Winter Allies

January 6, 2012

This winter I have been making new friends and deepening my relationship with some older acquaintances. Allow me introduce you to a few of them.

The first began reaching out to me some time ago. Exactly when I can’t say. Sometimes I am not the most attentive and the earliest advances were lost on me. Although, not entirely because something vaguely intrigued me. The subtlety of the initial approach changed to a louder, more direct appeal when I thought about removing the plant to let more light in to a particular spot. I started asking around to find out exactly who this was but no one knew. Granted, my survey wasn’t exactly exhaustive, few people with the necessary knowledge are to be found in the mountains these days, but Tsuchiya-san, our most reliable source of local plant information was unable to help. Usually this would indicate the plant wasn’t “useful” but I was developing a strong feeling that this plant was offering something to us.

Without any idea who this was calling me I cautiously tasted its fruit. Beautiful tiny red fruits. A really vibrant, almost translucent, red. Slightly elongated with a pointy end of a darker red or black. Sour, though not unpleasant. Not much flesh – most of the fruits size was given it by the seed inside. I concluded that any usefulness (to me) whatever it may be was not likely to be in eating quantities of the raw fruit. But, rather than disappointment that this was not some new and delicious edible fruit gracing Shikigami (anyway, had it have been Tsuchiya-san would surely have known it), my feeling that this was a plant I wanted to know only grew stronger.

Gamazumi (Viburnum dilatatum)

Some months after this all began I finally got a name. While on a teaching trip to Tokyo I came across what is by far the best guide to edible wild plants in Japan that I have seen so far. In Ikuzo Hashimoto’s Wild Food Lexicon, Japan (for more on this book see Readings) I learnt that it was Gamazumi ガマズミ (Viburnum dilatatum) that had been trying to get my attention. The uses to which it has been put by others include making fruit liquor and jam. It is diuretic and “good for tiredness.” A dye is made from the fruit. Other uses are preserved in one of its English common names; Arrow wood. The long straight shoots of Gamazumi have traditionally been used to make arrows and the older thicker branches to make tool handles. Further, the bark is said to make a good twine.

In the absence of elders we turn to books to gain plant knowledge but, it is not the same. For in personal relationships with plants something that cannot be spoken of flows between plant and person, flows in both directions. When elders teach us from experience this flow of spirit can be felt. The energy, the flow of meaning passing between plant and person radiates out and touches us, inviting us in. From the field guides we learn but one dimension. Elders bring alive the multidimensionality of relationship. And there never really is an absence of elders for the plants themselves, the mountains and rivers, are our elders. No doubt, without a guide speaking a familiar language it is difficult to begin but, in  relearning the language of nature teachers are everywhere, if we are only able to listen.

We humans live in a realm a thousand times faster than plants and rarely do we slow down enough to hear them speak.
– Jonathan Sparrow Miller

So, to let a little more light in to the spot, rather than removing Gawazuni I will likely coppice it (explaining to Gawazumi what I am doing and why I am doing it), harvesting the bark for twine and good straight branches for tool handles. The regrowth producing more straight shoots to ensure a future supply of arrows, tool handles, twine, dye, a reviving liquor and some jam. And, not least the pleasure of simply looking at its long slender branches, its deep green summer foliage and intense red autumnal berries. Now that Gawazumi has finally managed to get my attention I will be listening too. Friendships develop and deepen with time and careful listening.

Sanekazura (Kadsura japonica)

My Tokyo book find also enlightened me as regards another plant I had been curious about ever since its strange fruit appeared. (And, even though a book may not be the same as a living elder, nonetheless, I do love and value books. For plants speak through the written words of their human allies too. Interest sparked from reading about a herb easily develops into deeper relationship when the herb is encountered.) A vine with knobbly red berries. Little flashes of red way up in the now leafless tress offering support to the vine. Having cautiously sampled these too, I had come to the conclusion that any relationship I might develop with this plant was also unlikely to be centred on regular eating of its fruit. Maybe not winter food but winter medicine?

In Japanese the plant is known as Sanekazura (サネカズラ), in Latin as Kadsura japonica. It is a plant used in kampo, the Japanese adaptation of traditional Chinese medicine. Sanekazura is used as a tonic to boost the immune system. The beautifully weird berries are first dried then simmered until gooey, strained and taken as a tea. This decoction is said also to relieve coughs and reduce excessive mucus production. A winter medicine to be sure. Further, the Sanekazura vine is used for basketry and a hair styling gel can be extracted from it!

It does not surprise me that a medicine good for winter strength should be growing nearby, producing the berries that boost the immune system just as the weather begins to get cold. Or that it is growing in a particularly cold frosty spot, where these changes are most abrupt. For this is all rather typical behaviour in a plant: plants grow where they are needed, where their gifts contribute to community resilience and well being. The environment in which they grow tells us much about what they do. In scientific language this is referred to as “ecosystem function.”

We know that plants are constantly adapting to changes in environmental conditions and forming symbiotic relationships, or mutual aid societies, with other plants, fungi, animals, microbes etc. We know too that plants will alter their chemical composition in response to these changes or the needs of their communities, that the same plant growing in different locations can have a remarkably different chemical constitution. Further, plant people, holders of indigenous (from Latin indigena, “sprung from the land”) knowledge, have always told us that this ability in plants is what we are appealing to when we ask for their medicine. And hence the necessity of “choosing” (or being chosen by) the right plant, of offering a prayer to the plant, of making our request and explaining our needs. (This notion has many profound implications, not least of which for the current tendency towards standardization and commercialization of herbal medicines, reducing whole plants to an “active constituent”).

Now, the scientist studying ecosystem functions of plants will likely baulk at my suggestion that plants can and do make internal adjustments in order to assist our needs, even though they readily accept this idea  in relation to other elements in the ecosystem. The magical thinking here, the superstition, is that all we know about ecosystems somehow doesn’t apply to the human species, that we are the sole species on the planet that exists outside of the web of communication linking all life. That the strands that intricately weave this web do not also run through us.

Having withdrawn from our bodies into our heads, locating our consciousness there, and perceiving the world through a particularly anthropocentric filter, some of our most precious knowledge has gone, our most useful abilities atrophied through lack of use. We no longer easily feel the vibrations coursing through the strands that weave the web. We have disconnected ourselves from the medium of communication. But all is not lost. The plants offer medicine for that affliction too. Imbibing the “wild redeemer” we begin the long process of deschooling ourselves and reinhabiting life.

Amazake (fermented rice porridge) with fuyuichigo (Rubus buergeri) and yuzu (Citrus ichangensis × C. reticulata) rind

Fuyuichigo (フユイチゴ), “winter berry,” (Rubus buergeri) is one I have been aware of for some time. It is a dominant ground cover here and can be found throughout the forest and in clearings. But this is my first autumn and early winter here so it is the first time I have had the pleasure of eating the winter berry.

The fruits are generally smaller than  cultivated raspberries (which are of the same genus) although there are many of comparable size. Also, generally, the fruit is pleasantly tart but can be rather sweet, particularly when growing in sunny locations. It fruits copiously and is thornless so regardless of the small size it is relatively easy to collect good quantities of berries.

Fuyuichigo, like other berries in the Rubus genus, amongst other things, is very high in vitamin C, making it another excellent food for fortifying the body for the cold of winter.

Seri (Oenanthe javanica)

From the reds to the greens.

Heading outside to gather greens for a meal I walk towards the “garden” but before reaching it spot some beautiful looking dandelion leaves, tender and intensely green, vibrating in the late afternoon light. Next I see a patch of chickweed, lush again having been harvested from only a couple of days ago. White clover catches my eye next. A handful of tender young clover leaves and a few young leaves of sorrel. I turn to the deliciously nutty plantain leaves then head off in the direction of a wasabi patch to gather some young leaves there passing as I go watercress and water celery (seri セリ) which I add to my basket to complete the wild salad.

Most of these plants will be found within close proximity to your own houses for most of these plants have long followed human camps. Nourishing and delicious herbs that keep us healthful and show a preference for growing close by us. Part of our supportive community, we have, in the past 50 odd years, attempted to banish dandelion, plantain, sorrel, chickweed and clover from our camps with incredible quantities of herbicides. The work of a disembodied head, to be sure, for all of these plants are far more nutritious than the salad plants we work so hard to cultivate.

Water celery, seri セリ, (Oenanthe javanica) also referred to as Japanese parsley or Chinese celery, is a member of the water dropwort family. Seri has a long stem with leaves descending in size from the base of stem to the tip. It has bipinnate, rounded leaflets, with serrated edges. Several species of water dropworts are extremely toxic so it is essential to make a good positive identification of seri before consuming it. Making this easier, here, we only eat seri in the winter and spring when it happens to be the only water dropwort around. In the heat of summer, when the other water dropworts appear, the seri becomes tough and stringy. It will be found in wet places. The photo above was taken near a spring just below our house. As its English common names suggest seri has a taste reminiscent of celery, or, more like something between celery, parsley and carrots. Every part of the plant is edible, leaves, stems, roots and seeds. Edible, delicious and very nutritious. The leaves in particular are rich in minerals and vitamins.

“Let food be your medicine and medicine your food.” Local, seasonal, wild.


3 Responses to “Winter Allies”

  1. Hi Dion,

    Love the way you share your connectedness and challenge us to the same… you remind me to listen more.

  2. brodoland Says:

    Well written and inspirational as always dion.

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