Sunday, 4 March 2012

A New Outdoor Diet

Wild Food, Natural Medicine and the general topic of Useful Plants is a a BIG subject and takes a long time to master. I've spent years learning and have only touched the surface. Many people dedicate decades to the subject and still don't know it all. If you want to get into foraging, the I'll share this method which should give you a progressive path needing no prior experience and allow you to go as far as you want without becoming swamped or having to carry a book with you wherever you go.

We can only take in so much in at a time and so trying to rote learn a whole book of information is not the way to go. What with all the leaves & flowers, nuts & berries, roots, bark, tubers, confusion species and not even to mention the sheer number of species; it's an absolute minefield.

The key to cracking this topic is practice through repetition and a realistic rate of progress which matches your level of exposure to the outdoors. If you walk your dog twice a day, every day, then you can pick this up quicker than the city dweller who only gets out once a fortnight.

Here's core of the method. Like success in trapping is based around understanding animal behaviour, success in foraging is based around understanding plants (and fungi). Let's start with the fact that availability of species depends on season, latitude, altitude, climate, gradient, orientation, habitat, soil type, local animals and other stuff. Thankfully, you don't have to learn any of that in advance. All you have to know is that there is some or there isn't.

Next, we have to understand that different parts of plants are useful and not only are we interested in leaves, fruit and nuts, but also shoots, buds, flowers, seeds, wood, bark, roots, tubers, sap, resin, etc.   and these only exist at certain times of the year; buds in Spring, foliage in Summer, fruit in Autumn and tubers through Winter, for instance. Thankfully, you don't have to remember all of this in one go either. All you need to know is that which is available right now and that which has gone before.

"So where do I start?", I hear you ask, "and why have you told me all this stuff I don't need to learn". Well, dear readers, you don't need to learn all this stuff, but you will, naturally and as for starting, I'll give you a phrase my dad used, "if you don't know where to start, just start". A caveat to this was "unless super glue is involved", but that's another story.

This is where we start; March, 2012 and this is what we're going to do: Each month, we're going to learn one plant, one tree and one fungus. That might not sound like much, but as each month passes, we get to build on the ones we know and our internal database will grow and grow. Sometimes we'll repeat the same species, as the season changes and the plant provides us with a new resource.

It's important that we choose the right set, so we're going to start with things that are common and everywhere, or "ubiquitous", which is one of my favourite words. From a survival perspective, it's better to be able to recognise things that are more likely to be around than it is to know the ultra-rare specific variants which, though interesting, are unlikely to be helpful. Additionally, we need to know what's available here, now and soon, not last season or miles away.

This month, we learn something new, next month, the fun begins. Not only do we learn a new set, but we get to watch the progress of our existing set and build on the knowledge we've gained. One day, we're going to see elder flowers, and as time progresses, we'll then see elderberries. We'll see hawthorn twigs, then leaves & ultimately fruits and by knowing where the silver weed plant is, with its cooling leaves, we'll know where the silver weeds tubers will be.

Here's March's set:

Beech Tree, Nettle Leaf, Jew's Ear Fungus
Why have I chosen these, you may wonder. The answer is simple: you can't really fail to find them. they are distinctive, they don't have anything species which are comparable, they have a wide variety of uses and they have a nice progressive future.

The above are all the visuals you're getting right now from me, but I will post an article on each one this month. I've already partially covered Jew's Ear in Make No Mistake, which also addresses confusion species, which should not be your concern right now.

Your mission is to head on out and find them. Here are a few clues:

  • Beech is probably the only tree which still has dried leaves hanging on it.
  • Nettle is EVERYWHERE, but especially in rides between grass and woodland or in hedgerows. 
  • Jew's Ear can be found on dead Elder, which is the one of the most popular trees in the UK.

So, not only have we learnt three species here, but we've got the bark, old leaf & bud of beech, the look of an early nettle and not only Jew's ear, but (dead) Elder, which is a rather useful firewood. Things to take in are season, location and surroundings. Learn where these are and we can watch the progress. Start to take notice of things like bark, branch structure and companion species for beech. Take note of the places where nettles grow where dogs are unlikely to wee and try to recognise elder in this form at least. Watch them change over time.

What you'll find is, once you seen these up close, you'll start to recognise them from afar. The beech leaves hanging on will give away the location. The environment for nettles can easily be seen and the dead elder is very good indicator for Jew's Ear, which is otherwise quite well camouflaged until you get up close. Do go forth and investigate, it'll prove it's working.

This is all you need to do this month. Just learn these three and as little or as much extra about them as you want. With each passing day outdoors, you'll see your set over and over again. You should consciously spot the, confirm them and relay any useful information you know about them to yourself.  This process reinforces the knowledge and is a lot easier than making notes or carrying books. Your confidence will grow.

As time progresses, you'll begin to predict locations subconsciously and if you watch this blog, you'll catch the additional posts containing useful information on each one, including uses as well as methods for harvesting, cooking and preservation, where applicable.

For those who are out more then others, two a month might be more the mark, so here are a few more to try: Ash, Penny wort and Morel. Again, you can't really go too far wrong with these, but no clues here other than it's worth looking up False Morel, which is only just a reasonable lookalike for the real thing. I'll cover all three of these this month too.

Happy foraging, watch out for further posts and I hope you find this method as useful as I do.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal

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