Elder – medicine chest of the people

Elderberry shrub

Elder, Sambucus nigra is flowering now, although it is not common north of the Volcanic Plateau in New Zealand.  But it is very common south of the Plateau and in the South Island.  I wanted an elder bush because all parts of it are so healing.   When I saw plants in Northland, I took cuttings and now have a flowering shrub, proving it can grow here in the Bay of Plenty.  It was growing ‘like a weed’ in Canterbury where I’ve just been. We picked and dried the flowers.  I will use it for tea.

It is a deciduous shrub growing up to 6m tall, with large leaves divided into

five to seven leaflets. The creamy white flowers grow in a dense flattish group, and both leaves and flowers have a distinctive smell.  Clusters of drooping black fruits follow the flowers, known as elderberries.
Elder likes to grow on forest margins, regenerating land and waste places. It is native to Africa, West Asia and Europe, where it grows prolifically, my brother in Denmark tells me.
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Working Holiday on Aotea (Great Barrier)

Community Gallery Teaching room with mural

Every year the Great Barrier Island Community Art Gallery runs a winter lecture series.  I had the good fortune to be invited to run workshops last year and again this year September 2nd and 3rd.  I love going to Aotea (Great Barrier).

I flew directly from Tauranga with Sunair, known for tiny planes and changing flight schedules. We set off at 8am to accommodate the person going to Whangarei, who had a

Me and the three seater plane

detour to Great Barrier. On the way, we picked up a man in Whitianga.  I find it exhilarating taking off and landing in those 3 or 4 seater planes and then low flying over the landscape, enabling a birds-eye view of our beautiful countryside and the ocean.

 

Crossroads Backpackers at the Cross Roads

For two nights’ I stayed in the ‘Crossroads’ Backpackers in Claris. A great turnout of 17 people came to the first edible weed workshop.  We visited the lush Medlands Community gardens, with its’ excellent variety of greens, vegetables and weeds. The whole Island being off grid means everyone has to be self-sufficient on everything like water, power, waste disposal and where they get their food.  Count Down adds freight costs to ordered food. I noticed that the islanders are very aware of and totally reliant on

Foraging in the Medlands Community Gardens

their environment and tuned to the weather.  They want to know what they can eat in their surroundings, in case, as one woman put it, “they are ever cut off and can’t access imported food”.

After the workshops, I stayed with good friends John and Lil in Port Abercrombie. Access is by boat only, hence the reason I wear gumboots. I had a real holiday, internet free and got to knit and read, things I now rarely have time for.  The book “Woman in the Wilderness” by Miriam Lancewood vividly describes her and partner Peters’ experience living only in the mountains and bush of NZ.  The story was a perfect match for the way John and Lil live so remotely on Aotea. I relished the quiet, the sound of the sea rhythmically lapping and lulling me to sleep, the kaka parrots that squawked in the mornings, tui’s and other bird calls.  One evening we heard a very strange sound and I learned the little blue penquins had returned.  They’ve made their nest in the furthest back corner, under the house.  We enjoyed long talks on nature, gardening and how to live when you’re becoming older.  Lil and I had a walk over the hill to a neighbour, who gave us a big bag of huge guavas, (Psidium guajava) which I peeled and stewed.

Native celery & puha growing in sand

Lil and I harvested rock oysters and for the first time I ate some raw.  Lil later made delicious fritters, while I made a salad with water cress (Nasturtium officinale), wild coastal celery (Apium prostratum), and greens from the garden. I laughed at Pete the dog who barks at the

Pete and the dolphins

dolphins cruising up and down the harbour. I also made weed pesto and thistle lemonade, using the appliances when the sun is generating power.

Pea and brassica support & protection

We built a pea support from kanuka sticks, (Kunzea robusta), tall flax stalks woven into the kanuka, tied together with flax fibre.  We sowed the peas and then surrounded them with kanuka brush to ward off slugs and snails and to provide support as they grow. Lil also puts dense brush around the vulnerable brassicas. I was so taken with the kanuka brush I brought some home to put around my peas. I also brought home a mountain pawpaw cutting, hangi hangi or New Zealand privet, Ligustrum lucidum seedlings, a maiden hair fern for my bathroom and the fondest memories to sustain me till my next visit!

Rock oyster fritters and green salad

Regenerating bush once the Kanuka is cut. It was originally Kauri forest, followed by burn off and pasture.

Looking down on Port Abercrombie where I had stayed on the northern end of Aotea

Morning view from my bedroom

Starting a new garden

 I’m into my fifth week at my new home in Greerton.  I moved July 20th and it is starting to feel more familiar. It does take a while to transition from one place to another.  I do miss the farm hugely.  Luckily this section is large at 840 Square metres, sunny, north facing and flat.

How does one design a new food garden.  Firstly, you have to decide what you want to grow and what you like to eat.  I want to grow lots of vegetables of all kinds and fruit trees.  With that in mind I have divided the garden into the vegetable plot, straight out from the patio and the fruit tree orchard on the side with the hedge.  I had the hedge brought down in height, which it didn’t like, as there is die back and it looks rather uneven along the top!  But, a lot more sunlight reaches the garden in the afternoon now.

Already in the garden: avocado ‘Esther’, meyer lemon and feijoa

The garden had some existing fruit trees e.g. a meyer lemon, feijoa, three grape vines, a tamarillo, a

passionfruit vine, a semi dwarf avocado ‘Esther’, and an apricot.

I also brought trees down from the orchard at the farm.  These included, weeping white mulberry, dwarf almond ‘Garden Prince’, two column apples ‘Polka’, two pears ‘Seckle’ and ‘Winter Nellis’, dwarf feijoa, Grapefruit ‘Golden special’, plum ‘Satsuma’, Thornless jewel boysenberry, Japanese wineberry, elderberry and four blueberries.

I bought more fruit trees through the Tree Crops Association http://www.treecrops.org.nz/ at their annual sale. I hadn’t considered ripening times when I bought trees for the orchard at the farm.  This time I researched varieties that would give me a long harvesting period. I chose an early apple variety called ‘Worcester Permain’, a

Carpet and cardboard covering the lawn with Lulu looking on.

mid-season, ‘Freiburg’ and a late variety ‘Granny Smith’. These are all heritage or heirloom varieties meaning varieties grown that have been passed down through the generations, typically at least 50 years. (Although, many varieties are actually much older than that.) Some experts classify heirlooms as vegetables and fruits introduced before 1951, the time when plant breeders first introduced hybrids or crosses between two species. Heirloom varieties often have better flavour because they are usually not bred for commercial production.

What else have I planted?  A persimmon tree, a peach ‘black boy’, a plum’ Reine Claude de Bavay’, and a mandarin ‘miyagawa’.  And they all fit in the garden!  While they are young they don’t look crowded, but I intend to keep them small like the existing apricot.

I love companion planting so I’ve put daffodils around the fruit trees and they bring instant colour, since some are flowering.  They were dug up from the driveway at the farm.

 

When I bought this property in 2013 I had two raised vegetable beds made at the back of the house.  I have now discovered these beds don’t get a lot of sun being on the south-east side.  However, I have already planted out the broad bean, kale, lettuce and miner’s lettuce seedlings I grew.  I have peas, fennel and more kale just starting off.

The main garden is in conversion from lawn under cardboard and carpet.  I’m aiming to tame the kikuyu and get its’ runners to come to the surface, so that my gardening buddies and I can remove it.  And I may get chooks to help scratch it for me.

The worst thing about moving is being cut off from greens and weeds that I foraged.  Friends have brought me lots though and you may laugh but I transplanted weeds!! Chicory, hedge mustard, mallow, self-heal, wild lettuce, comfrey, nettle, onion weed and twin cress.  There is very little here.  There is an edible weed workshop coming up in September near Katikati. For more information go here.

How Healthy is our Environment? Winter Musings

I recently attended a Tree Croppers field trip to Puketoki Reserve on Whakamarama Road, Bay of Plenty.  We were treated to a wonderful talk by Colin Hewens who is the spokesman for the team of volunteers who have done an epic job of controlling the rats, stoats and possoms.  We were then further treated to an inspiring talk by Rob McGowan, a local bush medicine (Rongoa) expert and bush conservationist.  He said some things I’d like to share and discuss here.  It was very evident that this patch of bush is in excellent health – the tops of the trees are not eaten out and the undergrowth is thick with abundant seedlings.  This means the rain falling is slowed, spread, soaks into the leaf litter and stored there rather than running straight off causing erosion and filling up the estuary. We learned that the medicinal benefits of the plants are directly related to the health of the bush.

Now you may be wondering what has all this got to do with my love for weeds and their healing benefits.  Well it’s about my concern for our obsession with tidiness and controlling nature through the use of toxic poison.  If we want our environment which we cleared of bush to be healthy for us to live in we need to be learning from nature not fighting it.  For example, I recently drove to Auckland and cannot believe that

Wild flowers on the roadside – King Country

farmers are spraying roundup along boundary fence lines.  These dead brown stripes, expose soil (nature loves to cover soil to protect it from erosion) and put poison in the earth and deplete habitat for all kinds of life and pollinating insects.  The vegetation on roadsides is often the only ‘uncontrolled’ places nature has for wild flowers which insects need to survive.  And don’t they look gorgeous in the photo all along the roadside.  I had to stop and take a photo.

Friends from Holland tell me that the Dutch people have stopped spraying roadsides because of the massive loss of insects and butterflies.  Why are we so slow to follow suite?

We sadly haven’t connected using all these toxins with our own health and just look around how many people are ill. We are exposed to so many more toxins than

Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale

we were decades ago.  I hear you say “What about DDT”. Yes, and now there are even more toxins in the food, air, and water.  My positive note is that the wild plants can help us cope with the build-up of toxins in our bodies.  The bitter weeds like dandelion, hawksbeard, chicory, plantain among others, stimulate the liver to detox our bodies, if eaten regularly, which for me is daily. These plants are right around us almost under our feet if you look for them.  They are like forgotten secrets. I love this poem which is a good summary:

Gerard Manly Hopkins (Born 1844- Died 1889)

“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Complete Poems

I’ve been making wild edible salads using handfuls of chickweed as the base.  You can then add bitter cress,

Wild winter salad

mizuna, landcress, few dandelion leaves, speedwell, onion weed, nasturtium leaves garnished with red clover flowers, onion weed flowers, violet flowers and oxeye daisy petals.

Salad Dressing Recipe
1 tablespoon tahini, 1/2 tsp of mustard, 1 tsp tamari,
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or a lemon squeezed, 1/2 cup olive oil.   Mix it all together well.

Cudweed

Cudweed – Gamochaeta coarctata (formaly Gamochaetata spicata)

Cudweed rosette shape, green and white leaf colouring

I’ve seen and known about Cudweed in my foraging for some time, but this is the first time I’ve ever written about it.  Cudweed’s unusual feature is the dual colour of the leaves which are bright green and smooth on the upper surface and white underneath.   The white being densely matted hairs looking like a piece of felted material when seen up close.  Hence Cudweeds’ Greek name Gamochaeta means joined

Cudweed flowers spikes

bristles and the former name spicata is latin for spike, or ear of grain.  This refers to the flower spike the plant sends up 15-20cm from the rosette of leaves. There are many tight clusters of small, whitish flowers which look rather dull and inconspicuous compared to bright, bold dandelions and sunflowers who also belong in the Asteraceae family of plants. The leaves don’t have stalks, they radiate straight out from the centre of the rosette and die off by the time the flower stalks grow up. There are leaves up the stems which get smaller and thinner nearer the top and are absent at the very top where the flower clusters sit.

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Hawthorn – Heart Tonic

Julia picking hawthorn fruit

I’ve recently enjoyed a visit to the Nelson area in the South Island where my friend Jasmin and I went searching for Hawthorn shrubs Craetagus monogyna .  Its autumn and time to harvest the small red fruits (called haws).  We found some bushes along roadside farm fences abundant with haws.  Hawthorn is native to Europe and was brought here as an effective and attractive hedge plant.  It’s Greek name Craetagus means flowering thorn and I was certainly made aware of the stiff 12mm long spines that are there to protect the  nourishing and medicinal spring flowers, leaves and autumn fruits.

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Honouring Hawkbit

Hawkbit plant with flowers

In my travels around the country I have been enjoying seeing the bright yellow faces of Hawkbit (Leontodon taraxacoides) in the ditches like a yellow continuous ribbon to look at along the side of the roads. They are about the only flower you see (now they’ve stopped sowing wild flowers) along the miles of motorway strips between the lanes approaching Auckland.  I was so enjoying seeing them while crawling in traffic I took photos on the cell phone.

Why is it the only flower you see in the ditches? I thought it may have become resistant to herbicides, but it didn’t

Patch of Hawkbit

show up on any list.  However, it is very quick to recover in places that are sprayed.  Turns out herbicides do not induce resistance in weed species, rather they simply select for resistant individuals that naturally occur within the weed population.  This shows their incredible resilience and adaptability in their genetic pool.  Food for thought: is spraying not poisoning ourselves in the long run?
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Deadly or delicious? Black Nightshade

Young nightshade plants

Happy New Year everyone!

This is the first blog for 2017 and I thought I’d start the year with a plant that receives a bad rap.  I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know that Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum)   is an edible weed!  It is commonly and mistakenly called ‘Deadly nightshade’ which is a completely different plant (although in the same solanum family) with the name Atropa bella-donna, deadly poisonous but extremely rare in NZ.  However, Belladonna is a powerful medicine, used homeopathically and by optometrists to dilute pupils to examine eyes!

Black nightshade is an annual and starts out as a single stem with lush green, arrow head shaped leaves, growing into a many branched plant up to a metre tall.  It has clusters of small, white flowers, with five pointed petals, followed by round berries that are initially green ripening to shiny black. The berries are full of seeds surrounded by a light green, juicy pulp. Read more

Plentiful Puha

Puha (Sonchus oleraceus) or (Sonchus asper) are lushly going up to flower now in September/October. I

Flowering puha

Flowering puha

notice that the pony is seeking Puha out to eat and spring is the time many indigenous people including Māori gather it for making their boil ups. It is a well known spring tonic.

Puha flowers and Leaf wrapping stem

Puha flowers and Leaf wrapping stem

What does Puha look like? It’s a soft, succulent, tall, leafy annual reaching up to a metre. It starts out growing in a rosette, from which comes a tall stem with lots of flower buds. I thought the buds had woolly aphids because of the white substance at the base of the buds, but it’s not diseased just part of the plant. Yellow flowers appear followed by seeds with hairs that enable them to fly away like dandelion seeds. The leaves are soft, mid to dark green, hairless, smooth and divided into lobes, the one near the stem, wraps around the stem, sort of ear shaped. The stem is hollow, hairless and contains a milky sap.

Puha’s name oleraceus (Lat.) (photo left) means ‘of the vegetable garden’ and that’s where you’ll find it growing in your flower or vegetable garden, pasture or waste places.
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Great Barrier Island adventure

Coming into land

Coming into land, airstrip ahead

August 30th 2016 saw me flying in a tiny FlyMySky plane across the clear, blue sky to Great Barrier Island from Auckland. The smooth flight gave panoramic views of the Island’s bays and inlets and bush clad peaks and valleys and the flat land, much of which looked like wetland.

 

I was met by family friends John and Lilian who live in Nagel Cove at the Northern end of the Island with access to their property only by boat. So the adventure began!  We drove over very windy, luckily sealed roads to Port Fitzroy, stopping on the way at Okiwi Passion, the market garden run by Gerald and Kaitie Endt who

Kaitie Endt at Okiwi Passion Market Garden

Kaitie Endt at Okiwi Passion Market Garden

supply produce boxes to folk on the Island, and who a couple of months ago featured on Country Calendar.  We picked up some eggs and Kaitie gave us a tour and I saw she had lovely weeds which they do their best to control with bamboo mulch.  I pointed out some edible weeds and Kaitie is now going to include e.g. creeping mallow in her salad green mix. I returned to Okiwi later in the week to collect a range of weeds for the two popular workshops on identifying edible weeds I ran through the Art Gallery in Claris.

 

Rowing between barge behind and shore. This is actually leaving.

Rowing between barge behind and shore. This is actually leaving.

Once at Point Fitzroy, which consists of a store come post office, nurses’ clinic and small library we carried our luggage down to the wharf to John’s barge.  He is the moorings maintenance man on the Island for all those essential tie ups for boats.  All aboard we motored thirty minutes to arrive in their little cove to then unload into a small plastic dinghy with all the luggage and row ashore.  Lilian had advised me to wear gumboots, and

Wonderful pergola

Wonderful pergola, my weed collection in bag foreground

now all was revealed, I clambered out of the dinghy into the water.  Gear on the beach, we then hauled it up 45 steps.  Fitness is a bonus of living there and I could totally appreciate all the work John has put into the property over thirty years with terraced rock (and now tyre) walled gardens, every rock of which has been carried up as well as all the recycled materials used to build the house, huge workshop, greenhouse, outside compost toilet and shower rooms.  They have a wonderful pergola over a path up which they grow tomatoes, and beans in

Pete on dolphin watch

Pete on dolphin watch

summer.  They have built the gardens on seaweed, resulting in very healthy looking vegetables, flowers, fruit trees and herbs.  Frosts don’t occur allowing bananas, mountain pawpaw and citrus to do well.

 

I was very amused by Pete, the sun seeking Jack Russell who would only leap into action on hearing dolphins in the Bay and then bark from the shore like a good watch dog.  I did get to see dolphins as a result.

John had excavated some land to create a flat area, disturbing and compacting the soil and scotch thistles had come up thickly, I pointed out that the deep tap roots would break up the soil and the refreshing tasty lemonade I made so surprised them that they could see these plants as a resource, rather than as a curse. I added that the roots are also edible and to prevent them spreading cut off the flower-heads.

Solar panels, house behind

Solar panels, house behind

John and Lilian have 12 solar panels for power and gel storage batteries backed up by a generator.  They collect rain water, have composting toilets and wood fire for cooking and water heating, as well as gas cooking elements.  They did have internet and Vodafone coverage but not Spark so I was off line for the four days that passed too quickly.
My time on the Island closed with two highly popular workshops identifying edible weeds run though the art gallery in Claris.  I will definitely return to the beautiful Great Barrier Island.