Bladderwrack: Gift from the Sea

This past week my family and I got away for one last beach get-away to Maine. I love the languid and liminal days of late summer on the coast when the Rose Hips start to ripen and the ocean-side Goldenrod is in bloom- it’s my favorite time to visit. So subsequently it’s when I tend to harvest my seaweed! That being said, many folks prefer to harvest Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) in the spring and early summer, however, it’s definitely possible to harvest this seaweed well into August.

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Bladderwrack: Identification, Habitat & Range

Look for this seaweed growing on rocks in the inter-tidal zone, the area of the shore effected by the tides. Here on the eastern coast of the US it’s found south to about North Carolina and north all the way up the Canadian coast. It grows on the coast of the British Isles, the Atlantic coast of Europe, Iceland, southern Greenland, and the northern coasts of Norway, Finland, and Russia as well. On the west coast of the US a related species, Fucus gardneri, is used. Our local Bladderwrack (F. vesiculosus) is easily identified by the air bladders ranging in size from a pea to a marble found in pairs along the mid-rib of the thallus (the entire vegetative body of a seaweed). There can be some variation, however. Occasionally the bladders are not found in pairs, and their amount will vary based on the turgidity of the water- the more active the wave action the fewer bladders will be found. It grows along with other Fucus spp seaweeds but is the only one with the air bladders present. The fronds tend to be dichotomously branched and can grow to be about 35 in long and 1.0 in wide and have mucilage-rich vesicles at their tips. It’s a perennial macroalgae that tends to live 4-5 years.

Bladderwrack  (F. vesiculosis) . Note the air bladders along the mid-rib and the swollen vesicles at the tips on the fronds

Bladderwrack (F. vesiculosis). Note the air bladders along the mid-rib and the swollen vesicles at the tips on the fronds

Sustainably Harvesting Bladderwrack

Bladderwrack is best harvested in the spring and early summer when the vesicles are nice and plump. However, if need or circumstances be, it can be harvested well into late summer. As it reaches maturity the vesicles will elongate, so the more long and pointed the vesicles the older the seaweed. The bottom-line though is that as long as the thallus is vibrant-looking (see the pictures above and below for an idea of what I mean by vibrant), it’s fine to harvest if that’s when you’re by the sea!

Bladderwrack growing on a cliff edge with Rockweed  (Ascophyllum nodosum)

Bladderwrack growing on a cliff edge with Rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum)

Waiting for low tide will give you the best access to Bladderwrack, which grows on rocks and along coves, generally mixed with other seaweeds such as Spiralwrack (Fucus spiralis ) and Rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) . When harvesting this-or any seaweed- it’s important that you never pull the holdfast, which is where it attaches to the rock, since this will completely kill the organism. Rather, you want to give it a gentle haircut with scissors or garden clippers, taking about 1/2 of the thallus, which will allow it to grow back. I like to harvest into a basket or even a brown paper bag. Give it all a good rinse in the seawater to remove any excess sand and also to wash off any organisms, like snails, from the seaweed. DO NOT wash in fresh water as this will cause it to begin to breakdown! Then, if you’re going to stay at the beach for a bit, you can lay it in a thin layer on a towel or blanket in the sun to begin to dry it.

Never take all the Bladderwrack from a rock, wall or area, remembering that good harvesting practices mean it was never even obvious that you harvested at all! Think of yourself like a browsing deer wandering through a meadow, taking a little bit from here, a little bit from there, and so on. Take care if you are walking on seaweed-covered slippery walks while harvesting. And never take more that you need! In Maine harvest for personal use is permitted and commercial harvest requires a permit. Always be sure you are harvesting in an area free of industrial waste and pollution and harvesting far from urban centers is strongly recommended.

Bladderwrack and other intertidal zone seaweeds growing on rocks at low tide

Bladderwrack and other intertidal zone seaweeds growing on rocks at low tide

Drying & Storage

It’s traditional to hang seaweed in the sun on a line to dry. In warm, dry climates it can dry in this way in a day but here in the northeast not so much! While it’s true that seaweed left out on a line will absorb some moisture from the morning dew, it’s not enough to cause any worry and a few days dried in the sun in this way tends to be enough. If it’s cloudy and overcast, then it will take longer and if rain is projected then it should be brought inside and re-hung after the rain. On my most recent trip to Maine we were camping so I hung it on a line to dry. It wasn’t completely dried by the time I got home so I opted to spread it in a thin layer in some large baskets and put it in my hoophouse, which is warm and dry and sheltered from the rain. At least once a day I tossed the Bladderwrack around a bit in the basket, since the parts more exposed to air dry quicker, and this allowed it to evenly dry. It finished drying in a just a few days in this manner. While it’s true that the least amount of time it takes to dry, the better for the final quality of your seaweed, it’s important to remember that anything your harvest yourself will be so incredibly fresh and superior to most herbs sold in the herbal industry. So don’t worry if it take a little while to dry!

Bladderwrack hung to dry on the line

Bladderwrack hung to dry on the line

Once it’s dry enough to snap when you try to break the fronds it’s ready to be stored. You can cut it into small pieces and store it in glass jars away from high heat and strong direct light. It can also be stored in durable plastic bags, like ziplocks. Since Bladderwrack is very oily in nature it has a shelf-life of about 6 months, after which it runs the risk of going rancid. To avoid this tragedy, simply store it in the freezer once you hit the 6 month mark and use as-needed.

Medicinal Use

Bladderwrack is in the family of Brown Seaweeds, which also includes Kelp, Wakame, and Kombu, and shares many of the same medicinal properties as these other seaweeds. It has a long history of medicinal use, being written about in all the old herbal texts. Due to it’s high Iodine content Bladderwrack is best known for its benefit for goiter and low/hypothyroid. In addition to Iodine it’s also rich in many minerals and trace minerals, including potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, nitrogen, iron, zinc, boron, copper, manganese, chromium, selenium, bromine, vanadium, and nickel. It’s also extremely high in antioxidants and contains many of the B-complex vitamins, K, E, A, and D. Due to its super high mineral content Bladderwrack can be though of as a low-dose medicinal and food as medicine, since an excess of certain minerals can be harmful, and it’s also important to note it should not be taken during pregnancy or nursing.

Bladderwrack drying

Bladderwrack drying

Traditional dosage is about 3-6 grams/day. For a frame of reference, 1 tsp of the powder or a small handful of the fronds equates to about 3-4 g. In addition to being a superior nutrative, Bladderwrack  is rich in the polysaccharides fucoidan and algin, which have been widely studied and seem to be anti-cancer, anti-estrogenic, immune-boosting and strongly detoxifying. Studies link a diet that contains brown seaweed to strongly support cardiovascular health and lower rates of cancer. Bladderwrack also supports the muskuloskeletal system and has a history of helping folks with arthritis and injury, particularly when taken in a bath. Add ½-1 cup of the powder into a bath along with some epsom salts for a wonderfully relaxing and anti-inflammatory bath. For an idea on making your own inspired bath salts check-out my recipe and post on Mermaid Bath Salts! It’s also a nice soothing demulcent for irritations in the bladder, kidneys, and urinary system. In addition to taking the powder one can take the tincture (30-40 drops 2-4x/day), add it to a tea, make a cold infusion, and also use it in the kitchen. Bladderwrack can be added to broths and stocks, soups and stews (although it can take a while to cook until it’s tender), and the dried flakes can be sprinkled directly onto your food, added to traditional spice blends such as gomasio, furikake, togarishi, and so on!

Happy harvesting all!


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Autumn Olive & Apple Fruit Leather

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Have you met Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) yet? I absolutely love this plant. It’s abundant, easy to harvest, is insanely good for you, and is wild plant we can harvest without concern of overharvest since it’slisted as “invasive” in many states (I prefer to call it “opportunistic”). Also called Autumn Berry and Japanese Silver Berry, this northeast superfood was introduced to the US in the 1830's. It’s endemic to eastern and central Asia, including parts of the Himalayas where it is a traditional food, and has now thoroughly made itself a part of the northeast ecosystem. But they’re not just in New England! Autumn Olives can be found growing south to Florida, in the Great Lakes Region, and west to the Mississippi River. The Pacific Northwest also is home to these prolific shrubs.

Identification: ID is easy- the medium to large shrubs have alternate leaves that are silver on their undersides, sometimes have thorns, and bear small, fragrant, cream-colored, 4-petaled flowers in the spring. The berries are red with silver speckles- one of our favorite nicknames for them is “Sparkle Berries”! One poisonous look-alike is Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp)- but those shrubs don't have silver leaves and the berries don't have the silver speckles, plus Honeysuckle berries ripen in the summer not the fall. If you find a bush with silver, alternate leaves with silver-seckled berries, you’ve got Autumn Olive.

Harvest: Autumn Olives ripen in the fall-Sept through Oct here in New England. They are sour and sweet (like most berries) and get sweeter with cool nights and a frost. Flavor can vary quite a lot from bush to bush, so taste each one to see which is to your liking and harvest from that one. You will find them growing everywhere! But they especially like hedgerows, old fields and farms, and any area that was disturbed in the past. They are an early successional species and are especially abundant in fields in my area that are transitioning from meadow to forest. Be sure you’re harvesting from an area free of chemicals and remember to practice reciprocity in your harvest. For more on this look to my article “Wildcrafting, Wildtending, and Reciprocity” on this blog.

autumn olive underside.jpg

Nutritional Value: Nutritionally, these berries are just awesome. Amazingly, they are the highest known source of the potent antioxidant lycopene, which is cancer protective, anti-inflammatory and promotes longevity. The primary way the average American gets lycopene in their diet in by eating tomatoes, however Autumn Olives have been shown to contain up to 17x more lycopene than tomatoes! The berries are also rich in vitamins A, C and E, flavonoids and essential fatty acids. And they're free.

What to Do With Them: There are sooooo many ways to preserve the abundant Autumn. I’ve made jams, added them to applesauce, made into and incredible sweet and warming fall cordial, frozen for smoothies and baking, and of course they’re also just super yummy and safe to eat raw. They also make a great substitute for tomatoes for folks with Nightshade sensitivities. But one of my favorite ways to preserve them is in fruit leather and I’ve found that their sour flavor profile combines especially well with the sweetness of apples, which also happen to be in season the same time as Autumn Olives, making an amazing bioregional, localvore treat!


autumn olive fruit leather.jpg

Autumn Olive & Apple Fruit Leather

Ingredients:
Autumn Olives 2 cups
Chopped Apple 1 cup

Supplies:
Food Mill (optional, but will make your job easier if you want to remove the Autumn Olive seeds- see details below)
Parchment Paper
Baking Sheet or Pyrex Baking Dish
Blender or Food Processor

Step 1: Start by combining your Autumn Olives and Apples in a pan with just a tiny bit of water. Chop the apples into small 1-2 inch pieces. It’s ok if some of your Autumn Olives have stems attached to the berries but be sure not to include larger twigs or leaves. If you have more than 2 cups of Autumn Olives, then use a ratio of roughly 2/3rds Autumn Olive and 1/3rd Apple. Cook it all down on low with a little water, stirring often to make sure there's no burning happening on the bottom.

autumn olive bowl.jpg

Step 2: Once it’s all cooked put the entire mixture through a food mill to remove the apple seeds and Autumn Olive seeds. NOTE: You don’t have to do this part. If you don’t have a food mill then be sure not to include any apple cores since otherwise you won’t be able to easily remove the seeds. And having the seeds of the Autumn Olives is simply a matter of preference. They likely have some nutritional value and are not at all harmful. For some folks they just like the texture better with or without. The picture here of my fruit leather contains the seeds- if you look close you can see them!

Step 3: Put the entire mix (whether or not you used a food mill) into a blender or food processor and puree well

Step 4: Line a baking tray or oven safe pyrex dish with parchment paper and spread your pureed Autumn Olive and Apple mix thinly (1/2-1 inch thick) onto the paper. Bake at 170 degrees for about 6 to 7 hours, being sure to check it often, since sometimes the edges burn a little bit...if the edges are burning and the center is still moist keep cooking it, knowing that you’ll just have to trim off the edges but the majority of your fruit leather will be perfect. Try it as you go, since it’s "to taste" in terms of how leathery you want your fruit leather to be. I like mine still pliable and not crisp. Basically you’re going for the consistency of fruit roll-ups! NOTE: if you have a food dehydrator you could use that for this recipe instead of the oven!

Store it between wax paper in the fridge where it will stay fresh for weeks, or freeze and take-out as needed. Enjoy your local, free, nutrient-dense, antioxidant rich super- food fruit leather!


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Wildcrafting, Wildtending, and Reciprocity

Herbalism is trending and it’s easy to understand why. Plants are beautiful. They are powerful healers.  Interacting with them feeds us-body/mind/spirit. So it’s no wonder that more and more folks are turning towards herbal medicine and learning the art and science of herbalism. For any budding herbalist the most exciting thing is wildcrafting herbs. And if you were to ask most herbalists what their favorite part of their work is, many will answer the same- myself included! But as herbalism gains popularity how can we practice truly sustainable wildcrafting? And what about wildtending and reciprocity? If we’re not weaving these ethics into our harvesting practices then at its worst wildcrafting exploits and harms wild populations of plants. At its best, it becomes wildtending and wild populations are proliferated by human interaction and it becomes a relationship of mutuality. As a person who teaches many students each year plant identification and wild-harvesting skills, I’ve thought about this a lot. These are my thoughts on how we can cultivate a reciprocal relationship with the plants as wildcrafting herbalists.

Rose Hip Harvest  (Rosa multiflora)

Rose Hip Harvest (Rosa multiflora)

Wildcrafting

I’m not anti-wildcrafting. Not at all. In fact, I’m quite for it. Wild medicine is the bridge between the land and our bodies. It connects us to the earth. As a society we are collectively so disconnected- from ourselves, the land, our communities. Wildharvesting is an antidote for the sickness of disconnect; literally a balm. For folks who wildcraft I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. It feeds your very soul.  It’s part of our birthrights as humans on this planet. In my own lineage I need only look back four generations to my great great grandmother who was a peasant (read: shepherdess) in Greece who surely collected wild foods and herbs without a second thought- it was just a part of life and had been for thousands of years before that. It’s staggering to think about how much earth-connection we’ve lost in such a short time and I don’t believe our psyches and spirits have caught-up with all the changes of the past 100 years. It might sound like I’m romanticizing that pre-industrialized life (and maybe I am the tiniest bit) but I don’t begrudge certain modern advancements. It’s just that it’s clear that the farther away we get from nature and her rhythms, the sadder and sicker we get. This is why wildcrafting and wild foods matter.

Wild Grape harvest and riverwalk with my daughter

Wild Grape harvest and riverwalk with my daughter

Wildtending & Asking

If we’re going to harvest wild plants we should do so in a way that proliferates their population- rather than depleting it- known as wildtending. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Writer, Plant Ecologist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi, calls it The Honorable Harvest. This wild-harvesting perspective is implicit in an indigenous worldview. Wildtending includes a variety of practices, and may mean that some years we don’t harvest from a particular patch or population because of drought, disease or pest pressure, or any other situation that might threaten a plant’s population.  It also means learning the “At-Risk” and “To-Watch” lists of plants from United Plant Savers, and paying attention to threatened plants and ecosystems locally.  But in addition to using our deductive left brain powers of reasoning and observation, we have to sink into our intuition here too and ask the plants if we can harvest. Quite often it’s just a feeling one way or the other. If it doesn’t feel right to harvest from a certain patch or plant, even if everything looks ok on the surface, then follow that. I once asked to harvest leaves from a Peach tree I’d harvested from for years on a friends farm and got a clear “no.” I couldn’t figure-out why but respected what I heard. I told my friend about it later and learned that tree had had a very difficult spring and had been hit incredibly heavy with a gypsy moth caterpillar infestation. I imagine the tree had used many of its resources fighting-off that infestation and needed all the energy it could get and couldn’t spare any leaves that year.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks to this so beautifully:

“Asking permission shows respect for the personhood of the plant, but it is also an assessment of the well-being of the population. Thus I must use both sides of my brain to listen to the answer. The analytic left reads the empirical signs to judge whether the population is large and healthy enough to sustain a harvest, whether it has enough to share.  The intuitive right hemisphere is reading something else, a sense of generosity, an open-handed radiance that says take me, or sometimes a tight-lipped recalcitrance that makes me put the trowel away. I can’t explain it, but it is a kind of knowing that for me is just as compelling as a no-trespassing sign.”

Wildtending might also mean cutting back Asiatic Bittersweet Vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) that are threatening a patch of young Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)- because, yes, it is ok to remove opportunistic plants from areas where they are threatening endangered or uncommon endemic plants, or even a patch of common medicinals we work with, just don’t use chemicals or methods that cause more disturbance to the area then there was before. It means leaving an area in better shape than we found it, removing trash and litter, or collecting seeds in the fall and spreading them around the site, even if it means an extra trip to that patch if we harvest it in the spring. It looks like moving like an herbivore does across the landscape (have you ever watched a deer browse through a meadow?) when we harvest, taking a little here and a little there, so that you can barely even tell the area has been harvested from, leaving enough for the animals, pollinators, germinating seedlings, and so on.  It involves deep observation and becoming a citizen scientist and understanding- intimately- the reproductive cycle of each plant we harvest so we can help it proliferate.  A simple example here is replanting rootlets and/or pieces of rhizomes on the edges of patches we harvest from to help the plant spread, or only harvesting from the root tips so we don’t affect the crown where the stems grow from. It also looks like reading the landscape and noticing a habitat where a medicinal would happily grow that doesn’t currently have it and planting it there.  An example here is the Northeast would be a wet meadow without any Boneset (Eupatorim perfoliatum) or Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata). This is a habitat which would easily support these two medicinals and you could grow some and transplant it there to start a new population. Or sowing fresh American Ginseng seeds beneath Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) where you see some of its other companion plants growing, like Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum), Spice bush (Lindera benzoin) or Trillium (Trillium spp.)  In the case of re-planting I do only promote this practice with endemic plants and not introduced species. Some might balk at the idea of so intentionally altering a landscape, but we know that pre-colonized North America was actually full of wild gardens or forest gardens, tended by the indigenous peoples already here. Humans have always interacted and changed the landscape and nature is not static, it’s a dynamic, living landscape.

Re-populating the woodlands with threatened woodland medicinal, Wild Leeks/Ramps  (Allium tricoccum)

Re-populating the woodlands with threatened woodland medicinal, Wild Leeks/Ramps (Allium tricoccum)

Our challenge, as bioregional herbalists who value and understand the spiritual, physical, and ecological importance of interacting with the wild, is that our harvesting practices must include both wildtending and wildcrafting. Ideally they become one and the same. If we’re going to harvest from the wild then we have a responsibility to do so in a way that doesn’t cause habitat degradation and, instead, actually increases the diversity and health of the bioregion in which we live.  If we can’t harvest a certain plant without doing so, then that right there is our sign-post that we should not be harvesting that herb and instead we should be advocating for its conservation, because wildcrafting herbalists also need to be medicinal plant conservationists. If a plant is so abundant that it would be quite difficult to over-harvest it, like Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) in the Northeast, then we should still be offering our gratitude to that plant and engage with wildtending other more threatened plants or sites as an act of reciprocity.

Reciprocity

Reciprocity means giving back in some way so the relationship becomes mutually beneficial. How do you say thank you to the plants for providing their medicine? How do you avoid bringing a taker, colonialist, capitalist, entitled mindset to your relationship with the wild plants? How do you enter into a deep and intimate partnership with the plants? I don't have all the answers but I know a huge piece of the puzzle is practicing reciprocity. This practice for me is always shifting. For years I ran a medicinal plant nursery from my home and propagated and sold threatened Northeast woodland, medicinal plants. It warmed my heart to know folks were going home and planting Goldenseal and American Ginseng in their woods. To me, helping spread the medicine was an act of reciprocity. Now my reciprocity often looks like advocating for threatened endemic medicinals, like Ramps and Chaga.  Other meaningful acts include doing plant rescues from areas that are going to be developed or logged, lodging seeds balls filled with endemic seeds into meadows and vacant lots, guerilla planting, and teaching kids about the Honorable Harvest. Simply being an advocate for clean waters and protected forests and wild lands is an act of reciprocity. And it doesn’t have to always be grand gestures. You can also express it to the plants on an individual level- leaving some dried nettles as fertilizer, watering the plant if it’s a drought, or harvesting seeds to start new patches. It can be this simple- the next time you go to harvest a wild plant, ask yourself, “Am I taking? Or have I asked and it was offered?” From the simple act of asking reciprocity follows; we want to offer back something in gratitude, reverence, and respect.

Pondersosa Pine  (Pinus ponderosa) , dripping with resin. Trees exude resin in response to stress as a layer of protection from pathogens and to help heal from injuries. Resins are best harvested from the forest floor. I was lucky enough to find some of this gorgeous resin beneath this tree freely given- a huge chunk of it had fallen to the ground.

Pondersosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), dripping with resin. Trees exude resin in response to stress as a layer of protection from pathogens and to help heal from injuries. Resins are best harvested from the forest floor. I was lucky enough to find some of this gorgeous resin beneath this tree freely given- a huge chunk of it had fallen to the ground.

The Honorable Harvest

I could write my own list of wildcrafting guidelines, but it’s really not necessary because Robin Wall Kimmerer has already done it so incredibly well. Below are her guidelines for what she calls the Honorable Harvest. I just love these and think that wildcrafting herbalists should embody these guidelines in our harvesting practices, and teach them to our students as well.

The Honorable Harvest

Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.

Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.

Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.

Never take the first. Never take the last.

Take only what is given.

Never take more than half. Leave some for others.

Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.

Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.

Share.

Give thanks for what you have been given.

Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

peach twig.jpg

 

Further Resources:

Video: Reclaiming the Honorable Harvest: Robin Kimmerer
At TEDxSitka

Returning the Gift
From Minding Nature’s May 2014, Volume 7, Number 2.
By Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and The Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer

Wholehearted Wildcrafting
By Sophia Rose

United Plant Savers


Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!


Seaside Yarrow Harvest

Seaside Yarrow Harvest