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.
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.
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:
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.