Wild plant life at the Pote à Jean

I have what is a slightly irrational fear of wild plants, when it comes to eating them or using them medicinally. A bit of fear is healthy of course, because it means I’m not traipsing around town picking bits of plants here and there from the asphalt and the park to put in my salad, without knowing what they are. However, even when I’m with someone who knows beyond any doubt that this or that is nettle, or edible berries, I hesitate. I was on a hike once with my friend Noemi and we stumbled upon a big patch of wild strawberries: she cried Oh goody! and started having at them, while I stood back in horror, expecting her to suddenly clutch at her throat and gasp for air. My fear stems in part from a freelance project I had several years ago, editing a series of books on poisonous plants. I’ve read more anecdotes than one should about Victorian era children dropping dead after gorging themselves on belladonna. But after a moment Noemi turned around and held out a palmful of the tiny red berries, and, feeling like a bit of a wimp, I took them. They were very clearly strawberries, smelled like strawberries, tasted like strawberries (only better), but I nevertheless spent the following two hours feeling every single twinge in my body and thinking it was the beginning of the end.

That, my friends, is no way to live. I don’t want to live in fear, and I don’t want to miss out on all the fun that is to be had hunting for mushrooms, foraging for wild greens and pigging out on strawberries with your friend on a steep mountain trail.

Several years ago I thought about looking into learning plant identification. It seemed so intense and overwhelming. But (you must have known there was a but coming), I’m starting to get over it. This is another one of those moments where I am so happy to be doing the sorts of things I’m doing in life. One of the current Plantopic invitees is Belle Benfield, a visual artist who is also an herbalist, and yesterday we had a plant foraging workshop with a local forager named Maurice Hennart leading the way.

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“The Piper in the Woods,” Philip K. Dick

Earth maintained an important garrison on Asteroid Y-3. Now suddenly it was imperiled with a biological impossibility—men becoming plants!


“WELL, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”

As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!

Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.

“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”

The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”

“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”

“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”

“And what were you before you became a plant?”

“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”

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What to do with a eucalyptus besides feeding it to a koala

What do you do when someone gives you a gift that goes against your ethics? My friend Joseph gave us as a wedding present this beautiful eucalyptus:

image (77)

He explained that for our thirtieth anniversary he would give us a panda, and since the eucalyptus by that time would have flourished into a lush forest, the panda would have its habitat all ready to go. There are two issues with this. One: in a quick internet search to check on the care and use of eucalyptus plants, it seems that pandas do not in fact eat eucalyptus — they eat bamboo. Koalas (and other marsupials) eat eucalyptus. The other, more important issue with this gift is that neither Alvaro nor I are keen on the idea of keeping an exotic, endangered species as a pet. In fact, we are wholly against it. Domesticated cats and dogs are one thing — they are species bred as companion animals. But a wild creature used to living in the forest? And one that would grow to be larger than an adult human? Keeping an animal of that size would be logistically difficult, but the ethical considerations are what really worry us.

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Please read carefully the enclosed user’s instructions


This is a pot of dried yarrow flowers, leaves, and stems that I gathered in the garden last summer. I’d heard of “yarrow” but it used to be invisible to me in the wild (or the garden) because I didn’t know what it looked like. Now I do, and so now I see it everywhere.

For your information, here are its leaves:


and flowers:


All together now:


As luck would have it, that day in the garden Mas and I had a visit from Tony, one of her roommates and a person very knowledgeable in the area of medicinal plants. He pointed out all the yarrow growing along the edges of our patch of garden, and explained how it’s helpful for all sorts of ills, particularly as an anti inflammatory and pain reliever. I won’t go into that here because there is already plenty of information about yarrow available online, such as here, here, and here.

I dried out the yarrow after picking it, and then stored it in a glass jar, where it has sat since August. I finally brought it out into the world on the second day of last week’s workshop, not actually knowing exactly what to do with it but figuring somebody would or else I would find the motivation in the midst of all that knowledge sharing to look up information myself. Which I did, and so Sarah (one of the participants) and I made ourselves a nice big pot of yarrow tea. About a teaspoon of dried, ground flowers and leaves per cup of hot water, steeped for ten minutes.

Having heard that yarrow was extremely bitter I’d expected that I would have to add honey or sugar, but I found it not at all bitter. Similar in taste to chamomile. It was really pleasant and I was quite smug to be drinking a mug of herbal tea made from wild plants that I’d picked and dried myself. I was sipping my tea while continuing to read more online about this magical plant, purported to cure everything, when I came across this:

Allergy to ragweed and related plants: Yarrow may cause an allergic reaction in people who are sensitive to the Asteraceae/Compositae family. Members of this family include ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies, and many others. If you have allergies, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before taking yarrow.

And I choked on my tea because I’m allergic to ragweed and many of its relatives. I tossed the tea down the drain and waited for the swollen eyes and nasal discharge to compound the agony I was in already from menstrual cramps, for which I’d wanted to drink the tea to begin with.

Luckily I didn’t feel any symptoms, so either I didn’t drink enough to feel an effect or else yarrow is a nicer cousin of the ragweed family. Either way from now on I’m reading the fine print first.