Today, I grabbed my basket and headed up the hill in search of some medicinal plants. The trees are turning and I felt it time to do some gathering before the leaves and inevitably, snow cover the forest floor for the coming months.
The woods surrounding the house have been my refuge recently. The summer brings with it all sorts of daily surprises. I don’t want to miss any of them.
Learning about medicinal herbs is a process; my own has taken years of observation for me to have any confidence in my identifications and it only extends to the boundaries of our property and my own body.
Year after year I watched what grew, where and marked its seasonal changes. It is important to keep in mind that there are many lookalikes in the natural world and it is those small differences that can help you delineate medicine from poison or placebo.
This mushroom season has been beyond belief. I am getting to know the different varieties on the property but have yet to build up the courage to consume any of them. This is a shame since I am pretty sure we have a large population of lobster mushrooms.
The pigment that gives the lobster mushroom its name is actually a mold that takes over varieties of Lactarius piperatus or Russula brevipes thus turning them into the widely sought after delicacy. After a lot of research, it would seem that the historic fear of this mold transforming a poisonous mushroom are unfounded.
As always, I am dubious.
Sometimes a mis-identification would not be such a big deal, as in the case of mixing up partridge-berry (squaw’s vine) and wintergreen.
Both are medicinal and edible.
The most distinct characteristics of partridge-berry is found by looking at the berries. Both of the plants grow small red berries but the partridge-berry has two butts. 🙂 hehehe.
With a little attention to detail the other differences between these two plants are not hard to see. Wintergreen has longer leaves and tends to grow in small little umbrella like plants.
Squaw’s Vine has smaller more rounded leaves that grow opposite a center ground hugging stringer.
Even when the stringer is small you can see the structure of the leaves and stock are different from wintergreen. The dead giveaway is that they do not smell minty when broken and bruised.
I only collected wintergreen since the primary medical use of Squaw’s vine is for help during labor. Wintergreen, on the other hand, contains a compound similar to aspirin and is useful for treating pain and inflammation as well as gastrointestinal issues. The oils can be extracted but should be used with caution since they are very potent.
My plans are to make tinctures (extractions using grain alcohol) to put up my herbs for the winter. There many plants and fungi where a misidentification can have serious consequences. My other target was ground cedar or running cedar. Since we also have tree club moss I had to be sure not to confuse the two.
The major difference between them is that the club moss has rounded fluffy stocks and fronds and running cedar has a flattened scale-like configuration.
The Common Plants Of The Quiet Corner (published by Yale) points out running cedar has “many medical uses.” Whereas club moss is “toxic to wildlife.” I do not want to find out what that means, so I left them alone.
The other important factor in harvesting or foraging is the rule of 10%. Only gather from well established colonies of any given specimen and never take more than 10% the total population. I rarely harvest the whole plant, just a leaf from each, taken with a sharp knife, will do.
I lucked out and was able to find large patches of both my intended plants.
I will let these dry for a few days, then add equal parts of 100 proof vodka and set them aside for a few weeks or months. Tinctures should be agitated daily to encourage the extraction of the medicinal compounds.
I have also collected, birth polypore, chaga, yarrow, plantain, ghost plant and prunella over the past couple months to add to our apothecary cabinet.
The wind howled as I worked and it didn’t take long before my fingers were chilled and I headed back to our warm little house.
I am very thankful to have been provided with such an amazing backyard pharmacy to help get us through the inevitable winter illnesses and injuries.
Thank you forest!
And thank you for reading, be well!
Super interesting. Love the orange mushrooms, a great harvest overall.
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Thank you! It has been a real trip to get used to all the flora and fauna of Maine. I am looking forward to ghost plant season next year 🙂 Be well!
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