I went out to the harvest grounds today to take advantage of the break in freezing weather. Glorious sunshine sparkling on 2-foot high snowfall, and the relative balminess of -8 degree air were not my primary motivations – I was Poplar Scouting!
This year will be a prolific season for the balsam poplar tree. While the trees appear lifeless, nestled snugly under thick coats of snow, their roots and heartwood are busy flowing and creating. On each tree, little buds boast golden drops of precious resin, the color of marigold petals.
I took many pictures but none of them did justice to the excitement I feel each year when the poplar trees herald the first whispers of spring.
(If anyone wants to teach me to take pictures of tiny buds against a snowy background I will trade you some balsam honey…)
There are still 2 weeks until the Balsam Harvest – it seems the sap flows earlier and earlier every year. This season we will have the marvelous Rebecca Smith, ClH, along with us. Rebecca is a former apprentice wrote her thesis on the Poplar family, and is an advocate for protecting the poplar trees of Calgary.
I’m also excited to be preparing our medicines outside this year, with an open fire crackling beside us, and hot herbal teas for warmth. Sharing the wonder of nature’s medicines and the honoring of the trees is a special blessing that brightens and shakes me every winter!
There is no way to describe how much I love my new loom! It’s a simple, honest tool that makes weaving so fun and fast. Although you can’t get that traditional, finger-woven look with a loom project, you can at least make a full sized sash in about 20 hours instead of 300.
The most famous Metis sashes now-a-days are woven with looms, specifically the Red River Sash pictured below. It is probably the most recognizable emblem of Metis culture in Canada (although some Easterners will tell you that it is a French Canadian invention, to which I must say, they are about half-right!).
Interestingly enough for Canadian history nerds, this most common of emblems is a debutante on the scene of traditional Metis sashes. Voyageur and other similar sashes were originally woven only by hand.
The story that was told to me is this. In the old days, women would weave beautiful handmade sashes and trade them to the Hudson’s Bay Company, who would sell them. Everyone wanted one of these sashes, and if they didn’t have a weaver in the family you could head on over to your nearest HBC trading post and buy one. Trade was brisk!
The talented women who made the sashes were grievously underpaid, making today’s equivalent of pennies-per-hour for their gorgeous handiwork! When the women decided to band together and demand more money, so the story goes, the Hudson’s Bay found that loom weavers could produce a similar-looking sash in a fraction of the time, and were willing to accept less money than the finger-weavers. The finger-weavers were replaced (Progress, you old tyrant!).
And that is the story of the cheaper-to-produce, but still beautiful, red river style sash as told to me.
Definitely a loom sash can be a work of art, but will always lack the craftsmanship of a finger-woven sash, which is quite possibly worth its weight in gold.
Meanwhile, as I wait for my next finger-weaving teacher to appear out of the mists of the ages, it’s nice to have a loom to be creative with. I’ll post more projects as I learn, and eventually I’ll post a pattern for the red river style sash that you can use at home on your own loom.
Join the Alberta Herbalists Association members and friends at Bowness Park for an afternoon of family friendly picnic’ing and plant appreciation! August is the perfect time to meet your local wild edible and medicinal herbs, and expert Herbalists will be on hand to teach you.
Bring yourself a picnic lunch and join in the fun! Learn from 3 different experts by following along on a Herb-walk, they will be sharing traditional and evidence-based knowledge about the wonders of plants. This is a great opportunity to build networks and create community with herb enthusiasts in our community.
All ages welcome! There will be some activities for everyone. Please bring water, frisbees, picnic blankets, umbrellas, or whatever else you need to be comfortable and have a great time in the August shade. Don’t forget to bring a cup so you can sample the delicious herbal iced teas!
I recently wrote about my new line of products inspired by my Grandma’s Grandmother, Marie Rose Delorme Smith.
Marie Rose was a writer and midwife on the prairies of Southern Alberta. She is the author of My Eighty Years on the Plains, a chronicle of life in the pioneer days. She lived a traditional Metis lifestyle, speaking French, English and Cree with her relatives and travelling in her father’s trade caravan.
When the nomadic life of the Metis became unsustainable, she moved to Alberta with her adventurer husband Charley Smith, where they set up a homestead on the Jughandle Ranch on Pincher Creek, Alberta.
Marie Rose was an industrious person, sewing clothes and making a home for 17 children, while serving as a healer and midwife to the native, metis and white communities around her. I admire her as someone who was able to move between worlds in a time when co-mingling (even among ‘half-breeds’ and ‘full-breeds’) was profoundly discouraged. Like Marie Rose, I am not content to live in one paradigm only, but am compelled to see the world from as many mountain tops as I can climb.
I made a trip to the Glenbow Museum archives to obtain images of one of her many manuscripts, quaintly entitled Old Time Home Remedies, in hopes of discovering what my Grandmother used in her own day to help the people around her feel better. I would like to share some of her writings with you.
” Old Time Home Remedies
By Marie Rose Delorme Smith
In out of the way places home remedies are invariable tried before the Doctor is called and some of the home cures do the trick admirably. In the far north most of the remedies used by the Eskimo and the indian are tried by the white people with good results.
A cure for boils, blood poison, proud flesh and the like is made from the gall bladder of the Bear,
after the bear has been in hibernation all winter its bladder is much larger than at any other time. For use it is shaved like soap then to these shavings alcohol or coal oil is added, the mixture thus formed is spread over the wound or otherwise diseased tissue, then liquid balsam gum is poured over this, in a day or two this covering can be lifted off, with the proud flesh or other dead tissue adhering to it, the flesh beneath is left sterilized and in condition to heal rapidly.
The indians in alberta used to have several sweat baths on each reserve and used this substitute for the Turkish Bath of the white man as a remedy for cold and other ailment.
Herbal remedies for external and internal use are made from plants found growing wild on the reservations, Powdered toadstools were supposed to stop bleeding.
When available warm blood was often given to newborn papooses.
Beds were placed on the ground to ward off rheumatism, sciatica, etc.
The indians wore strings of beads, bracelets and necklets (sic) rings of brass.
I wonder who remembers the old stocking pot filled with hot salt placed on the cheek for that aching tooth or the ear for that earache.
The early-day mother used to say that when the new baby cried often it was longing for something the mother wished for. Some women fed the child cooked rabbits brains to satisfy this longing.
A small bag filled with hops was placed under the pillow for sleeplessness. The wearing of red flannel for Rheumatism was quiet common.
A string of cut coral beads around the child’s neck would (sic) it was thought to protect it from sore throat.
Some of us still have the scars from the asafetida or camphor bag worn around the neck as a preventative of contagious disease.
When a child was born with a birthmark the mother was supposed to kiss the mark before breakfast each morning.
Butter rubbed over a swelling bump would reduce the swelling.
Some of the pioneers carried potatoe in opposite pockets as a cure for rheumatism. Babies inflamed eyes were bathed with mother’s milk from the brest. (sic)
An idea of some grand mothers was to peerce (sic) the ears of a child for earrings to strengthen eyesight.
A piece of copper wire around the wrist and around the opposite ankle or one around each wrist was supposed to cure arthritis. To remove ring worm one was advised to rub a copper penny on the diseased spot.
Garlic was eaten to bring down high blood pressure.
Parsley was used to take odor away from the breath.
The rose colored leaves of the herb called horsemint is called ‘manikapi’ by the Blackfoot indians . . . it is gathered and placed in hot water and is used as an eye wash to allay inflammation
Like many Metis families, the folk wisdom of my family was nearly lost. The link between the earth-dwelling members and our ancestors would be severed if not for the enduring voices of our women. By seeking out my Grandmothers’ writings on medicine, I am healing my own feeling of cultural disparity with voices from the past.
I’m thankful to have the words of my Grandmother’s Grandmother, and I am grateful to my own Grandma Helene for speaking so fondly of Marie Rose, and fostering a pride in me for my Metis heritage and the strong women who held traditions for their communities and families. May I one day hold the honor of being a tradition-keeper in my own turn!
I want to share a story with you about my Grandmother’s Grandmother. She was a healer and a midwife at the turn of the last century, right here in Southern Alberta. Reading her words and the words of others about her has inspired me to create a line of herbal products based on traditional herbs, foods and medicine that was in use during her life as a Herbalist.
These remedies are created in the spirit of remembrance and gratitude for the Herbalists who have gone before me and taught me. They are bottled with the same playfulness I enjoy exhibiting in all of my labels. On the outside of the bottle is something beautiful – on the inside is ‘Good Michinn’ for your body and soul.
I hope you will enjoy their comfort, as much as I have enjoyed their crafting!
I had the pleasure of roaming the foothills of West Central Montana in a golf cart in late July – the beginning of Berry Season. With a good dog and keeping a sharp eye out for bears, we scoured the hills for some of the tastiest natural treats, as well as the lesser known goodies of the dry back country. Many of these berries are available all over the Eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, including right here in Alberta! Here’s what we found.
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
S. Canadensis and S. cerulea are both found in the Rockies.
Elderberries are used in wines, preserves, and pastries. The bark and leaves are used in healing washes for skin conditions (eczema), while the flowers are used medicinally in tea. The berries are high in calcium, potassium, and iron, and vitamins C and A. Berries show antiviral activity and are used in teas for colds and flu. Cooking is said to make them edible, although some Nations may also have eaten them raw. The concern in eating the raw berries is the cyanide-producing glycosides in the seeds and the rest of the plant, a common feature of the Rosaceae (Rose) family of fruits and flowers.
Black and Red Currants (Ribes spp.)
The flowers of currants have 5 petals and 5 sepals. The currant family shares a distinctive lobed leaf, alternate on the branch. Not all currant bushes have prickly stems (unlike the gooseberry which has prickles).
Currants are high in pectin, and can be added to other fruits and berries to make excellent jellies.
Wax currants have a pinkish to greenish flower. They are bright orange berries when ripe with the dried flower remnant protruding from the berry. Look for erect bushes 2-6 feet tall with typical Ribes leaf shapes. Harvest time for currants is mid July to mid August. Currants quickly fall off the bush once over-ripe.
Currants are said to be a strengthening tonic, and useful against arthritis. They are used as a culinary berry, making their way into wines, syrups, pastries, and preserves. The leaves and inner bark make a minty flavored tisane that is sometimes used for diarrhea or symptoms of a cold. Tea or jelly from the berries is soothing to a sore throat. The seeds of black currants contains GLA (Gamma-linolenic Acid).
Gooseberries (Ribes spp.)
A member of the currant genus, gooseberries are round with a protruding dried calyx from the flower still attached. The berries often have ‘beach ball’ stripes or spikes. The Spiny-branched shrubs have alternate, typical Ribes-shaped leaves. Tubular flowers white or faintly green, 5 petals, 5 sepals. Gooseberry harvest occurs in mid-July to mid-August depending on region and microclimate.
These yummy berries are juicy and edible raw or cooked. They can be picked green as they will ripen off the plant. Some varieties are sweet and others are sour. Wild gooseberries tend to be smaller than the cultivated varieties.
A source of vitamin C, gooseberries are useful in colds and sore throats, with good antiseptic properties. Some texts caution against eating too many berries if the currant family is not a routine part of your diet, as stomach upset may occur.
Unnamed currant – because we caught this currant bush in between the flower and berry stages, a positive identification is difficult for a non-local herbalist. We’ll be staking out this bush, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of berry forms later in the year. My guess is bristly black currant (ribes lacustre). If you can identify this ribes species, please enlighten us with a comment below!
Saskatoon Berry – (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Serviceberry, as they are sometimes called in Montana and Alberta, are a sweet and tasty berry that is ready to eat straight off the bush. They are useful in the kitchen in pastries, jams, puddings, sauces, syrups and wines. The boiled berries were used for ear drops while the green berries were used to make eye drops. The juice of saskatoons is said to relieve upset stomach. The branches of Saskatoon bushes are said to have been used for a variety of tools, including arrows, tipi pins and stakes, and medicinal lances (1). Saskatoons are said to be another source of potential cyanide-like substances by some guides, while others report the free eating of them by first nations. They come to full ripeness between early July and early August, depending on the minute location of each bush. Saskatoon berries were mixed with the sour white berry of the red-osier dogwood to make a desert known as ‘sweet and sour’.
Chokecherries – (Prunus virginiana)
In the foothills we have a few varieties of chokecherry, all used in a similar fashion. Chokecherries are often found as a small tree, but can also be a tall and leafy bush. The leaves are shiny, deep green or purple, and ovate. The berries hang alternately on a raceme, making them easy to pick by sliding your fingers down the end of the branch and allowing them to fall into your basket. The dark purple fruit becomes ripe in mid to late July, but is best collected after the first frost for sweeter berries.
These were an important food berry for many first nations. Dried into cakes in old days, they are now cooked into jams, syrups or made into wine. The astringent taste of the raw berries dries out the mouth and throat, giving them their name: ‘choke’ cherry.
These sour berries improve appetite and dry up loose or bleeding bowels with their astringency. The stone inside the chokecherries is removed in most modern day use due to the presence of hydrocyanic acid in all parts of the plant except the flesh of the fruit. However some first nations report pounding and drying the berries whole, consuming the entire fruit in moderate quantities.
Chokecherry bark and unripe berries have traditionally been used to bring relief from stomach upsets and diarrhea. Chokecherry inner bark is used in heart and lung problems, as a diaphoretic, as a steam or smoke in asthma and bronchial congestion, and occasionally in small amounts in cough medicines.
Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.)
These pretty blue berries may grow in large grape-like clusters, or in small groupings of only 3-10 berries, depending on the year, and the size and location of each plant. Both prostrate barberry (M. repens) and the bushy variety (M. aquifolium) grow in the dry foothills. The berries are very sour. The leathery, spikey-toothed leaves are most easily recognizable at a distance by their second-year leaflets, which turn yellow, orange or even bright red in the winter and may remain so all year.
Oregon grape was not popular as a food berry with first nations until sugar was introduced, making the berries more palatable. A desert was made by mixing Oregon grape berries with sugar and milk. The roots of Oregon grape are famous for their yellow alkaloid berberine, a blessing for those suffering from dysentery, kidney troubles, and as an antiseptic for other infections.
Finally, the elusive, exclusive celebrity of the Western Montana tourist country:
The Huckleberry (Vaccinium spp.)
Shrubs can be 1-5 feet tall, with shiny leaves and pinkish urn-shaped flowers. The stems are red with a longitudinal groove. The berries are gathered in late July to early September, and are deep blue to black, about ½ inch in size.
Similar to his cousin the blueberry, huckleberries are not so easily cultivated and so prized as an exotic, wild treat. The location of huckleberry hunting grounds are a closely guarded secret in the rocky mountains, even among neighbors, and the ripe berries are featured in tourist traps and farmers markets at wonderful prices ($10 per half pound this summer in Missoula Montana!).
Eaten fresh or dried, huckleberries can be treated like a blueberry for all culinary uses. A tea of the leaves is used by some to stabilize blood glucose levels, reducing the need for insulin in some and treating hypoglycemia in others, as per the need. The leaves are also said to be useful in urinary tract infections. A tea of the roots and stems was used by the Flathead Indians as a medicine for rheumatism, arthritis, and heart issues.
Didn’t see the berry you were looking for?There are so many wonderful edible treats in the foothills I couldn’t fit them all in one blog, and plan to write about some of them later. Look out for Part II of Berries of the Foothills, featuring Buffalo berry / “Indian Ice cream”, Red Willow berry, Juniper, Thimbleberry, Bearberry, Snowberry, Mountain Ash and others!