One of Nature’s Greatest Gifts – Willow

Karen willow baskets
Karen Sherwood with her hand-woven willow baskets

Sometimes at this time of year when our grey cold days stack end to end, it is easy to forget that spring will indeed arrive.  It is at these times we often need an extra reminder from a wise elder, of the magnitude to which we are guided. Such a day arrived here not too long ago and with the wisdom of Grandmother Willow (or perhaps one of her many granddaughters) which completely changed my perspective.

Here in Washington State we had been enduring a marathon rain.  With each day’s downpour more of my energy seemed to wash away with it.  Finally, the days dried out and the pull to get outside was met with a short walk to the willow patch, whose brilliant yellow branches glowed so brightly it was like the sun itself.  It gave me pause to stop and reflect on the many gifts of willow and realize this plant, which grows literally everywhere, is one which everyone should know.  It is one of our foundation medicinal plants as well as a versatile utilitarian one.  Each spring I harvest hundreds of willow withy to dry and weave into strong baskets.  They become my stakes for garden plots, fencing for berry beds and we have even planted them for living willow structures.  We split and skin the willow for fine twined baskets and lashings and peel the bark into long strips for strong cordage.

Some of the nicest bark, however, always gets carefully peeled, and set in a shaded place to dry, as this lovely bark is one of our most useful medicines.  No other plant used for healing purposes has a longer recorded history nor wider use in the world than White Willow.

Willow appears frequently in prescriptions on the 4,000-year-old Sumerian tablet from Egypt (16th Century BCE).  About 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates, the Father of Modern Medicine, prescribed hundreds of natural medicines from the plant kingdom.  Among the plants he used frequently was white willow bark for pain and fever.  It is this same willow that thousands of years later would be the inspiration for a German alchemist to create a drug to help his arthritic father.  This new product was named aspirin.  While now commercially available, it is important for us to remember the earth connection and be reminded that the earth still continues to provide for our many needs.

While white willow (Salix alba), red willow, and western willow have the most recorded uses by native tribes in North America, all willows (Salix spp.) have the aspirin-like compound salicylic acid.  Simply by simmering the bark in water, a tea can be made to effectively reduce fevers, reduce pain, and reduce inflammation.  This makes it effective for treatment of arthritis and rheumatism, sprains, strains, fever from influenza and malaria, headaches, muscle cramps – including menstrual cramps, as well as general aches and pains.  While willow tea is bitter, remember that bitters have many beneficial qualities such as helping to promote digestion.

Willow is a plant that has so much to offer, yet I was reminded of one additional gift one day while weaving a large basket using stout willow weavers.  As I started working up the sides of my basket, my hands began to ache so badly I was sure I would have to stop soon.  However, after pushing through another couple of rounds I noticed the pain had almost vanished.  It was then I realized how tremendous the gift of willow was.  The “aspirin” in the willow I was weaving had worked through my hands, enabling me to finish my weaving Gift indeed!

Life in balance was the big reminder here.  While we are given challenges, the earth also offers us the solutions, just as willow lends strength to our baskets and our hands, it also offers respite from the pain it begets.  These miracles are all around us.  Take the time to listen to what the plants have to teach and always expect a miracle!

One of Nature’s Greatest Gifts – Willow

Forager’s Forecast – Spring 2016

Happy Spring!  Spring is a wonderful time to harvest leaves and buds as plants place their energy into new growth.  Here are a few of the wonderful plants we have been gathering with our Ancestral Living Skills and Ethnobotany students.



 Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Now is the perfect time to harvest the young, tender leaves of stinging nettle!  Nettle is rich in vitamins and minerals and packed with protein.  Nettle leaves can be used like spinach in recipes ranging from omelets to soup to lasagna.  (Cooking or crushing the leaves destroys the stingers.)  If you don’t like being stung, wear gloves while harvesting!


Cottonwood buds

Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera)

Cottonwood buds are harvested at the end of winter/beginning of spring.  Cottonwood buds make an all-around useful salve for cuts, abrasions, blisters, chapped skin, athlete’s foot and nearly any compromised skin condition. Cottonwood bud resin (propolis) is a wonderful antimicrobial, reducing infection and creating a protective coating for compromised skin. Cottonwood also has anti-inflammatory and analgesic qualities applicable for the above conditions.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

Chickweed – which even has “weed” in its name – is abundant this time of year.  We use it in grilled cheese sandwiches and make it into pesto.  It also makes a great anti-itch salve.  Don’t have it growing in your yard?  Check out your local organic farm and offer to do some free weeding!

For more detailed information on identification, harvesting techniques, and ethics as well as additional suggestions for preparations, here are some of our favorite foraging books.  We carry these books in our school store.  Please call our office (425.746.7267) or email ( to order.  We appreciate your support!

  1. Discovering Wild Plants, Janice Schofield Eaton
  2. The Forager’s Harvest, Samuel Thayer
  3. Nature’s Garden,Samuel Thayer
  4. The Boreal Herbal, Beverley Gray

Happy Foraging!

Forager’s Forecast – Spring 2016

What is flintknapping?

Tools of the Trade

Flintknapping is the art of making stone tools through percussion and pressure and flaking methods (plus a few more).  As part of our Ancestral Living Skills course, we teach students flintknapping techniques.  Flintknapping has its own language and it can be confusing.  This post covers some basic terminology to get you started on the right track. We’ve also included pictures of the tools of the trade for the purist and modern stone worker.

Biface: A tool that has been flaked on both sides.

Billet: A cylindrical-shaped tool for removing flakes from stone made from hardwood, antler, or copper.

Blank: A piece of lithic material for the making of a tool (e.g., arrowhead, knife, spearpoint).

Core: A chunk of stone (lithic) material.

Cortex: Outside edges of stone like the rind of an orange.

Debitage: The waste lithic materials.

Flakes taken off a core

Flakes or spalls: Small or large pieces removed from a core.

Flaking: Removing small or large flakes of stone from a core by percussion or pressure.

Lithic: Anything to do with stone.

Percussion flaking: Flakes are struck off the edge of the core with a hammerstone or billet.

Pressure flaking: Pushing small flakes off with an antler tine, mild steel, or copper tool.

Pressure flakers:  antler and copper

Interested in learning more about flintknapping? 

Our next class is Saturday, April 2 in Issaquah.  Students will learn flintknapping techniques and also make their own tool kits to continue refining their new skills at home.  Class size is limited to ensure individualized attention.  At this time, we have a couple of openings but the registration window closes soon!


What is flintknapping?

Dandelion Wine

Dandelion flower
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

With the soggy, blustery weather we’ve been having, it may be hard to believe that spring is right around the corner!  However, with our unseasonably warm weather, we are already seeing sunny dandelion flowers poking out their heads and braving the elements.  To help cheer them on, here is a family recipe for wonderful dandelion wine.

Dandelion Wine

This is a recipe from my Aunt Opal.  It comes with many great memories, including helping her pick those beautiful sunny flowers.

3-4 quarts dandelion flowers                                        1 organic orange – juice and zest

2.8 pounds honey                                                            1 pound raisins – chopped

1 gallon water                                                                   ¼ teaspoon yeast nutrient

2 organic lemons – juice and zest                                1 package wine yeast

To begin your dandelion wine, pick only the fully opened blossoms.  Remove as much of the green stem as possible.  To do this, grab the flower head in one hand and the base of the blossom with the other and twist to separate.  Place flowers into a sterile 2-gallon glass or plastic container.  Dissolve the honey in boiling water, skim off foam and pour it hot over the flowers.  Chop raisins and add to mixture (any whole ones will swell and float).  Add all other ingredients except the yeast.  Cover with cloth and let cool.  When the mixture is at 85º Fahrenheit, skim and squeeze juice from flowers and fruit then add the yeast.

Stir at least twice a day, mixing well.  Between stirrings, keep the vessel covered with a breathable cloth held securely in place.  A large rubber band works well.  After four to five days, rack the fermenting juice into another container and add an air lock.  When the liquid is clear and stable, you may bottle your wine.

Most wine connoisseurs will tell you to let your wine sit for 7 years.  I can’t comment on that length of time as ours never lasts until then.   One year is about my limit and we think it’s great!   Enjoy!

~ Karen Sherwood

Dandelion Wine

Dock Seed Crackers

While we’re working on the next edition of the Forager’s Forecast, we thought we would share a simple recipe for one of the plants discussed in the last forecast.  One of the most conspicuous seed stalks standing out boldly at the margins and centers of our un-mowed fields is the Western dock or Rumex occidentalis.

Rumex crispus; Edward Doddridge

This is one of our favorite seeds to harvest not only because it is quick, but also because the seeds provide such a beautiful complement to so many fall bread recipes. Dock seeds also are a great winter food, providing us with nutritious seeds that cling to the plants well into the spring. They are not only relatively high in calories, like many seeds, but are also high in riboflavin, helping our bodies to assimilate vitamin C more easily.

For a fun and easy way to bring these nutritious plants to your own table, try the dock seed cracker recipe listed below. You will be surprised at how many ways you will be able to use them. We have many species of dock growing in our area, many of which interbreed. They can be all used interchangeably. I hope you enjoy using these wonderful plants and drop a few seeds to continue the journey for future harvesting.

Dock Seed Crackers

1 cup freshly ground dock seeds

1 cup wheat (or your favorite) flour

1 teaspoon salt


Stir flours and salt together in a medium mixing bowl. Add in just enough water for pliable, but not sticky, dough. Form your dough into two or three balls and roll them out onto a well-floured surface. When they are as thin as possible, cut the dough into cracker-size pieces and lay on a well-oiled cookie sheet. (You may also leave the dough in one piece to break apart later). Bake at 375 degrees for about 10 – 12 minutes or until crisp. When cool, enjoy with your favorite soup, dip or cheese topping!

This is a very basic recipe and also works well with rice flour.  Feel free to experiment with different spices such as rosemary, garlic and cayenne powder.

Dock Seed Crackers