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Gary Lockhart 1942 - 2001

Witchdoctors and thistles

    My witchdoctor friend and I went hiking recently, partly to discuss philosophy, partly to study wild plants. Seattle's relentless urbanization has gradually extirpated more than a few erstwhile native plants, and we desired to see and sample some of those species, away from the city.
    Baneberry (Actaea rubra) was first. Since it has lovely red berries, yet is poisonous, perhaps Seattleites should be glad that none still grows wild here. Reports differ as to the degree of its toxicity --some say it is deadly, some say eating a few berries is unlikely to cause severe poisoning. I had to at least taste a berry, as it beckoned in its cherry-red, glossy purity. So, like Eve and her apple, I yielded to temptation. Expecting a bitter flavor, I found it utterly bland, then spat out the seeds and pulp.
    Edible thistle (Cirsium edule) came next. To aboriginal peoples this was a useful food source, being abundant and providing a large white root to harvest. But in Seattle it has been shoved aside as it were and replaced by naturalized bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and Canada thistle (C. arvense). By their spines ye shall know them --all of these thistles have spines which make them painful to handle.
    Canada thistle (actually from Europe) is unquestionably the worst weed of all thistles; it spreads chiefly by a horizontal root system, rankly forming large coarse perennial colonies, measured by acres in the country.
    Bull thistle, an annual or biennial, has developed weaponry to an extreme. Of all common weeds it is easily the most inimical to human flesh. Its fiendishly piercing, razor-sharpness defies leather gloves. The deeply lobed, prickly leaves are as revolting to gardeners as is broken glass to bicyclists. But the flowers, from June to October, are lovable pink-purplish sweet things. After the flowers are pollinated, the lively pink petals fall away and the swollen bristly crown produces puffy brownish-white seedheads.
    Although thistles are wicked to tangle with, the reason they're so needle-like in defense is because they taste good. Other plants may be thornless but bitter, or even poisonous, or too fuzzy to chew. Yet thistles, if bred into a spineless race, would be a welcome vegetable. Their plump whitish taproots are edible, as well as the despined leaves (a tedious chore), the peeled stalks, and the flowerbuds (they are Artichoke relatives, after all).
    So we chewed raw thistle roots, finding them mildly like carrots but more fibrous. One was about 18 inches long and 2 inches thick at its top. Sliced into pieces, fried, and spiced up with other flavors, they make a satisfying meal. Wanting some food for thought, I asked my witchdoctor "what is the most important thing in life?" The answer: "Balance." What do you think?

(originally published in The Seattle Weekly, September 1996 Alas, my witchdoctor friend Gary J. Lockhart died in September 2001)


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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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