Christine Schoene Maccabee
“Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God.”
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“There they are!” I exclaimed when I saw the first purple blooms of the wild Canadian Aster in September. “There they are in all their late summer, early autumn glory!”
Fifteen years ago, I dug up a clump of them under a power line before they were blasted with herbicide, and now they grace one edge of my chicken coup with their brilliance. They never cease to take my breath away. The small clump I planted so many years ago has expanded year after year via its root system, and every year there are more gorgeous purple flowers, about the size of a quarter. Perhaps you have seen them, too, in some field or meadow or even someone’s yard. If so, you know how I feel.
The diversity of wild plants in our region—be they medicinal; edible food for birds, pollinators and other insects; or simply for beauty—is astounding. All summer long, I grow and collect wild herbs for drying and, as of November 18, they are all well dried and in various jars for the winter teas. It is quite the collection, and the teas we make are wonderful! Also, like so many other nature lovers, this autumn, I ran around my gardens before the first hard frost, cutting as many zinnias, late flowering roses, marigolds, and even some honey suckle. As I put them in various vases in the middle of my kitchen table, I felt satisfied that another autumn tradition of mine was fulfilled.
I will truly miss the smells and sight of flowers and greens and growing things outside, won’t you? Back we go to the browns and grays of winter. Sigh. Change stops for no one. Outside today, the temperature is in the lower 20’s, with a strong wind blowing, so I am inside writing.
However, along with the deep chill comes the happy thought of Thanksgiving dinner! I know that one of my main contributions on the table will be Ground Cherries. “Ground Cherries?” you ask. Yes, these are late season wild edibles, which I permit to grow all summer in my gardens, just about wherever they want. You may have seen them in their small Chinese lantern-like husks. They are just now ripening, each pea-size fruit bursting with flavorful vitamins. I call it a wild flavor, indescribable really. The gardens grew more than ever this year, so I have a bountiful harvest.
I know that I am just one of a tiny handful of people in Maryland who even know about Ground Cherries and, for that matter, all of the other wild offerings of food and herb. I would sure hate to think that I am the only one who is aware of them. I know for a fact that the Native Americans knew about every wild edible and medicinal in this pristine mountain valley I live in and surrounding areas. They didn’t just grow crops. They were true herbalists, wild edible connoisseurs! They depended on the wild plants, as well as the deer and other wild critters like turkeys and rabbits, to survive.
Then there are the old timers, a number of which are still alive and kicking here in Frederick County, who still hunt the wild asparagus and mushrooms, too, of course. So I guess you might say I am in good company, even though I am also in the minority, no doubt.
How many wonderful wild areas have I seen come and go in my lifetime? Far too many. Perhaps you have had the same experience…black raspberries, picked by the quarts full, cut down and turned into a parking lot; rare wild flowers along back roads mowed down without a thought; and an old growth mulberry tree fairly dripping in wonderful fruit cut down to make way for a new home. I remember that magnificent mulberry tree well, with mostly children and some adults climbing its sturdy branches, picking and playing and eating the wonderful fruit. Those were the days children actually went outside and played for hours on end, instead of sitting behind a computer screen playing war games.
Another tree that I love for its fruit and beautiful red foliage in the autumn is the Staghorn and or Smooth Sumac. It is a native that grows profusely here in Frederick County. You may have seen it along Route 15 this fall. Unfortunately, because its leaves are similar in appearance to the Ailantus or Tree of Heaven, the sumacs have been cut and hebicided quite a lot. However, it is a spunky tree, and will grow right back from the root stock! I rejoice when I see a nice grove of them, for I harvest their lovely fruits and dry them to create a fruity flavor in my herb teas. Yum. Some birds eat them to survive through the winter, too.
I hope you all have a bountiful and meaningful harvest of joy this Thanksgiving, and don’t forget “all our other relations” while you’re at it! Food, water, and shelter…we all need it.