Ways of thinking about plants – what my foraging course taught me.

This year I spent six months doing what was billed as a ‘Foraging and Mapping Course’ through the Centre for Community Engagement.  It wasn’t like any other foraging course I had ever been on before.  For a start, it was much longer.  We spent one day every month for six months walking the same paths and seeing how the plants had changed.  There was much more of a focus on identification skills and much less of a focus on listing what we could eat.  In a way, it was much more of a botany course than a foraging course, but of course, to be a successful forager (i.e. one that can recognise food that won’t kill you) you first need to be a botanist.  It made total sense to identify all of the plants and then work out which ones you can eat, rather than knowing only the ones you can eat and being ignorant of everything else.  Plus, only knowing the ‘edible’ species is a very small part of foraging.  Most plants can be used for something – food, medicine, cordage, fuel.

Here’s Anna Richardson, the tutor, teaching us about how to use the points of the compass – north, east, south and west – as a tool to think about where a plant is in its cycle.  This was a really useful shorthand – a trick to make thinking about plants quicker and easier.  Here’s how it works:

North: all of the plant’s energy is in it’s roots, there’s not much to see above the ground, the plant is preparing for new growth.

East: the first shoots are appearing, the plant energy is drawing up from the roots into the body of the plant, there is lots of energy in the leaves.

South: the plant is in full flower, the plant energy is fully in the body of the plant and mostly in the flowers.

West: the plant is setting fruit and preparing to return the energy to the roots.


The compass points correspond loosely to the point in the year – many plants are in North in the winter.  But plants have different cycles.  There are some that flower in the winter, putting them in South during the coldest months.

Anna also taught us about the songlines of the Indigenous Australians.  Songlines are paths across the land that mark the route followed by the ‘creator-beings’ during the Dreamtime.  They’re recorded in songs, stories, dance, and painting.  What’s interesting about songlines is that someone with knowledge of the stories can navigate across the landscape by repeating the words of the song – an intimate connection of landscape and culture.  We were encouraged to name the landscape features that we looked at according to the stories and ‘culture’ that we as a group were generating – like kids naming the places around them because they are mostly ignorant of the ‘real’ names for things.

Thinking about songlines made me think about how I related to the natural world and I realised that, like most things, I related to it through story and narrative.  I extrapolated the idea of songlines from places to plants.  I realised that I was the most successful at identifying plants when I created a story around them. Last winter, when I was dog-sitting in Bolney, I really focused on learning trees without their leaves.  Taking the dog for a walk in the woods, I would make up characters for the trees that I was seeing.  Young ash trees reminded me of a kind of alabaster Statue of Liberty, holding a black torch (the black bud).  Hazel stools, with their leggy formlessness, reminded me of teenagers.  Beech trees were muscly, and frankly rather attractive.  Almost immediately I was able to remember what plants looked like – something that had never happened when I tried to remember how many leaves they had.

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