News: Foraging 1: Willow Water and Elderberry Propagation
I wasn’t sure what to expect while making my way to Fox Haven Farm, Retreat & Learning Center. At first, it felt strange, being in a room with a few masked strangers, after so many months’ isolation. I was quickly drawn into the sensory learning experience our two instructors, Lacey Walker and Taylor Roman, had prepared for us with thoughtful discussion, demonstrations, slide shows, and hands-on learning.
We were encouraged to observe, eyes closed, our impressions of the farm. We felt the wind, the warmth of the sun, the bark and buds, and the squish of our boots in the mud. We heard a variety of birds and the creek. It was a welcome opportunity to connect with people and new land, in a way many of us have especially missed this last year.
After introductions, we discussed insights from reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. One forager classmate shared it is the “best book” she has ever read. Several others spoke of their desire to learn from our plant ancestors, or older brothers and sisters, which led them to this foraging adventure. Taylor and Lacey led us in discussing Deep Ecology and the importance of observation and reciprocity as we learn to forage.
I appreciated the many ways they mentioned that a person can communicate with plants when deciding whether or not to harvest, using both heart and mind. Reciprocity can include tending to the plant’s health, helping to heal the land, pruning, or using fruit well.
Our first outside visit was to the Willow. A massive log rested on the ground where it had fallen years before. However, two trees now grow from the outer rims of the hollow trunk. Lacey led us to observe the yellow hue of the growing branches and shared that Willow is sometimes known as mother tree, thanks to its giving nature.
Just as the fallen tree had nurtured two new trees, we learned about two of Willow’s constituents, IBA (indolebutyric acid) and SA (salicylic acid) that can help to protect cuttings and promote root growth.
Taylor helped us to realize ways that pruning this Willow would improve the long-term health of the tree. We also noted possible branches to consider harvesting for our Willow water.
We next squished our way through the water-saturated ground to the Elderberry. I had never known how to identify elderberries before. The eyes of the branches, called lenticels, are used for gas exchange and turn out to be a great help in identification.
Since I planted some elderberry in my yard this winter, I was excited to learn so much about the life of elderberries and how pruning helps the bushes stay healthy by increasing air circulation, limiting rubbing against other branches, and increasing berry production. Taylor showed us how to correctly prune directly above buds and, if we want to propagate this water-loving bush, we should leave several buds on the branch length for both root and leaf development.
When we went back indoors, Lacey showed us the elderberry cuttings that had been soaking in willow water for 24 hours. It was such a satisfying feeling to prepare our pots with moist soil and find a place for several cuttings to take home to start elderberry patches. I also used scissors to cut up a willow cutting into my glass jar for my at-home willow water.
Our learning adventure concluded with an overview of visualized botanist terms. Taylor encouraged us all to focus on some important plant family groups and begin learning from the materials shared with us at home. Whew! From a non-botanist background, botany can feel overwhelming. I appreciated the nudge to start with these eight plant families and target specific identification categories week by week.
This class did not end at Fox Haven Farm!
At home again, I searched to find the perfect dark spot for my elderberry cutting pot. Then I boiled water to pour over the willow cuttings and placed it on the counter to cool. As Lacey had taught, I smelled the willow water before putting it in the fridge so I know later how it should smell before using it.
I’m looking forward to using the willow water to soak other cuttings, and water my elderberry pot to help the new roots start strong. Although learning and growing is a slow process, I can’t help envisioning these cuttings becoming part of a hedge around my yard as part of a new microclimate, food for birds and insects, and medicine for my family and neighbors. I’m so thankful for the teachers, Lacey and Taylor, Willow, and Elderberry who taught us many lessons today.
Written by Charis Han-Storms
Charis is studying herbalism, foraging, and gardening under amazing teachers at Fox Haven Farm, Retreat & Learning Center, Sacred Plant Traditions, and Wild Ginger Herbal Center.
She is thankful for all the women, from a variety of traditions, who cultivated relationships with the plant world and preserved this knowledge and path for future generations. She spends an inordinate amount of time checking on seedlings, searching for new books at the library, and exploring gardens and wild places.