Thursday, June 20, 2013

alberta herbal: wild sarsaparilla

Wild Sarsaparilla, Edmonton River Valley, June 2013. Photo by Jason.

When I first saw these little white-flowered spheres popping up in the river-valley undergrowth a few weeks ago, I was confused, thinking at first they were a wild onion. I soon figured it out that no -- not onion-y at all, and that my difficulty in identifying stemmed from the fact that I only knew this plant by its late summer cluster of berries, rather than its early blooms.

This is the wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicalis). Also known as rabbit root, wild licorice (not to be confused with this true wild licorice), shotbush and small spikenard.
Parts to use: the roots only (berries are inedible) 
Uses: blood purification, energy tonic, skin washes for ulcers, rashes and pox.

Sarsaparilla is a delightful word. It is from the Basque words sartzia 'bramble' and parra 'vine', and reached English via the Spanish zarzaparilla -- the invading Spaniards encountered indigenous people in Central America using the plant both medicinally and in enjoyable beverages that were the precursor to our contemporary root beers. These plants, of the Smilax genus, are the true sarsaparillas, whereas the wild sarsaparilla is part of the ginseng family and was so named in English because the taste and qualities are very similar to that of the original sarsaparilla of the southern regions.

Wild sarsaparilla, which is found growing throughout moist and moderately shady woods in North America, is also now widely used to flavour many commercial traditional-style root beers. The plant grows about a foot high, and may have two to five-ish little branching umbels of greenish white flowers appearing in May or June. The purplish black berries that appear in July and August are not edible for humans, but bears seem to enjoy them. The part most useful for medicine are the dried rootstalks, which should be gathered in early autumn, as the plants begin to yellow. 

Once the roots are dried, they can be made into a tea, which has general tonic properties much like ginseng does, restoring energy and purifying the blood. It has a lovely peppery-balsamic taste, with a hint of licorice, like the dominant root beer flavour. Like ginseng, it can cause a bit of extra perspiration (which adds to its purifying qualities). 

While again, I am not a herbalist or botanist, I would advise that it should be used with caution if you are sensitive to other Panax or Aralia plants; however, while I have adverse effects from ginseng (blood pressure drops and heart palpitations) I can have small amounts of wild sarsaparilla in teas and root beers, so it makes a nice substitute for the stronger plants with similar benefits. 

My dad also learned from a Woods Cree friend that the plant was also used to make a skin wash that was helpful in soothing ulcers, psoriasis-like skin issues and shingles/chicken pox rash. In the past the plant had also been used to treat syphilis, though which symptoms he didn't know.

This plant always makes me remember my dad, because when I was little and being mildly mischievous, he would always scold me with 'you little sarsaparilla!', dropping the 'r' so it sounded like 'sass'. And this is a sassy and delicious plant indeed.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

alberta herbal: red currants in blossom

Red currants blossoming, Tawayik Lake, Elk Island National Park, May 2013

As a general note -- I am not a professional botanist or a herbalist. The knowledge I am passing along here was taught to me by my dad, who learned it from others who knew the northern bush, and my baba whose knowledge came primarily from her mama and baba in the Ukrainian Carpathians. There are probably many other uses for these plants; I am only passing on what I have been taught directly, and in most cases, tried myself, so this is not exhaustive by any means. Be careful with wild plants: do your own research too so you are well-versed in their identification and uses, and take into consideration your own body -- everyone reacts a little differently especially to new foods they have never tried before. So there's my disclaimer!


So here is the first entry in my Alberta Herbal: the red currant (Ribes triste).
Parts to use: berries, leaves (when young, never wilted!)
Uses: Vitamin C source, good for respiratory ailments (coughs and colds) and system immunity, gastrointestinal issues, anti-inflammatory and cleansing tonic.

Most currants are not a huge shrub, and this one is rarely found growing more than half a metre high, and tend to like wet, rocky woods, and swampy places. The ones in the photo are growing near a marshy lakeshore, in the shade of some balsam poplars and aspens. The leaves, which you can just see, have five palmate lobes -- a commonality among all the members of the currant and gooseberry family

The blossom of our red currants, with their pinkish-red centres, look quite similar to those of the prickly black currant (Ribes lacustre), also found in the northern Alberta parklands and boreal. However, at this stage you can tell them apart by the lack of raspberry-bush-like prickles on the stem of the red currants. They begin flowering in late May and the tart-tasting, bright, semi-translucent red berries will begin to form in July, ripening in mid-to-late summer here in Alberta. 

Both the red and black currant berries and leaves are highly edible, though North American black currant leaves give off a slightly-to-extremely skunk-ish aroma, and are less palatable in teas (European and Siberian black currant leaves are much more pleasant). The leaves, when harvested in spring and early summer, are also medicinal. (Never ingest them once the leaves begin to wilt, though, as toxins build up as they age and could really harm your stomach). Now would be a good time to gather some, as they are nice and fresh. 

My dad always told me that currants are among the best berries for preventing scurvy if you get lost in the woods as they are extremely high in Vitamin C (black are a little better than red, apparently, but both will keep you healthy!). They are also high in copper, an important trace element. He mentioned that chewing a few berries can help with nausea and stomach upset, and also stimulate the appetite after gastrointestinal issues. 

My baba would have told you to cook them down with sugar into a jam, sauce, or syrup. Porichky ('red currants' in Ukrainian)  were used in her village, she told me, primarily as simple sustenance but were also used as remedies for coughs (reduced into a thick syrup).  When her family first arrived in Canada, they lived on a farm east of Edmonton in the Beaver Hills, were red currants still grow abundantly. Doctors were few and far between, and red currants (often mixed with elderberries) were one of the most important cough and cold remedies, and were also taken to generally improve respiratory health (pneumonia, whooping cough and diphtheria were especially feared at the time).

My dad never mentioned much about the leaves, but my baba told me that fresh or dried leaves were also good in teas taken a few times daily to ease respiratory symptoms as well, and 'settle the stomach' after bouts of diarrhea. Back home in the Carpathians, she said that leaves were sometimes steeped in vodka, which was then diluted with water to be used as a cleansing tonic. People with arthritic issues also took it, so it's likely currants have decent anti-inflammatory properties as well.

So now is the time for leaf usage, if you've got coughs or colds or an ornery stomach. You can use them fresh (just pour boiling water over about 2 tsp. of chopped or torn fresh leaves in a 250ml cup, cover and let steep about 5 minutes, drink up to 3 times a day). They are also nice mixed in with other fresh berry-bush leaves, such as wild raspberry. If you dried the currants, you could throw some into the tea as well for extra flavour; on its own it is astringent but only faintly currant-y.

Unfortunately I never witnessed the making of the vodka concoction, but if you are good at making tinctures and infusions, you may want to experiment. 

I will include photos later in the season when the berries develop further as well as recipes for the berries. More general tips about drying leaves and berries to come as well...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

herbal survival: a preface

In late April, I spied my moose-friend at Riverlot. At first I thought the tree had ears...

But no, it was my yearling moose-friend, who I'd been seeing all winter with his mama.

He's all grown-up now with his little antler-buds, and he's set off to eat saplings on his own...

* * * 
I have been absent awhile now, I realize, but the PhD has now been written and I wait for a defense, so (as unreal as it seems to me) I hope to rekindle my blog-writings in the meantime. While there were so many things I wanted to write about, I could not seem to muster or divert any energy and words away from my thesis. At the moment I can't quite believe that I am done that particular document, but already the impetus to write little things (and post a few months' worth of photos) is slowly returning. 

I have a lot of feelings right now that aren't really ready to be shared, but I'm feeling quite compelled to write about useful things, like plants. It's spring, almost summer now, and I am in my homeplace at this time of year for the first time in four years. The woods have kept me sane over the last few months, and now they are so alive and vibrant, all the old bones of winter streaming into green. I'm thinking a lot about my dad, and my baba, and how much I miss them. How far away I feel from them at times. But I've also realized that I can draw them much nearer to me when I focus on what they have taught me, imparted to me, and so much of that has to due with survival. I want to write about the emotional aspects of this eventually, but at the moment I want to pass on the knowledge they've bestowed regarding physical survival. My baba has taught me much about garden and semi-domestic plants, and my dad's teachings have connected me so deeply to the wild ones growing on this land. And so I want to pass along some of this knowledge, because it is not even so much the remembering of this knowledge that keeps them close to me, but the teaching and sharing of what they always shared with me. 

Over the summer, as everything blossoms, I will create my Alberta Herbal. The plants that grow here, with a focus on the ones that will keep you healthy and nourished, should you want or need to consume them.  And then, perhaps some other surviving-skills. But first, a long story about how I came to the idea. 

In the last month or so, likely due to PhD-related (which also includes the anticipation of being post-PhD) stress and a penchant for watching ridiculous National Geographic documentaries at 3am about people who are getting ready for doomsday, I've had a few apocalyptic dreams. The details of the cataclysms are usually vague, but the main flavour is extreme anxiety, coupled with a strange blend of frustration and annoyance. In these dreams, I am usually trying to finish writing the thesis, but am interrupted by having to organize things or figure out how to find my next meal, often whilst trying to cajole others to help me or teach them what needs to be done. 

In one dream I come down from where I have been trying to have a nap, in an upstairs bedroom in a large mansion, where I am hiding from the external chaos. This unfamiliar house is full of other people (some I know, most are strangers), and when I emerge from the room, they ask me where the food is, because everything in the cupboards has been eaten. I suggest that we'll have to go foraging, because apparently there are no more grocery stores. My comrades are not pleased. To gloss over some dull negotiations and strange twists of dream-logic, it turns out I have to go evade fast-moving rabid animals alone to find some wild salad greens and fishes. I manage to make it across a very vast lawn to a stream without meeting my doom, and I fish with a long twig and twine, and a fish hook that magically appears, and soon catch a fish. It's a pike, slippery and toothy but nice and fat. Good for dinner. I am going to cut it open, to clean it, flipping it over on its belly when I panic, remembering that's not the best way to clean a pike. They are incredibly bony, and I am terrified of choking on fish bones. But then I blank, forgetting where to start filleting. I start to panic. What if I cut it wrong and ruin all the meat and everyone dies with bones lodged in their throats? 

I wake up, glad that it not the end of the world, but the dream-remnants are still rattling about in my head, and I start to worry because what if I had to start fishing for my food and the river here is full of pike and what's that trick again that my dad taught me--I haven't cleaned a fish in nearly two years now, what if I forget... And I feel a wave of anxiety, not so much about the nonexistent cataclysm that would test my skills, but because I am terrified of forgetting what he has taught me. So I look it up on YouTube--how to filet bony fish--and begin the day looking at fish guts. It reminds me of my dad, of catching my first fish, a jackfish in Thunder Lake, and the sour-weedy smell of blood and viscera in the fish-cleaning stand, the grit on my knees in the bottom of a canoe. It's strangely calming, because of the memories, and because I instantly remember what to do as soon as the first cuts are made. And then I think a bit more about survivalism, and remember just how much my dad has taught me. 

This knowledge--of how to survive in the bush--is deeply important to me, and so incredibly valuable. Not necessarily because I'm waiting for a societal collapse, but because I strongly believe that the skills he has passed on to me are something that everyone should have. My dad, who grew up basically outside, supported that too, developing the first outdoor education program in the city when he first taught junior high in the early 1970s. He taught those kids what he later passed on to his own children. He took kids winter camping, taught them to ice fish and build a kwinzhee, introduced them to wilderness first aid, built canoes in the summer and showed them how to use a compass, read topographical maps, identify edible plants and learn their uses. They made fires with flint and even a bow-drill. Those kids could probably make it a few days at least, if they had to.

And I start wondering how many of those children he taught had children, and if they ever passed along any of the knowledge he imparted to them. I think of the kids now at the school where he taught, where they still have something like outdoor education but it's all focused on the sporty-ness of outdoor activities, and very little on learning how to live in the bush. Those kids there, at the school where my mother still teaches, could they name ten plants that grow around them? Would they know what to do with them?

(Or, says the curmudgeonly old woman in me, are they glued to their stupid phones and don't realize that if civilization collapses, so does wi-fi? And that you can't just look something up on wikipedia or youtube if you're stranded on a mountain somewhere? And even barring disaster, how do people live in a place and not know, or desire to be aware, of what else is living and growing around them?) 

It hurts my heart, I admit, that this knowledge is no longer esteemed. I strongly believe that alongside all the digital technology skills we should be taking kids outside in school and teaching them to plant a garden and build a fire and catch a fish and dig medicinal roots-- both for a deeper appreciation of the land but also for their own well-being. I am incredibly lucky that I had my father teach me so much over the course of my entire life, and instill in me an early value system that focuses on these types of skills.  Even my sister, who does not like to camp anymore at all, can still identify a yarrow plant, and could (if in dire need) chew it up to activate the clotting agents, and heal a cut. 

Despite my overactive dreaming-mind, I'm not anticipating an apocalypse, or planning for one. But I can't say that I don't feel a certain peace knowing that I could take care of myself, and others, in the forest if I had to, and a deep gratitude and closeness to my dad for teaching me all he knew about the land. And right now I really feel I need to pass that on,  all of the things he taught, because that ensures his continuing survival, too.