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Forests provide food and medicine

Tom Wiesen
Photo by Tanya Wiesen/ TrailWise Guides
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Imagine yourself as an American Indian living here prior to the arrival of Europeans. The forest would be your home and the plants and creatures that lived here would keep you nourished. Late summer would be a time of year for harvest and right now, you, along with many other birds and animals, would be preparing for winter. Like the pika, now is the time to stockpile food to hold you through the lean months.A walk among the berry bushes would signal you to bring a basket or two and start gathering. This year, berries of all kinds seem to be doing well. The serviceberries are as thick as I’ve ever seen them. The thimbleberries are plentiful and now ripe, and several species of currant will tempt the more sophisticated palate. As you gathered the berries, it is likely you’d do some heavy sampling along the way, and like the black bear you’d want to fatten up in preparation for lean times ahead.

Mushroomers seem happy this year. I’ve seen more bolete mushrooms this year than in a long time. The consistent July rains along with cool damp nights seem to have brought them on strong. And I’ve heard whispers of bags of chanterelles gathered from secret locales. Remember, the mushrooms are always alive as hair-like rootlets in the soil. When conditions are right, the part that pops up as a mushroom is the “flower” that spreads spores in the wind to reproduce. Unfortunately, for the mushroom pickers, there are also more insects this year because of the moisture, and insects often invade mushrooms that aren’t picked soon after they pop up.The wild sunflower seed heads are now nicely dried and if you pick the seed head and break it open, you will see little black sunflower seeds on which you can nibble. You can sprinkle seeds as you go down the trail, and see if they come up in your new spot next year.Bright red rose hips now bring some nice contrasting color into the forests. The beautiful pink roses whose fragrance graced the trails earlier this summer now bear fruit that is super-high in vitamin C. Rose hip tea is something you can drink to help bolster your immune system.

Thick red clusters of the tiny elderberries also brighten up the late summer trail. Once cooked, these berries can be used in jam, pies or wine. The potent berries are rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and iron. Another interesting local plant that has especially tall flowers this year is known the cornhusk lily, also known as the false hellebore. These plants grow in moist, sunny areas and look much like corn. The flowers are now more than six feet tall in some areas. Cornhusk lilies are not food plants however, and instead are violently poisonous. It is reported by expert Linda Kershaw that some native people used this plant to make poison-laced arrows, or even to commit suicide. As a native person, you would also collect medicinal plants. For example, mullein often grows along roadsides and disturbed areas and has soft velvety leaves at its base and a three-foot tall stalk that rises up with a corncob-looking flower at its top. The leaves can be used to make tea that is useful as an expectorant for conditions like chest colds and bronchitis. Lastly, you may want to gather something to smoke in your teepee with your friends. Kinnickinick is a low-lying mat-like plant that is known as Indian tobacco root. It commonly grows in sunny pine forests and the dried roots make a fine smoke for your peace pipe.

It is a fascinating season to be out in the forest. Some species like the buffalo berry has fruit like I’ve never seen before. Like animals in the forest, a native person would be opportunistic and gather fruits and seeds whenever they were plentiful and available.Writer Tom Wiesen and photographer Tanya Wiesen are the lead guides and owners of TrailWise Guides. Privately guided wilderness hiking and backcountry mountain biking tours are available daily. Call Trailwise for more information at 827-5363. TrailWise Guides in an equal opportunity employer that operates under a special use permit in the White River National Forest.


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