If you are wanting to learn about/play with/try out a plant which is new to you, here are some suggestions.
Identification (this is really, really important!)
Take a clear photograph and make a note of leaves (simple, multiple etc.), stem, colours, flower construction to check with a good botanical guide or an online identification group you trust. Better still, take a friend with you who already knows the plant and can confirm possible identities.
Everyone has their favourite plant identification book. Many people recommend Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, or Francis Rose’s The Wild Flower Key. I was brought up with the Oxford Book of Wild Flowers. Online, after Wikipedia, Henriette Kress has some really good identification photos on hersite. There is also the Botanical Society of Great Britain and Ireland’s Find Wild Flowers site
If your new plant friend is classified as poisonous, don't play any further for the moment. Don’t think just because you are fit and healthy, poisons won’t work on you. The plant may not be immediately fatal but it would be silly to try. You can’t rely on a colour to dissuade you but names often give a clue e.g. henbane, wolfsbane (monkshood).
The clue is in the Old English word “bane” which means to cause death or destroy life i.e. deadly poisonous. If you want a diverting description of how monkshood (aconitum napellus) kills you read Brother Cadfael, (Monkshood) or watch an episode of Midsomer Murder (Garden of Death).
The Poison Garden’s website is a useful resource if you want to know more about such plants. Two good books are Fred Gillam’s Poisonous Plants in Great Britain and Chris Howkins’ Poisonous Plants in Britain, A Celebration.
When you know a little more about a plant you may discover its poisonous nature has more to do with preparation and dosage. Christopher Hedley once argued there was no such thing as a poisonous herb. For example, American pokeroot has long been used as a very helpful lymph mover. The root is tinctured and administered in drop dosages. Some US herbalists who know the plant well, talk about swallowing poke fruits whole like taking a tablet because if you chew them, they are poisonous. Similarly, mistletoe tincture is another drop dose but brought my high blood pressure down really well.
Getting to know your new plant
When you have the correct identification and know it is not harmful, there are several steps you can now take.
- How does the sight of the plant make you feel? Happy? Sad? Excited? Repulsed?
- What does it look like? What colour is it? What colour are the leaves? The flowers? Is anywhere a different shade, variegated? Any spots?
- What does it smell like? Do the flowers smell different from the leaf? If you have access to the root, does it have a different or similar aroma? (Remember if you are viewing the plant in the wild in the UK it is illegal to dig it up. If it’s growing on private land, ask the landowner’s permission before any kind of harvesting.)
- What does it feel like? Smooth? Hairy? Silky? Rough? Slimy? Is the top of the leaf different from the underside?
- What does it taste like? Chew a leaf. Where does it hit your tongue (front - sweet, sides = sour, back =bitter)? How long after you have chewed it does the taste hit you? How does it make your tongue/mouth feel? Is it astringent, does it make your mouth pucker up? Does it encourage saliva? Does it release mucilage so you are left with a soft ball of gunk in your mouth as you chew. Chew a flower. Is it sweet? Sour? Bitter? Does chewing the leaf have any other effects on you?
- What does it sound like? Can you hear anything special when the wind blows or if it is thrown on a fire?
Using your plant
- Are you itching or bleeding anywhere externally? Try a spit poultice on the wound i.e. chew up a leaf and spit it onto that part of your skin.
- Pick one large or several small leaves every day for a week and eat them raw. Note how they taste, whether the taste changes after a few days, if you like it and if the day comes when you can’t face eating it any more.
- Make a tea from freshly gathered leaves (about a good handful). Chop it up and infuse covered for ten minutes with just boiled water, strain and drink. What colour is it? What does it taste like? Try it with a drop of honey. If you're serious about learning its properties, drink the tea three times a day for a week. What happens?
- Dry some of the aerial parts so you have them stored when the plant is no longer available.
- If you want to learn more, make a tincture, vinegar, elixir or infused honey. Use them as appropriate. Make an infused oil and use it on your skin.
- If you want to know your herb on an energetic level sit with it, make a flower essence and use this during mindful meditation. Make a note of what the plant tells you. Take the plant into the bath with you for a long soak.
- At the appropriate season, learn more about the plant root and/or bark.
- Use your plant material or extract in combinations with other herbs your know. How does it react? How does it change the efficacy of the mixture? What do you notice?
Learning more about your plantRead books or articles about your new plant. Learn and make notes about what others have noticed. Does this tie in with what you have noticed?
Talk to other people about your plant. What are their stories and experiences? Are they similar or very different from your own?
Watch its life cycle. What other plants or animals grow near it? What other plants or animals make it unhappy?
If a plant suddenly gets under your feet and is there every time you turn around, whether you know what it is or not, it’s probably trying to tell you something and it is often wise to listen!