Wild in Your Heart: Foraging Fridays

This past week, Moonshine Heather said this to me:

 i am enamored with field guides, wild edible guides, etc but get hung up on the actual identification. have you just learned over the years the names and identifying attributes of all these various plants? or do you carry along some kind of guide?

I immediately began responding to her in my head. So much I wanted to say! I then realized that I wanted to say it to all of you. And so…

Welcome to this week’s Foraging Friday. This week is dedicated to the forager within all of us, that ancestral speck of DNA that once walked in communion and communication with the wild growing things that sustained and healed. Vitally woven into survival, the capacity to know, befriend and understand plants is an innate capacity we all have. A lot of folks will tell you that they don’t have a mind scientific enough for Botany, that they can’t remember names, classes, genuses or keys. One leaf looks like another, the whole meadow looks like weeds.

But I’m here to tell you that I’m not buying it. Because if anyone as hopeless with the scientific mindset as myself can learn the names of Gaia’s children, then you can too. That innate capacity I spoke of can become deadened and dusty without nurturance and with non-use, but it’s your own Sleeping Beauty that you can awake with a kiss. So pucker up, buttercup.

California Buttercup

Here’s how I have cultivated relationships with the plants:

1. Start with What You Love the Most.

I adore wildflowers. I wait all year for those brief, fleeting months when I can go traipsing about, greeting each new bloom as an old friend, not seen for a year. I literally bliss out and feel high as a kite after a morning spent with the flowers. I fell in love with the buttercups, blue dicks and lupin that grew around my childhood home, and I knew where they would spring up, year after year.

Blue Dick

When I moved to San Francisco, I would occasionally see my old flower friends, but was mostly overwhelmed by how many I didn’t know. Knowing the names seemed overwhelming and daunting. I owned a guide, but the information went through one eye and out the other. Enter a friendship with a botany geek, and the wildflower walks she would take me on. After just one spring, my knowledge had increased five-fold.

What do you love? Trees? Wild Edibles? Birds? Flowers? Find someone to teach you about them and most importantly…GO OUT WITH THEM. Go to the wild spaces and have them show you everything they know. Take a class, go on a foraging walk, trek out to an audubon meeting. Pay attention, but don’t write anything down. 

Why don’t I want you to write it down? Because I want you to…

2. Learn it by Heart

Memorizing latin names and families are great for passing your college biology course. But not so helpful for getting to know the plants.

Imagine you have studied a person…you know their name, their characteristics, their family history. Armed with this knowledge, could you pick them out of a crowd? Do you know what their voice sounds like? What they look like when they are young, old, sleepy or energized? Do you know what they smell like, what their hair feels like? Most of all, do you know their secret talents, and what it looks like when they do them?

Do you think I am a dandelion? If you do, then how well do you know the dandelion? We both have fuzzy seed heads and yellow blooms, but everything else about us is different. Our stems, leaves, flower heads and roots are totally different. I am a Cat’s Ear flower.

The answer is obvious…just because you know someone’s name (or read their blog…ha!) doesn’t mean that you KNOW them. It’s the same with the plants. You have to befriend them, become intimate with them.

Whether you are out on a guided walk, or just by yourself, when you find a plant you are interested in, get to know it. What does it smell like? Taste like? Feel like? Study it closely, notice what shape the leaves are. Where do the flower petals attach? Is the stem round or square, smooth or fuzzy? Most of all…how do YOU feel? How does your heart feel when looking at this plant? What about your belly? 

3. Now, Learn their Name

If you are on a guided walk, ask your fearless leader to introduce you properly to your new plant friend. If you are alone, you have some options on your path of discovery.

In ye olden days, field botanists would make a sketching of their new plant friend. Even if you can’t draw well (like me), just the practice of looking carefully and trying to reproduce on paper will ascribe the plant to your memory.

However, as much as it kinda feels like cheating, here is what I do…

I take a picture. Yay technology!

When you get home, you can look it up in a book…

Do I use guide books? Oh, I guess I have a few favorites. (I really can’t recommend Euell Gibbons enough, his enthusiasm is endearing and infectious).

However, if your luck is anything like mine, what you find won’t be in a guide book. Sigh. So here’s your next option…

The interwebs. Google search images with a few characteristics like “pink wildflower, 5 petals, california”. However, as a novice this could get overwhelming pretty fast. So here’s a few go-to websites to help you out:

California Academy of Sciences Wildflower Id

Wildman Steve Brill (wild edibles)

USDA database

Wild Edible Photos

Identify That Plant

Or email ME!

Once you have befriended 5-10 plants, here are some more tips for increasing your knowledge:

~Begin with what is in your backyard and neighborhood.

~Choose a favorite plant and observe it in all growth stages…seedling, bloom, seed, die back.

~Pick one aspect of identification and learn about it. For instance, with wildflowers, you can begin to study petal shape, or the different kinds, like is it a disc or ray? If you are focusing on trees, how about learning the shapes of leaves? Whatever ID aspect you focus on, it is important to attach it to something in real life. Count the petals on the flowers your boyfriend gave you, look at the tree outside your window and notice if the leaves have smooth or barbed edges, look at the stem of your miner’s lettuce before you eat it.

~Find something that interests you in your wild edibles book and then go out and try to find it.

~Get a botany coloring book and bust out the colored pencils.

~Even if you are a novice, share your knowledge with a friend, take a child on a walk. If you want to learn something, teach it.

Identify the weeds in your garden. I wonder if this chickweed would have volunteered if it knew I was going to EAT IT.

As you befriend the plants, your knowledge will begin to increase exponentially. Each new species will fit inside a little pocket in your chest, and unlike your limited and aging braincells, the capacity of your heart is infinite.

Happy Identifying!



14 thoughts on “Wild in Your Heart: Foraging Fridays

  1. that is an impressive stack of field guides. i love it! gotta love tom brown. and sibley. and, well, all of them. off to put Euell Gibbons on my wishlist.

  2. Yeeeeeeeeeeees, after some careful investigation I see that what we have growing wild in my garden, is Lemon Balm not Lemon Verbena. It smells so wonderful. The Field hawkweed reminds me of the not-unlike Dandelions/wishing flowers we have here whereby it is difficult (near impossible) to merely blow off the seeds? And suddenly, I’m totally hungry for watercress salad now. I had wondered if you just had this innate magic ability to recall all the wildflowers and weeds and qualities…but i see that it is not just magic but some reading too. Mmmmmm back to watercress.

    1. ha! is “yeeeesss” your detective voice? 😀

      and it IS a magic ability. because our hearts and inner landscapes are totally magical.

      did you get your watercress salad?

  3. oh thank you thank you! what a reassuring and knowledgeable and inspiring post! i have often wished i had a friend like your botanist up in these hills that could help me confidently identify wildflowers. that is definitely where i want to start, and your giddy-when-the-flowers-come feeling is one i know well. LOVE your stack of guidebooks, and the websites will be very helpful. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve gotten home with a great photograph and quickly hit that overwhelmed-novice wall you mentioned. also the thing that often confuses me is how different flowers or weeds look in different seasons, so i love your idea of picking a few favorites and observing them through complete cycles. i can see that this is a process that takes years, a lifetime really i guess. your years of learning sound like such a wonderful journey. well, this spring i am going to concentrate on sketching; i like the idea of slowing down and really taking in all the details. thank you for your bounty of knowledge!

  4. Great post Mary! I;m so proud of you. You even taught me a thing or two. (and by the way, so THAT’S what happened to my Wild Edible Plants book!)

  5. love love love! I love the empowering tone of this post, the encouragement, the simplicity of the steps. I love your stack of guides (my husband’s a Tom Brown Nut), love to be reminded that I NEED a copy of “wild asparagus”. Love to be reminded, in fact, that I need to go out and gather more, be more present here, now. It’s nettle season. Color me giddy.

  6. Ooh, wonderful! Learning the names of birds, trees, and wild edibles here is a huge part of the reason I’ve grown to love this place. I do find that I’m still overwhelmed with the sheer number of wildflowers jumping up all over the place, so this post is incredibly helpful. Just what I needed today. 🙂 And I think I’m going to spring for the one plant fieldguide I found for this specific region. That is, *after* I hit the bookstore with the adorable guy who reminds me of a deer… it’s his gentle demeanor, I think.

    Anyway, your envelope is sitting beside me, all ready to go into the mail! Oh, and something super exciting: today my mother and I went out and picked some of the first wild asparagus!! Deeelicious!

    1. i’m so curious what flowers you have there! i’m planting a little seed of a wish that you will post some pics of them. and i will send your melon beauties along today. i’ve never had wild asparagus, so jealous!

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