Out Our Back Door By Tom Baake
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Learn Lots of Local Lore On Guided Nature Hikes   
By Tom Baake
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Stopping to hear more about the wild world is part of the fun.

All this late spring rain has resulted in a bursting-forth of the natural world – including my weedy yard. But I’ll deal with that mess later, right now ’tis the season for guided nature tours, and the chance to maybe learn something useful.

This Saturday, June 24, the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve near Charleston will feature local naturalists Anders Hansen, Mark Petrie and Ashley Russell discussing the edibility and historical significance of native plants on a 4-mile hike on Slough trails, followed by a short session to try some samples, including teas and pickled food, and discuss recipes. Admission is $15; get more information at the Slough’s website (select educational programs).

I caught up with Anders at Seven Devils Brewery in Coos Bay, where he’s head brewer, and asked him if this season’s abundant rain has brought forth anything out of the ordinary. In addition to a plethora of wildflowers, the year is shaping up to be a good one for berries, beginning with thimbleberries. Other varieties are coming on and “should be really juicy,” thanks to this spring’s overly exuberant precipitation, said Anders.

He also mentioned a bumper crop of wild ginger. “Every single one I’ve come across has been in brilliant bloom,” he said, noting they’re “hard to find, they grow low to the ground, often hidden from view.” Identified by its distinctive three petals, long tendrils, and yellow stamen, wild ginger is a “powerful mutagen,” he said, and shouldn’t be eaten, although pioneer accounts mention its use as a substitute for the cultivated variety.

From a culinary standpoint, there are “so many unexplored flavors here . . . not necessarily familiar to today’s palettes,” said Anders. “There are so many root vegetables. We just step over what used to provide food for entire tribes.”

Indeed, the South Coast’s bounty of food in both plant and animal form meant Indians could live in “residential settings” rather than leading a nomadic life in constant search for food, he noted.

Meantime, the modern-day quest for knowledge continues; Anders mentioned he’s located some rare, wild (or “beaked”) hazelnut trees from which he’s looking forward to harvesting nuts when they begin to ripen in late August.

If this Saturday’s event doesn’t fit into your schedule – or the workshop gets filled up – you can of course take your own nature hike and just enjoy looking at the season’s abundance. Even the upper margins of many of our local beaches are bursting forth with a remarkable assortment of wildflowers.

One need not know the name of everything to appreciate it, needless to say. But thanks to a guided walk earlier this season, I’ve been having fun identifying “animal plants”: horsetail and coltsfoot and cow parsnip and piggyback and floxglove and monkey flower and goosefoot (or “inside out plant”) and manroot. Mixed in with them on a typical patch of forest floor are specimens with more familiar names like daisies and asters and buttercups, but watch out for stinging nettle. Too late? Use the plant called dock to sooth nettle irritations.

The litany of names is almost like a song: towering red huckleberries and dusky-fruited Oregon grape; salal and oso berries; red currant and willows; vinemaples and elderberries; yarrow and broadleaf plantain; yerba buena and wild ginger and yellow dogtooth violet; columbine and skunk cabbage and bleeding heart and lily of the valley and three kinds of ferns. And delicate trilliums – please don’t pick them, they take seven years to grow from seed to flower!

It’s more than just names, of course, but also lots of lore. Indians prized certain fern stems and used them as “color lines” in their baskets, and also extracted dyes from roots and bark. Homesteaders found further creative uses for local products, and planted other specimens and trees still in evidence.

What’s also interesting is that the pursuit of understanding goes in both directions, historically speaking. For example, some people focus on making breakthroughs or finding new flavor combinations or discovering heretofore unexplored uses for botanicals, while others follow equally impassioned quests to retain or rediscover traditional knowledge. And you know what’s really neat? They’re usually not only willing to share their knowledge, they’ll even take you for a walk to show you!

(Shopper columnist Tom Baake is author of regional guidebooks.) 
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