Foraging Fragrant Leaves: Sweet-fern

In the past few days, I've collected and dried the fragrant leaves of several different plants.  I'll start by introducing a shrub that I've known since my youth and which still grows along the woods edge behind my childhood home in Maine.  Long before I knew its name or uses, I recognized this plant by its scent.  Sweet-fern (Comptonia peregrina) is tolerant of poor soil conditions and is often found growing in dry, sunny locations.

Photo of Sweet-fern

Sweet-fern's leaves are unique both in appearance and aroma.  While this shrub's leaves are fern-like, its woody branches easily distinguish it from herbaceous ferns.

Photo of Sweet-fern leaves

When gathering sweet-fern, rather than stripping a pile of leaves off of one shrub, I spread out my impact by picking a few leaves from each shrub as I move through a colony.   After a few hours in my electric dehydrator at 105 degrees, the leaves were crisp and ready for a jar.  The leaves (fresh or dried) can be brewed into tea.

Photo of Sweet-fern nutlets

This time of year, immature nuts can also be gathered.  They develop in spiked burrs along the branches, and, once removed, resemble small pine nuts.

Photo of Nutlets in hand

I didn't get much flavor from the few I ate, but had fun sampling them nonetheless. If you don't yet know this plant, I hope you smell it soon.

Medicinal Weeds: English Plantain

Sunday, I gathered and dehydrated a half pound of English Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) leaves. The plant can be easily missed as it often grows inconspicuously among grasses, but the distinct flower stalks are helpful pointers to the clusters of narrow basal leaves.

Photo of English Plantain flower

Some people eat the young leaves of this plant, but I've typically found them too strong for my taste.  Instead, I use this plant as medicine.  I'll chew up a leaf or two to get their juices flowing, then apply them as a poultice on bug bites and stings, and minor cuts.  I've found plantain often provides quick pain relief.

Photo of English Plantain leaves

Having some dried leaves on hand will allow me to utilize this medicine even in the off-season. Several years ago, one of the first plant-based medicines I made was a healing salve which included olive oil infused with purchased plantain leaves. Perhaps I'll make a fresh salve this year with some of the leaves I dehydrated.

The Heat Is On

It's nearly 100 degrees where I live for the second day in a row.  Growing up in coastal southern Maine, with frequent breezes off the cool ocean, it was rare to have daytime temperatures this high.  Without the backyard swimming pool of my youth or an air conditioner in my home to cool my core, I find myself seeking alternative strategies.

Yesterday -- on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice -- I biked down to a nearby pond in the afternoon to watch American Robins bathing in shallow water and a family of Hooded Mergansers quietly floating in the shade.  Today, while the sun's midday rays are cooking my dinner in a solar reflector oven, I'm watering myself like a robin and relaxing in the shade like a duck.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

As an aside, look for Common Milkweed flowering in open areas.

My Nature-Based Journey

My nature-based journey began during winter break of my first-year of college when someone gifted me The Story of B by Daniel Quinn.  That book was the first of many that would turn my world view on end.  I was introduced to the notion of living as a native -- as someone who truly belongs to a place and is able to interact in ways that enrich, rather than degrade the surrounding environment.  I've been exploring what these ideas mean for me ever since.

After commencement, I landed a job at another college's library.  In my off time, I attended classes on wild food foraging and primitive wilderness survival, read through stacks of field guides and accounts of people living off the grid, and spent time wandering the local woods.

I tracked fishers, coyotes, and deer, and discovered the challenges to moving quietly in the eastern woodlands.

I started to hear the voices of common birds sprinkled throughout the day -- while checking the mail, hanging out clothes, and walking through parking lots.  They had always been speaking, but I'd only just begun to listen.

I began to recognize the diversity of trees and plant life around me, and noticed their many subtle changes throughout the turn of the seasons.

I slept in tents and primitive shelters, rock boiled water in pine bark containers, made bow drill fires, and gathered black raspberries in the hot summer sun.

Bow drill fire kit

And, I came to realize that the richest rewards arrive simply through getting out of my own way, a spiritual lesson I can practice wherever I find myself.

Today, I'm continuing down this beautiful path where I encounter countless mysteries.  Every step I take joins me closer with this place.  My life has become entangled with the lives of the non-humans who share this land with me, and for that, I am thankful.