savoring summer

Mullein, Verbascum thapsus
story and photos by Heather Housekeeper, “The Botanical Hiker”

Sweet summer, if only you could last forever. My days have been deliciously long, providing me time to run the woods with my dog Amos in the morning, wander the property during the day, picking this and that, my imagination filled with all the wild foods yet to harvest – some for the first time – and medicines to prepare. I have learned that nature provides me the opportunity to detach from my mundane stressors and remain connected to that which sustains. In my profession as an herbalist, forager, outdoors and forest bathing guide, I engage with nature so that I can more deeply understand the natural world and assist others in accessing and creating a rich relationship with nature as well. It’s challenging in our hectic lives, but I believe we all have the innate ability to attune to that which interconnects us and nature’s perpetual equilibrium, and to do so we need not venture deep into the wilderness nor hike for days on end. The natural world is just outside your door in the Finger Lakes.
So, if by chance you’re in need of some of that connection right now, here’s a little highlight of some of the plants that have been illuminating my days. It’s likely some of these grace your property or your favorite walking routes too.

Blue vervain (1)Verbena hastata, has been showing off her crowns of violet-blue flowers for roughly the last month in my neck of the woods. Vervain prefers the damp places, clustering on the edges of bogs and ponds. If you aren’t on the lookout, she could be an easy one to pass by, but once you take note and let your eyes adjust, it’s likely you’ll see her elegant spikes punctuating the landscape before you. 

The leaves and flowers of blue vervain may be steeped in hot water for a nervine tonic infusion that is especially good for those who tend towards obsessive thought and anxiety. It’s not one that I’ve had much experience with personally, but recently I harvested a small bundle that I put up to dry. I’m looking forward to exploring the energy of this plant. I have a feeling it could become a go-to.

Speaking of nervine tonics, here’s Motherwort(2)Leonarus cardiaca. Take a stroll around the edges of your yard, where perhaps the thicket grows, weedy and forgotten, safe from the blade of the mower … this is a common dwelling for motherwort. It also likes horse pastures, farm fields and roadsides. This non-native naturalized member of the mint family is a bitter herb that’s just what your heart needs should you be experiencing stress-induced palpitations or high-blood pressure, or are simply in need of a little comfort. The leaves and flowers can be steeped in hot water for an infusion, or tinctured as well. Partake of motherwort daily for the best results. This common weed can also be helpful in regulating sleep cycles.

Here’s another pasture plant. I’ve been grazing for greens these days alongside my parents’ horse. Thankfully, we have different tastes. She leaves all the hearty greens to me, but after I’ve done my picking I make sure to show my thanks by cutting her a big handful of tall grass from my overgrown lawn. Goosefoot (3)Chenopodium albidum, is one of my favorite wild greens, but not one that I’ve always had available. Years ago, when I worked on a lil’ organic farm in western North Carolina, this 5-foot weed lined the fallow beds and I’d happily take home a bundle at the end of the week. What a thrill to have access to it yet again! This wild plant is relative to quinoa and provides similar seeds, but its leaves I appreciate most. 

Goosefoot leaves are glaucous, especially on undersides, which have a powdery appearance and texture. Because of this quality, I always cook the leaves, although they are reportedly edible raw. We’ve been having sautéed goosefoot lately with pasta and curry, wilted and folded into scrambled eggs and veggie quesadillas. When cooked, it’s similar to spinach, also a relative, and is packed full of nutrition, rich in vitamins A, C, B, protein and iron.

A relative to goosefoot is wild amaranth (4), scientifically called Amaranthus. There are numerous species of amaranth, aka pigweed, and all are edible. This is a plant of which I have only recently become aware. I don’t know if it’s a newcomer or if the weeds finally got tall enough on the property that I took notice. Maybe I just didn’t have my awareness tuned to it – it’s amazing how we can live alongside plants for years, maybe a lifetime, and never really notice them until one day we simply stop to wonder at that weed. I found notes I’d written about amaranth back in herb school a decade ago ... this one never stuck, but it will now. I have harvested bundles of its seed heads and plan to harvest the amaranth seeds. – that’s right, the same thing you buy in the health food store – in the next week or two, although, as you can see, the heads are already eagerly offering them up. I’ll let you know how it goes! The leaves of young plants are tasty raw too. 

Check out this wild and crazy fungus! Meet the cauliflower mushroom (5), Sparassis spathulata. I stumbled upon this cauliflower-shaped mushroom the other day when I ventured down a trail that I typically consider hum-drum. It bloomed, along with about four others, at the base of an old decaying stump and just down the way from an eastern hemlock snag, housing plates of burgundy reishi. This trail will be a new favorite from here on out. 

Some research told me cauliflower mushrooms were edible and no poisonous look-a-likes ... what a thrill! I don’t know why more foragers don’t talk about this mushroom. It was delish! I cleaned up its rubbery ribbon-like parts, washing them free of forest debris, and sautéed them with butter and salt. Sparassis made a terrific addition to black beans, as well as a fried egg.

Boneset (6)Eupatorium perfoliatum, is always a special find. I was pleased to wander into this patch beside a large pond I regularly visit on my morning runs. It grew beside a stout patch of cattails at the pond’s outflow. Boneset always strikes me as quite stout as well – in stature and presence, that is. It’s perfoliate leaves are so rough they’re almost sticky, its stalk sturdy and its flat-topped clusters of white flowers bristly. It’s a strong plant and a strong medicine at that. 

Its primary properties are immuno-stimulating, diaphoretic and bitter. For many, it was a common herb to reach for in fighting colds and flus. However, it’s recently been discovered that boneset contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which over time are damaging to the liver. This is not a reason for us to nix it from our apothecaries, but we should be mindful to use it only for short periods, and never in those who may be liver-impaired.

Every morning the yellow blossoms of Mullein (7)Verbascum thapsus, radiate, petals spread wide to greet the sun. I can see this particular plant, as well as some of those other mulleins you may notice in the background, from my kitchen table, and every morning they make me smile, along with the blue faces of chicory. 

Morning is a time of high activity for these flowers, as they are a favorite of the birds, it seems. Hummingbirds visit the blossoms daily, and I’ve even seen a pileated woodpecker pecking at its seed capsules. I’m sure the bees take pleasure in mullein as well. 

By noon, the blossoms have closed. And every day I wonder if that will be the last I see of their brightness, perhaps they will close and go to seed ... yet every morning, at least for now, they reopen. The flowers have traditionally been used in ear oil for wax build-up, and the velvety leaves are highly mucilaginous, perfect for moistening the sinuses and as a gentle expectorant, when ingested as an infusion.

I’ll end this article with a special flower, commonly appreciated as an ornamental, Rose of Sharon (8). However, deceiving as common names often can be, this is not a rose at all. Rather, it’s a hibiscus, in the genus Hibiscus, and therefore a member of the mallow family, malvaceae. 

The shrubs I’m harvesting from were planted by my grandparents decades ago and continue to produce. Honestly, despite their beauty, for some time I had never really acknowledged them. They fell into the “average non-native landscape shrub” category in my head. However, one day, just like with the amaranth, I decided I’d look them up. Low and behold – medicinal and edible. Like other members of the mallow family, the leaves and especially the flowers are demulcent. I peeled apart one of the flowers, took a nibble of its petals and was delighted to notice this slimy quality immediately, as it pretty much dissolved in my mouth. 

A tea of both leaves and flowers is rather neutral tasting, but still confers moistening anti-inflammatory properties. I have some further plans for this flower that I’ll be sure to feature in an upcoming post. For now, I must say it feels pretty special to be making medicine of a plant that my grandparents – both plant people – treasured.

Remember the magic is all around, of which each and every one of us is a part. We need only take the time to notice.

Love and the Long Path is about a journey that Heather and Scott take in search of wilderness and adventure, carrying only essentials on their backs. Their route stretches from New York City to the edge of the Adirondacks. Together they share a deep reverence for nature and a blossoming love for each other. 

Heather “The Botanical Hiker” Housekeeper is an herbalist and long-distance hiker. She has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Mountains to Sea Trail, Long Path, and Florida Trail, and is the first person to have hiked the Finger Lakes Trail and its six branches in one continuous trek. She holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Warren Wilson College and a certificate in herbal medicine, botany, plant identification, and medicine making from the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine. As a lifelong student of Nature, she utilizes the trails that crisscross her meadows, thread through her forests, and climb her mountains as pathways to deeper learning.  

In her profession as The Botanical Hiker, she guides others into the natural world through seminars, workshops, and plant walks, striving to deepen their relationship with the natural world and its botanical inhabitants. She is the author of two books about edible and medicinal plants, and the Wild Food columnist for Dirt Magazine. Love and the Long Path is her first narrative book.  

She resides in Milford, Pennsylvania, with her partner, Scott, coonhound, Amos, and a whole mess of wildflowers. 

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