You’re driving along and notice a group of people on the side of the road. What are they up to? You get close, and finally see what they’re doing. They are standing in the snow, picking the dried winter stalks of weeds. As if this wasn’t weird enough, they all seem quite excited about the whole affair!
What can be so special about dead, dried stalks of weeds? Well, it just so happens that if we lived about 20,000 years ago, we’d all be just as excited about those dead plants. In fact, some of those stalks were more valuable to them than gold is to us today! Why? Well, it turns out that when a plant dies, many of its properties change. And when it comes to fire-making, which could mean the difference between life and death to a tribe, the properties of those dead plants were very, very important.
As the liquid leaves the cells of certain plants, like horseweed, Jerusalem Artichoke, and goldenrods, there remains a straight stalk with a foam-like pith running down the middle. These are perfect for starting fire using a method called the “hand drill”, which literally uses the friction between two pieces of wood to start a fire.
The cattails growing in swamps were equally valuable. The fluff, which only dries out in late autumn and winter, is the perfect material for a “tinder bundle”, which is necessary if you’re going to start a fire with that hand drill.
Other dead winter plants were valuable to know. In the woodlands, thin brown tendrils wrapping around shrubs and fallen sticks are the tell-tale sign that there are small but nutritious (and delicious) ground beans lurking below the surface. Come spring, those beans are prime for eating, but you’d never know where to find them without those dead tendrils.
Some plants appear to be dead and withered, but a closer look will reveal a special treat. Ground cherries are famous for this. A glance will show you nothing but dead, dried stalks. But take a second look and you’ll see the yellow cherries tucked inside, often frozen into a sorbet-like consistency that tastes more divine than anything you can buy from the grocery store.
Those folks on the side of the road are remembering the ways of our ancestors, and harvesting dead stalks to keep ancient traditions alive. So for a few of us, at least, those dead, dried stalks are still valuable treasures to be sought out during the months of snow.