Friday, April 24, 2015

Japanese Knotweed Recipe - Japanese Knotweed Syrup

Spring has sprung and Japanese knotweed season is upon us here in southeastern Connecticut. We furiously gathered huge baskets of shoots that were less than 12" tall, the optimum height before the stalks start toughening up and getting woody. Most was made into fruit leather, which keeps very well once vacuum packed, several batches of jelly were made, more was stewed to keep in the freezer for making muffins and quickbreads, and some was eaten raw with cream cheese and raisins!

Robert made some tasty Japanese knotweed syrup, to which he then adds some carbonated water or canned seltzer for a fizzy, pink drink. The ascorbic acid powder is something we order from a vitamin company in bulk and add it to our syrups to keep them fresh and from crystallizing. It is basically vitamin C in powder form, adding a slightly sour taste to the syrup.

Japanese Knotweed Syrup        makes about 4 cups of syrup

2 1/4 c. water
3 1/2 c. sugar
2 c. chopped knotweed, leaves and tips removed
3 Tbsp. ascorbic acid powder

1. In a saucepot, heat the water to boiling and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves and turn off the heat.
2. Add the chopped knotweed to the hot syrup, and cover. Allow the syrup to steep for 24 hours.
3. Filter out the knotweed with a mesh sieve, and filter again through a coffee filter to remove all the debris.
4. Remove 1 cup of the pink syrup, and warm it in a small saucepot. Add the ascorbic acid powder, stirring to dissolve it. Pour this back into the rest of the syrup and stir. Store in air tight containers at room temperature for 3-6 months.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Japanese Knotweed for Eating and Playing

Japanese knotweed at the ideal size for recipes

We have conflicting feelings about one of the most abundant invasive plants in the Northeast, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, syn Polygonum cuspidatum). Yes, it is edible when it first comes up in the spring, and purportedly it has all kinds of medicinal properties, but is its potential edibility blinding some people to the fact it is also terribly invasive? I cringe all the time when I see people wish knotweed grew in their area! We have witnessed many native habitats taken over by a mono-stand of impenetrable knotweed forests, all to the detriment of diversity and a healthy ecosystem. Invasive plants like Japanese knotweed are successful because they seed prolifically, grow faster and earlier than native plants thereby cutting off sunlight for the smaller, slower-growing plants, and invasives tend to alter the soil making it undesirable for the native plant populations. While we would never advocate for the CT DEEP's suggestions of poisoning and spraying populations of invasive plants, we also feel we shouldn't gloss over the destructive nature of Japanese knotweed for romanticized versions of wild edible plants.

The history of the introduction of Japanese knotweed to North America  plus some identifying information can be found in the Wild Edible Notebook, a monthly e-publication put out by Wild Food Girl for a nominal subscription fee. We were very happy to contribute to the April 2015 edition.

Over the years, we have come up with several recipes to eat the spring shoots of knotweed, trying not to present them as an ideal solution to the invasive plant problem, but rather as an alternative to spraying or ignoring your local knotweed sources. Eat the Invasives! But also remember to curb their spread by harvesting responsibly and properly disposing of any plant material that may take the opportunity to root and spread further.

We have started collecting some of the dried, smaller hollow stems of knotweed to use as biodegradable straws. They are not completely impervious to getting wet over hours of being immersed, but are useful when sipping drinks around the house, and kids get a real kick out of wild-crafting with natural items they can find and manipulate on their own. Gillian has even crafted a blow-dart gun with the hollow tubes, using the larger lower stalks for the "gun" by cutting off the joints at both ends, and making the "dart" from smaller diameter stalks that are have the closed joints at both ends to provide air resistance when blown out of the "gun" tube. Involving your kids in the hunt for wild foods can be fun for them, even if they are just fooling around while you do all the dirty work of harvesting. Sword fights with dried knotweed stalks are always fun, and the hollow tubes can be cut down to use as small bowls and vessels while building fairy houses.

Lots of potential straws here, as well as building material for kids and their imaginations
Eat the knotweed, play with the knotweed, but don't spread the knotweed.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Spring Greens 2015

Cardamine hirsuta, hairy bittercress

After so much snow this winter the spring greens and shoots are a bit slow to emerge. We find ourselves turning our faces up towards the sun on the nice days, warming our cheeks. Looking down at the ground for signs of life is second nature for us as we take short walks along muddy trails, and we are even taking note of the swelling buds of the trees. Not long now before we begin another year of enjoying our scavenger hunt for edible plants and fungi, where the prizes are delicious!

Matteuccia struthiopteris, ostritch fern fiddleheads

Allium vineale, field garlic

Alliaria petiolata, garlic mustard

Hemerocallis fulva, daylily shoots

Urtica dioica, stinging nettles

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Black Locust Recipe Roundup

Here in southern New England, we have about two weeks in late May when the black locusts bloom. This mildly invasive pioneer tree is often found along waterways, highways, along the edges of open fields, and in poor soil; the roots of black locust alter the nitrogen content of soil. The bark can be quite rough looking, deeply grooved and grey. The only safely edible parts of the locust tree are the flowers. There are ways to make the beans in the pods edible, but we have not bothered trying to detoxify them as a food source. The flowers are fantastic raw, with a sweet, pea-like flavor. We have flavored sugar with the blossoms, as well as cooking up a few other recipes and making a peasant wine. We also make a simple flower infused drink by soaking the blossoms in water with lemons, and then straining and lightly sweetening the drink; it's very refreshing on a warm spring day!

Black Locust Custard

Black Locust Flower Jelly

Black Locust Flower Doughnuts

Black Locust Flower Syrup

Black Locust Flower Infused Sugar

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Japanese Knotweed Recipe Roundup

It's coming . . . Japanese knotweed season! The winter season is still lingering here in southern New England, but early spring greens and shoots should start peeking up soon. Japanese knotweed is one of the invasive plants that naturalists dislike, but foragers can collect in great amounts without worrying about the plant population. When collecting, try not to accidentally discard any parts of knotweed; it has amazing regenerative powers and the ability to spread quickly, especially near waterways.

Here's a line-up of past recipes we have made using Japanese knotweed. And here's looking forward to testing out a few new ones!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


OK, let's identify and talk about the tisanes, starting from the top row, upper left corner. Most are infusions, and a few are decoctions. Infusions are made by steeping dried or fresh herbs in warm or boiled water to extract chemical compounds or flavors. Decoctions are actively boiled or simmered for a short period of time to extract flavors and chemical compounds from tougher plant parts like bark, roots, rhizomes, or stems.

First we have linden bracts, collected from linden trees (Tilia cordata or Tilia americana), often planted in parking lots as ornamentals. The tree grows in a pleasing shape and has lovely, fragrant blooms on the early summer that are attached to a lighter colored bract, which is a modified leaf. Once fertilized by bees and insects, the flower will develop into a small, fuzzy nutlet that persists on the tree for the rest of the year. Robert showed us linden flowers, as they are commonly collected in Hungary and the nectar of the flowers makes a very floral honey. We collect the bracts and dry them in loosely packed in large paper bags, shaking them every day to move them around, and opening the bags every few days to let a beetle or two fly away! The tisane is steeped in boiled water for 15 minutes, and lightly sweetened with honey to make a soothing and delicious drink, which both Robert and Gillian drink.

Next are yarrow leaves (Achillea millefolium). We use the leaves of common white-flowered yarrow, which grows prolifically along trails and in abandoned fields. We pick the fresh leaves to crush and use on minor scrapes and cuts, as fresh yarrow encourages clotting of blood. The leaves are dried in a dark place, and steeped in hot water for 15 minutes to make a slightly astringent tisane that can be useful in reducing mild fevers or as a digestive tonic.

Pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) is a wild cousin of chamomile, with an added bonus of a pineapple scent! The flower cones look very similar to chamomile, but without the white petals. It is considered mildly invasive in North America, but this diminutive weed grows in places many other plants won't bother with, like compacted gravel drives, along trails and roadsides, and in general poor soil. We find large areas of it in the driveway at our local CSA farm and collect it with the farmer's permission. An infusion of dried pineapple weed is sweet all by itself, and good for gastrointestinal upset and gas. We collect mostly the flower cones by gently picking them off the plant, but the leaves are also fragrant and can be added to a tisane.

Many varieties of perennial mints (Mentha species) grow wild, and we love to stumble upon a patch while out in the woods or exploring abandoned fields. Sometimes we find a spearmint or a cat mint, but they all make fine, fragrant tisanes. Aside from the agreeable flavor, a mint tisane is good for nausea, indigestion, gas, mild fever, and headaches. Sometimes we make a very strong infusion and add it to Gillian's bath water for a relaxing soak (and a good-smelling kid!). We dry the mint tips and leaves in a brown paper bag in a dark place, shaking it around every day. We know of several mint patches, but will not bring any home to transplant, as mint can be a voracious spreader, taking over large swaths of a garden or completely filling a planter.

We don't collect too many elderflower heads (Sambucus nigra), because then we wouldn't get to come back to gather the berries later in the season! The fresh flowers are very fragrant, and can be plucked off the stems and added to pancakes or crepes. The infusion of dried flowers can be drunk hot for fever and mucous producing conditions of the upper respiratory tract like hay fever. You can use the cooled infusion as a gargle for mouth ulcers and sore throats as well. We hang the flower umbels of elderberry to dry, then store then in sealed glass jars.

Red clovers (Trifolium pratense) are a kid's favorite to eat, picking each tube-shaped flower off the flower head to taste the nectar inside. We collect the flowers before they turn brown and wilt, drying them in a paper bag. The infusion is brewed for about 15 minutes, and has a sweet taste. Red clover contains isoflavones, which are water-soluble chemicals that act like estrogens. Most benefits of red clover are realized through tinctures, so we just drink the tisane because it tastes nice.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a drink that many folks in the Appalachian areas of North America recognize and adore. It grows prolifically in southern New England as well, as we collect the roots and inner bark to dry, before simmering into a strong decoction. There have been over-hyped cancer warnings associated with the consumption of sassafras tea or decoction, but the government studies were flawed due to a need to ban safrole, a manufacturing component of the drug MDMA. A strong decoction of sassafras root can be used to make natural root beer. Sassafras is very fragrant in an almost spicy way, and we all really love the taste of a lightly sweetened, chilled sassafras drink in the summer.

The Mythical, Medicinal, Magic Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)!! Chaga is the sterile conk of a fungus that attacks birch trees; we find it on white, yellow, and black birches in our area rather often. There are many medicinal claims being made about chaga on the internet right now, talking about anti-cancer properties to life-extension, but I'm not sure if I believe every claim being made about chaga. I can tell you a decoction of chaga tastes really good, especially if sweetened with maple syrup and mixed with coconut milk into a chilled frappe drink. Overall, the flavor of a plain chaga decoction is similar to black tea. We simmer 3 Tbsp. ground chaga in one gallon of water for about 45 minutes, and reuse the grounds to make two or three more batches of decoction to drink before discarding the used grounds. In the spring, we tap a few maple or birch trees and use the fresh sap to simmer the chaga, reducing the sap slightly to make a naturally sweetened drink.

An infusion of nettles (Urtica dioica) in the winter is an iron boost for me, as I tend to suffer from chronic anemia. We gather the top 4-6 inches of nettles in mid-spring, long before they flower, by using gloves and scissors to avoid the sting. Once dried in the dehydrator on a low setting, nettles lose their sting and can be handled without protection, and stored in large glass containers. The flavor of a nettle infusion is pleasantly green and grassy, and can be drunk without sweetener. The 15 minute nettle infusion in boiled water is also good for stimulating circulation, relieving rheumatism, and relieving eczema. When the nettles are fresh and tender, we eat bucket loads of them, and they freeze well to use all year.

Finally we have some dried beach rosehips (Rosa rugosa), a common invasive along the coasts of New England. The hips of all roses are edible, but the beach roses produce very large, meaty hips that are relatively easy to collect in large quantities. Once the seed-like achenes are removed from the halved hips, along with the irritating inner hairs, we dry the flesh of the hips in the dehydrator. A 20 minute decoction of the hips produces a sweet, fruity drink that is helpful for chronic diarrhea and stomach weakness. Rosehips also make a wonderful tart jelly filled with vitamin C, and the petals of beach roses are exceptionally fragrant and useful in syrups.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Winter Tisane Party

No matter how we line them up, set them out, brew them up, winter is a great time for a tea party, or in this case a tisane party. Tisanes are herbal teas, an infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, or other plant material into a drink that usually does not contain caffeine. With the jars full of dried herbs and plants we have collected over the year, we managed a grand tisane tasting of ten brews, sweetened, unsweetened, and blended through a rainbow of colors and assortment of flavors. Can you take a guess at the the line up?