Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Faith, Patience and Careful Observation - Lessons From A Plant Scavenger Hunt

The Air Force's SERE Handbook, the text designed to teach downed pilots how to survive under the most hostile of conditions, calls out 12 plants with useful medicinal properties. I took that list as a challenge to seek out these plants. Here's what I've learned along the way.

Common Plantain. Holy smokes is this plant common. It's everywhere in the DC area. The lesson: if there's one medicinal plant worth mastering in this area, it's plantain.

Dandelion. Dandelion's are a lesson in patience. Here's a common plant that's super easy to identify. And yet, for most of the year, they're invisible. As prolific as all these plants are, finding them always comes down to being in the right place, at the right time.

Dog Rose. Dog roses are what this project is all about. If you had told me that wild roses grew along a running and walking route I frequented, I'd tell you that you were crazy. And yet, that's exactly where I found them. I also learned about the multiflora rose, which is so common it's considered an invasive species. I now see them all the time. While multiflora rose isn't considered the ideal rose to harvest, it's still an excellent source of vitamin C and other nutrients.

Wild Garlic. Wild garlic serves as a reminder that plant naming and identification can get fuzzy. Wild onion and garlic are related and look so alike when growing in your yard that they are often grouped together. It doesn't help that a synonym for wild onion is 'cow garlic'. This article bypasses the differences and offers this advice:

If a plant looks like an onion and smells like an onion you can eat it. If a plant looks like a garlic and smells like a garlic you can eat it. If you do not smell a garlic or an onion odor but you have the right look beware you might have a similar-looking toxic plant.

Wild Onions. See wild garlic. Grown up wild onion (or is it wild garlic?) is crazy looking. It has a Dr Suessian looking nodule that develops into flowers; what I believe is called an 'umbel.' The first time I came across wild onion that had this nodule, it was outside of a gas station along Washington Boulevard. I found myself snapping pics like I'd found some rare species. It was awesome.

Mullein. Years ago I discovered mullein, so I knew it was in the area. However, I had to be patient before I could log a specimen. If you're not familiar with mullein, you're in for a treat. This is a fascinating looking and feeling plant, and you're going to be amazed at how common it is.

White Willow. It took longer than I'd like to admit to remember the collection of massive willow trees growing along the Potomac river, not far from our house. The lesson: sometimes a plant can be so obvious, it's hidden.

Sweet Gum. Finding a sweet gum tree in the area was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. Luckily, I had a magic needle finder. Aka, the Internet. Turns out, Arlington, VA publishes a list of notable trees. Sure enough, two of them were gum trees. I added the address of one of them to a running route, and in no time, I found myself face to face with a splendid looking gum tree. Once I knew what the distinctive star like leaves looked like, I had no problem identifying another gum tree just a few blocks way. The lesson: be creative.

Yarrow. I looked high and low for yarrow, keeping an eye out on every hike I went on. I finally found it two streets over in a neighbor's yard, and in a landscaping feature at a local park. The lesson: the plant detection game doesn't stop just because you're traipsing through suburbia.

Jewelweed. Jewelweed is a lesson in hope and faith. I so wanted to find this plant, yet in hike after hike it eluded me. That is, until one day when I was running and took a random trail into the woods. It led down to the Potomac river where I found a massive stand of Jewelweed. It was gorgeous. The lesson: these plants are out there, so don't give up.

Aloe Vera. Aloe Vera doesn't grow locally, so the lesson here was about taking this little project on the road. I came across a brilliant example of Aloe Vera while hiking in Florida.

I've have two plants left on my list: balsam and peppers. Baslam, like Aloe Vera, doesn't grow locally, so I may have to catch it while out of town. Alternatively, they are frequently used for Christmas trees, so maybe I'll get lucky and find an example during the Christmas season.

The last plant on the list is peppers. With a little reflection, I realize I've left them for last because I've got no expectation of finding them. This is based on some flimsy reasoning: peppers are very distinctive, and I've never seen one growing in the wild. Why should I find one now?

With just a few minutes of research, I can see that my logic is faulty. Wild peppers are absolutely a thing, and most importantly they grow in my climate. I need to change my mindset: wild peppers do exist and I shall find one!

In short, This little exercise has taught me the same lessons over and over: have faith, be patient and stay sharp; what you're looking for is out there.

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