I Brake for Sneezewort
August is the major roadside gathering month.
Starting in April, in Maine, things start growing again — things we can gather along the roadsides, starting with fiddleheads. Well, if you’re lucky, you can find fiddle heads alongside the road. Usually, gathering fiddleheads involves trekking through the pucker brush and/or down abandoned RR tracks, and scrambling up and down stream embankments to get to your "secret" patches. That’s not so easy for this ole great-grandma these days, but my long-time buddy, Tom Seymour, gave me a gift a few years ago: a patch right on the side of a road. That’s like an avid fisherman telling you where one of his favorite fishing spots is.
Come May, it’s time for digging dandelions. The most maligned plant, primarily used to advertize weed killers, the mighty dandelion should be hailed a miracle plant. Every single part of is beneficial. First off, of course, its hard to beat a mess of dandelions greens with butter, vinegar, salt and pepper. Then come the yellow blossoms that turn fields into glowing golden blankets. Just before they bloom, the tight little blossom buds make a delicate little side dish. The blossoms are delicious dipped and fried in a light tempura batter — I have a perfect tempura recipe I picked up in the famous Castroville “Artichoke Capital of the World” in California.
Dandelion blossoms also make a mighty fine white wine. To find a bottle tucked away under the cellar stairs or some such place is a treasure indeed. The fluffy heads of the spent blossoms are next year’s seeds. We’ve all played at waving them through the air to watch them fly off on their little parachutes. The roots, dried, make a coffee substitute and the vitamin/mineral content is legend. Look under the plants used in folk medicine for just about any ailment and you find the mighty dandelion.
Come June, it’s time for gathering cattail flour. This nutritious-packed flour — the yellow pollen on the top spikes — was gathered for food by the Indians. (Before use, it’s wise to sift it to take out tiny wild-life). The easiest collecting process is with a paper bag placed over the spike — bend it down and shake. I add this flour to morning muffins and/or cornbread.
July’s roadside and fields sport the yellow St. John’s Wort, so named for St. John, whose Feast Day is in July. Wort is an ancient Middle English word for weed/plant. Like the dandelion, this "wort" is touted, from Hippocrates and Pliny to the Mayo Clinic, for its medicinal properties, particularly as an anti-depressant and for skin problems like atopic dermatitis and for cuts and scrapes.
The yellow flowers, steeped, make a good tea. I also steep them in vodka and water to make a “tonic.” (This tonic sells in health food stores for $7-9 per ounce. I prefer to make my own for about 5 cents an ounce.) I mainly use St. John’s Wort for making an oil to use for skin problems. That’s as simple as infusing the blossoms in a carrier oil, like olive oil. As olive oil goes rancid easy, I prefer grape seed or coconut oil with a bit of glycerin (a preservative) added. This makes a pretty, golden-orange oil that will keep for a long time.
Also, in August, is the milkweed. The pods can be used for food and the fluff for stuffing — not for a turkey dinner, but for pillows and life vests. In WWII, Japan cut off the supply of kapok — used in life vests. America turned to the milkweed’s waterproof silky fluff for making life vests. The Government launched a "war effort" campaign enlisting kids to gather milkweed silk. A hundred years before that, it was used for mattress and pillow stuffing. Now, it’s just considered another pesky weed.
The roadsides and fields are now starting to sport the falsely maligned golden rod, a great tea maker. Steeped for tea, it’s mild and sweet and my nature’s antidote to hay fever, counteracting the real allergen culprit: ragweed. Ragweed blossoms at the same time as goldenrod and the two lookalikes are often mistaken for one another. Goldenrod is innocent.
This is also a good month to collect and dry tea-leaves for the winter. I’ll be drying my bee-balm leaves soon — also called Bergamont and Oswego (Indian) Tea. The colonists — after they turned Boston Harbor into a giant teapot with their famous Boston Tea Party in protest to English taxes on tea — were taught the use of the bee-balm leaves for a good substitute. You can also use blackberry, raspberry, and other berry leaves and rose bush leaves. Rose hips, like tiny red apples, can be cut in half, dried and used as a tea jam-packed with vitamin C.
This is also the month for gathering hydrangea blossom to dry for great looking arrangements in flower vases. They dry by putting in a vase with about a half inch of water. It takes a week or so but after the water is gone, the blossoms retain their color and last for a couple years.
But as filler for my silk roses in their cut glass vase, I gather and dry sneezewort. It’s in bloom now and grows along the roadsides. I keep an eye out for it and when I spy some I am apt to slam on my brakes and back up to get some. The tiny white flowers look very like baby’s breath. They make a perfect filler with the roses and last until next years crop.
And, perhaps the best part, all of the above is provided free for the gathering.
Marion Tucker-Honeycutt, an award-winning columnist, is a Maine native and graduate of Belfast. She now lives in Morrill.