Laura Emerson

Nature’s grand vistas of mountain ranges and oceans are certainly awe inspiring, but so, too, are the riches that lie beneath our feet and within arm’s reach.   Let’s pay attention to a patch of nature close to us.

One of my favorite classes ever was Ethnobotany.  This is the study of human uses of plant materials (for food, clothing, shelter, medicine etc) through history.   In my first class (on-line, through Univ Alaska-Fairbanks), our teacher told us to go outside and harvest materials with which to make three projects over the semester.  I thought, “It is January — in Alaska!  What can I find with five feet of snow on the ground?”  I dragged a plastic sled into the woods and within 45 minutes had gathered chaga, lichen, birch bark, alder branches, and spruce resin – materials for medicine, food, dye, padding, and tools.  Over the course of the term, we students died fabric, made baskets and jewelry, whittled bowls and utensils, and made medicines, foods, and lotions as we researched ethnobotanical databases to learn what First Peoples had done with these and related materials.   

Gathering wild plant material is called foraging.  My initial introduction was through a leisure learning teacher who led a 3 hour excursion in an urban greenbelt in Houston, TX.   Every few feet, he bent down, and plucked a leaf or a stem, or dug up a root, and offered us a glimpse of all the edible and medicinal plants on which we ignorantly trampled.  Then he gave each of us a cheat sheet with 26 useful plants he has found along this route, and encouraged us to explore. 

My eyes were opened! 

I never looked at a patch of weeds the same way again.  In fact, every summer in Alaska, I harvest  about two dozen wild plants.  Examples:  a spring salad of dandelion leaves, fireweed shoots, and fiddlehead ferns, dandelion buds for capers, chickweed for spit poultices to salve a wasp sting, yarrow or plantain to stop bleeding.   I dry berry leaves for tea, make pesto with lamb’s quarter, tap birch trees for sap, and collect gallons of many types of berries for tasty treats ranging from wine to chutney.

Religious Naturalists can enjoy and encourage similarly joyful and healthful discovery of Mother Nature’s Pantry.   What a wonderful way to celebrate Earth Day, any day!


  • Set a goal to learn to identify 20 wild (or domesticated) plants in your vicinity. A knowledgeable guide can create a list that can be used over and over.
  • Enlist friends and members who are botanists, biologists, and gardeners to lead short foraging/discovery trips in the local area. Even if you are disinclined to eat weeds that grow near roadways, the leader can help you identify plants and describe their value so that you can recognize them later, in a more pristine environment.   Make sure the leaders point out any poisonous plants, too.  Invite birdwatchers and entomologists to describe how various creatures utilize these plants, too, for food, shelter, or pollinating.
  • Enlist craftsy members and friends to host classes on ethnobotanical skills such as dyeing fabric from leaves, flowers, and branches, whittling simple spreading knives and two pronged forks from branches, or making jewelry from natural items, like bones, shells, pinecones.
  • Enlist artists to teach classes drawing leaves and perhaps the birds or insects that favor them, learn to press flowers to preserve them or press them into wet cement to make stepping stones or bird baths.
  • Members whose properties host healthy, unpolluted plants can share plant material for projects or make dishes with tasty weeds. (ask me for recipes)
  • If you are a gardener who has focused on just the flower or fruit of a plant, research the value of the leaves and branches, too. Some are poisonous, but others are medicinal or edible.
  • Find someone who knows how to gather wild plant materials appropriately. Ask to tag along.
  • Organize a camping or picnic trip that includes foraging or at least plant identification.
  • Buy books for your home and congregation that identify the plants in your eco-system.
  • Create labels for plants on home, church, or school property.
  • Create a document that identifies the medicinal and nutritional benefits of these plants. For example the ubiquitous dandelion is a great source of vitamins A, B complex, C, and D, as well as potassium.  Dried raspberry leaves make a tasty tea, and have a long history of soothing menstrual cramping.
  • Reassess your yard and that of your congregation, school, or community center. Plants convey a lot of information.  Dandelions warn you of a calcium deficiency.  Plantain signals compacted soil. Appreciate clover.  It adds nitrogen to your soil. Our honeybees favor white clover and the wild bumblebees prefer red clover.  Healthy conifers and berry bushes indicate acidic soil.   

Intentionally, intimately exploring a patch of nearby ground we may have ignored will yield insights and appreciation of the earth’s bounty.  Doing so with a group can be fun ways to encourage others to respect nature, too.



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