The Forager’s Basket: An Introduction by Kiva Rose
The Forager’s Basket: An Introduction
by Kiva Rose
In the pages of childhood storybooks, the primal forests of human memory and the landscapes of every traditional culture are the images of mothers and children digging fat tubers from the woodland floor, travelers picking wild greens along their path, solitary monks selecting the choicest fruits from mountain grown mulberry trees and medicine women choosing the roots most likely to bring healing and wholeness to those in need. Nomadic peoples, tribal communities and even the earliest of our agrarian ancestors, all immersed in the ancient task of gathering the nourishment they need to survive and thrive from the land they live with.
Since I was a small child, I have loved the joyful ceremony of berry picking in the summer, the sweet slow rhythm of nut gathering come Autumn and even the quiet collection of evergreen tips in the snow. My enthusiasm for the rich taste of all things wild has only grown as I have moved into adulthood, and even now the Spring’s first red Wax Currant berry elicits a distinctly undignified squeal of joy. Living as I do among the exceptionally diverse flora of the Gila bioregion of southwestern New Mexico I am ever more excited by the poetry and practice of being immersed in intimate relationship with the fertile soil and cool springs, meadows and woodlands of my home.
Here at the Anima School, we prefer to depend as much as possible on the wild seasonal fare we gather ourselves from the rocky arroyos and lush riverside we live among. Our Canyon calendar often revolves around what will be ready for harvest at any given time, and it is with excitement and anticipation that we await each shifting season and every arrival of fresh abundance. From the first spicy Mustard greens of late Winter to the tart purple Gooseberries of July to the fat brown Acorns of September, we are wealthy indeed in delicious, incredibly nourishing food.
Having direct contact with our sustenance not only grants us a special connection to the land, but also allows us to have a deeper understanding of the vitality, nutritive value and overall goodness of what we are eating on a daily basis. This is especially true when we are eating plants gathered from untamed, undeveloped ground. The complex and deeply nourishing nature of wild foods is unmatched by even the finest cultivated produce. The wildness of the plants connects us to the wildness in ourselves and assists in bringing us back into relationship with our own original natures. Foraging is an ancient way of engaging our primal natures, of stepping back into intimate relationship with the earth and our own bodies.
With this in mind, I’m beginning a new series of posts here on the Anima Lifeways & Herbal School blog entitled The Forager’s Basket which will encompass the identification, harvesting, processing, preparation, preserving, utilizing and eating of wild plants. I intend for this series to introduce the beginning wild foods enthusiast to the concepts and the exploration as well as provide further insights, recipes and inspiration for the seasoned forager. We will begin with White Fir, a favorite Winter tea and spice that can be utilized year round. I hope you all enjoy and benefit from this new series!
The Forager’s Notebook: Rocky Mountain White Fir
White fir is a native of the American Southwest, but is grown as an ornamental throughout much of the northern United States. Here in New Mexico, it grows in middle to upper elevation mixed conifer forests, often on north facing slopes. It can often be found in association with Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca) and Southwestern White Pine (Pinus strobiformis) here in the Gila National Forest.
Like all firs (Abies), White Fir has flat leaves arrange singularly in a somewhat spiral like formation along the branch. These flat, two-sided leaves (as opposed to several sided or round-feeling needles) help to differentiate firs from other conifers, especially those in the Pine family (Pinaceae). White Fir is unique in our bioregion in that it has unusually long leaves (sometimes over two inches long) that are the same color on both the upper and lower side side of the branch.
White Fir is tender and juicy, and when you cut a leaf in half and press down with your fingernail you can often see the aromatic and sticky liquid dripping out of the resin canals. It is also significantly less bitter than Douglas Fir tends to be, making it far preferable for most edible uses. It has a sweet, orange-like flavor that lends itself very nicely to both savory and sweet dishes, and to a wide variety of beverages.
Here is a distribution map of where Abies concolor can be found. Additionally, you can find further information and images of the plant here (photographs). If White Fir doesn’t grow in your bioregion, I suggest searching out your local Abies (or even other Pinaceae members) and exploring their taste and general character as a substitute.
I usually just clip the last several inches of any branch. These fresh fir tips especially tasty when they have new growth. Be sure not to take too much from any one tree, your impact should not be visible to any but the most observant eye.
Additionally, if White Fir is plentiful in your area, you may also want to collect the sap for edible and medicinal uses.
For edible uses, you will want to strip the leaves from the branches as needed. The tips tend to remain fresh for at least 2-3 weeks, especially in cooler weather, so I often prefer to simply gather as much as I need for that time period and use them fresh. However, the dried plant it also useful, especially for teas and infusions.
For medicinal purposes, both bark and leaves are desirable, and I prefer the fresh plant for all preparations when possible. Exceptions may be made again for infusions or decoctions if needed. Again, store in as whole a form as possible after harvesting to prolong freshness and viability. The sticky pitch may also be gathered when available.
General Spice: White Fir leaves can be finely chopped and added to almost any dish in need of a little zing, and makes a great local substitute for lemon zest or orange zest in many recipes. It’s certainly not identical to either citrus fruit, but provides a similar note, especially in wild food and game recipes. It is excellent in frittatas, omelets, quiches, venison stew and even on pizza.
Pestos & Sauces: It can also be ground finely and used in a variety of pestos. Because of its resinous character, and somewhat tough (compared to most herbaceous plants) texture, I recommend blending it with other plants for pesto. I especially like it combined with Basil as well as the less traditional but equally amazing Beebalm (Monarda).
Chocolate: The fresh leaves, especially the younger leaves, chopped finely and added to dark chocolate concoctions of all kind makes a very nice treat indeed. It adds slightly spicy, aromatic and citrusy flavor to the chocolate and is especially favored by those who have a fondness for orange peel or zest with the chocolate.
Teas: White fir adds a wonderful sweet citrus note to nourishing infusions and long-steeped teas. When used on its own as a beverage, it seems best prepared as a short decoction, lightly simmered for about 15-20 minutes. It’s flavor greatly compliments the rich, nutty flavor of roasted Southwestern acorns in teas.
Abies spp. have a great number of medicinal applications which I will only touch on here. A more in-depth monograph will follow on my herbal blog, The Medicine Woman’s Roots.
Like Pinus spp. the pitch is very useful (but somewhat milder) as a drawing agent to pull out splinters, and as an anti-bacterial wound covering. It can also be taken internally in small doses (a single pinch at a time) as an effective expectorant in chronic or cold, boggy, non-productive coughs. White Fir leaf and bark syrup is generally considered a more palatable preparation for the same affliction, and also useful for sore, achy throats.
An infused oil can be made of the leaves and is useful in the treatment of sore or stiff muscles. The same oil can be made into a general salve, and will be stronger if combined with melted Fir pitch. I especially like this salve when the White Fir needles are combined with Cottonwood buds, Piñon Pine pitch and Artemisia leaves. Not only is it very effective in healing wounds and abrasions, it smells amazing!
The bark and leaf decoction is a stimulating diaphoretic and has long been used to assist in relieving unproductive fevers. The same decoction is anti-inflammatory and very soothing to eczema, hives and many rashes, especially those of a chronic nature.