Challenge Your Plant Knowledge
I like to take stock of the plant resources at my disposal wherever I go. Wild plants that are edible, medicinal and useful are a passion I attribute to the plant walks I’d go on with my mentor Marty Simon. He would challenge me asking me “hey Kev, what’s this?” and I’d have to give him the name and some uses. That plant challenge was one I really enjoyed as his lead survival instructor at the Wilderness Learning Center. Marty has taken to homesteading as of late but I still take his challenge of plant identification when I travel and explore, including the places I go canoe camping. Just before school started this fall, I took to the great outdoors again with my Hornbeck ultralight canoe for a few days of peace and quiet. While I was out, I took notice of some plants and used my Fiddleback Forge Pipsqueak as a contrasting photo backdrop when necessary. Since September is when Marty hosts his annual “Wilderness Adventurers’ Rendezvous” (AKA “W.A.R”) I think it’s a good topic for a blog post this month.
This plant is known as “strong medicine” by many Native Americans. Yarrow is easily identified by the distinct “feathery” leaves. The latin name is actually achillea millefolium or “one thousand leaves”. Yarrow is an amazing plant with a rich history of medicinal use. It has been used as a poultice to stop bleeding, as a digestive aid, an antibiotic in tea as well as a medicine to break fevers. I personally used it back in 2015 while on vacation in southern Utah. I had a horrible chest cold and cough that would wake the dead. I found yarrow, made a tea with the leaves and flowers and drank a couple large mugs of it. Within a day or two, my cough disappeared. You may find different types of yarrow with various flower colors including pink or white. If you drink the tea, you’ll notice it has a strong bitter medicine-like flavor. This can be offset with the next plant.
This plant has shiny oval leaves with a very distinct wintergreen smell to them when they are crushed. Wintergreen makes an excellent tea that is said to help with digestion. It also has a very strong but pleasant wintergreen aroma that can offset the smell of water you collect and treat. As the name implies, wintergreen can be found in the middle of winter underneath the snow and it can be used the same way as it is the rest of the year. Wintergreen berries are harder to find as they get picked over pretty quickly by animals and other hikers. I didn’t find any on my last encounter with it but will tell you they are wintergreen in flavor and have a slight starchy consistency. Wintergreen is a great plant to pick and chew on while hiking long distances. It will help you get that “I haven’t eaten in a long time” flavor out of your mouth.
White pine is perhaps the easiest of these plants to recognize. White Pine is an evergreen and the needles grow in bundles of 5. Think 5 needles, 5 letters W-H-I-T-E. White pine is a plant my friend Marty says a person could not only survive on but thrive on. The needles, pound for pound, have more vitamin C than oranges and can be used to make an excellent tea. My good friend Big John drinks white pine tea on the regular and he has shown numerous people how simple the process is by dumping needles into a mug and covering it with boiling water. The inner bark is edible and on many courses my students have tried it with some hesitation and a car-freshener taste in their mouth afterword. White Pine also creates a pollen that can be collected and used to thicken stews and provide additional nutrition. White pine, in my opinion, is a life saver. Learn it!
This little plant is one I first learned about over 10 years ago when I took Marty’s Wild Plant Intensive course co-taught with George Hedgepeth. Gold thread, sometimes referred to as “canker root”, derives it’s name from the golden yellow and thin roots that are found by digging just below the surface. It has been used to treat mouth sores and also has been used by Native Americans for yellow dye. On that plant course, Marty stated how plants meant for use externally are not always appropriate for internal use but those meant for internal use almost always can be used externally. We made a gold thread salve and according to one user, it was the best treatment for chafed skin.
Before you go out and try your hand at foraging for wild plants, make sure to consult multiple field guides to cross-reference what you find. Better yet, go out with a reliable and professional guide who can show you what is what so you don’t end up making a painful mistake. Edible plants are all around us. With a little knowledge, you’ll be amazed what you find in places you’ve been to many times before. Challenge yourself this way and you’ll find some incredible solutions in plants.