Winter Survival Foraging @ Manasquan Reservior – 02-23-2014
The weather was amazing, and it was a beautiful sunny day; a rare temperature from such a snowy winter. It felt like spring, and I was excited at the prospects of the spring vegetation coming up, despite the intended agenda of the class. As I stood in the parking lot, taking in the sunlight upon my face and observing the subtle sounds, many people began to come from all directions.
I invited everyone to step off of the asphalt world and step upon the grass. We circled up to feel the synergy between each other. I started out by asking students to look at the ground we were standing upon; a seemingly barren area at first glance. I asked them to see what is present before them, and what to do they recognize. This was to get a sense of seeing how they saw; probably the most important survival skill possible. At first most saw nothing, but then with some subtle clues suddenly a whole world was revealed; tracks, nuts, seeds, and 5 or 6 plants where initially it seemed there was nothing. It is amazing how this happens, how we have been trained to see nothing in a world so full of mystery and story, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching; to break those preconceived ruts, and hopefully, rewrite another story, one where Nature is alive and great mystery can be discovered.
With turning on our new vision we began to look up and explore the world.
From where we were standing, next to a tangle of vines, I began to decode them one by one. Soon poison ivy, smilax and multiflora rose were discernible, coaxed from the “wall of green” to share their stories with us. I shared about oriental bittersweet; a utilitarian cordage, rope, or lashing for building material, and a potent medicinal plant which is harshly judged as an “evil” invasive. But in Asia, where the plant originated from there are thousands of years of traditional medicine work with this plant.
“Oriental bittersweet is an Asian folk medicine used for treating rheumatoid arthritis and bacterial infections. Medical and pharmacological studies show that Oriental bittersweet derivatives have antitumor, antiinflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, and insecticidal properties [66,67,108]. One Oriental bittersweet derivative shows ability to reverse multidrug resistance of cancer cells to cancer-treatment drugs [75,76].” (1)
Not bad for a free weed on the side of the road, eh?
Next we moved only a few feet toward where many sassafras saplings caught my eye. I was delighted to show everyone the real origin of “root beer” (more like roots beer). Root beer soda once had just as much medicinal healing as pleasure, something lost in our modern soft drink world. But just as well, because you can consciously choose which ingredients you put in your brew and make your own at home! Heres a recipe by local forager and friend Jared Rosenbaum.
And don’t forget that your own home-produced medicinal meads are a great and medicinal way to enjoy a healthy and somewhat stiff beverage!
After carefully showing how these trees will produce long runners from the mother trees and how this will often result in a clump of saplings that won’t all survive, I harvested one root with love and care, tracing my bare fingers along its body, careful not to break the root off as I harvested. The most important consideration that we will especially have to learn as foraging increases in popularity are the ethics involved with foraging. This means trying our best to caretake the areas that we do have left and attempting to make it healthier than we found it; not just ripping up more of the already fragile ecosystem.
And, lo and behold, if done right by “pruning” in a conscious way there is some for us to enjoy.
I passed the sassafras root around the group encouraging a big round of smelling, and reminded people that the medicinal effect is in the experience, not just in the book about the plant. Once everyone inhaled deeply to get the plants essence and to re-build their neuronal pathways, I also cut pieces of the sapling for people to chew. I then showed them how its also a wonderful toothbrush and chew stick with its own antiseptic toothpaste. Trees like this that are antiseptic all make great chew sticks, and are very important for hygiene as well as transfer their medicinal compounds through the blood as we chew on them. I then shared the story of how the tea became so common in the 1800s for the treatment of syphilis that it became taboo to be caught sipping because people would suspect each other of having syphilis. However, this medicine goes way further back. A brief history from Wikipedias sassafras page:
“Numerous Native American tribes used sassafras for medicinal purposes and to ward off evil spirits. Since then, scientists have found that the oil, roots and bark have analgesic and antiseptic properties. It has been used to treat
“scurvy, skin sores, kidney problems, toothaches, rheumatism, swelling, menstrual disorders and sexually transmitted diseases, bronchitis,hypertension, and dysentery. It is also used as a fungicide, dentifrice, rubefacient, diaphoretic, perfume, carminative and sudorific.”
During the establishment of the Virginia Colony, including Jamestown in the 17th century, sassafras was a major export commodity to England. A medicinal root thought to be effective in treating ague (fevers) and STD, with wood was prized for its beauty and durability, sassafras was popular in England from its first import by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1602 until the 18th century.
Exploration for sassafras was the catalyst for the 1603 commercial expedition from Bristol of Captain Martin Pring to the coasts of present-day Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and his two ships returned with some. During a brief period in the early 17th century, sassafras was the second-largest export from America behind tobacco. Additionally, throughout history, sassafras wood has been found to be an excellent fire-starter because of the flammability of its natural oils found within the wood and the leaves.
The next plant in the vine tangle that was easy to share lots about was smilax; aka cat brier (smilax rotundifolia). This plant, usually seen as nothing more than a thorny nuisance is one of my favorite spring wild edibles, but in the winter months it has come to my attention as one of the best and most abundant sources of carbohydrate available.
(Pic seen here by Walter Reeves 2) The roots on these plants are huge, medicinal, and yield an edible and nutritious starch that can be used to make anything you would with commercial flour, with the added benefit that it is gluten free. The younger plants can be eaten as is, and the older plants can be leeched for their starch.
Some species of smilax (smilax regelii) is the original sarsaparilla, and I’ve yet to discover if our native species can be worked with in a similar vein.
Next on the menu of the edge of the parking lot was to look for medicinal Black Birch in comparison with cherry trees. In narrowing down our search I taught them to first see that both of these trees have lenticels, an important botanical distinction. Lenticels, in simple terms means that it has large and distinct horizontal breathing holes on the bark. They can be seen all the way up the birch tree from top to bottom, but on the cherry you might have to look beyond the main trunk to get this vision, seen in the pic:
Notice that the bark on the trunk of this cherry tree (Prunus; seen above) have no lenticels, but it can be seen on the new branches. Birch (Betula; seen below) you can see the lenticels on the trunk.
Another very important way to tell the difference between these 2 trees is by the smell that they exude, once damaged. This can be done by breaking off a tip of a twig and smelling. Since all cherry trees contain cyanide, it smells like synthetic almond flavoring which will eventually give you a bit of a headache. Black birch has the intoxicating and beautiful smell of wintergreen, and contains salicylic acid which is the precursor of aspirin; a powerful anti inflammatory, and is also antiseptic, and anti viral… Good for colds and flus. I harvest the black birch twigs and love to chew them, make a tea from them, or make into a medicated oil. They don’t dry with a lot of flavor, so harvest only what you will truly work with.
Within the several hours of plant walking we also found and compared black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), and blackberry (R. fruticosus), which have medicinal roots, cordage value, and of course, in other seasons, leaves for delicious and medicinal tea and antioxidant rich berries in the summer. I also shared with them how to discern these from wild rose (Rosa multiflora) which yields vitamin c in their rose hips and are a tasty treat.
[Pointing out black raspberry] These can be similar looking upon first glance but once someone shows you distinguishing characteristics you can find these anywhere and discern their differences.
Coming upon an american holly (Ilex opaca)bush I shared with them that these holly plants make a great tea, and are in fact the same genus as yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis). American holly is basically the local substitute for maté , minus the caffiene. But some species such as Ilex glabra (gallberry, inkberry) do have caffiene. Oddly enough people plant this species as a shrub in their front yard while they sample exotic teas from all across the world. But be careful, the berries of these are all poisonous to humans, but birds require them for winter survival. The bark and twigs are also potentially poisonous to humans.
We closed the walk next to a stand of paper bark birch (Betula papyrifera) as I showed how to harvest the outer bark without harming the tree for an incredible and practically waterproof tinder for making fire. And we moved a whole 30 feet, maybe a record for my classes, but there is just SO MANY plants to explore.
The greatest struggle I find at classes is making the right balance between fulfilling the preconceived notions that people come to classes expecting some kind of deep hike into the woods vs breaking that preconception completely and sharing that its all right here! I think this expectation comes from the conditioning of our culture that food and medicine is far away and somewhere else other than here. Which is something I can hopefully reinspire and awaken.
I feel that it is incredibly important to realize that within the many aspects of survival there also the medicine and plant resources around us which is why “winter survival foraging” was geared towards the plants that are surrounding us. A very important and overlooked “survival topic” is how will you get your medicinal needs met in a survival situation?
Sassafras and oriental bittersweet, for example, are very antiviral plants, a very important consideration in a survival situation, when something like a cold or flu will slow you down to laying for days. And blackberry root is one of the most wonderful plants for stomach issues such as diarrhea, very likely health issues in a survival situation when rummaging for food, which again would be a travesty in a situation of trying to evade someone or something (oh just imagine?).
As the sun set during our class, we closed up with a recharging conversation about our dollar being our greatest vote and power in capitalism, and community organizing as a way to wean ourselves off of giant and far-removed systems that no longer feel right and ideas to return ourselves to the local thriving villages of the butcher, the baker, and the candle stick maker. Perhaps building a system of thriving and cooperation before the prospects of apocalypto-survival fantasy world becomes real.
And what does it mean to truly survive anyway? Well perhaps we should go straight to the source. In a tribal setting some people are medics with first aid knowledge, some are hunters with the capacity to skin animals, others can take those hides and make clothing, and some are foragers and plant people; and healers such as shamans. This is how individuals become community, and this is how community has always, and will continue to thrive into the future – I believe that if we build these alliances now, then survival becomes “thrival” as we transition into a new culture.
Through our explorations and discussions I felt a deep synergy among the group while we explored all of the wonderful plants and re-connected our senses to the natural world as that threaded in with a plethora of topics including survival skills, re-culturing, and coming together to be the change we seek.
”The time of the lone wolf is over” – Hopi Prophecy
Thanks to all who came out to the class. I have lots of great classes on schedule for the rest of the year! Check out thecomplete schedule of classes here! Hope to see you around!
1 - http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/vine/celorb/all.html
2 - http://www.walterreeves.com/gardening-q-and-a/smilax-identification/