Weed Walk: What’s in a name?

1 May

This past Friday, I found myself waxing poetic as I watched a group assemble for Blanche Cybele Derby’s ‘weed walk’.   In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s Juliet wonders about the power of names to shrug aside the stigma of a Capulet and a Montague falling in love. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” I hoped the ‘weed walk’ would give me a new appreciation for plants I can spot right here at Smith, regardless of their names or titles.

Blanche was energetic, lively, and came prepared with a two-sided handout with a list of hints for the novice wild edible harvester and an impressive number of YouTube videos. I myself am not a botanist. I do not own any field guides and, while I have been in the company of those who collect wild edibles, I have never been the one with the knowledge or initiative to do so. I was curious to see what I could learn in a one hour ramble around Smith.

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Joining me were several students, some staff, and a number of  other members of the local community. Hearing their questions right out of the gate, I was sure I was the least experienced in the plant foraging arena. Blanche’s relaxed manner helped me feel welcome. As soon as we stepped out of the doors at the back of CEEDS she spotted several plants she wanted to tell us about. In fact, during the entire walk, we hardly made it 5 paces before she saw something else to point out.

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Blanche talked about making a drink from sumac flowers that tasted sweet and lemony when we pressed our fingers to the flowers to get a sample. She pointed out many plants that can be used in salads, and she recommended, whenever possible, “eat a salad every day.” Violets were one of the plants she recommended adding to a salad – a nice splash of color- , and she also suggested freezing violets in ice cubes for a fancy addition to a drink. Here is her video on Johnny Jump Ups.

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We looked at Ostrich Ferns, located in a garden bed in the shade next to Sabin-Reed. The Ostrich ferns’ fiddle heads are supposed to be very tasty when cooked. Blanche told us some ways to recognize the fern: it has a groove in the stem, like celery, and it isn’t covered in fuzzy matter but rather an outer skin like an onion.  Here is one of her YouTube videos about the Ostrich Fern.

She also gave us tips on how to be a responsible forager: do not pick an area clean of the plant you are foraging since the plants need to be able to reproduce, and birds and animals also depend on them. As she talked, some people took notes, pulled up a plant to smell or taste it, took samples for help identifying them later, and asked her lots of questions. We tried members of the mustard family, talked about battering and frying dandelion flowers, what trees to keep an eye on for berries in early summer, and how tulips can be used as an edible container for appetizers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHv-rnhjB5A).

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Before we knew it, and despite having only made it a short way from our starting point, our hour was up. People milled about, asking questions, thanking Blanche, and trying to find out when they could go on another such walk. If you missed it this time around, Blanche has a website where she posts her walk schedule, www.tagyerit.com/freefood.htm. She also has links to more videos, recipes, and information on the films she has made. It was a great afternoon, filled with sunshine, new information, and inspiration to look to the unexpected, like weeds, for something exciting.

-Sara Kirk, Administrative Assistant, CEEDS

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