Spring Root Harvest in Tofino
by Carmen Bell, Tofino
There is great satisfaction to be gained in harvesting your own plants or those growing in the environment about you. Aromatic fragrances release themselves from both the earth & the plant itself. Loosening the dirt around the roots reveals colours & textures, as well as the critters whose habitat lies beneath the surface of the soil. There we discover the characteristics of the roots of our chosen plant. Just as each individual has a different hairstyle, all roots are unique. Some are tuberous & easy to follow into the depths with your hand; while others have thin strands that project like a mop & require the entire surrounding earth to be lifted.
If you are going to harvest botanicals and use them therapeutically or for food, you first have to know the plants. You don't need a whole bunch of different varieties, you just need to know the ones you gather and know them intimately.
When 'going after your own grub', it is crucial to know where the plant can be found; how it is gathered and when; how common or rare it is; how it is to be pro?cessed, dried, or preserved; and how long it will maintain its goodness. Be sure of the plant you are picking, cultivate your judgement, pick what you need or what is respectively available and protect the rest.
The medicinal herb garden has been a tradition since we humans began to dabble in agriculture. Even older is the tradition of wildcrafting. It has been discovered that some groups of First Nations peoples attempted to preserve their knowledge and spiritual connection with various plants by carving the images of the plants on wooden sticks, usually combinations of 2 to 8 plants. Approximately a dozen of these "prescription sticks" are currently known to exist in public or private collections.
Medieval Monks are famous for their medicinal herb gardens. When the Romans invaded the British Isles they found Inula helenium to be so highly revered that they took it home with them, it can now be found growing in both regions.
Doug Elliot tells a wonderful story in his book "Roots: An Underground Botany & Forager's Guide". "The long trailing roots of this plant, so the legend goes, possessed not only extremely beneficial healing properties, but extraordinary magic. So beneficial was it for the people that used it that the Devil himself became angered and tried to change the qualities of the root from good to bad. The power and goodness of this plant was so strong, however, that his attempts were always thwarted. Finally, the Devil flew into a rage and personally bit off every one of the roots. His rage was so searing that to this day the roots have not been able to grow back. But the remaining stub is still imbued with good medicine, and every spring it is able to put forth the tall spike of beautiful blazing-star blossoms as a reminder that the power of goodness can always avert the forces of evil."
Recently, Jen Pukonen presented her graduate studies, the Tl'aaya-as project, inspired by the Nuu-chah-nulth communities of Clayoquot Sound:
"The Tl'aaya-as project has engaged students and community members of all ages in the research and re-creation of a Nuu-chah-nulth root garden of kuuxwapiihmapt (northern riceroot), tlicy'upmapt (Pacific silverweed) and ?a?iic'uqmapt (springbank clover)*. Ahousaht community members have guided all stages of the garden's development and have offered many great ideas and suggestions. Over the past two summers, six high school students from Ahousaht have helped with the fieldwork, which included getting to know local plants, planting and tending to a root garden, organizing community steam pit cooking events and preparing an educational poster for the Ahousaht school about root gardens."
"Root gardens like the ones we are restoring were historically important to First Nations all up and down the bc coast. For the Nuu-chah-nulth, the gardens were part of the hahuulthi system of ownership and chief's responsibilities. The roots were highly valued as an important food source and were often eaten in large quantities at feasts, as well as for everyday meals. To produce enough of these roots to feed the communities, the Nuu-chah-nulth would carefully tend their gardens, weeding out other plants, churning the soil with special digging sticks, and selectively harvesting and replanting rootlets to grow for the next years' harvests. Like most Nuu-chah-nulth food practices, this type of gardening was sustainable in the long-term, producing an abundance of food without degrading the land. River estuaries and tidal marshes are one of the most productive types of habitat and were ideal for root gardens."
"The sustainable harvesting of these roots vegetables required a great deal of knowledge and respect that was developed over many generations. Many of the plants formerly cultivated by the Nuu-chah-nulth are now quite rare in their natural habitat, and their populations can be severely harmed by just a few wild harvesters. In addition, mistaken identification or misuse of wild plant foods can be very dangerous. Always be careful eating wild plants!"
On Saturday, May 10th, Clayoquot Botanicals in co-operation with the Tofino Botanical Gardens will be hosting a "Five Root Harvest". Learn about and use the medicinal plants of tradition, cultivated and growing wild here in our region. Discover tools of recognition to apply to the five roots, why they are medicinal, and how they work. Get in there, get dirty, harvest your own. Drink the root decoctions while you prepare tinctures to take with you. This year's roots will be comfrey, valerian, marshmallow, dandelion, and elecampagne. Leave with the five roots brewing, five rootlets growing for a future harvest, and the knowledge of five new friends.
Please phone (250) 726 5303 to register, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . $175, all materials supplied.
As you plant your seeds this Spring, and make plans for the coming Summer, may your roots grow fat and strong...
Carmen Bell is a local herbologist and medicinal gardener. She produces Clayoquot Botanicals, available at local stores.
Tofino root harvest in spring: Carmen Bell of Clayoquot Botanicals writes about her experiences of growing food in Tofino.