Presenting The Wisdom of Plant Healer & Wild Forager
Wendy “Butter” Petty
People get into the art of foraging for different reasons, including saving money by integrating wild and free fare, treasuring how much better foraged foods can taste, and knowing that they are often healthier for us than anything we can get from a grocery store. Our newest Plant Healer Magazine columnist, Wendy ‘Butter” Petty, has at least one other motivation: she is wildly in love with plants, animals, in love with all the natural world, its difficult lessons as well as beauty and insights. Butter’s quarterly column is entitled “Foraging Matters,” beginning with an article of elemental foraging advice, and proudly excerpted here.
“I hail from farming families on both sides,” she tells us. “My father can recount tales of growing up in the Midwest, and how picking wild foods was a natural part of the way they fed a large family. A big group of kin would pile into pickup of the old Chevy, then strike out into the woods to fill buckets attached to their top overall buttons with things like Morels, Raspberries, and Hickory nuts, each in season. Nobody called it foraging, and it was neither fancy nor intimidating. Harvesting wild foods was a natural part of the cycle of life.”
As a young adult, she felt a “deep-seated need to be anti-domestic” and identify as a scientist. her my ambitions had everything to do with being a scientist. “To be honest, I’d come from people who sewed and canned and hunted. I wanted to end up far away from any of that. And yet the pull to the mountains was even stronger. “The only thing I really knew about myself when I graduated school was that, despite my degree in chemistry, I wanted to be near to my beloved Rocky Mountains, which were as essential to my being as the thin air that bathes them.”
Her return to foraging was a slow process, and yet today “It is at the core of who I am. I try to eat as many wild foods as possible as a part of my year-round diet. This requires quite a bit of planning, harvesting work, food preparation, and hours sunk into preserving.”
Today, Butter not only writes about gathering and wildcrafting in Plant Healer Magazine and her online blog, she also instructs others about it, infecting them with her unbridled enthusiasm.
“My passion and hope for the future is to establish foraging as a pillar of social/food justice. People who would define themselves as foragers are a small group. On one hand, you have the world’s leading chefs like René Redzepi and Magnus Nilsson inspiring great high-end cuisine. On the other, you have the group that is widely regarded by the rest of the world as the “twigs and berries” crowd. I see a whole gray scale of people in between who might really enjoy or benefit from adding one or two wild foods to their pantry. I want to get real and meet people where they are without an ounce of judgment about how they already eat, and share my forever bubbling-over zeal for wild foods. Bottom line is that wild foods taste great. That’s a wonderful place for us all to meet and say howdy.”
When it came time to write the following introduction to her first Plant Healer column, she chose to do so in the form of a letter to her once novice self… but it serves, indeed, as a letter to us all, as we each stand at the doorway to a lifetime of ethically gathering, savoring, and conserving the nutritional and medicinal gifts of the living planet.
“Standing at the crossroads, looking both forward to promoting foraging as a pillar in food justice, and over my shoulder at the young woman who found herself through harvesting wild food, I can see my own journey a bit more clearly. There are a lot of things I’d do differently as a fledgling forager, if I had it all to do again. Even though most of these things add time to the task of foraging, they pay off in the end. I’ve written a letter to myself as a novice forager, hoping that others can benefit from where I got it wrong, as well as what I did right.”
You can read the entire longer article in the Summer 2016 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, available for download June 6th: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com
–JWH, PHM CoEditor
ADVICE TO NOVICE FORAGERS
By Wendy Butter Petty
Dear Young Butter,
In retrospect, it all makes sense that you became a forager. While your schoolmates were playing video games or dressing up dolls, you were running wild in the ditches, distracted for hours on end by flowers and trees and the dirty elbows of the creek. As you matured, your friends endeavored to climb to the top of all the 14’ers. You got left behind, barely more than a few steps from the trailhead – photographing flowers, sniffing trees bark, and exploring behind boulders. As you come of age, your love of the outdoors and food combine into a passion you never could have expected: that of a wild foods enthusiast.
As a young woman who aligns with Riot Grrrls, I know you may want to push back against my advice that follows. But please, open your ears and just let it sink in. As much as you’ve always wanted to rebel, you’ve remained a good listener. These things will make foraging easier in the long run:
-Respect for the plants
Thanks to your deep connection with the land of your home, you’ve almost always done the right thing as a forager. You’ve not harvested more than you could use, nor left an area less beautiful than you’d found it. You’ve always understood that, like yourself, wild foods are all part of a bigger web, and are as connected to the insects and dirt as they are to you. You’ve never thought they were yours to pillage by right. That’s an ethic that you now pass down and emphasize to every student you teach, helping to ensure that foragers are doing right by the place where they harvest. This is the most important aspect of being a forager. Listening to the plants, respecting their lives and existence and place in the world.
-Got to know each plant slowly
You were bone-headed enough to study and learn wild edible plants on your own. It turns out that this tactic of learning plants at an agonizingly slow pace has paid off. You’ve been able to see plants in each stage of growth and how they overwinter. That’s often necessary to nailing down a difficult ID. It also helps to make a lasting pattern of recognition. Better yet, learning plants slowly, on a manageable scale, enabled you to introduce them into your kitchen one at a time, gaining a deep understanding how each plant tastes and behaves in recipes.
-Making wild foods a real staple in the kitchen, more than just nibbling
Of course, there are all different types of foragers out there, but I applaud your ability as a newbie forager to make the wild foods you bring home workhorses in your kitchen. As an instructor, I now see lots of people who are interested in wild foods, but no matter how many classes they take or books they read, wild edibles never really become a real part of their kitchen repertoire. Your interest in foraging was driven by a desire to sample new foods from the start. That same love of food is what secured a big place in your heart and life for foraging.
-Not letting things go to waste if picked
I’m glad it’s always been so heartbreaking to you to see wild foods go to waste. It’s always seemed disrespectful to the plants, hasn’t it? It’s also just a big waste of time. On a practical level, this is tied into kitchen economy. For one to get the most bang for their so-called buck, they must actually use the foods they put into the fridge/pantry. You’ve always seemed to get that a combination of intuitive cooking, seasonality, and economy are all deeply entwined in a wild foods kitchen. Wild foods stretch your creativity in a way you thrive on, but they also force you to consider what ingredients are on hand and how they can best be utilized to make a meal. You’ve always understood that using wild ingredients in cooking is as simple as swapping out familiar ingredients in known recipes. Orache and Dock replace the Spinach in lasagna. Ditch Plums are used in place of Peaches in Gran’s famous cobbler. Porcini are now the star of good old cream of mushroom soup. One of your greatest delights is in combining whatever odds and ends are kicking around the fridge with fresh wild foods, and serving up a meal that will be slurped up by even the pickiest eater. That’s a skill that will continue to benefit you well.
-Respect for delicate and native plants
From day one, you’ve always been sensitive to the fact that plants and fungi aren’t yours to dominate, that some technically edible things are simply too beautiful or ephemeral to eat. Others, especially the natives, have populations that must be protected.
-Foraging needn’t look a certain way
Thank you for not holding to any romanticized ideal of what a foraging must look like. For sure, there are people who forage with a basket spun of angel spit gently swaying from their arm as they tiptoe through the forest in perfectly dappled light with animated birds flitting from branch to branch around them. For you, foraging has largely been a sweaty, muddy, back-aching affair done with plastic grocery bags the neighbors have saved for you, and that’s never bothered you a bit. There’s room enough in the world for angel-spit basket foragers and upcycled-baggie foragers alike.
-Learn the trees first
I know, I really do, that when you were first starting out, you’d do anything possible to identify plants and get them to your dinner plate. In the rush, you skipped over some of the most important aspects of the environment, the one element that could give you more clues to what’s going on in a bioregion than anything else. Learn the trees first. Trees are the alphabet; all stories begin with them. Think of how many hours, enough to add up to whole days or weeks lost, you wasted by searching for Morels under Plains Cottonwoods and Peach-leaf Willows when you couldn’t distinguish between those trees and Narrow-leaf Cottonwoods under which morels grow in Eastern Colorado. The arm-span of one adult equals approximately 50 years of growth in a tree, so you can tell just by looking at the circumference of a tree whether it predated white settlement in a particular area. Knowing bark patterns and overall shapes of trees helps you spot new peach, plum, and apple trees while wandering around in the off-season, which is an important aspect of scouting new locations.
-Learn botanical names
Botanical names seem big and scary because you didn’t grow up learning them. They aren’t as cuddly as common names. They’re long and odd and you can’t pronounce them. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Nobody really knows the correct way to pronounce them. Do your best, and understand that in doing so, you are communicating. Latin names are important. In the beginning, it is so tempting to only use common names. Then you start to understand how nonspecific common names are, and how the names pigweed or snakeweed could refer to any one of a dozen plants. When it comes to accurate identification, botanical names are everything, completely essential, non-negotiable. When you realize that plants are from the same family, you’ll start to understand characteristics they have in common. There are about a zillion species of Mustard in your area. Knowing that the flowers of Mustard plants have four petals arranged like a “+” sign and their seeds tend to spiral up the stem like a squirrel tail helps you to immediately place an unknown plant as belonging to the mustard family.
-Know which plants are on the invasive species list
You are now aware that there are two different viewpoints on invasive species. Some believe that they are a threat to native plants, and must be fought at all costs. Others think that they are a part of the flow of change on the planet, and can’t or possibly shouldn’t try to be managed. Regardless of how you feel about the subject, it is important to know which species are invasive in your area for two reasons. The first is that invasive species are the ones most likely to be targeted for herbicide sprays. Secondly, invasive species are usually some of the most abundant in a given area, so you won’t impact their population by harvesting them at will.
-Take a class
You endeavored to learn foraging all by yourself. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s no reason to do so. Translating what you’ve read in a book to the field is flat out difficult. Nothing can replace first-hand knowledge from someone who already knows what they are doing, and seeing/smelling/touching plants firsthand does wonders for remembering them. Take a class! Take advantage of the knowledge of more experienced foragers and go out on plant walks with them, join forays with the Mycological Society. Even if you don’t enjoy being around people, it enhances your ability to learning plants.
-Label pictures, even if you are only guessing
Congratulations on taking pictures of what you are harvesting, for taking pleasure document the plants to help you learn. But for Pete’s sake, if you don’t label those pictures, they are darned near useless later on. There is simply no way to sift through all of the thousands of unlabeled pictures you have archived to find the one you need. Sort them by seasonal and plant-specific folders, and label as many as you can manage. Even label plants about whose identity you are still uncertain with your best guess and a question mark.
-Have a well-labeled and easily accessible pantry
Having come from a family of hunters and canners, you already knew to label everything you put up. Mercy, though, those few that sneak past you can really be a nuisance. Remember how you thought putting away dried plants in any old tin you could find from the thrift store was a good idea? They did indeed keep the light out, and with the lack of humidity on the Front Range, keeping moisture out was never an issue. What you didn’t anticipate was that having tins of every shape and size made them very hard to manage on the shelf. Worse, the fact that they were disorganized and you couldn’t see into them kept you from using the plants you’d stored. You didn’t remember those rose petals you’d put up until it was nearly time for them to bloom again. You used them eventually, but that kind of thing is really a shame. You may be a messy person and like it that way, but in this case the anal crowd really has it right – greater organization in the foraged pantry leads to greater efficiency, which means you make better use of all of those beloved plants you harvested. Pantry stores are meant to be used, not turned into a museum.
-Know both the ideal and the easiest way to process something
Alright, so you spotted that amazing recipe and you have your heart set on making it, say apple-sumac powder. All well and good, except you are exhausted from foraging nonstop throughout the growing season and can’t bear to prepare a single recipe more. Keep that ideal recipe in mind, and make it if you have the energy. However, if you’re too worn out to peel, core, slice, dry, and powder apples, no big deal! Instead, core the apples, cut them into fat slices, and dry them. The task barely takes a few minutes, and dried apples keep forever and are loved by everyone.
-Know what processing can be put off until the off-season
I know, you couldn’t have imagined that you’d be completely engulfed by foraging, that it would become your deepest passion, your whole life. As it started to consume you, though, you realized how much time it took, and that with the short growing seasons where you live in the Rockies, there isn’t enough time to pick and process all the foods you want and need to get through the winter and also work other jobs. Relax, there are tasks you can put off until the off-season. Ditch Plums can go straight into a bag and into the freezer. Acorns can be roasted then frozen in their shells. Black Walnuts and Pine Nuts can be picked from their shells during snow storms. Nettles can be dried, and later stripped of their tough stems on the longest days. Seeds can be harvest and left in paper bags until you can deal with them. Manage the best you can, get help from extra hands and pay them with a good meal. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.
-Speaking of the off-season, study then
Hey there, grasshopper, you live in a place where there are no things growing for 5+ months per year. Hibernation time is important, but think also about how this time can be used wisely as a forager. Take out your copy of Botany in a Day, sign up for an online course, go out and master the identification of two different trees by their bark alone.
-Keep records from year to year
I realize that it takes time to keep a log of what you foraged day to day, what the weather was like, other thoughts you had about the conditions on any given day. It gives you so much in return, though. Being able to go back and see when a particular crop emerged from year to year helps you predict how the plants and fungi will behave in the future. And over the long haul, it helps you remember other events. You thought you’d never forget the big flood, didn’t you? Now you struggle to remember how many years have elapsed since it happened.
-Foraging and Herbalism
What you don’t understand now as a novice forager is that foraging and herbalism are two sides of the same coin, not separate fields. During the season in which you collect rose petals or hips for food, make a point of studying how those same parts can be used as medicine. Understand that in addition to making a really nice ingredient in salad dressing, rose vinegar cannot be beat for cooling the heat of burns, and make a double batch. There are all types and degrees of both foragers and herbalists in the world. Let the fields bleed into each other and integrate; they’ll add color and depth to your understanding of the big picture.
Little pat of Butter, I’m so pleased that you’ve finally found your place in the world, and the knowledge you are amassing. I love the way you can now look out across the land you hold dear and read it like never before, and how foraging has strengthened and enhanced your bond with your home. The wonderful thing about foraging is that you will never be able to know all there is to know, and a lifetime of wonder lies ahead of you.
The Mature (cultured) Butter
To read the entire, longer article in the Summer 2016 issue of Plant Healer Magazine (340 color pages releasing June 6th), you need only be subscribed: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com
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