Saturday, June 27, 2009

Urban Foraging--or Why Are My Fingers Purple?

I've been living in New London, CT for nearly a decade now. But I grew up in the country, in upstate New York, in a town with more cows than people. It was a good place to forage. I picked a lot of wild blueberries and raspberries and blackcaps, and I chewed the sweet stems of timothy grass.

But it wasn't until a few years ago that I began scouring the roadsides and empty lots of New London, wondering what wild plants I could harvest. I learned the names of some common weeds when we began keeping house rabbits, because I wanted to know what they could eat that wouldn't cost me anything. Dock, red clover, chickweed, purslane...these common weeds are rabbit favorites and edible for people, too.

Besides the rabbits, an earlier experience prompted me to learn more about urban weeds. On vacation in Floyd, Virginia--where you can hear the best bluegrass jam every Friday night--a bee got stuck in my sandal and stung me. Ow. We went to Floyd's health food store to look for a salve. The woman working there said, "Why don't you just chew on some plantain?" Say what? "Plantain," she repeated. "There's some by the parking lot." She showed me what plantain was, then told me to chew it then use it as a poultice. I had never noticed plantain before. But when I got home, I saw that it was everywhere, maybe in every yard in New London. If you are stung or bit by a mosquito, there is almost certainly some plantain within sight to help.

So back to those purple fingers. Nope, it's not from raspberries. Or blueberries. Need a hint? See that yellow flower in the background? That's Saint John's wort, the same herb used to treat mild depression. It's also used topically in salves for skin irritations, nerve pain, mild burns and cuts.

Look familiar? This time of year, it's everywhere. I saw it on Bank Street near the Waterford line, along Howard Street in the lots made empty through eminent domain, in Bates Woods and all along I-95 as I drove to the farmers market in Lyme this morning. In fact it got its name because it blooms on June 24th, the birthday of John the Baptist.

But if you are harvesting Saint John's wort for medicinal purposes, you don't want the blossoms. The medicinal compounds are concentrated in the buds just before they open. These are what turned my fingers purple.

Here is a bud perfectly ready for harvesting.

I won't lie--it took me quite a while to pick enough buds to make a usable amount of infused oil. But it wasn't laborious, unless you consider standing in the June sun, closely examining flowers, to be labor.

Tonight I'm letting my buds wilt a little, because I don't want moisture to spoil my oil. But tomorrow I'll place them loosely in a glass container, fill the container with organic olive oil, cover my container with layers of cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band, then set it in the sun. In a few weeks time--ideally six weeks, if I can wait that long--I'll have a deep red Saint John's wort-infused oil, ready to use in an herbal salve.

And because this is my first blog post, and what is a blog without gratuitous pictures of pets?--here are some photos of our rabbits, Cleo and Yogi. They like it when I go on foraging walks. I always bring them clover.


  1. Great new blog! I love blogs where I can not only enjoy the beautiful pictures but also learn something new! I enjoyed your post very much.

  2. Way to go Urban! Very nice start to a great blog. I am following now, so keep up the great work!!! :) Ken