Little kid walking on a trail in the woods

I did not know people did this. What is a yard walk?

I wish I knew sooner about yard walks. It never even occurred to me that people did this, but when I did, I loved it.

Now, I owe my friend, Kaye, for introducing me to yard walks.

YARD WALK: a stroll around your own backyard with an expert in identifying herbs (and other plants), who can tell you the story behind the herb. Is it is medicinal, edible, toxic, native, invasive, infamous, or forgotten? It’s a good time. You should organize a party around it. 

Kaye bought a new house last year. Instead of inviting us to a pretty traditional housewarming and touring everyone through all the rooms on the inside of the house, she made her first get-together about the outdoors. Most of us can relate to her feelings about indoor tours causing too much pressure to paint and clean and unpack. Most of us have said, “Oh you gotta see the new place. Some time, when it’s ready, I’ll have you over.”  Instead of procrastinating and pretending like she would ever feel ready for a full-blown housewarming party, Kaye invited us to a yard walk at the new place.

There are so many interesting ‘weeds’ in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, there are interesting wild things growing in your flower pots, at the park down the street or between the cracks in your sidewalk.

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An experienced yard walker can stand in one spot and point to 12 different plants around you, identify them and tell their stories. Are they native plants or stowaways from some long-ago ship voyage? Can you eat them? Are they poisonous? Are they medicine? What did people do with them 200 years ago? Did we forget about them?

In 45 minutes of walking Kaye’s yard, I learned (and retained) as much as I have in some college courses. It reframed the way I looked at my own yard…

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Ok, that’s not my yard.  It’s Torrey Pines in San Diego. But it’s such a nice view. More about that later.

Many of us are looking for easy ways to connect with others, to spend time with friends or invest time in forming new friendships. We come up with ideas like bookclubs, guys nights out or cookie swaps. I recommend you add hosting a yard walking party to that list of ideas for get-togethers. Even if you or your friends are not nature buffs, it is an experience. It’s empowering to learn how to look at something that’s been hiding in plain sight your entire life and identify it.

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The everyday weed in this photo is mullein. Up until the last 100 years, the leaves were brewed into a tea for sore throats. (Full disclosure, I did not see this one on Kaye’s yard walk, but I have some in my own yard.)

Problem: it’s not exactly like yard walkers advertise like lawyers. You won’t see their photo on the side of a city bus.

If you have a local university, botanical or garden center, that would be a good place to start. Many local agencies have departments that study native or invasive plants and may offer you some resources. Try the American Herblists Guild membership lists. They might not exactly have what you need, which is more like a wild plant ranger. You can do an online search for “wild herb walks” or “herblists” near you.

If you are lucky enough to have a nature center near you, they may offer foraging hikes or woodland discovery tours that are in the same spirit of a yard walk but lack some of the personal connection. I mean few things are as personal as getting acquainted with the hundreds of plant species growing in your own backyard or on your block.

Would you help me brainstorm other places to find experienced yard and herb walk guides?

Hey you. Me?

Yes, you, the person reading this article. If you can think of additional resources or you’ve been on an herbal or yard walk, please add a comments about it.

For the do-it-yourselfers, there are field guides you can buy. Peterson’s are popular, but I found myself squinting at some of the sketches not really sure if I was looking at an invasive or a native. Please don’t ever eat wild plants you are unsure of or if you don’t know whether they might be sprayed with pesticides.

When I was at Torrey Pines getting that photo pictured earlier, my family and I hiked the cliffs along the shore. While we were passing through the trails, I spotted some native wild sage. Not only could I identify it on sight, my proud mama moment was when my six year old spotted it and yelled, “Sage!”

Come on. How is that real life? But it was. Well done, kid.

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If you want to learn more, visit my on-going series about forgotten herbs.

 

Forgotten herb: mugwort

Oh wow, that’s a terrible name. This herb could be the cure for cancer (unlikely, but follow me here), and everyone would overlook it because it’s called mugwort. In the plant world, you’ve got to be in some serious purgatory to be slapped with a name like mugwort…or…that’s how we’d see it now. In ancient times, names were pretty practical.

Let’s break it down

Mug. Ok, what’s that supposed to mean? Like you can put it in a mug. Yep, now I’m catching up. So, like, you can make tea with mugwort. Yes! Women used it to ease the symptoms of menstruation and menopause. Ancient wisdom says mugwort tea relaxes you and alleviates stomach aches. Another popular use was as a flavoring for beer before the widespread use of hops. Beer…mug.

In fact, with the growing popularity of homebrewing and foraging, mugwort beer is making a comeback. Here’s a simple recipe that uses dried mugwort leaves in Mugwort Lemon Beer, originally published by Grow Forage Cook Ferment.

Not to mislead you, it’s not what we think of as beer. This is a fermented, bubbly beverage, but it’s not made with hops. Instead, mugwort gives the drink herby, woody, slightly bitter notes.

Does that mean the “wort” part is like “wart”? Probably not. Mugwort is medicinal, but it’s more likely to be blended into a balm to relive itching than into a wort cream. Wort is probably just a derivation of the Old English word for “root”, which seems plausible given that the German word for root is Wurzel.

People argue that a tonic made with the root gives you energy. I find that confusing given the same online research claims a tea made from the dry leaves provides calming, anxiety-relief. Lots of potential avenues for study here.

Where do I find mugwort?

Practically everywhere. And, if you are familiar with the herb, you’ll recognize it in every season. It was once a medicinal, cooking and brewing herb, which means everyone grew it. It spreads easily, which made the plant an invasive weed in most parts of the world.

Mugwort is all around you, and yet, it is almost invisible to most people. Mugwort hides in plain sight. Here’s a strip of mugwort growing wild around the edges of forest and field. It looks like a green divider through the center of this photo. You’ve seen it a million times but did you ever notice it?

During warm months, you’ll see lots of adorable baby mugwort just beginning to sprout. You can wack one of those things 20 times with your lawnmower, and it will just shrug it off and keep on growing. Joke’s on you cause the roots get stronger. Maybe that’s why there are rumors that travelers and wary soldiers wore mugwort in their belts and shoes.

I took Chicago’s Orange line from the loop to Midway last Autumn and took a picture of mugwort growing along the railroad tracks.

My neighbor shouldn’t mind too much that I walked over to the edge of his yard and captured this late-season mugwort in it’s golden-brown glory.

Photographic proof that mugwort is all around us. It begs the question: why don’t we use this herb anymore? Well, supply is not an issue. Plentiful would be an understatement. There’s just no demand for mugwort.

Lack of interest

My best guesses: the flavor is unusual (Strike one) and the name is weird (Strike two). One possible problem, there is no popular dip made with mugwort. Who are we kidding? People love dips. If you don’t use an herb to flavor a salsa, shellfish or chip dip, the marketing department just isn’t going to call.

Tough to put that in a recipe, isn’t it? Imagine trying to impress your friends with a recipe that calls for delicious lemon, fresh thyme, smooth cream and…and…something weird called mugwort. Try telling your 14 year old that you’re baking some chicken and mugwort. Let me know what sort of a look she gives you.

Like a book judged by its cover, or wine judged by its label, the herb mugwort is judged by its awful name. Perhaps I can start a petition to change the common nickname of Artemisia vulgaris? Ugh, (eye roll) even its Latin name sounds like a venereal disease.

Let’s brainstorm

What would be a better name than mugwort?

Have you smelled or tasted mugwort? It’s in the lavender range but less floral and more woody. How about holinwood? A quick internet search tells me that’s not taken. It seems appropriate as the herb is a cousin to wormwood, a potent ingredient in absinthe.

I admit holinwood doesn’t have the same ring as sage, cilantro or dill, but it’s got a certain acceptable herbal masculinity. Too masculine? I mean, cilantro is kind of masculine, and it’s popular.

Herb of legend

There are all kinds of legends about mugwort. I mentioned travelers and soldiers carrying the leaves with them, which may have been for strength, as the internet suggests, or for the pleasant scent and use as an evening tea. Jury’s out until St. John the Baptist or a Roman soldier confirm their association with the herb.

Mugwort has a darker reputation…as an allergen. Some quick search engine checks show me that lots of people search for “mugwort allergy”. Strike three! I skimmed some academic articles on the subject. Mugwort pollen gives people hay fever. Guilty as charged.

Actually, it’s even darker. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or trying to conceive, avoid ingesting mugwort. While it is difficult to study, legend and academic literature agree that mugwort is too risky for pregnant women.

What do we know for sure?

There’s a bunch of other stuff on the internet about mugwort legends. It’s an ancient herb with a rich history. You can do a quick search if interested. It’s highly repetitive, and it looks like every blogger who ever wrote about mugwort just copies these legends from the same places.

There’s no way to verify whether this stuff is true or some writer (me) made up a new common name for mugwort (holinwood) and then it became internet fact.

What I will share with you, is info I know for a fact. Herbal fans like to stuff dried mugwort leaves into dream pillows. Fact.

I first heard about mugwort at a yard walk housewarming party (read about yard walks here). Our hostess suggested making dream pillows full of dried mugwort leaves, which she loves. I can see how this practice came about, the scent is like a woodier, calming lavender. Some people describe it as a sage-mint, which is close, but it’s not as potent as mint. Maybe mugwort smells 80% like a medicinal sage and 20% like mint.

The small, handmade pillow is a little bigger than a pouch and is supposed to bring you vivid dreams. I’m not so convinced, but wouldn’t it be fun to try? Please leave a comment if you had a vivid, PG-rated dream because of mugwort.

She’s a keeper

My family and I attended a rehearsal lunch for a cousin who got married last year. It was October in New England, and the dads took three of the flower girls outside to play in the gardens around the restaurant.

The little girls picked the stems of long weeds growing along the banks of a creek, a favorite habitat for mugwort. They danced with them, dipped them in puddles and used them as brushes to write their names on the pavement.

I walked outside and just blurted out, “oh, it’s mugwort. Hey, girls, crush one of the leaves and tell me what you think about the smell.”

One of the dads said, “mugwort?” And I told them all about how it used to be used to brew a beer. Someone mentioned I’d be useful post-apocalypse. I get that a lot. And someone else shouted to my husband, “she’s a keeper!”

Consult the history books

Here’s the really good stuff. I saved the best for last.

Who can resist info I found about mugwort in really old books. Emphasize O-L-D. What I love about Google Books is that they scan pages as they appear with yellowed pages and historic font. Reading tip: the second “s” in a word looks more like an “f” to modern eyes.

Nicholas Culpeper mentions mugwort at least five times in this manual for midwives published in 1676, two decades after his death. Mugwort teas and tonics were thought to help expel the afterbirth, among other uses. But, wow, Culpeper gives his readers terrible advice about bleeding people and giving them toxic mercury: absolutely the wrong things to do. Do not go near mercury.

I love this Gardener’s Dictionary from 1768. The tag line is “Containing the best and newest methods.” The latest and greatest straight out of the 18th century! I guess we can’t chuckle too much, considering that mugwort is now almost forgotten, and we don’t even mention it in gardening books anymore.

Samuel F. Gray offers some brief notes about mugwort and its relatives in this manual from 1821. Common mugwort is on page 449.

The practical, everyday advice in these books drives home the point that everyone used this herb all the time, and then somehow knowledge of mugwort just faded away.

To combat that knowledge loss, the next time you see something that might be mugwort, would you just pick some leaves, crush them in your hand and rediscover the fresh scent?

Forgotten herb: sorrel

Sorrel comes in a bunch of different varieties. I grow French sorrel in my garden. Wild sorrel grows in the woods and along parking lots throughout the US and Europe. My French and English friends might be surprised that I’m writing about sorrel in a  forgotten herb series. They haven’t forgotten it. Americans have.

close enough pronunciation “sore-uhl”

french sorrel

We imported it in earnest in the 1700s and forgot about it entirely sometime in the 1900s. Hey, it’s ok. A 200-year run is longer than I will have.

One of my favorite gardening moments happened last year when a friend from my kid’s preschool pulled into my yard in her Tesla. She saw me in the garden and decided to stop by. She spent a few minutes asking me to identify plants for her. You know I loved it! Then without me saying a word, she gasped, “Oh sorrel! I haven’t seen it since I was a kid in Belgium.” I told her she could have some anytime.

Americans are surrounded by wild-growing sorrel, but most of us never even notice it. Although, Google Trends tells me there is a slow, steady increase happening in the number of searches for “sorrel”. I mean slow increase though. We’re in year eight, still going.

Again, Vermont leads the States in searches for a forgotten herb. Number two by the skin of their teeth is Utah. Why Utah? Someone from Utah please tell me why your people are searching for sorrel. By the way, if you do just a few more googles in Utah, you’ll bump Vermont down to #2. Just letting you know.

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Sorrel in the wild

You probably crushed some sorrel by accident the last time you went on a hike. It grows wild almost everywhere in the US. I never suggest you eat anything growing wild. It’s  dangerous, especially if you haven’t taken classes or become an expert at identifying wild plants. However, if you were an expert plant identifier and lost in the forest, you could survive on sorrel for awhile; then, you’d get kidney stones from all the oxalic acid.

But, on the bright side, you’d bunk scurvy because one cup of sorrel has more Vitamin C than an orange. It might be even healthier than a cup of kale. I don’t know. We can debate it.

Eating sorrel

Sorrel is delicious as a fresh, green bed for steamed white fish. In fact, my number one recommendation for cooking with sorrel is to use it fresh, wash it and lay it down under a steaming, hot piece of seasoned white fish. Do not steam the sorrel. It doesn’t really hold up well when cooked. It’s better with a raw crispness to it.

My second favorite way to eat sorrel is just straight from the garden. The tart leaves bring a burst of flavor to salads. It would be delicious used as an accent herb in a coleslaw.

Online (or in France) you’ll see sorrel cooked into a soup or a sauce. It’s just good, not great made into a soup. Je suis desolee. It gets a little slimy when heated. I have not tried it chopped into an herbed butter, but I think I’d like that better.

It tastes sour, which shouldn’t become a craving, but I crave the flavor of sorrel. I get my quick fixes with common wood sorrel that you may recognize from a crack in the sidewalk nearest you. Wood sorrel grows everywhere, but please don’t ever eat anything you are unsure of or haven’t researched extensively. Wood sorrel looks like other plants that will at least give you a stomach ache.

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Wood sorrel growing in my garden

Sometimes on the internet, I see the taste of sorrel described as citrus. Oooh, that’s not exactly accurate. What they probably mean is that it is a bit tart. There is a sour, lemon-like quality. But if you are expecting an orange or grapefruit flavor when you bite into sorrel, you’ll be disappointed. It’s more like a slightly unripe kumquat.

Why I grow sorrel

I started growing French sorrel in my garden because I read about it in old gardening books. Apparently, our great-great grandparents would be surprised we go our whole lives without eating sorrel in the States. Of course, our great-great grandparents likely had accents from places that did and do still eat sorrel regularly.

My favorite thing about this rich, green plant is that it is the first arrival in my garden in the Spring. Its green shoots give me Spring fever every year, and I just can’t wait to get into the garden and start planting some more.

I’m in Zone 6a. The internet tells me sorrel is only a perennial up to Zone 5. Since my sorrel grows right through the snow in March, I wonder if it doesn’t push that zone a little more. Would someone in a lower zone please weigh in on that?

Blood-veined sorrel is really beautiful.

I grow this French sorrel in my backyard garden. It’s low maintenance for sure!

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Best 5 items at the Lizzie’s Corner farmers market stand

October 9, 2018

All summer I tried and failed to make it over to the Seymour Farmers Market behind the historic Seymour Congregational Church about 25 minutes drive from New Haven, Connecticut. You should see it. Ok, I should take some pictures so you can see it. There’s a powerful terraced waterfall in the Naugatuck River across the street. The church itself is tall and white, a true classic New England meeting house of worship.

The farmers market is only a half mile from the 18th century preserved Seymour Antiques district. When you walk down the streets in the district, you can feel what it was like to take the same stroll 100 years ago. The buildings have hardly changed, including the little gem that houses Lizzie’s Corner, a handcrafted and specialty gifts shop.

On Tuesday afternoons, the curators at Lizzie’s select some of their finest goods and set up a display at the Seymour Farmers Market. Here are my top picks from Lizzie’s Corner.

#5
Goat Boy Goat’s Milk Soaps

Homemade goat milk soap

It’s enough to make you wish you could get a breath of these fresh scents through the phone or computer screen right now. Goatboy Soaps started 17 years ago. The handcrafted products are produced in small batches using fresh goat’s milk. There is goat’s milk soap in my shower right now. It’s so soothing.

#4 Vintage bottles re-imagined

Vintage bottles repurposed into do-it-yourself inspirational quote decor

A charming home craft turned into a business, these are Bookworm Bottles. Decorating with vintage items is a win-win. Your house looks like a designer planned it, and these old bottles get a new chance at life. The littlest ones would be so cute at a wedding. The warm brown bottles would be beautiful down the center of your table paired with candlesticks and vases of cut twigs or greens from your backyard.

#3 Elderberry apple shots

Elderberry apple shots

Oh stop, you can make gummies with these. Or cocktails. Or shoot some non-alcoholic Elderberry Apple Shots as they’re intended, as part of a healthy lifestyle. Healthy, Tiffany, not boozy. You’ve already read the ingredient list, more or less: elderberries and apple cider vinegar. Both are organic and produced by the small farm that makes the shots, Fat Stone Farm.

#2 Swedish dishcloths

Swedish washcloths

Swedish dishcloths aka eco-friendly cleaning cloths are really starting to pop up in shops, and it’s wonderful! They are all-natural, last for 6-9 months and then biodegrade. Mine will go into the compost bin someday. Google trends shows searches for “swedish dishcloth” started to increase in June 2016. I first saw them in the gift shop at a nature center in Cape Cod. My first one is still going strong after three months. You can machine wash them, but I just put mine in the dishwasher sometimes. They don’t stink like sponges. I’m going to do a whole article on these because I use and love them. In the meantime, see what all the fuss is about. You don’t need a 10-pack, just pick up a few to start.

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#1 Homebrew maple syrup

Pure New England Maple Syrup

When it’s time for comfort food and the warm smell of cool-weather baking, enter organic, local maple syrup. In New England, it’s popular to drizzle some maple syrup over sliced, baked acorn squash, another farm stand favorite. My kids and I make pancakes from our own modified recipe almost every weekend. My little daughter licks the plate clean of maple syrup if you don’t stop her. Ahh, childhood.

Have you seen the original Farmstand5 from Cape Cod?
Fancy’s Farm Stand, Orleans, MA