Burdock & Rose

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

Tag: native plants

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.

Honey Bee Medicine & The Apothecary

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Honey Bees are the Earth’s first and best herbalists. They flit from flower to flower; pollinating and as they do so they collect the plant’s magic pollen dust which then gets imbibed into deliciously healing honey. Bees also collect resin from trees to create propolis, which repairs cracks in their hives and is also a useful human medicine.

Honey bees are the magic link to our food system and are the proverbial canary in the cave when we think about health and balance in our ecosystems — coming soon is a post on how to help the honey bee as both gardener, land steward, eater & herbalist.

The honey bee is a special creature to be protected and revered, especially as we look to strengthen and repair not only our local ecosystems, but as we look to strengthen our own health and wellness.

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The Local Honey Pot 

Every kitchen and home apothecary should never be without a jar of locally sourced, raw honey. Not only is it a useful culinary staple that can be used frequently in the place of refined, processed sugars (honey’s glycemic index is approximately half that of refined white sugar) but local, raw honey is a truly pure, local medicine made by the honey bees from the plants and flowers that live immediately around us.

Just as it is important to source your food as locally as possible, sourcing local honey is equally important. It is easier than ever before to seek out local, raw honey from a local bee keeper  — just visit your local farmers markets or get online and use LocalHarvest.org to find a supplier nearest your locale.

Why local and why raw? Sourcing local honey does a few things: 1) It supports local bee keepers and their work to support local food systems. 2) Honey that comes from local bees is created with the help of plants immediate to your growing area (and often can help support the immune system that may have issues with plant/hay fever allergies).

Raw honey that hasn’t been heat or pasteurized (much of the commercial honey is processed), also contains all the beneficial enzymes and is not usually filtered. It also can have a bigger (and better, in my opinion) aroma and flavor profile representative of the local flora of the immediate area. It’s honey with terroir and higher medicinal power.

Speaking of terroir — Because of the global food trade and economy, much of the commercial honey available at the supermarket today is coming from Brazil, China and other places in the world. Frequently, large producers blend the batches together and because of limited labelling laws, a consumer will often find a label on a jar of honey to identify its place of origin as Brasil, China AND the US — ALL AT ONCE. Multiple countries all in one jar. Additionally, the commercial honey market is becoming increasingly unstable, with more frequent occurrences of adulteration being uncovered every day.

So, be sure to take time to read labels and source your honey from a local apiary or farmer near your home. That said, the purist in me be damned– if the only access you have to honey is the honey bear honey at your local convenience store and you ~need~ it, go for it. Better some honey than no honey at all.

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Infused Honeys

One of my most favorite uses of honey in both my kitchen and apothecary is infused honey. While using straight honey when a cough or cold comes about is easy and fine, there is nothing more divine that spooning out raw honey that has had beautiful herbs and flowers infused into it for several weeks, imparting not only the aromas of the flowers and plants, but their medicinal properties as well. It’s also good on toast. Haha.

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Making infused honey. Infusing honey is a very simple process. Gather herbs, flowers then add them to a jar. Then cover with honey and let infuse for at least a few weeks, taking the time to occasionally turn the jar upside down to stir up the plant material.

Some herbs that work well in infused honey include: Chamomile, Lavender, Rose, Jasmine, Orange flower, the invasive (and loved by me Honeysuckle), Lovage, Osha, Bee Balm (any Monarda), Vervain, Mint, Sage, Thyme, or Elderflower — these are just a few. Onion and garlic are also great choices and make for an excellent base for a cough and cold syrup. I prefer to use fresh plant material in season, but supermarket herbs also work, as do dry.

During the infusing process, because of its anti-microbial and preservative qualities, the honey with the herbs will not rot in those several weeks of infusing — especially if stored in a cool, dark place. However, there is the chance that the herbs and honey will begin to ferment — something that will be apparent if the jar produces CO2 and pushes up the lid. In this instance, you are well on your way to making mead. Contact your local brew shop for support on how to create this fine fermented concoction.

When you are ready to eat the honey, the herbs can be strained out or left in the honey — it’s totally up to personal preference.

Uses of infused honey: Infused honeys can be added to herbal teas to help support the body’s immune responses to illness and can also be eaten regularly as added immune support benefit. Note, however, that eating honey is not a replacement for foundational immune strengthening — diet, exercise, stress reduction and sleep are core elements to staying healthy.

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Other uses for infused honey includes Herbal truffles and slippery elm pastilles. These are are wonderful honey-based herbal preparations that can be made in large batches and then refrigerated to have on hand when a sore throat or stomach ache come around the home. While it’s possible to make these with plain honey, using infused honey can make these herbal creations especially delicious.

Infused honeys can also be bases for making herbal elixirs — I use mine to make my delicious Elderberry Elixir. It adds not only the medicinal power of the plants & honey, but a nice flavor profile to this important apothecary staple.

Additionally, both plain and infused raw honey can be used topically in wound and burn healing, It’s antimicrobial and antibacterial properties can support the skin & membrane’s healing processes — it can also be used topically in instances of MRSA.

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Propolis

Bee propolis is another bee medicine that should become a staple in every home apothecary. Made from the resins of trees by the bees, it is used within the hives to protect, reinforce and repair the cracks and seams within the bee hives.

This magical substance is frequently leftover on the bee keeper’s hive and can be gathered for preparation into a liquid extract or to be eaten raw. Just be sure to use propolis that is free and clean of paint or linseed oil (common applications to the bee hive itself and can sometimes get into the propolis). To find a local bee keeper near you that may offer propolis, check LocalHarvest.org or visit your nearby farmers market.

Propolis possess the same medicinal properties as honey — the propolis is antimicrobial, antibacterial and is resinous in nature. Because of its resinous nature, it can be used as a liquid bandage in the instances of minor skin irritations, scrapes and fungal irritations (propolis is also antifungal in nature). Take care to not use propolis as a liquid application on a wound that may have debris or infection — it can seal in infection and can potentially cause more irritation than heal. And that’s no good.

Propolis is also frequently used by herbalists to heal sore throats (it is wonderful as a throat spray mixed with echinacea, osha and elecampane).  A liquid extract is helpful for easy preparation — I put mine in a spray bottle (also many commercial herbal products producers make a spray, which is good if you can’t be bothered with making your own spray).

NOTE: In the instance of strep throat it can also be used, but because strep so frequently can only be cleared up with strict adherence to an herbal protocol (not to mention ridiculously contagious), this is one instance where I turn to an antibiotic. Propolis can be used in tandem with an antibiotic to soothe the hot, scratchy symptoms of the strep.

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To prepare propolis. Freeze the resinous propolis to allow for easy smashing — freezing it allows it to not become a sticky mass otherwise. With a 1:4 ratio, prepare a liquid tincture of propolis using a high proof alcohol (In Michigan, the easiest to source is Everclear or Bacardi 151). Allow the propolis to extract for about 6 weeks. Strain and bottle, noting that everything the liquid propolis touches will gum up and become sticky. Clean materials and bottle lids with Everclear to get it clean.

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Beeswax

Beeswax is the third bee medicine that every home herbalist should have on hand — especially the local kind as it smells particularly divine. It’s a key ingredient in making salves and balms and creams!

In a time where more and more information is coming forward as to the toxicity of topical creams, cosmetics, and cleansers, making healthful skin preparations is an easy solution to avoid the petro chemicals & endocrine disruptors AND save a bit of money on beauty care! Using infused oils blended with the beeswax can result in salves that can be very useful to have also in the medicine kit. Here’s an easy herbal salve how-to by Mountain Rose Herbs.

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~ to learn more about these and other folk medicine making preparations, check out my class list!~ 

“Chestnuts Roasting on a Open Fire”

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… A holiday mantra that hits the airwaves at Thanksgiving and then repeats on loop through the December holiday madness. We hum the tune, but have you ever added chestnuts to your table during the holiday?

The chestnut is a pretty amazing food, filled with protein, minerals and vitamins and energy in fact, if ever needed to rely on a nut (Hunger Games, anyone?).  And it’s pretty versatile too. Chestnuts can be roasted, boiled into soups and ground into flours.

For an easy holiday appetizer that kids will enjoy, I suggest roasting chestnuts stovetop for snacking while that Christmas turkey or ham is in the oven.  They can be peeled and enjoyed warm from the shell. They have a very neutral, almost buttery flavor making them an easy food for children to appreciate.

We first introduced our own children to the chestnut several years ago on a fall foraging jaunt. One Sunday afternoon, the husband and I loaded the kids into the car for a Sunday drive west from Grand Rapids to Winkel Chestnut Farms to learn more about the chestnut. The Winkel Farm grows about 20 acres of chestnuts and have been doing it for over 20 years.  While we had missed their regular UPick season; the owners, Leslie and Dick, were super cool to let us bring the family out to forage for fallen nuts on the ground.

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My children listened to the farmers tell us the story of the American Chestnut — how it was once prolific throughout the eastern United States until the Chinese Chestnut tree was introduced in the late 1880s, when a virus it carried affected greatly the American Chestnut and nearly wiped out its population completely.

After about an hour of searching through the grass, we’d gathered several quarts of chestnuts. The children took it upon themselves to turn the ground foraging into a competition.  We wished we’d brought leather gloves — not realizing how spiky the spines of the chestnut were!

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We giggled and laughed in the sunshine, trying not to puncture our fingers with their spines.  Farmer Leslie fired up the roaster and showed the children how the nuts should be scored on the bottom before roasting. The kids loved the taste of the warm nuts and were excited about adding chestnuts to our Thanksgiving menu. And while my children would have tried the warm nuts straight out of the cast iron pan during the holiday, making that venture out to the chestnut farm gave us a bit of family time together outdoors and taught the kids a little about the food’s history and ecology.

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So now, each fall my kids see chestnuts at the farmers market or hear “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” they will know more about the chestnut than it being just a healthy food. They will have memories of our family heading out and foraging for them underneath the chestnut trees.

And to me that’s what creating a culture of food around the table is all about — creating lasting memories and new holiday traditions with loved ones.

***To find a chestnut farm or farmers market near you, check out LocalHarvest.org. And for ways to prepare chestnuts, check out the many ways you can prepare chestnuts on FoodIly.com.

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