Weird wild and woodland wemedies

A conversation with a young acquaintance a month ago prompted this post (and the fact that Facebook said people are missing me … but I know you can’t trust an algorithm …they’ll tell you anything). We were on a wagon ride and when we went through some woods she said “That’s usnea, it has a lot of health benefits.” She was pointing at moss clinging to some failing trees … a moss that I know as Old Man’s Beard. We had been previously been chatting about beekeeping and I’d told her about Sandra’s and my interest in propolis, a hive product with medicinal uses. So I thought I’d write about these wild, local and more or less free products.
Usnea (OMB) is a lichen, which means it is a combination of fungus and alga …the fungus gets nutrients from the failing tree, the alga does the photosynthesis. The usnic acid in OMB is effective against some bacteria and is used in an infusion for sore throats and to treat skin infections. Herbal sites speak of making cough lozenges, tea, gargles and using it “straight” as a wound dressing. To make a tincture, soak a jar full in vodka for a couple of months and then strain off the infused liquid. Interesting digressions: OMB is high in carbohydrates; deer love it, and when you cut OMB festooned fir trees as I just did, making the tops available, the deer are all over them for the nutrition. It could also be survival food for desperate people. Usnea, we are told, also works as an informal air pollution indicator. Wikipedia says: Usnea is very sensitive to air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide.[11] Under bad conditions they may grow no larger than a few millimetres, if they survive at all. Where the air is unpolluted, they can grow to 10–20 cm long. It can sometimes be used as a bioindicator, because it tends to only grow in those regions where the air is clean[12], and of high quality. What has Pictou County got to say about that? Now for propolis. It is a hive product made mainly of tree bud resins collected by honeybees. Bees use it as a kind of disinfectant, to stick things together, to mummify dead mice or snakes that they can’t lug out of the hive but mainly as a barrier; for instance, one of the meds I put in my hives is not popular with the bees and they will create a little Trump-like wall to keep the vapours from the med from spreading. I scrape up propolis when I find usable amounts and save and sometimes use it. Warm it is pliable and sticky and looks kind of like toffee; frozen it is brittle, so I have frozen it, ground it to powder in an old coffee grinder and soaked it in overproof rum for a month or so then filtered off the liquid which can be used as an additive to teas, I’m told, though we used it in a neutral cream to make a salve that seems to help clear up rashes and cold sores. I’ve also chewed raw lumps of propolis for relief from a sore in my mouth and from an abscessed tooth. Propolis based toothpaste is available ..takes some looking… but it is supposed to promote oral health. Big pharma is interested in monetizing cures, but here are a couple of freebies. Save your money to buy Phillips honey and wild blueberries …health benefits there, too, I am told.

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I went out to dump the furnace ash last week and saw these ragged looking flowers on a bush at the top of the bank. They are the remains of witchhazel flowers shrivelling up. Witchhazel is a real contrarian. It blooms in October and I missed the full bloom (shown at right). My honeybees are all tucked in for the winter at that time, so I wondered what pollinated a flower in late October and early November. Apparently witch hazel is pollinated by a moth. Hope the moth had a fur coat this October ‘cos it was frostier than usual. Wichhazel is part of folk medicine in both Europe and North America and is the basis for soothing lotions and ointments. Apparently you can chop up and crush stems and boil them to make a potion. HAHAHA (evil laugh). Wordy factoid: I’d assumed that the late blooming habit and its healing properties were the source of “witch” in its name. Wrong! “witch” comes from Middle English “wiche”, which comes from Old English “wice” which means bendy or flexible. So much for the occult.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Aster

Asters, the blue ones, are about the last flower to bloom, before falls shades off into winter. The honeybees are packing away the pollen from these flowers, maybe nectar, too, but pollen is the key thing for them. They will want to start raising young next February before there is any pollen available to them, so they need to have a stockpile going in to winter so they can get started on raising their replacements in late winter. Pollen is the protein; honey is the carbs: both are needed to raise larvae into replacement bees for the long-lived winter bees that “hold the fort” from now until April/May. My mother used to call these asters Michaelmas daisies (pronounced “mikkelmus”). September 29 is St. Michael’s day and it was also her birthday. She was not Catholic … I think she was a practicing atheist …but the day and the flowers were special to her. I just learned a rhyme from Wikipedia: “The Michaelmas daisies, among dead weeds, Bloom for St Michael’s valorous deeds …” and the rhyme confirms the observation that these flowers are amongst the last of the season. For blueberries and honey check out

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Bee-friendly plants series: Borage

I took these two photos yesterday, Sept. 23.
These are borage flowers, volunteers at the edge of our vegetable garden. One picture has a bumblebee, the other a honeybee. It was late afternoon and the sun went behind a maple while I was there. As soon as the garden was in shadow, the temperature dropped and the honeybees abandoned the borage … now below their operating temperature, but the bumblebee in its fur coat kept on gathering. What I found pretty amazing was that the borage, which started blooming in July, was still going in late September. It is a terrific honey plant, with very sweet nectar. It is an annual. Sometimes it volunteers, sometimes it doesn’t. It flowers and produces seed all season, so there is not, to my knowledge, any simple way of collecting seed. Seed is expensive. Check the catalogue prices. Scary. If anyone knows any good ways to collect seed, and one would need quite a bit to do the bees any good, please share your ideas and methods.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Aster

Asters are in bloom now, and will persist into the fall. They are the last pollen and nectar feast for bees and butterflies and their seeds will become food for birds. The name aster comes from the latin “astra” meaning star and the flowers are star shaped. Reference sites list dozens and dozens of varieties of aster adapted to different growing conditions: roadsides, swamps, woodland shade, fields. They all look pretty much the same to me and I think they are all bee-friendly. I took these pictures half a mile from where my hives are located, and every clump had one or more bees. Bees use their dance language to communicate direction and strength of pollen and nectar sources so fellow workers can efficiently collect without having to go on random, undirected collecting trips. Timely woodsy factoid: According to the authors of Up North Again, Ojibway hunters camouflaged their scent by smoking aster rootlets to simulate the scent given off by deer. Maybe there’s another cottage industry to rival wacky tabacky? Blueberries available from now on frozen in 5 pound boxes: $15.00 each, three boxes for $40.00 Eleven litre ice cream tubs of juice or wine berries for $10.00. Less than 5k from the Masstown market. Follow the signs.

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Bee-friendly plant series: Goldenrod

Apparently there are over 100 species of goldenrod. It is part of the aster family. Late bloomers all. Beekeepers notice that goldenrod appears first, often in early August, endures on into September, and the honey season for us finishes with white and then blue asters that sometimes bloom into October. Godlenrod is popular with bees in general, but honeybees seem fussy and prefer certain types. They seem to favour the type with the droopy fronds. Sometimes goldenrod is the make it or break it honey crop and bees can fill supers with it. But better that the beekeeper take the goldenrod honey and replace it with sugar syrup. Why? Goldenrod and aster honey granulates readily and it contains solids (ash) which are not digestible for bees. If bees are confined in their hives in a cold January/February with a larder full of goldenrod honey they can starve or get sick. They need water to access granulated honey (ice and snow won’t do) and they need to have cleansing flights (read: poop) to eliminate the solids in the goldenrod honey. If, because of the cold, they can’t get out for a cleansing flight, they can get dyssentry and die. In a cold winter I’ve occasionally seen strong hives, dead with surplus granulated honey that they could not use. Many new Maritime beekeepers want to leave honey for the bees …that’s what bees eat, right? But it’s good to remember that there would be no honeybees in Atlantic Canada if not for beekeepers.. Honeybees here are above their northern range and honeybees are not even native to North America …they are an introduced species. So it may seem weird to take goldenrod honey away from the bees and give them sugar syrup to winter on, but that is one way to have live honeybees in the spring and not face that most discouraging March discovery …a dead out. (Historical factoid: before and during times of wartime shortage, processes were developed to extract latex from goldenrod foliage to make rubber to keep the war effort rolling. I think similar efforts were made with the latex from dandelion stems.) U-pick closed for the year. Our blueberry season is over, but our freezer room is full if you’d like to buy berries. 5 pounds for $15.00, 3 boxes for $40.00. Buy nine before we run out and the tenth box is free.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Elderberry

Elderberry comes in two distinct types: black elder, sambucus canadensis (sambuca in the health food store cleanses) and red elder or stinking elder. They bloom and ripen at different times. The stinking elder is a pesky weed-of-the-woods that pops up unwanted when you’re trying to clear land. Its crushed leaves and cut stems give off a rank smell, hence its name. It blooms in April and May and fruits with red berries in June and July. It is food for native bees and wildlife. Black elder blooms in July after most native bushes have flowered. The white flat flower heads, up to ten inches in diameter, contain hundreds of tiny flowers. These flower heads show up against the prevailing green of summer foliage as you are driving by. We used to note the bush locations in our wine making days so we could find them again in September when the fruit was ripe. The black elder has its brief flamboyance and then the flowers drop and it fades into the woodsy wallpaper and if you don’t note where it is you’ll never find it again to pick the fruit, which is great for wine and and apple-elderberry pie. My wife tells me that elder flower cordial made from the fragrant blossoms is now popular because it figured into Megan Markel’s wedding. Get picking …though I’m afraid the bloom may be down by the time this post appears. Honeybees like black elder for the pollen. Around here it is a minor honey plant but a good people plant. Miscellaneous factoids: (1) the hollow stems of both species are good for whistles and pea shooters, (2) pick the clusters of berries and freeze them in a plastic bag. Once they are frozen you can bash them around to detach the berries from the stems for food use.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Birdsfoot trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil is a member of the pea family. Its bright, cheerful, yellow flowers brighten the edge of many roads…I wonder if the DOT plants it? If so, good on them. A folk name for it is bacon and eggs. It is a perennial and is sometimes used for forage, but I’m guessing it would be more use as a forage before it flowers. Bees love it. It is generous with both nectar and pollen. It has figured as a component in pollination seed mixes I have bought. With its long blooming period …May to September… it is very bee friendly. Seed companies recommend care in preparing a seed bed should you choose to grow birdsfoot trefoil for the bees. The bed should be smooth before broadcasting and rolled after because the seed germinates poorly if it is deeper than 1/4 inch. The good news is that it will thrive in poor soils. This seems like a good plant for honeybees, and with the long bloom period it will help bumblebees complete their life cycle. Identification factoids: the “birdsfoot” comes from the pattern of the seed pods which become apparent after blooming(see picture); the “trefoil” comes from the three leaves (see picture); one identifier is from the fall, the other from the growing season.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Linden

Basswood (linden or lime in England) is a deciduous tree with heart-shaped leaves. It is usually grown as an ornamental or a row tree in our part of the world. It can grow very tall (20-40 m.) and can live for centuries. It is very popular for urban plantings because it is hardy and pollution resistant. The bonus is that it is an excellent bee tree and if there are enough trees (as there often are in cities) a honey crop can be made. It blooms in mid to late July and its fragrance is wonderful … we can step outside on a cool July night into a wonderful perfume. Fifteen years ago I had a planting spree: oaks, ash and basswood. Deer eat the big oak buds and make the trees crooked, the ash died, but the basswoods grew and the deer didn’t touch them (too busy eating oaks?). I’d recommend basswood as a deer proof, pollinator friendly planting …you just have to chase them for a few years with pruners …they sucker a lot and think they want to be a bush and you have to teach them to be a tree. The wood is soft and stable and prized by carvers; the blossoms can be collected for a tea; the honey is flavourful. All is good! Problem: it is hard to grow basswood from seed …most of my plantings came from an ancient tree dude who let me dig volunteers on his property …thank-you George Labelle. I think the MacPhail Woods in PEI sells basswood. The spring frosts seem to have done in our basswood blossoms this year. The pictures in this post come from some beautiful basswood in front of the DeCoste Centre in Pictou. Fashion factoid: the Ainu people of Japan wove clothing from fibres extracted from the inner bark of basswood.

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Bee-friendly plants series: Fireweed

Fireweed is a tall, showy pink-flowered plant of the mid to late summer. It is in bloom now and will be into August. It is a pioneer plant, one of the first to colonize disturbed ground, whatever the cause of the disturbance: road work, construction, clear cut, forest fire. It gets its name from the fact that it will populate land after a fire, helping hold the soil until other pioneer species get started and continue the reclamation. It is a perennial and typically thrives for about five years in disturbed ground until the other species take over. It produces lots of small wind-borne seed that are carried by a kind of wispy, white “wool”. I’ve collected the “wool” in late summer and tried to start them …no success. Bees love it; it is a bridge plant helping bees over the late July, early August dearth until golden rod gets going. In the right circumstances they can make a honey crop off it. A few years after we started beekeeping in 1973, we learned of a smart move by Endel Karmo who was then the provincial apiarist and beekeeper. In 1976 there had been a wildfire that burned 13,000 hectares between Hopewell and Trafalgar –“one of the largest wildfires we’ve ever had,” said Walter Fanning. Endel, I was told, saw an opportunity in the disaster and moved his hives there in subsequent years to make a fireweed honey crop. It pays to pay attention. I’ve also heard of a bee club in BC that has a communal electrified, well-fenced yard in forestry/bear country where members can put their hives out to fireweed. Fireweed is Yukon’s floral emblem – which speaks to its wide distribution and ability to thrive in our short, long-dayed summers. Foody factoid: Centuries ago fireweed leaves were used to make a tea in Russia (think Labrador tea in Canada) and the tea called Russian tea or Ivan Chai was even exported. Wikipedia says it is still consumed in Russia. Makes one want to try it.

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