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  • Writer's pictureHeidi

Wildcrafting in the Wilds

Cody, our youngest child, is shipping off to the Marines at the beginning of August and we have been carving out some quality family time. As you can imagine it is hard to keep a freshly graduated 18 year old boy off of his phone and at home, so we have to take trips to capture his undivided attention. At the end of June my clan and I embarked on a long weekend of backpacking the Quehanna Wilds in Northwestern PA and it was all that I hoped it would be.

Ben, Cody and Iris enjoying the view!

As you can see in the picture we have to carry EVERYTHING we are going to need on our backs. I am talking clothes, food, cookware and stove with fuel, and toiletries. Let's not forget about the oh so heavy, life-sustaining water; I like to carry 2 liters with me whenever possible, refilling at every stream. It is my eternal struggle to keep my pack weight under 25lbs. This is no easy feat when you think about what you need to survive for three days in the middle of nowhere. To be fair, Ben carried our 2 lb tent and The Deuce (the little shovel to help you drop one eco-friendly style in the woods). Oh yeah, we were all in. Please do not feel bad for Iris, that little 45 lb maniac did not even feel the weight of her food and bowls in the saddlebags; she trained for this for over six months and was just so damn happy to be hiking with us.

In the interest of pack weight, my toothbrush was reduced to a bristly nub, floss was packed loose; spooled from the roll and I used the same small bottle of Dr. Bronner's to brush my teeth, wash my face and do the dishes. My first aid kit only comprised of a few Band-Aids, a pair of small scissors, my bug spray and my coveted White Willow tincture....I have a hard time going anywhere without it. Lucky for us I am pretty familiar with Pennsylvania's native medicinal plants and the Quehanna Wilds were teeming with them! It is so convenient for me to be able to harvest the medicine we need rather than having to tote the whole apothecary along with me in my pack.

Sweet Birch leaf

The first wild beauty that caught my eye was the sweet birch tree (Betula lenta). This aromatic gem is easy to identify by her jagged-edged leaves, her dark, shiny red bark on the younger limbs and that distinctive wintergreen scent. When you think you have located a sweet birch, use your finger nail to scrape a small piece of young bark off and give it a whiff. This scratch and sniff test will yield a heavenly root beer/birch smell. Sweet birch has been known to improve circulation, lessen joint pain and reduce inflammation. I knew it was going to make the perfect nighttime beverage for camp. I gathered one small limb from a few different sweet birch trees, as to lessen the impact of my harvest. I peeled the bark, chopped the leaves and filled the cup up with my collected bounty and some water. I did a long simmer, similar to a decoction, to get all the bark had to offer my over-worked body. After 15 minutes, I strained the tea into my cup and sat back and enjoyed that VERY delicious cup of medicine. And yes, I added in a few drops of my white willow tincture for good measure...I mean, I carried it all this way I might as well help my body recover everyway possible. After 16 miles of hiking, I could use all pain reducing, muscle soothing remedies at my disposal.

Iris showed no signs of fatigue during the hike and was always ready to keep going. So imagine my surprise when I took off her hiking kicks to discover that they had scraped up the tops of her paws;( During our training period, I learned that the pads of her paws were getting shredded after 8 miles. We immediately purchased the necessary booties; she was so excited to hike she did not mind donning them in the least. This was the first time she had ever suffered from wearing them, and I felt terrible. I set out to find some plantain to help soothe her sore paws. Lucky for us there are two varieties of plantain that are usually in abundance everywhere you go (note: these have no relations to the banana relative). We commonly have broad-leafed plantain (Plantgo major) underfoot, but we also have quite a bit of narrow-leaf (Plantgo lanceolata). I bet if you walk out into your yard right now, you can find this herbal ally in your space.

Broad leaf (left) Narrow leaf (right)

Twenty years ago I was hiking out west and found some plantain. My friend's then five year old daughter said, "that is the band aide plant." Trinity's words stick with me to this day and I can hear their echo every time I harvest plantain; I even taught my own children that adage. Iris was in desperate need of an herbal band aide, so I quickly gathered both varieties and created a poultice on the spot. A poultice is simply crushed or bruised herbs applied directly to the skin to bring about healing/relief. I am a fan of the old-time field method of chewing the leaves; your spit acts as a little glue to hold it all together. Once you apply the herbs, you can wrap them in gauze or a strip of fabric to hold them in place. This method isn't the greatest option for hyper dogs but hey, I tried. Plantain poultices also work wonders for bee stings and insect bites, so keep your eyes open for this prolific camping companion.

Once you start to identify some plants in the wild, your eyes become trained to see the whole medicine chest that nature has to offer. When wildcrafting, or harvesting from nature, please do so with respect. By that I mean, only harvest what you need when you need it. Keep your harvest to plants that are in abundance and take less than 1/5 of what is available. While it may be tempting to dig up the whole stand of wild ginger you excitedly stumble upon; it is imperative for the plant's survival for you to only take a small portion. Thanks for not being a dick and keeping it kind!

What wild flora have you discovered in nature lately?

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