Boozy Preserves: Wildcrafted Berry Compote

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Yes, the cold snowy nights of winter may seem a long way off, but you can be sure, they’re coming.  But if you get picking now – I guarantee this boozy, dark, thick wild berry compote will bring the heady luscious flavours of high summer back to your winter table.

Using alcohol and sugar to preserve the fruits of the summer is a centuries old tradition. My Oma made Rumtopf (literally meaning Rum Pot) into which she would add fruits and berries as they came into season; strawberries, blueberries, cherries, red and black currants, sliced apricots and pears. This concoction then sat until winter, when it was poured over ice cream for our families traditional Christmas Eve dessert.

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My Oma didn’t like rum, so she used vodka instead. And so I’ve followed her tradition by using vodka as well- though I’ve wildcrafted her recipe by using salal berries, blackberries and oregon grape. (Click on the links if you’re not sure how to identify.)

And it makes a dark, tangy syrup of wild berries that is absolutely delicious over winter custards, puddings, cheesecakes, pancakes, even french toast. But possibly my favourite way to enjoy Wild Berry Compote is to strain off the fruits (which can be baked into tarts, cakes and desserts) and serve as a Yule liqueur.

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Now as much as I enjoy consuming homemade berry jams and jellies, I’m far too lazy for the work serious canning. So aside from freezing, I love that this is by far, the easiest and most tasty way to preserve your berry bounty.  There are many methods but the basic premise is the same — simply mix fruit and sugar with enough hard spirit to keep the fruit well soused, and let it sit. (I’ve been substituting honey for years and it works just fine).

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My Oma made her Rumtopf in one large crock, layering in fruit throughout the season. I make mine in the large pot pictured above (which was handed down to me from my mom) but I also like to make smaller batches as well. I fill mason jars with different combinations of berries, foraged fruit (plums and pears) and alcohol (vodka, brandy, rum). Often I’ll infuse herbs and blossoms into the mixture, rose petals, fennel fronds, even Queen Anne’s Lace.

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The only downside is, of course, the waiting. This allows the full flavours to mellow and slowly develop, and can take a few months. (That said, I do occasionally dip into mine far earlier). But the upside is that you’ll have summer in a crock – ready for savouring by a blazing winter fire.  And it will warm more than your tummy and bones, it will nourish and revitalize your entire body as well.

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After all, wild berries are far more nutritious than their domesticated counterparts, brimming with important vitamins, phytochemicals, flavonoids, anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. And because many medicinal tinctures are made from soaking herbs and berries in alcohol, (which break down cellular walls, releasing their healing components) I like to think this compote as an enlivening winter tonic.

But for me, the best part of making compote is the magic. I begin picking the berries on the first of August, which in old Britain was the traditional time of the “Festival of First Fruits” better known as Lammas or Lammastide or Lughnasa. This represented the first harvesting of the growing season’s bounty, and was often referred to as the berry harvest.

In Ireland it was also known as Bilberry Sunday, the time to climb the mountain sides to collect wild berries. Bilberries were baked into pies, cakes and became part of ritual feast held alongside bread and other fruits of the first harvest. And it marked the traditional time to start making preserves in preparation for the coming dark months.

I love these old nature celebrations, and so making this compote from wild local berries has become a seasonal ritual. It connects me to my ancestors, to the bounty of nature, to the earth and the seasonal energies of the land. And when I crack open the compote pot to celebrate the fruit of my labours, I know the deep dark flavour inside will transport me back that moment I stood in the hot summer sun, popping ripe succulent berries into my mouth. And that’s why, when the dark winter nights roll around, this boozy wild berry compote is magic.

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Boozy Wildcrafted Berry Compote

Ingredients:

  • Approximately 1 & 1/2 cups blackberries
  • Approximately 2 cups salal berries
  • Approximately 1 cup oregon grape berries
  • (you can also use wild blueberries or huckleberries if you like)
  • 2 cups of honey
  • 1 750ml bottle of vodka ( if you like you can infuse the vodka with rose petals or other blossoms. Simply soak them in the vodka for a week or two before straining them off)

Directions

  • Rinse your berries of dust and debris and let dry.
  • Place in large ceramic crock or large pickling jar.
  • Pour over with vodka and honey. The berries should be completely submerged. If you still have room – add a few more berries.
  • Stir gently.
  • Then put away for the winter i.e. two to three months.Give a gentle stir every now and then. If you want to sample it earlier – wait one month at least!
  • When ready, just spoon over whatever you want.

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A Super Easy Old-Fashioned Creamy Dessert: Honey Lilac Posset (Or Rose, Elderflower, Peony, Lavender…)

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“Be cheerful knight: thou shalt eat a posset to-night at my house”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Dating back to the middle ages, the posset is making a comeback. Perfect for when you want to whip up a special dessert with minimal effort, it’s made with three ingredients, honey, cream and lemon juice. These are boiled together and chilled overnight. That’s it. And if that isn’t wonderful enough, try infusing your posset with spring flowers like lilac, wild rose or elderflower. Simply divine.

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If you follow Gather’s fb page you’ll likely have noticed we’ve become smitten with possets. This began when I discovered this amazing recipe for Lemon Lavender Posset. Because lavender wasn’t yet ready, I decided to use what was in full bloom at the time -the glorious fragrant blossoms of lilac. The results were delicious.

This inspired Jennifer to create Elderflower Posset (she tossed in a few of our native red elderflowers as well) and now we’re both enamoured with rose. Lately I’ve been eyeing the peony which is reputed to make a delightful jelly.

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Elderflower Honey Posset

Today’s posset is very different from the one often referred to by Shakespeare, a drink made from curdled milk, sugar, alcohol and sack, (a fortified wine or sweet ale similar to sherry).  I like this 1596 recipe from The Good Housewife’s Jewel Take a pint of thick cream, and season it with sugar and ginger, and rose water. So stir it as you would then have it make it lukewarm in a dish on a chafing dish and coals. And after put it into a silver piece or a bowl, and so serve it to the board.”

Bthe 18th century, possets are made from milk, but thickened with egg yolks (like custard) or bread (like a trifle). But the modern posset recipes now making the rounds, are more like basic puddings (no, not the Jello). And they’re often served slathered on scones or with shortbread biscuits.

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Wild Rose Posset

Puddings today are not thought to be good for the health, but possets certainly were. Used as a general “restorative” to fortify the body, or as a curative to banish colds and illness, possets were a delicious way to make the medicine go down. A 19th century recipe mentions a black pepper flavoured posset that will ‘promote perspiration’ in order to sweat out a fever.  Flowers of course, bring their own healing properties, elderflower and rose for example are both known for their anti-inflammatory constituents.

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Elderflower

Possets were often served at weddings and used in toasts at all levels of society.  Which means you just might find them served at upcoming Gather nuptials.  Like, lets say a Rose Posset made with rose brandy and a yarrow infused honey (good for ensuring love, fidelity and marital bliss).

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Posset Pot

Sometimes a wedding ring was thrown in the posset pot and the person who found it was next to head to the altar.  You would use a spoon to eat the top layers and then drink the wine through the spout in the cup. With an alcoholic base at bottom and creamy layer on top, it actually sounds quite delicious. Needless to say I’ll be experimenting with a boozy wedding-inspired posset shortly.

So if you’re in a part of the country where lilac still blooms, you’ll be enchanted by this Lilac Honey Posset. But is you’ve got roses, well that’s heavenly too. I’m moving on to lavender, whose buds are plumping and readying for harvest. But whatever floral you choose, I’m willing to bet you’ll soon find yourself (like us!) enthralled with the old-fashioned charm of the posset.

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Lilac Honey Posset (or Rose, Elderflower etc.)

Makes about 6 portions.

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 cups cream (heavy or regular whipping cream both work)
  • ½ cup honey
  • ⅓ cup lemon juice
  • 1-2 cups fresh blossoms (be sure to remove all stems, especially from Elderflower…and if you’re using lavender, you’ll need just half a cup!)
  • wee pinch of salt & cardamom (if you’re so inclined)

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Bring cream and honey to boil over medium-high heat. Stir continually until honey is fully combined.
  • Keep at a low boil/simmer for 3 full minutes, and keep stirring!  Then add lemon juice and stir some more.
  • Remove from heat and then mix in your blossoms thoroughly. Allow to infuse for one hour at minimum.

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  • Strain off flowers and pour into small jars or ramekins.
  • Cover tightly and chill overnight.

Some say you can stick in the freezer for 30-40 minutes (if you’re in rush to sample your just desserts) but we’ve both found they won’t decently set unless left for 24 hrs.

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Yarrow: On Love & Marriage & Ale

Yarrow is blooming here on Vancouver Island! It’s one of my favourite herbs and I’m so happy to see it’s all at once delicate and sturdy white blossoms again. I plan to incorporate a lot of yarrow into my upcoming summer nuptials. And this is where I segue into my big announcement: I’m getting married in July…in the woods at the lovely Cedar Haven Weddings ..to Danielle’s brother, Christian. This promises to be Gather’s biggest project yet—so if wedding stuff bores you, you may want to avert your eyes for a couple of months. Though we will try to make it interesting. Promise.

Now where was I? Yarrow! It’s Latin name, Achillea millefolium, is attributed to the Greek hero, Achilles who was said to use it to heal his warriors wounds—at least according to Pliny the Elder. Turns out Achilles’ relationship with Yarrow is a little muddy… Here’s an interesting read on that, if you’d like to know more. Greek gods aside, yarrow’s been an important healing herb the world over for a very long time. And so it should come as no surprise that it has an equally long magical history. After all, our ancestors didn’t put nearly as much effort into separating magic and medicine as we do.

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Yarrow detail from Rima Staines’ Weed Wife

From casting the ancient I Ching in China to rounding out the seven herbs sacred to the Irish, yarrow has always been an important herb for protection, love, fidelity and divination. It was hung in doorways and on cradles to repel evil spirits, held against the eyes to bring on the second site, worn in shoes to give travellers fluency of speech and sewn into clothes to fend off…well, everything. And then there’s the love charms!  Singletons of yore sewed yarrow blossoms and leaves into little sachets, said a little prayer and tucked them under their pillows in hopes that their future betrothed would appear in their dreams.

Thou pretty herb of Venus tree
Thy true name be Yarrow
Now who my bosom friend must be
Pray tell thou me tomorrow.

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Scottish girls silently gathered yarrow in the fields and then with eyes closed, recited:

Good morrow, good morrow
To thee, braw yarrow
And thrice good morrow to thee:
I pray thee tell me today or tomorrow 
Who is my true love to be. 

Upon opening their eyes, they’d scan the horizon for a male figure AKA their future husband (Dictionary of Plant Yore, D.C. Watts). Similar divination love charms and rituals involving yarrow were practiced across Europe and in colonized America. I wonder how many less than desirable bachelors cottoned on to this and scheduled their morning strolls accordingly… Of course, with such a long relationship with humans, yarrow also got dragged into the witch hunts. Graveyard yarrow was said to help uncover a witch and or protect someone from falling in love with one. Handy stuff, old yarrow is.

Beyond love divination and charms, yarrow was also a token of fidelity. Sprigs were tucked into wedding wreaths and hung over the newlyweds’ bed to guarantee seven years (and not a day more) of fidelity. Yarrow ale was also commonly served at medieval wedding festivals called bride-ales. And yes, this is where our modern word “bridal” comes from. These sometimes multi-day celebrations clearly involved a lot of ale drinking and sparked a tradition of brewing special bridal beers for the occasion.

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Also known as “Field Hops”, yarrow was commonly used as a bittering agent pre-hops, and was considered to make a headier brew than others. There is evidence that yarrow has mild psychotropic properties or “a thujone, hypnotic cannabinoid compound” (Green Man Ramblings) that scientifically explains these claims. Many herbalists have documented shifts in perception like colours brightening and heightened hearing after consuming certain yarrow plants—combine that with the inhibition-relieving effects of a fermented beverage and now you have a party. If anyone’s ever had to host the in-laws, never mind the entire village, you can see why a yarrow ale might be popular.

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And it’s in this tradition that David Woodward, head brewer of Axe and Barrel Brewing Co. is infusing his lovely IPA in yarrow and wee bit of rosemary (another important marital herb and possible future blog post subject) to create a special small batch brew for our wedding. David’s known for creating unique beers using foraged ingredients and interesting flavour combinations and I LOVE the idea of a special wedding ale, particularly when ancient herbs with all their healing properties and folklore are incorporated. Yarrow blossoms will also appear in my bouquet by local sustainable flower grower, Wild Edge and it’s fragrant sturdy white blooms will be tucked into one special boutonnière. With luck, our caterer Nature’s Chef will use a bit of it to flavour a dish or two (nudge-nudge, hint-hint, Tom). And while our bride-ale will run only a few short hours, I can’t think of a more wonderful way to ring in our marriage than with loved ones and such a magical plant ally!

Post Script:  While researching the history of herbs and beer, I stumbled across the fascinating history of women brewers and the convenient association with witchcraft that wiped many of them out, leaving the craft almost exclusively to men and pleasing the church in the process. I plan to explore further in a follow-up post already cleverly titled “Brewmasters & Broomsticks”. But that’s another story for another day… 

Eating Wild: The Missing Link to Optimum Health

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love that wild foods are the most nutritious, natural and sustainable of all foods – which is why they are a daily part of my diet. But because I still have to pay for the bulk of my sustenance, I’m ever so grateful to food journalist Jo Robinson and her wonderful book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health”. And while I do have one small reservation (more on that later) her book provided me with a practical and empowering guide to the most nutritious foods that money can buy – the fruits and vegetables closest to their wildest relatives.

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Touted as “the next stage in the food revolution—a radical way to select fruits and vegetables and reclaim the flavour and nutrients we’ve lost” her book drives home the point that whether its tomatoes, kale, lettuce, apples, berries, wheat and grains – all our foods descend from wild foods. The problem? “Ever since farmers first planted seeds 10,000 years ago, humans have been destroying the nutritional value of their fruits and vegetables. Unwittingly, we’ve been selecting plants that are high in starch and sugar and low in vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants for more than 400 generations”. 

In other words, we bred a wealth of nutrients out of the human diet. For example, our pale overbred iceberg lettuce (descended from wild greens) contains only a fraction of the nutrients found in wild lettuce, dandelion, nettles, chickweed, garlic mustard, sheep sorrel, yarrow, garlic mustard and many other herbs and plants which have been consumed by our ancestors since prehistoric times.

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Her book shows us “how to regain these lost nutrients by choosing modern varieties that approach the nutritional content of wild plants.” From lettuce, potatoes, onions, berries and apples, she categorizes over-domesticated foods to avoid and provides lists of foods are closest to their original  “natural” state like green apples, green onions, black concord grapes, artichokes and many other varieties. 

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All of which begs the question – why not just eat wild foods in the first place? This doesn’t mean giving up the sweet starchy pleasures of the modern diet to scratch in the dirt for leaves, seeds and roots. To me it just makes sense to go back to the source and add back as many lost nutrients as we possibly can.

Which brings me to my small bone of contention. While I agree with Robinson that living on wild plants is no longer feasible – “there are too many of of us and not enough wilderness” her book fails to mention that wild foods are a viable, nutritious, freely available food source that can supplement modern diets, enhance our health and increase the security of local food systems. And we don’t need to shell out for pricey superfoods either – it’s as simple as stepping out our front door, picking some dandelions and making a soup.  

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Cream of Dandelion Soup

Fact is, eating wild doesn’t require wading deep into the backwoods, or trampling endangered ecological areas. Wild plants grow in abundance as “weeds” in our backyards, our neighbourhoods, our city parks and urban green spaces. Many of these plants are so plentiful they are classified as “invasive” by our government and are eliminated at great effort and cost (often with carcinogenic pesticides) in our regional parks and local municipalities.

And in this time of rising food costs, climate change and food insecurity, does it really make sense to eliminate foods that require no work or resources to plant, grow or water? After all many of these plants and herbs like chickweed, thistle, burdock, dandelion, gorse, lambs-quarters, garlic mustard, blackberry and hawthorn, were once part of a beloved seasonal and medicinal cuisine eaten for thousands of years. 

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Of course we can’t just step outside and start picking everything we see. Some wild plants are poisonous. But the truth of the matter is that edible plants far outweigh deadly ones. And once we learn to identify and avoid harmful plants, a vast cornucopia of nourishing food abundance begins to offer itself; fresh greens, berries, nuts and herbs. And they are growing all around us – for free.

I realize that for many the idea of eating “weeds” is still, well, a little strange. But wild foods are part of a growing ecological and culinary movement grounded in the virtues of local sustainable eating – and they’ve been enjoying 5 star ratings in the worlds top restaurants for years!

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Wild Food Dishes by Noma

That said,  it’s important to remember that wild foods are more a return to tradition than a trend.  Not always the sole provenance of “back to nature” hippie dippy types, big-bearded hipsters, top chefs or ethnobotanists – they were the food of the people. Knowing which plants to pick and when, how to prepare them, and how to use them medicinally, was part of body of traditional knowledge passed on through the generations. Both my grandmother and husband’s mother remember being taught by their mothers and grandmothers how to forage for such seasonal delights as wild berries, nettles and mushrooms.

So what happened? How did we lose this knowledge in the space of a few generations? One reason could be the emergence of food experts (funded by agribusiness) whose food pyramid charts told us the “right” way to eat. A way to eat that put profits in pockets by convincing us that “real food” was the food we buy at the store. And slowly those foods not mass-produced by industry, became just plain forgotten.

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But today, as the nutrient levels of domestic foods dwindles (and prices skyrocket) it’s become more important than ever to learn how to eat wild once again. As a wild food educator and activist, I believe its time we recognize that wild foods are a valuable food resource for local communities. And as such, I advocate they deserve a place at the table alongside food security initiatives such as community and boulevard gardens, urban farms, urban orchards and food forests. Because by finding a way to give “weeds” a little space of their own to grow in our community green spaces (free from toxic chemicals) we can once again make their nourishing sustenance accessible to all.

So while I urge you to pick Robinson’s book and spend your food dollars on the wildest foods possible – let’s also remember there are other options available beyond the supermarket aisle. With just a little investment in community education, wild foods could be transformed from pests and weeds into vital food resources, part of an evolving “agri-hood” in which communities, in harmony with their local environments, can feed themselves.  So let’s begin to take wild food seriously and recognize as Robinson does, that they constitute the missing link to our optimum well-being .

Note: If you live in Victoria you can hear Jo Robinson speak at the upcoming Sustainable Health and Wellness Festival. Link here.

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Sweethearts: Wild Violet Sugar Valentines

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If you live in the Pacific Northwest, violets are likely popping up their lovely blue, pink or even white little heads somewhere near you – right now.  And if you’ve left your Valentine treat to the last possible minute (as I have) well, violet sugar is the perfect solution!

No fussing, no cooking, no baking, no crystallizing or distilling, violet sugar can be sprinkled on practically anything (or even sinfully spooned direct into the mouth) allowing you and your sweetheart to indulge in one of the most beloved culinary flavours and romantic scents of the past 2000 years – tonight!

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And what could say “Be my Valentine” better than the violet? In ancient Greece its aroma was said to “torment young men beyond endurance” and it was used by courtesans to scent their breath and erogenous zones. Affiliated with Venus, Aphrodite and love from time immemorial, the violet (according to the American Violet Society) was the original official flower of Valentine’s Day – not the rose.

St. Valentine’s is said to have crushed the violet blossoms growing outside his cell into an ink that he wrote the first valentines, good-bye notes delivered to his loved ones by a dove. By the 18th century, the violet was the undisputed star of Valentine love missives and postcards from Europe to the Americas.

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Violets, of course have a long use in love spells, and in the magical  language of flowers, violets represent lust as well as faithfulness, protection, peace and healing.  Violet flavoured chocolates and creams (apparently a favourite of Sarah Bernhardt) were a favoured treat and they remain a top seller for Valentine Day today in England. In France, violets are used in liqueurs, creams and to garnish meat dishes, especially veal, and the Victorians loved to serve violet wafers with lemon balm sauce as appetizers for 19th-century banquets.

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Once given a special place in every turn of the century garden, whether ornamental or kitchen, the violet was cultivated in special frames to protect them from “inclement weather” and were subject of detailed growing instructions in 18th and 19th century gardening manuals. Today they have proven themselves in no need of cosseting as they have escaped domestication and grow profusely anywhere there is a damp patch of grass. Which is where I found mine, in the early morning mist, a few steps from my door.

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Growing wild in the Northwest, Viola sororia and Viola odorata only grow a few inches high and are found in shady forests or wet areas each spring.  They can also migrate into urban areas and are so plentiful they are often targeted as invasive weeds.

I chose a simple shortbread to showcase my violet sugar, because it’s pretty fast and simple to make and only requires three ingredients. Which means these sweethearts – from harvest to serving plate, took me less than two hours. But that said, you’ll need a food processor otherwise be prepared to be mincing and mortaring for another hour at least!

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Here is another pretty recipe

It took me 10 minutes to harvest just under half a cup of blossoms. And while it was almost painful to whiz these beautiful blossoms up in the food processor with 1/2 cup of sugar, the deed was done in less than 30 seconds. The cookies all told took me an hour and because they were tiny, they cooled very quickly allowing the application of an icing sugar glaze to lay the base for the sugar.

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I like the violet sugar as fresh as possible because of the flavour. Once it dried it becomes more subtle. Once dipped they are ready for eating, and one bite is all that is necessary to understand why the violet is one of the most popular edible flowers in the world.

Wild Violet Sweethearts

Ingredients:

Violet Sugar:  Ingredients

  • 1cup violet blossoms
  • 1cup granulated sugar

Remove stems. Wash blossoms, pat dry, place in food processor with sugar and whir until flowers and sugar are well blended. Sugar will be moist and crumbly.( Once dry it will be paler in colour and can be whirred again for a violet sugar powder.)

Shortbread: 

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1cup cane sugar
  • 2 1cups flour
  • 1cup icing sugar (for dipping glaze)
  1. Cream butter and sugar.
  2. Add flour, mix well. Knead until holds together.
  3. Roll out and cut into desired shapes with small (1 -2 inch) cookie cutter. Place on parchment paper.

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  1. Bake at 350°F until pale golden – about 7 minutes
  2. While cooling, mix icing sugar with water to form a thick glaze for dipping.
  3. Once cool, dip or brush cookies in glaze then roll in violet sugar. Serve!

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Midwinter Feast of Light: Reviving the Magical Foods of Imbolc

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Gather’s Midwinter Celebration, 2014

I love the ancient feast days of the pagan calendar. Celebrating the turn of the “great wheel of the year” through the solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, these “holy days” are the origin of most of our modern holidays. And no matter what ancestral culture you descend from, it’s a pretty safe bet that most of your beloved holiday foods were once “holy foods”, ritually prepared and consumed to bring fertility, good harvest and prosperity to the land.

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Which is why Jennifer and I are once again busy in the kitchen. We’re preparing to celebrate one the oldest and most magical holy days of the ancient calendar- the upcoming Midwinter Festival of Light. Falling at the midpoint between winter solstice and spring equinox, it can be dated as far back as the Neolithic when megalithic chambers marked the light of the rising sun on this day.

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Celebrated across Ireland, Britain and Scotland and Old Europe, it was known to the Celts as Imbolc,  who welcomed the onset of spring in the form of their goddess Brigid (Brigit, Brighid, Bride, Bridget, Bridgit, Bríd) who was known as the maiden of the sun. She revived the landscape from its winter slumber so that the agricultural year could begin. And in a time when winter cupboards began to run thin, the first appearance of her swelling buds and green shoots, were a promise of the return of the season of plenty.

I’m fascinated that Brigid is one of the few goddesses whose worship survived the onset of Christianity (although she was absorbed as St. Brigid and the religious festival of Candlemas). Many of her rites and food rituals are still observed today. This is likely due to the fact that the long arm of the invading Romans never managed to colonize Ireland.

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Brigid as depicted in a traditional Bridey Doll

All forms of light, heat and illumination were sacred to Brigid so it’s no wonder that Imbolc was marked with bonfires, blazing hearths, lit candles and a feast of sacred foods symbolizing the power of the sun. This was a high time for magic, for ritually burning off and releasing the old year and nourishing the new.

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Gather’s Imbolc Altar & Cake, 2014

Today we might say these ancient people were practicing a kind of “sympathetic magic”, the belief that through intention, in harmony with the seasonal powers of nature, they could create an energy of blessing for themselves, their families and their community.  And their ceremonial rituals of preparing and offering food were no exception.

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Jacopo da Ponte, Sheep and Lamb.

This was a time when the ewes began to birth, lactating the “new milk” or “Oilmec” which was sacred to the Celts. During Imbolc it was customary to offer this milk to Brigid by pouring it onto the earth to assist the return of fertility to the land. And it was also made into special cheese and baked into breads, cakes, and pies, along with other magical ingredients associated with the sun (such as egg yolks and honey) for the Imbolc feast.

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Sheep Cheese

Another centrepiece of Imbolc food was butter because (according to this wonderful compendium of Imbolc folklore and history) the churning of butter with a dash (a staff or plunger) was necessary for the fertilization of the brídeóg (a doll or effigy of Brigid) so central to Imbolc fertility customs. (See more on the Bridey Doll here)

Another important food ritual was the making of the Bonnach Bride or Bannock of Bride (an oatcake made with fruits and nuts). On the eve of St Brìde’s day it was customary for mothers to give out gifts of bannocks, along with cheese or butter to the girls who visited each house with the Brìde’s doll. The Bonnach Bride was also eaten in the fields so that a piece could be thrown over the shoulder to honour Brigid and nourish the land.

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Bannock -image from Yummly.com

Pancakes were eaten because, round and golden, they resembled the sun. This promised an abundant harvest of wheat and saving the last pancake in the cupboard ensured there would be enough flour to last out the year. Wishes were made while flipping a pancake in the air and trinkets were also placed into pancake batter as a way to divine one’s future prospects for the forthcoming year.

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Brigid was believed to be a teacher of ‘herbcraft” and so many plants and flowers sacred to her, such as sage, heather, violets, rosemary and blackberry were often featured in Imbolc foods. Each came with their own magical purpose, rosemary and sage for example, brought their powers of purification and cleansing, so ritually important at this time of new beginnings.

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Sage

These are only a few of the foods and culinary traditions of Imbolc passed down to us through folklore – ones that we’ll be reviving once again at our own Midwinter celebration. As per tradition, we’ll craft Brigid crosses or sun wheels (which are hung on the door to invite Brigid’s blessings into our home) weave floral fertility crowns, and light an altar of burning candles in her honour.

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Then we’ll be serving up some Imbolc magic in dishes like sheep cheese, braided breads, herb and honey butters, and creamy tarts and savoury pies. There might even be a pancake “cake”so that we can enjoy a little old fashioned divination!

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We’ll also add a touch of the wild by featuring the new fresh greens and herbs that appear in early spring. Wild garlic has been used as an herb with fish and to flavour soups, stews, potato dishes and in salads since the days of the Celts. And according to this book, nettles, chickweed, burdock, sheep sorrel, wood sorrel, yarrow, wild mustards and winter cress was consumed in the UK in spring pottages and stews. And of course dandelion greens (a plant sacred to Brigid) have been eaten since ancient times.

So please join us as we celebrate some old world food magic at the Midwinter Feast of Lights. We’ll raise a toast to the bride of new beginnings and partake in some of the magical foods of spring. We hope you can make it – and if not click here, for a little inspiration for your own feast and celebration. And for those interested in attending our Imbolc event, tickets can be purchased here. Happy Imbolc!

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Cranberry & Hazelnut Peppermint Honey Cake: Hail To The Mothers!

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Photo from Lily and Lane

It’s no secret that baking confections, cookies and fruit cakes have long been part of the feminine customs surrounding the winter holidays. So for our last gathering we offered a buffet of wildcrafted festive cookies and treats in honour of the season. In preparation I spent some time in search of old recipes that might have been created by our pagan ancestors, and I came across a beautiful tradition, called Mother’s Night, which is now almost entirely forgotten.

Taking place on what we now know as Christmas Eve, it was once dedicated to a group of feminine divinities revered by the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Roman peoples for hundreds of years. And guess what, it was celebrated with much feasting, drinking – and eating of cakes! Who knew?

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Found on countless carvings, votives, statues and shrines dated between the 1st to 7th century, the Mothers or Matrones were often associated with rivers, mountains, springs and tree’s. Often depicted in a group of three, they were shown holding babies, baskets of fruit and grain, or the cornucopia, symbol of fertility and of the bounty of the earth.  Scholars generally agree that the ‘cult’ of the Mother’s was a remnant of the earlier goddess worshipping peoples, and represented the feminine principle in nature.

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In his account of the pagan calendar in 725 AD, the monk Bede, tells us that on Christmas Eve ” the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call Modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.” Bede leaves few details about what actually took place during these ceremonies, but modern pagan references (and here) indicate Mother’s Night traditionally kicked off the pagan celebrations of Yule – which from Germany to Scandinavia was celebrated with an enormous banquet featuring boar, goose and fish, nettle soup, mushroom dumplings, cheese pies, egg nog, mead and yes, plenty of honey cakes!

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Which isn’t a surprise – honey cakes have been baked in honour of the goddess for thousands of years. From Judah, Egypt, Greece and Rome, women baked honey in cakes in tribute to Asherah, Ishtar, Artemis and Demeter, and many others, such as the Norse Goddess Freya and the Celtic goddess Brighid.

Ancient statue of women baking (source unknown)

Today we’ve come to associate the fruit and spice cakes of Christmas with eastern spices like ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg. But before these spices became common in the middle ages, Mother Night cakes were probably made with local dried fruit, nuts, forest roots and herbs. The earliest methods were likely very simple: flour and honey were mixed together and then the mixture would sit until naturally-produced yeasts caused it to rise.

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Vasilopita, Greek Good Luck Cake

It also pretty likely that cakes served on Mother’s Night were regarded as magical, ensuring fertility and good tidings for the new year. Today their many descendants such as the Pfeffernüsse, Lebkuchen and Springerle are still given as good luck tokens and are fashioned in the shapes of  evergreen trees, stars, sun, and animals (symbols sacred to the fertility goddesses of old). 

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Left: Medieval Gingerbread mold, Lebkuchen Cookie

The Yule log cake served traditionally in France brings good fortune, as do the German cookies made in the shape of horns or a crescent (also an ancient symbol of the Goddess), which are heaped on plates for the Christmas Eve supper to ensure a bounteous new year.

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Left: Early Christian women baked honey cakes in honour of Mary. Right: Crescent Christmas cookies

Lekach, or Jewish honey cake is eaten on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, in hopes of ensuring a sweet New Year, and in Italy the Panettone was given as presents to friends – and it was meant to be kept in the house to ensure good luck until the following Christmas! 

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Jewish Honey Cake

So inspired by these magical baking traditions I decided to try my hand at what might have been a typical cake served by foremothers on “Mother’s Night”. And while a thousand flavour permutations were possible, I narrowed down a selection of ingredients that would have been readily available to my European ancestors at the time, such as stoneground rye flour, dark clover honey, hazelnuts, dried apples, cranberries and mint.

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And while it was a bit primitive, it was fitting. Moist, dense, fruity and minty – it turned out to be a perfectly festive delight. And of course, I’ll be bringing it to Jennifer’s Winter Solstice party to ensure that near & dear are graced with good luck!

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Granted it may have no actual similarity to the actual cakes of Mother’s Night, but nonetheless it is my way of remembering the many women who passed the traditions of sacred baking from generation to generation so that they still grace our holiday tables. To them I give thanks. But most of all,  like my foremothers before me, I offer this cake to the forgotten Mothers and nature goddesses of old, whose cornucopias still flow with abundance and plenty. May their blessings shine upon you this season and throughout the coming new year.

Hail to the Mothers!

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Hazelnut & Cranberry Peppermint Honey Cake

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of rye flour (or spelt or wholewheat)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking power
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup of unpasteurized honey
  • 1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts (roughly chopped)
  • 1/4 cup dried apples (chopped)
  • 1 cup cranberries
  • 1/4 cup of melted butter
  • 5-6 springs of chopped mint or spearmint ( you can also used dried – approx. 2 ounces)

Directions

  • Combine  flour and honey in large bowl, mix well. Let sit overnight.
  • Now add the rest of your ingredients into the batter and stir briskly, making sure it is well-blended.
  • Pour dough into dusted and greased baking pan ( a round tin or bundt pan is nice.)
  • Bake in preheated oven at 325 for for approximately 40 min.
  • Let cool.
  • Serve with drizzle of cranberry warmed honey!

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Recipes for Comfort & Joy: The Healing Powers of Conifers

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When days darken, cold winds blow, and the damp settles into our lungs and bones, we can turn to our ancient plant allies, the evergreen and ever vital, conifers. Towering over the forest canopy, their top branches are always nourished by the sun but their roots extend deeply into the earth. And when winter makes demands on our reserves of energy, endurance and warmth, we can count on their grounding and revitalizing energy for support. 
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In this post, we’ll explore the many ways (from foods, teas, oils and salves) conifers nurture your body and brighten your spirits – during the season we need it most. And please explore the links, you’ll find all kinds of recipes and simple DIY tips on how you can make culinary and medicinal conifer magic at home!

Conifers are a family of chiefly evergreen trees or shrubs of the class Coniferinae including the pine, fir, spruce, hemlock and other cone-bearing trees and shrubs – and people have been using them for food and medicine for thousands of years. Across northern countries pine nuts (found in the cones) were harvested, and needles were used to flavour beer and liqueur. Locally, BC First Nations also harvested pine nuts, used needles of pine, fir and spruce for teas, chewed their resin and sap, and scraped off the inner bark for dried cakes with berries. (see here if you want to try some!)

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Douglas-fir

And it’s no wonder they were traditionally used in many healing remedies. The volatile oils found in pine, spruce and fir needles, bark, sap and resin are used by herbalists and aromatherapists to help stimulate the respiratory system, decongest the lungs, boost the immune system, balance hormones, and bring circulation and warmth to cold muscles and stiff joints. And as anyone who has smelled their fresh-cut branches already knows, their enchanting fragrance is a medicine all its own, helping calm the nervous system, reduce stress and cortisol, revive stamina and provide feelings of peace and wellbeing.

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Sitka Spruce

Their needles are high in vitamin B, C, A, and iron and a slew of minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids, and according to various studies they contain anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular-protecting, triglyceride-reducing properties as well. Conifer needles are one of the richest sources of polyprenols which stimulate the immune system, cellular repair and contain antiviral properties – in particular against influenza viruses! (Which all goes a long way towards explaining their ancient reputation as a cure-all for practically anything!)

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Grand Fir

Plus they’re delicious! Citrusy and herbaceous, studies have identified over 39 flavor compounds in pine needles and over 81 in pine bud/tips alone! There are even conifer enthusiasts (and here) who have analysed their taste signatures, describing pines as heady, sharp and lemony, spruce as resinous and fruity with a rosemary-like flavor, and firs as sweet with candied orange peel overtones.

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Coarse sea salt, grand fir needles, sheep sorrel & nettle seeds, dried oregon grape blossoms,  dried orange rind.

And they’re super easy to incorporate into a wide variety of foods.  You can toss chopped needles into vinegars, finishing salts and even blend them directly (with a food processor) into sugars. (link here). The salts give wonderful flavour to fish, roasted meats and are great sprinkled straight up on apples or celery. My favourite seasonal use for conifer sugar is shortbread – I cream it into butter when making the dough and sprinkle on top once the cookies are baked. 

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Douglas-Fir Sugar, made by blending needles with sugar in a food processor

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Grand Fir Infused Sugar

Conifer needles are especially wonderful in teas. My hands down favourite is the sweetly flavoured Grand Fir, with it’s distinct tangerine or grapefruit top-notes. It is easily identified by its needles which lie flat on the branches, alternating short and long (see image above). Just add a handful of needles to a cup of boiling water and let steep for 15 minutes. A tea made mostly from fresh needle tips will be brighter and sweeter, while one made with older needles will be more earthy and woodsy.

I throw in small twigs because the bark (high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties) adds even more rich flavour, with just a hint of resinous bitter. It’s also nice to add a pinch of warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves which bring their own potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities to the brew.

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Fresh or dried conifer needles (about a cup) can also be wrapped in a cloth bag and tossed in the bath for a revitalizing soaking. And blended with sea or epsom salts, they can be incredibly relaxing. I love to mix in dried rose petals and bits of cedar for additional fragrance. You could even further customize your blend by considering each conifer’s differing medicinal and energetic effects. According to this aromatherapy site, the oils of firs are warming and invigorating, while relieving nervous exhaustion and stress. Spruce helps support the adrenal glands, stimulate and increase energy, and are “centering, calming and focusing”.

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Conifer Bath Salts

Their needles can also make wonderful homemade oils and warming salves for topical application on the skin. These are beneficial as muscle rubs, bringing blood flow and circulation to stiff winter bodies, muscles and joints. They make a great lip balm too!

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Coastal Forest Salve

And let me tell you, on chilly winter days, a conifer salve makes a perfect accompaniment for yoga. (Recipes can be found here and here.) Massaging it’s restorative fragrance into the skin (which also contains scent receptors) before or after practice leaves you feeling supple and resilient, well, as an evergreen.

According to aromatherapists, their oils and fragrance are said to support and stimulate different chakras as well. Pines represent the “the oldest aromatic energy on the earth” and are “linked to the oxygenation of our planet”, therefore their energy is grounding and supports the heart chakra and respiratory system. Canadian Hemlock “stimulates the imagination and inspiration while stabilizing the nervous system” and enhances the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th chakras, while Western Hemlock can “help dispel disturbances in your energy fields which are disrupting your health and well-being”.

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Hemlock

Western Hemlock is prolific here on Vancouver Island, and according to herbalist Todd Caldecott, it’s powerful feminine energies were often called upon by local Coastal Salish women. “Boughs were often used to make special huts to house the women gathered in during menstruation. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Vancouver Island, female warriors asking a boon of the god Sisiutl used Western Hemlock in their head-dress during ceremonial dances. Sisiutl is the two-headed serpent mentioned in all the Coastal First Nations mythology: an untamed deity of the earth, representing like the Indian goddess Kali, the wild darkness of nature from which all life begins.”

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And for our European ancestors, the female life-giving magic of conifers was also honoured. During Yule festivities across the northern hemisphere, trees of pine, fir and spruce were revered as embodiments of the goddess (the Tree of Life) who never dies. And on the winter solstice (the longest and darkest night of the year) they were decorated with candles and ornaments symbolizing the everlasting light of sun, moon and stars, in her undying branches. We still partake in this enduring mystery when we stand before our own lit trees during this season.

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But we can also call on this old feminine wisdom by crafting a little evergreen magic of our own. So when the cold winds blow and spirits flag, brew up some tea, take a conifer infused bath, inhale their oils, and warm your skin.

And to close, here is an easy recipe for a festive, tasty and medicinal evergreen tonic syrup. You can use to this to brighten Yuletide foods and drink, but also as a tonic when you need a fortifying boost and feel a cold or flu coming on.  And this festive season, it makes a wonderful flavor-packed syrup for tea, cocktails, and desserts. So gift yourself and those you love, with some conifer inspired comfort and joy!

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(Note: All Conifers are edible excepting the Yew whose needles are thought to be toxic, though some herbalists use them medicinally. Cedar can be toxic in high doses but a handful of needles are just fine consumed in a tea. Ponderosa Pines should be avoided by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also avoid consuming the needles from the Norfolk Island Pine which is not native to BC and is often sold as mini-Christmas Trees in supermarkets.

Ending The Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War On Invasive Plants: Who Does The War Serve?

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good? To see my introduction to this series click here.

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In Part One and Two I explored evidence suggesting that, in the long run, invasive plants may be doing more good than harm. In this post I’ll ask – how big a role has the chemical industry played in shaping our idea that invasive plants must be eradicated – no matter the cost?

It is the official position of the US and Canadian government, that “invasive alien species pose one of the most serious threats to our environment.” And it means that, all told, billions of dollars are budgeted for the use of herbicides like glyphosate and other poisons.

Recommended targets for herbicides found in chemical industry publications include a slew of nutritious and medicinal plants such as: Hawthorn, Himalayan Blackberry, Gorse, Fennel, Cottonwood, Elderberry, Wild Rose, Milk Thistle, St. Johns Wort, Burdock, Chicory, Garlic Mustard, Curly dock, Dandelion, Lambs quarters, Plantain, Cleavers and Wild lettuce – and this is only a partial list. What will be left when they’re through? Native plants that have been potentially poisoned by the application of herbicides and pesticides on their neighbors? As well as the ecosystem itself?

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Timothy Scott, Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives, reminds us that a “war — either real or imagined — must be waged in order to gather together public support and funding from the government.” And like any war it requires propaganda. And he wants us to note that emotionally charged words such as alien, noxious, invasive, aggressive, harmful, disruptive, choking, are brought to us by the same companies whose products are being used to wage war on humans and the everyday war on pests – Monsanto, DuPont and the Dow Chemical Company. “These war factories are good at only two things: death and destruction.”

To this point, Toby Hemenway, author of The Permaculture City writes on his website “Quickly we see that unlike most scientific reports, papers in even academic journals such as Conservation Biology and Restoration and Management Notes bristle with xenophobic rhetoric: “all [species] should be treated as threats . . . unless proven otherwise.” Species are labeled “nefarious,” “stealing,” “stormtrooper plants,” and “intruders” that should be “weeded out” to “prevent their escape.” Hardly the language of objective science.”

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Loosely described, Invasion Biology is the study of invasive plants and the processes of species invasion. And according to authors Timothy Lee Scott,  Andrew Cockburn and David Theodoropoulos, it’s history is inextricably intertwined with the pesticide industry. Theodoropoulos is the author of Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience and he is blunt. “Every time you hear the word invasive species – think Monsanto.”

Theodoropoulos’s book charts how in the past two decades a new notion arose to keep environmentalists busy, “the notion that plants and animals have a “natural” habitat, from which outsiders must be expelled”. And he presents evidence how this view was actively supported and promoted by the financial might of Monsanto, Dow and Dupont. Theodoropoulos states “Thirty years ago the greatest threats to nature were chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Now the greatest threats are wild plants and animals. And what do we use to fight them? Chain saws, bulldozers, and poisons. Who does this serve?”  

Recently Theodoropoulo’s claims that chemical company executives were founding members of many invasive species councils and organizations have been taken up by journalist Andrew Cockburn. In his article Weed Whackers: Monstanto, glyphosate and the war on invasive species in Harpers Magazine he writes, “During the Reagan era, when environmentalists were still imbued with the spirit of Earth Day, nobody worried about invasive species. Instead, well-organized, militant groups were busy fighting chemical pollution, nuclear power, shale-oil drilling, logging devastation, and other corporate onslaughts.”

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But in the 1990’s Clinton signed Executive Order 13112, creating the National Invasive Species Council “to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.” And a new environmental cause was born.

“Among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for “habitat-restoration markets” — that is, for eradicating invasives.” Jackson represented Monsanto on the Invasive Species Advisory Committee from 2000 to 2006 and co-edited some of the council’s founding reports.

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Cockburn’s article alleges another leader in the science of invasion biology Peter Raven had close ties to Monsanto. He chaired the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel, which considered the issue of invasive species and reported recommendations at the end of the year.  His company, Cockburn notes, The Missouri Botanical Garden “owed much of its explosive growth to the beneficence of the corporation, which was in the process of changing its public identity from a chemical manufacturer and purveyor of Agent Orange to a “life sciences company” — one heavily invested in GMOs.”

Theodoropoulos and Boyce Thorne Miller (Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance) argue that much of the “scientific” evidence that is typically used to describe ecological harm can be equally interpreted to indicate ecological benefits. They claim that rather than being an environmental problem, many “invaders” like Cordgrass and Purple Loosestrife have been shown to be important for revitalizing damaged ecosystems, repairing depleted soils, cleaning up toxics, and increasing the rate of evolution. Invasion, Bryce Miller and Theodoropoulos claim, is an entirely natural phenomenon, and is essential for creating and maintaining biological diversity.

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So when it comes to the research,Theodoropoulos charges that chemical companies are guilty of scientific misconduct when they misconstrue, make misleading statements and omit material facts – and are guilty of fraud when they profit from those statements.

Today it plain to see – if anyone looks as I did – that the chemical industry generously supplies educational and informational tools for the eradication of invasive species. And their presence, (i.e. instructing us how to “safely” use their products) is a common one at conferences and panels held by invasive species removal organizations here in BC and Canada.

Such as the upcoming North American Invasives Management Association in Vancouver BC. Its sponsors include Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Bayer and other chemical interests. So is it any coincidence that the keynote address “Toxicity and Pesticides. Weeding through new information about glyphosate and 2,4-D.” will be given by Dr. Len Ritter, Professor of Toxicology, School of Environmental Science, University of Guelph? Especially considering Ritter’s voice is one that cautions us not to get carried away with anti-pesticide hysteria?

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Dr. Len Ritter, professor of toxicology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, displays graphs contained in the Canadian Cancer Society’s latest report that show new cases and age-standardized incidence cancer rates in men are declining in Canada and staying about the same for women. Ritter was speaking to growers, field workers and industry partners in the P.E.I. potato industry on recently. © HEATHER TAWEEL/THE GUARDIAN

I grant you the jury may be far “from in” as to whether Theodoropoulos’s or Scott ’s (and many other scientists, biologists and ecologists) contentions that invasive species are beneficial and part of the healing processes of nature. But so is the jury still out on the potential negative effects these noxious chemicals could be having on our environment.

Whether we want to debate whether the glyphosate in Round-up is an actual or “probable carcinogen”, new evidence is surfacing that Monsanto and the US Environmental Protection Agency knew glyphosate was a “probable carcinogen” thirty years ago.  And since that time it has been indicated in countless studies to be implicated in ADHD, Alzheimers, Autism, Brain Cancer, Breast Cancer, Celiac and Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Kidney Disease, Depression, Heart isease, Parkinsons, Lou Gehrigs, Multiple Sclerosis, Reproductive issues, Miscarriages, Birth Defects, Obesity, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Liver disease, and Respiratory illnesses – and the list goes on. Diseases which have personally touched my family and friends.

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And remember too, this is only the estimated human impacts. What effect is the “controlled application” of products that “kill target alien species on contact or indirectly kill them or their offspring by damaging their essential life processes or ability to reproduce” —doing to the soil, the ground waters, the flora and fauna of the ecosystems in which it is being directly applied?

From what I understand, glyphosate works by disrupting an enzyme pathway essential to plants. And we’ve been told by the many chemical companies who use it – that since this pathway does not exist in animals, glyphosate is considered relatively safe for humans and wildlife. But even this too is being contested as this California lawsuit charges; that Monsanto is guilty of deliberate falsification and is concealing the fact that glyphosate is harmful to humans and animals.

Granted this all sounds conspiratorial and confusing to the extreme. And I’m certainly NOT implying that the whole field of invasion biology is without merit – but it’s pretty clear any research in which chemical companies like Monsanto have had a hand (either directly or indirectly) cannot be called neutral. I realize that while Theodoropoulos’s book is regarded by many as a “heroic expose on the corporate hijacking of an academic discipline”, there are many who point out that his theories are highly controversial, and that his research has yet to be published in credentialed scientific journals. 

But nonetheless I resonate with his contention that the misperception surrounding invasive plants “arises from fear born out of our disconnection to the cycles of nature.” This, Theodoropoulos believes,” is being exploited by corporations and governments and is leading to widespread herbicide use in wildlands.”

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So is it really so conspiratorial to suggest that the chemical industry is foisting anti-invasive propaganda on us that fattens their pockets? Perhaps here is good time to note, as journalist Cockburn did, that last year in the US alone, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Seems pretty profitable to me.

In the next post l’ll examine how pervasive the use of their toxic poisons in our city and provincial parks actually is. We’ll explore how and why their use is increasing – and where we as citizens are willing to draw the line between safety and risk.

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Ending the Toxic, Costly and Unnecessary War on Invasive Plants. Now.

This investigative series follows my personal exploration into a big question – is the toxic chemical war we are waging on invasive plants doing more harm than good?

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I’ve had it. On a recent foray into Uplands Park I was horrified to discover the landscape literally dotted with notices of herbicide applications of Glyphosate (think Round-Up) and Garlon. This was an area that I had previously believed was “pesticide free”. Now a herbicide is a pesticide by definition, so I gotta tell you, how can it be that everywhere I go, our local parks, crown forests or city green spaces, edible, nourishing and medicinal plants (otherwise known as invasive weeds) are being “treated” with noxious chemicals?

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In past three years I’ve been seeing more and more of these pesticide and herbicide application notices, so I wasn’t surprised to read in Pesticide Free Future that since 2012 “every BC municipality suddenly had an official plan for removal of invasive plants – specifically with herbicide – which seemed counter to the cosmetic pesticide bylaws being passed.”   Is this true – and if so, why?

Are we being lulled into a false sense of security by the CRD and Vancouver Island municipalities that promote “pesticide free” policies or even ban them for home use, all the while using them in our parks?

Why? What is the rationale? Well, as I’ve discovered it seems these chemicals are being used in a “war” against invasive plants which are deemed by the Canadian government to be one of the greatest “threats” to our environment. And one of the advocated solutions seems to be chemical control which chemical company publications tell us is more “time-efficient and cost-effective” than manual or mechanical removal methods, “especially on large sites”. 

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Now I fully acknowledge I’m no ecological expert. I’m just an ordinary citizen who is not yet sure whether chemicals proven to be harmful to life are actually benefiting our native ecosystems. But as I’ve discovered, questioning the conservationist ideology that invasive plants must be eradicated – at whatever the cost – is as close to modern sacrilege as it gets.

I’ve literally encountered eye widening shock and fist shaking rage when daring to suggest that these “weeds” have an ecological purpose of their own. And I’ve been called everything from a “nitwit” to “dangerous” to a “science denier” and been banned from wild food facebook groups for voicing these views.

But I’m not plucking my ideas from thin air. In the past few years we’ve seen the publication of many books, highlighting growing research in the fields of evolutionary biology, plant and soil ecology, bioremediation, plant pharmacology and climate change. And they suggest that invasive plants are actually healers, helping cleanse and repair damaged soils and waterways. In other words, they’re cleaning up the mess we’ve left behind.  

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The Dreaded Garlic Mustard

This research shows that our fear that invasive plants will choke, overtake and colonize vast areas, killing off endangered native species in the process, may be shortsighted. It suggests that once invasive plants fulfill their ecological function (to heal the landscape) that a natural balance would eventually occur, these plants will naturally die back. (I explore these ideas in following posts)

Today government and large conservationist agencies inform us that “controlled applications” of these chemicals is supposedly safe. Or at least worth the cost and the risk – when it comes to saving our endangered, indigenous species. According to a publication put out by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to stamp out Garlic Mustard “Glyphosate is widely considered the most appropriate herbicide for use on conservation lands”. Yet they also note here “The presence of synthetic chemicals in the environment, especially those designed to control unwanted species (insecticides and herbicides), and the acute and long-term effects of those chemicals on wildlife and humans have been of concern since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962.”

Boyce Thorne Miller, Science and Policy Coordinator of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, is deeply concerned. And in this series we’ll discover why she and many other scientists are disturbed at the increasing use of pesticides and herbicides used on invasive species. Thorne Miller states,“Basically, the cure is worse than the disease”.

Because as we’ll learn in a future post, the breadth of their use is, simply put, shocking – well, at least to me. And while we’re willing to tolerate short term death and destruction for long term rewards, fact is, the research just isn’t in. In the long haul, whether our native-ecosystems will benefit from the application of these chemicals – remains to be seen.

But who clearly is benefiting meanwhile is the chemical industry.  Our war on invasive plants is pouring billions of dollars into the pockets of companies who create deadly poisons both for human warfare and for the everyday war on pests: Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical Company.

Caption:Farmers Matt Wiggeim, right, and Cody Gibson mix Monsanto Co.'s Roundup herbicide near a corn field in Kasbeer, Illinois, U.S., on Monday, June 13, 2011. Corn fell to a one-month low and soybeans declined on speculation that favorable weather will boost yields in the U.S., the world's biggest grower and exporter. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Conservationist David Theodoropoulos’s book, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, conducted an examination of invasive-plant science and reveals a long-standing connection between invasion biology and the pesticide industry. Companies, as Theodoropoulos points out, which have a great deal invested in convincing us that invasive plants are our ‘enemy”. Companies, with the financial might to pay for their own ‘scientific research’ demonstrating why dangerous invasive plants must be eradicated.

And while it might sound conspiratorial, I think it bears asking if the profitable war on invasives might dry up if we woke up and realized that the enemy is really our friend?

In my own wild food community many have been extremely upset by these articles. And while many agree that pesticide use is not the answer – they ask that I stop questioning the very tenets of conservation itself. They feel these posts are undermining the cause that many have dedicated their lives to – restoring threatened native ecosystems.

But how to question the use of noxious chemicals in our wilds – without questioning the rationale that lies behind their use? I’ve already been told – countless times – that while no one “likes” to use them, they are a necessary evil – for the reasons I’ve described.

It is my deeply held conviction that I owe it to the earth and animals I love, to ask these questions. I want a full accounting of the use of pesticides in our city greenspaces and forests by our parks and municipal representatives. I want to know how are they assessing the risk of potential long-term negative effects to the ecosystem, animals and human life? 

It’s not as if there aren’t methods of ‘weed’ control. I’d like to see some the budgets allocated for chemical control be redirected towards alternative non-toxic methods of invasive plant control, as described in Tao Orion’s book: Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration.

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 And so I ask you as environmental activists, conservationists, ecologists, wild crafters, herbalists, permaculturists, biologists and those who committed to the stewardship of the land, to have courage to ask what are often difficult questions. Are we truly sure that noxious compounds – often applied again and again in the same areas, do not eventually accumulate in the soil, run into waterways or end-up consumed by local wildlife? I believe the stakes are high, and I personally want to be sure – that what we are doing is right. 

So the big question is this – are we spending millions of federal, provincial and municipal tax dollars to counteract the remedial efforts of mother nature and poisoning food, medicinal herbs and our local environments in the process?

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In the next post I’ll be delving into the research suggesting that a) invasive plants are fulfilling essential ecological functions, b) that our efforts to remove them is weakening our eco-systems and c) that the toxic war we are waging against invasive plants, is a battle being waged against nature herself.

Here is Part One – Invasive Plants: Noxious Foe or Remedial Friend?

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