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Plants As Food & Medicine
Warning: None of this is to be taken as medical advice. Properly identifying plants and their uses requires a lot of personal research!
The Basics of Foraging
"Foraging" is to gather mushrooms or plants from the wild (instead of a garden/farm), usually for use as food or medicine. While they follow a similar pattern in their growth, mushrooms are not plants. Plants use water and light to draw nutrients from the air and soil. Mushrooms are "decomposers" that break down organic matter like "dead" leaves and twigs for their nutrition. They can work together "symbiotically" sometimes, but each operates in ways distinct from the other. In the science of Biology, plants are classified as part of the group or "kingdom" called "Plantae", and mushrooms are part of the kingdom called "Fungi".
There are a huge number of mushroom varieties that are deadly poisonous, yet are almost indistinguishable from edible ones. Therefore, many "mycologists" (i.e.: people who study mushrooms) recommend against trying to forage for them without thorough training in identification of fungi (i.e.: guidance from people already experienced, access to a labortory for testing, etc.). It cannot really be learned from books alone. One can buy a starter "culture" and grow their own edible mushrooms at home pretty easily though! If one is still adamant on foraging for wild mushrooms and cannot find a local mycologist to help, at least learn how to do it safely and how to recognize the symptoms of poisoning. This is really not something to play around with as it can be fatal.
Plants, on the other hand, are much easier to identify if one is careful:
• Patiently observe their features before touching them. Some common plants, like poison ivy, can cause painful rashes with very little contact.
• Match up all of their characteristics with reliable field guides appropriate to one's area. Do NOT gloss over the details. Always use multiple references, and do not rely on memory alone.
• Pick only a single plant at a time, not in clusters. If an edible plant is right next to a poisonous one, we may accidentally get a mix of them if we try to take a handful. Some edible and poisonous plants can look quite similar to one another, but they will be different enough to tell apart with some discernment.
The YouTube channel Atomic Shrimp has an excellent introductory video for those that might be interested in getting started. A good follow up is the free 39-minute Udemy course, Foraging for Edible & Medicinal Plants by Alica Meek.
A few other important points to keep in mind:
• Get to know the area a little bit before going out to forage. What grows where (i.e.: location) and when (i.e.: season)?
• Take some tools (such as a spade, a knife, a pair of garden snips / pruning shears, a cloth bag, a magnifying glass, a notebook, a map, a compass, a small first aid kit, a water bottle, etc.).
• Watch out for insects that can cause harm (e.g.: mosquitoes, ticks, wasps, etc.).
• Make sure that the plant is healthy, not diseased (e.g.: discoloring, spots, holes in leaves, insect infestation, etc.). Stay away from anything that looks sickly or "dead".
• Pay close attention to the surrounding environment that the plants are growing in. Do NOT pick plants from around roads, train tracks, places that have industrial runoff, city parks or golf courses where they use pesticides/herbicides/fungicides, etc. The plants can pick up toxins that can make us very sick, even if we try to wash them off or attempt to "boil it away". If one is stuck within an urban setting and truly starving, it might be ok to use some carefully selected and washed plants until a better source of food/medicine is found, but try to avoid that situation if at all possible.
• Make sure that people are allowed to forage from that area. Some wildlife spaces are "protected" for various reasons and it may be illegal to take anything from it. This is not necessarily out of selfishness. A plant can be "endangered" in the sense of there being very few of them in existence and removing it from its native habitat might kill it.
• Respect the environment. Do not leave trash behind or take all of one plant. We want the plants to be able to keep growing. Both of those actions can inhibit that.
• Respect the plants. As much as possible, only take what is needed from a plant without harming it. For example, taking too much bark off of a tree's trunk can kill it. If a lot of something is needed, like leaves or bark, take a little bit of it from many plants distributed over a wide area. This will let them all grow back normally without killing any of them.
• Wash the plant thoroughly before using it, and learn how to prepare it properly. For example, what parts of the plant can be used? The flowers, the seeds, the leaves, the stems, the root? Not all of them may be safe to ingest. Do we have to cook it first or can we eat it raw? How much of it is safe to eat at once? Is it for "external use" (e.g.: to be crushed into a paste and smeared onto the skin) or "internal use" (e.g.: to be boiled and drunk like a tea)? Etc.
• It is important to know if someone has allergies, both ourselves and other people. If you are unsure if a plant will cause an allergic reaction, test it first. Hold a small amount of moist plant on the soft underside of your arm (such as near your wrist or your inner elbow) for a few minutes. If it causes any irritation (such as itching or burning), do not try to ingest it.
What To Do & What To Make
Some methods of preparation are very common, especially within the context of cooking. One will naturally pick them up as they learn more:
• "Decoction" is to boil the plant material in some water. One might then separate the plant material from the water by filtering it out with a strainer.
• "Percolation" is to pass hot water over some plant material as it sits in a strainer. Unlike the above method, the plant material does not actually sit within the water as it is heated up.
• "Maceration" is to soften or break up the plant material by letting it sit in a liquid. The liquid is then removed and the plant material is used.
• "Steeping" is to let the plant material sit in a liquid (like water, alcohol, or oil) until that liquid absorbs what is needed from it. The plant material is then removed and the liquid is used. One might use a tea infuser to do this.
With both maceration and steeping, the liquid may or may not be warm, either by direct heating with a flame or by letting it sit out in the sun.
• "Drying" is to let the moisture dissolve out of the plant material itself without burning it (e.g.: by exposing it to hot, dry air). One might then grind the dry plant material into a powder with a mortar and pestle. A homemade solar dryer / dehydrator is a handy tool to have. This is essentially a wooden box with air vents and a clear top that allows the sun to quickly dry out the plant material while protecting it from insects and animals.
• "Pressing" is to squeeze out the liquid (e.g.: juice or oil). One can make their own herb press, a tool for getting the most out of the plant material when pressing.
Notice that pretty much all of these methods are simply different ways of separating out what is needed so that it can be combined with something else or used as is. Oftentimes, there will be leftover parts that can be used in a different way or "composted" (i.e.: allowed to break down inside of some moist dirt in order to make rich soil for growing more plants). It is always a good idea to use this soil and any leftover seeds to start a small garden of helpful herbs, even if it is only a little box on one's window sill. Plants keep sharing their treasures when we take care of them.
Other than eating plants like food, the ways to deliver plant medicines can vary too. For example:
• A "tincture" is when something is taken out of or "extracted" from the plant(s) and put into a small amount of alcohol.
• An "infusion" is the result of steeping. One usually ends up with something that looks like tea. This can be mixed with some type of oil to form a lotion-like "cream", or some type of wax to form a "balm"/"salve".
• A "poultice" is when something is extracted from the plant(s) and put onto a (usually warm) piece of fabric to be applied to the skin.
Because plant medicines can spoil like food, whatever is left over will most likely be kept like food (e.g.: within an air-tight container stored in a cool, dry, and relatively dark place). A very common type of container, especially for tinctures, is an amber glass bottle with a dropper. The brown colored glass protects the contents from light, which can break down the chemicals inside, and the dropper allows one to easily dispense what is needed. Do not use anything that has become "rancid" or has rotted.
A Lost Art, A New Discovery
We have mentioned briefly before that food can be medicine, and that getting a basic understanding of how to use plants as medicine (or "herbalism") can be very useful, especially in areas where healthcare is unavailable. A healer who practices herbalism is often referred to as an "herbalist".
Herbalism is timelessly relevant and has been practiced in many places throughout the world. A fascinating documentary that captures this well is the three-part series, Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine released by New Mexico State University (NMSU):
Part I: Jordan - The Middle East
Part II: The Borderlands - USA/Mexico
Part III: Curaçao - The Caribbean
Unfortunately, a lot of plant knowledge is becoming lost due to a variety of different factors (such as disinterest in learning it, destruction of the ecosystems in which those plants are grown, etc.). For example, in the U.S., a healing method called "eclectic medicine" amassed a huge amount of information on plant remedies that was/is in danger of becoming lost. The herbalist Michael Moore, of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, attempted to preserve a good portion of it. This type of knowledge is important to study, to share, to develop, and to continue to hand down through the generations. Moreover, we also need to cultivate the plants themselves instead of overharvesting them from the wild.
Basic knowledge about healing with plants can be found for free (such as the manuals from Sprout Distro). More detailed reference works, like how to use herbalism for emergency situations, are available for purchase [I have no affiliation with these authors]:
• The Herbal Medic by Sam Coffman
• Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner
• Herbal Antivirals by Stephen Harrod Buhner
In some places, such as Germany and China, the use of herbalism is more widespread, so there is a lot of research on plants that takes place there. One can find reference works (like the Commission E Monographs) that break down the use of specific herbs within a medical setting. There are several databases, both free and paid, for finding these kinds of scientific papers.
If one is looking for more general information about plants, a simple Internet search can bring up many useful pages. A few helpful ones are:
• Identify That Plant
• Native Plant Finder
• Falling Fruit
• Foraging and Ethnobotany Links & Books Page
• Forager's Harvest Resources and Links
• Plants For A Future
• Native Plant Trust
• WSSA - Weed Identification
• The International Plant Name Index (IPNI)
• The Plant List / World Flora Online
As with foraging, it is important to cross-reference as many reliable reference materials as possible when making plant medicines.
Communion With Plant Consciousness
Other than that which was deduced through experimentation or discovered by accident, how exactly were some of these plant medicines found? Some of their uses are so specific and their combinations quite sophisticated. It may sound strange, but plants are alive and intelligent, and many native peoples have learned to communicate with them directly in a sense.
Some healers or "shamans" use specific plants to induce spiritual experiences (such the tribes of the Amazon rainforest and "ayahuasca", or the Huicol people and "peyote"). These drugs are not for recreation, but are considered a "sacrament" (i.e.: something sacred, to be treated with respect). The plants are seen as allies that help one to perceive a deeper aspect of reality where everything is interconnected.
Such experiences are not simply hallucinations without meaning; usable healing knowledge is often derived from them. Further, this intuitive way of obtaining information can complement scientific thought about the environment and how we relate to it. Human development is throughly tied to the development of other lifeforms on Earth. For example, the "domestication" of plants (like corn and wheat) and animals (like oxen) made "agriculture" possible. Civilization could not exist otherwise. This is much more than "co-existence"; it is "co-evolution". We are growing together!
Back To Earth
If one is humble enough to ask how they relate to Nature, instead of trying to profit at its expense, they can learn more about themselves and everything around them. This is not only necessary for survival, it can make life a joy to live!
Thank you for reading. We sincerely hope that this was and will continue to be of help to you. ❤️