Friday, 24 July 2015

Vinegar walk

(Originally published 7 June 2015 here )

High summer is coming on fast, and that means a change in the plants I'm gathering.

The first round of picking stimulates the growth of stinging nettle, but once you've done a second round, they start to need a rest. If we get rainy cool weather there will be a third round, but if not, nothing until fall. After they flower and set seed, nettles get a rush of new leaves on the old stalks, tender and delicious for those last few meals. Of course I harvest nettle seeds, too, they're such excellent medicine for exhausted adrenals. But while the plants are ragged, while they flower and before that last rush of growth, nettle leaves get too strong and they can actually damage the kidneys if picked at the wrong time.

However, there is a window for picking nettles that are a little too ragged to be dried properly and not yet close enough to flowering to be a problem. That's when they're picked for vinegars.

Weed vinegars - and you can use LOTS of different weeds - are useful things. Nettles and others steeped in apple cider vinegar for 6 weeks make mineral rich, lip smacking dressings for salads or beans. Some people put a spoonful in water and drink them. I've tried it, it's not my thing. It might be yours though.

Then of course a sploosh can be used in a basin of water to rinse the face or hair to normalize the Ph of the skin. If you have a ton of the stuff, it's great in the bath.

One of my garden plants, comfrey, is tough to dry. Technically not a weed, but it grows and spreads like one so I have a lot of it. A LOT. The leaves are big and have a thick juicy rib down the middle and all that moisture means they sometimes spoil instead of drying if the weather has been humid. What a waste, comfrey is wonderful. To be on the safe side, I make up weed vinegars with comfrey as well as all the other things I do with it.

Today I went down to the trail with vinegars on my mind. On the way there I came across a couple of yellow dock (curly dock) plants. They're usually used medicinally, (the roots are like dandelion on steroids) and the leaves are too sour for eating. But as they add a nice lemony tang to a vinegar, I took the fresh looking tops of the plants. They grow back, so I really went to town on them. It stimulates the roots when you decapitate some weeds. That's why some of them seem to thrive on being mowed!

Then I headed for that amazingly widespread nettle patch I told you about.. At first I thought I'd get some more for drying but as I picked I could see it was a trick of the light, they're ragged all right. But the very top leaves are fresh growth, just a couple of days old, so they're safe to use. I picked enough to make a thick layer on the bottom of my large brown paper grocery bag.

I noticed that the leaves of the red raspberries are looking great, so I picked them as well. Some went into the vinegar pickings bag, some into a separate one so I can dry them. They make a nice tea and are useful for things like mouthwashes.

A young aspen branch offered itself up - I cut it down to manageable sized pieces and tucked them in with the raspberry leaves. More of that gorgeous fragrant oil coming up!

I walked a ways, scanning the sides of the path and into the bush on both sides. Lots to see, nothing really to pick but a sweet walk. I can only see glints of the big blue river through the trees now and can't see the island at all.

Dandelions are usually at their best in spring and fall, the leaves get bitter and tough in summer and they're best left to their own devices. But along the way I started to see some plants that were standing straight up, their leaves a fresh light green. I picked them for the vinegar. It's going to be one mouth puckering vinegar at this rate but I just couldn't pass them by. I succumbed to some of the still juicy plantain leaves too. Now that vinegar is starting to get medicinal, soothing to the tummy. You wouldn't think vinegar could be tummy soothing but it is, especially with the right ingredients.

More walking, some thanksgiving prayers, some communing with large friendly trees and one sour little wild strawberry, the first in a nice looking patch. Duly noted for the next walk.

I came to the hay field and headed down the tractor path that looks like it hasn't been driven on yet this summer. On both sides, the day's big score. Cleavers! I love me some cleavers. They're pretty, they're always plentiful (if you know how to look for them) and they are gentle, effective medicine-food. I picked a full bag of them.

Cleavers are excellent for the lymph system. In a tincture, they encourage swollen glands to release their fluids. In all forms they gently get those lymph rivers flowing, which means they're good for kidneys and bladders too. But as you know, I don't really like to talk about our bodies as though we were a collection of organs. Cleavers are the spiral arm of the galaxy fallen to earth. Leaves that grow along the stem in whorls, starry flowers, that's what they remind me of anyway, the Heavens.

And they taste good.

I filled my bags then took off my scarf and filled it too.

When I got home I spread all my bounty out on a sheet to let the bugs escape (important step, don't skip) while we ate and hung out for a while. Then I got my scissors and snipped quantities of comfrey, nettles, dandelion, yellow dock, plantain, raspberry leaves and some of the cleavers into my industrial sized pickle jar (did I forget anything?). Then I poured in almost 4 litres of apple cider vinegar. As the plants soak up the vinegar I'll likely add more pickings from the garden, and as everything tends to float for a while, I'll be stirring it down several times a day.

Covered with a bowl (long since lost the lid for that jar!) it will sit on the counter for about a month, maybe 6 weeks. What will it taste like? Hmm, good question. Green. Fresh. Tangy. We'll see!

The rest of the cleavers will be in a vinegar of their own. Looks like there will be plenty to share of today's foragings so let me know if you're interested. I'd make a cleavers tincture too if I hadn't run out of vodka again. I'm going to have to start buying it in bulk!

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