Saturday, 8 August 2015

A 2fer post - Oats galore and garbling the usnea

Just over a week ago we went for one of those evening drives, when the light is all golden on the fields and shadows play in the forests. Down our favourite back road on Calumet Island we came across a field of oats, still green, but cut down that day. The smell was indescribably beautiful, especially combined with all the wildflowers of the ditches and the dew just coming on.

As there is no gate, I ventured into the field and discovered, to my delight, that the all around the edges of the field, where weeds meet crop, the farmer had left oats standing. Score! I love oatstraw infusions, so I gathered an armload and brought them home. I had no knife - silly me - but they come up by the roots very easily.

Oats are wonderful in so many ways, aren't they? One of my favourite things about them is that they are never sprayed - at least not around here. I know these oats are clean, never mind whether they meet the criteria for "official" organic status. Since they had such a healthy crop of weeds amongst them, they have the bonus of growing in a polyculture, meaning their roots and those of the wild plants shared nutrients and microbes. Perfect.

There are two ways we can use these green oats. The first is for something we call "milky oat" tincture. To know whether your green oats are at the milky stage, you pierce a seed head with your thumbnail. At a certain stage of development you'll get a drop of what looks like milk. These particular oats seemed to be past milky, but no matter, because oatstraw is extremely useful to me anyhow.

Oatstraw isn't usually tinctured, just dried for use in teas and infusions and baths. It's simple enough to do, if your weather co-operates. I just cut off any bits that looked less than perfect, and stood them, loosely, some in a bucket, some in wide mouth jars and let them stand that way for a few days in the house - out of the sun. If left in the sun they will turn golden, which is very pretty, but it means you've lost all the goodness you're looking for. If you buy oatstraw, you want it to be a light green, maybe with a few golden bits, but it shouldn't look like stable straw. If it does, return it.

Once it all dried, which didn't take long at all, I snipped it all into pieces about 2" long and put it away, again away from light. I've since been drinking infusions of it for the last 2 days and oh my am I mellow.

That's the thing about oatstraw; it's just loaded with minerals, especially calcium and magnesium. Those are your mellow minerals. They make for good restorative sleep and that makes for even energy throughout the day. They're awfully good for your bones and teeth, too. Oatstraw is nice as a tea, and you'll get some goodness that way for sure, but to get the most bang for your buck infuse a small handful in a quart/litre jar of freshly boiled water for at least four hours - overnight is better - and then drink it throughout the day. It will last 2 days if you keep it in the fridge. The leftovers can go in your bath.

Now if you read my other blog, you know that I came across some usnea on another of our wandering drives. It was a rainy day; usnea seems to be at its best when moist. I was unsure what to do with the usnea this time. I've made a tincture of it before, but only after long searching on the interwebz for the best method. There are some strong and differing opinions on the best ways to use usnea. Many folks insist it is best used as a tea, others believe its qualities come through better in an oil, and of those who tincture it, the consensus seemed to be that a "decocted tincture" is best.

A decocted tincture is the method I used last time. Briefly, you put your usnea in just enough water to cover it, then gently simmer it for several hours. You combine that liquid, your usnea and an equal amount of vodka, then let it sit for the usual 6 weeks or longer. I've found that tincture perfectly serviceable. I've used it with success for a bladder infection and sinus issues, both counts I would recommend it to anyone. It not only has antibacterial action, but also antifungal, the latter being an often neglected but potentially important aspect of both bladder and sinus issues. My personal hunch is that its action is not one of microbe-killer, but microbe balancer, but I can't prove that, so we'll leave it for now. As I say, just one of my hunches.

As you'll come to know as you keep reading my blatherings, a lot of what I do is based on intuition, and my intuition said that in this case my usnea tincture wasn't all it could be. My main teacher when it comes to all things herbal, Susun Weed, mentions in her articles that her usnea tincture turns orange. Mine hadn't, nor have I seen any other writers mention the orange colour (she believes orange to be the colour of healing). She also doesn't mess around with decocted tinctures for usnea, she just covers it in vodka as we do for nearly everything. (Addendum - I see on the web articles she recommends decocted tincture, but in her books, straight tincturing. Hmmm.)

While I was thinking about all this, I wanted to keep my usnea fairly fresh. so I put it in a large glass bowl with enough water that it could float. Usnea grows near water, and it travels by water, so it seemed the "right" thing to do. I was replacing the water the next day and noticed it was taking on a very pale orange hue. Hmmm, interesting. Why no orange hue when I simmered it last time? Temperature, I suppose? The water was gorgeous, I didn't want to toss it away, so I took it outside and poured it over an old stump - I have no idea how usnea, a lichen, reproduces, so who knows, maybe my stump will one day grow some usnea? Faint hope, but you never know.

I decided to just make an ordinary tincture with the usnea. I put it, still quite wet mind you, in a jar, covered it in vodka. The very next morning when I checked on it, pushing it back down into the vodka (you pretty much always have to do that for the first couple of days when making a tincture) the liquid was already turning orange! Well I'll be .. now it may well be that harvesting on a rainy day made the difference, or it may be the method. Either way, I'm pleased, and the flavour is already very good. Very usnea-y.

Now, since I'm writing this chronologically - back to oats!

Yesterday, again in the golden hours of evening, we went back to Calumet Island. We drove through a different area this time, going to have a look at the part of the island that's all pine trees and blueberry bushes. No blueberries this year, alas, but these things go in cycles; we'll likely find some elsewhere. To my surprise, when I thought we were heading back home, Paul turned back down that favourite road of ours. I got him to let me out so I could wander a bit. It's a plateau, you can see for miles, and since I was raised in Saskatchewan I love those prairie-like skies. I found a chokecherry shrub and sampled one; I was lucky, it was sweet. I stopped at the big oak tree next to the field of oats to say hello. I glanced over at the field; they've let the oats lie and will probably just turn them back into the soil. They're golden now. Good farmers there, they treat their fields well and fertilize the old fashioned way whenever they can.

Then I realized that the oats on the edges were still there and still green. Back into the field I went. The plants were looking a little ratty by now, but out of habit I took a seed head and gave it a pinch. Milky! Score! I gathered another armload, roots and dirt and all (you should see the back of our car, oh dear).

I stood them in a bucket and stripped the seed heads off. I put some in a jar and covered them with vodka - oops, not quite enough vodka for all the milky oats I scored, damn. I looked at all my jars of nettle tincture .. I looked back at my oats .. I looked back at the nettle tincture and thought why not? I took a half jar of nettle tincture and poured in some oats. After all, the combo of nettle and milky oats is, according to jim mcdonald, a very good thing. Why not make some this way and see what happens? I'll buy more vodka today and make more by the usual method, but really, why not experiment a little? Lord knows I have a LOT of nettle tincture to play with. I got a little carried away there .. but sometimes getting carried away is a good thing. Because you just never know.

I think that's what I like best about this wildcrafting game. You just never know what you'll find, and what you do with it is up to you.

You can just see the oats in the foreground at the edge of the field.

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