June 8, 2010
A couple of weeks back I had the good fortune spend some time with Sean Rowe (rhymes with ‘how’) from Albany, New York. During that time I was treated to two sides of Sean’s talents. You see, not only is he a gifted singer/songwriter (on tour promoting his latest album ‘Magic’) but also an enthusiastic and knowledgeable forager, keen to be out in the nearest available ‘wilderness’. The Bushcraft Magazine filmed us out on a foray. Sean has his own wilderness blog and is currently editing a copy of the video to accompany his own musical soundtrack.
I was interested to see how someone would fare so far out of their comfort zone. I have read extensively on North American wild forage and, as I mentioned in my previous blog the two continents have relatively few plants in common apart from accidental imports and a few Northern Hemisphere-spanning species – such as Cattails (Typha latifolia) and Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium).
The first British plant we encountered that Sean was familiar with was Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), which he told me is regarded as an introduced invasive weed by the US Department of Agriculture. He commented that while it grows patchily in my local woods, back home near Albany it shows a different habit, carpeting extensive areas of the forest floor and thus making foraging easy. Sean knew the Latin name, so I knew we were talking about the same plant.
The Latin name was a decisive point of reference and really helped communication and understanding, as it was always intended. I showed Sean Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) for instance, and he was able to describe to me the differences in appearance and uses of the North American variety, Heracleum lanatum because we were clear about both Family and Genus. Later, Sean stopped to examine a tree leaf and said it reminded him of a Linden – Tilia, and I confirmed that he was correct in his assessment. He was looking at our Common Lime (a.k.a. Linden), a hybrid – Tilia X vulgaris, which he differentiated from Tilia americana for me.
Sean’s broad knowledge of plants in general enabled him to key in to the universal characteristics of particular plant Families. The square stems of the Labiatae – deadnettles and mints, for example, or common features of the umbellifers (Apiaceae) or Carrot family, bridged widely separated foraging experiences. Far from struggling with a whole new suite of plants, most of the species were new to the American, but their counterparts and representatives back home were familiar. This made learning them much easier for Sean and teaching them simpler for me. The day was fascinating and instructive for both of us (look out for the video). I hope I would acquit myself half as well if I get a chance to forage in America; I came away with the greatest respect for Sean’s foraging skills and these thoughts:
- Knowledge of specific plant Latin names is essential, not just for wider communication but to understand the physical characteristics and properties of a Genus. e.g. How similar is Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium to H. lanatum, or H. kamchatkaensis?
- Understanding the broad range of representatives of a plant Family is important.
- Knowledge of characteristic Family traits is extremely useful.
- Being able to recognise an edible plant without understanding its context and wider relationships is extremely limiting and could leave you stranded.
- Learn your plants, regardless of whether you can eat them or not.
A final word on the man and his music. Sean Rowe has a fine voice and plays mean guitar.
He even throws atlatl well. Check out the videos of Sean in my front room in the gallery and look over the links below.