Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Crazy Season in the Life of an Herbalist!

Well, it's been a long time since I sat down at my computer and put any energy into this neglected child. Since April 2nd to be exact! I've contemplated it a few times, but the truth is that it has been such an incredibly busy seven months there hasn't been any time for it. Harvesting season begins in early to mid April, depending on how quickly things thaw, and ends some time in November or December when the ground freezes and I can't dig any more. This has always been a busy time for me. During the most intensive periods of harvesting, which are mid May to the end of July and late October to mid November, it is often necessary for me to devote the better part of three days per week to harvesting herbs and preparing tinctures - and that is on top of everything else that I need to do. There has always been a bit of travelling that was necessary during this time as well. Mostly to teach workshops but hopefully there is time for a holiday at some point. However, in the last few years my work has expanded into some new realms that require me to travel a lot more than I am used to. This year my travelling began on April 28th and ended on November 5th. During that time I was away three weeks in May, two weeks in July, one week in August, two weeks in September, two weeks in October, and the first bit of November. All of it was work related except for a week holiday in early September. We actually had to cancel a planned road trip to Nova Scotia in mid August because it would have been too much on top of everything else.

The interesting thing is that I'm not particularly into travelling, so it's surprising that my life has taken a turn of this nature. I'd rather just stay put and deepen my relationship with the land where I live from season to season, year to year. Nevertheless, the work that I am doing that requires me to travel is amazing and expansive, and I know in my heart that it is an important part of my path. It was a busy half year but it was all amazing. The challenge has been finding time to harvest all of the herbs that I need and fit in all of my clients on the few weeks that I am here. As it was, there were a few herbs that I wasn't able to get. In my world, that means that I have to use them less to stretch the stock that I have. When I eventually run out I won't have those herbs available until three months after I harvest them next year (three months is the minimum amount of time that I macerate tinctures).

It was a busy workshop season: Discussing black elder (Sambucus nigra) at an Herbal Field Studies workshop in early July.

This year things were even more challenging because of the weather that we had. After a record breaking, bitter cold winter and late thaw, we had a very strange spring and summer. It was much cooler than normal but not in the usual way. We do typically get a cool summer about once per decade. But those summers are usually very cloudy and wet, with very little sunshine. This year it was cloudy and wet a lot of the time, but we didn't get the days (sometimes weeks) of constant rain that we usually get during this kind of summer. On the rainy days the rain was more intermittent. We also had very few thunder storms. On the positive side, most weeks we still got at least a few sunny days. This was very important from an herbalists perspective because during years when it is almost constantly cloudy and rainy, although herbs that like that kind of weather such as stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) do very well, herbs that don't like it such as red clover (Trifolium pratense) and common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) do very poorly. For many herbs in the latter category it just isn't worth harvesting them as the quality of their medicine is very low. Fortunately, many plants can tolerate a range of habitats that get different amounts of sunlight. Therefore, it is possible to partially compensate for unusual weather conditions by harvesting them in different locations. During hot, dry years it is often possible to find healthy populations in the part of their range where they get less direct sunlight. In these areas they will experience less heat stress and the soil will be more moist. In cooler, wetter years we harvest them in the part of their range where they get the most sunlight. Here they will get as much sun as possible and the soil will be less wet. However, during extreme years even this doesn't work for some herbs and I have to pass on harvesting them and make up for it by using more of some of the other herbs that can be used as a substitute in various contexts. This is one of the reasons why it is necessary to work with a rich and diverse group of herbs. I also usually try to harvest enough herb to make a two year supply of tincture for herbs that this is manageable, meaning the ones that I use in small to moderate quantities. This is partly so that I don't have to harvest every herb every year, but also to build some resilience into my supply of tinctures. If for some reason I am not able to get some of the herbs that I need in a particular year, there will be more choices if I have to use substitutes.

Common St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) doesn't like cool, cloudy, wet years.

In our area, from mid June to mid September we can usually count on at least a few weeks of hot, humid weather with temperatures of 30+ °C (86+ °F). This year we only got a couple of days of temperatures in the 30s in June and then another couple in July. As a result, although plants that like a fair bit of sun, such as wild mint (Mentha arvensis) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and flower earlier in the season did fairly well with the amount of sun that we had in spite of lots of rain and cooler temperatures, some of the plants that need more heat and flower later, such as peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata), really suffered from the cumulative affects of the weather. In our area they didn't flower until early September and the quality was too poor to harvest.

Wild mint (Mentha arvensis) got enough sun and produced some good medicine this year.

Another thing that stood out this summer was the continuing decline of the local honey bee (Apis mellifera) population. Around my home there are many species of clover. They all came into flower in June: first red clover; then alsike clover (T. hybridum); then white clover (T. repens); then yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis); then white sweet clover (M. alba). Honey bees love many flowers, but the clovers are among their favorites. Yet, during their peak flowering in June and July I didn't see a single honey bee. A few years ago these flowers were covered in them! There is a wild hive in the woods about 400 m from my house. This year it didn't become active until early July. As their numbers increased they gradually expanded their range, but I didn't see any within 100 m of my house until the Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) was well into flower in mid July. Recent evidence suggests that a major factor in the collapse of the honey bee population in much of North America is the use of a group of pesticides that are nicotine derivatives called neonicotinoids. It's typical for us to look for simple, unidimensional solutions, but as with everything in life the cause is a lot more complicated than that and due to a combination of factors. In all likelihood the bees are being killed or weakened by the combined effects of neonicotinoids and other pesticides and, as a result, the weakened individuals are also becoming less resistant to various parasites. There are probably other environmental factors involved as well, but something needs to be done about it quickly and reducing the use of neonicotinoids is a good place to start.

The population of this colony of honey bees living in a crack in an old white pine (Pinus strobus) near my home
has been significantly reduced in the last few years

Needless to say, between the travelling and the weather conditions it was very difficult for me to get all of my harvesting done this year. There were a few plants I didn't have time to harvest and a few more that weren't good enough to harvest. This has continued up to the present. Unlike the spring and summer, September and October were warmer than usual. This had it's own challenges. For instance, I had to be away from October 24th to November 5th. I needed to harvest maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba) before I left. I have found that the best time to harvest the leaves is in the fall when they are about midway between their transition from green to gold. In the region where I live this is usually around the third week of October. However, because of the warm weather, when I went to harvest them on October 21st they were only just beginning to turn. I knew I couldn't wait until I came back because by then they would have fallen, so I harvested them that day. They weren't perfect but they were good enough.

The maidenhair tree leaves (Ginkgo biloba) started turning gold late this year because of the warm fall.
Note the contrasting yellow and orange of the sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) in the background.

When we returned from Mexico on November 5th the warm weather was still with us. Right away I had to get to work because the aerial parts of most of the herbaceous plants had already died back and it was time to start harvesting roots and rhizomes. We need to get them done before the ground freezes and we can't dig any more. There are also a few fruits that I need to harvest at this time of year, but they have to be harvested after a couple of good frosts, so they weren't ready yet. Things started out OK. We were getting highs of around 8-12 °C (46-54 °F) and lows of 4-7 °C (39-45 °F) and not too much rain. Perfect root harvesting weather! We got to work right away.

Here's Monika harvesting stinging nettle rhizome (Urtica dioica).

Then on November 11th the temperature went up to 18 °C (64 °F) and the next day it dropped below freezing! For a few days it wasn't so bad because the the daytime temperatures were staying above freezing. But by the end of the week temperatures had dropped to January levels. I still needed to harvest several herbs and was worried that the ground might freeze before I could do them all. The unseasonably cold temperatures weren't just a stress for us. Everybody was feeling it! On Sunday morning in my peripheral vision I caught a movement outside my kitchen window. I knew it wasn't a bird that should still be hanging around here at this time of year and sure enough there was a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) shivering in a tree just outside the window. That was November 16th. I have never seen any species of warbler around here later than mid October. He was probably migrating through from somewhere much further north. With the lingering warm weather he must have been taking his time. That choice could turn out to be fatal!

This is a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), but not the yellow-rumped warbler.

As if the cold temperatures weren't enough of a challenge, last Sunday night and all day Monday it snowed. Fortunately, we didn't get that much. I can't imagine what it must have been like a little south of us in Buffalo, New York where they got completely buried! That would have definitely been the end of the harvesting season for us.

It was incredibly beautiful in the woods on Monday afternoon. The first snow. It was perfectly still and silent, and everything was covered in a blanket of white. Monika and I would have preferred to have just gone for a nice walk. But, still racing against winter, instead we went out and harvested wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis). This herb is a colonial species with a network of rhizomes that does not leave a recognizable stalk standing after it dies back. Below the snow and fallen leaves, the only way to identify it is by the crowns with the buds of next years growth that usually sit a bit higher than the surface of the soil. Finding them is easy, but only if you know exactly where they are growing! It's simply a matter of clearing away the snow and leaves, finding the buds, and following the rhizome from that point.

Harvesting wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis) last weekend. Note the bud in the centre foreground.

Since Monday it has been even colder. The ground is starting to freeze, but fortunately hasn't yet completely because we got just enough snow to insulate the ground a bit. Yesterday I was able to get out and harvest high bush cranberry fruit (Viburnum opulus), which are ready now that the temperature has gone below freezing. There are a few good sized colonies of these shrubs on the property where I live. But for some reason none of them produced fruit this year. They all flowered. I can only assume that there was something about the conditions when they flowered that affected their ability to produce fruit. As a result, I had to hike a couple of kilometers into the back fields in order to find an area where there was a good supply of fruit.

High bush cranberry fruit (Viburnum opulus) can't be chopped on a cutting board because they are too juicy.
They need to be ground for a few seconds with a bit of menstruum. Great colour!

Starting today the temperature is going up again and we are supposed to get rain with the temperature peaking at around 13 °C (55 °F) by Monday before it starts dropping again. That will melt the snow and warm up the soil a bit and it looks like I will be able to harvest the last two herbs that I need to get: marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and wild ginger rhizome (Asarum canadense). After that harvesting season will be over for this year and I'll be using the time that I have been devoting to harvesting to converting classroom courses to online courses. This is something I don't have much time for during harvesting season. I'll also have more time to put up some more stuff on this blog. It won't be another six months until the next one!

Until next spring I can spend more of my time in nature just being with a lot less doing. I'm looking forward to that. I'm also putting out some good energy for my little winged friend and others like him that lingered too long. I hope they are able to make it to the warmer regions down south!