Don’t tread on tea! Foraging for MN native brews at Eastman Nature Center

Last Saturday, Elm Creek Park Reserve’s nature center encouraged a group of visitors to strip their prairie plants of their leaves. This is directly contrary to park policy, but the group was given a pass; led by Naturalist Miranda Jones, they were on the hunt for the best cup of tea the Elm Creek Park flora could offer.

What started as a drop in class at Eastman Nature Center in Maple Grove where passersby could sample teas made from the leaves of the park has turned into a full blown workshop. Previously, Jones had foraged, dried, and brewed the teas herself, offering her work to visitors a few days a year. But then the questions started rolling in.

“ ‘Where do I find the plants, where do I collect the plants, how do I preserve them?’ ” said Jones. “So I decided to do a workshop to better answer those questions.”

Visitors to the Eastman Nature Center recently got a chance to be wild tea harvesters. With naturalist Miranda Jones as their guide, participants picked, washed dried, and sampled brewed leaves from plants that make up Minnesota’s native landscape. Here, raspberry leaves are harvested. (Photo by Alaina Rooker)

ROOTED IN HISTORY

Historically, early settlers and native Americans relied heavily on plants to cure colds, digestive problems, heal wounds and bites, even curb addiction. Teas, salves, and other concoctions were the vehicle to get the goods inside the body.

Take the dandelion: That pretty, uber-contagious weed that finagles its way into every Minnesotan’s backyard in the summer is actually prevalent today because settlers purposely introduced it here. While one may take this moment to quietly forsake their ancestors, naturalists would politely disagree; The dandelion was (and still can be) used as a natural remedy to treat infection, aid bile and liver problems, and provide a good source of vitamins A, C, K, and minerals calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese.

A ground up dandelion root brewed tastes just like coffee, and is helpful for those who are trying to reduce their caffeine intake, Jones said.

Tea hunters Allister (left) and his brother Adrien Ferlaak show off their goldenrod leaves and cheesy smiles while out foraging at Elm Creek Park Reserve. (Photo by Alaina Rooker)

Flowers and leaves taste more herbal, but offer up the same benefits.

Stinging nettle, another natural annoyance whose direct contact with skin can cause a brief burning rash, is also tea friendly. Once in contact with boiling water, the hairs of the nettle lose their ability to “sting,” and a quick pour through a fine strainer will produce a tea good for treating urinary problems, allergies, hay fever, chronic pain, and acne, depending on what part of the plant is used.

At the end of September, many plants are no longer prime for the picking, Jones said. Early summer is much more ideal. However, the fine weather the day of the workshop got participants the chance to go out and forage the last few leafy morsels of the season.

Jones offered tips in preparation of the trip outside, and for any future foraging expeditions:

•Know where to go. State parks prohibit collecting or disturbing plant life, and many other local hiking paths can be sprayed or fertilized. Elm Creek Park does not allow plant collecting outside of a class setting, and park-goers will be fined if caught.

•Find a picking pal. Having a second opinion and a helping hand is always beneficial, especially when dealing with more volatile plants.

•Avoid roadsides and parking lots. Emission fumes from vehicles can stick to tiny hairs on plants, covering it with pollutants. Jones likened breathing and consuming those fumes to secondhand smoke. While washing the plant may get rid of some of the pollutants, it is safest to find an area more secluded from traffic.

•Break out the books. When identifying a plant the first few times, cross reference with a handful of guides. That way, differing descriptions will help ensure a lookalike plant isn’t being mistaken for the real thing.

•Take in moderation. While leaving plants intact are unavoidable, picking a few leaves or making a clear cut a few inches from the top increases the likelihood of the plants survival. If the root must be removed, make sure there are other plants that will be left intact to keep the species from being wiped out in the area.

•Keep it legal. Like mentioned previously, many native plants earned their place in reference books for their importance to early medicine in North America, but later overuse has nearly destroyed the species. Double check that the plant at the top of your list is not protected or illegal to harvest.

•Consider a tea garden. Native plants tend to be hardy and (no surprisingly) well-adapted to a Minnesota environment. However, they also have a knack of spreading quickly and may choke out other plants. As long as they are contained, there is no need to worry about questions of legality and pollution.

Three Rivers Park naturalist Miranda Jones shows sumac to the class. Sumac berries are best infused in cold water for a few days (instead of a few minutes in boiling water) to preserve its high vitamin C content. (Photo by Alaina Rooker)

TEA TIME

In all, the forage at Elm Creek Park yielded leaves from goldenrod, wild raspberry, and hyssop, which were brought in for washing, drying, and taste testing. Younger participants wrinkled their noses when they smelled the licorice-flavor on the underside of a hyssop leaf.

After picking, foraged leaves and stems were washed in water. Depending on the contact the plant has had with pollutants and fertilizers, white vinegar or hydrogen peroxide may also be used to remove anything still stuck on the plant. The leaves were then laid on paper towels to dry.

The drying process may take a few weeks, and Jones told the class to avoid Ziploc bags as they trap condensation and produce mold, and also metal racks as they may infuse with the tea and create a metallic taste when brewed. Foraged leaves and stems don’t necessarily need to be dried either; some people prefer the taste of fresh leaves over dried. Regardless, the leaves should be broken down into small pieces for best brewing.

The class got the opportunity to try the fruits of their labor and chat with each other about their experiences. Many had a lot to say about how the class provided a unique opportunity to learn about U.S. history, native plant identification, and tea-making all in two and a half hours.

“We’ve lost a lot about our natural world,” said class participant Susan Farris. “To reclaim a bit of that is so important.”