Craft drink expert Emily Han creates unique flavors in Wild Drinks and Cocktails(Fair Winds Press, 2015). Han teaches you techniques you need to know to craft your own infused waters, syrups, vinegar drinks, spirits, wines and sodas — each with powerful health benefits and a sentimental nod to drinks of another era.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Wild Drinks and Cocktails.
What is Wildcrafting?
Wildcrafting is the practice of gathering wild of uncultivated plants and using them to make food, drink, or medicine. That might sound like a synonym for foraging, but I like the word wildcrafting because it encompasses the creative part of the process. A term frequently used by herbalists, wildcrafting also implies the development of a relationship with a place, as opposed to a haphazard rummaging around. And that takes care, attention, and time.
Wildcrafters are respectful of the entire ecosystem: we practice sustainable and ethical foraging by considering the long-term health of the plants, animals, and people that comprise that ecosystem. In other words, when you practice wildcrafting, you aren’t just picking free berries to make a cocktail; you’re also being mindful of the following issues:
• Can you correctly identify the plant? Are you 100 percent sure?
• Do you have permission to gather the plant?
• How abundant or rare is the plant? Is it endangered, native, invasive?
• Is the plant free from contamination such as pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, auto pollution, agricultural and manufacturing waste, and dog pee?
• Is the plant population healthy?
• Are there animals that depend on this plant for food or shelter?
• Will your actions kill a plant, prevent it from reproducing, or leave it vulnerable to disease?
• Are you harvesting only what you need?
• How can you give back to the ecosystem in a positive way?
The answers to these questions might not be immediately obvious. To help you tune in to them, try this: before you start foraging, find any green space at all, such as a garden, a lone weed poking up through the cracks in the sidewalk, or even the flowerpot that’s sitting on your balcony or outside your front door.
Find a plant — any plant will do — and sit with it for a while. What do you notice about the shape of its leaves, the pattern of its petals, or the way it smells?
Now get to know the world around the plant. Does it thrive in the warm sun or cool shade? What is its water source? Do you hear any insects, birds, or other animals? Being able to slow down and use your senses will serve you well when you learn to identify edible plants, because you may need to visit and observe a spot many times before you go home with anything. That’s part of the process,and it’s a plus: your wild drinks will be even more satisfying when you finally start harvesting. (Of course, if your backyard looks like a huge field of dandelions, you can probably safely pick as many as you like.)
To learn how to properly identify plants, you’ll want a good field guide (or three) to your area, plus a book on foraging in general to help you start learning about the most common and abundant plants. And, if possible, seek out an experienced local wildcrafter who can teach you how to identify and use the plants that grow in your region throughout the seasons. Getting in touch with a regional herbalist is often one of the best ways to do just that. And, before you learn how to identify local edibles, find out which plants in your region are fatally poisonous, such as poison hemlock and water hemlock, and which plants may cause allergic reactions, such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.
This caution isn’t intended to make you afraid of your environment: knowing these things will actually make you more comfortable and confident as you explore. Field guides, native plant societies, your state’s university extension office, and university agriculture or botany departments are all good resources. This might sound like a lot of work, but trust me: it’s completely worth it, because it’ll make your wild drinks even more pleasurable. And setting aside contemporary culture’s instant-gratification mentality in favor of developing a meaningful relationship with the natural world can be so rewarding. Your family and friends will appreciate it, too, when you share the delicious fruits of your labors.
The Basics of Harvesting
In addition to knowing what you’re picking it’s important to pay close attention to where you’re picking, and to avoid plants that may have been sprayed with chemicals or exposed to contaminants in the air, soil, or water. To that end, avoid harvesting along busy roadsides, golf courses, and industrial areas.
Check out the area before you start harvesting. Move around so that you don’t just pick the first plant you see; it might be the only one around (in which case you should leave it alone), or there might be better specimens farther along. Figure out which plants are older, younger, healthier, or less healthy: in some cases, it’s fine to pick tender young greens, while in other cases, it might be more prudent to leave a seedling alone so it can mature. Try to spread yourself around: pluck here and there and avoid over-harvesting from a single plant or plant population. And remember to express gratitude in any way that feels right to you, whether it’s thanking the plant, spreading seeds for the next generation, picking up trash, or participating in nature protection efforts.
What are you looking for when harvesting?
• Leaves are usually harvested in spring and summer; they often have the best flavor and highest levels of essential oils just before the plant flowers. Pick leaves gently, using your fingers or pruning shears, and shake them to remove any insects that might be clinging to them. I also like to check the undersides of leaves before I pick them, because insects sometimes lay their eggs there. (It’s not that I’m squeamish: I just like to be mindful of the insects.) • Flowers are usually harvested just before or after they bloom. As you would with leaves, pick flowers gently using your fingers or pruning shears, and shake them to remove insects. (You can also lay them out on a cloth for an hour or so, and wait for the insects to crawl away.) Be aware that when you harvest a flower, you’re preventing it from being pollinated, fruiting, and going to seed — thus, you’re limiting the availability of fruits and seeds for yourself, or local wildlife, at a later date. • Fruits and berries are usually harvested in summer or fall. Encountering free fruit can be particularly exciting, and sometimes we get greedy, and end up taking more than we need. Consider how much fruit you can reasonably process and eat in order to prevent food waste, and be mindful that birds and other animals may need the berries for food. • Seeds and nuts are usually harvested in late summer or fall. Techniques vary depending on the plant, but one way to collect seeds is to shake them into a bag. For flowers, you can tap the seed head into an open bag to catch the tumbling seeds; for pinecones, you can shake and tap the cone with a stick to dislodge the nuts. • When and where it’s appropriate, spread the seeds to encourage future plant populations. Remember that seeds and nuts allow plants to reproduce, and they’re often food for birds and mammals. • Roots are usually harvested in late summer or fall, after the plant has gone to seed. Certain roots can also be harvested in spring and others, such as burdock, should be harvested in the plant’s first year. Depending on the size of the root, you might need to use anything from a small soil knife to a larger gardening shovel to harvest it. And be aware that when you harvest a root, you may be killing the plant it sustains.
Useful Harvesting Tools
• Your hands will do most of the work of gathering plants. In some cases — such as when you’re gathering stinging nettles — you’ll want to protect them with gardening gloves. • Use pruning shears for clipping plants that you can’t pinch off with your fingers. • A fruit picker is useful for reaching fruits on tall trees. • Use a soil knife or hori-hori for digging roots, such as dandelion roots. • Carry paper or cloth bags for holding plant material. (Avoid plastic bags, which don’t allow plant material to breathe: they lead to fast wilting.) • Consider bringing a basket for holding plant material when practical. (What conditions constitute “practical”? Well, gathering in your backyard is practical; hiking 10 miles with your basket in tow is probably not.) • Other useful supplies include a hat, to protect your face and head from the sun; long pants and long sleeves, if there’s any danger of encountering poison oak, poison ivy, thorns, snakes, or ticks; a bottle of water and a snack; a field guide or plant identification guide; a notebook; a camera and a first-aid kit.
Try these recipes from Wild Drinks and Cocktails:
Reprinted with permission from Wild Drinks and Cocktails by Emily Han and published by Fair Winds Press, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Wild Drinks and Cocktails.