“Foragers feast," my father would say, and we'd set out into the woods, cedar bark baskets in our hands. In the summer, we harvested bright red huckleberries, and salal berries so dark blue they looked like night in your hand. In the fall, we found mushrooms hiding under the trees- I was captivated by the convoluted morels, each one a labyrinth of nooks and crannies.” ― Erica Bauermeister, The Scent Keeper
I got into herbalism because I found that western medicine is a broken system, rather than treating the patient as a whole, most doctors treat symptoms with medications that lead to a slew of other symptoms, which in turn are treated with more medications, and the cycle continues. Back in 2013 my husband and I planted our first garden. It was small, two tomato plants, a zucchini, a pickling cucumber and two bell peppers. The first time I popped a warm vine ripen cherry tomato into my mouth I was hooked. I began looking into nutrition and how the food we put in our bodies is truly the first line of defense we have against illness. That lead me to look at how we could literally eat our medicine. That research led me to look at the spices I had in the pantry that had medicinal properties, things I was already putting in my body, but I had no idea they value that they truly held. I signed up for my first herbalism class in 2015 and the rest is history, I jumped all in and soaked up as much information from as many sources as I could. Shortly after completing my first class, we moved to a new town, and the doctor in that town was a naturopath who also happened to be a master herbalist. She mentored me for the few years that we lived there, and through that I had the opportunity to connect with some amazing herbalists. Learning as much as I have about plants and how they are some of the best medicinal allies we have, has brought me even closer to the God who created it all. I am so humbled and thankful for everything He created and how He gave us everything we need including ways to heal our bodies.
Through learning about herbalism and finding out there were so many amazing plants that could help not only keep my family healthy, but also heal their bodies in times of illness. I began researching the naïve plants of our area, which at the time was the PNW, and I found that there are so many amazing plants that grow in our yards that the masses spend so much money trying to kill. We call them weeds, but really a weed is just a plant that is growing where you don’t want it growing. There is an abundance of free food and medicine out there, you just have to look for it. So that’s what I did. When I knew, we were moving to TN I began looking at native flora there, preparing myself for what I could forage, that led to me being able to teach classes to show others what was available to them in their own backyards.
Some of the things that I forage for in our area include black walnut, poke, stinging nettle, mullein, plantain, comfrey, red buds, blackberry root, passionflower. There really are so many things that we have access to. It’s been amazing to be able to find such an abundance of plants that just grow, uncultivated resources that have been provided by the land.
The first step is to figure out what native plants you have growing in your area, you can find a ton of resources online, there are foraging books that have been written by geographical areas and states that are fantastic resources to get you started. Another option is to find someone who knows the native flora and have them take you out and show you edible plants in your area. I believe this is not only the best way to begin your own foraging journey, but it’s how things have been done for centuries. Information passed from person to person, generation to generation. Getting outside with someone to show correct identification, areas where certain plants grow, and how to harvest them in invaluable. When foraging one of the biggest mistakes that can be made is incorrect identification of a plant. I always make sure I have at least 2 forms of identification before I harvest. There are so many plants that look very similar, some are beneficial, some are dangerous. If you are out foraging and you question your identification, it’s best to leave the plant there, better safe than sorry. When I find something, I am not sure about I tend to mark its location with my phone, take a photo, and then return once I have correct identification. When taking photos, make sure to photograph the leaves, the stem, the flowers, and the fruit (if applicable) all of these things will help you to correctly identify the plant variety. When foraging or wildcrafting as it’s sometimes referred to, you want to make sure you know harvesting guidelines for that plant. What parts of the plant do you use, when is the best time to harvest, and how much can you take? The unspoken rule of thumb is to leave at least 30% of the plants growing in one area. So I will wild harvest the plant from multiple locations to make sure there is enough left to repopulate the area, this creates good sustainability practices and allows you to harvest year after year.
Once you have harvested the plants, bark, roots etc. what do you do with them? It truly depends on the item I’m working on with, and how I plan on using them that determines how I preserve them, but the most common methods of preserving herbs are drying, or tincturing. Drying can be done in a dehydrator, oven at a low temperature with the door cracked open, on a drying rack or screen, paper bags, or hug on a string in your kitchen. When tincturing herbs, you want to use an 80% alcohol (vodka, or brandy are commonly used), glycerin, vinegar, or oil.
Herbalism and foraging go hand in hand, they are practices that have been passed down through the generations and deserve to continue to be passed on. There is no limit to where you have to take your herbal journey, doing it just for you and your family or sharing it with your community. Getting started may seem like a daunting task, but start slow and small. I always tell my students start with 3 herbs, really get to know them. Grow them, forage them, cook with them (if applicable), figure out all the ways you can use them. Get really familiar with them, and once you know those inside and out, then add a few more. It’s an easy way to get started without overwhelming yourself with a ton of information. Most of all take a leap of faith, and just do it.
If we don’t learn it, and teach it to our kids, these practices will become just distant memories of old. God gave us what we need, now go forth and forage!
Jenefer is a wife, mama, homesteader, family herbalist + herbal educator. She and her family call the rolling hills of middle TN home. Homesteading on a small piece of property, she homeschools a brood of barefoot babes, raises chickens, meat rabbits, goats and pigs. When she’s not chasing kids or the escapee goats, you can often find her in the kitchen or the garden. Her love of herbalism began as a love of home cooked meals connecting her back to the land in which her food came from. She dove head first into the world of herbalism when she discovered this idea of eating your medicine, and since food plays such an important role in our health that lead her down the path which quickly became her deepest passion. Jenefer loves teaching other’s about herbalism, foraging, eating seasonally and really connecting ourselves back to our food sources the way it would have been done in generations past. You can follow along with her journey on Instagram @littlehomesteadinthehills, on her website littlehomesteadinthehills.com. You can also find her on Substack @Littlehomesteadinthehills.