News: Foragers Level 2: Observing the Land through Phenological Study
It was trial by water for our first session of Foragers Level 2, as more than dozen intrepid foragers came from near and far in the dreary cold rain to begin our year-long journey together at Fox Haven.
To break the ice on the wintry day, Lacey Walker, the program’s co-lead, had us introduce ourselves by sharing a plant with which we have a relationship. A DC-based forager and gardener with 20 plants growing in my small apartment and 100+ wild edibles and fungi logged in my 2020 foraging journal, I collect plants like some people do shoes. Yet one reason I sought out this program was to deepen my relationships with the many species that had been mere acquaintances to date.
Many of my relationships with the natural world were admittedly one-sided: learning what plants could benefit me as food or medicine, or just for the sheer pleasure – the honeyed perfume and showy yellow flowers of witch hazel I’d found just a few days earlier. This program, I hoped, would help me learn to become a more mindful forager living in reciprocity with the natural world.
To that end, after enjoying some sips of maple sap a fellow forager had brought to share, we set out to explore the so-called Forager’s Patch, a strip of seemingly disorderly plants, trees and fungi set along a creek, flowing fast today with the copious rain. A set of questions helped guide our explorations: how might we mitigate pollutants from the plants we might forage here? What direction was north? Where did the water flow to and from? How might we want to alter the land? What plants did we recognize?
The questions made me realize that my outdoor rambles had largely been focused on individual species rather than their relationships to each other
and the larger ecosystem. I could recognize the dried milkweed pod along the creek bed, but couldn’t begin to tell you which way was north on a cloudy day like today. Together, we did piece together answers, and between us were able to name many of the species underfoot, no small feat in winter without the visual aid of leaves, flowers and fruit. (A fellow participant held the key to finding north: look for moss, as it will grow on the north side of the rock.)
Though we were soaked to the bone, we trudged down the hill excitedly with pruning shears in hand to our next assignment: pruning spicebush and collecting its twigs for tea and tinctures. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a native species featured in our pre-class readings, was used by different Native American tribes in different ways. The Iroquois who lived to the north and west of Fox Haven used leaves and twigs for colds and in steam baths, for example.
Spicebush is a favorite of mine, with its distinctive scent apparent from a scratch and sniff test – a cross between wintergreen and tea tree. As I learn from our study guide, spicebush contains all four of the essential oils contained in the medicinally potent tea tree. Lacey shared with us a sweet and spicy tincture she made from the twigs, which I vowed to make later at home.
We gathered around a gangly patch of spicebush, listening intently as Taylor Roman, program co-leader, explained the basic principles of pruning. One of my big learnings from the day was an elementary one, but with huge implications: no plant growth can occur anywhere but a bud. And that bud could end up being a leaf, a flower, a shoot or root. The implication for our pruning task? Cut just above a bud site, so that the plant’s growth will be directed through it, and not waste energy trying to supply water and nutrients to the dead matter above the cut.
Another key to pruning, Taylor explained, is to prune where branches are on a collision course, as rubbing branches can wound the bark, just as we experience chafing where our skin rubs together. With that tidbit of knowledge, I suddenly saw the tangle of spicebush differently, and could see where it had been left to grow a little too wild. Taylor spoke of the paradox of the trims helping a tree or shrub to flourish rather than inhibiting its growth, as it lets in more light to the lower branches and the mere act of being trimmed spurs it on to grow. Late wintertime is optimal for the task, as the species are primed for growth this time of year.
Looking around at the intent focus on everyone’s faces as they sized up the spicebush to make their careful cuts, oblivious to the rain pouring down, it was clear that pruning was a labor of love, and we were all in love of the day’s learning.
While we cut the day’s session short to take mercy on our soggy soles, we ended with a review of our next task, one that would carry out throughout the year: to select a plant or tree to follow all year long and chronicle via a phenology journal. Phenology, we learned, is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life, and had various implications for stewards of the land. A beekeeper, Taylor talked about logging a journal to better understand the availability of food sources for the bees. Knowing when certain plants flower, and how that coincides with the emergence of various friends and foes to those plants, can also be beneficial to gardeners.
The next day, I set out to explore the forest garden in my community garden where I have grown food for the past 10 years, and choose a tree for my phenology journal. I normally wouldn’t pay the trees any mind until they started their showy displays of flowers, with the cherry, pear, crabapple and almond in our garden all exploding with their ruffly white and pink flowers in early spring.
I pulled up to our fig tree, seeing a terrible tangle of branches at the base I’d never before noticed before our pruning lesson. I also stopped to think about how I had never seen flowers on the fig, and with some research, learned the fascinating symbiotic relationship they have with fig wasps, who have a critical role in pollinating their flowers – on the inside of the fruit.
It was a big commitment, to visit this fig near every day and log all its happenings, from first buds to last leaves – but it was the least I could do for all the fruit it had given me all these years. I knew in deepening in relationship to it, the fruit would taste all the sweeter.
Written by April Thompson, @prillytee on Instagram
April Thompson is a Washington, DC based writer, gardener, foodie and forager. Working as a freelance writer for more than 20 years, April has covered food, travel, sustainability, gardening, foraging and other subjects for dozens of publications, including her ongoing column in Natural Awakenings magazine. She has taught workshops on wild edible plants, fighting food waste and related topics for Knowledge Commons DC, Rooting DC and other organizations. She is a founding member of the Bruce Monroe Community Garden, a member of the Mycological Association of Washington, and an alum of the UDC Master Gardener program. She currently serves as Director of Marketing and Sales for Bloom, a recycled biosolids fertilizer developed by DC Water.