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Feb. 6, 2023

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Foragers gather goods from the ground in Northwest

Foraging as you wander through woods provides new flavors, medicinal benefits

By , Columbian staff writer
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Eileen Cowen of Vancouver walks down a road at Shillapoo Wildlife Area to forage for berries, mushrooms and other goods.
Eileen Cowen of Vancouver walks down a road at Shillapoo Wildlife Area to forage for berries, mushrooms and other goods. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

At the end of Northwest Lower River Road, the pavement comes to a halt, but a worn foot trail continues to a magnificent white oak.

On a frigid, damp November afternoon, overcast skies illuminated the Shillapoo Wildlife Area’s green and gold plains. Rain-soaked soil released a potent blend of earthy smells uncommon in well-paved areas.

Frogs, deer, geese, ducks and garter snakes found solace in the wetlands, whether by ponds, sloughs or shrubs. Among them, Eileen Cowen of Vancouver strolled in the tall grass foraging for ground goods.

Shielded with a cap and a rain jacket suited for moderate rainfall, Cowen swung a knapsack off her shoulder to put rose hips inside.

To test its ripeness, she squished the bulb between her fingers and watched as stringy pulp mixed with seeds flowed onto her skin. Harvesting a bunch could yield a decent amount of rosewater, infused toner or delicious tea, she said.

Searching for plants, particularly edible ones, is something Cowen was certain she could do for hours, rain or shine. The former was proved true, as her clothes became so saturated with water, they seemed hydrophobic — the rain droplets rushed to the ground rather than grapple with Cowen’s garments.

Despite the rain, Cowen contentedly rummaged through shrubs and branches to uncover snowberries or galls. Her gaze frequently hovered over the ground, searching for mushrooms.

There are rules, though. Never take more than 25 percent of what the plant yields, acknowledge the heritage of the land, and extensively research a plant before consuming or using it, Cowen said, who holds an associate’s degree in herbalism. Before treading public or park land, become acquainted with state laws that may prohibit or require a permit for harvesting plants.

“I have found solace knowing that there’s intentionality with picking plants,” she said, twirling a twig between her fingers. “I think it pulls you into this (idea) you’re a part of this bigger mural that exists; evolving here with plants that evolved together.”

Cowen is only one seed in a crowd of many who use foraging, whether in rural or urban landscapes, as an escape from the fast-paced motion of society.

Some of those who participate, including Cowen, often tout “forest bathing,” or simply being in nature, as an essential pursuit to living life wholly. There’s plenty to discover in a dense forest or cracked alleyway with a field book and one’s senses, she said.

Ashley Radtke of Gaston, Ore., raises her children, Kylie, 10, and Noah, 8, with this principle in mind.

Radtke frequently recollects childhood memories spent playing outdoors with friends or riding a bike to the point of exhaustion. To ensure similar youthful adventures for Kylie and Noah, Radtke created a goal for them to match their screen time with outdoor time, eventually introducing the family to foraging.

“Once we moved (to Gaston) and the kids wanted to touch and eat everything, I realized it was really important to know what was around us,” Radtke said with a chuckle. Fortunately, she found a guide to teach them about local flora.

On an early midweek excursion, Erika Ironwood, owner of Craft and Cauldron, led Radtke and her kids through Mount Tabor Park in Portland to demonstrate finding treasures in unassuming places. The habitat is rife with native plants and large canopies, painting the hillside with its green boughs and chestnut soil.

During the walk, the self-described “wildcraft doula” pointed to multiple plants along the way: blackberry bushes, common mallow, dock, stinky Bob, Solomon’s seal and rose hips — to name a few.

But it all began with Oregon grape.

Ironwood guided the group toward a shrub with shiny clusters of hollylike leaves. Critters ranging from butterflies to raccoons feed and seek refuge in Oregon grape, she said, which grows abundantly throughout the Pacific Northwest. As she reached for the leaves, Ironwood listed its properties that alleviate pain and treat infections — something she knew from experience.

When reoccurring tooth pains presented issues for Ironwood, who at that time was a young, single mother, she couldn’t seek treatment because she didn’t have insurance. Instead, a cost-friendly visit to a naturopath landed her Oregon grape powder and, when mixed into a paste and applied to affected spots, dulled her sharp pain to numb aches.

“It gives you a sense of agency because you’re never without resources,” Ironwood said. “I want to connect the people that are most in need of them. Whatever that means.”

So, Ironwood guided the Radtkes along Mount Tabor’s winding paths and shared advice on how to differentiate the “tasty from the icky.” She told stories about making dirt-infused field tacos, or meat slices with foraged leaves and seeds folded in between, and laughed when plants’ Latin names didn’t come to mind.

“We have the whole world in our hands, why do you need to keep that in your head?” Ironwood exclaimed, while also highlighting necessary knowledge to keep in mind. “It’s not a sexy motto, but I always say on my walks: verify, verify, verify.”

At times during the walk, Kylie and Noah’s restlessness bested them, leading the duo to climb gnarled trees nearby. When gravity convinced them to come down, they excitedly plucked large leaves from bushes, which they placed in their packs and jacket pockets to study later in the warmth.

The adventure ended in Mount Tabor’s wide basketball court that had weeds growing at its edges. A few paces away, a stone wall held treats stored in the roots of licorice ferns. Once dug out, Ironwood brushed off forest bits and instructed the group to chew the root, which revealed a rush of sweetness that was comparable to a piece of candy.

Radtke said nature walks like these and digging through her own yard has made her family more accustomed to being outside, whether picking berries for a snack or finding leaves to dry for tea.

For those who aren’t inclined to meander outdoors, Radtke suggested grabbing a raincoat and going on an adventure.

“Enjoy the rain. Stomp in the puddles. Play in the mud,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to get dirty.”