By: Rand Michaels, Interpretive Ranger at Pawtuckaway State Park
Each Saturday afternoon since early June I have led a group of Pawtuckaway State Park’s campers and beach-goers on a walk where we have talked about some of the wild edible and medicinal plants that grow just alongside the path to the beach and around a section of the parking lot. Many of the participants are surprised to see that so many useful – and beautiful – plant species grow so close to our human disturbances.
One of the most striking of these that I encourage people to taste is sorrel. Sorrel, in our case, common sorrel, or Oxalis stricta, is a small, unassuming plant often mistaken for clover – Trifolium which I highlight later in the walk. While both are low-growing plants with leaves in groups of three, the distinct heart-shape of sorrel leaves can be used to differentiate Oxalis species from the more oval-shaped leaves of clovers. When people decide to taste one of these leaves, I usually hear a general pronouncement of “oohh” or “mmm!” or some other indicator that this particular leaf is much more flavorful than was expected. This flavor comes from a compound called oxalic acid that gives sorrel a bit of a tang like citric acid does a lime or lemon. While this compound gives us this kick of flavor, it can also cause health problems if consumed in large quantities, as if serving as a warning to leave plenty of sorrel for perpetuity. This is for me, the most important message of my ‘Honorable Harvest’ walk – the goal of mindful use of these plants, and the ideal of ‘reciprocity’- but more on that later. First, the blueberries.
Sorrel was the flavor highlight of the first few weeks of my plant walk, a time I’d call “the Sorrel moon”, but became eclipsed when the blueberries began to ripen a few weeks ago. If you’ve never tried a fresh-picked blueberry, I highly recommend it. There are over 450 different species of Vaccinium, the widely distributed blueberry genus, and they all have small, oval-shaped leaves arranged alternately (see picture below) along woody stems. The berries themselves all sport a five-pointed crown, and can be lighter blue to a dusky purple near black, often with a whitish coating or bloom (See picture above).
Once picked, these berries can be used to delicious effect in a myriad of ways, including jelly, syrup and muffins – I fondly remember the blueberry muffins my grandma used to make for me growing up.
Each fall, we used to take a trip with our grandparents camping in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at a location they referred to as Blueberry Camp. The main activity taking place at Blueberry Camp was, I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear, blueberry picking. While my grandparents had incredible picking stamina, and would fill buckets each day, my brother and I at this age lacked this level of patience- often finding ourselves engaged in other kids-in-the woods activities with picking interspersed. Even this style of picking served mainly as snacking rather than collecting. The berries that did make it back home with us after these trips were fastidiously canned and frozen by my grandma and provided us blueberry syrup for our pancakes well into Spring. I am proud to say that my blueberry picking style has matured since my time at Camp, and this summer I have been able to collect enough to can my own blueberry syrup, which will find it’s way to my grandma and other family members this Christmas (See picture below).
For me to do anything but gift this bounty of berries would feel ungrateful. To explain this feeling I’ll use the words of my once professor Robin Kimmerer, who in a Field Ethnobotany course taught me much of what I know about plants and what they offer us. Dr. Kimmerer says of the gift of wild strawberries:
“A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved toward you without your beckoning. It is not a reward, you cannot earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.”
I don’t consider the act of receiving the gift as passive though, but active and involving responsibility as Dr. Kimmerer says in a later section of her book Braiding Sweetgrass:
“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”