In mid-April, there is a wind storm.
It blows through the night and into the next day. The leafless trees bend to wind as it rips branches loose and tosses them to the ground. When I wake to the wind rattling windows of my old house, I know soon I will do the first wild crafting of the season.
Picking wild plants to make medicine is called wild crafting.
Wild crafting is a science and an art. It requires knowledge and intuition. To begin, it is critical to correctly identify the plant one is harvesting.
When my husband and I lived in the Yukon, after a rain we would go mushroom hunting. Mushrooms are not always easy to identify, and my husband tends to take more risks with wild plants than I do.
Luckily, the horror stories I recited, such as the woman found dead in her camper after sautéing wild mushrooms with her eggs, in the hope of dissuading him from adding unidentified mushrooms to the moose stew, did not come true. Yet, this does not mean that I would still not pull out the big threat today if need be, “Me or the mushroom.”
Secondly, it is important to know which part of the plant is used for medicine and when its medicine is at its best.
In the spring and fall, roots are dug up, washed and chopped before drying. Leaves are collected just before the plant flowers. Flowers are gathered after the dew has dried in the first morning of their bloom. Bark is peeled back from the heart wood when the sap rises the spring.
Seeds are best if allowed to ripen on the plant. This is tricky. Seeds love to fly on the back of the wind, and are often gone before they can plucked from their dried stems.
The final art of wild crafting is drying the plants and making their medicine. Drying plants without heat (the heat destroys the medicine ) is a learned skill. Drying will be explored in a future column.
The buds from the poplar balsam (Populus balsamifera) make my first wild medicine of the year. After April’s wind storm my dog, Gracie, and I hike to a near by field lined with poplar balsam. The sweet scent of resin flowing from the poplars’ roots perfumes the warm spring air. The wind has strewn young branches from the naked trees across the ground.
The buds at the tip of the branches cling to Gracie’s fur when she rolls in the warm brown grasses.
It is the sticky, sweetly scented buds that I am after. With clippers, I snip the buds from the twigs and fill my pack. I collect only as much as I will use. This is the code of wild crafters. Only gather as much as will be needed, never more. In other words, do not stock piling wild plants. Rest assured, there will be more buds next year.
At home, I fill a mason jar with the buds and cover them in olive oil. I place the jar in my Crock-Pot, and pour water to the tip of its rim. I cover the pot and turn the temperature gage to warm. In eight hours, I turn the pot off and strain off the oil. The scent of spring fills the house.
The oil is infused with the resin from the buds, turning it rich gold colour.
The first thing I do with my new batch of infused poplar oil is take a bath. I add an eighth of a cup of poplar oil to the bath. It is the most soothing bath of the year. I compare it to bathing in the warm spring air. It’s like bathing in a tree. The aches of old man winter vanish.
Poplar balsam infused oil has many uses. It is massaged into aching joints to relieve the pain of arthritis. Rubbing it on chests warms up stubborn chest colds and loosens congestion. It brings circulation to cold feet. The oil’s anti-septic property make it a useful for healing all types of wounds.
So when the dog comes home this spring covered in poplar buds, know that close by wild medicine grows.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.