Foraging for Wild Plants

Wherever you go in the world, you will inevitably come across medicinal and edible plants. It seems to me that no place inhabited by humans is without its plant allies. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “In some Native languages, the term for plants translates to ‘those who take care of us.’’’ If you’ve spent any time around healing plants, you probably know this to be true. However, over the last several-hundred years, we humans have gradually stopped paying attention to the natural support system around us and have disconnected ourselves from it almost completely.

For many Yukoners (old and new), I suspect connection to nature is one of the main reasons why we live here. We’re incredibly fortunate to have access to so much wilderness and to so much abundance. If you know where to look, nature’s medicine cupboard and pantry are pretty well-stocked in every hemisphere of the globe, but sometimes it feels like the Far North was gifted just a little bit more (maybe to make up for the harsh long winters and the swarms of mosquitoes we put up with in the summer).

Much like our separation from the natural world, it can be argued that we’ve also slowly become disconnected from our intuition. Most contemporary education systems, as well as science and technology, praise rationalism and logic above all else. As children, we are made to doubt our internal wisdom and instincts and instead are taught to repeat, verbatim, what has been written in books. We’re made to believe that knowledge only comes from outside of us and must be taught first.

What if that’s not necessarily true? What if there are other kinds of wisdom and understanding that reside within us from the moment that we’re born? What if there’s a knowing that’s woven into our DNA that doesn’t require conscious reasoning? What if there exists a kind of knowledge that’s not found in books or online, the kind that’s passed on from past generations or other realms, a kind that you can’t really explain but feels true in your bones? And what if engaging with the natural world is the key to reconnecting us with that intuition and ancestral knowledge?

I think most of us have closed ourselves off from our gut feelings and no longer trust our inner voices. Foraging for wild foods and medicines can crack open that door again. It can become a way of reconnecting with ancient instincts that still exist within all of us.
So where do we start? Herbalism courses and field guides to wild plants can provide a wonderful foundation of knowledge and information, but they’re mostly theoretical and don’t delve into the experiential or hands-on. Yarrow Willard, a herbalist based on Vancouver Island and the co-founder of the family-owned plant medicine company Harmonic Arts, has a more playful perspective on foraging. His YouTube channel is full of infectious enthusiasm and accessible information on a large assortment of medicinal plants. His approach to foraging is based on connecting with our sensory perception and building a relationship with the plant world. He nibbles on plants as he walks through the forest, observing them with curiosity and interest.

For Yarrow, paying attention is the first step. Be aware of how you feel, notice the plants that you come across and appreciate the details. True awareness can lead to all sorts of discoveries. For example, you might notice lots of flowering plants in the forest, in the next month or so. Among them you might see the distinct white clusters of the flowering Saskatoon berry bush. They’re hard to miss in spring and are letting you know where you’ll be able to gather berries in the late summer. The same is the case for the small pink cranberry blossoms hidden among the lichen, or the sweet-smelling wild roses that will later produce rosehips. Remember them for later in the season. You may also begin to notice how things are connected: what plants usually grow together, what kinds of trees certain mushrooms grow under or on, and what plants are in bloom at the same time. You might overlook some plants at first, but their smell will alert you to their presence if you’re paying attention (like Labrador tea and artemisia). Gradually, the forest around you will begin to feel more familiar and you’ll start to have a relationship with its inhabitants.

In my experience if the same plant repeatedly crosses your path or presents itself in great abundance, there is usually a reason why … as if it were trying to get your attention. It may be letting you know about an underlying condition you have or the beginnings of an illness bubbling up in your body. For me, it’s very rarely a coincidence. If it’s a plant that I’m unfamiliar with, I look it up at home and usually discover that its medicinal properties perfectly match up to some imbalance that I’ve been dealing with (or that will present itself in the next few weeks). It might not make sense to the rational mind but its effectiveness is undeniable. The body knows. I feel this connection often when walking through the boreal forest.

This direct communication between humans and plants is not all that strange or uncommon in Indigenous communities. In the Peruvian Amazon, it’s still practised to this day, as a way to heal, learn and connect with other realms. These “dietas” are done with a variety of endemic master plants and are only begun after a period of strict fasting and cleansing, so that the connection can be as clear as possible. The chosen plant is consumed, for several days, in isolation and begins to communicate through dreams and visions. It also cleanses and deprograms the physical, emotional and spiritual imbalances of the patient. It’s a rigorous process, based on thousands of years of local Indigenous traditions, and shouldn’t be attempted without proper guidance and preparation. These kinds of non-conventional therapeutic traditions are found all around the world and illustrate that, at one point, all of our ancestors were linked to the plant world and that the feeling of alienation that we suffer from today is a recent phenomena and not how things always were.

A great practice that you can do in your own yard and with plants that you’re familiar with, in order to strengthen your connection with your intuition in a safe way, is collecting herbs in your garden for a pot of tea. Let yourself be led; don’t think about it too deeply and you will find that most likely you will be directed to the exact plants that you need in that moment. You will end up with the precise mixture of herbs that your body is craving. Foraging for mushrooms is another wonderful exercise. Let your mind wander and your intuition guide you. When I go out, desperately looking for mushrooms, I often come up empty-handed, but when I let go of my expectations, it’s almost as if someone were calling out to me in a whisper, or a feeling passes over me like when someone is watching you. Inevitably, I look around and will see a morel hidden on the forest floor, or an oyster mushroom up in a tree.

A fun game to play with young kids is to collect edible flowers. Here in the Yukon, we have several wild species that can be enjoyed on salads, soups and desserts. Among them are violets, northern bluebells (a.k.a. tall lungwort), fireweed, wild roses, dandelions and chickweed. If you like, you can also fill your garden with domestic varieties such as pansies, calendula, borage, lilac, nasturtium, bachelor’s buttons, chive, chamomile, thyme, dill, marigolds and cilantro. Let your kids gather the ones that call out to them and, later on, if you’re curious, look up their benefits. Most edible flowers are high in vitamins A, C and E, as well as in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

There’s very little to fear in the plant world. You may want to get to know the few truly poisonous plants that grow in our forests, so that you can avoid them, but most of the rest are okay to nibble on and explore in moderation. Foraging is an ancestral skill, and your body and intuition will remember.

A few tips for new foragers: always respect private property and show gratitude to the traditional stewards of this land. Don’t overharvest, don’t trespass and don’t take more than you will be able to use. Remember to think of the survival and well-being of the plant that you are collecting, as well as the other two- and four-legged ones who might also like to enjoy some of these medicines and foods. Harvest responsibly. A plant like rhodiola integrifolia (a.k.a. western roseroot) isn’t very common and matures slowly and, therefore, shouldn’t be harvested as extensively as a plant like arnica, which grows along the highway, or the dandelions in your yard. Tune in, pay attention and be considerate.

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