In addition to being a hipcamper, guest blogger Natalie Schoeppler is an amazing cook, yoga and meditation teacher, and budding forager. She will be stopping by to give insights and awesome advice as often as we can grab her!
Last week, on a sunny June afternoon, I met my friend William Morningsun for a hike up in Tilden Regional Park. The park sits tucked away in the hills just above Berkeley, offering a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities below. I’d been there a few times before, so I wasn’t expecting much more than a pleasant hike through the hills, but it turned out to be one of the most educational and eye-opening hikes of my life. William, who grew up in the jungles of Belize before moving to California, has a deep understanding and connection to the earth, and was kind enough to share a piece of his knowledge with me on that day.
To my joyful surprise, it turns out that we are surrounded by an abundance of edible, healing, and useful plants, waiting for us just beyond the walls of our concrete jungle.
We began our hike, weaving around the ominous poison oak leaves that leaned out onto the trail. William pointed to a mugwort bush growing nearby and explained that its leaves, when ground up or chewed into a poultice, can relieve the itchy rash that poison oak can cause. Magically enough, mugwort and poison oak usually grow in close proximity to one another, so if you find yourself itching in the woods, go scout out some mugwort. It grows in bushes, usually a few feet high, and the leaves have a silvery underside. When crushed, it releases a distinctively strong herbal smell, easily distinguishing it from the common ragweed. Mugwort poultice also can help heal a bad cut when applied directly to the wound.
Additionally, William said that mugwort is known at the ‘dreaming sage.’ If consumed as a tea, it can open the doorway to lucid dreaming.
Another remarkable plant to know about in the wild is the plantain. Not to be confused with the delicious oversized ‘banana’ that grows in the tropics, the small leafy plantain that grows like weeds all over northern California. Look for broad flat leaves with parallel running veins and a fresh green color. Being a natural coagulant and antiseptic, plantain can be made into a poultice and applied to a cut or wound. Since it is also anti-inflammatory and fights viral infections, it can significantly help prevent infection and speed up healing. Additionally, it can be brewed into a tea to help clear up an infection in the body, such as a UTI.
Since we embarked upon a short hike that day, neither of us had thought to bring food or water. But the day was hot and I was starting to feel a bit parched. Conveniently, we passed by some native California blackberry bushes. You can tell they are the native species because they have numerous thin prickles along their stems, rather than thick thorns. This variety is more plentiful, and, even though the season is only just beginning, I picked the out the ripe black ones and shared them with William. They were still a bit tart, but a delicious promise of what the coming summer months will bring.
Foraging for wild blackberries is simple in that they are easy to spot and identify, but the thorny bushes certainly do their job at protecting the fruit, so watch out. If you want to collect more than a couple handfuls, you can gently lay down a piece of cardboard or plywood on the lower growth and step on it to reach the farther away berries.
Wild strawberries are much easier to pick. Look for small, leafy, green plants growing close to the ground. The little red berries get ripe in the early summer months and taste of earth and sunshine.
Always forage with caution though; not everything in the wild is meant to be eaten. If in doubt, leave it be. For example, near the beginning of the trailhead, I had stopped to sniff at some dainty white flowers growing on a large bush. William turned around and told me I was actually sniffing poison Hemlock, the herb that Socrates- a philosopher once far too advanced for his times- was forced to drink the tea of to end his own life. So, be curious, but be careful!
On our way back, William pointed to a Bay Laurel tree. Like me, many of you have probably used Bay leaves in your cooking for its fresh and spicy flavor. Just pick a few and throw them in your soups & sauces. What I didn’t know was that the same leaves can be crumpled and rubbed on your skin for a natural insect repellant. Forget about the chemical sprays you find in drug stores, bay leaves smell much more pleasant AND don’t harm you or the environment. You can also leave a few bay leaves in your kitchen to deter ants and other insects away from your stored food.
Lastly, if you really find yourself out in the wild for some time, you can use bay berries to make candles. Pick and peel the berries, and boil them until you can scoop the waxy substance off the top. Pour into a small container, add a string for a wick, and burn away, keeping your space lit and free of bugs.
We stopped at the peak of our hike, looking down at the cities below us and feeling grateful to be outside of it all, even for just an afternoon. I looked at the wilderness around me with new lessons in my eyes- and began to see the real healing power that quietly hides beneath the beauty of the forest.
A few days later, William called me and said that he had forgotten to mention one important thing: that when harvesting medicinal plants, to ask the plant for its medicine before you pick it. Otherwise, the medicine might slip back down the roots into the earth. Call it superstition if you will, but a little extra respect for mother earth never did hurt.
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