are distributed as far east as New York State and through Canada, west into the forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota and south into Appalachia.

Here in Michigan, the Wild Leeks (or Ramps are they are also called) are plentiful in the Beech/Maple woods along the rivers and on the back dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline, frequently found alongside the unfolding MayApples and Trout Lilly.  They are abundant in Leelanau County, throughout the Sleeping Bear region and in the southwest portion of the state near St. Joseph and toward the Indiana border. In the Greater Grand Rapids area, they exist but do not carpet the forest floor as plentifully in other areas of the state.

A relative to onion, the Wild Leek is a bulb and is markedly onion-y in both flavor and scent. Take care to note these characteristics in trying to identify the plant, as it could be easily mistaken with the immature False Hellebore, or Lily of the Valley, which neither smells or tastes like onion, and is quite poisonous.

I spotted these beauties at one of my favorite parks, Johnson Park. These are a part of only a few stands here along the river, outside the City of Grand Rapids — please let them alone. Equally, if you see stands within the Greater Grand Rapids area — they aren’t as abundant here as in other areas at the Lakeshore and up the coastline.

A 2011 article in The New York Times featured the Wild Leek and claimed the increase in harvesting for the restaurant market and by hobby foragers is putting pressure  on the Wild Leek population.  While the Wild Leek certainly is not ~that~ close to being extinct in the Great Lakes area, it is something to consider as the plant ends up on the farm to table menus and baskets of market foragers – particularly when we know the plant is not widely distributed.

Because it takes about three years for a seed to develop into a mature leek for harvesting, I personally no longer harvest the bulbs, and have taken to transplanting them to try to re-establish stands in local parks in the area. I won’t lie — I really ~love~ the Wild Leeks, but unless we take some pressure off of the plant population in our area (due large in part to the love of this plant by the farm to table & locavore community), we will over harvest them and secure their own demise.

From my perspective, I don’t believe we have enough plants in our Great Lakes bio-region to be regularly supplying the local farmers’ markets & farm to table restaurants with an abundance of wild-harvested Leeks for the entire spring season.  It really is an issue we eaters must be concerned with, not just the foragers. I once saw a social media post by a local chef hauling out a full garbage bag full of leeks for his restaurant. This was several years ago, and if I saw this happen again by someone I knew in my community, I would not be afraid to do some public shaming of the chef and the restau for simply bad foraging practices. Not only is unethical foraging not ok, it goes against fundamental environmental values of “do no harm” within the local food movement.

So in the essence of helping share the knowledge — if you come across them in the farmers market or in the restaurants — I ask you to inquire about the source of the Wild Leeks. Ask about the forager’s standards. Ask about their sustainability practices. And if YOU are the forager and are planning on harvesting, take time to first learn for yourself the distribution of leeks in your area. THEN find a sizable stand and clip the tops only. This is the most sustainable way to use the plant.

Yes, I know these beauties are delicious pickled as cocktail onions in martinis (!!) and roasted, drizzled in olive oil over a nice spring egg & nettle quiche, so a few handfuls is probably is ok.  And if you do indulge, just make sure you offer to help replenish the stand and give deep thanks for the plant world that sustains us.

Grow Your Herbal Apothecary from the Ground Up

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It’s that time of year again — Spring! I know I’ve been thinking about planting time since January, when the seed catalogues began to drop into our mailbox (an evil tease, I say) and this time of year I become so excited to once again get my hands into the soil. It is my therapy and peace.

It delights me with happiness that the urban farming and gardening movement continues to gain momentum and that others are joining in, tilling the soil to grow their own food and herbs. For reasons of health, economy, environment and justice, it’s now quite popular to have tilled the grass for edible plants and vegetables as outdoor landscapes instead of lawns. On the note of health, as you think about starting your garden this spring consider including herbs into the plan.

Imagine this at the end of your harvest season– your own herbal apothecary filled with local herbs that are gathered from your gardens, the farmers market, and even field hedgerows and woodlands that you can turn to when you feel a cold coming on or get an upset stomach after an indulgent meal.  There is nothing more gratifying and satisfying to know you’ve stocked your pantry with herbal concoctions and medicines to keep you and your family well throughout the year. {AND you will find you will not need to take those expensive trips to the health food shop to procure your herbal remedies!}

For many, the word herbal apothecary evokes images of shelves, bottles and jars all filled with mysterious herbs, herbal formulas from exotic plants.  But to have an herbal apothecary that your family can turn to for basic ills and chills, plants need not be exotic or mysterious – in fact, as more and more people look to local plants and herbs to incorporate into their natural wellness routine, beginning your own apothecary can begin as close to home as the garden.

Grow your own.  In establishing a supply of herbs for your own herbal, consider growing a few perennial kitchen herbs like popular plants such as Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Mint, Bee Balm and Lavender. These well-known plants will not only offer you a source of fresh culinary herbs throughout the season for cooking, but can be dried for tea for winter’s warm sipping. Also keep in mind that it’s nice to have these culinary herbs close to the kitchen for easy harvesting when cooking.

I also love other perennials like Echinacea, Yarrow, Comfrey, Borage, Boneset, Roses and Milkweed. Pollinators love these plants (think BEES!) and they offer wonderful medicines for the herbal apothecary. They also work in containers.

Kitchen herbs can be easily integrated into a current garden plan if you already do have a garden or yard, or can be easily grown in containers on the patio and in the windowsill if you are an apartment dweller and lack growing space.  These basic kitchen garden herbs are widely available at local greenhouses and can often be found at the farmers market (when selecting transplants for your gardens, be sure to look for plants that have a vital energy and have been started in chemical-free, heavily composted soil).

Farmers Markets. Don’t feel left out if you aren’t a gardener. The summer farmers markets are gearing up for the growing season. And if you aren’t growing your own, the farmers market is the next best place to be procuring garden-fresh herbs that you can preserve and dry. Check out LocalHarvest.org for a market or farmer that sells herbs in your area.

Harvesting & Preservation. Throughout the growing seasons, kitchen herbs can be easily cut with scissors and can be used to make herbal honey or vinegars.  Their stalks can be bundled and hung to dry simply dried on screens to later be blended together for a soothing aromatic tea blend. An added bonus for cutting back the first round of blooms: Sometimes an early cutting of the flowers will result in a second bloom. Lavender will often do this if it’s a warm summer.

To dry the plant material for tea, individual leaves and flowers can be harvested and dried on screens in a dry space. The larger stalks can be bundled and hung to dry. Be sure to harvest the plants after the morning dew has evaporated and that the plants are fully dry before storing in glass jars.  If the plant is not thoroughly dry before storing, there is a high likelihood that the drying plant material will mold in the container — and that’s a drag. Be sure to always label and date the jars as you put up your herbal harvest.

Using your herbs in your apothecary. Tasting, smelling your freshly harvested herbs will set you on your way to better understanding how plants can be used in times of illness and as part of a regular diet.  Take note as to how they taste in tea using both dry herbs and fresh plants. Notice a difference? You will learn ways to prepare the herbs to suit your tastes, and also how they may have an action on the body. So as you continue along your herbal harvest journey, experiment with the herbs singly as a tea or try blending them together!

Over the coming season, you may find that you like working with plants so much you will want to delve into making herbal salves, herbal infused oils and tinctures.  Or become a forager of the wild, uncultivated plants. You certainly will discover that it is truly satisfying to begin to rely on the natural world for wellness and to connect to a  tradition of herbal healing and reliance on plants that is as old as time itself.

To learn more, consider signing up for one of my foraging and medicine making classes. I’d love to have you and share with you the healing wonders of the outdoors. It’s good for both mind, body and spirit (AND pocketbook!).