Homesteading · Primitive/wilderness skills · Sustainable food

Herbs and goats and deer, oh my!

Goat’s milk. A three-day-old fawn. And lots of edible and medicinal plants.

These are the things you missed if you weren’t at The Human Path’s class on Foraging Wild Foods and Medicinals, held on private land in Leander.

As we toured around the property, our teacher, Sam Coffman, identified and described the uses for a number of wild plants on the property.

Proud of the jar of milk obtained from milking a goat
My very first attempt at milking an animal - you'd never know how happy I was from this photo.

Someone asked him how to tell if a plant is edible. He stressed that there’s no mnemonic for doing this, and not to trust people who say to judge by the color of a berry or whatever trick someone tells you. Instead, he described a very slow process in which you follow a series of steps, waiting between five and twenty minutes between each one. First, you touch it and see if there’s any reaction. If all goes well, rub a little of it on your palm. If all goes well, rub some onto more sensitive skin, such as the inside of your wrist. Then you can smell it, and then try applying just a bit to your mucous membranes (lips, nose). Then take a little taste. Finally, if there has been no reaction, you can try to eat it. To be safe, it’s best to cook anything you’re unsure about (if possible), as the heat breaks down many of the alkaloids that make plants unsafe.

With all this being said, Sam noted that if you’re not used to them, wild foods – even the most innocuous of substances such as prickly pears – that are safe to eat and have medicinal qualities, can have negative effects on the body. As I discovered the next day, too much of anything can make you very sick, so you always need to tread lightly.

On to the plant walk. Some of the plants he pointed out included:

  • Mesquite: the leaves are used much like yarrow; they are astringent and hemostatic. The bark and root are mucilaginous. The pods make a great flour, and he shared some flat bread he had baked with mesquite flour. It tasted a lot like carob!
  • Dewberry: the leaves can be used like rasberries and are astringent; make a good tea
  • Western Wild Petunia: leaves are anti-inflammatory, could offer a treatment for poison oak (which was growing nearby); Sam pointed out that often plants that are helpful grow near those that are harmful.
  • Greenbriar: The new growth/tips at the top of the vines are edible; the larger leaves are not.
  • Goldenrod: stalks are good for hand drill fires, has lots of medicinal uses.
  • Ironweed: helps with dysentery
  • Ash Juniper (the ‘cedar’ trees everyone in Central Texas loves to hate): smooth muscle tonic, good for UTIs, but Sam recommended sparing use.
  • Wafer Ash: High in berberine, one of the constituents in goldenseal. Use mainly the wafer seeds and root.
  • Virginia Creeper
  • White Crownsbeard: good for colds and the flu
  • Mustang Grape: the leaf is a good astringent; also useful to wrap foods in to cook them.
  • Yucca: root is edible but must be cooked a very long time. Used raw, the root contains saponins that make a good soap substitute. The seed pod is also edible when cooked. The stalk is good for hand drill fires, and the leaves are good for cordage.
  • Texas Bull Nettle: the ripe seeds are high in protein; smaller, less-fibrous roots are edible. Leaves not good for pot herb like the (unrelated) stinging nettle.
  • Antelope Horns: Related to herb Pleurisy, and is a good respiratory herb; also good for sore throats and is a diuretic.

After the herb walk, I heard a call that it was time to milk the goat, and I was there! I’ve never milked an animal before, and it was surprisingly difficult. Vickie showed me how to grasp the udders, but even then it was hard to get the hang of it. You really have to have strength and a certain amount of muscle memory to tease enough milk out of each squeeze. I managed to fill half a jar before I got tired… it’s definitely something I’d like to do more often but given how much I love goats’ milk (and the cheese you can make with it!) I think I need to work up to it.

And then there was the deer. The day before, Vickie’s dog had apparently spooked the mother, and she ran off, leaving behind her tiny baby. Its future is still uncertain, but for now it’s drinking goat milk and being adorable.

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