Now we are in the process of coming out of Lockdown from Covid-19, does this mean we will be returning to polluted cities and towns, or should we ensure better protection for our urban environment to protect nature?
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Dame Judi Dench has been an actor for 60 years, but away from the stage and screen, one of her big passions is trees. She even has a private woodland in her own garden.
Dame Judi says she considers trees "part of her extended family", and in this intro to her documentary, Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees, she finds out there's more to them than she could have ever imagined.
What foraging is allowed here in the UK? Generally, if a species is not protected by Law, there being legal access to the land, on a footpath, you have a right to collect for personal use parts that do not result in the death of the plant. Harvesting roots usually kills the plant so this requires landowner's permission and is not permissible for protected species.
If you are relatively new to foraging, perhaps the best approach, apart from attending a course, is to start with one species at a time researching it and really getting to know it. It is always important to know what the distinguishing features are, if there are any dangerous lookalikes, also find out if it has a protected status and what kind of lifecycle it has. Does it cause allergic reactions? Is it locally scarce?
Working in woods where the landowner's permission is necessary to dig up selective roots such as burdock, wild garlic and bull rushes. All three species are fairly common nationally and numerous. However, wild garlic and bull rushes can propagate asexually from the rootstock and therefore are harder to over-exploit for occasional personal use. With garlic sometimes dig up a few bulbs when the aerial parts are not available. Burdock however is a biennial therefore doesn't reproduce asexually, only by seeds in the second year. Even if we dig up only a few plants on each course, we have to be careful that over time we don't wipe out the plants in a particular field.
It is perhaps useful to consider how easy it is impact even prolific species over time, even before the agricultural and industrial revolutions there are some dramatic examples of extinctions when early humans first colonised Australia, later the Americas. These lands were brim full of remarkable megafauna, for example giant kangaroos and marsupial lions in Australia, and mammoths in North America. Fossil evidence shows mass extinctions within in a few hundred years of human colonisation and the circumstantial evidence of human culpability is strong. The mega beasts provided vast stores of calories and as they hadn't learnt to fear humans, they were relatively easy prey.
Without records of numbers over time it can also be difficult to map decline of species or even realise what is happening. This can also be the problem for the modern day forager on a local scale - unless you observe the changes in abundance over time it can be difficult to know if you and your fellow foragers are impacting a species, it is an important responsibility of foragers to know about the species we are collecting so we can predict whether our activities will outstrip their ability to re-colonise. Should we take sparingly from abundant species, predominantly harvest parts that don't kill the plant, watching what is happening in our areas we can enjoy foraging as a supplement to our core food.
Although responsible foraging is great, true local self-reliance with our current population size has to come primarily from producing more food ourselves. Obviously, some people don't have gardens but there are still opportunities for window boxes, allotments and buying local produce. Permaculture offers exciting possibilities in a world of dwindling wild resources, it is really encouraging to see the rise in foraging, however we should forage responsibly.
See the video "Biodynamic Agriculture: Farming in Service of Life | Kiss the Ground".
The philosophy of biodynamic farming is simple but radical. According to Rudolph Steiner, widely credited with first conceptualizing the farming philosophy in the 1920s, "You need to stop thinking of your farms as factories and envision them as living organisms - self-contained, self-sustaining, following the cycles of nature, and able to create their own health and vitality out of the living dynamics of the farm."
Many people think of nontoxic and organic farming as a relatively recent phenomenon, but it was first envisioned in the 1920s for a specific reason, says Elizabeth Candelario, former managing director for Demeter, which certifies biodynamic farming operations. She says:
"After World War I, chemical companies got very crafty repurposing nitrogen that had been used to make bombs as fertilizer, and nerve gas as synthetic pesticides. They had stockpiles of these chemicals and realised they had application on farms.
We accept the notion of these synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and think, Huh. Synthetic fertilizer pesticides. It’s nerve gas. It was materials used to make bombs."
Industrial agriculture's love affair with nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most widespread and destructive aspects of "modern" farming. When nitrogen-based fertilizers are added to the soil, the amount of sequestered carbon is reduced and the soil microbiome is disrupted, reducing the soil's ability to support plant growth.
The soil's microbiome, like your own, teems with billions of important microbes that are essential to health. As a spokesperson in "Biodynamic Agriculture: Farming in Service of Life" says, if you have healthy soil you can grow anything well.
In addition to its degradation of soil, runoff of nitrogen-based fertilizers is one of the largest contributors to ocean pollution and dead zones where oxygen has been annihilated and marine life cannot live. When the fertilizers break down, ammonia is produced, which combines with fossil fuel combustion to create microparticles in the air.
Nitrogen-based fertilizers are not like the nitrogen naturally found in air, water, and soil. They are "reactive," relying on fossil fuel-burning engines for production and contributing to industrial pollution.
In medieval medicine the nettle was traditionally linked to Mars the god of war and there is arguably no better herb to illustrate this relationship. Its serrated leaves with stinging hairs that cause a sudden, intense burning pain when touched provide a powerful Martian signature. It readily defends itself from being eaten by most creatures. This Martian signature took on a different association during the WWII, for it even participated in the defence of Britain, not as an extra hazard amongst the barbed wire and concrete blocks barricading our coastline, but an infusion of it was used to dye camouflage netting khaki green!
In herbal medicine today one of the principal uses of the nettle is for treating iron deficiency anaemia. This is how the cells derive the necessary energy to perform their multitude of functions. An inadequate amount of iron in the body is one of the causes of anaemia. Without iron the generation of energy is impaired leading to lethargy. Modern research has revealed a further Martian signature, in that an extract of nettle roots has been found to possess testosterone enhancing properties.
Mars is the symbolic opposite of Venus; thus, the virtue or healing energy of the nettle was seen to have an antipathetic effect in countering the diseases linked to Venus which traditionally rules sweet things such as honey and sugar. In medieval times diabetes was known as the “pissing disease” from the excessive volume of urine passed. When physicians at the time tasted the urine, they noticed it was sweet, giving it the name diabetes mellitus. Hence, the disease was considered to be linked to Venus and the nettle was chosen for countering the pissing disease. One of the most important uses of nettle by herbalists today is to help lower the blood sugar level, making the herb valuable for patients needing to stabilise their blood sugar.
Traditionally the nettle is frequently used for rheumatic conditions. A rheum is a medieval name for phlegm or mucus, thus by association rheumatic conditions are linked to cold and damp conditions affecting the body. In the winter when it is cold and wet, chronic inflammation in the body often flares up. Old injuries can suddenly become very painful. Conversely heat and dryness improves these rheumatic conditions, and eases stiffness and pain. Just as the heat and dryness of the summer generally improves these conditions, so too the “hot and dry” stings of nettle have a long tradition of easing rheumatic aches and pain.
The Romans were said to have beaten each other with nettles to keep warm. The climate in Britain must have been a shock to all those conscripted into the legions from Middle Eastern countries.
Whatever your attitude towards nettles, whether you love them or hate them, the various species of nettles in Britain are relatively tame when compared to other species in the world. Imagine a nettle that can grow to the height and stature of a pear tree and is covered with numerous ten to fifteen cm long dagger-like leaves. Each leaf has on its margins an alternating array of spines angled at 45° above and below its horizontal plane, with additional spines along its central longitudinal vein, both on the upper and lower surfaces.
Furthermore, each spine consists of a one cm long silica tube with a three mm stinging hair at its tip. Astonishingly a single silica tube contains enough venom to kill a horse, not to mention a human being!
Generally, protective spines and stinging hairs have evolved to dissuade grazing animals from eating them, but why should these nettles be found growing abundantly in the Paparoa region of South Island, New Zealand?
Until European settlers brought farm animals, only 200 years ago, there were no grazing mammals to feed on them, seemingly making the spines unnecessary? The only possible explanation comes from the fossil record. Nettles first appeared during the time of the dinosaurs. This would suggest that this nettle evolved its spines to repel plant eating dinosaurs, implying that this plant is in fact a living fossil, and should be considered as such like other living fossils “The Gingko”.
This nettle crisp recipe can be easily adapted to use with other wild and home grown greens.