Plant identification is crucial to anyone looking to forage for their own food or medicine. Knowing what to look for will make the difference between a soothing cup of tea or hospital visit.
In an effort to expand my own knowledge and meet others in the community with like minded ideas, my wife and I went to the Wabash Trace Forage Walk. With the promise of teaching us to identify common plants and helpful weeds we headed out to learn anything we could.
This post is a less knowledge based and more of the experience we enjoyed while attending this event. There are interview questions our guide was kind enough to answer below. I hope you like it!
Jamie Smidt is a lifelong gardener and herbalist located in South West Iowa. For anyone interested in learning more her she is willing to help anyone located in the region.
Before we get started, Jamie was kind enough to allow me to ask her some questions. She was a wonderful guide, my wife and I learned a tremendous amount from her and have a thirst for more knowledge. Here is what she has to say:
Interview with an Herbalist
How did you get into herbalism and gardening and was there anything that pushed you further into the field?
“My dad is a nurseryman (tree farmer) and vegetable grower, and my mom cans all fall, so I grew up in an atmosphere where plants were and still are my family’s livelihood. Admittedly my teenage self did not always find this exciting.”
“However, when I left home and went to college all I wanted to do was learn and talk about plants. I studied native plants and ecology as well as how agriculture relates to community at the University of Montana in Missoula. I also worked at a large, well-stocked nursery all through school. Fortunately, Missoula has a really nice herb store that at the time was owned by a husband and wife herbalist team. I took several series of classes from them. I have been been lucky to have many plant mentors that I have pressed for information in the last few decades.”
“While I love all things horticulture my favorite aspect is how plants relate to community and human health. Besides an inherent desire to learn about plants I was also driven to expand my herbal knowledge because it is largely a free or inexpensive method of maintaining health. Nourishing plants are easily accessible to most people. They grow in abandoned lots, urban green spaces and even in sidewalk cracks.”
What was the name of the digger tool that you had recommended on the walk and are there any other tools that someone foraging would find very useful?
“My favorite digging tool is called a Hori Hori knife. Specifically, my favorite Hori Hori knife is the A.M. Leonard brand knife. A.M. Leonard refers to it as the classic stainless-steel soil knife. I use it for digging holes and weeding. Also it has a serrated edge which I use it for cutting root balls when I divide perennials. It is very durable. The orange handle makes it easy to find when you set it down in a pile of weeds. Besides the Hori Hori knife, I would be lost without a pair of Fiskars scissors and my beloved Felco #2 pruners.”
What does being an herbalist mean to you?
“Being an herbalist does not have to be complicated. You don’t have to grow up in the industry, or pursue a degree in the field, although some do. Herbalism is something that our ancestors used for nourishment and survival. A mother putting a plantain poultice on their child’s sting is herbalism. For me being an herbalist means benefiting from the use of plants in any capacity. Sometimes I need to use a tincture to relieve pain or stress, sometimes I simply need to sit against an old tree and take deep breaths. I think my personal journey as an herbalist involves teaching others. I like to share my knowledge.”
Do you have any favorite or 2nd favorite public foraging spots?
“Although it’s not a public spot my favorite place to forage is my yard. I don’t use chemicals and I have an abundance of nutritious “weeds” such as violets, dandelion and clover. We keep our weeds mowed in and I think it looks really pretty. Our yard stays green all summer, even when we’ve received inadequate moisture. I also take advantage of the abundance of herbs that grow at Waubonsie State Park. When harvesting on state property I don’t dig anything unless it is considered a nuisance weed like burdock. And I only harvest non-native species or species that grow back with vigor when cut such as nettle, chickweed or motherwort.”
Do you have any advice or tips that you would give to a person just starting out foraging and using nature more in their household?
“Start out using plants that you are already familiar with. You don’t have to be fancy. Adding a few dandelion leaves to your salad, or picking blackberries is foraging. Slowly add to your plant knowledge by picking a plant that interests you and learning about it. One of my many plant mentors taught me that learning a few plants well is far more valuable than learning 50 plants only on the surface.”
Armed with a guide and our best stompin’ shoes, the 20+ of us that attended set off on the Wabash Trace Nature Trail to see what we could find or get into. Our starting point was the trail head located in Imogene. A quiet little town in the corner of Iowa with a proud Irish heritage, definitely worth the weekend drive if you want to see a slice of heaven.
Wabash Trace Nature Trail
The trail is a converted railroad right-of-way running 63 miles over 72 bridges in South West Iowa.
The Wabash Trace depends entirely on the efforts of the private citizens who built, maintain, and manage the trail.
To join SWINT, volunteer, or schedule group events on the trail, head over to their website at www.wabashtrace.org.
While monetary donations are a great way to give, consider donating time on the trail to enhance and restore nature itself.
What’s this? What’s that? Can I eat it?
The question “What’s this?” was asked quite a few times, each of which was met with an enthusiastic and complete answer that ended with everyone having a better idea of what we just pulled from the ground. One of the most enjoyable aspects about this event was that everyone present had a beginner’s mind. No questions were too off the wall or considered silly in this group. A good time with everyone wanting to learn more.
On the trail
With Jamie in front of the group, ready to dive off the path and grab something to show us, we all followed along as she talked about the various plants and wildlife right in front of our faces. The main focus of this walk was to identify plants that can fill a medicinal role. As we all walked the path the wildlife that was present scurried about in the shadows. A lone raccoon made an appearance ahead of the group, and immediately turned tail back into the underbrush.
Some of the plants that were covered included common weeds like nettles and dandelions. Nettle tea offers a great variety of potential benefits which include: Health improvements to the urinary tract and can also help reduce the pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis. This same plant has shown exciting potential for the treatment of breast cancer and prostate cancer through the use of the nettle’s polyphenols. All of this from a WEED!
Polyphenols occur naturally, can have antioxidant properties, and are more generally found in fruits, vegetables, cereals, dry legumes, chocolate, and some beverages, oils, and spices. UT SouthWestern Medical Center covers the benefits and foods that are high in polyphenols here.
If you want to learn more about nettle tea, www.healthline.com covers the benefits of drinking this awesome little concoction.
A wide variety of the plants covered in this walk are available in your backyard. While foraging can be very beneficial a possible grave danger of it is wrongly identifying a plant. One of the common plants around our region that can be mistaken for a beneficial plant is poison hemlock. Easily distinguishable from a wild carrot by the purple splotching on the stem.
Identifying poison hemlock could save your life. Poison hemlock is a widespread toxic biennial plant in the Carrot Family often found in open sunny areas, fields, vacant lots, and on roadsides. Eating even a small amount of any part of this plant can kill people, livestock, and wildlife.
How to identify
Poison-hemlock stems have reddish or purple spots and streaks, are not hairy, and are hollow. Leaves are bright green, fern-like, finely divided, toothed on edges and have a strong musty odor when crushed. Flowers are tiny, white and arranged in small, umbrella-shaped clusters on ends of branched stems.
Poison hemlock appears exactly like a wild carrot or Queen Anne’s Lace a distinctive difference between them is the purple splotching located throughout the stem.
Symptoms of ingestion
The typical symptoms for humans include dilation of the pupils, dizziness, and trembling followed by slowing of the heartbeat, paralysis of the central nervous system, muscle paralysis, and death due to respiratory failure.
For animals, symptoms include nervous trembling, salivation, lack of coordination, pupil dilation, rapid weak pulse, respiratory paralysis, coma, and sometimes death.
For both people and animals, quick treatment can reverse the harm and typically there aren’t noticeable aftereffects. If you suspect poisoning from this plant, call for help immediately because the toxins are fast-acting – for people, call 911 or poison-control at 1-800-222-1222 or for animals, call your veterinarian.
Always wear gloves and protective clothing if working with poison hemlock as all parts of this plant are toxic. Do not burn plants due to the toxins within plant parts. Also, due to the plants toxicity, do not allow animals to graze live or dead poison hemlock plants.
Digging up small infestations and removing the entire taproot is effective. Mowing is ineffective as plants will re-sprout, sending up new stalks in the same season mowing occurs. Toxins will remain potent in dried plant material.
Never put pulled plants in the compost or leave them where children or livestock might eat them. Removed pulled plants from site, bag and put in the trash. Monitor sites for resprouts and seedlings as seeds will readily germinate on disturbed ground.
On the way back
A little under two hours later, we began heading back. The plants we had identified along the way began to pop out of the surrounding landscape as if they didn’t exist before. Slowing down and “smelling the roses” or in this case the Urtica dioica really does open your eyes to the things going on at your feet.
After the walk was over emails and phone numbers were exchanged in the hopes of having more events like this one. Please, if you are interested in learning more about herbalism, plants, or nature in general let it be known. People want to teach and other people want to help them teach, they just need to know who the students are.
As a gardener and plant enthusiast I really enjoyed this walk and know I will use this knowledge again and again. The ability for us to use and thrive from the land while enriching it is important to our well-being and the well-being of the planet.
Where can I find more events like this one?
This event was coordinated by the Wabash Trace Nature Trail located in Shenandoah and Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development located in Oakland.
Golden Hills RC&D’s mission is to collaboratively develop and lead community, conservation, and cultural initiatives to improve our quality of life in rural western Iowa.
This event was sponsored by the Fremont County Tourism Committee as part of the ‘Fremont County Outdoor Adventures’ series.Fremont County Conservation Board
Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development
Fremont County Conservation Board
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Keep mother nature alive and prospering, your own livelihood depends on it.
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