A Cautionary Garden Tale

Fascinated by herbal foraging since an early age, I finally got a chance to take a course in regional wildcrafting. With glee, Jack and I learned to add ground chickory root to our coffee, scooped up dandelions and violets for wine, and chowed down on our overgrown hosta border.

Spot the difference

That’s right, hostas are delicious, when you get the little rolled up bit early on or in the center of a new plant. Jack particularly loved them, and since it’s hard to get him to eat greens, I went back out for a second round the next day.

Here’s the thing: foraging requires extreme and constant caution. There are no guesses in the wild; there are plant ID apps, books, more experienced foragers, and a few tell-tale signals. Opposite leaves versus staggered on the stem; whether the stem has tiny hairs and is round versus smooth and square; harvesting root versus flower; these can literally be the difference between life and death. That’s why newbie foragers love dandelions; it’s one of the few, the friendly with all-safe parts and no toxic twin.

I was being careful; I read up on which parts of the hosta were edible, what cautions indicated if you had any medical conditions, all that. And then I reached down in my safe, simple home garden, across the thin wooden barrier separating flower beds, and plucked a lily of the valley.

Because it was my garden, you know? A space that belonged to me with casual confidence that dulled a thousand safeguards. Like being among friends in an Internet community when an innocuous comment suddenly splinters the group, because someone takes it out of context into a personal fight. Or turning right near your house without that second glance up the cross street; you’re on home turf and a pick-up couldn’t possibly be bearing down on you.

Feeling snug and safe at home, I did what I would NEVER do in the wild. This is how my husband wound up eating half a lily of the valley leaf, a plant so toxic that two leaves can kill.

You don’t know fear until you think you’ve poisoned your husband. First, you enjoy his company and don’t want to harm him. Second, your mind flies to how awkward the funeral will be if you are the inadvertent cause of his death.

I spent the evening with a list of LOTV poisoning symptoms pulled up on my phone, watching Jack like the proverbial tiger-mother-hawk. We agreed that one bite was not enough to deal with the drama of calling for help; we prefer to eschew such scenes. We would be vigilant on how we felt, and I would never make that on-the-ground mistake again, but we also weren’t going to give that tiny plant more scare power than it deserves. Identify, avoid, move on.

Since the dawn of time, gardens have been notorious for one internal bad apple spoiling the whole scene. Will this lapse keep me from the joys of foraging, discovering new friends in the plant world, getting to know their professional powers and personal beauties? Not on your life. Is it going to make me super cautious about believing in safe spaces? Oh yes.

Jack is doing well. He didn’t have any side effects at all. My heart raced all night. Shocker.

Combined Interests Increase Interest

Almost a year ago now my “it’s complicated” sister Nora talked me into joining a gym–and then actually going to the classes. It turned out to be both fun and useful, which is a pleasant combination.

This one is Mullein

This past January, I signed up for an herbalism course. (I like my pastimes to be fun and useful.) I don’t talk about herbs online because, after waxing eloquent about the joys of canning food grown in my very own garden, people assumed I was a prepper. Why feed that fire?

No, today I would like to talk about how to combine interests for maximum benefit. About midway through my HIIT aerobics class (which stands for something like High Impact, Intensity Terminal) my energy was flagging. My brain, seeking a way to keep me engaged, came up with “Ever notice how much this workout resembles herbal foraging?”

For instance, that kettle weight we swing up in the air above our heads, then down between our knees in a controlled movement? Have you ever had a basket full of meadowsweet you’re trying to shake loose from bees? Up, down, gentle, don’t overdo it, bye bye bee. Perfect!

Then there’s the speed skater exercise, also a very controlled movement, yet swift. You flex one leg and touch the ground with one hand, the other extended high in the air. Immediately I knew what this was: Is This Goldenseal? The move is so quick, the other hand so distracting, you could swoop in and harvest the elusive stuff before anyone noticed, not alerting them to the presence of this endangered herb. (Dear herbalists, yes, I know. Let it go, k?)

The Side Dumbell exercise (a gentle deep squat with weights in each hand, arms straight, slow and steady to an upright stand, then down again) is actually the I Have Two Baskets Full of Berries and There is a Bear Coming. You lower the baskets to the ground, stand, and back slowly in a reverse high knee march. (Two exercises in one!) The bear eats the berries instead of you. All is well.

This one isn’t

Perhaps my favorite Aerobics-cum-Foraging moment is the Mountain Climber. This is a frenzied movement in which you jog while pretending your hands are scaling the Eiger without benefit of ropes. Nay, gentle friends. We are not simulating determination to scale a peak because it is there; rather it is the frenetic dance of some amateur whose friend checked the plant ID app and declared of some non-flowering small spring thing,”It’s 82% likely to be Mullein.”

The rookie stuffs a leaf in her mouth, just as her phone-bearing pal says, “Oh wait. It could be Foxglove.” The Climber exercise is then performed by both forager and friend, as the latter tries to beat off the resulting attack once the plant is confirmed as Mullein.

See? Combining interests maximizes utility and enjoyment. You’re welcome.