The hungry insurgent: Native plants, herbalism, and summer foraging

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As I write this, I am just back from a weekend at the Wild Food Summit on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. People come from all around to teach and learn from each other: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Manitoba, Wyoming, Illinois, Indiana, and even farther. (The woman from Russia didn’t make it this year.) It included those who “wrote the book” quite literally, naturalists, teachers, Native elders and the rest of us—eager to experiment with new foods.

We lived for several days in a primitive camp situation, eating venison and nettles and wild mushrooms, bathing in Little Elbow Lake, weaving cattail baskets, harvesting bull rush stems for food, making hazelnut “milk,” baking bread in campfire coals, and roasting chicken in fire pits.

In some ways, it was hard to return home, driving through Motley and Little Falls and St. Cloud, frequently next to long trains carrying coal and oil to heat our planet. Learning to eat from wild plants around us can be a challenge, I suppose.

You need to learn new ways of looking, spend time on new kinds of food preparation, sample new tastes and decide what you like. But it seems like a much more powerful life than being so dependent on a huge and fragile system that lies so completely beyond our control.

When I write for you, I try to suggest things that are free or almost free, events that are super-local or at least very close, change that doesn’t require huge sacrifice or some sense of deprivation. But I do want to make a suggestion about an event that is a few hours away: another prime foragers’ event for our region.

If you can possibly make it down to southwestern Wisconsin on the weekend of September 13 to 15, there is another wonderful foraging event, the Wild Harvest Festival in Prairie du Chien. (http://wildharvestfestival.org) Organized by friends and family of Sam Thayer (who wrote “Forager’s Harvest” and “Nature’s Garden”), the event includes Sam, plus amazing teacher Mike Krebill, as well as Ellen Zachos, who just published a very nice book on backyard foraging. For $100 per adult, you can stay the weekend in either your own tent or dorm-style bunks, have all your meals and take edible foods walks with some of the best experts in the country. If you can make it.

If you can’t, there are still some excellent possibilities to learn about foraging locally. One organization I love is the Twin Cities chapter of Wild Ones (a native plant group); they meet on the third Thursday of most months from 7 to 9 at the Wood Lake Nature Center, 6710 Lake Shore Drive in Richfield. Information at http://www.wildonestwincities.org

There is a lot of overlap between those interested in herbalism and those interested in foraging. That’s why I like going to the North Country Herbalist Guild meetings on the first Wednesday of most months at Christ Church Lutheran, 3244 34th Ave. S., Minneapolis. They don’t meet on some summer months, but their next meeting is actually a plant walk at Eloise Butler Wildflower Gardens at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 7. Information at http://nchg.org.

Three local herbalists also offer plant walks locally. Cynthia Thomas has frequent wild edible or herbalist walks at Eloise Butler; you can get information about those walks at http://www.minneapolisparks.org/default.asp?-PageID+1355#adult by calling 612-370-4903. Lise Wolff has led some wonderful nature walks along Minnehaha Creek; information at http://www.herbalistlisewolff.com/classes.html. Erin Piorier is offering a plant walk over on Lake Como at 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 25, with other classes listed at http://minnesotaherbalist.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/summer-2013-herb-walks.

Last, I want to mention mushrooms. The Minnesota Mycological Society meets at least once monthly, the second Monday of each month on the U of M St. Paul campus; information available at http://www.minnesotamushrooms.org/. These folks are eager to share what they know and I have spent some wonderful times collecting morels and other mushrooms with them.

These are not expensive resources. The organizations have memberships between $15 and $25 per year, with the plant walks usually coming in at about $20 per plant walk. I can tell you that I have made that money back many times, just by making jelly out of the wild berries I learned to identify.

Is any of this for you? You will have to decide that question for yourself. If you decide to try some edible wild plants, you will need to be intentional. You will need to be absolutely, completely certain about plant identification. You will need to try a little bit at first, just as you would with any new food, to make sure you have no allergic reactions. You will have to make decisions about what you like and how much time you are willing to put into learning something new and maybe processing it. Don’t even bother with wild foods you don’t like, and don’t spend so much time on any processing that you start to resent it.

If you go down this path even a little, you will have partly liberated yourself from a very centralized, unreliable and unhealthy food system. And what’s the worst thing that can happen? If I am wrong and if our petroleum-based, water-intensive, long-distance food system continues giving us cheap food for hundreds of years, you have enjoyed a harmless hobby that gets you into nature and helps you meet some very nice new friends.

The calendar is a little skimpy this month. Most gardeners and foragers are outside doing their thing, rather than giving classes. You can contact Gardening Matters to find out about late-breaking classes by calling 612-821-2358 or going to http://www.gardeningmatters.org/. The classes I know about are below.

  • Wednesday, July 10, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. $15. “Growing and cooking with herbs,” Community Education Services Building, 2225 E. Lake St., Mpls. 612-668-3939 or http://www.mplscommunityed.com
  • Sunday, July 14, noon to 2 p.m. $5. “Urban farm tour,” Twin Cities location TBD. 612-242-8768 or http://www.pricoldclimate.org
  • Sunday, July 21, noon to 2 p.m. $5. “Permaculture site tour,” Twin Cities location TBD. 612-242-8768 or http://www.pricoldclimate.org/
  • Tuesday, July 23, 6:30 to 8 p.m. $23. “Canning, freezing and drying,” MN State Horticulture Society, 2705 Lincoln Dr., Roseville. 651-643-3601 or http://www.northerngardener.org/-classes
  • Sunday, July 28, noon to 2 p.m. $5. “Permaculture site tour,” Twin Cities location TBD. 612-242-8768 or http://www.pricoldclimate.org
  • Saturday, August 24, 1 to 2:30 p.m. Free. “Pruning trees and shrubs,” St. Louis Park Library, 3240 Library Lane, Saint Louis Park. 612-543-6125 or http://www.hclib.org/pub/events