Eat Your Trees
Most people walk or drive past all those ‘green things’ by the side of the road or trail without giving them so much as a second glance. When I go for a walk or drive down the road, those ‘green things’ are really old friends and acquaintances with whom I carry on a running conversation; “hi, how are you today, Mr. Quercus lobata”, or, “Why, that’s old Acer palmatum dissectum atropurpureum, hey, how are ya?”. It has been a running joke among my friends that, if there was a major calamity and everyone was forced to live off the land, that all my friends would live with me ‘cause “Bill would know where all the food was”. While it might be true that I could survive off the land for some time, some of the stuff I ate would not be particularly gourmet, only nourishing.
Having a knowledge of the usefulness or edibility of common plants has largely become a fossil skill since we can, as a rule, find whatever we need in the market place. We have become dependent on a highly complex distribution network that places us all at a far remove from the real sources of the things we wear, eat, use as medicine and manipulate to become our places of residence. The availability in the market place, however, has not changed the fact that the original natural source of our market items still exist out in nature. In virtually any empty lot, I can find at least one, and often 3 or 4, plants that are useful in some way. However, even if a plant has no known practical use, I still like to know ‘what it is’ so that I can say for a certainty what it is NOT. Not too long ago two river guides were leading a rafting trip down a river in the western United States. One of the guides prepared a stew from a plant he deemed to be edible and ‘safe’. After eating the stew, one person died and another became extremely ill. A simple and needless misidentification had been made between Cow Parsnip and Poison Hemlock. Periodically, people become sick when eating wild harvested mushrooms here in the San Francisco Bay region; over the years there have been several deaths in connection with harvesting mushrooms.
On the other hand, I have observed persons, usually persons who have emigrated to the United States from other countries, harvesting various types of plant materials including Ginkgo biloba pods, Olives, Mustard greens, Chicory root, Carob pods, and other things which they are safely incorporating into their daily diet or usage. When showing anyone any of the plants which I know and use, I always begin with the following disclaimer…..“NEVER put ANYTHING into your mouth or apply it to your body for any reason unless you are absolutely sure of your identification”. I personally may have head knowledge of the ‘safe-ness’ of certain plants, yet , even so, I do NOT use them until I have had verification of the truthfulness of the information I have about the plant from several independent sources (individual authors CAN make mistakes), one of them preferably being hands-on, first-person usage.
My mentor and model was my father, Clifford Gilbert Nelson, founder and owner of Nelson’s Nursery, a wholesale nursery closed in 1978. As a small child, I used to tag along behind him as he walked through the nursery in the evenings doing his inventory. When he worked in the seed greenhouse, I used to help him sow the seeds and layer the oak leaf mold in the wooden flats that the seeds were grown in. When he went to Los Angeles several times a year to inventory the nurseries from whom he bought plants for resale in his wholesale nursery, I walked with hm for mile after mile through nursery after nursery. By a process of assimilation I gradually, without even realizing it, accumulated a fairly large base of knowledge of the plants used in the nursery and landscape business. By the time the nursery was closed in 1978 (four years after my fathers death in 1974), I could identify some 4,000 plants, including weeds, natives and introduced plants by their botanical names. Attending a business dinner one night, I listened to the three men sitting to my right trying to determine the identity of a groundcover. Finally, I excused myself for interrupting their conversation and said, “I believe the plant you are talking about is Achillea millefolium dwarf.” All three of the men turned to look at me, each one leaning a little further forward to see around the man seated next to him. The third man leaned toward me to get a better look and after a few seconds pointed his index finger at me and said, “You’re Cliff Nelson’s son!” We had never met. Ever since then, I have considered that one of the highest compliments I ever received.
We were hiking together in the Sierra Nevada in the 60’s when my father suddenly threw off his backpack and dashed off the trail into the trees. We all stood there, wondering what possessed my father to exhibit this strange behavior, when he emerged triumphantly from among the trees with a giant puffball in his hands. Having brought butter with us as a luxury, we ate puffball steaks for dinner that night sauteed in butter in a skillet over the open fire in place of the reconstituted freeze-dried stuff.
My friends who drive with me all know that a new unidentified plant on the roadside immediately takes precedence over any deadline or destination. Several times I have come upon reportedly rare or endangered plants happily thriving along side some busy throughfare. At once I am out of the car, plant manual in hand, making a positive I.D. and entering the new plant in my book. A walk turns into a running commentary for my wife or friends as I name the various vegetable inhabitants of the area that the trail runs through. I have remarked more than once that, should I live forever, I should never be bored, as I still have at least 800,000 species of plants to learn. Once I have learned them all, I can then turn my attention to finding out which can be eaten, worn, taken as medicine or otherwise used.
People think I am joking when I tell them that one of my favorite books is L.H. Bailey’s three volume set of the ‘Horticultural Cyclopedia’, or his ‘Manual of Cultivated Plants’ and that I spend many pleasant hours reading over the lists of horticultural terminology and terms or just studying random entries about plants I am not familiar with.
My one real regret is that there are so many plants and so little time to study them. If possible, I would invent a 30 or 40 hour day with at least half of it set aside for the study of all those ‘green things’.
At those times when my study of plants has been particularly intense, my wife has had to deal with a refrigerator full of strange and often unidentified packages of plant material. During those times when I am learning large amounts of new plants and uses, I have felt kinship to Humboldt and Linnaeus and all those whose love of the natural growing world impelled them to examine the natural world around them in order to make it more understandable. To that end, I thank heartily all those who have gone before, leaving a deep, wide and rich lore of the world around us of which we are an end product and so inextricably linked, no matter how hard we might try to separate ourselves from it in this 20th century.
I invite you, my reader, to enter into my world with the eyes of a child; open to everything around you, that you might live in that state of constant overwhelming awe, as experienced by Bill the Cat in Bloom County and Outland, that we might examine the miracle that is the world and life around us.
Text and images Copyright 2016 I.B. Nelson