Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Learning to forage - plant ID

In the background of this blog is a small but enthusiastic gang of readers who write to me quite regularly - you know who you are - and I'd just like to say how darn proud of you all I am.

I hadn't dared say it out loud, but this is exactly what I was hoping would spring up here, a bunch of newly minted enthusiasts who dare to look a weed in the eye and say 'who ARE you?' and 'what purpose do you serve?'.

Not only, of course 'can I eat you?' or 'are you medicine?' but 'what's your place in the grander scheme of things?'.

Anyone can learn to use the weeds of lawn and garden or the wild plants we find along the way as food and medicine and it's a very good thing that as many of us do so as possible. Learning, at the same time, to look deeper, to ask not just how these generous creatures, the plants, serve us, but how they serve each other, their own communities, is to become aware of the co-operative nature of Nature. This sort of awareness takes us an important step outside the consumer culture, the me-generation, the human-centred view of the world. And that, I think, makes us better humans and better stewards of our land. It even makes us nicer to our human neighbours as we begin to see that if every plant has its place and purpose, no matter that it looks a little odd, the same idea can be applied to people.

Including our selves.

It takes courage, it takes heart to be ourselves in this cookie cutter society. Those of us who dare to see the world in the way we do, with an understanding that there's more than meets the eye here, are the odd ones. Some of you, I'm sure, might manage to look quite ordinary on the surface, but you know, deep down, that you're more of a dandelion than a petunia.

If I was a plant I would probably something with burrs, at least as far as my work surrounding this blog is concerned. The ideas I write about here seem to stick to people and fall off into the soil around their feet. Ha! That's such a delightful feeling. All I ever want to do is spread the seeds around, because I know that at least some of them will fall on just the sort of soil they need. And being such 'weedy' ideas, they'll grow just about anywhere!

Now, back to the title of this post - the 'name that weed' game is afoot! I get emails - oh boy do I get emails - with photos attached asking me for help to name this or that plant. Some are easy. Sometimes I get stumped. Either way, it's great fun. It helps keep me sharp and it helps you guys learn. Win/win.

But of course, cell phone pics are often fuzzy. I often have to ask for another shot and another as I need to see various parts of the plant in order to be sure I have the right one, or at least can identify the family so I can point you in the right direction as you do your own search.

If you do send me photos, it helps to see the plant in its environment. I'll be looking at the neighbouring plants. But I also want to see various parts of the plant on a plain background, so lay the samples on a paper towel or similar and take photos of that. Lastly, scale is important, so include your finger in the shots, or a spool of thread, anything that can give me an idea of size. I also want to know if the plant is growing in shade or sun, near water, and of course, what part of the world you are in. Most of my readers are in North America, but that's still a lot of variety in terms of eco-systems. If you're in the desert or jungle, by the way, I'm not the gal to ask ..

So here's what we need to look at and the questions we need to ask, in no particular order, to do this more methodically. This is a very basic outline for brevity's sake; I'm leaving out swathes of other ways of describing each of the below.

Leaf shape - look at the veins. Is there a central vein with others running off it or do they fan out from the base of the leaf? Rounded leaf shape or pointed or lobed? Edges serrated like a saw or toothed like a lion? Tell me - or show me in a photo - as much as you can, including the underside of the leaf. Describe the colours as best you can, too. Blueish green, green-green, reddish?

Leaf texture - smooth? hairy? If crushed, is it juicy? Tell me about the consistency of that juice.

Leaf arrangement on the stalk - do the leaves alternate as they go up the stalk or grow in pairs or whorls or ..? Is there a noticeable stem attaching leaf to stalk or do they 'clasp', meaning the base of the leaf seems to grow slightly around the stalk?

General structure of the plant - is there a rosette of leaves at the base of the plant? Single stalk or multiple? Is it erect or spread out or does it lie down, prostrate? Does it root along the stem where it lies on the ground?

Stem characteristics - rounded or square? Hairy, prickly or smooth? Look very closely - for example on chickweed, there are tiny hairs on the stem that actually change sides between each group of leaves. Is it hollow? Does it exude any sort of juice when pierced or squished? What colour is the juice? (hint, with the exception of dandelion and a couple of others, milky sapped plants should not be taken internally and the sap should be washed off the skin asap in case of irritation)

Roots - pull the plant up if you have one to spare. Tap root like a carrot or fibrous? Any tuber type things (called rhizomes)? Does the root have a dark covering? What does it look like on the inside? Is it slimy at all?

Flowers - colour, fragrance, petal arrangement? Does it remind you of any other flowers that you know? Is it visited by bees?

Seeds - Burrs or pods or capsules or fluff? Tiny or big? Round or flat or ..?

Fragrance - not only the flower, all parts can have distinctive or subtle aromas. Crush and sniff!

Impression - what is your gut telling you about this plant? I don't care how odd it is, just tell me. It could be the final clue.

In short, notice every detail that you can. If you're looking in field guides, get to know the lingo, and especially read and learn the 'keys', those will unlock the process for you. Eventually. Believe me, I'm still learning too, so don't worry about feeling a bit, as my husband would say "whelmed". Not overwhelmed, just whelmed.

And by all means, write to me. If I can't figure it out, I'll pass the question around. As this blog's readership grows, there are gardeners and foragers, old hands and newbies, coming out of the woodwork who love this game and are happy to help. Not one of us knows all the plants but lots of us have certain specialities. Most of the time, between us, we can figure out what we're looking at. If you can get good clear images, maybe we should start putting these up here on the blog so others can see how the process works?

Let the games begin!

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