I like the term wildcrafting; look for a definition and you’ll find a range of subtly different meanings and perspectives, all of which embrace the idea of collecting plant materials from the wild for eating, crafting (by which I mean things like dyeing and basket-making) or making herbal medicines. It differs slightly from foraging in as much as there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of stewardship, of knowing, observing, understanding and caring for the land, of treating it with honour and respect in the way indigenous peoples have for millennia. It’s about ethics, sustainabilty and above all, connection: yes, I like that very much.
It’s been something I’ve reflected on a good deal this week as we have been gathering and enjoying so much of nature’s bounty. Our fields are full of parasol mushrooms, dotting the green in great sweeps of creamy caps among the purple haze of autumn crocus. They seem particularly large and meaty this year and are a wild food to be treasured.
We pick them early in the day while they are curved and pristine, all sharply pleated gills and clean, lemony scent. Combined with chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes they make the very best of creamy autumn soups, a dish that sings in celebration of the season and makes a perfect lunch for hungry gardeners!
Later in the day, the mushroom caps flatten and it’s clear that something else has been tucking in, too . . . and this brings me back to the concept of wildcrafting. It would be very easy to go out and pick every mushroom for ourselves, eating what we can manage now and preserving the rest for later (and perhaps if we were starving we could be forgiven for that). However ~ thankfully ~ we’re not starving and the mushrooms aren’t there just for our culinary delight; they are an important and integral part of the biodiversity that exists within the ecosystem of the meadows and as such, it’s crucial that we take only our fair share and leave the rest.
In countries where wild edible fungi proliferate, the ancient skills and knowledge of finding, preparing, preserving and using them are passed down from one generation to another. This learning and observation aspect of wildcrafting is essential since the wrong choice or information could result, quite literally, in a fatal mistake. I’ve always applauded the fact that in France, foraged fungi can be taken to a local pharmacy for identification, yet if they are not edible, it seems wasteful and destructive to have picked them in the first place. There are plenty of good reference books and internet sites but this is a case where I believe there is no substitute for learning first-hand from an expert: a fungi foraging workshop is definitely on my wishlist! In the meantime, they are at their absolute best here now so it’s the perfect chance to get out with the camera and simply enjoy the rich visual variety on offer.
Eucalyptus is something I have no difficulty finding or identifying, being such a ubiquitous part of the western Asturias landscape, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It is an exotic, invasive alien which really shouldn’t be here and there is widespread acknowledgement and concern across the Iberian Peninsula at how the vast monocultural plantations have depleted topsoil, disturbed the water tables and offered very little to native wildlife. It’s ironic and sad when the native forests of mixed broadleaf species grow so prolifically in the benign climate and burst with a rich biodiversity of life.
As with all things, though, I like to keep a balanced view, and it’s fair to say that eucalypts are not all bad. For a start, they are proving to be a mighty weapon in regenerating areas of several countries where deforestation and desertification have caused mass ecological devastation. That so much of the commercial crop ends up as toilet paper can mask the fact that they are a very dense hardwood, excellent as a building material and fuel; during the nineteenth century, they were planted in some countries alongside railway tracks as an instant and accessible fuel for steam trains and certainly they form the bulk of our winter fuel here. The flowers are a fantastic source of nectar and provide invaluable winter forage for Asturian bees, yielding a delicious honey into the bargain. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the trees slough off old bark in twisted ropes that hang from the high branches like tropical vines or litter the woodland floor like discarded snake skins. The bark has proved useful to us as a natural hanging basket liner and a ‘brown’ addition to the compost heap.
For me, though, in wildcrafting mode, it’s the leaves that are valuable, and the days following windy weather are ideal for collecting them; the mature leaves grow so high up it’s impossible to pick them without the aid of a tame koala but a few decent gusts are enough to shake the stems down.
The younger stems are more accessible and very different with their rounded leaves and pretty blue tones. I’ve been watching these fresh stems shoot up from an old stump over the past few months but in recent weeks, they’ve been flattened ~ I’m not exactly sure by what, but as there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to wild boar activity in that area, I have my suspicions!
These seemed like the perfect branches to harvest, but of course, I didn’t cut them all; there was a timely little reminder sitting on a leaf that the trees might be aliens, but they do still have something to offer to others.
Now at this point, let me digress a little and say that it has been a terrible year for snails. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s been a truly wonderful year for snails but a terrible one for gardeners trying to grow leafy vegetables. Honestly, they are like a plague, and ~ in contrast to our first summer here when we had a similar slimeball deluge ~ it’s the tiny ones that are causing all the trouble. Bad enough that they sit about in small groups on the tops of leaves, the undersides are generally hiding twenty or thirty of the little beasties. In a way, the current boom is partly my own fault; three nights away followed by several days of wet weather where I chose to spend minimal time in the garden gave them free range to spiral out of control, doing what snails do naturally . . . scoffing our crops.
The problem, of course, is that we choose to garden in an organic, sustainable and regenerative way and this is what the frontline looks like; it’s all very well waxing lyrical about ‘working with nature’ and flooding social media with sundrenched pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect veg but this is no unicorn-infested fairytale or horticultural utopia. The reality is that such an approach to growing food is not a soft option: it can be frustrating, demoralising and downright hard work at times. I appreciate that the prospect of spending an afternoon scraping hundreds, if not thousands, of snails off leaves wouldn’t appeal to many people ~ I’m one of them ~ but if we are to remain true to our gardening values and principles, then it’s the only way. I did smile at the thought of Bill Mollison’s famous ‘duck deficit’ quotation, wondering how many legions of feathery foot soldiers we would need to win this particular battle! The alternative, though, is not an option, partly because the poisons in slug pellets could seriously harm toads, frogs and lizards who are all valuable allies in this. Also, it comes down to a very simple equation: what goes into the soil goes into our food, and what goes into our food goes into us. Metaldehyde or molluscs? No contest . . . so back to the manual extraction it is, and it’s worth the effort because we are currently enjoying an abundant harvest of delicious, leafy greens despite the snails’ best efforts.
Anyway, back to the business of harvesting eucalyptus. As the trees are evergreen, it’s possible to collect fresh leaves all year round as and when I need them but I decided it might be interesting to see how well they dried. Given how the dried leaf is widely available to buy for a herbal tea and the plethora of mouthwashes, chest rubs and other medicinal products on the market, it might be surprising to learn that eucalyptus is poisonous and can be extremely harmful to humans and animals if ingested in large quantities (koalas have evolved the ability to flush the toxins out quickly). In short, eucalyptus contains cyanide ~ but then so do apples, peaches, barley and flaxseed, among others. Once again, it’s down to learning, knowledge and ancient wisdom; in small quantities, eucalyptus leaf offers a safe and healing herb and after all, I’m not intending to sit and chew my way through a huge pile of them! I will use the mature leaves for the occasional cup of tea and steam inhalations to ease winter congestion; mashing and washing the leaves actually helps to eliminate the cyanide anyway, as it’s water-soluble. I’m also planning to macerate some in almond oil to make a rub for sore muscles, perfect for some gentle post-run therapy. The younger leaves I will simmer in water to make a household disinfectant and toilet cleaner. The bunch is currently hanging in the autumn sunshine with some indigo-dyed fleece I finally got round to plying and skeining thanks to a rainy day . . . and yes, I should have been on snail patrol instead of messing with yarn. 🙂
Regular readers will know that I need no persuading to go wandering about in the woods at the best of times, but just at the moment there is so much seasonal colour and beauty to enjoy, especially with a splash of soft sunlight on the leaves, that it is a complete delight.
Not that these walks are without their dangers; I’ve mentioned the risk of being bombed by falling chestnuts previously but things have taken on a new twist this week in the form of giant webs. Spiders are most definitely the animal of the moment (shame they don’t eat snails) and the webs are enormous affairs, stretching several metres right across the forest paths. The risk of entanglement for the unwary is supremely high but luckily, the rather plump spinners tend to sit right in the centre waiting for their next unsuspecting victim; this makes the invisible webs all the easier to spot and then they can be avoided with a little nifty limbo dancing. I’ve yet to see that noted as an important facet of wildcrafting anywhere . . .
The chestnuts really are worth the trouble, though, and this year’s crop seems to be especially good ~ fat, unblemished and maggot-free. Those spines are lethal so a thick pair of leather gloves is essential! Unlike walnuts which we store for a year, we tend to eat chestnuts as more of a seasonal food, perhaps just freezing a few peeled ones for adding to stuffings or winter stews later on. They are such a versatile and delicious ingredient; as well as the aforementioned soup, they are a great addition to sauces and casseroles, pasta and pizza toppings, crumble mixes and breakfast bowls and we particularly love them roasted in trays of mixed vegetables.
In complete contrast to the hearty, floury starch of chestnuts, one of my other favourite forage foods at the moment is applemint. It’s a boisterous native, romping energetically through the verges and meadows and for me, it is the quintessential scent of an Asturian summer, especially when the grazing cattle trample it. It has a pungent scent but I must confess that my nose tends to pick up more carbolic than apple; mind you, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ leather, chocolate or mushrooms from red wine either, despite much conscientious application, so that’s not really saying anything. The scent of applemint might be lost on me but I do like the flavour, particularly a few leaves brewed with green tea as a refreshing, relaxing drink and aid to digestion. The plant doesn’t die back completely once summer is over but I tend to have to wander a bit further afield to find a good clump once the season changes. I’m not the only one who appreciates its bounty!
Now at moments like these, I have a habit of losing all sense of what I set out to do because I become sidetracked by other things; the fragile beauty and perfect symmetry of the butterfly sipping sweetness from deep within the flowers had me totally absorbed. Well, that was until I noticed someone else perched on a neighbouring leaf . . .
Flitting from flower to leaf, the first little star at last opened its wings to give me a hoped-for glimpse of that gorgeous blue.
Well, why not be led astray by all this natural wonder for a while? Like the vivid saffron stamens cradled inside crocus cups . . .
. . . or the fleeting fire of a sunset, for me it’s the wild in wildcrafting that is so very special. 🙂