a trip to the orchards and a discussion on plant safety

Originally I'd planned to gather more common mallow Tuesday morning and in today's post explain freezing it, making a tincture, etc. But the lawn care team had other ideas. That morning they cut the grass, and with it, my inspiration.

I thought it might be fun to go to my dad's house, wander the apple orchards, and see what I could find. Maybe some fun plants would inspire me, or maybe I'd be able to identify some new plants I'd never seen. I assumed that Sunday the orchards would be relatively deserted, making it a good time to wander. 

I have so many fond memories of spending hours and hours just wandering around the orchards in complete silence. It's there that I first felt a connection to the life energy pulsing through our planet (or as some people call it, God). 

a lovely stag-horn sumac behind my dad's place

I gathered a lot of plants but didn't stay as long as I'd have liked, because more people reside in the area and I kept running into them. The public just ruins the mood, but one encounter was terrifying. As I crouched to gather peppermint, two ginormous, larger-than-life horses closed in. I can only imagine what they thought I was. Some sort of evil forest gnome? They became visibly more nervous as they approached. A rider called out to me, "Stand up and talk to them so they know you're a person!" Seriously? This is 100% not the reason I am walking around the orchards today. But, I did. I talked to some horses. They didn't kill me... But I could see in their eyes how they wanted to. 

On that note, before I tell you what I gathered in the orchard, I'd like to talk about safety. Whenever you are gathering plants, it's very important to take note of the environment they're in. For example, I know that the common mallow that grows in my yard is subject to an annual pesticide sweep. These plants grow next to a parking lot and are commonly cut with a lawn mower. They receive a fair amount of pollution from cars. Apples are among the most sprayed fruit and vegetable crops there are, so it's safe to assume that any plants growing in that orchard are sprayed with pesticides just as often. These plants are not ideal for use in herbalism (not recommended for applications on or in to the body). 

However, I'm about to tell you about all the things I picked and ate from that orchard. Hm. So here's my take on all this: I think that non-organic pesticide-using orchards are a fine place to look for and identify field-loving plants, certainly (assuming, to begin with, that you have the permission of the property owner to be there). I think it's OK to gather herbs here for magical and talismanic purposes. And here's my do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do moment: I wouldn't recommend that you eat things you find in places like this. But, I mean, I'm going to. I lived there my whole life, and frequently dealt with clouds of pesticide wafting through the house, so I doubt eating a few leaves from an apple orchard will hurt me too much. 

so many plants

What I gathered is being used in small, experimental batches (for the learning!) and will be used only by me. Now, I picked plants from my dad's property, which is never sprayed directly and may be much safer. I would hazard to guess that it's of similar risk to my health as the mallow in my apartment yard. But for now this is all speculation; I did minimal research. My idealistic recommendation: grow your own plants without the use of chemicals, or gather herbs only from truly wild places (untouched by man, and not in public parkland).

Anyway, on to the plants! Here's what I got:

Clockwise from top: red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense), apple mint (Mentha suaveolens), red raspberry leaf (Rubus strigosus), peppermint (Mentha piperita), common mallow (Malva Neglecta), ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

The red clovers and peppermint were taken from the orchard, everything else from my dad's property. There were a few more things I discovered but left alone… and that's what I'll show you today. The following plants each deserve a future post, but I'd like to introduce them in passing.

Pennsylvania smartweed, Polygonum pensylvanicum

I never knew what these were called! They grow to about five feet tall, and are really pretty. According to Peterson's Field Guide, Native Americans had a variety of uses for smartweed. Tea made from the whole plant eased diarrhea and leaves were poulticed onto hemorrhoids. The flowers were used in teas for epilepsy. The leaf tea was also used to promote postpartum healing. Careful, though, as the juice of this plant is acrid, and may cause irritation. 

Chicory, Cichorium intybus

Chicory is nearly everywhere. You could probably find it on almost any roadside in the Northeast United States. Roast the root and make coffee out of it! The root (similar to dandelion root) is commonly used as a laxative. It's been shown to lower blood sugar and is slightly sedative. 

Interestingly, you may run into the cultivated versions of chicory all the time! Radicchio, sugarloaf, and Belgian endive (unrelated to true endive) are all types of chicory. Next time you find some chicory, pick the leaves and make a salad!

New England aster, Aster novae-angliae

One of the prettiest weeds around. This perennial can grow up to seven feet tall! The root tea has been used to treat diarrhea and break fevers. 

Heal-all, Prunella vulgaris

Heal-all is very common, typically found in lawns and waste areas. The entire plant is edible, and can be used in soups, salads, etc. This is a poultice plant. It's used externally on bruises, scrapes, ulcers, and boils to promote healing. Internally, it can be used as a gargle for mouth ulcers and sore throats. It also helps to strengthen the liver and heart. It's a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as flavonoids and rutin. 

Center: Wild cucumber, Echinocystis lobata; Lower left: horrifying bug.

Wild cucumber is a really pretty vine that seems to grow all over the place. It blossoms through the spring and early summer with clouds of pretty little white flowers. The fruit is more of a seed pod—there's very little flesh. 

Apparently, only the root is used in herbalism. It makes an extremely bitter tea used to treat stomach aches, chills, rheumatism, and fever. The tea has also been used as a love potion and general tonic. The root can be pulverized and poulticed for headaches. 

German (wild) chamomile, Matricaria recutita

Everyone knows what chamomile is for! The tea is a classic for basically anything that ails you. It's used as a sedative, to settle the stomach and ease spasms, to relieve gout, sciatica, colds, fevers, and all other things. Chamomile is also used as a homeopathic cure for pollen allergies. 

Canada goldenrod, Solidago canadensis

Poor goldenrod gets a bad rap for causing fall allergies. In fact, the culprit is most often ragweed. The root of goldenrod can be poulticed for burns, while a flower tea can soothe fevers and sore throats (or just chew the flowers!). The seeds can be eaten as survival food. The leaves are diuretic, and have proven useful in preventing and treating urinary and kidney stones. 

Common mallow AND ground ivy!
Isn't it obvious why I was confused by these plants? The taller bushier plants to the left are common mallow, while the lower, denser plants to the right are ground ivy! Take a look at my post on mallow for more information. 

I found all of this on a walk that lasted less than two hours. And, honestly, I wasn't looking very hard. I'm continually amazed by the number of helpful and edible plants all around us that we frequently fail to recognize. Next time I go out to the orchards, I hope to spend some time in the forest, foraging for shade-loving plants. 

From this initial load of herbs I can finally start making stuff! Check back to find out how to make herbal tinctures and syrups (and why you'd want to), and the best way to dry plants


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