As flowers bloom, consider their benefits

By Erin Kenny

Flowers are the most beloved part of many plants. Songs and poems are written about them; they are given in celebration and in consolation; and they are symbols of our deepest feelings. The old adage to stop and smell the roses conveys our association of flowers with relaxation and appreciation of life’s gifts.

Even with all of this history, people are still often surprised to learn that many flowers are edible and even medicinal.

We are in the peak of native wild flower season here on Vashon. Foragers have been enjoying the flowers of evergreen huckleberry, salal, geum, miners lettuce, fringe cup and wild rose. Artists are using these as well as the flowers of trailing blackberry, starflower and bleeding heart for making flower and glue collage art. Barefoot enthusiasts are well aware of the multitude of spent Douglas fir flowers that are littering the forest floor, their wispy husks sticking to exposed feet. Herbalists are excitedly gathering medicinal flowers, such as St. John’s wort, hawthorn and yarrow.

Flower essences were traditionally made by collecting the morning dew off fully blooming flowers. The water was believed to magnify the medicinal properties of the flowers, and the resulting essence is said to work on a subtle energetic level rather than a physical one.

These days most people make their flower essences by soaking the plant flowers in purified water for a day or two. Healing flower essences can be made from any flowers and, as with most herbal remedies, are much more effective if made from flowers collected near where one lives.

There is an incredible amount of misinformation about edible plants, and some of the most disturbing is when a beneficial and totally benign plant is thought to be poisonous. Salal is one such plant. Over the years I have had to educate people of all ages that salal is not poisonous, and, in fact, was a highly regarded medicinal plant used by the Native Americans. All parts of the plant can be used, for both food and medicine.

Salal leaf tea was used by many Northwest Coast natives for treating coughs and tuberculosis.

The Quinalt reportedly chewed the raw leaves to relieve heartburn and the Ditidaht chewed them as a hunger suppressant. Although the mature leaves are tough, the young leaves are supple in texture and tangy in flavor, reminiscent of green apples. It is so astringent that simply chewing a mature salal leaf will cause your mouth to completely dry out. This astringency makes the leaf tea an excellent wash for oily skin.

The flowers are beautiful, sticky and sweet, often called “fairy lanterns” by children because of their bell shape. The berries are a uniquely flavored treat, tasting somewhat like currants. Use of the berries is only limited by your imagination. They make an excellent addition to any treat or dessert that is enhanced by fresh berries. The best use of the salal berries I have ever experienced was some magically delicious homemade salal ice cream, the flavor supreme and the color divine.

Our Pacific Northwest forests are teeming with nutritious and beneficial seasonal plants this time of year. Foraging while walking leisurely through the forest excites your senses, boosts your immune system and connects you with the natural world. Next time you need to re-ground your stressed-out body, take time to not only smell the roses but to eat them as well.

— Erin Kenny is a teacher, writer and naturalist.

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