Plant Teachings

A spring greens post from our Dark Kitchen.series. Follow Tamara Colchester as she goes into the woods in search of the first shoots and flowers from a native wild medicine cabinet
writes and teaches while travelling the UK recording a sound archive of the stories of those who remember the old ways of working with our native plants. Interested in the interweaving patterns that shape our lives, her first novel, 'The Heart is a Burial Ground' was recently published by Scribner.

The sky is grey, but I can feel the light coming. Into the dark den of bed the green thoughts steal – round-edged, jagged, soft-stemmed, sweet. Spring has arrived.

It’s time to go outside.

Sap like, the thought lifts my spirit to a level place.

I rise.

The room is full of sleeping bodies, women in various dream states, unstirred. The drawn curtains create a false darkness; the sealed windows hold our breath in closed warmth.

We are in Wales at a women’s retreat, here to release, heal, soothe and laugh. We are nervous, city-jittered, a little shy. All still wearing our protective layers.

I need air.

Balance returns as I cross the threshold and feel the shock of morning cold.

I step out, and feel the press of my bare feet on the earth’s back.

Tread carefully c for the land aches.

But come quickly – the plants wait.

 

The delicate taste of gorse flowers. A year-round supply of sun. Photo: Charllotte J. Ward

A while ago I was issued with a ground commandment: take off your shoes.

I obeyed, and standing on the edge of a field of rape I left my boots and socks behind and walked forward on naked, vulnerable feet. The brambles introduced themselves in their spiky way; the grass soothed and the stones spoke hard truths. I sank gladly into the cool thickness of mud and raised my eyes to the sky. It began to rain and I automatically put up my hood. But as I watched the outpouring being received so easily by the green world around me, I put it down again. Use your body to pray, the ground said. Mud speaks the language of naked feet.

It is the dawn of the Spring Equinox, and light is being stirred into the bruised bowl of the morning. The moon holds the tension with the sun, and a single crow flies a straight line across the horizon. The gorse is soaked with dew. I reach out and pluck a chrome-yellow flower. It’s protective thorns greet my fingers, so I wait a moment. Ask permission.

The land here is wet with a fecundity that pours through the river and drips from the overhanging hawthorn, birch, and ash that are just beginning to bud. Green tips emerging from brown wood – a casual miracle.

Eat like a deer. Photo: Charlotte J. Ward

I reach up and take a folded leaf in my mouth, deer-like. Another prayer – I want to be more like you.

Swim, the river says, and stepping towards it I comply.

Without my sleep-warm clothes I am as naked as the trees, and we both shiver the wind’s morning greeting. I enter the river and the pull of water clears the lingering night. I turn upstream and open my legs to the current. Electrified, I come alive.

In the water beside me is the streaming green of hemlock water dropwort, a poisonous companion. It’s feels good to swim next to the plants we can’t eat, their purpose beyond us. As I clamber up the bank, I see a cluster of primroses, pale yellow against the mud. I pick one and the sweet pale taste is my morning sacrament.

Unification.

Away from the cold blank of indoors, I feel a reverence move inside me. To take the wild plants in is to be healed of the illusion of separateness, of scarcity. We are one body.

I lay myself flat against the ground and press myself back into the earth, breathing in the grass-rooted mix of sorrel, celandine and mud. I inhale the mother scent deep into my lungs, a microbial mix of memory, and know that I am home.

I dress quickly, cold now, and begin to walk. I wonder what I will show the women who want to learn about foraging and the wild plants growing in and around us. It’s been a long dark winter and a part of me is anxious that I’ve forgotten the plants. That they’ve forgotten me. That winter’s sleep was actually an amnesia…

Mind-alive, I begin to worry, but it takes only a movement to kneel down and see the abundance on the ground, a micro-sized world of growth. There are the little spear tips of sorrel, sharp and sour. There the sun-hearted dandelions, wide awake and smiling. There the spiked celandine, the underside of its neat leaves traced with a fine mosaic. And there the perfect blue-fade-to-white flowers of speedwell. The ground is made of medicine.

Lesser celandine beside the river Photo: Charlotte J. Ward

I look at the dandelions and give thanks. Like love, this generous plant is often taken for granted. From splayed root to glorious flowerhead, it overflows with healing qualities. Tonic to a sluggish system, it tightens, brightens, enlightens. I pick the buds, the future flower enclosed in a green sepal world, and rub the light milk that oozes from the broken stem into a burn on my wrist. It is the wounds of the plants that heal.

I like to make a brine and let these juicy flower buds absorb the puckering flavour, becoming plump and sharp – a native caper. I like to sprinkle the yellow petals over my salads so that I can eat their sunshine. I like to eat the toothy leaves that cut through the crap. I love to dig the roots and dry them out, a sweet tightening tea for when the days get fatty.

We need to learn the world with our hands again.

Right on track, I need to pee, the pis-en-lit of the diuretic herb cleaning me out, as do so many of the spring greens, getting rid of the old, making way for the new. There’s no need to strive for seasonality when foraging, you get what you are given, and so are double dosed with both the recognition of an abundant world, and a humble way of eating that keeps you attuned to a cycle of time that keeps animals, plants and people in synch.

Cleavers. A powerful tonic for a sluggish winter system. Just add to water for a cold infusion

Making my way back towards the sleeping house, I gather a gangly bunch of cleavers, a useful ingredient for a cold infusion that spring-cleans a sluggish lymphatic system.

Passing through an arch I walk among the boxed beds of a kitchen garden, observing the wild plants that grow outside the neat borders.The ‘weeds’ that thrive in the disturbed ground of our human existence. Like the sow-thistle I saw in London last week, growing determinedly between two paving stones. The compression of concrete no match for its ability to live a full life.

A robin on a branch overhead is also on the lookout for the day’s food, and as I stand and listen to its song, I feel a kinship. We are both hungry, both aware that there is food available for us if we know where to look. It sometimes feels that gathering plants readjusts our position in the order of things. Released from the self-inflicted responsibility of planting, pruning, and weeding, we are simply another lucky recipient of the earthly abundance from which we are all made.

I smile at the sidelined nettles that offer an endless supply of iron-rich nutrition, generous to a fault, despite their persecution. Nearby are the psychedelic docks, whose leaves offer a ready supply of food (great for home-made dolmades. Just blanche and wrap). Close to my heart these two, the first plant medicines I ever learned as a child.

Beautiful dock. The markings signal the presence of oxalic Photo: Charlotte J. Ward

But oh how little I knew back then, growing up in South London. And still, how little we know! So much has been lost. A living wisdom has been smothered beneath layers of concrete, tarmac and aptly-named artificial intelligence. I didn’t know then that both nettle and dock can and should be eaten. That rather than thwacking nettles with sticks I could have been making soups, teas, poultice, cordage and clothes. (Not to mention the fact that merely wiping a dock leaf on a nettle sting does bugger all. You must take the leaf in your mouth and chew first to release its alkaline juices).

This generous knowledge, expressed so clearly in the wild plants, needs nothing more than to be taken inside. On a prosaic level, these plants are often more nutritious than the benign broccoli we have grown accustomed to. Undomesticated, and choosing freely the land in which they grow, they can’t be forced. Their taste packs a bitter, sometimes gut-twisting punch, shocking our sleeping senses awake. At a time when the soul and soil are more depleted than ever, we needn’t look further than the cracks in the pavement to remind us to get down on our knees to find the deeper nourishment we need.

We must unlearn what we know and remember what we have forgotten

Maya runs towards me from the house, her small body encased in a pink rainsuit. ‘

Plants!’ She shouts. ‘I want to look for plants!’

‘You show me Maya.’ I say. ‘Show me what you see.’

She leads me to a dead ash tree, its body bulbed with black. ‘Look’, she says, in wonder, reaching forward. We both kneel in front of it, gently touching the growths.

‘Do they come away?’ I ask. She pulls one, gently. ‘No’, she shakes her head. ‘It wants to stay.’

‘Try this one.’ I place her hand on a different part, and the black shape comes loose. I watch her small muddy hands touch the delicate rings on its inside.

We need to learn the world with our hands again.

I almost tell her their name. Daldinia concentrica or King Alfred’s Cakes. The Latin ringing with authority, the folk name sweet with story. A utilitarian note: if you dry these fungal growths they work like charcoal, burning slowly, lending pace to the quick work of fire.

But watching Maya’s wonder I put aside the names and uses. It’s better to meet another living being just as it is. You only get one first impression after all.

We walk through a patch of wild garlic and bending down push aside the pungent leaves to find the shy white flowers. We each pick one and inspect it against the light. Inside its translucent skin each flower looks like the dream of a kind deity. We taste, and both delight in the surprising fire that warms our stomachs.

A vast beech spreads itself over us, and below it on a stone wall a family of pennywort grows generously. There is much to happily crunch, its soothing goodness a quenching counterpoint to the heat of the garlic. Balance is restored.

It’s time to begin. The wild-hearted women are gathering, ready to explore. Renewing a connection born of feeling, smelling, tasting, spitting, and when we learn the hard way, shitting. Learning the world again through our bodies before our minds. Asking for guidance, where needed, but letting our senses be the authority.

Women gathering by the wild garlic Photo: Charlotte J. Ward

Maya leads the way as we walk back towards them, sap in our veins, mud on our feet. Round-edged, jagged, bitter, sweet. The spring greens have arrived.

It’s time to go outside.

Tread carefully – for the land aches.

But come quickly – the plants wait.

 

Dandelion – Root to Tip

When you come across a yellow-flowered rosette of dandelion, you have a glory of riches at hand.

A native caper – juicy, sharp and sweet. Photo: Charlotte J Ward

Closed bud Caper

Pick a number of closed dandelion buds.

Remove the green sepals that form a skirt around their base.

Make a brine with cider vinegar, peppercorns (I like to use Alexanders seeds, if you have any stored from last summer’s seed time), coconut sugar and any other flavours you wish to impart.

Submerge the buds in the brine and let them sit for a week in the fridge.

Use as you would a caper.

 

Dandelion leaf salad

Pick and rinse the leaves.

Add in some sharp sorrel and soothing pennywort, to balance texture and flavor.

Fry some cubes of potatoes.

Poach a local organic egg.

Make a sharp dressing with cider vinegar, a twist of salt and pepper.

Mix together, letting the yolk of the egg mix with the dressing to coat the leaves and crispy potato.

Sprinkle with the yellow petals of the flowers.

 

A Toning Tea

Dig up the roots.

Wash away the earth and chop up small.

Gently simmer in water over a very low heat while you prepare the rest of the meal.

When you are ready, pour the tea and sip its strange, sweet bitterness.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

Read more
Comments
  1. An exceptionally beautiful writing. Lilting and rhythmic, it brings out the cadence of plants and landscape. Above all, there is the tenderness of the ‘folk’ to it. My compliments to Tamara.

  2. That was beautiful Tamara. Thank you for transporting me with you on that simple but incredibly powerful morning walk

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