Category Archives: Wildcrafting & Herbalism

Kids Activities: Yucca Uses: making soap!

Want to have some fun with your kids making soap out in nature? Here’s how to make cleansing suds from yucca spines. 

Yucca roots and spines both contain the compound saponin, which has detergent properties. It will not only suds up and help to clean your skin and hair, but anything else you decide could be a just a little bit fresher! 

Roots vs Spines? 

The roots contain more saponin, and thus more sudsing potential, but harvesting your soap that way means death for the plant you take it from. I prefer to harvest some of the green spines- it may be more work for me, but means less damage to the plant. 

Soaping up in the field: 

1. Cut spine(s) from the plant, being careful to move slowly and avoid their sharp edges! OUCH! (Careful! Don’t get cut by your soap source!)

2. Pound and scrape the spines between 2 smooth surfaced rocks to break open the surface of the spine and separate the fibers. 

3. Once the fibers are adequately separated and no sharp edges or points remain, the yucca is ready to suds up. 

4. Add water and rub it between your hands. The first suds will be green as the spines give up their chlorophyll, then gradually turn clear/white as you continue rubbing and adding water. 

There you go: all clean!

Soaping up at home:

1. Gather up your spines as before

2. Use a knife or sharp rock to scrape off green waxy skin of the spine and save it to the side. 

3. Put your scrapings into a sealable container with water and shake vigorously for a few minutes to combine the saponins with the water. 

4. Pour the mix through a filter or mesh to separate out the scrapings. 

5. Store in the container of your choice- tip: hand soap pumps can work great! 

6. Enjoy your natural suds for anything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent. 

SAFETY NOTE: always test the first time of any topical plant use with a small patch of non-vital skin to make sure you’re not one of those with the rare but serious reaction!

 

 

A Wall of Green

If you’re like most of the populace, many of your trips into nature are characterized by toiling up a dusty path through an unidentifiable and somehow vaguely unsettling corridor of green.

Sadly, most domesticated humans have an appalling lack of understanding of their vegetal surroundings and may even feel threatened by their leafy neighbors. (“Is that thing poisonous???”) Even worse, we often pass down this ignorance (and fear) to our kids.

Want to end this environmental ignorance and help your little ones learn to relate to our photosynthesizing friends in an entirely new way? Well then, it’s time for you to get to know your wild green neighbors!
well informed nature walk can be one of the best ways to help your kids (and yourself) get to know the residents of your natural neighborhood. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip.
 
1. Knowledge is power! Take the time before you go to learn about your green neighbors. There are an amazing amount of resources out there- from Wikipedia, to books on local flora (check the library or Amazon), to meetup groups and outdoor schools with naturalist and wild foods walks.
 
2. Ask the right questions. With so much information out there it can seem overwhelming to boil it down.  Here are some good questions to get you started in understanding a plants’ place in his ecosystem:
-Where does your plant like to live? (And why?)
-Who are his usual neighbors?
-Who likes to eat or use him?
-(How) does he defend himself?
-How does he change throughout the year? (Flowers, fruiting, growth, deciduous…?)
-How have we humans interacted with (and depended upon) him over the millennia? (medicinal uses, food prep, as building or clothing materials…)
-What are his key identifying characteristics?
3. People remember (and respect) people. When working with young kids I’d recommend initially skipping the Latin names and instead focus on helping them to see the plants as separate people with different abilities, complex personalities (not all good or bad), and likes/dislikes.
Talking with my 4 year old niece might sound a little like this: “Miss Blackberry can be really prickly -if you move too fast around her she’ll scratch you with her thorns.  She likes to live with her feet in the water and take deep drinks so that she can make extra juicy berries.” 
 
4.  Respect plants’ boundaries (and protect yourself). Make sure your kids learn not to touch or taste without knowing “who” the plant is and what his temperament is.  Most plants have defenses to be aware of.
“Mr. Stinging Nettle’s hypodermic hairs sting invaders with painful, itchy toxins to keep animals (and you) from eating too much of his really nutritious leaves.”
Help your kids to understand that plant defenses are part of the natural environment -these plants are not “bad” for defending themselves, they’re just trying to take care of themselves.
5. Avoid black and white views. Describing a plant as all “good” or “bad”gets in the way of understanding the plant’s role in its neighborhood (ecosystem).  These “difficult” plants often also have a bounty of benefits- for you and for their green neighbors.
“Mr. Nettle can provide a whole bunch of nutrients- collect his newest leaves carefully with gloves, and cook them long enough to deactivate his sting- and you will get a really yummy green.”
So get out there and explore! Understanding a plants’ complex role in its natural neighborhood, and our relationship to it- helps your child begin to see themselves as a part of their natural world, not separate from their green neighbors.

What’s Eating You?

  Every day spent hiking out in our forest brings more mysteries to be answered. This week let’s explore some partially “parasitic” partnerships that have always fascinated me out on trail.

 

INSECT GALL:

Ever see a round woody ball growing out of a tree branch? Often it’ll have a random pattern of little holes dotting it’s smooth surface. You are looking at a bona-fide insect larvae condo! An “Insect Gall” is a custom construction project of living plant tissue with the resident insect playing lead contractor. In order to hijack plant growth to form galls, the insect must seize a time when plant cell division occurs quickly: in our part of the world, that means Spring!

The insect (and/or it’s larvae) feeds on the rapidly growing plant tissue while injecting chemicals to encourage further growth. Quickly growing (meristenatic) tissues like buds, bark, and leaves are most vulnerable to these little guys.

After the gall is formed, the insect larvae develop inside until fully grown. Galls provide the industrious little larvae with not only a 4-course buffet, but their own impenetrable fortress, protecting them from predators as they grow. When they are ready, they bore out an exit hole and venture out into the wide world.

Galls, especially those located In the woody portions of plants) also tend to be a rich source of concentrated tannins, which makes them a great medicinal resource as strong astringents. 

Although insect galls get bad raps for their role as “unsightly” tumors on plants, they are completely harmless. The insects are usually excellent caretakers and make sure that their construction projects do not threaten their hosts. Most species even provide an overall benefit for their host or local environment including quite helpful pollination services for the plants, and food sources for our beautiful birds and bats!

As a healthy bonus for those of us with a tendency for wildcraftin, the galls of many plants contain a high concentration of immune stimulating substances. but before you go out collecting, make sure that you have checked on the safety of the plant in question and thoroughly checked it for any unwanted denizens or harmful fungus, etc.

MISTLETOE:

Particularly noticeable in winter as an oddly green bushy clump high up in the barren branches of trees, Mistletoe is a (in)famous parasite that attaches itself to trees and shrubs, pirating water and nutrients from it’s host.

American mistletoe’s scientific name, Phoradendron, means “thief of the tree” in Greek. However, Mistletoe’s common definition as a tree-killing pest may be too simplistic a view. Mistletoe may take from the tree for its own survival, but it pays back to the local ecology in several unexpected ways.

Despite it’s nasty reputation, studies reveal that an abundance of mistletoe in a forest means that many more kinds and numbers of birds and critters can thrive there. An amazing variety of critters rely on mistletoe for their food, especially in winter. Animals from birds to squirrels, chipmunks, porcupines and even deer eat the leaves, tender young shoots and juicy berries, leaving behind mistletoe seeds in their droppings.

These seeds will again grow into mistletoe’s medusa-like masses of branching stems, providing excellent shelter and nesting sites for many animals. The northern spotted owl is always on the lookout for a nice mistletoe to settle down in. The caterpillar stage of several beautiful butterfly species also use mistletoe greenery as their shelter, and as their only food. Even better, Mistletoe flowers often provide the very first pollen available in the spring for extremely hungry honeybees and native bees.

Thus, although it can shorten the life of some trees, mistletoe can also have a very positive effect on on our forest, providing high quality nutrition and homes for a broad range of critters. So next time you get a chance, take another look at these “bad guys”.

Is Your Pine Tree Foaming at the Mouth?

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While walking through my rainy woods on a wild edibles foraging trip I noticed this funky phenomenon… The pine trees were… well…foaming

After copious pics, poking and prodding, I rushed home to research.

In short order I found out that there was no need for me to get my forest checked for rabies.

This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.

When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.

So it’s perfectly normal when your pine suds up in the rain- (although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.)

Stinging Nettles: Incredible Wild Edible

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Meandering my way along the creek on my daily foraging walk, what should I spy but sun reflecting off of a patch of gorgeously spikey green leaves… Stinging Nettles!

I practically cackled with glee.
Forage basket already full of wild edibles, I eagerly shuffled rose hips, mint, dandelion flowers and greens to the side to make a prized spot for my new bounty.

Despite the fact that I left my trusty gloves behind on the kitchen counter I forged forward and reached in carefully to harvest the stinging foliage- a bit of pain is a small price to pay for a great dinner!

Many people would rather avoid an encounter with a stinging nettle, thinking of them as an annoyingly itchy weed, not as the deeeelicious gourmet wild edible they are!

Their loss.

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STINGING NETTLES are chock full of vital nutrients- carrying a rich bounty of vitamins A, K, several important B vitamins, Calcium, Magnesium, Manganese, Potassium, Phosphorus and loads of other beneficial minerals and phytonutrients… And BONUS: they actually taste good!

They remind me of a lighter, more delicate version of Spinach. So simple to prepare: you can have them ready to eat inside of minutes… (they are oh soooo good with pastured butter and a little bit of sea salt and pepper!)

Here’s one of my favorite Stinging Nettle Recipes:

Stinging Nettle Omelette
3 eggs
2 cups Tender Stinging Nettle Stems and Leaves (freshly collected if possible)
1/2 roughly chopped Shallot
1 tbs pastured butter
1 cup water
Sea Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)

What to do:
-In a small sauce pan add water and nettles.
-Bring to low boil for 10-15 minutes. (Add more water as necessary.)

-Drain and save the nettles to the side.

NOTE: to retain the nutrients that would otherwise be lost in the cooking fluid, you can reserve this liquid to add to your soups and stocks.

-Chop the nettles finely.
-Beat the eggs and stir in the nettles.
-Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
-melt butter in a small skillet.
– pour in egg/nettle mix and cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, until partially set.
– flip with spatula (or if you’re fancy, flip with the skillet)
-cook for another 1-2 minutes
-reduce heat to low, continue cooking another 1-3 minutes (to desired doneness).
– DEVOUR!

Where and how to Harvest Stinging Nettles

You’ll usually find Stinging Nettles all over the US in nitrogen rich soil, so look near the edges of fields, where cattle graze, or (conveniently for us) human houses and gardens…

Harvest when they are young and small- at under 1 ft tall they are usually pretty tender. The tiny spines will loose all their sting after a good boil or sautee in butter- all the better for you to dig in… YUM!

(Note: you might want gloves to harvest them)

Handy Plant: Making Yucca Soap

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Careful! Don’t get cut by your soap source!

Ever want to have a quick way to clean up in the field? Luckily the yucca is a widespread plant across much of the Southwestern US. Here’s how to make cleansing suds from yucca spines.

Yucca roots and spines both contain the compound saponin, which has detergent properties. It will not only suds up and help to clean your skin and hair, but anything else you decide could be a just a little bit fresher!

Roots vs Spines?
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The roots contain more saponin, and thus more sudsing potential, but harvesting your soap that way means death for the plant you take it from. I prefer to harvest some of the green spines- it may be more work for me, but means less damage to the plant.

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Soaping up in the field:

1. Cut spine(s) from the plant, being careful to move slowly and avoid their razor sharp edges! OUCH!

2. Pound and scrape the spines between 2 smooth surfaced rocks to break open the surface of the spine and separate the fibers.

3. Once the fibers are adequately separated and no sharp edges or points remain, the yucca is ready to suds up.

4. Add water and rub it between your hands. The first suds will be green as the spines give up their chlorophyll, then gradually turn clear/white as you continue rubbing and adding water.

There you go: all clean!

Soaping up at home:

1. Gather up your spines as before

2. Use a knife or sharp rock to scrape off green waxy skin of the spine and save it to the side.

3. Put your scrapings into a sealable container with water and shake vigorously for a few minutes to combine the saponins with the water.

4. Pour the mix through a filter or mesh to separate out the scrapings.

5. Store in the container of your choice- tip: hand soap pumps can work great!

6. Enjoy your natural suds for anything from shampoo to dishwashing detergent.

SAFETY NOTE: always test the first time of any topical plant use with a small patch of non-vital skin to make sure your’e not one of those with the rare but serious reaction!

Wild Rose Hip Tea

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There is an abundance of amazingly delicious and nutritious wild foods directly outside your back door. One of my favorites is wild (or even domestic) rose hips. You can make jam, jelly, syrup or just a simple tea out of these lovely “rose berries”.

A rose hip forms after a rose has been successfully pollinated. Gradually the bulb underneath the flower swells and turns into a bright red or orange fruit with a thin layer of pulp surrounding the seeds and fine hairs of the core. After the first frosts, the pulp becomes slightly soft, sweet and fruity- and enormously rich in vitamin C. When German submarines interfered with citrus shipments to England during World War II, the British turned instead to Rose Hips as their source of this vital vitamin.

Rose Hip Tea is my favorite form of this lovely wild food. It’s deliciously refreshing and packed with vitamins and minerals. I love it as a wonderful wintertime pick-me-up anddrink it just about daily throughout the colder months.

Making tea from fresh hips:

1. Place your (washed) rose hips into a small pot and cover with water.
2. Bring the water to a boil for 3-5 minutes. (Depending on strength tea desired).
3. Turn off the heat and use the back of a spoon to smash open each rose hip.
4. Let them steep in the water for up to 20 minutes.
5. Turn the burner back on to rewarm your tea. Pour your delectable beverage through a coffee filter into your waiting mug.
6. Enjoy your sweet and fruity delight!

Prepping the Rose Hips for storage, making tea from dried hips:
1. Harvest rose hips sometime after the first frost of the year (it’s wise to use protective gloves, since their thorns can really cut you up!)
2. Dehydrate them either in a dehydrator or the sun.
3. Grind hips in food processor into a rough consistency to help separate the outside skin and pulp from the fine inside hairs. Do not over-grind, as this will make it difficult to sieve out the pulp from the hairs in the next step.
4. Tip your rose hips into a metal sieve, and gently shake back and forth to remove the hairs. They should all easily fall through, leaving you with just the skin/dried pulp. You don’t need to remove the seeds as well- unless you have more time than you know what to do with! NOTE: these hairs used to be used to make itching powder, so this is a necessary step!
5. Store for use as tea (or for making jelly or syrup!) in an airtight container. Use a tea ball or small cheesecloth bag to brew your tea. Let it boil for 5-7 minutes depending on strength desired. Let them steep in water for 20 minutes.

Yum!