By Amy Gibson
As winter winds down, green life emerges in the forest once again. You may notice foragers off-trail, filling baskets with robust leaves, bright flowers and small berries. Perhaps you’ve caught a bit of their fever and are curious about the plants surrounding us in this bountiful part of the world.
To harvest plants for food or medicine, you must be willing to learn and look closely. It is important to have a guide at hand, either a person or a book, to aid in identification. Proper plant ID is imperative and the results of incorrect identification can be irritating or devastating.
This abundant corner we live in is not immune to human meddling. Though overharvesting contributes to imbalances in a habitat, we can also give thanks and life by harvesting sparingly, replanting and spreading seeds. Through attentiveness, we forge a seasonal relationship of health and connection to the Earth.
When seeking plants, aim for places away from toxic runoff, high traffic and chemical sprays. Do not harvest all of a stand of plants. Clean up after yourself, and be gentle to the ground around where you are gathering.
Where to start:
The following plants are easy to identify, extremely prolific and have wide-ranging uses.
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
Nettles, the herald of spring! They grow everywhere, tending toward moist earth and open but slightly shaded areas. In the right spot they grow up to 4 feet tall. Nettles have square stems (an indicator of the mint family) and leaves that grow opposite each other in pairs.
The leaves are dark green with serrated edges and a sharp tip at the end of the leaf. With respect to its name, the stems and leaves are covered in tiny stingers.
Why harvest this plant? It is full of nutrients. The leaves contain chlorophyll, iron and protein. They also contain huge amounts of calcium, and have anti-inflammatory, diuretic and blood-building properties. If you tend toward adrenal fatigue, do not make a habit of this plant. Don’t harvest nettles after the plant flowers – past this point, nettles contain compounds that irritate the liver and kidneys.
To harvest nettles, you’ll want thick gloves and kitchen scissors. Harvest the top leaves and stem, shake off any spiders, bag and take home to process.
To render the stingers harmless, blanch nettles in boiling water for a minute or so. Then either eat them (many people serve nettles with salt and butter, blend them into a soup or make nettle pesto) or shock them in cold water and use them later. Nettles frozen after this preparation can be added to soups and stews like blanched spinach. Another method is to dry fresh nettles, bundling their stems and hanging them in a dry, dark place. Once they are dry, store them in an airtight container and use them for tea all year long.
Lanceleaf or broadleaf plantain
(Plantago lanceolata & Plantago major)
Growing everywhere from front lawns to alpine meadows, plantains have nutritional and
medicinal benefits. They are most often used to take the ouch out of bug bites, bee stings, nettle pokes and any other pain you might find out in nature. The best way to do this is to make a compress or a poultice – or even just chew it until it’s juicy – then put it on the irritated spot.
One of the main identifyiers of all plantain varieties is that they have obvious vertical leaf veins, which run from leaf base to leaf tip. They grow in rosettes and have seed heads that shoot straight up from the center in the fall. Many people harvest the leaves and juice them, freezing the juice in ice cube trays for use on stings, cuts, and rashes throughout the year.
\Learning and plant identification resources:
Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast
by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon
This is the bestselling plant guidebook for our area. It has identification characteristics as well as photographs and drawings for almost 800 different species of plants.
Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
by Michael Moore and Mimi Kamp
Michael Moore was a giant of the herbalist world, and his legacy lives on in multiple forms. This book is a great directive and introduction to herbal ID and the components of making herbal medicine.
Living Earth Herbs: 1530 Cornwall Avenue, Bellingham. livingearthherbs.com
This shop inside the Bellingham Public Market has the books listed above, along with a cultivated selection of literature on herbal medicine, herbal gardening and area herbal knowledge. They stock dried plants, medicinal herbs, oils, salves and tincture for all sorts of uses.
Wildroot Botanicals: Bellingham. wildrootbotanicals.com
This school is a wonderful resource. Leslie Lekos is a careful teacher who respects the habitat she lives in, works with and eats from. She also has a wide network of
respected herbalists who continually
visit to teach courses. Wildroot Botanicals sells products as well, which makes them experts in teaching production of consistent herbal medicine. Their apprenticeship course covers a huge number of the plants in our area and their nutritive and medicinal values.
Cedar Mountain Herb School: Bothell cedarmountainherbs.com
This is the school’s first year in Bothell. Up until this winter, Suzanne Tabert was teaching in the Skagit Valley. She is a lifelong learner with a mimd for the science and accurate ID of plants. Her classes are well worth the drive, and she offers apprenticeships as well as workshops. Expect to see apprentice-taught workshops in Whatcom County soon.
Harmonic Arts Botanical Dispensary: Courtenay, B.C. harmonicarts.ca
The work of Yarrow Willard and his team aims to bring herbal balance and knowledge to everyone. They regularly teach workshops on mushrooms, mushroom ID and medicinal and edible plants around the greater Vancouver area. The business also has an expansive and eponymous YouTube channel that is informative, exciting and just the right amount
Amy Gibson loves learning about all the edible and medicinal plants she can find in Whatcom County.