Getting to know your land and its native flora intimately is a necessity if one is to take full advantage of its health-sustaining resources. There are a number of species with nation-wide distribution that are prized for their nutritive value. Some of these are steeped in a history of folk wisdom that makes them and their prescribed usage seem rather commonplace. Other plant species are scorned as invasive pests by many landowners who are unaware of the true value of the resource at their disposal.
After several years on our permacultural homestead in Northeastern Pennsylvania, my partner Ross and I have discovered that both commonplace and lesser-known health-giving plant species can be found here. Additionally, we have found that products from pasture-raised animals are also important for proper human health and nutrition. As many of the healthful plants we seek out are located in the outer zones of our property, it is usual to keep some sort of calendar. This motivates us to search out the resources that are to be found at the specific times that we can find them. Let us take a seasonal overview of a few of the most important plant and animal resources you may have at your disposal, including ways that these resources can be preserved to maximize their value.
Perhaps at no time of year is it more difficult or more crucial to obtain fresh, vibrant, life-giving nutrients from our Earth than at the end of winter. While we must and do store enough food to get us through the coldest and darkest months, naturally some foods are canned or frozen and are not of the same quality as their fresh counterparts. So, in the early spring, we anxiously await the green new life that springs from the ground. We are fortunate to have an ample supply of two species that are nutritious as well as flavorful. The first is Hesperis matronalis, or dame’s rocket. This prolific member of the mustard family thrives in woodland margins and is well known throughout the countryside for its showy and fragrant purple or white blossoms. Many people in our part of Pennsylvania erroneous call this plant phlox. The dark green or reddish purple rosettes of the biennial dame’s rocket can be found in the earliest part of the spring or even dug right out of the winter snows. Frost vastly improves the flavor. We prize the tender leaves of these rosettes, which can be eaten raw or steamed. (As with all members of the Brassicaceae family, people with thyroid issues should avoid eating it raw, as this can further inhibit thyroid function.) Like mustard greens, they are high in Vitamin B6, C, and E, as well as calcium, and manganese.
The second early riser is the much maligned nettle Urtica dioica plant. While even I feel a compulsion to curse this lovely plant whenever I have an encounter with it that leaves me burning from its sting, I still find this is my favorite plant of the springtime. The tender young shoots can be eaten raw, though this can sometimes result in a few stingers on the tongue. Steaming is a safer and delicious way to enjoy them, and they also make an incredible pizza topping. Nettle greens are high in Vitamin C, A, and D, as well as iron and choline.
Also in springtime, we often await the freshening of our goats and the new supply of rich raw milk they provide. We prefer to breed our goats late, if possible, so that the kids are not born into the worst part of the winter cold. When kidding does not happen until May, it can feel like an eternity. Anytime a mammal gives birth, the first day of milk is rich with colostrum, an all-important immune-building nutrient specially designed to give newborns the best chance of survival. Colostrum from pasture-raised animals is full of immunoglobulins that are also effective against many human pathogens. Harvesting colostrum from animals is risky, as it does deprive the newborn animal of a portion of its birthright. It should be done only if there is genuine need and acute human suffering. One may want to use colostrum in cases of lingering or recurring respiratory ailments, or to combat a serious infection, such as Staph or Strep. But each drop should be treated as precious. No more than three teaspoons should be taken from goats. Up to four tablespoons can be taken from cows. Colostrum should be frozen immediately, and never exposed to high temperatures.
Spring, planting time
When it comes time for garden prep, it is handy that some of the weeds we need to remove from our garden beds also happen to be highly nutritious and refreshingly yummy. It is rewarding to pull these weeds out of our garden and then put them on a plate. One of our most prized weed competitors is the biennial Arctium lappa, or common burdock. We find that both the first-year roots and second-year shoots to have a great texture and fine taste somewhat reminiscent of the sunchoke. We have used burdock in stir fry, soups, and as a roast vegetable. It is high in vitamins C and E, as well as folic acid, niacin, and inulin. In traditional herbalism, burdock root is highly regarded as a blood cleanser.
Another weed competitor that we commonly eat is the young shoots of Phytolacca americana, or pokeweed. Many recommend that the shoots be boiled with a change of water, but we have eaten them lightly steamed or raw with no ill-effects. Poke shoots are as delicious as asparagus, as well as being high in Vitamin A.
For us, summer is the time of year with the heaviest workload. Luckily it is also the time of year when it is the easiest to be in good health. Indeed, health seems to pour from the sky, and the air seems filled with it in the wake of the glorious sounds of life all around. The biggest challenge for me is simply getting to the nutritious goodies that nature presents in a timely fashion, so that they don’t go to waste. Gathering and preserving to prepare for winter ahead is absolutely necessary to ensure year-round health. Early summer presents us with challenges because the work of preparing for winter begins even before the garden has been fully planted.
Luckily for us, one of the most important plants for wintertime health has volunteered to grow for us right outside our doors. This plant is the sacred elder, Sambucus canadensis, and it is known for its anti-viral properties. Both blossoms and berries are important for immune support and can be harvested at the right time to be made into syrups. The leaves, twigs, and seeds of the elder contain a substance that the body metabolizes into cyanide. This can create a toxic build-up in the body, but if your syrups are used appropriately as medicine this need not concern you. The flowers do not contain this substance, so this year I opted to make my wintertime syrup from them rather than the berries.
Elderflowers are at their peak in early June. Look for flowers that are in their peak bloom. Also, you want to find elderflowers that smell particularly fragrant to you, as this helps you to gauge your compatibility with each particular plant. Always be sure to express your gratitude to the plant as you harvest from it, and never take all the blossoms. You may want to come back for the berries at the end of the season, and you definitely want to leave some for the birds who fill your garden with glorious birdsong while helping to keep your insect predators under control.
Blossoms should be removed carefully to minimize the number of stems that make it into your brew. Mature blossoms can be shaken off easily, or you can snip them from the stem. I’m not sure how many blossoms I harvested this year, but I needed just over 2 quarts of cold water to cover them completely in the bottom of a large pot. Cold-soak the blossoms for 24 hours, covering with a cloth to keep out flies. The resulting liquid is amber in color, and smells and tastes sweet and delicious. Strain your liquid and take your blossoms to your goats. (Hopefully they have also enjoyed your stems, twigs, and other leftovers, since elder is one of their favorite treats.)
Heat the elderflower extract just enough to mix in your sweetener. Two quarts of liquid will need 10 cups of sucanat or 8 – 9 cups of honey. Also add 1 tbsp of vinegar. Avoid bringing your syrup to boil, but do heat it thoroughly and let simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. The resulting syrup will be surprisingly dark. You now have a yummy immune-supporting syrup to get you through wintertime cold and flu season. Either store it in the fridge or process for 5 minutes in boiling water bath to seal. A similar syrup can be made later in the season by boiling the berries and then straining them.
Late Summer / Early Fall
If you pasture-raise beef, lamb, or pigs for slaughter, than by fall your work has no doubt come to fruition and you are enjoying the delectable meats that are your due. But if you are wondering what to do with those large chunks of fat that seem entirely inedible to you, consider that the fat of pasture-raised animals is an excellent storehouse for bio-available Vitamin D. In fact, tallow, suet, and lard are the best wintertime source of Vitamin D for those of us who do not have access to it via the creatures of the sea. We do not have the land or resources for keeping cattle, sheep, or pigs, but we have been fortunate to be able to barter locally for a supply of lard or tallow to get us through the months when we simply cannot get our Vitamin D from the sun. Tallow, lard, or suet can be rendered in a slow-cooker or a low-temperature oven. And of course, your drooling dog is standing by to take care of the leavenings that do not melt down.
Tallow and suet make excellent heat-tolerant greases for frying. Lard has many uses, but it makes superior pie crusts and biscuits. I have been known to use it in cookies as well.
Another resource we harvest this time of year is the blossoms of the red clover, Trifolium Pratense. Wherever you are, I am willing to bet you can find some red clover growing near you. The dried blossoms make a wonderful tea that is useful for the treatment of lung ailments and is also a mild sedative. Red clover is known as an herb for women because it has a hormone-balancing effect. But recent research has shown that red clover may help to prevent heart disease and treat cancer, so men should also make this herb part of their daily cup.
Fall Harvest Season
If you have had a successful gardening year, now is the time when you are putting your vital root vegetables to slumber in the root cellar to get you through the winter. Root cellaring is a crucial part of the healthful year, because root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and celeriac actually maintain life while in storage.
You’ll also be wanting to replant your garlic so that you have another beautiful life-sustaining crop for the next year. Garlic is not called “poor man’s penicillin” for nothing. My partner Ross and I usually eat a raw clove of garlic each day throughout the winter. When it comes time to replant, I’m always reluctant to see our big, juicy garlic cloves go back into the ground. But looking to the future is an important part of raising a healthy family.
This is also sauerkraut season for us. Sauerkraut is a great way to preserve the Vitamin C, Calcium, and other minerals in cabbage, while infusing it with life-giving probiotic microbes. Eating sauerkraut and other fermented foods is one of the best ways to balance and maintain intestinal flora, and remember a healthy gut means a healthy you!
Winter (Cold, Cruel, and Seemingly Endless)
As the cold dark days of winter set in, both humans and plants find some much needed time for rest. Sadly, we humans cannot quite reach the same state of dormancy as our green allies outside. But there is one more resource that awaits us on the edges of our property, and it is only just reaching its maturity when December sets in. So no matter how cold and dreary, we must put on our boots, trudge through the occasional snows and head to the margins of our property. For there, along the edges of the land we maintain, we find a most abundant, flavorful, and strikingly beautiful source of Vitamin C in the form of rose hips from the multiflora rose bush (Rosa multiflora.)
The multiflora rose bush holds a special place in my heart. While I was growing up here in Bradford County, my grandfather would often walk with me around the property and point out the dozens upon dozens of bushes that grew all around. He would tell me about how the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Bureau of Forestry heavily promoted multiflora rosebushes throughout the 1940s and 50s s a “natural pasture fence that no animal could get through.” If the farmers of my great grandfather’s generation once planted multiflora in neat and tidy rows throughout our county, there is no sign of it now. They grow everywhere, all across the nation, and the Department of Agriculture considers them an invasive exotic. You will find the maligned multiflora on the top of the PA’s “noxious weed” list. I chuckle at the irony of this, even while I wish that property owners could take a step back and realize what a treasure they have at their disposal. The hips of the multiflora rose are small, but plentiful. You will find the red hips sweet on the lips (especially after being frosted) and lovely against the backdrop of winter snows. Enjoy!