Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Our local wilds

For years now I've noticed beautiful strings of pink pearls weeping down from the willow-like pepper trees that seem to be everywhere in the SF Bay Area.  So, earlier this week, when I went out to pick wild fennel to make Chai, I was pleasantly surprised to see one in "full seed" right up the block from me.  Someone long ago had told me these were the same kind of peppers that when dried, you could put into your grinder and save yourself a few bucks at the grocery store.  I've got a preponderance for this sort of thing, not really  "saving the few bucks" (believe me you!), but of harvesting the local bounty that's to be had right outside the door.  Here, on the edge of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and not too far from Point Reyes National Seashore, there's a plethora of wild plants that have common useage in our kitchens and, for the herbally inclined, in our medicine cabinets.

After some investigation, I discovered that the California Pepper Tree, Schinus molle, is not in the same Genus as true black pepper, Piper nigrum, which grows as a vigorous vine, native to South India and spread throughout the tropics.  Schinus' uses are not interchangeable either, damn.  It is easy to see how one could be mistaken for the other, as when you crush the California pink peppercorn between your fingers, it certainly smells of fresh black pepper.  But no, Schinus molle, is originally from the Peruvian Andes, and a close cousin to the Brazilian Pink Pepper Tree, Schinus terebinthifilious.  S. terebinthifilious turns out to be more culinarily used, as it is often the exotic pepper put into mixtures and billed as "prized pink peppercorns".   The S. molle that grows up the street from me can be used sparingly as a seasoning, as the dried seeds have a slight piquant taste with a hint of peppery tone, but can cause stomach upset in large amounts. The Native Americans commonly use all parts of this tree for a myriad of medical ailments.  My fantasies about using it interchangably with black pepper were unfortunately dashed, and without reliable enough firsthand information on its medicinal uses, I've decided to admire the sweeping branches of these beautiful trees from afar.

However, just this year I spotted a milk thistle plant growing out of the decorative bark near my kitchen door, next to the huge stand of peppermint that can't be beaten down (but thankfully finds its way into my drinks).  I'm used to only seeing milk thistle on my hikes, and usually don't make it back to the same spot often enough to harvest any of the dried flowerheads.  So, I put a note on the milk thistle in broken spanglish "este planta es medicina, por favor, no cortar", as the mow and blow gardeners plow down anything not natural looking. I waited for it to go to seed, and clipped the tan furry flowerheads into a paper bag.  I later donned gloves and tweezers and picked each black seed off the prickly flower head, a medicine that is important to liver health and regeneration and a good thing to ingest if one has an affinity for alcohol (the drinkable kind, that is), or works with volatile compounds (oil paints, thinner, varnishes).  Incidentally, it this amazing seed which is also the only antidote to the unsettling incidences of death cap mushroom poisoning which happen around here every winter.  There's always a few stories in the paper about someone's grandmother who picked wild mushrooms and poisoned their entire family within a few hours of dinner.  Its very sad, as there are a huge amount of edible wild mushrooms in this area, but you will never find me ever attempting to decipher good from bad, I'll buy mine from Whole Paycheck, thank you. Unfortunately, unless treated with Milk Thistle, death cap poisoning is usually fatal, if not, at the very least, cause for a  liver transplant.

I  learned about Yarrow, Achillea millefolia, from a local herbalist on my first hike with a knowledgable professional back in the early nineties (his name escapes me at the moment).  He pointed out the furry leaves(pictured), the broad flat white flower heads (hence the millefolia) and trailing rhizomes.  It turns out that yarrow is a well known blood stauncher, stopping bleeding quite effectively.  He mentioned being on a backpacking trip when someone fell and cut their leg on a rock.  In the middle of nowhere this can be alarming, as a deepish puncture wound with blood gushing could set off a bout of panic.  However, yarrow was nearby and he instructed the hiker to chew up the leaves and flower heads, making a pasty poultice, and shove it into the wound.  The bleeding stopped within a minute and by the next day, the wound was well on its way to healing.  Turns out the yarrow also has antibacterial and immune stimulating properties, so it will help cuts heal from the inside out, preventing nasty infections.  Once I was sawing a piece of wood (yes, I'm a bit of a tomboy at times) and the saw jumped out of the curf and sliced a jagged tear in the fleshy part of my hand near my thumb joint.  Shit!  Looked like I needed a few stitches but I'm not one to rush to the ER (esp with no insurance at the time), so I ran to the backyard instead, did the requisite chewing and chomping of the yarrow, and shoved it into the wound.  A bandaid kept it all in place and by the next day, I kid you not, the wound was 50% better.  A wash and fresh yarrow a few more times had it healed in a week.   Incidentally, the dried flower stalks: long, straight and stripped of its leaves, are used to cast the I Ching, an ancient chinese oracle/advice giving text.  Back in the day I used to cast my own readings, it took about 20 minutes to sort the 51 sticks and cast a 6 line hexagram.  With all that time to ruminate on the question at hand, the result was usually more accurate than the modern "coin toss method" which could be repeated quickly if one didn't like the result.

The yarrow you'll find at the nursery (pictured here) will have similar yet much weaker medicinal  properties, but much more showy bright yellow or even rose colored blossoms.  Have those in your garden for show, and a small stand of wild yarrow nearby by snagging a few wild seedlings, being sure to get some root matter with them.  They easily take hold in your garden or pot, yet won't flower quite as readily or be as hearty as the one found in the wild.  For medicinal use, the leaves are okay without the flowerhead.

As with all medicinal herbs, before ingesting or experimenting with the effects of these magical plants, consult an herbalist and take a few classes in plant identification and uses, cross toxicity and interaction with western meds.  The Pacific School of Herbal Medicine in Oakland is a SF Bay Area mainstay. Adam Seller, Director, is one of the best herbalists and teachers around

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