Chances are you’ll have seen this common wild hedgerow and woodland edge plant about. In April, its ghostly phallic flower sheath of white about a long pollinating part, giving off a whiff of urine to attract flies. In autumn bright orange red berries bunched on a stem. ‘Maculatum’ means ‘spotted’ as its shiny deep green leaves are dappled with dark flecks, and spotted things are often natures way of saying ‘hands off!
Cuckoopint, or Lords and Ladies plant, is no exception as it is fairly poisonous. The chemical responsible is calcium oxalate which produces an effect like glassy needles sticking into the mouth. So why is it included here in a forager’s list, you say?
Well if you ever find yourself in a survival situation (or are just damn curious) the tubers (roots) contain 25% starch so are a good source of energy. The trick is that you have to make VERY sure they are completely cooked through as this destroys the oxalate crystals.
This can be by boiling, roasting, or drying apparently, though personally id rather cook it and be sure. Ground to a powder it can be used to make a drink called ‘salep’ which was popular in England in the middle ages and the 17th/18th century. Ground arum or orchid root mixed with milk, rose or orange water, sugar and cinnamon. This is a popular drink in Turkey but there it is made of wild orchid roots (genus Orchis).
It can also be used to make a pudding and an ice cream, so im quite tempted to try making the pudding, but now ive got a 14 month old son to consider I cant be quite as risque as i used to be so this particular pleasure might have to wait…has anyone else out there tried it and was it worth the cold sweat?
What I love about Hardy’s classic is that you end up accidentally gaining knowledge on woodsmanship activities through reading the romantic fiction, set in ‘Little Hintock’ hundreds of years ago.
We meet Marty South making ‘spar gads’ for thatching, by smoky candlelight; we witness Melbury’s wood yard where waggons are laden with ‘ash-poles, sheep hurdles and cribs, faggots,’, we are taken to a wood auction by cider presser Giles Winterbourne where yeomen bid with walking staffs corkscrew – twisted by ivy….
I especially like the reference to ‘ an alarum made of a candle and a piece of thread with a stone attached’, which appeals to those like me, with an Amish streak who dislike the modern shrills and beeps of todays digital alarms! Great story, atmosphere and characters and you learn a lot about life in those days too, especially if youre into wood crafts. Diving deep into the soul of nature and the soul of man, The Woodlanders leaves you with an ache inside you for a world and an innocence that has been lost.
Shamefully, got into a spot of retail therapy after long suffering mate Sara drove me and my infant to World of Bushcraft last Sat, and ended up forking out £42 for a leather Crocodile Dundee style hat, also a greenwood carving blade (Mora) and two back copies of ‘Bushcraft’ magazine. Observed the crazy prices Woodland Ways are charging for three hours foraging (£40!!) That just seems greedy, since it involves no materials and is not even in a particulary attractive location (e.g. the Cornish coastline)
One can also purchase, for ‘mere’ £26 squid, 3 sharpened sticks and a small ruler sized plank to make fires with. Bet theyre laughing all the way to the bank….
We liked the wildcrafts display at the back with some carved bowls, leaf woven belts and baskets, skulls and tanned hides, but first place had to go to the gorgeously intricate wooden snowshoes made in Norway by the nice bloke behind the counter. Now i got the hat I better grow to fit it!!!
My first ever birch tapping session with friend and baby in a quiet wood atop a hill, a feral place with the remains of a small polite fire showing others had used this space for another illicit communion with nature. I say illicit because it is very difficult to find anywhere that will give permission for any sort of interaction involving harvesting from nature, or sleeping there, despite this being essential for deriving any feeling of belonging to the natural world.
As i slowly drilled into the thick old bark of the biggest birch i could find, with nothing more than a corkscrew, the clear life source began to run and with a shock i realised the tree was alive. You may laugh, you may say “but of course” however its one thing to be told trees are living creatures in a static textbook and to look at them hazily in the background of country walks and pictures…but quite another to feel the wetness of their pulsing life as it rushes upwards feeding buds and leaves that are getting ready to unfurl, and to feel it on your tongue and the vitamins and minerals pouring down your throat and clearing your system of impurities.
After wondering why the taps (drinking straws) didnt seem to go right into the holes, my carpenter friend told me that drills remove the wood from the hole and corkscrews, despite looking a lot like the birch drills you can buy, do not. So i felt quite silly. After id tied the drinks bottles securely on under the taps we left. So now to go and collect the sap and stop up the holes with wax to prevent infection.
Last Sat trekked with Marty squirming in pram to abovementioned bushcraft supplies and gun shop. There were a lot more guns than other bushcraft items, however two very helpful gentlemen argued over the finer points of how to show me how to sharpen a Scandi grind Condor knife (and one showed me pictures of his dog and tipi, dont think they get many girls in there)
After that, i took Marty to softplay centre next door with my sheath knife hastily rammed in a bag….
Good to finally have a half decent knife 🙂
Have noticed some lovely flowers on the pines at my local lake, they arent mature yet ( you need to wait until the male parts are extended (ahem, blush) and they shower yellow dust everywhere (corr ;)) ok, thats enough now, this is a serious blog. But they are chock full of testosterone and excellent for not only men’s libido and hairiness and working parts but also general vitality and help people cope with stress.
Didn’t some Japanese people on the run in the war actually LIVE on this stuff in the woods for ages?
Anyway they can be made into a tincture (rammed in a jamjar full of vodka), mixed with flour and baked into cookies or just drunk with water instead of that nasty blue stuff with sugar and fizz.
After procrastinating for ages over where to get birch bark without shamefully nicking it off trees at the local nature reserve (am already in their bad books for putting up a hazelpole bender for local kids to get drunk and light fires in), i realised that the wood dumped on my boat roof several months ago by tree surgeons is, of course, silver Birch and Cherry. Duhh! But looks like these workshops are meant to happen.
So, went at a log last night with a potato knife from the 1970s as I have lost both my bushcraft knives. Surprisingly good results, except the bits over the knots. Beautiful colour changes in the bark layers. Art paper to be made, maybe?
Even Ray Mears threw in the towel at this point and used glue, but i succeeded in using another smoother log as a form and a rubber band from some asparagus to hold my bark confection together long enough to slowly slip it off whilst clumsily pushing coarse string through holes made with a cup hook end. Apparently your’e supposed to use ‘spruce roots’ to tie it together, but i draw the line at the gratuitous killing of a spruce tree just to tart up a container, and best to not chop trees down in the close neighbourhood of a crawling baby!