Sunday, March 20, 2011

Call Me "Urban Herbologist"!

It was an AWESOME Spring weekend in Amsterdam this weekend. The sun was shining in full force and everyone came out to play. It was still chilly, of course, but WHO CARES?!? Without a grey sky, everything is manageable. And everyone is in a good mood. :)

I went to a group of Urban Herbologists, who were meeting in the Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam's Botanical Gardens. Let me just clarify that I don't have green thumbs, dunno jack about herbs and plants, but I am extremely curious in finding out more. Especially since I've got a keen interest in food, health, healing (natural ways of healing), and also dabbling a bit in Ayurveda (it's more like armchair-Ayurveda, based on a hodge-podge of bits and pieces I've read up here and there.)

My friends all laughed at me when I told them I was keen to check this group out. They were like "OH MY GAWWWWWWD! That's SOOOOOO dorky!!"

HAHAHA!!! Of course it is! But... Who the hell cares?!?

As expected, I was probably the youngest in the group there (heehee), but I had the most AMAZING time. The group is led by an English lady, and there was another American dude there and two other local Dutch people. Including me, it was quite a motley crew of random people joined together by the same interest: Plants!! (Wow. I never thought the day would come when I'd ever have said that.)

Anyways, Lynn, our group leader, is the most warm and friendly lady, and was explaining how by tapping into the natural healing properties of plants, we could be witches. And then she went and explained the whole etymology of the word "Witch" and how it's NOTHING to do with wicken/ wicca or broomsticks and cauldrons. It's simply someone with vast knowledge and wisdom. (The only two men in the group looked at us three ladies in the group with a raised eyebrow. Haha).

I liked her immediately!

We walked around the herb garden for a bit where I learned to stroke the leaves of the plants and sniff their scent off my fingers. We also saw some patches of herbs with bell jars turned over on them, creating a mini-greenhouse effect. These bell jars have been here since the start of the Gardens, so they're of historic value!

The wormwood plant. Great for killing parasites in the body. I remember my Kinesiologist putting me on a detox that had wormwood to flush out parasites. And er... It's also the main ingredient in Absinthe (it's genus-species name even has "absinth" in it.) Someone explained how you can mix crushed wormwood with vodka, ferment it for 40 days, and you get a crude sort of Absinthe. Um... OK.

Then we moved onto another section where we saw SUPER OLD plants. This one had a sign on it that said "critically endangered" and is even "put in jail" for its protection coz it's worth a lot of money and is extremely rare. It's the Wollimi Pine. Once thought to be extinct and only seen fossilized in rocks... Until some explorer chanced upon it in the bottom of a cave. And now there's a whole industry set up to cultivate and sell the (very expensive) Wollimi Pine.

A redwood tree! Not quite the super ginormous ones you get in California, this one looked just like a regular tree until someone pointed it out and got us to touch it. Its bark is super soft, like flannel or felt. I've never felt anything like this on a TREE!

Then someone else pointed out these little green leaves growing on the ground. They looked like... um... regular green weed type of leaves, really. I forget the name now, but it's something-something garlic. It's NOTHING to do with the garlic plant, but picking up the leaves and sniffing it, it totally has the pungent smell of garlic. (!!!) Someone else mentioned it's currently the season for these leaves to grow and she goes to her neighbourhood park to "harvest" them. It only takes about 6 leaves per person to cook a pasta dish, and is a great garlic substitute. Imagine that!

Then came my favourite part of the day: We walked into the GIANT greenhouse in the Botanic Gardens, they have different sections for different climates: hot and dry for all the cactii, and hot and humid for all the lush tropical plants.

Here's a ginger plant.

There are a number of pools of water in this tropical section, and a lady who volunteers here at the Gardens told us a funny story about how the Hortus didn't put fish in the water at all. The water is there to be decorative and also aid the humidity levels. But over time, fish started appearing, and then terrapins started appearing... People had been dumping their old pets in the ponds! HAHAHA!

In fact, apparently that morning she had witnessed a family releasing their pet goldfish, Roy, into the pond. When she asked why, the parents said "Roy's grown too big for his goldfish bowl at home". (Super lame excuse!) But then, the huge drama of the day was when after the two little boys released Roy into the water, another HUGE white fish darted out of the corner and started chasing Roy around the pond!! As you can imagine, the two little boys were hysterical and in tears as they were witnessing Mother Nature's fight-for-survival in action. "MAKE HIM STOP!! MAKE HIM STOP CHASING ROY!! Is he gonna EAT ROY?!?" And the parents had to pick up the boys and take them outside.


I wished I'd been there to witness the scene. (Evil, I know. But it's so cute!) Fortunately, when we got to the pond, we saw an orange goldfish swimming around. The lady who volunteers there was pretty sure that was Roy, so drama averted. :)

A staircase leads to a little gangplank where you can walk amongst the tree canopies. Super awesome.

And then we saw this cactus plant, which apparently only flowers in its 100th year, and after that ONE time it flowers, it dies. We caught this flowering in action. There was gooey sap dripping from the ends of the flowers. It's latin name had "Agave" in it. Is this the same plant that produces Agave nectar?

The next meet up they're organizing might be... BIRCH TAPPING!!! Someone had suggested that the time to do it is NOW, when all the trees' energies are moving upwards and waking up at the start of Spring. I was like... Um... Birch tapping? What the hell is THAT?! ...You basically tap the tree for its sap. It's kinda sweet, like maple syrup. You need to cure it first or put it through some process first before you can eat it, but HOLY HELL!! How cool would THAT be?! I'm signed up and raring to go.

I must've spent about 1.5 hours waltzing around the gardens with my new-found super knowledgeable Herbologist friends, and when I left the place I almost felt kinda high! My confession of the day: I skipped today's led class to attend this meet up, but I'm so glad I did. Communing with Nature is just a whole other experience altogether.

After this trip, I had brunch with 4 ladies and a Daschund and told them all about my experience. They weren't laughing at my dorkiness anymore and all of them now wanna come tapping Birch trees with me when it happens. HAHAHA!


  1. this is the second reference to Birch sap that I've read today ... how strange is that? My brother who is a forager among other pursuits has a Nordic cookbook that calls for it. So yeah, Denmark and Norway, makes sense! What a great day you had! and love that doggie of course :)

  2. I think maybe coz it's now the season for Birch tapping? These guys were saying we have to do it in the next couple of weeks or it'll be useless after. And yes... these guys are definitely foragers too. I've only just come across this term and LOVING it!

  3. OMG I TOTALLY would have gone with you!

  4. Thanks! Now you and Loo can fly over here in 2 weeks to tap some Birch sap with me too. HAHA.


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