July 23, 2013
‘Tis the season for yamamomo (Myrica rubra), variously known to the English-speaking world as Chinese or Japanese bayberry, red bayberry, yumberry, Asian bog myrtle, Chinese strawberry tree or waxberry. Of these last two names the former comes from a resemblance to the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and the latter because the fruit of other myrica species is coated in wax (from which candles can be made) and therefore they are known as wax myrtles or wax berries. However, despite sometimes being referred to as waxberry, the fruit of M. rubra does not have a waxy coating. A friend who lives without electricity (and thus always interested in potential sources of candle wax) has been wholly unsuccessful, despite her best attempts, in extracting any wax from M. rubra.
The Japanese name, yamamomo (山桃), means ‘mountain (yama 山) peach (momo 桃)’ although there is nothing very peach-like about the fruits of yamamomo. But then neither is there much peach-like about the native plums which are called sumomo (which once meant vinegar, or sour, (su 酸) peach (momo 桃), although in contemporary Japanese sumomo is usually written 李 which obfuscates this older meaning). As far as I can see the only thing these other momo’s have in common with peaches is that they are round, stone fruits and usually red-ish.
The fruits of yamamomo are about 1.5 – 2 cm’s in diameter (there are cultivated varieties that have larger fruits however, according to local growers, the fruit is easily damaged by inclement weather at harvest time). The fruits grow in clusters and are dark red to purple when ripe. The tree is evergreen with leathery leaves and grey bark, reaching heights of 15 metres. It grows on forested mountain slopes (100 – 1500 metres) throughout southern China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Philippines…
The fruits are refreshingly tart and may be eaten fresh though often they are served in a sweet syrup. They also make wonderful wine (and if you can make wine you can, of course, make vinegar too). In both China and Japan they are used to make a medicinal liquor (steeped in báijiǔ in China and shōchū in Japan). See recipes below.
I have been told that, in the past, the seeds of yamamomo were also eaten in Japan. The seeds are “stones” like those of plums — although rather small they are very hard. I am yet to find out exactly how the seeds were rendered edible but I will surely update this post when I do.
The traditional medicinal uses of M. rubra by the peoples of east Asia include as an antidote for arsenic poisoning, a carminative, an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, dyspesia, nausea, excessive perspiration, psoriasis, and in the treatment of wounds, ulcers and sores.
For the treatment of arsenic poisoning, wounds, sores and skin diseases a decoction of the stem bark is applied externally.
The leaves have long been known to practitioners of Chinese medicine to be anti-inflammatory and recent studies have shown the juice of the fruits is also anti-inflammatory and effective in the treatment of ulcers.[5, 6]
Yamamomo in syrup
The few recipes for sweetened yamamomo that I have seen recommended cooking the fruit for 5 – 10 minutes in the syrup but I find this makes the fruit too mushy and it loses its wonderful tart edge. They also recommended an equal weight of sugar to that of the fruit – I say half that amount of sugar is plenty. I suspect these people don’t even like yamamomo!
- Soak yamamomo in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. This is to remove insects of which there are usually plenty.
- Bring sugar (half the weight of the fruit) to a boil in enough water to cover the fruit.
- Add the fruit and boil for just a couple of minutes.
- Put the fruit in jars and cover completely with the the syrup and screw on lids.
After about 24 hours they should be ready. Kept in a cool place they should keep for a month. If, once filled and capped, the jars are covered with hot water and boiled for 20 – 30 minutes the fruit should keep for up to a year. For more on processing for long term storage see here. I have attempted a batch with raw fruit — the yamamomo was not placed in the boiling syrup but directly in the jars and the hot syrup poured over the fruit — however, it started to ferment within a few days. Still tasted great though.
After finishing the fruit the syrup is used to make a very pleasant summer drink. Pour a little in the bottom of a glass and fill with cold water.
Yamamomo fruits are coated in wild yeasts which, if treated right, will happily make alcohol for you. And they’re so easy to please! Place the fruit in sugary water and stir often. As simple as that. How much sugar you use will affect the vigour and length of fermentation and thus the strength (alcohol content) of your brew. For a strong wine, use more. For 2kg of yamamomo I use about 1.25 kg’s of sugar. To make a simple “country wine” to be consumed “green”: 
- Do not wash the yamamomo. You want to keep all the wild yeast on the fruit. Yes, there probably will be many tiny insects in the fruit but these will be strained out later. Place the fruit in the bottom of a container – a food grade plastic bucket or large glass jar will do nicely.
- Dissolve the sugar in enough cold water to generously cover the fruit (5 to 10 cm’s is good). Pour this mixture over the fruit in the bucket.
- Stir. And stir often. The more you can stir your potion the better. I stir my concoctions anywhere from 6 to 10 times a day. At a minimum give it at least four good stirrings every day.
- Between stirring keep your bucket covered with a lid, cloth or anything else that keeps flies and dust out.
- After a day or two you should see bubbles or froth forming on the top of the liquid. Keep up the daily stirrings until the froth begins to lessen – hopefully this will take a couple of weeks.
- When fermentation does begin to subside strain in to bottles and enjoy.
Vinegar is essentially wine that has been overexposed to oxygen. Once the yeasts that converted the sugars to alcohol have begun to lose steam through lack of food acetobacter (acetic-acid-producing bacteria who were always present but until now held in check by the vigour of the yeasts) begin to dominate. It is acetobacter that will turn your wine in to vinegar.
So, to make vinegar follow the wine making steps listed above but rather than bottling the finished wine strain it into another wide mouthed container and keep covered with a cloth. Taste regularly and when it reaches the desired acidity (when it tastes like vinegar) bottle and cap. A vinegar ‘mother’ may have formed on top which you’ll need to remove before bottling. But don’t discard this. You can eat it, feed to it to your chickens or compost it.
Given that yamamomo is abundantly covered in wild yeasts (kõbo) it can also be used as a yeast source for bread (and probably beer too). Place some fruit in a jar, cover with water and add some honey or sugar. Stir or shake the jar often (if shaking release pressure by opening the lid after shaking). When it begins to bubble vigorously it is ready to use. For bread, just add some of the liquid to your dough mix. A little experimentation may be needed to get the amount right.
Simply steep yamamomo in liquor for a month or more. Here in Japan shōchū is typically used, in China it is báijiǔ and in Korea soju. These are all white liquors usually ranging from around 35 – 60% alcohol by volume. Vodka would be an obvious substitute. If you’re concerned about little insects in your alcohol soak the fruit in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. Place the fruit in a jar and cover with liquor of your choice.
If your focus is on extracting the medicinal qualities of yamamomo then what you are making is a tincture. Fill your jar with as much fruit as possible before adding the liquor. Let it sit for at least one month and keep it out of direct sunlight. Shaking it around a bit from time to time is not a bad idea either.
If, on the other hand, you just want to flavour some liquor for drinking then less fruit/more liquor can be used.
1. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/スモモ. Accessed 7/19/2013.
2. Flora of China Vol. 4. Available online at efloras.org. Accessed 7/20/2013.
3. Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Accessed 7/23/2013.
5. Wang, S.J., et al., ‘Anti-inflammatory activity of myricetin isolated from Myrica rubra leaves.’ Planta Med 76(14), October 2010.
6. Alajmi et al., ‘Some pharmacological actions of Myrica rubra.’ African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Vol. 7(9), 8 March, 2013. PDF from Academicjournals.org. Accessed 7/23/2013.
7. For more on making country wines (or any other fermentation technique for that matter) see Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green, 2012.
January 3, 2013
Well look at that…The end of the world has come and gone (again) and we’re all still here! With the latest apocalypse/salvation distraction behind us we’re back to the reality of the slow catastrophe daily unfolding and the responsibility for doing something about it.
While the Japanese have just voted in a right-wing, pro-nuclear nationalist “strong leader” to end their woes (not that there was much of a choice – being a modern democracy an’ all) Asako and I have a different idea. In January we’re hitting the road (well, the tracks actually) to propagandize the people and hopefully inspire a little action.
During January 2013 we will be giving presenations in Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Tokyo about our life and work at Shikigami. Through photographs and stories we will discuss our approach to permaculture, deep ecology, forest gardening and gift economics.
Hamamatsu Wednesday January 9, 13:30. Payaka: 4-19-12 Kamoe, Naka Ward, Hamamatsu Permaculture Chubu, Hamamatsu
Nagoya Sunday January 13, 14:00. Tokurinji: Aioi-28-341 Tenpakucho Oaza Nonami, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya Permaculture Chubu, Nagoya
Tokyo Friday January 18, 19:30. One Kitchen: 3-26 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
1月9日(水) 13：30 Payaka（パヤカ） 静岡県浜松市中区鴨江4-19-12 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部
1月13日(日) 14：00 徳林寺(本堂裏のギャラリー・ハスタクティ1Fにて） 愛知県名古屋市天白区天白町大字野並相生28-341 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部
1月18日(金）19:30 One Kitchen 東京都新宿区 荒木町3−26 サウスウィング荒木町2F奥
August 27, 2012
As the summer rolls on so too does the succession of wild edibles. The height of summer is often thought to be a relatively barren time for foraging but here, wild foods continue to comprise a significant proportion of our diet at this time. It has been hot, really hot, so our preference is for lurking in the cool moist shade of the trees. A preference shared by many of the wild foods to be found at this time of the year.
A couple of weeks back we held a ‘simple living’ workshop at Shikigami [view photos of the event here] with participants wild harvesting ingredients for the weekends meals. They were surprised – as are most of our visitors – at the abundance and diversity of wild edible plants here. We first introduced them to inutade (Polygonum longisetum), a relatively new one for us too and one that has quickly become a much respected and appreciated summer food. (While I think very highly of the Plants for a Future site and use it often the ‘edibility ratings’ on the site should not be taken too seriously. The entry on Polygonum longisetum is a case in point: it is given an edibility rating of 1 (out of 5). These edibility ratings are subjective, of course, but further, plants are often rated on hearsay rather than from the direct experience of the articles authors. Polygonum longisetum is far better than the designation of ‘famine food’ given it on the site. I would give it at least a 3 out of 5.)
Inutade is a mucilaginous herb growing to 50 – 100cm and one of the dominant ground covers at this time of year. We eat the leaves and the tender tips of the stalks both raw and cooked. As you can see in the photograph above it has quite distinctive dark markings on the leaves. There are a number of related species that carry these markings also. There is one species here with leaves considerably narrower than those pictured but very similar in taste to inutade. Another related species, that carries somewhat similar markings but has a very different leaf shape, is mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii) and it is extremely bitter. The leaves of inutade alternate from a single stem which ranges in colour from olive green to red. From the nodes, where the leaf attaches to the stem, fine white hairs grow.
We also introduced the workshop participants to wild pesto. (And it is to my dear friends Karin and Cath back in Aotearoa that I have to thank for introducing me to this particular culinary delight.) As the late vegetalista Frank Cook observed, pesto is not so much a specific recipe as it is a genre. So then, what comprises this genre of pesto? Some green stuff, some garlic-like stuff, some nuts, parmesan (optional), all very finely chopped and mixed with olive oil and perhaps a dash of salt. The classic formula of basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan is but one way. On this occasion our pesto contained walnuts, parmesan, ushihakobe (a chickweed), tsubokusa (gotu kola), plantain, aomizu (in the Urticaceae, or nettle family and one to which I shall return later), chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal), clover, oregano…and probably some other plants that I can’t recall right now.
Peel and crush the garlic (I use about two cloves for every generous handful of greens but then, I eat a lot of raw garlic. You’ll quickly discover the quantity that suits you). Place a handful of greens on the garlic and begin chopping. As you are chopping keep scraping all the ingredients from the chopping board back in to a pile. Once the plant material is well chopped (does not need to be super fine at this stage) add another handful of greens and repeat the process until all the greens have been added. By this stage, with the repeated chopping as new greens were added, the leaves and garlic should be quite finely cut. Chop the nuts of your choice coarsely, sprinkle them over your pile of finely chopped leaves and garlic and continue to chop. Once the nuts have been reduced to small pieces (but before they have become dust) add grated parmesan (optional) and chop this into very small pieces too. The idea throughout this process is that by chopping the ingredients on top of the previously added ingredients they all get mixed up rather nicely as you achieve the desired fineness for a good pesto (in my humble opinion having it all mashed to a pulp in a blender does not make for good pesto – but as you like). Place your mixture in a bowl, adding salt to taste, then add the olive oil – just enough to achieve the desired consistency if you plan to eat the pesto immediately. If you have made more than you can eat immediately place the remainder in a jar and add more olive oil to just cover the pesto. This should keep for at least a week or two refrigerated (I’m guessing here as I tend to make it fresh each time).
Two attendees of the workshop showed an extreme aversion to garlic and all members of the Allium genus and so experimented further with the basic recipe. Using the same greens they substituted ginger for garlic, sesame oil for olive oil and sesame paste for parmesan. The result…absolutely delicious.
Aomizu (Pilea mongolica syn. pumila, Canadian clearweed), one of the pesto ingredients mentioned above, is another cherished summer green, making regular appearances in our salads of the past month. It is a member of the nettle family and the Japanese name aomizu (green water plant) gives you a good idea of where to look for it. A small annual with a preference for shady, moist places. The leaves look and taste very similar to koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), another member of the nettle family that I have written about previously here and here.
Myōga (Zingiber mioga) of the ginger family is a plant native to Japan and Korea that is a popular ingredient in the cuisine of both countries. Its popularity has led to its wide cultivation but it can still be found wild or, once introduced to an appropriate site, let go wild. It is a great plant for forest gardens as it grows well in full or partial shade.
In Japan it is often pickled or used in miso soup. The flower buds are the most commonly used part of the plant though the young shoots are eaten too. The flower buds appear at ground level – not on the above ground parts of the plant – so a bit of crawling around on the soil might be necessary. Even if not necessary it is fun and…uhh…grounding.
A stand of myōga left alone will soon fill up the available space with a subsequent reduction in the number of flower buds produced. A bit of disruption to the soil now and then (something the wild pigs usually do a reasonable job of) will increase the number of flower buds produced each year. Here we have summer and autumn flowering varieties.
Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Guess the amount of vinegar you’ll need to cover the quantity of myōga you have (when in a jar) and add sugar and salt to taste. Bring the vinegar mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Cut the myōga flowerbuds in half and dip in boiling water for about thirty seconds to a minute, drain and place the myōga in a jar. Cover the myōga, while it is still hot, with the vinegar mixture then let the jar cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Best kept refrigerated or in a very cool dark place.
July 15, 2012
Month four in a twelve month journal of the wild foods we are eating. Previous posts in this series can be found here.
Roused from a midday sleep by hunger I grab a bowl, don a wide-brimmed straw hat and head out to gather a salad.
First I make my way to patches of ushihakobe (“cow chickweed”) and tsuyukusa (Asiatic dayflower), gathering generous quantities to bulk up the salad. Then on to chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal) and tsubokusa (gotu kola), passing a nasturtium I pluck a few flowers and a handful of leaves, doing the same with shirotsumekusa (white clover). A few leaves of suiba (sorrel), a good handful of shiso leaves, shiroza (lambs quarters) and amaransasu (amaranth). Moving from the clearing where I have been gathering these sun loving plants I make my way toward the shady forest edge looking for sumire (violet). Passing oobako (plantain) sprouting new leaves I gather a bunch of the small tender light-green new growth (all the more tender for growing in dappled shade). After collecting sumire and katabami (wood sorrel) I investigate a patch of myoga – still a little early for the flowerbuds, I move on. Skirting the forest edge I pick young koakoso (nettle family) leaves then back in to the sun I gingerly take a few azami (thistle) leaves – these with prickly spines which I shall trim off with scissors later. Ambling back towards the house I gather some leaves of mint, nira (garlic chives), comfrey, mukuge (rose of sharon), lemon balm and lemon verbena, parsley and oregano.
Back inside, having trimmed the spines from azami, I toss everything in a bowl and top with kurumi (walnuts) pickled in a honey vinegar and dress with yamamomo (Chinese bayberry) vinegar.
A cup of suikazura (Japanese honeysuckle) flower tea in hand I return to horizontality and thumb through a book, recently read, looking for a passage in which an anthropologist suggests that one measure of a societies affluence might be the amount of daytime sleep afforded. Unable to locate the sentence I lay the book aside and go back to sleep.
Koakoso (Boehmeria spicata) I mentioned a couple of months back as a pot herb. I was less than enthusiastic about the taste but I have found a new love for this plant as a salad green. The light green young leaves make a really nice addition to a salad – their mild flavour making them suitable for bulking up more pungent plants. Shadier locations will likely yield a greater quantity of the tender young things.
Ushihakobe (Stellaria aquatica) is a chickweed. It is not the chickweed (Stellaria media) but a closely related species that continues to grow vigorously through summer when hakobe (Stellaria media) is resting.
Mukuge (rose of sharon, Hibiscus syriacus) is a plant of Asian origin (but not of Syrian, as Linnaeus thought when he named the plant). It is a large deciduous shrub (up to 3m x 2m) with edible leaves, flowers and roots. I haven’t seen it growing wild here (yet – hopefully some of our fifteen or so plantings will be happy enough with their locations to go wild – it is a prolific producer of seed so chances are good) but it is a common ornamental plant and therefore one for you urban foragers to look out for. Also, as ours are still small I have so far only tried the leaves which I like a lot: mild flavoured with a pleasantly mucilaginous texture. There is a flowering specimen growing in a private garden in the village but, tempting as it is, I am well aware that every time I cycle through the village there is at least one set of eyes following me (“that strange foreigner who lives deep in the mountains”).
Katabami (Oxalis corniculata) is one of the many plants known to the English speaking world as wood-sorrel – their lemony tang being reminiscent of sorrel (Rumex spp.). The intense lemon flavour of oxalis and rumex species, while pleasantly refreshing and uplifting, is due to the presence of oxalic acids and a good indicator that moderation should be exercised. Large bowlfuls everyday are not the way to eat this plant. Some leaves mixed through a salad being more the way to go.
Shiso (Perilla frutescens) is, of course, the green leaf served as a garnish with sashimi and sushi (lately replaced by pieces of green plastic cut to vaguely resemble patches of grass). A really fantastic herb and all over the place! Don’t be timid with shiso. The flavour is mild enough to eat in quantity, it is nutritious and medicinal. Great as a salad leaf, or pickled in soy sauce and mirin, shiso pesto, shiso tea…. An annual that readily self-seeds to establish colonies and an excellent insectary plant, it’s a good candidate for scattering around in a forest garden, on abandoned land, city parks…. Green and purple varieties are common in Japan – the latter is not normally eaten fresh but is pickled and used in the making of umeboshi (pickled plums). Later in the year I’ll come back to shiso to talk about making use of the seeds.
Shiso‘s medicine: antiasthmatic, antibacterial, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitussive, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, emollient, expectorant, pectoral, stomachic, tonic.
Shiroza (lambs quarters, fat hen, Chenopodium album) and amaransasu (amaranth, Amaranthus spp.) can be found growing wild throughout much of Japan. The young leaves of both are great in salads. Older leaves of shiroza can be boiled, steamed, added to soups etc. Both shiroza and amaransesu leaves are very nutritious. Both are weedy…let me rephrase that; both are important pioneer plants initiating processes of succession, thus enabling the return of forests – and so are also good candidates for seedballing barren sites or sunny openings of forest gardens.
The dear old yamamomo (Myrica rubra) up the hill from our house has decided to give the fruit producing thing a miss this year but thankfully produced a good enough quantity last year for plentiful vinegar and wine making.
Mash up ripe fruit (the riper the better) and place in a well cleaned fermenting vessel (glass, ceramic, enamel coated metal but not uncoated metal as the acidity of the vinegar will eat in to it. My preference for cleaning such vessels is a strong antiseptic herbal tea such as sage, juniper, yarrow, kawakawa…). Dissolve sugar in water (about a quarter of a cup of sugar to 1 litre water. Use spring water if possible or, at least, water that has been boiled and let cool to around 40 degrees Celsius. The yeast on the skin of the yamamomo fruits, the beautiful microorganisms that are going to make this wonderful vinegar for you won’t appreciate it any hotter than that. Cover the fermenting vessel with a loose weave cloth and let sit stirring periodically (once a day is good). After about a week strain out the fruit and continue to ferment. After about a month the vinegar will be ready but leaving it for longer may mellow it out nicely. You can make vinegar from most fruit this way.
Finally this month is himekouzo (Broussonetia kazinoki), a somewhat scrappy looking tree/shrub with alluring berries which can be eaten raw and are very tasty but every so often one will irritate the tongue and roof of the mouth with a long lasting itchy sensation. The berries have long hairs which are likely responsible for this but it is a little strange that while all himekouzo berries have these hairs only some cause a reaction. There seems to be no way of telling before you put the berry in your mouth either. The sensation is unpleasant enough to likely put most people off playing Russian roulette with the raw berries but there are other ways to use them. I have tried cooking them in a tapioca pudding but ended up with a bowl of itchiness so they need more than just cursory cooking. Although I have not tried making a jam with them yet I suspect the cooking and mashing up of the berries in the process would take care of the problem. Likewise, ( and also so far untested), cooking, mashing and making fruit leathers. What does work is making himekouzochū, that is, soaking the berries in shōchū, vodka or the like. A good vinegar can be made from them also.
But the fruits are not the only edible part of this plant. The leaves are good cooked and the really young leaves can be eaten raw. The leaves do have a slight raspy texture but this is barely noticeable and nothing compared to the raspiness the berries can have. The flowers can also be eaten. Himekouzo is a close relative of kazhinoki (paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera) and, like that plant, fibre from the bark can be used to make paper, cloth and rope.
July 13, 2012
Basic Skills for Simple Living
A guided tour of our site and explanation of our approach to forest gardening, natural farming and various aspects of living simply. For more info in English see here or for Japanese info see here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.