How To Build A Solid Wall Yurt

This manual provides step-by-step instructions on how to build a semi-solid wall fully portable yurt in under 40 hours. Assembly time: 3-4 hours. Disassembly time: 2 hrs. Available on or, or from the author's website at

Friday, November 9, 2012

Do You Have The Stomach For Moss and Lichens?

Well, winter is rushing toward us.  In northern latitudes, that generally means one to three feet of snow covering the ground, and almost every edible plant in the wild.  Desperate grazing wildlife like deer or bison, or even smaller rodents and birds are compelled to learn to dig through the frozen white for food.  It is a hard season for most animals.  That, unfortunately, includes humans that like to “eat wild.”
I have written about several sources of food in the wild during the winter, but there is one that I have not touched on, for any season: moss.
Most of us believe  that moss and lichens are not edible.  However, lichens make up a substantial part of the diet in the Arctic, and almost every moss and lichen is edible.  That does not imply that they are palatable, or nutritious, but most can, indeed, be eaten.  In fact, many ascribe medicinal properties to mosses, with the most prevalent claim being that they are antiseptic and some are analgesic.  Few studies have either confirmed or denied these claims.  In my experience, though, I have yet to find a “tasty” moss.  They are bitter, acidic tasting or, at best, bland.  But, as plants, they do have some vitamins, often contain minerals leeched from the soils or decay on which they grow, and  are a source of small amounts of chlorophyll. Taste be damned.  When desperate, eat!
There a couple of cautions, however.  Moss, due to its tight “leafy” nature, trap lots of insects, dirt and other undesirable debris.  If you like a bit of adventure with your meal, forego vigourous washing., and chew away!  Moss, as well, often grows, layer upon layer, on years or centuries of decaying moss and other plant material.  Along with unhealthy doses of rot, you are inviting bacteria and other pathogens into your palate.
In short, moss can be eaten, in an emergency, and can be found on tree trunks, rocks, and other exposed areas in the worst days of winter, so, as a survival food, they are welcome.  In any other circumstance, pass moss and lichens by.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Helping Mother Nature With Wild Herbs

So it was a dry summer, and the berry picking was poor.  Many of the wild herbs had blight and insect damage.  Since fruiting was poor, seed production was equally dismal.  Does that mean that you had to endure this poor year of harvest?  Certainly not!
Almost all of us rely on Mother Nature to provide the harvest of plenty, and we are disappointed when the season is dismal.  No wonder we call her “Mother.”  We expect her to do everything for us!
I first began to view my interaction with nature’s bounty and wild harvesting differently when I attempted to transplant a few of my favourite wild herbs into a domestic garden setting, with disastrous results.  Seneca root, for example, simply refused to propagate or even sprout in a variety of soils, even though it grows with vigour in the most marginal, gravel-based soils in the wild. Some of the wild herbs simply overtook my garden, predictably.  They were, after all, weeds.  Others produced great leaves when I wanted fruit or berries (alpine strawberries and wild raspberries), while others chose to wilt in the lush soil.  They preferred the less nutrient-rich bases.
But, leaving my plants in their natural habitat, and tending them regularly, produced phenomenal results.  Each week during one summer, I watered select Saskatoon, high-bush cranberries, raspberry and hawthorne bushes.  Similarly, burdock was watered abundantly, while I culled the thistles and dandelions, harvesting crops of leaves and roots throughout the summer. 
Even though the plants that we harvest freely in their natural habitat are considered “wild,” they benefit from the same care that we provide for garden plants: adequate light (cull and clean), adequate moisture (provide drainage and water), regular pruning (producing more lush, young leaves) and frequent thinning to ensure good development.  Many of the wild plants found in North America today are descendants form domestic European plants.  Dandelions, hawthorne, wild horseradish, wild plum, tansy and dozens of others are typically found growing freely in abandoned homesteads, along roadsides and in wasteland across the country.
Be careful with your harvest, as well.  Remember that, if you remove too many of the plants that you love to pick, next year’s crop may be diminished.  By harvesting selectively, as well, you are assured of getting the “cream of the crop,” so to speak.
Consider that, instead of maintaining a backyard garden, you are growing a multi-acre plot, wherever Mother Nature allows you to do so.  By providing for your chosen wild crop, it will provide an abundance of harvestable greens, seeds, roots and fruits for you.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wild Mustard Hot Stuff In The Kitchen And The Car

The farmers’ scourge for centuries, wild mustard is hardly at the top of anyone’s list of favourite plants.  A harbour for insects and pests harmful to gardens and crops alike, it has been the target of herbicides and natural defences used by organic and non-organic farmers for the last sixty years, yet remains one of the most common noxious weeds in the fields.  Yet, it is far from the demon that we have been led to believe.
When farmers send their grain or oilseeds to be cleaned prior to shipping, cleaners can count on an abundance of wild mustard seed in the screening mix.  Inevitably, it is discarded, and sometimes burned to prevent regeneration or sprouting.  That drastic technique often fails, because mustard seed has a good resistance to fire, with its hard shell.  However, it does burn, since it has a very high oil content.  Ironically, this oil offers great potential for revenues.
Mustard has one of the highest oil content of all oilseeds, including soybean, flax and canola, often exceeding 40%.  Yet, it has not been used to its full potential in the production of biodiesel.  I attribute this to the mental attitude of oilseed producers, who opt to produce biodiesel from food-grade oilseeds, although offgrade, sprouted and screened oilseeds produce as good, if not better biofuel than food grade.  When I was working on establishing biodiesel facilities in Manitoba, many farmers scoffed at the idea of using reject material to produce their fuel.  They wanted “nothing but the best,” which, of course, meant paying a premium price and eliminating profit margins.  Similarly, on our biogas pilot projects, few farmers wanted to be involved in producing biogas from manure, as if the concept meant that the end product would be inferior. 
Mustard seed produces excellent fuel.  Even wild mustard oil is quite edible by humans, although large quantities of the seed and the plant can be injurious to cattle.
The flakes of mustard meal left over after squeezing oil from the seeds can be deadly hot – easily as hot as a good wasabe. I have used the flaked meal round garden plants, and found it works to deter cutworms and other crawling pests.  A caution, however: do not place the meal too close to the plants, as they can suffer badly from contact with the concentrated residue.
Mustard plants, like turnips and beets, also provide very tasty, and somewhat peppery greens.  Not as spicy as the leaves of nasturtium, mustard greens have more life and taste than many of the more bland green wild crops of late spring and early summer.  In a pinch, the stalks can be chewed as a survival food.  I have found them woody and difficult to digest, and would prefer to eat other available wild greens.  Cooking does not enhance the flavour of mustard greens.  Raw, mixed in a salad is my preferred choice, or even used as a lettuce-like supplement in sandwiches.   One colleague uses the almost-opened flower heads in the same manner as broccoli, steaming them and adding a bit of cheese to liven them up. 
Hardly the floral ogre that it is painted to be by farmers, wild mustard offers a lively option for innovative gatherers of wild foods, and should not be discounted or rejected merely because farmers hate the plant and cattle seem revolted by it.  Spice, salad ingredient, boiled green, pest controller and even fuel for your vehicle or kerosene heater, mustard can be a lifesaver!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Web Information Not Always Reliable

My mother used to tell me, “Only believe half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear.”  It was a good adage in the era preceding the Internet.  Today, a caveat should be added – “And very little of what you read.” This is particularly true when it  comes to claims of health and nutrition benefits for wild plants.
Ironically, many of North America’s edible wild plants actually were domestically harvested in Europe: dandelion, horseradish, hawthorne and so on.  However, many of the claims of edibility or health benefit for other wild harvests should be treated sceptically, if not suspiciously.
Several years ago, I purchased a book on edible wild plants of Canada, and set out to sample as many of these culinary delights as possible.  I had been raised eating wild foods, such as pigweed and dandelion, and relying on medicinal benefits of Seneca root, common plantain, white willow and spruce needles.  Yet, I wanted to expand my arsenal of edibles.  The author of this book claimed to be an authority on harvesting plants in the wild.
I should have been alerted to the potential for error with the first trial.  He claimed that cattail roots were delightfully tasty, and had a root like a small potato.  I don’t know where he grew potatoes, but it must have been meagre soil, indeed!  The vast majority of cattail roots are miniscule bulbs, about half the size of an egg.  These are first- and second-year roots.  Yes, a few are the size of new potatoes, but you need to sift through the sands for ages to find these diamonds.
The next misstep by this author came with his claim of the ease with which we can harvest thistle roots.  “Simply wash, peel and boil these roots for fifteen to twenty minutes,” he stated.  I washed, I peeled, I scraped, I boiled, and I boiled, and I boiled.  For over two hours, these easy-to-cook roots simmered and bubbled.  When I placed them in front of my son and myself, the only benefit they provided was that they made us eager to devour the rest of the meal.  At no time in the cooking process did they become tender.  I have chewed on softer birch bark than these roots offered. 
Of course, a simple statement that one needs to select first-year roots would have been adequate.  Since that experience, I have eaten thistle root often.  I have moved from boiled root ( a somewhat bitter, yet bland  experience) to a sautéed root, peeled and spice with thyme or wild sage. 
While the misinformation in this book may be somewhat amusing, relying on the misinformation on the Web can be dangerous at worst, confusing at best.  In my own realm, for instance, I have personally tested each of the plants about which I have written, and researched toxicity.  Yet, my reaction to consumption is subjective.  I eat copious amounts of morels in the spring, without unpleasant reaction, Yet, others may become ill with one small morel.  My own experience is not sufficient to stand in the place of scientific authority, though.
After publishing my various articles, I have searched the Net, only to find my pieces re-published by others, under their own name, claiming personal experience and knowledge.  How often are the stories we read based on mere plagiarism, and without substance or validity? 
The best safeguard is to research at least three competing articles on each plant, and follow up by checking more reliable authorities on toxicity, such as university websites and reputable clinics around the world.  This method offers good comfort as to poisonous or toxic elements in any wild plant.  The reliability of the culinary value, though, will provide you with more than sufficient adventure, as you discover some of the bizarre menu suggestions on the Web.  Good eating! 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Preparing, Drying & Storing Herbs and Wild Plants

The proper preparation and storage of herbs and medicinal plants is critical to obtaining the most benefit from the desired remedy.  While some of the methods of preparation and storage may seem complex, once you have undertaken and completed your first round of preparation, you will find that the process is quite simple and logical.

Three tools that you will find invaluable as you become more dedicated to eating wild” are a juicer, dehydrator and drying screen for your harvested plants..

There are five primary methods of preparing herbs for medicinal use, plus an arsenal of alternative preparation & delivery methods.  The five primary methods are infusion, decoction, tincture, extraction & distillation.  Each method offers specific advantages. 

By far, the easiest way to store many of your harvested plants simply is to dry them. However, freezing, refrigerating, canning and preparations of jams and jellies often also are viable alternatives.

Herbs are dried in a variety of ways, depending on the part of the plant used. 

For leaves (particularly delicate leaves) and flowers, use a fiberglass screen on which the leaves are loosely arranged to allow for air movement.  Place the screen in an area where sunlight is minimal, yet where there is moderate air movement.  Turn the leaves at least two to three times over several days, until they are completely dry. For roots and seeds, herbs can be dried in direct sunlight. Where the entire plant (or stems, leaves and flowers) can be stored, hang the plant in a warm, dry shaded area for several days.  For thicker, sugar-rich crops like most berries, use of a dehydrator is recommended to prevent the growth of mould.

Many wild herbs can be frozen, either in ice cubes, or by adding a small amount of water to the herbs and placing in freezer bags.   Most herbs can be safely stored in the crisper of the refrigerator for up to a week.

Root crops and other low acid, high-density plants can be canned, by blanching for three minutes and sealing in sterilized jars (in the same way as vegetables are canned).

Jams and jellies all follow a couple of basic recipe patterns, with the only variation being the type of jam being made.  Moisture-rich jellies require slightly less liquid to be added, while pectin and gelatine provide the thickening agent.  Apple juice, stevia (an herb) or sugar provide much of the sweetener.

Wild plants (and domestic ones) that are intended for use as medicinal remedies should be prepared with the intended use in mind.

Infusions are the simplest methods of garnering the oils from an herb.   Infusions are prepared by combining a small amount (1-2 teaspoons or 10 grams) of dried herb per cup of boiling water.  If using fresh herbs, double the amount of herb used.  Do not boil the herb in the water.  Instead, pour the water over the herb and allow it to stand.  Infuse, or “steep” the mix for 10 minutes and strain.  If steeped too long, the infusion will taste bitter.  Be sure not to use metal pots or containers for storage, or even for infusing, for safety and taste.

Infusions are best used immediately, with herbs stored as a dry product until required. Because of their short and simple preparation time, there is no need for advanced preparation in a carrier. 

Decoctions are prepared in much the same way as an infusion.  However, since decoctions are used for harder herbs, plant stems, roots, seeds and bark, the plant must be exposed to boiling water for a prolonged period (typically 20-45 minutes) to extract the vital ingredients, the herb is placed in the water and boiled, rather than steeped.  This tends to result in a more bitter taste. The ratio of water to herb in decoctions generally averages about 20 to 1.

Although the water must be a boiling temperature (212F or 100C), it need not be a rolling boil.  Instead, simmer the mix for the required period of time.  Once the herb has decocted, strain the liquid, discarding the solids.  Drink by mixing with a small amount of sweetener.  Decoctions may be stored in a refrigerator for up to a week, but are best used immediately.

While prepared in much the same way as decoctions and infusions, tinctures use alcohol to extract the essential ingredients from the plants being processed. 

A second, and critical, difference between tinctures and infusions is that the solvent alcohol is not heated.  Alcohol has an extremely low flash point, and serious injury can occur if the alcohol is heated beyond its flash point.

It is imperative to note that tinctures use ethyl alcohol, not wood or methyl alcohol.  Any product taken internally must not use methyl alcohol, as this type of alcohol can cause blindness or even death.  Although some tinctures are applied topically or externally, it is best to always use ethyl alcohol for tinctures.

Pure, non- denatured ethyl alcohol is not readily available.  However, and alternative is to use vodka or other high-alcohol-percentage unflavored beverage mixed 3:2 with water, for tinctures.

Mix seven to nine cups of fresh herbs (or 4 cups of dried herb) and with blend 4-41/2 cups of water/alcohol mix.  If using fresh herbs, lightly crush the plant to assist in breaking the essential oils free from the plant.  Place the herbs in a ceramic or glass container and cover with the liquid. Place a lid on the container and store in a dark, cooler place for up to a month.  Shake or stir the mix daily. At the end of the month, strain the liquid into a dark glass or ceramic container with a lid.  These tinctures may be stored for between six months to 2 years.

Oils and essential ingredients in herbs may be removed through simple extraction (the other primary methods also are extractions, using carriers or solvents).  Simple extraction involves crushing the herb using a mortar and pestle, a small commercial cold press, a centrifuge system or hammer mill.  Generally, simple extraction involves quantities and equipment beyond the access of most home herbalists.

Distillation involves evaporation of water/herb mixes in much the same way as a brewer makes home brew.  The process involves mixing the herbs and water (or herbs and alcohol), and, using a closed or open loop system, boiling off the liquid at a controlled temperature until a concentrate of the herb remains.  For alcohol distillation, the temperature is 70C (158F).  At this temperature, only the alcohol will evaporate, leaving a syrupy mix of herbs and liquid.  For water distillation, the water is evaporated until a minimal amount of concentrate remains, which is then filtered or strained and stored.

Distillation requires equipment that is not readily available to the home herbalist, and, in some jurisdictions, is not legal to own or use.

Oil infusions generally are for external use only. However, if a more moderate essential oil or an herb that is less volatile or potentially dangerous is combined with edible oils such as olive, almond, sunflower, or canola oil, the infusion may be used internally in moderate doses.

Oil infusions can be prepared using the same method as water infusions, with the exception that the time to steep or simmer the infusion should be at least 5-6 times that of simple water infusions.  Oil infusions can be prepared by letting the mixes stand, in a warm area (in a dark glass container), for several months.  Once readied, move to a cooler, darkened area.  Note that food-grade oils deteriorate, or sour, relatively quickly, if stored in direct light or warm areas.

Liniments are made using alcohol or oil and a warming herb, such as cayenne, cloves, eucalyptus, ginger, peppermint or spearmint, marjoram (tarragon) or wintergreen.  The advantage of using alcohol is its tendency to cool the skin as it evaporates, providing the hot/cold effect employed in various commercial muscle relief treatments.  Oils used must be vegetable oils, to facilitate absorption into the skin.

Herbal wines and vinegars are easy to prepare, and make great decorative pieces.  Simply mix the required herbs (about 1:4 herb to liquid) with white, balsamic, rice or red wine vinegar and store in a bottle.  If making wine, add a preferred amount of herbs to a red wine.  For mints and delicate herbs, use a white wine.  Leave at least two weeks before using.

More bitter or harsh tasting medicinal herbs are often prepared as a syrup, or distilled & boiled to make candies.  Sugar acts as a great preservative, and, as espoused in Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

Add 2 cups of brown sugar or honey to 2 cups of the herb infusion or decoction, heat on low until almost the sugar dissolves and the mixture thickens, then pour into a clean, thick glass container and store in the refrigerator.

To prepare creams, use oil, beeswax and water. Add one cup of olive or almond oil to 50 grams of beeswax in a double boiler.  Add 50 grams of fresh herb and a few tablespoons of water.  Mix and simmer for 20 minutes.  Strain through a fine sieve and store in sterilized jars with lids.

If making an ointment, use petroleum jelly or baby oil instead of vegetable oil, and simmer until the herbs break down.

For a lotion, blend  3 ounces (84 g) of carrier vegetable oil (olive, grape seed, almond), 2 ounces (56 g) melted cocoa butter and two ounces of the prepared herb infusion and store in ceramic or dark-colored glass containers.  Vegetable oils will “sour” if left in light or heat for prolonged periods, so be sure to prepare only enough to be used in two weeks. Epsom salt blends provide the therapeutic element of muscle relaxation, while oil blends provide skin softening & protective layering.  Oatmeal bath is often used to treat burn patients when damaged skin is being removed, or to soothe pain.  On the other hand, oil baths, particularly made using oil infusion or essential oil concentrate, eliminate the particulate found in dry herb. To make oil blends, simply add the required amount of essential oil to an absorbable oil carrier, such as almond, grape extract or olive oils.  To make Epsom salt blends, grind the mix of dried herbs and Epsom salts together in a food grinder or blender until fine. 

Compresses involve using a cloth soaked in hot herb infusions, tinctures or decoctions, applied directly to a wound or affected area.

Poultices involve chopped, crushed or powdered herbs boiled in water to make a pulp.  The pulp is then wrapped in a thin, porous cloth and applied to the injured area.  Apply a light layer of cream or oil to the wound to prevent sticking of the poultice, if necessary.  Common poultices from pioneer days included mustard poultices applied to the chest for colds, or common plantain or garlic poultices applied to injuries and sprains.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fiddlehead Ferns Offer Music For Your Tastebuds With

It’s spring in the moist woodlands of North America when fiddlehead ferns begin to unleash their soft green tongues like a frog set to strike at an insect.  These greens are one of the most tender and juicy wild harvest foods, available worldwide. 

Fiddleheads in North America commonly are associated with the wet east coast or west coast rainforests, yet varieties can be found in abundance across the continent.  Simply put, the fiddlehead fern is not really a type of fern of its own, but a general description of the new growth shoots for all of the fern family. 

Like morels and other short-season spring delicacies, fiddleheads are available for brief days each year. They appear through the soft leaf beds of wet woodlands and shady waterway edges as soon as the ground begins to warm, quickly unfurl their fronds and rush toward full growth in a week or so.  Unlike morels, they do not hide from sight, but form the lush carpets and undergrowths of many forests and thickets.

Two varieties of ferns – Bracken and American Royal – grow across North America, with the Ostrich fern found mostly on the east coast. Harvest them by clipping the uncurled sprouts.  These wild plants are havens for small insects, dust and pollutants, and should be washed thoroughly before eating.  While many instances of mild illness have been reported (mostly due to improper washing or cooking), there are very few reports of allergic or toxic reactions.

Because fiddleheads are neither a soft leafy vegetable or crisp root-like consistency, they are suitable for a variety of cooking styles and recipes.  Simply sautee the greens in butter and a dusting of garlic, pepper, basil for a delightful side dish.  Alternatively, boil the greens and serve with a little thyme. Top angel hair pasta with steamed fiddleheads spiced with paprika, thyme, cayenne and onion powder.  Dash olive oil over dish and sprinkle with parmesan cheese.  Fiddleheads can be a feature ingredient for a number of salads, used as a soup ingredient, served with a lightly-cooked root crop mix, breaded in oat bran, flax flour and corn meal prior to deep frying, or even pickled in brine after blanching.

One of the most exhilarating wild harvest meals that I have enjoyed in early spring began with a salad of fiddlehead, dandelion and strawberry leaf, doused with raspberry vinaigrette.  The main course included boiled and buttered cattail root (potato-like consistency), fried dandelion roots, boiled fiddlehead greens, morels served with hamburgers blended with ground common plantain seed (harvested the prior year and dried) and freshly harvested horseradish root, grated and mixed with vinegar.

Spring is a season of opportunity for the lover of wild foods, and the opening act of that season is fiddlehead greens!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Burdock Benefits

Doubtless, burdock is one of the easiest plants to find in the late fall and winter.  In truth, you don’t find burdock: it finds you, with its Velcro-inspired burs and tall, bush-like habit.  Like the ugly duckling of fables, burdock possesses a real beauty beneath its unattractive skin, however. 

Whether you live in Europe, Russia or North America, burdock can be found almost in your back yard.  Long a vital component of the arsenal of healing herbs for Europeans and North American natives, this abundant plant also is an excellent culinary weed, possessing great nutritional value.

One of the real benefits of burdock is its accessibility in the middle of winter.  Like cattails, burdock roots are a great survival food, but require significant effort to harvest from the icy grasp of frozen soil.  Yet, because it may grow to four feet or more in height, it towers above even the deepest snow.

Recently (early March), I harvested a few roots in Manitoba, where frost extends to three feet in depth throughout winter.  By chopping around the base of the plant with my hatchet, I was able to recover about six to ten inches of the tap roots. 

The roots of younger plants offer the best, most tender harvest, but, in winter, even young roots are shrivelled and tough.  In summer, these roots can be used in stir fries, boiled, peeled and baked or made into any variety of boiled or sautéed dishes.  In spring, the leaves and stems (peeled) are tender, like asparagus or a mix of sorrel and spinach.  I have often simply peeled the younger stems and eaten them raw, as a crunchy snack.  For an unusual snack, peel and lightly blanche the stems, then refrigerate them in vinegar bath for a couple of weeks, to produce a unique pickle.

Burdock has been used to treat colds and measles, relieve constipation, purify the blood, act as a liver and general cleanser and even treat skin eruptions. It is antiseptic and antifungal, and has been used effectively as a skin tonic, and to treat diabetes. With the wide range of claims of medicinal benefit, though, it is wise to use burdock as a supplement, rather than relying on it to treat every ailment.

In culinary dishes, the Japanese use burdock often, referring to it as gobo.  One Asian recipe calls for a mix of brown rice, shitake mushroom, burdock root, garlic and ginger.  A great sauce requires mixing one cup burdock root, ½ cup parsley, ½ cup cider vinegar, ½ cup sherry and one cup of thick yogurt (Greek, preferably).  Boil the cider, burdock and sherry over medium heat for six to eight minutes, then blend all ingredients until smooth.  This sauce is fantastic with vegetables (particularly green veggies) pork or chicken. 

The myriad ways of using burdock is virtually limitless, as are its medicinal and nutritional qualities.  So, rather than banning these burs, why not invite them into your garden?  They are easily cultivated, and easy to grow!