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September 26, 2017

Local plant walks show native knowledge

Anna Fialkoff can find something nice to say about any plant. Even poison ivy.

“It has beautiful fall color,” she said.

But that’s about the extent of her praise for the persistent plant, which takes on several different forms – vine, ground cover, shrub – and causes so many people so much discomfort.

Animals, however, said Fialkoff, are usually not allergic to the troublesome weed. Goats actually seem to eat it without a problem.

She did have more positive things to share about other wild plants – natives, weeds and invasive plants – during a recent Native Plant Walk she led at Old Frog Pond Farm, 38 Eldridge Road, in Harvard. A self-described “plant nerd,” Fialkoff grew up in Harvard, and has her graduate degree from Conway School in sustainable landscape design and planning. She is one of the farmers at Old Frog Pond Farm.

Participants in the walk were encouraged by Fialkoff “to feel and touch,” some of the plants.

“I’m a big believer in touching,” she said. “It is part of the identification process of the plant; it helps get ingrained into your psyche what the plant is like.”

As Fialkoff led those in attendance around Old Frog Pond, as well as the farm’s wooded and meadow areas, she pointed out different native species, talking about their medicinal and wildlife benefits.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking about the terms “invasives, pests, exotics,”” she said, noting that the use of certain words to describe plants often echoes one’s feelings about them. Some species, for example, are referred to as “invasives,” but actually are not.

Invasives, such as garlic mustard, crowd out other native plants; the area becomes a “mono-crop,” said Fialkoff.

But other invasives, like the multiflora rose, have some beneficial attributes, she said. The rose hips are high in Vitamin C; it has edible berries, and thick foliage, which hides and protects wildlife.

Another native plant, stinging nettle, sounds from its name as if it might be as troublesome as poison ivy, but actually has more benefits than deficits, she said. The plant, which grows in moist, rich soil (it is especially fond of the earth next to compost piles) has “hairs” with uric acid on their ends, which can cause a rash to unprotected skin.

But Fialkoff said some people intentionally invite the sting of the nettle: arthritis sufferers have found that it lessens their joint pain.

Once the plant is processed (boiled, steamed, dried), Fialkoff said, the nettle loses its “sting” and can be made into a tea, eaten like spinach or made into a pesto. The plant is quite nutritious, high in calcium and iron. Old Frog Pond farmer Linda Hoffman brews the tea in large quantities to spray on her apple orchard, to help boost its immune system, Fialkoff said. The tea is also a good remedy for allergy sufferers.

Jewelweed, an abundantly growing plant with soft, rubbery stems and a bright orange-yellow flower, offers a remedy of another kind: relief from poison ivy’s rash. Fialkoff described how to take the cut stem of the plant and rub the juice of it along the affected area. The plant, including stems, leaves and flowers can also be boiled down, she said, and the resulting orange water frozen in ice cube trays. Once frozen, the cubes can be rubbed over the rash, she said.

Another antidote to poison ivy is offered by the sweet fern. Not a true fern, Fialkoff said, but rather a woody shrub, the plant gives off a spicy, cinnamon smell. Tea made from the plant has a somewhat bitter taste, but is good for digestion and for urinary tract infections.

Fialkoff cautioned that many plants that have medicinal uses could also be toxic and recommended that medicinal plant usage be under the supervision of a clinical herbalist.

Those interested in a Native Plant Walk can contact Fialkoff at 978-456-9828.

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Local plant walks show native knowledge

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