Foraging 26 – Developing Foraging Skills

Have you ever noticed that each time you are presented with information for the second or later time, you take in something different from it?

Elderflowers laid on white paper to allow bugs to escape.

Perhaps on an occasion, you read an information packed page in a book about Elder (Sambucus niger). You read words describing how the shrub is often used as a fever medicine, in skin salves and for delicious immunity enhancing cordials. You also read a host of other information about some folklore attached to the shrub in your land and others; tales of tree spirits, rules about not burning its wood and so on. But on this day, you are most interested in the berries.

The sun is out, you spotted plenty of ripe hanging elder berries as you walked home yesterday and today you are keen to harvest and use some. So the information that you just read about the folklore, skin salves and so on are not as important to you today. You are interested in the berries today so your brain filters out a lot of the other information and helps you to focus on the task in hand - Elderberry harvesting and processing.


So you go out, use the berry identification information which you just read, find the right shrubs, pluck the right fruit and you process it according to the instructions which you read. By reading, thinking about it, actually doing the finding, plucking and processing, you are helping to lay down powerful connections in your brain which make Elderberry work easier the next time around. The more you do it, the better you get but the less you recall about the salves, immunity-boosting properties etc.

Homemade salve

Because our brains get better at things which we experience repeatedly, it is well worth revisiting that book with Elder information from time to time. You never know exactly when you will need to be able to recall that certain parts of this plant has excellent emollient (skin softening) properties or that elderberry pips contain a precursor to hydrogen cyanide.

Our minds are amazing things. They can remember so much, make incredibly fast connections between different topics, make connections and solve problems whilst we day dream or sleep and have razor sharp focus just when we need it. But our brains have a habit of becoming easily distracted from important tasks. They can also have difficulty with information recall just when we need it and they stop working so effectively when we overload them with superfluous information.

If you have done plenty of academic study in the past, you will probably have received some advice about study skills. As we leave formal education, we tend to think that those study skills are no longer needed. If you want to be a life long learner, keeping your brain sharp, I suggest you think back to those study skills and also keep track of new learning about how the brain works.

There is much to read on the subject (or watch or listen to). You may like to read Daniel Levitin's book, The Organised Mind. It contains lots of useful tips about how to help your brain be more productive (and calm) in a world of information overload.


1. If you have read or watched something on the topic of improving how we learn and retain information, which could help us all, please share it in the Foraging Forum.

2. To help you to better understand, recall and learn about herbal work, you may like to play around with any of the following techniques. I am sure that you will have other wonderful ways to help build your knowledge. As ever, don't let my words limit you, and please do share your favourite tips and tricks in the forums.

Daydreaming beneath Valerian flower stems

Sleep and rest enough
This may sound too simple but sleep is essential to making those neural pathways and connections mentioned above.

Oversleeping or under-sleeping on just one night reduces the amount of new information we can store, remember and correctly retrieve for the several days. So if you learn about Elder seeds on Monday and under-sleep on Tuesday you are less likely to process and remember that information correctly.

Adults need on average 6 - 10 hours sleep per night. Everyone is of course different and some people have very different sleep needs. Whatever your number, try to get the same amount each night - especially when you are actively learning new information and skills. Sleep cannot be caught up and oversleep is as damaging to the ability to remember as is under-sleep.

Be organised.
If you keep herbal, botany or medical books, organise them and keep them in a convenient arrangement for easy access. Our minds can save their energy for learning from the books rather than trying to remember where the books are located. It also saves you time. If you are not a great one for books and perhaps retrieve lots of information from the internet, keep a record of your references so that you can revisit them. The same goes for helping you recall who told you certain information.

Daydream and be creative
Employ different parts of your brain to help forge deep connections about a topic. This is why I suggested you draw, write, sing, dance about your green ally some time ago. We all know that reading is only one of many routes to learning and yet we often rely only on reading.

Be Mindful with the plants
Rather than looking at a plant with a set goal in mind, spend time just being in its presence. Perhaps sit next to it and share the air. Perhaps soft gaze at it. Perhaps closely and gently examine its details. The way the leaves join the stem. Pour your attention into just being with that plant and becoming aware of it via each of your senses.

Keep and revisit notes
Of what you learn about plants in each location. Again, this facilitates time saving and easy access and also is helpful because we all forget when information is not revisited now and then. So revisit your notes now and then, re-read them, look at your doodles, references etc. Top up your knowledge.

Index cards
Keep index cards with key information about each plant. I use pencil for this, to save me re-writing the cards when I decide to change the content. Keep them in a set place (to save time hunting for them) and refer back to them now and then.

Handwriting such information may seem old-school but it works. Our minds are wired to recall where we physically place written (visual) information on a tangible object and where we store that object. Our minds are less good at recalling which cloud, USB stick, hard drive or smart phone file we saved that nugget of useful information on.

Visual differences for electronic storage
If you prefer to save learned information on some form of computer, your mind will recall it better if you make each device screen look very different. Also, being very strict about how you organise files on these devices will help. Google Drive saves me a lot of time because I can access it from all my devices.

I store a lot of information on computers but I also have my most creative work in note books. I buy attractive books, which I like to handle and are easy on the eye. I store them in very specific places so that I always know where they are.

Revisit experiences.
Read over your notes soon after new learning (a day after, three days after and then every now and then). Remake lotions and potions to help create reliable neural pathways. Revisit the plants. Look again at your pressed leaves. Doing things over and over really helps us to gain more from them in terms of memory and motor skills (like getting better at measuring liquids, grating beeswax, chopping etc).

Do one thing at a time.
I grew up being told that multi-tasking was a wonderful skill. I was proud to be a seemingly good multi-tasker. Now I realise that it is not such a good thing. Of course, I am happy to be able to do several things at once sometimes but the brain cannot really do lots of the things well, at once.

When multitasking, the brain actually switches attention from one task to the next to the next repeatedly and very fast. This is very tiring for the brain and leads to nothing being done terribly well. It also decreases our ability to make good neural pathways and connections which aid with memory and understanding.

Better for the brain and effectiveness is to do one thing properly at a time. Yes, it takes longer but the results are far better. It is well worth a try, especially if you are a recovering multi-tasker like myself! Doing one thing at a time also enables us to get into the flow of things.

Allow time to Flow
To really focus, dive deeply, be creative and allow our minds to make wonderful connections and dream up new solutions and ideas - we need time. To get into a really productive flow is said to take about 90 minutes. So perhaps have this in mind when you next set aside some time to focus on your herbal studies or some other creative work.

Give yourself time and uninterrupted space to really get into it. When you achieve flow, you feel as though you and the topic/object of attention are merged together as one. Do you know that feeling? When did you last have it?

Crafting – Welcome

Chopped Feverfew.

In this course you will learn how to create and use:

  • Herbal apothecary.
  • Safe herbal remedies for common ailments.
  • Nourishing herbal preparations.
  • Herbal first aid.
  • Herbal medicine chest.
  • Safely, ethically and legally make home remedies.

The short podcast introduces you to this course.

Simple equipment
Common kitchen materials
Save time and money
Recipes for small spaces with very little equipment
Possible to make herbal preparations outside

Healthy respect for herbs
Herbs have an important place in today's healthcare although their misuse can also cause great harm.
Avoid overuse. Some herbs interact with medicines.
Not all herbs are helpful.
Incorporating common, local nourishing herbs into our lives does not mean that we turn away from modern medicine.


Become more involved in managing your own health.
Aim to help yourself more often with simple nourishing herbs.
Minor ailments.
Active participant in keeping yourself healthy and happy.

As mentioned in the Healing module, the Wise Woman way involves nourishment and looking for answers within ourselves, as well as seeking external help when needed.

Let's get started!
Jump to Crafting 1

Growing Course – Welcome

Small water garden - Bali

Course Content:

  • Easy to Grow Herbs
  • Planning, Planting and Nurturing your Herb Garden.
  • Gardening in Public Spaces
  • Powerful Perennials
  • Evergreen Herbs
  • Indoor Herbs
  • Plant Guilds
  • Vertical Herb Gardening
  • Themed Herb Gardens

I regularly add new units to each course. If you would like a particular topic added, let me know through the forums.

Everyone has Green Fingers
Whether you are a keen gardener or not, this module will help you to plan, plant and nurture your own herb garden. Keeping your own needs and values in mind, we will look at the options available to you, wherever you live. You will learn how to realize your ideal herb garden for as little cost as possible. Please don't be concerned if you have not gardened before. Everyone can have a go and practice makes you better and better. The plants are actually quite forgiving of mistakes and if it all goes completely wrong, you can always compost your dead herbs 🙂

Healthy Life Skill
I sincerely feel that gardening is a basic life skill. It connects us with the land around us, however clean or mucky it is and it is deeply centering. soil and plants grounds us. Working in the green has long been thought to have the power to nourish, calm and transform. There are enough anecdotes of people feeling better after time pottering around in a garden but now, thanks to the field of horticultural therapy, a rich research base can support claims of gardening's health benefits.

Gardening provides space for us to think, to clear the clutter from our minds and focus on the here and now. Gardening mindfully is a beautiful, healing thing and the clarity it provides can help us to make positive changes in our lives.

Valerian, great for damp ground.

Save by Gardening
Another welcome benefit is that growing our own herbs, even a small amount, is that it can certainly save you money. This course will help to focus your attention on herbs which are more expensive or a little exotic and harder to come by than most. By growing these, not only will you build a feeling of satisfaction but you will also have low cost access to some special tastes and remedies.

Love your Neighbourhood
Social cohesion and reduction in local crime are two further welcome side effects of gardening. When we start to garden in the streets outside of our homes, we become a catalyst for social contact. Street gardening creates a fresh reason to speak with neighbours, it can creates patches of kitchen herbs for everyone in the street to share and it makes the place look loved.

River of Herbs volunteer gardeners at Frankendael orchards, summer 2017

Attractive, greened streets have lower crime rates. Research shows that identical urban areas with less greenery located around the buildings, have higher domestic crime rates and burglaries. Logical as green areas just look better, more friendly and loved but quite surprising none the less! Other research shows that just half an hour of gardening a week can greatly benefit the body and mind.

Gardening is real work, rewarding work and it is healthy!

Lynn pruning an old pear tree at the River of Herbs orchards - adopted from Amsterdam council.

Let Gardening into Your Life
I don't know about you but I need gardening in my life. Wherever I have lived, I have quickly made opportunities to grow and care for green edibles. My first memories of gardening are from over 40 years ago when I was 4, growing Radishes on the kitchen windowsill with my grandfather. The taste of those radishes was not really for me at the time but oh, how amazing it was to grow food! From those little seeds came the most beautiful plants!

Instantly hooked, I moved steadily through growing giant Marrows and Sunflowers, Calendula and Lupin in our Bristol garden All manner of herbs and bizarre vegetables have grown in my pots and gardening plots since them but herbs remain my favourites. Most herbs are easy to grow because they generally prefer simple conditions and I can harvest what I need without destroying the whole plant.

Practical Plants
I cannot imagine life without plants surrounding me , especially edible plants. Ornamental plants have never really attracted me but they do of course have a place. This course is about what I would call practical plants, ones you can use and mainly edible and medicinal herbs. If you need to have ornamental plants around you, please don't let me stop you. Welcome them in your herb garden and enjoy the show!

All plants have a purpose, whether for food, medicine, soil health, shelter, dyes or simply to look good and put a smile on your face.

What are your first memories of gardening? Did you grow edibles as a child? Did you have a garden? Do share your memories in the Gardening Forum.

Whatever your experience and thoughts on the subject, I hope to inspire you to grow more herbs. So let's start by planning what to include in your herb garden:

Raised herb planter, Oxfordshire.

Jump to Growing 1 to begin working through this module.

Healing Course – Welcome

Turmeric and Ginger Jamu, Bali. Nourishing, anti-inflammatory magic in a cup.

This welcome unit introduces you to the seven steps of the Wise Woman system of healing. Each unit of the module discusses one of those steps.

Listen to the podcast and add notes to your worksheets or Healing notebook.

The links mentioned in the podcast are shown below.

Use the Healing forum to ask questions and share your thoughts.

Wise Woman System of Healing
A traditional, logical and intuitive way to maintain health or restore balance and well being. It doesn't expect other people or pills to be able to fix all of our problems. The Wise Woman System of Healing promotes self empowerment, networking, learning, listening and prevention of ill health.

Susun Weed/ (Woodstock, NY)
Book: Healing Wise (1989)
You Tube - WiseWomanCenter - Ash Tree Publishing.
You will find a wealth of information between those three links.

A nourishing path: Lime (Linden) trees.

Robin Rose Bennett ( NYC)
Glennie Kindred (UK)
Wildman Steve Brill (NYC)

Write a list of people who can help you with advice and practical help. Include their name and contact details.

Possibilities to include: herbalist friends, organic herb suppliers, foragers, therapists, organic food suppliers, house repairers, Yoga teachers, healers, family doctor...

7 Steps of Healing

Step 0 – Serenity Medicine - Do nothing - Go with the flow
Step 1 – Story Medicine - Collect information
Step 2 – Energy Medicine - Placebo - Mind medicine
Step 3 – Lifestyle Medicine - Nourish & Tonify
Step 4 – Herbal medicine -  Stimulate & sedate - Alternative medicine
Step 5 – Pharmaceutical medicine - Drugs - Supplements - Essential oils
Step 6 – Hi Tech medicine - Break & Enter - Mind Altering drugs

Stepping gently and sensibly
Try to look at health issues objectively. If the issue is not serious, try to start at Step 0, set a time limit (to see if the issue solves itself) then move on to the Step 1 (again, set a sensible time limit) and so on and so on. We try not to jump into problems without thinking or trying to solve the problems ourselves.

Many people run to the doctor to solve such minor issues but I choose to work this way to try and help myself first. I am certainly not opposed to anyone visiting a doctor! I have a good relationship with my family doctor and am happy to consult his team when I need to. Generally those in the medical profession have great knowledge. Visits to doctors for seemingly minor complaints can help to detect very serious disease, due to their knowledge and experience. I do not discourage anyone from visiting their doctor. What I try to encourage people to do is to help themselves first, especially when the dis-ease is minor.

Sometimes emergency help is essential. Knowledge of the Wise Woman Healing Steps can still help in such cases. This post on my blog is an example of how the Wise Woman Tradition helped me when the situation seemed completely out of my control.

Three Traditions of Healing

Wise Woman Tradition
Mainly focuses on steps 0, 1, 2, 3.
Do nothing, story medicine, mind medicine, lifestyle.
Quiet and almost invisible system of healing
Self care, nourishment, listening carefully and lifestyle.

Heroic Tradition
Usually relies on steps 4 and 5.
Herbal medicine to stimulate or sedate, supplements, essential oils etc.
Practitioners holding all the power.
Healing is done to the patient by a healer.
Dependence rather than empowerment.

Scientific Tradition
Focused on steps 5 and 6.
Strong medicine, breaking and entering.
Essential at times.
Suspicious of unproven remedies. Seeks scientific proof.

VU hospital, Amsterdam. Scientific Tradition.

How comfortable are you with each of these healing traditions? Where do you usually prefer to be when you need to solve a health issue? There is no judgement here, simply acknowledge where you feel safe and what you prefer.

When you are ready, click on Healing - Step 0 to begin your journey in the Wise Woman Tradition.

Foraging Course – Welcome!

This welcome unit introduces ethical foraging and why I forage urban herbs rather than other plants.

Listen to the podcast and add notes to your worksheets or Foraging notebook.

Use the Foraging forum to ask questions and share your thoughts.

Foraging Course contents:

  • Foraging safely and ethically
  • Using foraged herbs
  • Identifying plant families
  • Plant profiles and worksheets
  • Botany basics
  • 26+ units
Lynn harvesting Tansy for herbal mosquito repellent.

You will soon be noticing edible plants growing close to your home. It is far better to know one useful plant really well than to know almost nothing about many!

Do you dream of edible cities?
I believe that cities should be edible environments and that city dwellers should know how to care for and use the plants. My dream is for streets to be planted with edible fruit, nut and leaf trees. Many are already in place but we can do so much more. Buildings such as schools and hospitals should be obliged to incorporate fruit bushes and other edibles in their planting schemes.

If more urbanites understood how to forage safely and sustainably, they could help to nurture the whole ecosystem and create far healthier and more pleasant places in which to live. I believe that increased urban foraging will act as a driver to further clean and improve towns and cities. When you eat from an area, you want it to be clean...

Since talking about this in a TEDx talk a few years ago, I feel that the tide is turning. If we want edible towns and cities to become a reality, we must take action and help it to drive forward!

Magnolia: Edible flowers and medicinal leaves, in the middle of the city.

Urban Foraging Today
How much free food grows in your town? There are hundreds of edible species growing in Amsterdam and most other cities.

Some of my favorites are: Nettles, Elderberries, Apples, Lime leaves, Hazelnuts, Ginkgo nuts, Blackberry shoots, Ground Elder leaves, Rosehips and Cleavers.

I forage a little something from the city almost every day of the year. It connects me to the seasons, the local landscape, enriches my diet and it's a great way to meet interesting people!

Photo credit: A foraging walk in Amsterdam with Lynn.

Just a pinch of herbs...
Herbs are strongly flavoured or scented plants so we only need to harvest a few leaves to add to a meal. This reduces environmental impact and reduces the risk of poisoning and eating polluted plants.

Urban foragers should focus on herbs rather than "vegetables".

Focusing on local herbs increases creativity and promotes understanding of the plants which grow in urban areas.

Chickweed (Stellaria media): Source of year-round vitamins and minerals.

How clean is our food?
Where does our food come from?
How clean is it? Who has handled it? How processed is it?

City foraging risks: urban pollution, local laws, poisonous plants...

I like to take responsibility for at least a small proportion of my family’s diet and I look after the land where they grow.

The units in the Urban Herbology Foraging Course should be followed one by one. This helps to build your skills and knowledge.

Start with Foraging 1 - Ethical Foraging Rules