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Wildcrafting Your Way to Better Eye Health

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has designated February as Macular Degeneration Awareness Month. In this article I interview Suzanne Tabert, one of Puget Sound's leading experts on wild medicinal plants. We discuss three abundant, easily identifiable, and easy to harvest wild plants that are rich in the nutrients that prevent macular degeneration.

Wildcrafting Your Way to Better Eye Health

The Age Related Eye Disease (AREDS) Study demonstrated the value of antioxidants, zinc, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin in the prevention of macular degeneration. Many of the plants growing around us are rich in these nutrients. To learn more about this, I interviewed Suzanne Tabert, one of Puget Sound’s experts on medicinal and nutritional uses of wild plants.

Tabert runs the Seattle-based Cedar Mountain Herb School. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, the American Herb Association, and is adjunct faculty at Bastyr University. Tabert has been teaching herbal medicine and wildcrafting for 30 years.

CK: Tell me about wildcrafting.

ST: “Wildcrafting means harvesting plants in their natural habitat. You get to go to the beach, rivers and mountains to harvest wild plants.”

CK: What are your favorite plants in Puget Sound?

ST: “I am a huge fan of willow, dandelion, cottonwood, and nettle; all of which are ubiquitous in the Northwest, and easy to recognize.”

Tabert’s number one rule of wildcrafting: safety. “it is of utmost importance to be absolutely clear about the identity of a plant before you harvest it” After safety, Tabert emphasizes responsible wildcrafting. Harvest out of the sight of hikers to discourage unknowledgeable people from joining in. Be aware of how common or rare the plant is, and how long it takes to replace if harvested. Harvest only enough for your needs. Finally, Tabert recommends: “A good wildcrafter can turn around and look at an area they have just harvested and not be able to tell that they were there. Be mindful of using a light touch.”

Suzanne Tabert

Nettle and Dandelion

Turning her attention to macular degeneration, Tabert begins with the antioxidants in nettle and dandelion.

“Antioxidants are a huge group of constituents that can be anti inflammatory, anti allergic, can help protect cells from damage, and can repair damaged proteins within cells. Dandelion and nettle are two of my favorite plants that are nutrient rich and antioxidant rich. They also contain zinc and copper."

Tabert also notes that nettle, like dandelion, contains other constituents that might help the retina. For example, she notes that nettle contains kaempherol, which is antispasmodic and vasodilating, and may be neuroprotective.

Tabert says “One thing to know about nettles is that we harvest them before they flower. Nettle typically flowers in the Pacific Northwest in March.” The best time to harvest nettle is in March, when it is less than knee high. Tabert notes that nettle seeds can be harvested later in the summer. “Nettle seeds contain zinc, copper, amino acids, proteins, polyphenols, and other antioxidants.”

How to prepare nettle? “In the spring you can make nettle pesto quite easily. You can also make a nettle seed vinegar. You crush the seeds and fill up a jar 1/2 way with the seeds, and fill the jar up with vinegar.” Tabert advises allowing this to mature for 3 weeks. This can be used for a salad dressing, dipping sauce, or barbecue sauce. Nettle can also be dried, or blanched and frozen. The goodness of nettle can also be concentrated into a medicinal tincture.

Nettle is one of the only plants you can identify in the middle of a moonless night with your eyes closed. Just brush the back of your hand against a leaf. You will only need to do this one time! Thankfully, crushing, blending, blanching, or cooking will take away the sting. Take the simple precaution of wearing long sleeves and dishwashing gloves when you harvest it and process it. That sting is there to protect a really juicy, nutritious plant from getting eaten by everything!

Dandelion leaves are available fresh all year round. Tabert recommends making dandelion leaves into pesto or simply serving them as a tasty salad green.

Himalayan and Evergreen Blackberry

Tabert next turns her attention to another abundant Puget Sound wild plant that is rich in antioxidants: Himalayan Blackberry. She says that Himalayan Blackberry, and closely related even tastier Evergreen Blackberry, can be found everywhere around you and often intermingle. Finding them isn't a problem- blacksberries are hard to avoid in Western Washington in the late summer! These are the berries that grow everywhere- in your backyard, along paths, next to sports fields, and along the road; the ones that will bust through your kitchen window if you don't cut them back! Many other berries can also be consumed for their antioxidant qualities, - including thimbleberry, blueberry, salmonberry, salal, and raspberry.

Getting Started

Never eaten your weeds before? Start with a small step. You can:

- Add a few dandelion leaves to the next salad you make.

- Put on your dishwashing gloves and pick enough nettle leaves to make a delicious pesto.

- Pick a few of the Oregon blackberries that grow literally everywhere in September and pop them into your mouth.

- Spend a pleasant sunny summer day with a friend picking your own berries at one of the many blueberry or raspberry farms in the area.

Dandelion leaves are available fresh whenever you want them. For a year round supply of nettle, grind the leaves up with a little water and make ice cubes. For Blackberry or blueberry, the berries themselves can be frozen, or they can be juiced in a cider press and frozen as ice cubes. Keeping a year round supply of these plants frozen in small quantities will allow you to make a super healthy vision preserving smoothie all year round.

The Lowly Dandelion, the Diabolical Nettle, and the Voracious Blackberry. These three common and easy to identify plants are not necessarily noxious weeds. They are bursting with the nutrients your body needs to protect your eyes and to stay healthy in general. They love you- and are waiting for you to love them too!

This spring, when you look out at your backyard and see those joyful yellow dots of sunshine popping up in your backyard, celebrate their arrival by picking and eating them! While you are at it, blow a few seeds around to ensure a colorful and nutritious lawn next year! Appreciate the purple blessing of your wild Blackberries, and thank the Nettle when it stings your hand to remind you that it wants you to harvest it. Wildcrafting is a great way to get food and exercise, preserve your vision, and just be healthier in general!

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