MaM-berries

Invaders take over Rockland County

We are being invaded. Surreptitiously, almost without our knowledge, our county is being taken over. But who are these alien intruders? Where do they come from and why are they here? The simple answer is they are plants – plain and simple – most of them from the far side of the planet. Yet, while these are only plants, they are creating massive devastation, driving out native plants, killing bushes and trees and turning formally open woods and fields into impenetrable tangled masses.

During the past 30 years, walking the local woods and fields, I have noticed the arrival, establishment and colonization of several strange species. I have observed their gradual spread, along with that of others that had already taken hold many years earlier. Some of these species are so aggressive that they have taken over large areas, even driving out other invasive plants.

But how did they get here? Two words, “nouveau riche”. During the past century, many folks have built their large dream homes with their new found wealth, from working in the financial capital of the universe. Each generation in its time has wanted something different to define them. This often took the shape of landscaping with exotic plants (and often still does). Some of those plants felt so at home in their new environment that they settled in and did what plants do. They spread.

But how did they manage to spread all over? Whether by creepers, rhyzomes or seeds, they travelled and colonized. The majority of nuisance plants produce some sort of berry, which provides food for the local bird and animal populations, which in turn drop seed-filled, fertilized pellets across the countryside. Some plants, like garlic mustard are profuse seeders that colonize an area, driving out native plants. Others float on the wind, spreading far and wide. And yet others creep above or under the ground by rhyzomes and pop up in unexpected places to create new plants.

Over the years many different exotic species have been introduced into the region, so that many parts of our county are now almost devoid of native plants. We are left with waves of invasive species all vying for the available space. The upside of all of this is that every one of these plants is either edible or medicinal.

Here is a list of the major nuisance species that I have found growing throughout the Rockland area.

BERRIES

Wineberries – Rubus phoenicolasias
Most of us who enjoy the woods have mixed feelings about these thorny creatures. For much of the year the create impenetrable tangles throughout woods and fields. They even create traps, as the tops of the canes touch the ground and root, creating loops to trip the traveller. However, during July all this is forgotten as the bushes present us with clusters of delicious raspberry-like fruits.

Wineberries are delicious June fruits. The rest of the year they create a thorny tangly

Barberry – Berberis spp
These thorny little bushes are cropping up everywhere and are quite pleasant to have as part of the landscape. Beginning in the fall they produce red edible berries that last all winter. They are not sweet but can make a colorful addition to any dish. They are also highly valued for their medicinal properties.

Barberries produce fruits that are popular in middle eastern dishes. The thorny bushes can spread rapidly.

Burning Bush – Euonymus alatus
This popular shrub was introduced from China because of its spectacular fall foliage, however it has found a happy home among our woods and is now one of the more common wild bushes in our area. Happily it produces an edible (though not choice) berry.

Imported for their brilliant fall foliage, these plants have spread rapidly though out the area

Japanese Rose – Rosa multiflora
Of all the invasive plants out there I find wild roses to be the most problematic. I am forever snagging my clothes and skin or having articles of clothing (skarves etc) stolen by overhanging branches. The curved thorns that cover the branches are like tenacious little claws, snagging anything that comes within reach. The upside is the fragrant flowers followed by the bright red hips that stick around all winter long. They are very high in vitamins C and E and taste quite pleasant.

The fragrant flowers and tasty hips make the wild rose popular, despite its thorny branches

Porcelain berries, Asian Bittersweet berries and Mile-a-minute berries See Vines

VINES

Porcelain Berry – Ampelopsis brevipedunculata
Possible one of the most beautiful, exotic and insidious plants out there, this cousin of the grape spreads over everything in its path, showing respect for nothing. It will completely engulf bushes trees,fences and buildings, until it is the only living thing in sight. Its leaves and berries are exquisite in shape and color. The multicolored berries are edible but blah. Ideal as an exotic garnish to a dish.

Imported for its colorful exotic berries, porcelain berry spreads rapidly taking over everything in sight

Asian Bittersweet – Celastrus orbiculatus
This vine with its decorative yellow and red berries is often found in the same locations as grapevines. However, they are easy to tel apart, even withou their leaves of fruit. The grape vines are brown and fibrous, while bittersweet is grey and twists counterclockwise around its host, which often includes other bittersweet vines. Grapes depend on terminal tendrils to anchor them to their hosts.

The two tone berries of bittersweet are inedible, but make colorful additions to decorations

Chinese Wisteria – Wisteria sinensis
For many years this plant has gone practically unnoticed despite its tendency to take over and kill other species (including trees). It spreads like a mat over the forest floor, climbing anything in its way. As it grows in the woods it is rarely found blooming, so it offers little in return. So far I haven’t found any practical uses for it.

Despite its beautiful blossoms, this aggressive species will overtake entire areas of woodland

Mile-a-Minute – Persicaria perfoliata
Mile a minute is an annual and thus dies back to the ground every year, however, it drops a large number of seeds each year and grows very fast, so it is able to take over large areas in a very short time. It is credited with being able to kill a tree in three years. It is distinguishable by its triangular leaves, blue berries growing from leaf cups and a multitude of little thorns on everything but the fruit. It is related to and tastes like sheep sorrel. It can be made into a lemonade like drink or a creamy soup.

Despite being an annual, Mile-a-minute spreads s rapidly it will completely cover a tree (ultimately killing it.

Japanese Honeysuckle – Lonicera japonica
Because of its fragrant flowers, we often tend to overlook how invasive this plant can be. Also overlooked by many are the pairs of black berries that are left after the flowers are done. They can be eaten, but aren’t all that tasty. The nectar at the base of each flower on the other hand is worth spending some time enjoying.

The beautiful blossoms and delicious aroma make this a popular vine, despite its tendency to spread

GRASSES

Bamboo spp
During the past few years our neighborhood has been virtually taken over by bamboo, such that each spring I find myself harvesting dozens of bamboo shoots. It kills 2 birds with one stone by keeping the bamboo forest under control and providing a great food source. By pickling them I’m assured of having them year round. Of course, bamboo has many other uses.

Once established it is very difficult to control the spread of bamboo.

Japanese Knotweed – Polygonum cuspidatum
Although this isn’t a grass, it is similar enough to bamboo to be regularly mistaken for it. It covers embankments and waste places spreading via rhyzomes (as well as seeds). However, this is probably the most important invasive plant in our area. These same pesky rhyzomes are loaded with resveratrol (far more than in grape skins), which has proven very effective in treating Lyme’s Disease as well as many other ailments. The young shoots are edible and taste like rhubarb.

Knotweed is often seen covering embankments and ditches

Japanese Stilt Grass – Microstegium vimineum
Ten years ago our woods were carpeted with dead leaves year round, broken up by the occasional plant. With all that acid leaf mold, regular grasses were discouraged from growing, then came Japanese stilt grass, which appears to have no problem with acid soil and the low lighting under the canopy. Today, many areas are carpeted with this low growing species, which still allows local plants to stay around, so as far as being an invasive is concerned it ranks pretty low.

Large areas of woodland are now covered with stilt grass, which may actually be an improvement

This is by no means a complete list of the invasive that are taking hold of the county. They illustrate what a serious problem these species have become, and a foretelling of problems yet to happen. The unfortunate reality is that it is actually too late to turn this problem around.

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Daylily-flower

Delicious Daylilies

This is daylily season, and these beautiful flowers help to brighten our day with their orange and yellow blossoms. However, there is so much more to these plants to be enjoyed. From the time the young shoots emerge from the ground in the spring, the plant can be eaten. Even the roots contain dozens of small edible tubers. However, this is the season for harvesting and enjoying the flowers.

Daylily flower buds ready to be used in a dish will add an exotic touch to any meal

Although the open flowers are good for eating and garnishing dishes, the unopened flower buds make a tasty and colorful addition to any dish savory or sweet.

Wild green dishes are so much more appealing with the addition of daylilies

I never let this season pass by without taking advantage of the large daylily patch in my front yard. I rarely prepare a greens dish at this time of year without adding some chopped daylilies. They add their own piquant flavor and a rainbow of exotic shapes and colors.

This chicken of the woods ragu is greatly enhanced by the addition of sliced flower buds

Another great thing about this season is that I often manage to find wild mushrooms growing in the woods. Last year I found a a white pored chicken of the woods growing at the base of an oak tree. Although this choice fungus is delicious sautéed by itself it is all the more attractive and delicious when accompanied by chopped daylilies.

Daylilies are an excellent ingredient to add to stir fries, soups and salads

This year I’m exploring ways to preserve buds for later use. I’ve tried a vinegar pickle in the past , but they lost all their color and turned limp. This time I am trying a brine pickle.

An open flower used as a garnish can add color and excitement to your cooking

So, enjoy your daylilies for their beauty, but use them to brighten up your meals, even if only as a garnish.

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Here is Susan, about to eat her first cicada - the first of many

Eating 17 Year Cicadas – A Cicada Cookery Party

On the first Saturday in June, several Suburban Foragers met together at my house for a “Cicada party”.  We were experiencing one of natures rare phenomena, the swarming of the 17 year cicadas, and since they were so plentiful (covering everything in sight), we decided to explore their edibility.

Cicadas are known as land shrimp (mostly by those who haven’t eaten them)

Now, don’t get me wrong, none of us actually relished the thought of chewing on these airborne arthropods, with their red eyes and beetle like appearance, but as survivalists, we felt that we should at least sample them to see what they tasted like.

 

Cicadas were not difficult to collect.  They teemed over everything in sight

In the days leading up to the event, I wandered my neighborhood with a quart  container gathering these little beauties in preparation for our feast.  I found that since they were all in the process of climbing, it was a simple matter of holding the cup under one and tapping it on the head, causing it to fall into the cup.  Once there, despite legs and wings, they couldn’t get out again.  Once I had a cupful I lidded it up and put it in the freezer.  This not only killed them, but made wing and leg removal much easier.

Frozen cicadas are easier to prepare.  The wings and legs come off readily

On the day of the party, everyone arrived skeptically anxious to sample their first bugs.  Since we’d previously tried them boiled and found them to be too soggy, we started out by putting a bunch on a skewer, brushing them with oil and putting them over the barbecue.  Once they looked done I brushed them with spicy tamarind-date sauce and left them to caramelize.  The end product didn’t appear very appetizing, but was remarkably tasty.

We put cicadas on a spit and put them on the barbecue grill, brushing them with a spicy tamarind-date sauce. End result – delicious!

Sachi and I had previously tried the boiled cicadas which we agreed tasted like a cross between peas and peanut butter.  We were anxious to see how they tasted barbecued.  To our utter delight, they were really good – crisp and juicy, sweet and spicy.  So good in fact, that Susan and Kathy, who had been rather squeamish about the whole thing, each decided to try one.  Although they were tentative at first, they found that they enjoyed them so much, they both ate a second.

Here is Susan, about to eat her first cicada – the first of many

In fact, everyone there, including Sachi’s husband made sure to sample a barbecued cicada.

Dwight enjoys his first taste of barbecued cicada

 

Now it was Sachi’s turn to try a recipe, and she decided to go for the tried and true method of deep frying.  Let’s face it, most things taste better fried, and these were no exception.  Sachi served them up Mexican style.  We all dug in and sampled them.  It was like being in a Mexican street market.

Mexican style, deep fried cicadas served with lime slices and Mexican condiments

Next, Sachi made up a batch of tempura batter.  We made up skewers with fresh fruit and cicadas, and, after dipping them in the batter, fried them to a crispy golden brown.  I made up a skewer of pre-boiled cicadas, which we then battered and fried, serving it on a bed of garlic mustard tempura, accompanied by an asian dipping sauce.  I assumed that this was another favorite, as it disappeared rather quickly.

 

Tempura batter makes anything look tasty, even bugs and weeds

Just for fun Sachi had brought a plate of sushi, which we dressed up with fried cicadas.  It really didn’t appear very appetizing, but once again, the dish was soon empty.

 

We decided that this was so much fun, we’d do it again (17 years from now).

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Autumn-olives

10 Top Reasons to Forage

As a  forager, I am often asked why I would bother gathering edible wild plants, when there is so much good food available in supermarkets and grocery stores.  Why on earth would someone resort to eating weeds in this modern age?  Well, I gave it a lot of thought and I’ve come up with the ten top reasons why I am a forager, and why I recommend that most of us should have a basic understanding of wild plants and their uses.

 

1. Wild plants are organic

Organic farms and gardens are excellent places to find and gather wild edibles

So long as a plant is growing in clean soil, away from traffic fumes and other toxins, it can be considered as organic.  Even if there is a possibility that some toxic substance may have come in contact with a wild plant it is far less risky than the certain fact that most supermarket produce has been sprayed with toxic chemicals several times throughout the growing season.

 

2. Non-GMO

Native wild plants such as dandelions are still guaranteed non- GMO

Fortunately there is not enough profit involved in genetically modifying weeds or we’d be in real trouble with the threat of cross pollination.  However, as that is not yet a problem, you can rest assured that none of the wild foods you gather will be tainted with GMOs.

 

3. Rich in nutrients

Common stinging nettle are very high in nutrients, with 40 per cent protein content

Wild foods are infinitely more nutritious than industrialized food.  Even the food we grow on organic farms often isn’t as nutrient rich as plants that have remained as nature intended.  Even the supplement that you may purchase, can be found in the plants that grow around you.

 

4. Free food

Summer brings a smorgasbord of berries, all FREE for the picking

Not entirely true.  When you consider the time and energy devoted to finding, harvesting and cleaning wild foods, the food doesn’t come without cost, but even if you have no money, you can still take home a bountiful harvest and eat tasty nutritious foods.

 

5. Outdoor activity

Foraging is a perfect outdoor activity for families and friends. Everybody gets to participate

Nature Deficit Disorder is psychobabble for not getting outdoors enough.  It causes a drop in vitamin D, depression and a disconnect from our natural selves.  It can also create allergies and disease.  Children in particular should spend time outside, interacting with nature, walking barefoot on the earth and learning about plants and their importance in our lives.  Foraging is an outdoor pursuit that almost anybody can practice, and it makes a great family activity, especially if everyone takes part in the prepping and cooking.

 

6. Connect with nature

Spending time with plants helps us to connect with Mother Earth and to learn her secrets

Gathering your food from the earth is a direct way of communicating with the natural world.  You cannot study plants, without developing an awe of the wonderful power of nature.  As you become more familiar with each plant and what it has to offer, you’ll find that exciting new experiences open up to you.

 

7. Control over food quality

With wild foods you have direct control over harvest time, freshness and purity

When you harvest your own food, you know where it came from and can assure that it hasn’t been sprayed, has no added ingredients, has not traveled half way round the globe, is guaranteed fresh and that there is no packaging to dispose of.  The best part is that it is still available even if all the stores are closed.

 

8. Greater variety of foods

Wild mushrooms and flowers add interesting flavors and rare nutrients to dishes.

Wild foods offer a far greater range of flavors – The average American diet is very limited and lacks the range of nutrients that the body needs to stay healthy.  Even restaurants tend to be very limited in the range of foods they offer, all serving the same basic ingredients prepared in their own styles.  As a forager, I have many flavors and textures from which to choose.  It gives me the opportunity to be creative and experience different taste combinations not available in our regular food system.  There are some amazing and delicious foods out there that modern society disregards and dismisses as mere weeds, to be irradicated.  Even “invasive” plants can often be eaten and are often both nutrient rich and medicinal.

 

9. Safe, effective remedies

Herb can provide very effective remedies. Many pharmaceuticals are based on herbs -

For thousands of years, people have used herbs for their medicinal properties – with good reason – they work.  After many years of exploring the remedial properties of plants I am thoroughly convinced that they can provide some of the most effective treatments.  Modern medicine tries to pursuade us that herbs have little effect on us.  However, if mere plants were incapable of making a difference, then why make so much fuss over marijuana and the opium poppy.  I have treated myself and my family with herbal teas, tinctures and salves for over 30 years without a single side effect, but with many successes.  The best part is that many of these medicinal plants grow along the hedgerows and in our gardens and are even considered nuisances, to be eradicated.

 

10. Self sufficiency

Survivalists Arielle and Barry demonstrate the tools of a more primitive but a far more self-sufficient society

Americans have moved further and further away from self-sufficiency and have come to rely on Government and corporations for all their needs.  This has not only dulled their creativity but has made them dependent on a system that may some day collapse.  Practicing the skills required to survive without our food and power systems is very important, and sustainable foraging is one of the major skills that most of us should learn.

 

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Grape-Hyacinth

Our Transient but Beautiful Spring Visitors

Every year as we bid farewell to March, we enter that magical period when we are briefly visited by some of the most delicate and exquisite flowers to bless us with their presence.  However, unlike the blooms of summer, many of these ephemerals are quite shy and need to be sought out.

One of the more showy spring blooms, the Columbine is almost orchid-like.

You’ll find most of these spring visitors in the woods.  They take advantage of that period when the world is beginning to warm up and before the trees have put on their foliage, blocking out much of the sunlight.

A Trout Lily being visited by a bee

Among the first to appear are the Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) and the Spring Beauty (Clintonia Virginica).  Trout lilies, with their nodding yellow flowers can often be observed in March, and are among the first to appear, followed shortly by the delicate blossoms of spring beauties. that will sometimes entirely carpet the floor of the woods.  Although most spring beauties are white, with delicate pink stripes, it is not unusual to encounter pink blooms.  Another early visitor (that is usually found in open areas) is the Pennsylvania Bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica), which is one of the earliest plants to flower (and quite spicily delicious).  It cannot truly be described as an ephemeral as its foliage can be found growing from September through April, but it is worth a mention as it is one of the earliest edibles to be found.  In fact, all of the above plants can be eaten, but should be left untouched unless they are in abundance. However, It is worth spending a little time digging up the small, nut like corms from some Spring Beauties, peeling and eating them.  They taste similar to chestnuts.

Spring Beauties were a welcome sight to early Americans who ate their nutty roots.

Another brief and beautiful visitor that begins to unfurl its leaves to reveal a single, spectacular white flower, is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), so called because of its vivid red sap.  It is not edible, but has some noted medicinal uses, including as a treatment for breast and skin cancers.

 

The elegant Bloodroot leaf is every bit as fascinating as its flower (and its root)

Every April, I find myself walking the woodland trail that follows the peak of Clausland Mountain (behind Nyack), as it offers a wide variety of spring blossoms all in the same place.  The first plants to greet us are the red and yellow lantern-like flowers of the Columbine (Aqualegia canadensis).  Next we notice the feathery leaves of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), with their little rows of white and yellow pantaloon shaped blossoms.

 

The unmistakable bloomer shape of Dutchman’s Breeches flowers

A more showy little blossom, that lives further down the trail is the Rue anemone (Thalictrun thalictroidus), distinguished by its varying numbers of white (sometimes pink) petals and rue-like leaves.

 

Rue Anemone can often be found growing in large patches

A very delicate flower that is easily overlooked is the blossom of the Dwarf Ginseng (Panax trifolius).  Unfortunately, they have been over harvested for their potent medicinal corms and are quite scarce in many areas.

Dwarf Ginseng is a smaller version of its cousin American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

On the same trail I have found clusters of the Early Saxifrage (saxifraga virginiensis) which, although more abundant are nevertheless quite delicate.

 

Early Saxifrage enjoys growing in challenging rocky ground

Of course, we cannot ignore those three petalled wonders, the trilliums, that can be quite big and showy.  The white ones (Trillium grandifolium) are fairly common where I live, but occasionally I am fortunate enough to come upon a patch of Red Trillium (Trillium erectum). Although they are edible, they are too pretty to disturb.

Also known as Wake Robin, the Purple Trillium resembles its winged namesake

Two other colorful blooms to look out for are the Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionadoxa spp) and Grape Hyacinths (Muscaria spp).  Both grow out in the open and are easy to spot, especially since they are both purple.

Glory of the Snow often appear while there is still snow on the ground, creating a “glorious” contrast

So, during the next few weeks, get out there and enjoy the spring weather, and see how many of these and other ephemerals you can find.  You won’t regret it.

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Ballerinas in the Snow

Even though we may have heavy snows, the tenacious snowdrop emerges at the least opportunity

When wandering through a meadow during late winter it is not uncommon to come across a cluster of pendulous white blossoms atop delicate green foliage poking up through the snow, like a company of etherial ballerinas.  Understandably, these delightful blooms have earned themselves the popular name of Snowdrops.

Snowdrops are not discouraged by cold weather or snow. In fact they seem to thrive.

The common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), and other related species are members of the showy Amaryllis family, and although far less bold and colorful, are none the less striking as they are often the only flowers to appear in an otherwise winter wasteland.

These harbingers of spring will often carpet the ground on an open meadow or field

Before the appearance of the blooms, a group of Snowdrops may be easily mistaken for a clump of grass, as its leaves are quite long and thin.  However, once the flowers open, they demand all our attention with their elegant beauty.  Even though they are cold weather lovers, the flowers are responsive to light and warmth, drooping mournfully on ill lit days and opening their petals wide when the sun appears.  Actually, I lie.  What appears to be three long petals around the outside of the blossom are in reality sepals.  The shorter petals protrude from the middle of the flower like a funnel, tipped with green markings.

The flowers can often be distinguished by the green markings on the inner set of petals

After the flowers have died away there remains a seedpods containing small white seeds that contain a substance that attracts ants, that help to distribute them.

Although inedible in any quantity, the Snowdrop has some rather interesting medicinal properties.  The plant contains galanthamine, an alkaloid which has proven successful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic injuries to the nervous system.  Snowdrop lectin is also being researched for its possible uses in treating HIV.

The seed pods which follow the flowers rely on ants to distribute their seeds

The plant makes a very effective insecticide against beetles, wasps and moths, however its most effective property is its ability to lift the spirits after a long cold winter, and to assure us that spring is just around the corner.

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The Mysterious and Beautiful Swamp Creatures

These strange exotic creatures immerge from the mud like alien beings

Even though February seems to be a pretty bleak month, it is the time of year when you will find strange, exotic blossoms appearing throughout the woods and marshes – the flowers of the ubiquitous skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), those large, lush, leafy plants that inhabit almost every marshy, woodland area in the Eastern United States.  Yet as common as these plants are, very few people ever get to appreciate their unique flowers.

 

The floor of these damp May woods are carpeted with skunk cabbages in full foliage

Most of us have seen patches of leafy skunk cabbage in the damp woods.  They looks so tasty, that I’m sure that many have been tempted to eat them.  However, if you crush a leaf, it has fetid odor similar to skunk, which stops many people from putting it in their mouths.  This is just as well, as the results of doing so would have been quite regrettable.  The immediate skunky taste isn’t that bad compared to what comes next.  Within seconds it is as though your mouth is full of very sharp needles that are being repeatedly stubbed into every bit of soft tissue.   It feels like you just licked a cactus.

 

Two flowers seemingly emerging from the same flower is a rare sight, as each plant usually bares a single blossom

They say that it becomes edible after it has been dehydrated.  However, this can be very chancy, because if you don’t COMPLETELY desiccate it, the Calcium Oxylate crystals will still be active and you know what happens next.  I know that I wouldn’t that chance?  You won’t find any skunk cabbage in my dehydrator.

 

The colors and patterns vary from plant to plant, ranging from greens to yellows to reds.

Although they are not edible, the late winter blooms are worth making the effort to find.  You’ll need to put on a good pair of boots and make your way into the nearest bog.  Once there, start looking around for the colorful pod-like blooms breaking through the leaves and moss.  These leafless flowers may be hard to spot at first, but once you recognize one emerging from the mud, you’ll begin to notice more.  They vary in size, shape and color, each with its own personality.  They grow singly or in clusters and are often in shallow water.

 

A rare example of a skunk cabbage flower with a single, solid tone.

If you look carefully at these pointed capsules rising like alien beings out of the mud, you’ll notice that they guard a secret within – a ball of pollen bearing florescences that looks as though it belongs on a coral reef.  This round to oval cluster contains several large seeds, which are deposited back into the mud after the capsule shrivels and disintegrates.

 

inside the protective spathe is a ball of the actual flowers, that contains the seeds.

Skunk cabbage is what is known as a thermogenic plant.  It can adjust its own body temperature, such that it could be upto 50 degrees warmer than its surroundings.  This becomes apparent when there is snow on the ground.  You will notice the skunk cabbages sitting at the centers of melted holes.  This allows them to send out their somewhat fetid (skunk like) aroma to attract flies that seek the warmth of the encompassing spathe that makes up the outside of the flower.  They will often pass the night in the warm interior, inadvertently gathering pollen along the way, which they carry to the next flower they visit.

 

Although many of the flowers have subdued colors, others can be quite bright and colorful

If you were to dig the roots of a skunk cabbage, you would notice that it resembles a multi-legged octopus (a polypus, in fact) with ridges along the tentacles.  These strange ripples allow the roots to pull the plant deeper and deeper into the soil as it grows bigger.  I dug one up once (a very mucky experience).  It took a lot of digging to get it out whole.  It’s a good job it was buried in wet mud.  It was messy, but at least I didn’t have to wrestle with roots and rocks.  As it was I ended up spattered with smelly black goop.

After the flower, comes the leaves, wrapped in powder green sheathes, like little wizard caps

 

 

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Dames Rockets – spring blossoms, winter food

Dames Rockets begin blooming in the spring and can often be found flowering into mid summer. Different color blooms can often be found growing on the same plant

Most of us enjoy Dames Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) for its showy spring blossoms of whites, violets and pinks peeking out of the hedgerows and covering banks, but being in the mustard family it is also edible.  Best of all, it is a very hardy plant that can tolerate snow, frost and low temperatures, and is therefore a good winter forage.

 

Basal rosette of leaves found in early winter, makes a nutritious and bountiful harvest.

When the plant isn’t distinguishable by its colorful cruciferous flowers, we only have the leaf shape to go by, especially with the basal rosette, which is around from late fall through early spring.  At this time of year the rosette will consist of elongated simple shaped leaves with irregularly toothed margins.

 

Notice the irregular teeth and the fact that all surfaces are hairy.

If you look closely at the teeth you will notice that they are shallow, uneven and that each point is rounded.  The surface of the leaf is rough and hairy, which probably accounts for its ability to withstand winter weather.  The stems and petioles are also noticeably hairy.

 

From the time that the flowers disappear in early June, the plant puts all its energies into producing its clusters of long seed pods and the leaves all but disappear.  After seeding, in the fall it puts out fresh leaves in readiness for winter.  By the spring, many of the leaves may have died off, but a surprising number manage to survive.  As soon as the thaw comes, the basal rosette begins to regenerate into a bushy cluster.  In May, the plant puts up a tall spike and the flowering cycle begins over again.

 

Flower cluster ready to open in the spring. At this stage, they can be cooked like broccoli.

The best time to harvest the leaves is in the spring before flowering, however, as it is one of the few plants that survive into late fall and stays around during the winter, it is a good green for those times when other plants are scarce.  It may be eaten raw, but can be rather bitter or tough at this time of year.  The leaves are best boiled for 30+ minutes to tenderize them, then they can be added to any dish you prefer.

 

Dames rockets leaves make a good cooked vegetable, like mustard greens

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At almost any time of year, you will find Turkeytails (Trametes versicolor) growing on dead and fallen trees throughout the woods.  Apart from their ornate and colorful appearance they possess potent medicinal properties

Trametes – fabulous fungus

Turkey tail is a polypore mushroom that grows on dead and fallen trees.  It’s botanical name, Trametes versicolor describes its tendency to grow in a variety of colors.  Its shape, along with the colors and patterns resemble the tail of a turkey, hence its common sobriquet.

This common fungus is greatly prized in Chinese medicine for its anti-cancer properties.  The active component, polysaccharide K is used as a cancer treatment in conjunction with other therapies to help fortify the immune system and to stop the growth of tumors.  It is too tough to eat, but its properties can be extracted with infusions and tinctures.

Whenever I’m in the woods I look for Trametes.  A nice thing is that they can be found year round, often times when other mushrooms are hard to find.  When I find them, I’ll usually stop to photograph them.  They come in such a variety of shapes, colors and patterns that there is always something of interest to capture.  As a result, I have accumulated many shots of these fascinating polypores.  Here are a few of my favorite studies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Barberry-slider

Barberries, the Winter Fruit

Barberries gathered in the fall; They can be dried and used throughout the year.

Winter is not a great time for foraging, as there is very little to gather, particularly when snow covers the ground.  However, one of the true prizes of the season is a visitor from the far east, the barberry (Berberis vulgaris).

 

Barberries can be gathered throughout the winter and into the early spring

 Barberry bushes were introduced into this country over a century ago for use as exotic ornamental plants, but thanks to the birds, who eat their bright red fruits, they have been spread throughout much of the country, and are now considered an invasive species.

 

These delicate flowers grow beneath the leaves. They are sometimes difficult to see.

In the spring these small prickly shrubs start to sprout clusters of small tear shaped leaves, which are soon followed by light yellow flowers that bloom along the long slender branches.  Once the flowers have dropped off, small green berries appear in their place and slowly grow throughout the summer, finally ripening by mid fall.  These tart red berries usually remain intact throughout the winter months, deepening in color until they are either dark red or almost black.  Others may shrivel and fall off, or are eaten by birds.  However, it is not unusual for some of the berries to still remain during the following season when the plant is flowering.

 

In the spring you may find barberry flowers along with last season’s berries

Although barberries are not very tasty straight from the bush, they can be used in several different ways in a whole variety of dishes.  To harvest the berries, you can pick them individually, so as to avoid being pricked by thorns, or you can throw caution to the wind and scoop them off in bunches.  This can be achieved by grasping a branch loaded with fruit near the bottom and pulling up toward the tip removing the berries along the way. As the thorn point forward, you can remove the berries without getting pricked (if you are careful). The only problem is that you’ll need to use bare hands.  Gloves make it too awkward.  The fact is that there is really no way to avoid getting stuck a few times.

 

Ripe, plump berries ideal for gathering, can be picked separately or in bunches

When I’m harvesting, I select my bushes and my berries very carefully, depending on the purpose I have for them.  If I’m using the berries to make sauce, I’ll look for fat, ripe fruit.  Shriveled berries are fine for tea or for drying.  However, for use in rice dishes and salads, I like to gather the smaller fruits, with the undeveloped seeds, so that they can be used whole (deseeding the berries is very laborious).  To preserve berries for use at other times of the year, they can be dehydrated and stored in a dark dry place.

 

Barberries add a colorful and tasty touch to rice dishes, salads and trail mix

I’ve used the berries in many dishes over the years.  They make a colorful addition to greens dishes, chicken salad and are traditionally added to the Persian rice dish Zereshk Polow.  However, one of my favorite ways to prepare them is in making barberry sauce.  It is easy to make, but requires a lot of berries.

 

Chicken salad can be ore interesting with the addition of these tart berries

Recipe – Barberry Sauce

 

Ingredients:

 

2 cups fresh or dried barberries

1 cup water

2/3 cup coconut sugar or brown sugar

 

Directions:

 

Place berries in a 2 qt saucepan (it doesn’t matter if stalks are attached).

Bring to boil and simmer for about 10 minutes until soft

Using a food mill or a sieve and a wooden spoon, grind the pulp through into a smaller pan, leaving behind the seeds and skins

Reheat the pulp, adding more water if necessary

Add the sugar and simmer until it has dissolved

Store in a lidded jar in the refrigerator

Barberry sauce is a delicious alternative to cranberry sauce

Barberry sauce is an ideal alternative to cranberry sauce, or a sweet/tart spread

The sauce can be served with turkey, in place of cranberry sauce.  It also goes well with pork or wild fowl.  It is works well poured over ice cream.  A thicker version makes a a good spread for toast, crackers or scones.

 

Vitamin C rich barberry has been used medicinally for thousands of years.  It is an effective treatment for diarrhea, fever and anemia.  It is also useful in lowering blood pressure.


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Gather Together