Let us now sing the praises of The Boreal Herbal, Beverly Gray’s herbal encyclopedia, compendium, spiritual guide and cookery book based on the flowers, plants and trees of the boreal forest.
Published this June, The Boreal Herbal, Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North is a highly personal work, in which the author generously shares the bounty of her years of foraging and concocting, both in the laboratory and in the kitchen.
Gray produced the book, particular to the boreal forest and to her unique voice and experience, by collaborating intensely with her photographers, her editor, her designer and especially with her fellow herbalists.
The manuscript grew as Gray continued to expand the parameters of what it would contain, such as when she went to Norway to present a paper at a circumpolar agriculture conference, met Sami Elder, herbalist, teacher and reindeer herder Laila Spik and tramped the woods and meadows with her, sharing stories and ideas about boreal plants and flowers.
“I realized I had to include a profile of Lila in the book,” says Gray.
Such profiles are interspersed throughout The Boreal Herbal (including one on the versatile Martha Louise Black, who amongst her many accomplishments was author of a small book on Yukon wildflowers), but the bulk of this gorgeous, 440-page volume concentrates on profiles of boreal flowers, plants, fruits and trees, when to gather and how to use them.
Many Yukoners know Gray well from her work at Aroma Borealis, her storefront on Main Street in downtown Whitehorse.
Part beauty shop, part apothecary, the store is a soothing oasis where calm-voiced staff guide customers through jars and bottles of herbs, potions and salves in the search for the right remedy for tired eyes, sore hips or wonky stomachs.
Gray has ministered to the local populace since 1995, first from her home and for last 14 years through the shop. She was one of the first Yukon business people to reach out to the larger world through internet sales.
Now the ordinary boreal forest dweller with a burner, a blender and a sense of adventure can produce at home the salves and ointments, the tisanes and tinctures for which Aroma Borealis is known and loved.
This is wonderful, and we are grateful. Who among us has not swooned upon opening a jar of Boreal Balm? (See page 314 for the recipe.) I’ve always privately thought this was the aroma that signals the pilgrim’s entry into paradise.
I can’t wait for next spring, when the cottonwood buds are ready, to cook up some Boreal Balm and fill the whole house with that happiness-inducing smell.
But for the reader whose first inclination is not to make healing medicines but to cook delicious things (same thing, really), Gray’s recipes are a treat.
Those who came to consciousness in the mid-’70s will remember a series of books that people who were serious about the planet, particularly sustainable food production and consumption, pored over, exchanged, brought to public meetings and thumped on tables, adopted as their guide to living right and elevated to a place of well-thumbed, carob-chip-stained honour in their kitchens.
High up in the pantheon were Francis Moore Lappe’s Diet for A Small Planet and Recipes For a Small Planet, which espoused meatless meals and lots of grains, beans and pulses.
Just as well known and even more fiercely loved was Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, a book of great humour suffused with a passion to explore and celebrate indigenous foods, written for wild food expeditionaries willing to go out and search for the edible and the delicious.
If Frances Moore Lappe was the severe and impassioned idealist, Euell Gibbons was the Green Man – down-home, hairy and a bit of an anarchist.
Gray’s recipes are in the same tradition. (Um, except for the hairiness. I have never found a hair in a single Boreal Herbal recipe.)
Take pine bark crackers, for example, a recipe given to Gray by Laila Spik.
Who would think, looking at the rough bark of a pine tree, that there within lurked a yumminess so pronounced it cried out to be roasted, pounded into flour, turned into a cracker and become the base for goat cheese and cranberry chutney served at a book launch party?
In indigenous nomadic cultures, necessity is the mother of culinary adventure; the need for sustenance drives an intense exploration of every possible nourishing thing to eat in the environment. The Boreal Herbal’s pine bark cracker recipe gives us a direct line to the flash of original thought that has sustained generations.
And that is only one example of the thoughtful and ingenious treatments in the recipe section of the book.
Now, when I contemplate my disaster of a backyard in downtown Whitehorse where dandelions flourish and the tall grasses grow, I don’t know what to do. Should I pick the tender young dandelion leaves and eat them in salad? Should I let them flower and make dandelion cake, mustard or syrup?
Or should I uproot the lot, roast the roots, grind them and make ice cream?
I don’t know, but I do know that I’m going to bundle up two of the three copies of The Boreal Herbal I acquired at the launch celebration in June and send them to my mother and my sister-in-law in Ontario, who love plants, wild things and experimenting in the kitchen.
Perhaps they too will stalk the wild nettle from the armchair (mother) or in the woods nearby (sister-in-law), a copy of The Boreal Herbal ready to hand. I certainly intend to.