Entering Spring, it is perhaps the time of year people are most aware, in this part of the world, of the green starting to make its way out from the ground again, up in the trees and all around. And since awareness is something that can always be expanded, there seems no better time to take a closer look at this greenery that is taken for granted, yet remains a mystery.
by Ada Popescu
On March 1st flowers and tokens are offered to every school teacher and female acquaintance, friend and family member, in celebration of Spring returning. On March 8th everyone does it again, but this time the flowers are mostly for mothers (Mother’s/Women’s day in Romania). Between the 1st and 8th March, the tradition says that if you choose a day, the weather on this particular day reflects the mood of the year that you will have ahead (so you have eight days to choose from and they are called ”the hags” – if you pick a sunny day, all is good).
Plants behave too
Everything in March is linked to flowers, the sun and the awakening of nature. Nature seems to be in your face whatever way you turn, still many remain unphased by the serious changes that the climate has undergone over the past decades. It’s no surprise that when looking at plants, relative to the human time, it appears like nothing is happening. It’s little surprise plants look like inanimate objects, brainless, boring things, easy to be ignored.
Yet, in recent years, a new approach to the study of plants has been developing and it is putting forward some pretty unthinkable concepts… such as “plants behave”. It’s not just animals who interact with the environment, with each other and with people. Scientist suggest, and more than that, have proven, that plants, despite not having eyes, limbs, spoken language and brains, do act strategically to defend themselves, to hunt, sense and interact with the environment and other plants, animals and birds, they adapt and change their shape, colour and chemistry to ensure pollination, they exchange resources… so in short they think, talk, “behave”, quite similar to animals.
Why should this matter to regular, non-scientists people? How is this relevant to everyday lives or even in the global context?
It could be an exercise in being aware, of encouraging ourselves to look at things slightly differently and to trying to expand consciousness if nothing else. As abstract as it might sound, the stakes seem high, one might argue that it was a lack of awareness that has brought about many of the major crises facing humanity and the planet today.
“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better,” Albert Einstein said.
It is safe to assume, taking a closer look at plants to expand awareness might be a very practical thing to do in these troubled and confusing times.
OZB spoke to some people who are passionate about plants, edible ones in particular, and more than that, work with them. Mushrooms too.
⧫ Wood Wide Web is a complex underground structure of fungi and plants’ roots that spreads all over the forest and enables communication between trees. It has been proved that trees can exchange nutrients and also amazing ”data” such as chemical defense signals for protection from predators.
⧫ By mass there are many hundreds of times more plants than animals on earth. Plants have more genes related to environmental perception than animals do (they must come in handy when standing still). Plants release volatiles, similar to how animals release hormones.
⧫ People are not the only ones keen on coffee. Plants use caffeine to hook insects!
⧫ Corn can hear! It reacts chemically even if you only play a tape with the sound of a caterpillar eating leaves.
The IncrEdible Forest Resources project
Iulia Demeter and Quim Rueda are the initiators of the IncrEdible Forest Resources project, a project that aims to showcase the natural resources of the forest and also to show the links that exist between species in the wild by looking at plants, mushrooms (ethnomycology) and also at the way these different elements can be cooked. They believe that if people gain a better understanding of these living things, they will be more concerned with the need to protect our natural environment.
Living in Bihor, Romanian born Demeter and Spaniard Rueda are involved in various activities for people interested in plants. They often travel to Cluj and Hunedoara to host workshops that aim to help people identify the many mushrooms, plants and berries that grow freely in the forests and on the fields.
Foraging – finding natural food in the wild – is something more and more people are getting into. Romania has a long history of foraging, with a huge diversity when it comes to spontaneously growing edible plants and mushrooms, but, as yet, there is no formal training available for this. This is why Demeter and Rueda had to study abroad and they are currently in the process of becoming certified mycological guides, through attending courses in Spain.
The main things Demeter and Rueda teach people in their workshops is about the many and varied resources to be found in nature and how to store and eat these natural delights. They do this through culinary demonstrations in restaurants and even through private parties. For more information about their workshops visit their Facebook group which is packed with useful information – “IncrEdible Foraging Romania”.
Demeter and Rueda were kind enough to answer a few questions…
What drew you to foraging and for how long have you been doing it?
Rueda: Ever since I can remember, my father and grandmother have shown me how to make the most of all the available natural resources – my father in the Pyrenees Mountains, in the north of Spain and my grandmother in a very dry area in the south of the country, in the Filabres Mountains. All of the family’s leisure time would take place outside, in nature, identifying and processing the resources that we would either find or the ones resulting from agriculture and ecological zootechnics.
Demeter: Since I was 2-3 years old my grandmother would take me with her up in the mountains (Apuseni Mountains, which are very friendly and not very high, with rich biodiversity); that was my playground, among blueberries, blackberries, trees and mushrooms. She would pick all the goodies the forest had to offer and she taught me, gradually, every mushroom species she knew. The berries are easy to learn, but the mushrooms take more time.
What do you think about this notion of plant behaviour? …Can you see it in your work?
There’s quite a controversy among scientists, ecologists and naturalists. We ourselves believe that plants and trees communicate, that they have an intelligence that has only just started to be discovered and that they display certain social behaviors that can seem amazing. Mushrooms are our main field of interest and we also study their interaction with their immediate environment. Seeing the fungal tissue, which is recognised as the way they use to communicate, is what makes our conviction stronger.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Hericium erinaceus for example, a rare mushroom which should not be picked from its natural environment because it is so rare, but which can be cultivated, helps regenerate the neurons, developing the nervous system. It is also highly antibacterial and used for digestive afflictions. [e.n. the Gastrointestinal system is also called the ‘second brain’]
Why do you do what you do?
We want to remind people that everything that surrounds us is not something outside of us, we are part of everything. We feel it is our duty to help preserve the environment because we are part of this ecosystem and the survival of this ecosystem depends on our ability to understand it and the way we behave. Not to mention, our own survival depends on this ecosystem just as much as it depends on us.
At IncrEdible, we invite you to join us discover the nature that surrounds us and that we are all part of, to work together for understanding and to help it to thrive.
Forgotten Weeds project
Forgotten Weeds (Ierburi uitate) is the personal project of graphic designer Mona Petre and it started following her curiosity about the Romanian names of some of the plants she was discovering for the first time while she was living in London. When she first ate broad-beans (or fava), she didn’t know what they were, let alone their Romanian name. She believes that traditional foods and the way of cooking them are gradually disappearing because we are forgetting about key ingredients such as seeds, grains, sprouts, roots, fruits and flowers that are not found in the local supermarket.
When she got back to Bucharest, slowly but surely, she started studying the local, seasonal plants and she started gathering them both virtually, online, on her food blog, but also out in the real world, foraging around Bucharest and, on occasion, throughout the entire country. She hopes more and more organic suppliers will diversify their offerings to include plants that grow spontaneously in the fields and some of the pre-industrial cultivated herbs like ferns, turnips, alfalfa (lucerne), sorghum, amaranth and many many more.
Brad-beans (fava) and potatoes
How would you say foraging and your interest in plants over the last few years has changed you?
I used to work in an office like most urban people do nowadays, but after years spent inside at one point I started to feel trapped and found myself longing for the sun and open spaces. It wasn’t easy to switch from my desk work as a graphic designer to something that allowed me that kind of freedom, but my new found passion for botany eventually lead me to new experiences and a more active life. I quit my job five years ago— and took the path of freelancing—and I now have more time to explore and learn new things everyday about the edible plants and the spontaneous flora.
Acacia flower pancakes – Robinia Pseudoacacia
What do you think about this notion of plant behavior? Did it become obvious to you in any particular way through your work?
The plant behavior is, in short, what plants do in response to their environment. For most of us they might seem static, but in fact plants have a wide range of morphological or physiological responses to events. For example, some plants turn their inflorescence to face the sun, others start to close before rain and, probably the most obvious because of the rapid movement in this case, others will curl up at your touch. But the most important plant behavior, for me, must be their adaptability to climate changes that we can observe taking place right now in the span of our lifetime.
Could you name one thing that might encourage people to get out into nature and take a better look at it?
The natural environment is more and more at risk from our careless lifestyles. We tend to think that nature will always be there and that lush green forests, clear springs and breathtaking meadows full of flowers will be there anytime we want to go out of the city but that’s simply not the case anymore. I encourage people to go, explore and realize how important it is to try and take an active part in the efforts to preserve and protect our precious nature.
What’s the most exciting plant you’ve discovered lately and how did you use it in a recipe?
Foraged plants entered my diet a few years ago and through experimenting they are now an integrated part of what I cook and what I eat. It’s hard to pinpoint just one plant, as I have favourites in each season, but I can name the ones I use most—the ramsons (Allium ursinum) I pick in early spring and use fresh as long as their season lasts, but I also freeze the leaves and use them all year long in sauces, casseroles or with pasta dishes. I pick medicinal plants for tea and create my own blends. I also pick wild fruit: barberry, sloes, cornelian cherry, crabapples or wild cherries, to name but a few, and I make jams, sauces or cordials. Also, flowers for many kinds for homemade fizzy sodas—wild roses, elderberry, staghorn or black locust.