STINGING NETTLE CORDAGE

As a therapist I am acutely aware of the high cost of therapy, which can make it inaccessible to many people. For this reason I am very passionate about empowering people with the skills and tools to support their own mental health.

The act of doing a simple and mindful activity that engages our senses has been shown to have a meditative and integrative effect on the brain and nervous system. Recently, we have seen colouring books for mindfulness, knitting for anxiety and other 'mindless' mindful skills regain popularity. These skills help to integrate the hemispheres of the brain and have a soothing, rejuvenating effect, which is helpful in targeting anxiety and depression.

As a child, I suffered from chronic illness. Often all that I could do was lie on the couch and watch TV. I was unable to read due to my eyesight and often barely able move. At times, this led to a deep sense of depression and a feeling that I had no purpose or value in life, and my only role was to take up space. 

Years ago, a good friend taught me how to make cordage from natural materials. I soon experienced firsthand the effect of working on something very simple, watching something take shape from nothing before my eyes. It aided in providing a distraction and it gave me a sense of accomplishment, a surprising feeling of purpose and a sense of self-worth. 

One of the beautiful things about using natural materials is that they can be found for free in nature. I have seen time and again, both for myself and for others, how empowering it can be to learn to identify and use materials in our immediate environment, and how it instills a sense of confidence and agency. Practicing mindful skills that occupy the hands and other senses can also provide an alternative for people who would like to enjoy the benefits of a meditation practice but struggle with traditional (eyes closed, sitting on a cushion) meditation.

During those times when I was so sick, I would still sit, or lie-down to be more accurate, and watch TV, but I worked on making cordage while I did so. This completely changed the experience for me, and became an important life lesson.  On days when you are overwhelmed by health or feeling useless and unproductive, try to accomplish one thing - just one thing, however small that thing may be. The mental and emotional effects of something so simple can be incredibly powerful. 

This week, we made cordage using the stalks of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The time to harvest stinging nettle for cordage is toward the end of the summer or early autumn when the leaves are beginning to wilt but the plants are still alive. You will need a good bundle of nettle as each individual stem only produces a small amount of fibre. The first step to preparing nettle for cordage is to strip the stems of their leaves by running your hand from the bottom of the stalk to the top in one smooth motion. I know some people who do this with their bare hands - the little stingers point upwards, so it is possible to strip the stalk without getting stung - but you might want to wear gloves for this part.

Stinging nettle fibre comes from the outer layer of the stem, so the next step is to separate these fibres from the woody pith at the centre of the stem.

In order to do this, we need to split the stem open. Using a rock or a hammer, I like to pound the entire length of the stem, flattening it. It will naturally begin to split and you can insert your finger, splitting the entire length of the stem. You will notice in this photo that the stem is hollow. When split open and laid flat, there are two layers: the inner woody part, and the outer fibrous bark. The outer bark is the part we want to keep.

Once the stem is split open, you can snap it in half - the woody pith will break, while the fibres (outer layer) will remain intact.

Gently peel the fibres away, separating them from the pith.

This is what the fresh separated fibres look like. Allow them to dry overnight.

Before beginning to form the cordage, I like to roll the fibres vigorously between my hands or on my jeans, allowing any additional woody materials to fall away. If you skip this step, the cordage tends to be more rough and brittle. After doing this, what should remain is a beautiful flaxen fibrous material.

Now that your fibres are prepared, it is time for the reverse twist. This is a simple method which forces two individual strands of fibres to twist around each other, creating a strong piece of cordage. 

The first step to the reverse twist is to begin by twisting a single strand of fibres until they naturally start to fold in on each other and create a small loop.

From here on out, there are two actions - first: twist the top fibres together away from you, second: bring the top strand back toward you. Repeat. (Watch the video below to get a better idea). Keep adding fibres as you go.

Once your fingers get the hang of it, you will be able to perform this action quickly. Very soon, the nettle cordage will take shape before your eyes!

FORAGED AUTUMN ROLLS

Summer is by far my favourite season. I love everything about it: the warm feeling of sun on my skin, being able to step out of the house wearing just a t-shirt and shorts, and all the fragrant flowers blooming everywhere. That is why, whenever autumn rolls around, I find myself trying to hold on to every ounce of summer that I still can.

Yesterday, while in my garden, I noticed a bunch of early-autumn flowers blooming and decided to make some fresh autumn rolls.

I gathered arugula leaves and flowers, chicory flowers, dahlia petals, nasturtiums, mint and also used some radishes, cucumber, spinach and tamari-marinated organic sprouted tofu. The lovely thing about these rolls is that you can use pretty much anything you find in your garden. The edible flowers added a pretty pop of colour and, for a few minutes, I almost managed to convince myself that it was still summer. I whipped up a quick sauce using organic unsweetened peanut butter, gluten-free tamari, raw wildflower honey, and chili sauce.

Ingredients (rolls)

  • rice paper
  • arugula leaves and flowers, chicory flowers, dahlia petals, nasturtiums, mint (or any edible herbs and flowers of your choice)
  • radishes
  • cucumber
  • spinach
  • organic sprouted tofu (marinated in gluten-free tamari)

Directions

  • wash and chop ingredients into desired strips and thin rounds
  • soak a single sheet of rice paper in a shallow plate of warm water for about 30 seconds
  • remove rice paper and place on a large plate, arrange ingredients in a rectangle in the middle of the sheet
  • carefully roll up the rice paper like a burrito, keeping all the ingredients nice and snug

Ingredients (sauce)

  • 1 tbsp organic unsweetened peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp gluten-free tamari
  • 1/2 tbsp raw wildflower honey
  • 1/2 tbsp chili sauce

Directions

  • mix all ingredients until the sauce is smooth and creamy - feel free to adjust quantities to taste

 

GOLDENROD

My good friend Helen McCarthy of Living Lightly Peterborough recently married her best friend in a beautiful ceremony in the middle of the forest. What was particularly impressive, was that she managed to organize a stunning, environmentally conscious event, with zero-waste decor. Helen foraged all of her flowers locally in an effort to reduce the environmental and economic impact that weddings typically have. This included vibrant displays of goldenrod strung throughout their venue and a bouquet made of freshly picked goldenrod, Queen Anne’s lace, wheat and lavender. While working on the bride’s hair, Helen’s hair stylist looked at the flowers in alarm and said, “Oh no! I’m allergic to ragweed, I won’t be able to use that!”

Photo by Chris Loh

Photo by Chris Loh

Many people have a similar reaction to goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) because they mistakenly blame it for allergies which are caused by ragweed (Hymenoclea), a plant that frequently grows nearby. However, it is actually impossible for goldenrod to be the culprit of seasonal allergies, because its pollen is too heavy and sticky to be carried on the wind. Not only that, but goldenrod is actually a potent antidote for allergies. It contains a constituent called quercetin which acts as an antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant.

I love learning the botanical names of plants because they often give you information about the plant itself. The genus name Solidago comes from the Latin words solida meaning “whole” and ago meaning “to make,” so the literal meaning of the name is “to make whole.” There are many species of goldenrod, and all are safe and edible for consumption, however Solidago canadensis is considered the best tasting and most medicinal.

Without knowing a plant very well, there are often many clues which will offer you information about what the plant can be used for. The taste of goldenrod for example is somewhat astringent, a little spicy, and quite bitter. Astringency often has a drying effect (usually caused by tannins), which can aid in drawing together broken skin. Dried and powdered, goldenrod leaves can be used to stop bleeding. Consumed as a strong tea, the aerial tops of goldenrod (including leaves and flowers) can help stop internal hemorrhage and influence menstruation.

Spiciness often indicates antiviral, antimicrobial, antiseptic and antifungal properties and would make me guess the plant is good for infections. Combined with the drying effect, I know that goldenrod is good for colds, flu, candida overgrowth, urinary tract infections, and for healing coughs and drying excess phlegm. Spiciness also often has a numbing effect, which is a good indicator that the plant may be an effective analgesic. Goldenrod can be made into a tea, or infused into a honey, or the flowers can be chewed on to soothe sore throats. It can also aid kidney function and can be used as a diuretic to help with kidney stones.

Generally, bitterness is an indication of the medicinal properties of a plant. Spice and bitter frequently aid in digestion, which means goldenrod can be used for colic and to relieve flatulence. Bitter helps to produce bile and therefore often supports liver function. Typically, when I taste bitter I know to use a plant a bit more sparingly, as a medicine or nutritive tonic rather than as the main portion of my diet. Goldenrod can be a lovely addition to salads or cooked greens, and the edible flowers can be used to adorn cakes in the summertime.

It is always interesting to observe the taste of your foods and think about how the flavours are often indicative of medicinal and nutritional properties. If you pay close attention, you might start to notice the effects. Even the most common foods often affect us in ways we may not have previously noticed.

Like many other “warm” coloured flowers, the yellow colour of the plant suggests that goldenrod likely captures the energy of the sun. Goldenrod flowers can be made into a hydrosol, or the roots can be pounded into a poultice to soothe sore muscles. Taken internally, the quercetin (among other constituents) is known to potentially reduce symptoms of fatigue, anxiety and depression, brightening your day like the sun.

Although goldenrod pollen is not airborne and does not cause hay fever, some people have a contact allergy and may develop a rash with extensive handling of the plant. Caution is also advised when consuming aerial parts of the plant if you have allergies to the Asteraceae family. However this can often be avoided by making a tincture with the root rather than the flowers. 

For this post, we decided to make a goldenrod vinegar. There are a variety of menstruums or solvents used in making herbal medicines and each one has different strengths and weaknesses as it will extract different constituents from the plant. The wonderful thing about an herbal vinegar (also called an acetum) is that it extracts both medicinal and nutritional properties. While a tincture made with alcohol is excellent for extracting medicinal properties and will last longer than a vinegar, the alcohol often destroys the nutrient content of the plant.  

Goldenrod vinegar makes a great nutritive and medicinal tonic which can be used for improving mineral balance, it is great for immune system function, and can help in eliminating flatulence, regulating blood sugar levels and preventing kidney stones.

Ingredients

  • aerial tops of goldenrod (including leaves and flowers, ideally before they begin to develop pollen)
  • apple cider vinegar

Directions

  • fill your jar with coarsely chopped goldenrod leaves and flowers
  • fill to the top with apple cider vinegar
  • seal the lid tightly and allow the bottle to sit in a cool, dark place for several weeks (make sure to use a plastic or rubber lid or place several layers of plastic between the jar and metal lid, as vinegar erodes metal)

PLANTAIN SALVE

This humble common weed happens to be one of Courtney's most favourite plants. If you've spent much time with her at all, she has likely introduced you to plantain (Plantago major) at some point. Also referred to as "white man's footprint" - partly due to the fact that European colonists brought plantain to the Americas because of its vital importance both as medicine and food, and partly due to the fact that plantain prefers compacted soil, so you will mostly find it in highly trodden areas - plantain is one of the most abundant edible and medicinal plants in the world.

If you haven't met Plantago before, you may still be imagining a large banana (Musa), however the plantain we are referring to is very different. You’ve probably played with this plant as a child, trying to separate the leaf and stem from the long stringy white veins - similar to the veins of a celery stalk. Plantain grows in a basal rosette formation with one long flower stalk growing up from the middle. The entire plant can be used for consumption and medicine and you will start to see it everywhere once you get to know it, from your backyard, to driveways, to the cracks in the sidewalks.

A wonderful first aid plant, plantain has antiseptic, analgesic, and potent anti-inflammatory properties. The tannins in plantain help to draw tissues together and stop bleeding. Plantain is rich in allantoin, a compound that helps to promote healing of skin cells, making it great for cuts and scrapes and to help skin issues and irritation. Plantain also has a unique ability to “draw out” - should you find yourself with a bee sting, bug bite (including ticks) or in an extreme situation, a snake bite, applying plantain immediately will help to draw out the venom, soothe and disinfect the area.

I recently visited a stunning town in remote Newfoundland called Trepassey for a wedding with my extended family. While there, my sister-in-law had walked through some tall grass and thought she had gotten stung by something. My daughter, who is six, examined her leg and said, “That's not a bug bite! You got stung by stinging nettle! Hang on a second.” And she ran off, momentarily returning with a plantain leaf. She told my sister-in-law to wash it and chew it up (creating a spit poultice) and apply it to the stings. Desperate for some relief, my sister-in-law chewed it up on the spot and applied it to the swelling blisters, she was amazed when it worked immediately. I heard this story hours later and it made me a proud mama!

As I am writing this I am realizing how many times plantain came in handy that day. From using plantain salve (which I carry around with me wherever I go as a first aid item) to apply to the bride’s finger to make sure her ring would fit, to applying it to the groom’s blisters (after he had injured his hand the previous day digging a hole for a 12-foot cross they had erected for the ceremony on the shores of Trepassey), to stuffing a few leaves in my shoe to soothe the beginnings of a blister caused by my beautiful but impractical heels, on and on go the virtues of plantain, they are endless. We will spend another post sharing more about the benefits of plantain used internally, but for now feel free to try making this salve at home - or when in need just chew up a leaf and apply it to what ails you! For burns, bites, bruises, abrasions, and tired sore feet.

To make a plantain salve, we collected the leaves, cleaned and dried them thoroughly, as they tend to be muddy and dusty. It is important that the leaves are very dry before adding them to the oil, because if the water content is too high, the infusion will develop mold. 

Once dry, we chopped the leaves finely.

And packed the chopped leaves into a jar.

After choosing a jar that was the correct size so that there wouldn't be too much air at the top, we poured a mixture of olive oil and coconut oil just until the leaves were covered. We left the oil to infuse for several weeks.

As the plantain infused, the oil transformed into a rich green colour and smelled very potent. We strained the oil through cheesecloth placed in a fine mesh strainer and pressed out every last medicinal drop. 

We heated the oil very gently in a pot and added some beeswax, leaving it on low heat and stirring occasionally until melted. We were careful not to heat the oil too hot as this reduces the medicinal potency.

Finally, we poured the salve into individual containers and let them cool before covering them with lids. 

Ingredients:

  • plantain leaves
  • olive oil and/or melted coconut oil
  • beeswax

Directions:

  • pick plantain leaves from a patch that has not been sprayed by pesticides
  • wash and dry leaves thoroughly
  • chop leaves finely (or use a food processor)
  • pack into a jar and add oil until leaves are just covered
  • seal lid tightly and let the oil infuse for three to four weeks
  • strain the oil through cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer
  • gently heat the oil in a double boiler and add the beeswax (about 2 tbsp per cup of oil)
  • once the wax has melted, pour the salve into a sterilized container
  • wait until the salve has cooled and set before closing the lid

BOTANICAL SUN-PRINTING

There is something about developing photographic images - whether it be in a darkroom or an instant polaroid or a cyanotype - that never ceases to fill me with a child-like wonder. To see an image developing before my eyes makes me feel like I am witnessing magic. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover that my local art store sells a photo-sensitive dye (the colour develops with exposure to sunlight) that can be applied to pretty much any porous surface (the particular brand I used was called Inkodye). 

I immediately thought of making botanical sun-prints - a simple way of preserving some of my most loved transient summer plants and bringing them into my home to be appreciated throughout the year.

First, I collected a few bits and pieces of plants from my garden that had a variety of different silhouettes. I placed my fabric on a board and painted it with the dye in a dark area of my house (so as not to expose the dye yet), and then arranged the pieces of plants on the fabric.

When I was happy with the composition, I took the board outside and placed it in direct sunlight. It was a bright day, so it reached full saturation in about ten minutes (but can take up to 20 minutes). 

I brought the board back inside where it was dark and removed the pieces of plants. The areas that had been exposed to sunlight had transformed into a deep blue, while the spots that had been covered with plants remained white. I rinsed the fabric in the sink and then threw it in the wash on hot/cold. Inkodye sells their own detergent, but I used regular laundry detergent and it did the job.

I decided to sew my print into a pillow, but there are so many other possible options. Next time I plan on making a tote bag for carrying my groceries.

STAGHORN SUMAC

It's that time of year, when the ravines and hillsides are spotted with the brilliant red fruit of the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Also known as the “lemonade tree,” many people avoid this shrub because they think it is poisonous, but it is actually a delicious sour treat and a great local alternative to lemons. Staghorn sumac are most easily identified by their fuzzy red cones or “drupes.” Their common name comes from the fact that the branches resemble the velvety antlers of a young stag. While there is a type of sumac that is poisonous (Toxicodendron vernix), it is easy to distinguish from staghorn sumac because the poisonous berries are smooth and white, and despite sharing a name, they are not closely related. 

The fruit of the staghorn sumac generally begins to ripen in August, turning a rich crimson colour. The best time to harvest is on a dry, sunny day. If harvested after a heavy rainfall, the fruit will not be as flavourful, as much of the malic acid will have washed away. You can test the sumac before harvesting by rubbing your fingers along the furry fruit and licking them - if they taste tart and lemony, then it is a good time to harvest.

It takes a little bit of work to extract the spice from the plant. Although you could pop the seeds directly in your mouth and savour the lemon flavour, they do not have succulent flesh like typical berries, and most people don’t particularly enjoy snacking on the fuzzy seeds. A very simple way to consume sumac is to make a lemonade by steeping the drupes in cool or room-temperature water (hot water will release the bitter tannins) and then straining out the berries and lightly sweetening the flavoured water.

One of our favourite things to make with sumac is za'atar - a traditional Middle Eastern spice mix which often contains thyme, oregano and/or marjoram and toasted sesame seeds. It is commonly eaten with pita that has been dipped in olive oil, or combined with hummus or labneh. We enjoy sprinkling it on roasted vegetables, sliced avocados or fried eggs. Although traditional za’atar is made with Sicilian sumac (Rhus coriaria) which is native to southern Europe, staghorn sumac works too.

We harvested a large batch of sumac, separated them, cleaned them, removed any bugs and brown bits and let them air dry until they were no longer sticky. You could also speed up the process by putting them in a dehydrator (Courtney puts them on a tray and lets them sit in the sun on the rear dash of her car, which acts as an effective dehydrator in a pinch).

These are the whole sumac berries after being sorted, dried and separated from the stems. The next step is to remove the furry red fruit from the seeds.

We put the sumac in a food processor and whipped it up until the spice had separated from the seeds. Then we passed everything through a mesh strainer. This can be a quite time-consuming process.

These are the seeds and sticks that were left behind. I am told there are other uses for these, but we ended up discarding them.

The beautiful, fine, powdery sumac spice. It is bright and lemony - this is what all the hard work was for!

Now, to make the za'atar. There is no single official recipe and no standard ratios. We make ours with thyme and sesame seeds, some like to use more thyme, while others like the sumac to be the more dominant flavour. Through trial and error, the ratio we have come to use is two parts sumac, two parts toasted sesame seeds, one part thyme and salt to taste.

Za'atar can be used on any number of dishes, however we prefer not to cook with it, as heat changes the flavour and destroys the delicious tartness, so we use it as a condiment and sprinkle it on meals after they have been served.

Ingredients

  • 2 parts sumac spice
  • 2 parts sesame seeds
  • 1 part dried thyme
  • sea salt

Directions

  • toast the sesame seeds over medium heat in a dry skillet just until they begin to turn brown
  • grind up the thyme in a mortar and pestle until it begins to break down (but before it becomes a fine powder)
  • wait until the sesame seeds have cooled, and then mix all the ingredients together
  • salt to taste

 

NOTE: In rare cases, while staghorn sumac is not poisonous, some people may have an allergic reaction to the plant. Those who are allergic to cashews or pistachios are most likely to react, as they are part of the same family. If you think you might be allergic, you can rub some of the plant on a small patch of skin and wait for about an hour. If a rash appears, then it is best to stay away from this plant. Regardless, it is always a good practice to consume only a small amount when trying a new food for the first time.

YARROW TEA

The botanical name for yarrow is Achillea millefolium. The genus name Achillea comes from an ancient Greek myth about the Trojan hero Achilles. As the story goes, when Achilles was a young boy he was brought to the centaur Chiron who was a teacher and healer, and became a mentor to Achilles. Chiron taught him the ways of the gods and bestowed upon him the plant yarrow, teaching him about its healing properties. Achilles took this knowledge to the battlefield and used it to staunch the bleeding wounds of his soldiers. For this reason, yarrow is also sometimes known as herba militaris, or soldier’s herb.

Its specific name millefolium meaning “thousands of leaves”, refers to the profusion of small feathery, fern-like leaves.

This plant has also historically been used as a divination tool. Chinese cleromancers would use bundles of 50 dried yarrow stalks that were cut uniformly and removed of leaves to cast the I Ching. Although nowadays most people use coins, some diviners still prefer to use the traditional yarrow stalks.

Yarrow’s medicinal properties are characterized as astringent and drying. Because of this, it is a great herb to have in your first aid kit. A simple yarrow poultice can be used as a styptic and antiseptic, to stop bleeding and disinfect small cuts and nosebleeds.

In ancient times, yarrow was associated with witchcraft as it is a very potent healing herb. It can both staunch and stimulate blood flow and is wonderful for women’s reproductive health, as it can be used to both decrease heavy menstrual bleeding and stimulate a delayed menstrual cycle - I have heard it called "master of the blood."

In these photos, we harvested a bunch of yarrow tops - including the leaves and flowers, dried them on elevated wire racks for about two weeks, and made it into a medicinal tea for later use. I have been experimenting with drinking the tea a week before the onset of my cycle, as it is supposed to ease the symptoms. Because yarrow is drying and tends to strip away, we like to follow it up by consuming something with emollient and demulcent qualities such as calendula or mallow. These marshmallows perhaps?

(Yarrow is an emmenagogue and should be avoided during pregnancy. I have also read reports of it being used as a contraceptive, so use only for a short time).

I steeped the dried yarrow in freshly boiled water for about ten minutes before consuming. The tea is fragrant and tastes a bit like a combination of chamomile and something vaguely coniferous - if you are bothered by the bitterness, you can add a little bit of honey.

MARSHMALLOW

Last week, we featured marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) flowers in our post on edible flowers, this week, we used marshmallow root to make some tasty marshmallows!

Though the modern marshmallow mainly consists of sugar and gelatin, marshmallows used to be made with marshmallow root. The plant's genus name Althaea comes from the Greek althein, which means "to heal." Because of the its demulcent and emollient healing properties, the original confection was created for medicinal purposes, to soothe sore throats and calm irritated digestive tracts. The use of marshmallow both medicinally and as a treat can be dated back to Ancient Egypt, where they would make a concoction using sap extracted from the plant and sweetened with honey. Years later, another version of the candy showed up in France made with egg white meringue, called pâte de guimauve.

These marshmallows are infused with marshmallow root and sweetened with local organic unpasteurized honey, so they are not only a delicious treat, but might actually help next time you have an irritated throat, dry cough or an upset stomach.

We included rose petals in our infusion to add a subtle floral flavour, and because roses are a calming complement to mallow and can also be used as a traditional home remedy for sore throats. 

But that doesn't mean I'm going to wait until I have a cold to eat these marshmallows. I just put some in my dandelion "coffee" and they made the most dreamy, fluffy, sweet, marshmallow foam.

Ingredients

  • 4 tbsp organic gelatin powder
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 2 tbsp marshmallow root
  • small handful of dried rose petals
  • 1 cup organic honey
  • 1 tsp rose water
  • cornstarch for dusting

Directions

  • line your baking dish with parchment paper
  • place marshmallow root and rose petals in a small bowl and add hot water. Let sit for 15 minutes, strain and reserve the infused water (make sure it still equals one cup)
  • pour 1/2 cup of your infused water into a large bowl or mixer. Add the gelatin and mix quickly to ensure it is evenly incorporated. Let it sit while you continue with the honey syrup. The gelatin mix will solidify
  • meanwhile, pour the other half of your infused water and your cup of honey into a medium saucepan
  • bring the honey mixture to a boil. Once it boils, stir constantly for about 7-8 minutes - make sure it does not boil over. (If you are using a candy thermometer, remove the pan from the heat as soon as it reaches 240°F, or the soft ball stage)
  • use the mixer or handmixer to begin breaking up the gelatin mixture and slowly begin pouring in the honey syrup along the side of the bowl
  • once all the syrup is added, turn the mixer to high and whip for about ten minutes until the mixture fluffs up and begins to form gentle peaks
  • during the last minute of mixing, add the rose water
  • working quickly, pour the marshmallow cream into your lined baking dish and smooth with a greased spatula (or place a layer of cling film on top, and smooth the surface with your hands
  • let sit at room temperature for 4-6 hours
  • remove cling film - dust a cutting board with corn starch and turn the marshmallow pan onto the cutting board
  • slice into individual marshmallow cubes with a greased knife
  • dust marshmallows with cornstarch to keep them from sticking

EDIBLE FLOWERS

What could be more beautiful than a salad made of bright, colourful flowers? Edible flowers are both good for your body and a feast for the eyes. Flowers tend to be high in vitamins such as vitamin C and A, and contain a variety of medicinal properties. Many flowers are great for your skin - giving you a summer glow - and provide antioxidant protection which reduces the visibility of age spots, wrinkles and scars.

Foraging does not need to be limited to the backcountry woods and wilderness. A large portion of our foraged food comes from the city because that is where we live. Foraging in an urban setting can be a wonderful way to get to know your neighbours and create community. Community is an essential buffer against many of the challenges we deal with in today's culture. Isolation is one of the key contributing factors to most mental illness including addiction and depression, and poses a serious health risk to human beings. As a therapist, I encourage clients to foster community in as many ways as they can. Having a strong and diverse community creates a basket that can support us in times of need. It also offers us a way of creating meaning and connection throughout the many seasons of our lives. 

In this video we wandered around the streets of Peterborough and knocked on neighbours’ doors to get permission to harvest some of their plants for this flower salad. These are some of the flowers we included in our salad:

Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
All mallow flowers are edible, often referred to as “the green cheeses” because the fruits resemble tiny green cheese wheels. Mallows are used as food all over the world. Marshmallow are particularly high in mucilage and emollient properties which are great for soothing, softening and healing. I was first drawn to this plant when I was pregnant and had an overwhelming feeling that mallow would be a key medicinal plant for me after my baby was born. I later learned that mallow helps to heal and sooth internal and external wounds and irritation.

My friend and herbalist Nicole Cameron brought me a lovely batch of mallow root and flower cookies and a beautiful sitz bath mixture after the birth of my daughter. I went on to use mallow root to help my teething baby’s sore mouth and dry coughs, and I used mallow flowers to soothe my irritated nerves. Ever since, I have had a strong affinity for this plant and use it in as many ways as possible. Here we used both the leaves and flowers for our salad.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula is well known for its medicinal properties and is used both externally and internally. It is high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene and makes a wonderful anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, antibacterial, and antiviral, among many other things. Calendula can be used externally for skin conditions such as acne and eczema, and used internally it can soothe the gastrointestinal tract in people with conditions such as colitis, Crohn's disease and both gastric and duodenal ulcers.

Pansies (Viola tricolor var. hortensis)
These sweet little flowers are a hybrid of the genus Viola. They have anti-inflammatory, diuretic, and expectorant properties and can be used for pain relief from gout, rheumatism and arthritis, can ease coughs, and have a calming, sedative effect. (A note of caution: this plant can cause vomiting when used in high amounts. Do not use in combination with prescription diuretics or asthma medication).

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum)
A fragrant and spicy flower - akin to a radish, but in flower form - nasturtiums are antibacterial, antibiotic, antifungal, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, expectorant and diuretic in medicinal action. They can help ward off colds and decrease candida albicans overgrowth in the body.

Bergamot or bee balm (Monarda)
Loved by bees, this is one of Courtney’s daughter’s favourite flowers to eat. Sweet, with a little spice, it gets its name because its flavour is reminiscent of bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia).

Roses (Rosa)
And of course roses. We love roses and use them in our food whenever and wherever we can. See our post on rose petal popsicles. Roses are cooling and calming - as the saying goes, “Roses are good for the skin and good for the soul.” There are so many species and cultivars of roses and the flavours vary from plant to plant - try a few and find your favourite (but never eat store-bought roses as they are usually sprayed with pesticides and fragrance).

In this video, we harvested a basket full of edible flowers. We picked some greens and herbs from our garden and whipped up a simple salad dressing.

Ingredients

  • edible flowers (some of the flowers we used include daisy petals, evening primrose, marshmallow, calendula, pansies, nasturtium, bergamot, lavender, daylilies, queen anne's lace, thimbleberry flowers, dame's rocket, and roses)
  • garden greens (we used kale, nasturtium leaves, lamb's quarters, wood sorrel and other garden "weeds")
  • garden herbs (daisy leaves, plantain, queen anne’s lace, bergamot leaves, marshmallow leaves)
  • dressing (olive oil, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup and sea salt)

Directions

  • gather flowers and garden greens. Inspect them for dirt and bugs - you might want to give them a quick rinse.
  • coarsely chop the greens and chop up the herbs a bit more finely
  • mix together your dressing ingredients
  • toss salad and enjoy!

JUSTIN CHATWIN

by Nadia Tan

I met Justin Chatwin a few months ago while weeding my front garden. I was preparing the soil for planting while he was muttering something about giant leaves that were blocking the sunlight from reaching his baby kale. I looked over and saw two small planter boxes brimming full of young seedlings, the giant leaves in question were hostas.

“Those are edible, you know,” I said.

Justin immediately got excited and started asking me questions about how to prepare them. A few minutes later, he had fried up a plate full of hosta shoots with his kale and some roasted potatoes. He invited me in, we tried them together and they were delicious.

“They taste similar to bok choy,” he said, “I can’t believe a few minutes ago I was complaining about how they were blocking my kale.”

Over the next few months, I showed him and fed him some of the edible wild plants in our neighbourhood - goutweed, plantain, goldenrod, rose petals, peonies, serviceberries, stinging nettle, dandelion, chicory, lamb's quarters, balsam poplar - while he told me stories about his adventures through North and South America.

Justin is best known as an actor. Probably his most notable roles being Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds and a character named Steve/Jimmy on Shameless. He has recently been living in Toronto while shooting the show American Gothic. However, as a self-described adrenaline junkie, his real passion lies in adventure.

For the past six years, he has been doing motorcycle road trips through North and South America, traveling in stages from Vancouver down to the southernmost tip of Chile. He has traveled with various groups of people, visiting different communities and staying with indigenous tribes.

One of his favourite activities is free-dive spearfishing. During one of his stories, Justin describes the feeling of satisfaction that he gets from spearfishing. He tells me that his latest adventure did not involve expensive cars or fancy houses - all he had was his motorcycle and he slept in a hammock in a small thatched hut - but at the end of the day, he had never felt more alive and content.

“On our last trip we brought our spears, our flippers, and our masks. There was this one day where we came down Baja and we stopped in Bay of Conception. I remember it was a full moon because it was so bright. My buddy Dave went out and he put his mask on and dove down and caught a bunch of scallops. I went out and shot a couple of fish. And we just cooked that up right there. We all ate and we were full, went to bed and were so content.

“There’s just something primal in us that comes alive when you get to hunt. There's a very spiritual realm to it. I’m not a trophy hunter. I just catch what I want to eat that day. But it’s so satisfying, knowing that you’re living off the land.”

“For me spearfishing is two things: it’s hunting - which is a basic necessity that we’ve always done - and then it’s diving, which is a baptism in the water. You’re forced to be present and you’re in the elements, you’re underwater.

“The diving part is cool because you have to make the most out of one breath. We forget to breathe living in the cities but you have to make the most of one breath underwater - you are diving deep down and waiting for a fish to come by. And you never know what you’re going to get.

“It becomes a meditation, where you have to focus so much on your breathing. And you’re doing it sometimes for eight hours a day. You’re so present all day because you’re just looking into nothingness, into the blue. You’re with your fears, and you’re with your thoughts. It becomes a study of yourself, because you start to see how your thoughts are working against you, they’re not useful for you. Fears come up and you can see how they waste a lot of your energy, so I’ve learned a lot about myself just from diving.”

He tells me that he has his best sleeps on those nights. I imagine it is partly exhaustion from the physical exertion, but he also seems to be describing a feeling of peace.

“There is medicine in nature. Nature heals. For me, there’s something about getting back to where we came from. Whether it’s in the ocean, or whether it’s camping amongst the trees. There’s energy that comes out of the trees, I’ve seen it.”

One afternoon, as Justin is sitting on his porch and I am picking some arugula for dinner, he tells me about the book One River by Wade Davis (which I have yet to read). According to Justin, the book is about indigenous tribes in the Amazon who have remained untouched by modern civilization. He had been curious to learn more about these people, so he traveled down to Sarayaku in Ecuador and stayed with a community called Children of the Jaguar.

“I went down there and lived with a guy named Don Sabino. A hundred years old - just in a different realm. He’s this guy who has never left his tribe. Alcoholism doesn’t even exist. The kids are so happy, they run free. The kids aren’t afraid of where they’re going because they know they’re going to be taken care of. They also know that if they step on something or they get bit by something, they know that that tree over there will heal them. They know which tree will heal you and which tree will kill you. They’re passing on traditions and rituals that have been in their culture for thousands and thousands of years.

“I’m fascinated by rituals and culture because we’re living in a very selfish culture right now. We have short-term antidotes, like pills and new work-out methods and new material goods that will provide a short-term fix but long-term dysfunction. We’ve lost a lot of the real nutrients of old-school religion that people are so afraid of.”

On another summer evening, we are walking through the neighbourhood and I am telling Justin about my interest in learning about herbal medicine, about trying to hold on to that ancient healing wisdom that was traditionally passed down orally, and finding ways to preserve and share that knowledge. He shares a story about his own encounter with some mysterious medicinal plants.

“The elders of the tribe invited us in to see what they were doing and I was interested in seeing the area that I’d read about in a lot of books. They had this tree that was clearly the tree of life. We drank from this tree every morning and felt amazing. I asked, ‘What is that?’ and they said, ‘It’s kind of like garlic. It’s good for you.’ And I was like, ‘Ooookay, yeah the “garlic tree” over there,’ ” Justin says sarcastically, “ ‘People are worshipping it every morning. It’s just a “garlic tree,” right? It doesn’t give me magical properties.’ But we were buzzing the whole time we were there. On a high. It was like the God tree.”

As Justin tells this story, I think to myself, I could really use this tree in my life right now.

“We were building a thatched hut for a new community of people across the river and I was chopping with a machete and I sliced too far. It sliced into my hand and it went into my bone. Blood started pouring out and I could see my bone. Nina (one of the community leaders) said, ‘Alright, just come with me.’ So I walked over and she made me chew this leaf. I chewed it up and she made me put it inside the wound. And she just wrapped my hand in a cloth and said, ‘It will be good tomorrow.’ I took it off the next day and it was totally stitched up. From a plant!”

He shows me the scar on his hand. It is a small red mark, barely there. I am very curious which plant this is. I wonder to myself if yarrow grows in South America - although I've personally never used it this way, I've read about yarrow having similar healing properties. I ask if he remembers what the plant looks like. He says no, “But I will ask Nina.”

“They live on a different frequency. The jungle is their god, their everything, in the same way that the fish have the ocean. It provides everything that they need. But somewhere along the line - the European line - the story started to change and make nature evil. I don’t know whether it was Grimm’s fairy tales, but people started writing stories about nature being evil and evil being in the forest. I think we need to change our mythologies and incorporate new stories in our culture that let people know that nature isn’t evil, nature can provide, nature can save us.”

Photos courtesy of Justin Chatwin. See more photos and read more about Justin’s adventures here. Or follow him on instagram @justingchatwin

ROSE PETAL POPSICLES

Can we just talk about how lovely roses are for a minute?

When the wild roses start to bloom in June, I get very excited. Roses are one of my favourite flowers to eat and enjoy in a variety of ways. All season long my daughter and I will harvest rose petals and I smile whenever I find them months later, dried but equally fragrant in the pockets of spring jackets. All roses are edible and easy to recognize, however they vary greatly in flavour according to species from sweet to bitter, from mild to spicy. While store-bought roses might tempt you with their beauty, never eat them as they are likely to be sprayed with chemicals and fragrance, be cautious of heavily fertilized flowers as well, as they can absorb fungicides which can make them unsafe for consumption. Luckily, garden variety roses and wild roses are plentiful. Try a few varieties and notice the difference of fragrance and flavour.

Roses can be used in so many ways and have countless nutritional, cosmetic and medicinal benefits. In Ayurvedic medicine we use opposites to balance. Roses are considered cooling which make them perfect for use during hot summer months, and can help to pacify heat in the body. Excess heat is understood to cause symptoms such as irritability, headaches, inflammation and redness in the skin. I carry around a bottle of homemade rose water to spray on my face which helps to cool me down and uplift my spirits all summer long, a spritz of rosewater always puts a smile on my face.

Nadia has a gift for making beautiful things and this applies to food as well. Today we wanted something cold and cooling, so we decided to make rose petal popsicles!

First, we made a rose honey - you can follow our recipe for lilac honey and substitute the lilacs with rose petals. Then we put a few tablespoons of organic plain full fat Greek yogurt in a blender, sweetened it with our rose honey, added a few fresh rose petals and blended it all up. We poured the mixture into our popsicle moulds and a few hours later, had the most refreshing treat! The popsicles have a subtle but distinct rose flavour - these particular rose petals tasted a little bit like raspberries. 

Ingredients

Directions

  • place a few tablespoons of yogurt in a blender
  • add fresh rose petals
  • sweeten with rose honey to taste (always make your popsicle mixture a little sweeter than you would like it to be, as it will taste less sweet once frozen)
  • blend until smooth, add whole rose petals if desired
  • pour into popsicle moulds and place in freezer until frozen

ART OF AWARENESS

by Nadia Tan

Though many people assume we go way back, Courtney and I met only three years ago. What struck me about her when we first met was that she radiated warmth and an intense present energy. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I know that within hours of meeting each other, we had both cried in each other’s presence. I knew from that day that Courtney was an intuitive and powerful healer. I also knew that I wanted to be her friend.

Courtney moves through the world in a different way than most people. She doesn’t just walk, she engages with all of her senses - she touches, smells, hums, and tastes her way through the world. This approach means that she experiences things intensely. This intense experience can be contagious and wonderful for those around her, which has served her well in the work that she does as a psychotherapist. But there is a reason she experiences things this way. Though Courtney has a strong resistance to talking about herself, over the past three years I have managed to piece together her story.

When I talk to Courtney about her work, she tells me she can trace it all back to when she was a very young child. Throughout most of her childhood, Courtney suffered from an undiagnosed illness that caused her to lose many of her faculties and meant that she was in constant chronic pain.

“Growing up and being sick is where it first started. I experienced ongoing severe pain that radiated and changed locations throughout my body. At the time I wasn’t actually aware of the severity of pain I was in because I had never known anything different - I would only know when the pain became more extreme. Having now experienced childbirth, I can tell you that the pain I went through as a child was significantly worse than that of labour.

“I would sometimes lose my ability to walk. I lost my ability to see at times. In some ways it was scary, but I started to realize that I had so many other senses that I could tap into. I would lose my vision, but I started to use my sense of smell, my sense of touch and spatial awareness to feel where I was going.”

Courtney tells me that she would also lose her memory. It was then that an interesting thing began to happen.

“There were times when I couldn’t even remember my own name. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was also facing my mortality at a very young age. So I started to question, ‘Who am I?’ Even though I couldn’t identify with my memories or my body or the things that you would normally identify with, there was still a part of me there.

“I began to notice that there was a part of me that was constant. Rather than identifying with all these fluctuating emotions and sensations, I could sense a truer ‘me.’ ”

One evening, as we are walking through a deserted alleyway, Courtney reveals to me one of her most intimate stories, a moment in which she was able to separate herself from her pain, which brought everything into a new perspective for her. But before telling me this story she is quiet for a while. Talking about herself isn't easy for her.

She is looking intently at a bushy plant with spiny pale pink flowers growing from the cracks in the asphalt.
“Motherwort,” she says, “Or lion’s heart, for courage.”
“Draw on that,” I tell her.
And so she continues her story.

“I remember one experience when I was quite young, I was totally and completely immersed in extreme pain, to the point that I wanted to die, it was so intense. I don’t know exactly what happened - perhaps it was a moment of grace - but there was a shift in my awareness and I was able to experience the suffering as just a sensation. I stopped seeing the pain as a bad thing, as something I needed to defend against. It changed my relationship to the pain. It ended up being one of the most blissful experiences of my life. The pain was still there, but my awareness had changed. That moment changed everything for me.”

I picture Courtney as a small child, experiencing this profound transformation. It is something that many people strive for, that moment of detachment - through meditation or by other means. But I can’t imagine having to endure such acute suffering at such a young age.

Courtney tells me how this “shift” in awareness has been the basis of the work that she does today.

“Much of my healing that I have done since I was younger has been about shifting my relationship to pain, either physical or emotional. In life there is so much we can’t change, but the thing that we can always change is our awareness. And so I think there is an art to it - you can learn the art of awareness.

“I’ve seen the effects of this working as a therapist with individuals who have suffered deeply with severe mental illness, grief, trauma, loss, anxiety, and depression. I have been witness to the power of awareness in my work as a life and death doula. A person giving birth is one of the most powerful things I have ever seen. The state of mind that a person is in through childbirth and in death affects everything and there are small things that we can do that influence that. Breath, nature, body-connection, relationship to ourselves and others, the food we eat - all of these things shape and enhance our awareness.”

Because of her illness, Courtney was unable to attend most of elementary school and high school. But in her early teens, she began studying yoga, herbalism and ayurvedic medicine. She continued her studies into her twenties and connected with a community of people who taught bushcraft, nature-connection, survival skills and wild foraging. She went on to become a Registered Psychotherapist and did a thesis on ecotherapy which explores the importance of nature for human development and psychological wellness.

“The other major area of Art of Awareness is nature-connection. This stems back again to my childhood. My parents owned a one hundred acre property in Ontario, mostly a combination of swamp and forest with a large meadow. I always felt more at home in the woods than I did in the house. I would walk into the forest and feel welcomed and supported in a way that was different than at other times. There was something about being in that environment, being able to see the cycles of life that gave me peace. Seeing new, living, green vegetation next to rotting, decaying wood - seeing all of those cycles and feeling that it was all beautiful and all-encompassing - I felt that acceptance in myself.

“I would wander slowly by myself and I felt a deep connection with the plants and trees. As soon as I walked under the pine trees, I could immediately breathe more easily. My pain lessened and I felt uplifted. When I couldn’t do anything else, I would just go lie under the pines.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started studying herbalism many years later, I actually found out that pines release a chemical called pinene that acts as an anti-inflammatory and an anti-depressant and has a chemical effect on the body. Nature effects us in ways we don't even realize, from the chemicals that trees and plants release to the effects it has on the brain just by looking at it. I experienced it so profoundly as a child, being in so much pain and witnessing such a noticeable change. But there are actual chemical, scientific reasons for it.”

When Courtney tells me these stories, I am immediately brought back to my own childhood. Growing up in the country in a large family (there were seven children living on the same property including my siblings and cousins), I was an extreme introvert and often needed time alone. I would climb the hill and wander to the very back of the property to my “secret” aspen grove. I would lie there for hours under the graceful, trembling trees, listening to the wind rattling and watching the way the light flickered through the leaves. I never knew why those moments brought me such peace at the time, but it makes sense to me now.

Courtney and I talk about nature a lot. In fact, our deep love for nature is part of what solidified our friendship. She tells me, “I’ve carried my deep love of nature wherever I’ve gone. It’s something I’ve always wanted to integrate into the work that I’ve been doing and I really don’t think that I would be alive right now if it hadn’t been for my experiences in nature. But we are at a point where there are a lot of people living in the world who are growing up without that connection and so it felt important to incorporate that into my work.

“I felt called to this work because I know that when people connect to nature, it benefits them. That was my whole area of study with my training in ecotherapy. Human beings need to be exposed to and have access to nature for healthy physical and psychological development. We need it, we are a part of it. It is something that every person across time regardless of culture, age or ethnicity has in common. It has been shown that there is a bi-directional benefit to nature-connection. There is a benefit to people, but also, the more deeply people connect to nature, the more deeply they care for it. We protect and care for the things we love.”

Early on in our friendship, Courtney and I knew we needed to start a project together that somehow unified all these themes. We have been talking about Art of Awareness for a long time, but it took a while for us to figure out what it should look like. We explored many ideas, but finally realized that it was very simple:

“The idea for this website is to encourage and spark connection. Whether it is through our own stories, the stories of other people, or through the photos we post. There is so much information out there but people frequently shut down when they are bombarded with information or are told what they “should” be doing. What we want to do is spark curiosity and back it up with the research that connection to our bodies, connection to ourselves, and connection to the environment has a therapeutic effect that can shift our awareness in a beneficial and medicinal way.”

SORREL SAUCE

You may have seen this common weed in your garden and mistaken it for clover. But while both have compound leaves with three leaflets, the leaflets of wood sorrel (Oxalis stricta) are heart-shaped, while those of clover are oval-shaped and usually bare white or pale green chevrons. If you taste wood sorrel you may be pleasantly surprised by a burst of tart lemony flavour. The sour taste comes from oxalic acid (the same constituent that makes rhubarb sour) which is found in many other green vegetables such as broccoli and kale. Eaten in high amounts, oxalic acid inhibits the absorption of calcium and can be toxic. It is best avoided by people with rheumatic ailments such as gout or arthritis and kidney stones. However, used sparingly, wood sorrel's mild lemon flavour can be added to fresh salads, used to flavour a lovely summer soup, as a condiment to fish, a delicious fresh pesto or a light snack while gardening. As with most sour fruits and vegetable, wood sorrel is very high in vitamin C and can be used to quench thirst while on a hike in the woods.

Since the weather was so hot this week, we decided to make a fresh sorrel sauce to go along with our cucumber salad. For this recipe, we picked about a cup of wood sorrel.

We added a few chives (but you can use any allium of your choice, including shallots, onions or garlic).

And a few sprigs of cilantro from our garden.

We placed everything in a food processor with about three tablespoons of organic full fat greek yogurt.

Once blended up, the mixture is a bright green. We added salt to taste.

The sauce tastes tart and lemony, and goes well with fish or in a simple salad. You can serve immediately, but we like to keep this sauce in the fridge overnight, to let the flavours develop. 

We made a lovely crisp summery salad by chopping up some cucumber and covering it in sorrel sauce. We added chive and sorrel flowers (which are both edible) as a garnish.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sorrel
  • handful of chives
  • a few sprigs of cilantro
  • 3 tbsp plain organic full fat greek yogurt
  • salt

Directions

  • rinse herbs and put them in a food processor with the yogurt
  • blend until smooth, and the sauce is a bright green colour
  • add salt to taste
  • optional: let sit in a sealed container in the fridge overnight, allowing flavours to develop
  • pour over your dish of choice! 
  • (in the above photo, we chopped up some cucumber, added our sorrel sauce and garnished with chive and sorrel flowers)

 

CATNIP

Often mistaken for peppermint, catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a skunky, fuzzy, pungent member of the mint family. It is a great ally to know when you are wandering in the woods being swarmed by mosquitoes, when you can't sleep or are having an anxious day, or when you are trying to settle a colicky baby.

I have relied on this plant countless times by rubbing the fragrant leaves onto my skin while in the woods desperate for relief from the bugs feeding off of me. Easy to identify by its smell and unmistakable mint family qualities, once you familiarize yourself with it you won’t forget it. Look for the square stem and opposite leaves on the stalk to indicate this member of the mint family.

Said by many to be significantly more effective than DEET, those who have experimented with natural bug repellents may be doubtful, but I swear by this herb. Today we are taking things one step further and attempting to capture the scent and repellent qualities in oil to be applied for longer lasting action.

We harvested the top two thirds of the herb at the intersection of the leaves (ensuring that it will continue to grow throughout the season), and coarsely chopped the leaves and stem.

We covered the leaves in olive oil and decided to speed up the infusion process by gently heating them in a small pot on our wood stove, stirring constantly, to try to draw out the potent insect repellent properties from the herb.

After heating for a little while on the stove, we poured the mixture into a small mason jar, we added some more fresh leaves and more oil to make it even more potent, and placed the jar to infuse in the sun for a week. 

After a week, we strained the mixture through cheesecloth - squeezing out every last drop - and stored the oil in a dark glass container. We applied the catnip oil to our arms and legs and found that it successfully repelled black flies and mosquitoes - they would come near but wouldn't actually land or bite. We also discovered that the infusion makes an excellent oil for soothing and calming sunburn, achy muscles and bug bites. 

Ingredients

  • catnip, coarsely chopped
  • cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (enough to cover your herbs)

Directions

  • place coarsely chopped catnip in a jar
  • pour olive oil just enough to cover the leaves
  • pour the catnip mixture in a jar, seal, and place in a sunny spot. Allow mixture to infuse for six weeks or one week if you intend on speeding up the process by heating the oil on the stove.
  • optional: gently heat the oil/catnip mixture for a little while in a small pot on your stove, stir constantly. You could also use a double boiler or crockpot. Allow the oil to get warm, but never hot.
  • strain the catnip from the oil using a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth.
  • apply to expose skin as an insect repellent next time you are in the woods!

STINGING NETTLE

We have been craving this plant. Everything about its deep rich green colour packed full of nutrients as food and as a medicinal ally appeals to us. Consuming this plant always makes us feel healthy, strong, and ready to face the world.

Strangely, over the last few years we have had a difficult time tracking down stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). While we have had access to wood nettle which has similar properties, we’ve only ever been able to find sparse patches of nettle, until now.

We came to the Stone Boat Farm Artist Retreat hoping to find stinging nettle on the property and had been speaking about this plant with our host Amy Nostbakken. Amy asked us about our luck finding any on our first few wanderings, which had been fruitless.
“How do you identify them?” she asked.
“Well,” we said, “Definitely the most obvious way is by the stings."
 “Ohhhhhhhhh!!" said Amy, "I know that plant! I always thought it was poison ivy. My brother and I would get stung by them all over our legs when climbing the apple trees!”

And so, we ventured over to the shady apple trees and sure enough we came across an enormous patch of stinging nettle.

While we weren’t too concerned about the population of stinging nettle, we still aimed to harvest only the tops - pinching them just above the intersection of the fine toothed slightly heart shaped leaves. This ensures that the plant will continue producing and also prevents it from going to flower. This is important if you want to harvest the leaves from the same plant throughout the season as some claim that after flowering, stinging nettle leaves contain cystoliths which could irritate the kidneys. However, this compound is destroyed after drying, so does not pose the same concern for dried tea.

Courtney harvests stinging nettle with her bare hands, making claims to the antihistamine properties of nettle stings and their ability to increase circulation and ease joint pain. Others prefer to use gloves as the hairs on the nettle stalks and leaves contain formic acid which cause quite a bit of irritation that can last for anywhere from a few minutes to several days. We don't worry too much about that, as one of the antidotes to nettle stings is the juice from nettle itself! 

We decided to see if we could transplant a few because we love the idea of having a nettle patch in our home gardens.

One of the other artists at the farm, the talented dancer Nyda, joined us in harvesting this delicious medicinal plant.

“It’s so funny because before we went up to Stone Boat I’d been reading about nettle in terms of kidney cleansing and supporting liver and skin, and I couldn't find any here in Toronto. I work in an organic grocery store part-time and checked the Big Carrot. I went all over the city to different health food stores and wasn't able to find it anywhere.  And then I came out here and there were whole fields of nettle." Nyda laughs at the overwhelming abundance of stinging nettle.

"Because I work with my body I want to feed it everything I can that is going to support it. It's mainly for the health benefits of nettle that I will keep seeking it out, and I want to plant the one that I have.”

We brought our bounty back to the farmhouse and made some delicious mineral-rich medicinal tea by pouring boiling water over the leaves. Nettle loses its stinging properties the moment it is cooked or covered with hot water.

Like most wild-crafted foods, nettle contains substantially more nutrients than many other known "superfoods" including iron and calcium (much more than spinach and kale) magnesium, silica, vitamins, phosphorus, trace minerals, and protein. It is used to treat anemia, rheumatic ailments such as arthritis and gout, and various skin conditions including acne and eczema. Nettle also has antihistamine properties and we've used it to both treat and prevent seasonal allergies. 

In an effort to consume nettle in every possible form, we fried up a bunch of the leaves with dandelion buds and flowers, and wild leeks for lunch.

We cannot begin to sing this plant’s glory enough, and this one article by no means covers its diverse uses and applications. We put some nettle aside to dry for future recipes and will continue to write about it in future posts!

DAYLILIES

A few years ago, I made the mistake of making Nadia taste a daylily flower that was past its prime. Since that experience, she has refused to try anything daylily. Finally, last week, I was able to convince her to give them another chance by cooking up some of the tasty spring tubers, which are reminiscent of fingerling potatoes.

We harvested daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) tubers along with the shoots for a side dish to accompany our meal. Daylilies are a potentially delicious and abundant food source throughout the year. Each part of the plant is edible at some point during its growing stages. Once you get to know this plant you will notice them everywhere - from gardens to roadside ditches.

Hemerocallis fulva along with its many cultivars and relatives are not related to the lily family (Lilium species, many of which are very poisonous), but have a similar flower appearance. Daylilies get their common name from the fact that each individual blossom lasts for only one day.

A note to novice foragers is to be wary of confusing daylily shoots for that of the poisonous iris. I can always tell a daylily apart by its rich light green colour (Nadia refers to it as “spring green”) and the shape of its long leaves which are folded along the midrib, as opposed to the flat sword-like leaves of the iris. Someone once described them to me as looking like two hands facing each other, about to clap. Daylilies have a cluster of tuber roots with hairy rhizomes (see photos) unlike the knobbly bulbs of irises.

The roots become mushy after the plant produces flowers. The best time to harvest daylily tubers is between late fall and early spring when the plant is putting all its energy into the roots. The young shoots in early spring are a pleasant crunchy snack - great for nibbling while you're gathering, or for adding to a salad or stir fry. Generally, daylilies propagate quite easily. I find that there are always a few renegades that try to sneak out of my garden borders which are perfect for picking.

Think of getting to know a plant in all its seasons and in a variety of settings before harvesting, and make sure you know it well - you wouldn’t trust your life in the hands of someone you just met! But if you are certain of its identification, then harvest away.

It is also a good practice to eat only a small amount when trying a new food for the first time. Daylilies have a laxative quality and have been known to give a small percent of the population an upset stomach, so sample a small portion first before making them into a main dish for your meal.

We cleaned the tubers thoroughly, removing the rope-like bits, and boiled them in water until tender but still firm. We fried up some wild leeks (see wild leek post) in butter in a skillet and added the daylily tubers, frying them for another few minutes. The fried tubers made a great starchy accompaniment to our meal and had a similar taste and texture to potatoes. Nadia promptly reformed her opinion of daylilies. The next challenge will be to get her to try the flowers!

Ingredients

  • daylily tubers
  • wild leeks, shallots, onions or garlic (your choice)
  • butter or oil

Directions

  • place daylily tubers in a pot of boiling water and cook until tender but still firm
  • fry wild leeks, shallots, onions or garlic in skillet with oil or butter
  • add the tubers to the skillet and fry for approximately five minutes
  • salt and pepper to taste

DANNY MILES

Photo by Nathan Cyprys, edited by Dan Jardine.

Photo by Nathan Cyprys, edited by Dan Jardine.

Meet our friend Danny Miles, rockstar drummer and babe of Canadian alternative rock band July Talk. Danny took us on a walk through High Park, where we talked about his experience of being on tour for the past three years and how he recently started photographing birds and posting them to his Instagram with the hashtag #drummerswholovebirds, receiving an enthusiastic response from his fans. 

We enter High Park near the zoo and ask Danny to show us his favourite birding spots. Along the way, he tells us about how his interest in photographing birds began.

“It kind of just started. When you’re on tour, you’re together with everyone constantly, 24/7. So I started going for walks. It started as a bit of a joke. I said to the band, ‘I’m going to get into birding now, so that when I’m sixty I’m going to be the best birder around!’ And then I realized ‘Oh, I actually really enjoy this.’ It’s relaxing - it’s exercise - and it’s learning something new.

“I would probably consider myself an urban birder, that’s mostly where I’m taking all of my photos, in cities all over the world. It gives me a chance to get out and get to know a place in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise. I get excited because there’s also a collecting aspect to it. I think, ‘This is a new photo of a bird, I don’t have this one yet!’ And I get excited to post it.”

We arrive at the spot where Danny took his very first bird photos - a small pond where some ducks are floating about. Danny gestures to them. 

“I have a lot of people coming up to me saying, ‘I had no idea!’ Before, they would walk up to these wood ducks, thinking they are mallards because that is what everyone sees all the time. They would think that is all there is - just mallards, or robins, or sparrows. But if you look closely at all these birds, they’re different. They’re beautiful, and they’re cool to watch.

"The personalities of birds are different. It’s cool to see them. Like a killdeer, if you’re near its nest it will pretend that it broke its leg and limp away trying to get you to follow it - trying to get you away from its nest - it’s hilarious. If you watch them, they do interesting things that half the time are pretty funny.”

We ask Danny how he approaches birds and gets close enough to take their photos.

“It has a lot to do with being calm. Like a lot of animals, I think they sense if you’re a bit stressed out or aggressive. You need to let them do their thing. I like to stand there for a while, and often they’ll just come to you.”

As Danny says this, a female wood duck swims over to check us out. “I think that’s why I enjoy it, you just let go of your stresses and you appreciate it.”

Juvenile female wood duck. Photo by Danny Miles

Juvenile female wood duck. Photo by Danny Miles

“I get out and I get in there. I have a shitty camera with a shitty lens (just a little stock 75-300mm). Sometimes you see actual birding photographers out here and their lenses are 600mm long. They are so heavy that they can’t really move around. They’re stationary with a tripod, and that's just not what I’m interested in. I like running around through the forest and following birds.” Danny laughs mischievously when he says this. “I like getting out in the canoe and sneaking up on ducks.” 

“I get a lot of people reaching out, saying they'll show me some cool birds. And I'm down for it. But it can be hard to do that with someone, especially if it's someone that you're not really comfortable with. You have to go out and be alone and be able to be quiet.

“There are days when I’ll start out and I’m listening to music, but it’s hard, you need to hear. You need to hear the birds and you have to learn the calls. I’ll constantly hear something and think, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ I have a book and it comes with a CD with a hundred tracks of bird calls. But for me, I learn better by experiencing it. So, I’ll go out and just try and listen closely to the calls, and find the birds and go home and read about it later. I don't usually bring my book out. I usually just take the photo and follow my curiosity and look it up later.”

“You know, my hobby (drumming) has become my full time job. We’ve pretty much toured straight for three years. Drumming is probably my favourite thing to do, although, the more popular our band gets, the more pressure there is at shows. It’s still fun, but it's a lot more professional then back when it was, ‘Let’s play a club and it doesn’t really matter if we screw up.’ I needed something else to do.

“Especially when you're on a long tour. I mean we all love each other like brothers and sisters - we’re all very close - but there are times when you can’t be around anyone that much. I think everyone in the band has their own thing that they do to remedy that. I enjoyed walking around, it relaxes me and now there is a creative, artistic side.”

Danny has a tattoo of an American condor on his left forearm. We ask him about the significance of this particular bird. 

“They are the biggest bird in North America. They went extinct in 1987 - or almost extinct - there were only 20 left in the wild. They were going extinct because of humans and human behaviour. They are vultures, so they eat lead bullets from hunted animals and it poisons them. They took them into captivity and bred them in captivity, and they have just started releasing them back into the wild. So now there are something like 220 in the wild, and 400 in total. They’re the biggest bird in North America. They are big and need a lot of space. They live in places like the Grand Canyon, and the more space we take up, the less room they have to live. They’re a bit ugly, but I love their wing span.”

“As a little kid I used to draw a lot, and it’s funny because the two things I used to draw were music stuff - a lot of bands - and then I would draw birds of prey. I guess it’s just a little-boy fascination with them, they’re kind of bad-ass like action heroes. I think it’s just that little boy in me still.”

Click through the gallery below for more bird photos by Danny Miles and check out his instagram: @dannyptmiles #drummerswholovebirds

LILAC HONEY

I wish you could smell my kitchen right now. The air is heavy and full with the intoxicating perfume of lilacs (Syringa vulgaris). There is something so romantic and dreamy about their fragrance which I look forward to every spring. This year, I wanted to try to capture their scent in some way, so that I could bottle it and consume it year-round. 

Happy to find out that the blossoms are edible, I decided to make a simple lilac-infused honey.

I harvested a bouquet of various types of lilacs and plucked the flowers from their bitter stems, filling a jar and packing it to the brim.

The honey I had on hand was a raw local wildflower honey which had crystallized. But it didn't matter, because once the honey was added to the flowers, it began to draw out the liquid through the process of osmosis, turning into a syrup. I sealed the lid tightly and allowed the flowers to steep overnight.

The next day, the contents of the jar had shrunk down to about a third and the flowers had floated up to the top. 

After straining out the flowers, what was left was a beautiful fragrant syrup, tasting distinctly floral and faintly spicy, with a little bit of bitterness softened by the sweetness of the honey.

Ingredients:

  • lilac flowers, picked from stems
  • local raw honey

Directions:

  • fill jar with lilac flowers
  • pour honey overtop
  • allow to steep overnight
  • once the flowers have risen to the stop, strain and preserve the syrup.

NYDA KWASOWSKY

We joined four other artists for a week at the Stone Boat Artist Retreat in Lanark County, Ontario, hosted by Quote Unquote Collective. We came to explore the land, forage for local wild edibles and document the various meals and medicines we made, while others worked on their artistic projects.  

It was there that we met Nyda, a classically trained ballet dancer, now living in Toronto and focusing on contemporary style dancing, who came to SBAR to work on some solo pieces she plans on performing around the city. We spoke to Nyda about her experiences at SBAR as an artist working in a natural setting.

“Being in nature is different, it’s stimulating in a calming way and I'm really attracted to being outside. In the city I have a studio space I can use, but at Stone Boat there is no confinement - there is so much more freedom and inspiration from the peace of it. The energy that is felt when you are surrounded by nature gives you more creativity. That is so many people’s faults now - they don't get out and connect with nature and then they lose so much of their own sense of self, because that creativity is where you find yourself too, you know?”

Nyda told us she has lived in the city her whole life and never had much opportunity to be in nature, but has always sought it out whenever she could. We went for a walk with her, exploring the 220 acres of Stone Boat Farm, nibbling on some of the wild edibles we came across and introducing Nyda to some of our favourite plants.

“Going on that walk, or being out with you guys, it was different. In the city you have to force yourself to be outside, because you won’t just be in nature, you have to force yourself. Being with you guys walking around on the acres, I had to force myself to be tangibly engaged, to be there. It’s hard to explain. If I was there alone, I would just walk and observe, whereas you guys are using your whole bodies, and all of your senses. You need to absorb nature through all of your senses, not just visually.”

WILD LEEKS

Our love of wild leeks (Allium ursinum, also known as ramps) led us to produce this video and to write about sustainable harvesting. The recent trendiness of wild leeks has been a wonderful thing to see as people have been integrating wild local food into their favourite meals. Unfortunately it has led to a serious decline in wild leek populations, opened the ground up for wild invasive species to move in, and has had a negative impact on the biodiversity of our local ecosystems.

Wild leeks propagated by seed take five to seven years to reach maturity (the point at which they start producing their own seeds). If the whole plant is harvested, this prevents the plant from being able to produce seeds, effectively killing the plant and its ability to reproduce. Luckily, there is a way to continue to enjoy this wild delicacy without threatening its survival. Harvest only one leaf from each plant, from only 10 percent of the plants per patch and do not take the roots. Pick only what you need - a little goes a long way. This ensures that each plant will continue to mature and bare seeds.

In this video, Courtney harvests some wild leeks and makes a delicious pasta dish, adding some dandelion roots, leaves and buds. You will notice that Courtney only takes one leaf from each wild leek plant. Furthermore, while we shot some of the scenes in public Peterborough parks, we did not harvest from these places but found a robust population on a friend's property. It is illegal to harvest plants in conservation areas for good reason, and the wild leek decline is one of these reasons. If you notice that a patch has already been foraged from, it is best to refrain from picking any more that year. 

We do not normally harvest the root, but this is what the wild leek bulbs look like, for identification purposes. Wild leeks have white bulbs similar to spring onions and reddish stems that emerge from the earth separately, leading up to the long green leaves. But probably the best way to identify them is by their pungent garlicky onion smell.

Avoid the wild leek's deadly poisonous lookalike, lily of the valley. We have seen these plants grow side-by-side on more than one occasion, so make sure to pay attention. Lily of the valley have similar long green leaves, but they emerge curled around a single stem and they do not have bulbs, but have longer roots.

If you don't have access to a wild leek source, don't worry, there are many other wonderful plants available to you. Harvesting certain plants, especially invasive species can even have a beneficial impact to the ecosystem. In this video we also harvested some dandelions from Courtney’s backyard before they flowered and became bitter. At this stage of growth they added a mild and flavourful taste akin to rapini to our pasta. Dandelions are something you don't need to worry about over-harvesting. If you don't have any available where you live, you are sure to find a neighbour who would be grateful to have you take some off their hands. Maybe offer them a little taste of what you make to share the delicious gift they offer!