By Akosua Albritton
Much of what I know about edible and medicinal plants is due to following Tioma Allison through different seasons in the wood from 2008 to the present. If ever there is a personification of a cool breeze or “cool runnin’s”, it is Tioma Allison. She is a midwife by profession and beloved by so many adoring families. In fact, a couple of my friends had her as their midwife. She’s also a winemaker, using only natural ingredients. She makes basil wine, spicebush wine, dandelion wine, and wild cherry wine. One summer day in 2013, she agrees to teach me how to make wild cherry wine. So off we go to Park Slope Food Co-op to get some of the ingredients. Sure enough, some lady spots her and comes over to hug her because Tioma delivered her child. Too bad I did not follow in my great-grandmother’s footsteps and learn midwifery.
Tioma with her husband Jiwe led a nature walk in July, just two days before she flew back to Jamaica. Here is a candid shot of her beside her husband Jiwe. She likes to begin her walks by first having everyone taking the walk sit in a circle on the grass. We introduce ourselves by stating our names and describing our previous nature walk experiences. One woman describes how she was drawn to a particular plant and when she was very close to the plant, it somehow communicated its medicinal properties to her. Jiwe responds to her story by introducing the scientific study and debate over how plants communicate with one another and transmit their properties to humans. This conversation calls back to the great Botanist George Washington Carver who regularly entered the woods to talk with plants to learn their properties. No, Mr. Carver wasn’t studying just peanuts.
When the circle of introductions stops at our nature walk leader, she acknowledges Dr. Rahsan Abdul Hakim as her mentor. Hakim produced the radio program Health at Sunrise which broadcasted Saturday mornings at 5:30 AM in the 1980s-90s. He operates the Health at Sunrise Health and Learning Center. Besides Dr. Hakim, Tioma names other naturalists and their publications during the walk. The second recognition goes to Susan Weed’s Wise Woman Herbal Healing Wise. The others include New York City Trees and Steve “Wild Man” Brill.
At least sixteen plants are identified or discussed on this walk: Jewel Weed, Poison Ivy, Plantain Leaf, first-year and second-year Burdock, Dandelion, Corn Silk, Linden Tree, Gingko Tree, Sweet Gum Tree, Sassafras Bush, Spicebush, Hawthorn Tree, Wild Grapes, Sycamore Tree, White Pine Tree, and my “unnamed plant”:. She identifies it to be part of the Goldenrod family (Solidago). There are 100-120 types of Goldenrod. This type stands erect throughout its growth. At a height of five feet, it sprouts very small white flowers that go to seed during the height of the summer. Incidentally, Goldenrod is not an allergen. For this story, Poison Ivy, Jewel Weed, Burdock, Linden Tree, and Wild Grape are highlighted.
Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a plant that Tioma usually points out to groups in order that people know to stay away from it. Slight contact with it on the skin brings on an irritating itch and subsequent oozing rash. Poison Ivy is in the same family as cashews and mangos; however it is toxic. The stem is hairy and the green leaves may have reddish patches. This plant also climbs up trees. In divine order, Jewel Weed (Impatiens capensis) tends to grow near poison ivy that is in the shade. It soothes the itch and stops the skin from oozing before it starts. Jewel Weed has small trumpet-shaped orange flowers and roundish leaves. For immediate relief in the wild, squeeze and twist the green leaves and flowers to release the juice; then rub and place on the places of contact. This plant gives relief to hemorrhoids, stinging nettle, and mosquito bites. Jewel Weed has starchy edible roots and the leaves are edible after boiling them and pouring out the first water.
Burdock (Arctium Soecies) is distinguishable by its very large triangular leaves with fluted edges, each leaf growing separate from long rather sturdy stems. The root is a sturdy tap root that grows many feet deep into the earth. Both the leaves and root are edible. It contains iron and inulin. Inulin lowers blood sugar, slows the absorption of carbohydrates, lowers cholesterol, and dries boils. It is tonic for the kidneys and reproductive system. The root is a blood purifier and is an anti-cancer agent. A tincture is made from the root by sitting it in clear alcohol such as vodka or rum, or in vinegar for six weeks. The nutritious large leaves make a quite tasty side dish. Chop them and sautee them with garlic and or onions.
Burdock transforms significantly in its second year where it sprouts small pink spikey flowers on thin shoots. The spikey flowers attach themselves on the fur of passing animals and the clothes of humans. Tioma explains this ability to securely hold onto such material is the inspiration for Velcro. Here is a shot of Jiwe modeling it. The leaf or root makes a good wash for measles. Being astringent, it tightens the skin.
Linden Tree (Tilia americana) or Basswood, is a member of the Tilia genus, and is the very fragrant tree that is planted along New York City sidewalks and of course, grows in nature. Its fragrance wafts in the beginning of summer and wanes as summer heats up. Its small yellow blossoms nestle within the many leaves of the tree. It can be used as a flavoring, being as aromatic as vanilla. The tree’s leaves and bark effectively soothe coughs. The leaves and blossoms made into a tea are quite soothing to the nerves and are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. It contains saponins, glycosides, carotene, ascorbic acid, and phytocides. Linden tree as a standing tree or a tea is a pleasure, healer, and soother to people.
Wild Grapes (Vitis spp) which are much smaller and “significantly less sweet” than the cultivated brethren, can be mistaken for the moonseed which is poisonous. To ensure you have the wild grape, open one up and look at the seed. That seed ought to look the same as the seeds of grapes sold in food markets. The grape blossoms may be white, lavender, or pink and grow in the same bunch. The wild grape is sour; therefore, people tend to make wine from them or use the leaves to wrap rice in. First, steam the leaves to soften them. Medicinally speaking, wild grapes are friend to the circulatory system, particularly the microcirculation. These grapes are great for the capillaries and blood vessels that may be damaged. Make a tea of the fruit and leaves. Smokers, diabetics, and elders ought to be encouraged to drink the tea.
Akosua Albritton calls herself an itinerant educator. A born moonchild who loves nature, she hopes to inspire other people to love nature in the midst of the Big Apple.
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