Wild in Maine: Echinacia, Blueberries, Beach Plum and Wintergreen
Growing up in the high desert of Northern California, I had a difficult time appreciating the flora. With long, hot, dry summers, plants had to be either short lived, or tough. Those that could withstand the heat were fiesty in their protective devices, being woody or prickly or poisonous. I would pine away as a kid, longing for the succulent abundance that is New England in the summertime, with junglelike humidity and plants with enthusiastic foliage. Eventually as an adult, those atributes of West Coast plants that left me dismayed as a child, were the very things that endeared them to me.
So it was a bit of a shock during our trip to be assaulted with the gregarious growth of Cape Cod gardens and Maine forest understory. Having grown conservative in my expectations of the plant world, five foot high coneflowers just seemed, well, extravagant. Fortunately, all shock quickly faded, and there were no complaints from this gal as I filled my pockets with rose hips and my mouth with blueberries. To the point that Jeff’s family felt the need to warn me on our last coastal outing in a nature preserve, “Mary, you can’t forage here”.
On Cape Cod, beach plum bushes line the shore, and they were loaded with almost ripe hips. Not to be confused with the actual beach plum plum, they are a type of ornamental rose from Asia that has adapted enthusiastically to the East Coast. And like our smaller California hips, these beach roses are medicinal out the woo woo wazoo.
Rose hips show up in the fall, just in time for the seasonal transition with its need of fortification. They are chock full of vitamin C, and taking a tablespoon of rose hip syrup at the first sign of a cold, or ongoingly as a tonic, is just what the witchdoctor ordered.
Rose Hip Syrup
Hips are ripe when they are cherry red and slightly give to the touch, but not wrinkled.
Process your hips by grinding them up in a food processor, or chopping up finely with a knife.
Measure out your hips and place them in a saucepan along with an equal amount of water. Bring to a low boil and simmer for up to 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. At this point, you can go to the next step, or let infuse until cool.
Strain through a coffee filter or muslin (this is crucial, because the inside of hips have little irritating hairs that will screw up your throat). Let cool down for 15 minutes and then add in raw honey to taste.
Your syrup should be kept refrigerated. I’m sure there is a way to can it, but since my ENTIRE 16 OUNCES of syrup molded due to lids that didn’t seal, well…I’ll tell you through my bitter tears that you should just keep that magic in the cold. *Sob*. (2017 Edit: Now I make either a double extraction or elixir with hips...both use alcohol and thus have a longer shelf life.)
Echinacia Purpurea or Eastern Purple Coneflower is perhaps the most well known herbal remedy in North America. At this point, you can probably buy echinacia fortified Oreos, since it’s a household bandwagon that everybody has jumped on.
Practically every front yard had a little patch of these natives, and I kept having that giddy foragers reaction like I had discovered the motherload, while simultaneously looking over my shoulder to see who I was going to have to ward off. After a while, the sight of them was almost too common…almost, but not quite.
Fibonacci would approve.
Fresh Echinacia Tincture
Dig out your coneflowers by the roots, when the flowers have just opened and are still sprightly.
Chop up the roots and the entire flower. Marvel at the beauty of life.
Stuff your finely chopped up flowers and roots in a jar, filling it. Pour in enough vodka, slowly, to top it off. Label and cap and let it sit for two weeks (preferably not in the back of your rental car, like I did), giving it a friendly shake each day. (2017 Edit: This is the folk method for making tinctures, and I stand by it as valid. However, I now make fresh plant tinctures using ethanol (higher alcohol content) and by measuring out weight and volume, for a ratio of 1:2. It makes for a stronger and longer lasting medicine. But again, folking it is fine too).
Strain and use to boost your immune system.
The tinfoil method is totally legit, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Upon our arrival in Maine, I was delighted to note that it wasn’t only the ghosts and red squirrels who had gained a foothold. The grassy area surrounding the house, having been unmanicured for five years, had gone feral. The wild strawberries that used to scatter my Aunt Marion’s lawn like rubies had found their way down the shore, along with her Black Eyed Susans. There was also a large patch of Red Clover, the nourisher and detoxifier, as well as Evening Primrose and lots of young Dandelion.
Most of the Red Clover made its way into Fern’s pockets.
Our second night there, we gathered greens for dinner.
No pinecones were harmed in the making of this meal.
The evening primrose was of the small and modest variety, unlike the va va va voom of the giant goddess I picked at Secret Beach.
Most of our land in Maine, despite having been logged at the turn of the century, still has this feel of being pristine, a wholeness that I found reminded me of my own inherent well being. Perhaps it will never again host the abundant wildlife that prefaced the era of the “great” huntsmen with their nasty metal traps, yet having recovered from tree harvesting, it is an ecosystem in a state of vitality and upswing. The forest floor is home to abundant flora and funghi, all of which is native.
This is not edible, but unfortunately is often foraged for placement in tiny terrariums and berry bowls.
A little fragile lichen called British Soldiers.
My Gram, as well as her friends, the Eatons (who caretook Big Camp and stayed in Little Camp) were aspiring botanists and naturalists. This sweet book is from 1893, and is kept company by an ever growing collection of identification manuals.
Certain species were sought after and their location marked, prized jewels that appeared year after year, like Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid.
They too, are becoming scarce from folks harvesting from our “abandoned” property in the wintertime.
The pine needle carpet also has some fun medicinals, like Pipsissewa…
The dried flower head. The leaves have lovely white markings, and are used for bladder complaints and kidney stones, as well as to induce fever.
And my favorite, the Checkerberry.
But you might know it as Teaberry, or Wintergreen. This is the first edible and medicinal plant I ever learned, taught to me by my Aunt Helene, at the age of 8.
Wintergreen still life with mushroom and moss.
Alright, but what you really want to know is, are Wild Maine Blueberries really what it’s all about?
High bush blueberries line our shore, and in our absence had grown very, very high indeed. It was a banner year for the berries, and we arrived right at the peak. Before we had even gotten out of the car our first day, we had already pulled handfuls from the bushes, leaning out the window and giggling maniacally.
Blueberry picking is so pleasant. A hum de dum, down the lane sort of experience, so unlike the ow, Ow, OW! process of blackberries. It took days to gather enough for pies, but because somebody kept eating the harvest.
Not who you think, although chipper certainly wasn’t helping. It was necessary to let the berries sit out for a bit after picking, to give time for the blueberry bugs to disperse.
A blueberry bug. They look alternately like an unripe blueberry, or a leaf spot, depending where they sit. They are cute as…well, a bug…and I didn’t mind them at all. But I didn’t think they’d go well in a pie.
This is the blueberry thief…
After a while, she figured out that she was perfectly capable of collecting her own.
The bushes were full of Cedar Waxwings, gorging on the fruit. This poor git banged into our window, and it convalesced in a nearby tree for hours. But when it did it again three days later, well…Bang into a window once, shame on you, stupid human. Bang into a window twice, shame on you, birdbrain.
And this has nothing to do with foraging, but is a gratuitous picture of a Cardinal. A Cardinal! I had never seen one in the wild, and for three weeks I just couldn’t get over it. That beak! It’s so red! That song! It’s so beautiful! I think Grandma Timmins thought I was a bit nutty about the bird, chasing them about in her backyard. We set up a bird feeder in Maine, right by the window, so I could watch them to my heart’s content. Ahhhh…
Where were we? Oh yes, berries…
Interspersed among the bluebers were these, which I call huckleberries, but I’m not actually sure what they are. But I ate one and it didn’t kill me, so I ate 57 and I still was fine. Stupid, but fine. (2017 Edit: They were huckleberries. Not stupid. Intuitive.)
So I made 8 jars of jam and 2 pies, one in Cape Cod, and one at Camp.
You know what the perfect accompaniment to Blueberry Pie is?
Ice Cream from Shaw’s Ridge.
Sometimes we like to do “instant gratification foraging”.
New England is good for it’s tiny farm creameries. We’ve been going to Shaw’s since I was a kid. Grammy’s Coffee is the best.
Sigh. Many of you have commented that you wouldn’t have wanted to leave such a place, and why did we come back at all? Indeed, we are wondering (sometimes seriously considering) the same question. In the meantime, it gives me great pleasure to share it with you. Thank you for reading along. Believe it or not, there’s still a few more Maine posts to come!
Think with your stomach! Do not ingest wild plants unless you are sure you have identified them correctly and are willing to take responsibility for using yourself as a guinea pig. It is SO not my responsibility if you eat the wrong thing and get poopy pants, or die. You’re an adult. you can make your own choices.