Monday, October 26, 2009

Tea, or Tisane

Over the last year, we have been gathering leaves, flowers, and roots and drying them for teas to drink during the winter. One of Robert's favorites is linden(Tilia americana). He is familiar with another species of linden
(Tilia cordata) that grows in Europe. The leaf-like lighter green bract is collected in late spring when the flowers are open, and dried in a dark place to brew a tisane, or herbal tea. The tisane is light yellow-green with floral qualities, lovely sweetened with honey. The flowers contain antioxidants and mucilaginous properties which can reduce inflammation, sooth coughs and sore throats, and relieve anxiety related indigestion. The linden found in America has other medicinal properties found in the wood, leaves, flowers, the nutlets produced after the flowers and the charcoal from burned wood. I believe there is a European specimen at Harkness Park in Waterford, where we were gathering some bracts.

Pine needle tea can be made at any time of year, and we don't bother to gather or dry the needles, they are better fresh. The younger, long needles from white or red pines work best. Grab a handful of the needles and coarsely chop them. Using a basic formula of one part needles to two parts water, add boiling water and steep 15-30 minutes to get a clear tisane that smells like a deep pine forest in winter, so clean and fresh. It can be sweetened. Pine needle tea provides vitamin C, is a cough soother, and can relieve heartburn. You can add the tea to a warm bath for a relaxing soak. Pine needles here in the Eastern US are all safe to make tea from, with the exception of yew.

Another tasty tisane can be made from sassafras(Sassafras albidum). The leaves make a nice tisane, but the roots need to be simmered 20 minutes to make an amber decoction. The roots can be gathered and dried for storage in the winter, when the ground is frozen and you can't dig fresh roots. Sassafras is easily identified by the 3 different leaf shapes that are present on each tree--a three lobed leaf, a two fingered "mitten" leaf, and an oval leaf. When scratched, the bark gives off a pleasant and distinct odor. Sassafras reproduces saplings from a parent tree, and usually there are large amounts of small trees surrounding the parent tree for easy gathering of roots. We just yank the whole sapling from the ground and bring home the root, then dry the shaved root bits in a dark place. The taste of the decoction is root beer-like. The tisane and decoction are used as a blood detoxifier and spring tonic. There are lots of sassafras trees located in Mohegan Park here in Norwich, and we planted a letterbox there, Foraging Sassafras.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

For Rubaduc

Out in Colchester today, enjoying the weather and doing a bit of foraging, we came across a double kissing tree. Our attention had been brought to this type of tree by a box planted by Rubaduc in Gay City State Park in Hebron, CT. Google the term, and you will not find what she had in mind. A kissing tree is two separate trees that have grown together then apart again, forming a bit of an X.

These trees had so much affection for each other, they grew together at two separate points in their lives.

Ramps Recipe - Cattail pollen and ramps biscuits

Earlier this spring, Robert and I went in search of some cattails. We were looking for a place to plant a letterbox, Foraging Cattails. We found a great area off of Route 2A, in Poquetanuck Cove. The cattails growing here are narrow-leaf cattails(Typha angustapholia) as opposed to the more commonly found common cattail(Typha latifolia). The difference is in the width of the leaf, and in the placement of the male and female parts of the plant. In the narrow-leaf cattails, there is a space between the female flower and male flower on the spike, where the common cattail has no space. The male flower produces the pollen for a few days in spring to fertilize the female flower, located directly below on the flower spike. This pollen can be collected and added to baked goods in place of flour for a source of minerals, enzymes, protein, and energy, plus a super yellow color. Even earlier in the spring, the hearts of the young shoots can be pulled up and peeled, eaten raw or added to soups. The taste is mild like cucumbers, with a fantastic crunch. The cattails spread through the root system, so no harm is done by harvesting the shoots or pollen. We eventually gathered and sifted about 8 cups of pollen from this stand of cattails, and keep it in the freezer.

Here's a good recipe for biscuits with cattail pollen, and I also added some chopped ramps leaves from early spring that we had gathered and frozen.

Cattail pollen and ramps biscuits                                 makes about 16

2 1/4 c. flour
4 Tbsp cattail pollen
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
6 Tbsp cold butter
1 c. chopped ramps leaves
1 c. buttermilk

1. Mix the dry ingredients together.
2. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients, leaving some peas-sized bits. Toss with the chopped ramps.
3. Add the buttermilk, mix the dough as lightly as possible. Roll out onto a floured surface and cut into 2" rounds. Place on a sheetpan covered with parchment.
4. Bake at 425° for 12-15 minutes, until browned.

Foraging Report 10/25/2009, Autumn olive

The warm weather this week was welcome after last week's cold snap and frost. After a frost, many greens will mellow out their bitter qualities, like dandelion and garlic mustard.

The weather also encouraged some mushrooms to pop up. We had been keeping an eye on a cluster of honey mushrooms(Armillariella mellea) for a week, but the warm weather and rain encouraged a growth spurt and they were bad by the time we got back to them. Robert had gone for a walk in Pachaug Forest earlier in the week and found some gem-studded puffballs(Lycoperdon perlatum) and a beautiful Hen of the Woods(Grifola frondosa). The puffballs and the Hen of the Woods are the only mushrooms I feel safe eating right now with our current level of knowledge--which is almost nothing. We took a spore print of the Hen of the Woods, then made some risotto and a soup the next day.

We also picked some autumn olives(Elaeagnus umbellata) to freeze and make a batch of peasant wine. The autumn olives freeze well, when washed first and spread on a sheet pan in the freezer. After they are frozen, I bag them up and they stay unclumped. Two years ago we bought a small chest freezer to hold mostly foraged foods, berries, and pesto from the garden. It is currently filled to the top, and now we have 9 quart bags of frozen autumn olives, plus 3 pints of frozen purée that was left over from jam making. We ended up with 10 one-cup jars, and 12 half-cup jars of autumn olive jam. I think we will start the wine within a few days.

Autumn olive is a deciduous shrub that is an invasive species from eastern Asia. It grows along roadsides, open fields, and parking lots. It can fix nitrogen in the soil, so it can grow in areas with poor soil, and is spread easily by birds. The foliage is green with a silvery underside, and the ripe berry is red with silvery-gold specks. There is one soft seed in each berry. The flowers are clustered along the branches in the spring, as are the berries in autumn. The astringent berries start to ripen in September, but sweeten later in the autumn. Autumn olives can contain up to 17 times the amount of lycopene as tomatoes. They are easily Gillian's favorite wild edible. We have made jam, fruit leather, wine, and popsicles from the fruit purée.

We also installed a new shelf in the pantry, one dedicated to jellies and jams made this year. The shelf is 5" high, just enough to hold one one-cup jar, or two stacked half-cup jars. Unfortunately, we underestimated how much jelly we had, and it all did not fit. We crammed more than 65 jars onto the shelf, and still filled 4 mini-crates with the smaller jars. I think some family members will be getting jelly for Christmas this year!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ramps Recipe - Ramps Greens Stuffed Bread

Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are an easy item for many foragers to start with. In the spring, areas of wet forest are blanketed with the green leaves that grow mostly in pairs. The leaves are lanceolate, 8-12 inches long, flat and wide. The leaves are smooth and have almost a rubbery feel, and lack veins. When bruised, they emit a distinct garlic smell. Many communities in Appalchia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania hold festivals in the spring to celebrate the ramps, featuring this foraged food in local specialties. The leaves are gathered and chopped up to add to dishes, imparting a oniony/garlicky flavor. Ramps can be found at farmer's markets and in fancy restaurants. We gather them to use immediately, and then clean and chop more leaves to freeze for use all year. We add the chopped leaves to soups and biscuits, and pretty much anything that you would add garlic or onion to, like scrambled eggs, potatoes, dips, and beans. Our first letterbox plant was Foraging Ramps, placed in the Salmon River State Forest in Colchester, after we discovered a patch of ramps one spring. Robert has some more fantastic pictures of ramps here:

In autumn, it is the bulbs that are dug up and used like onion bulbs. It may be a bit harder to find the bulbs, since all that is visible is the dried flower stalk, usually still bearing black seeds in clusters of three in an umbel. Push aside the leaf litter and you will see the tips of the bulbs. Sometimes there are clusters of bulbs to dig up. Last week I dug up a bunch and brought them home to cook with greens and stuff into bread. I brought the bread to a letterboxing gather, and people enjoyed it. I had some bulbs left over, and added them to soup like onions. The bulbs will keep about a month in a dark, dry place.

Ramps and Wild Greens Stuffed Bread
makes one 12" loaf

one ball of dough

20 ramp bulbs
1 c. packed garlic mustard greens
1 c. packed lamb's quarters greens
1 c. sheep sorrel greens
2 c. fresh spinach
salt and pepper
1 Tbsp garlic mustard seeds
egg wash

1. Clean and chop the ramp bulbs. Wash the greens and shake off excess water.
2. Sautée the ramp bulbs in oil until translucent, and add the wet greens, cooking quickly to wilt them.
3. Season the filling with salt and pepper.
4. Roll out the dough into a 8"x 12" rectangle. Spread the filling on the dough and roll it up or braid it. Allow the dough to rise 30 minutes.
5. Brush the bread with egg wash and sprinkle the garlic mustard seeds over the top.
6. Bake at 375° for 25-35 minutes, until browned.

Letterboxing and Leaf Peeping Gather

What a great day and a fantastic location. Letterboxing and Leaf Peeping took place Saturday, October 17 at Dennis Hill State Park in Norfolk, CT, hosted by Jonah's Whalers. The weathermen were all doom and gloom with rain, snow and flood watches, but the day was dry, if windy, and even sunny! The pavilion had a fireplace which was toasty and always surrounded by chilled boxers. The potlock table was filled with snacks, apples, hot chocolate fixings, cake, and we contributed a wild greens and ramps stuffed bread. We set up a small tent for the kids to take shelter in from the wind, but they were mostly content to play with a golf set and tackle each other on the lawn, much to many mothers' dismay. I only worried about the grass stains on Gillian's jacket, she behaved well all day.

Upon arrival, Robert headed out to hike the trails with Hez and Grumpy, and they did a great job finding 28 boxes, some I cannot find listed to log. I stayed behind at the pavilion to do exchanges, PTs, tabletop boxes, and the easy, fun Five Green and Speckled Frogs with Gillian and another girl. I contributed another road sign to International Road Signs, got the Boch's Circus stamps, was able to contribute to the HH Hostel, and added the Multi-tool parts to the body that Robert had found on the trail. We won a mini log book at the raffle. We had brought a bag with 4 different jellies made from foraged fruits and a foraging book, which was won by Sally O and her daughter Happy Penguin. At one surreal point, a bunch of motorcycles pulled up with Santa in a convertible, and he gave the kids some popcorn balls. It appeared they were on a charity toy ride around town. Another inky-fingered event, but fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


We took a tour with Steve Brill this past weekend, October 11, at Putnam State Park in Redding, CT. We had been here before, almost one year ago, so we knew what we would find--mushrooms! Our knowledge of mushrooms is almost nothing, so we decided that we should start learning, join some discussion groups, take some tours, buy some books, and take some pictures.

Someone spotted rotten logs covered with pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme), enough for the whole group to pick a bag full. They are edible when young, when they are still white inside. The pear-shaped puffballs grow on dead stumps and logs, most often in great clusters, and usually year after year in the same place. When easily pulled from the rotting log, you can observe that the mushroom is pear-shaped, there is no "stem", and there is a white thready growth on the bottom to anchor the mushroom to the log. We brought them home, washed them up, sliced them in half, and cooked them into a mushroom cream sauce for millet.

Then some honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) were found, and we grabbed a few choice caps and stems, which Robert made into a vegetarian soup with carrots, potatoes, cream and chestnuts. Honey mushrooms have gills that will extend a bit down the stem, and a ring around the upper stem. The color can range from yellow to brown, and there may be scales on the top of the cap. The mushrooms are found on or near dead trees, usually being the cause of the tree's death.

Robert was scouting around ahead of the group and came across a bear's head tooth (Hericium americanum) growing on a fallen tree. I (Karen) had never seen a mushroom like this before! It was a large mass of white, icicle-like fingers hanging down from the tree. This specimen was a bit old, since it was not pure white anymore, it was turning light brown, so we left it. It is supposed to be delicious cooked slowly. I thought it was surprisingly durable, it is not as soft as it looks. You can rub the fingers and they will not break or turn mushy.

There were other mushroom finds, but many were too tough to eat, old, or deadly!! It is incredibly important to go mushroom hunting with someone who knows exactly what they are doing. A common saying is "There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters".

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Foraging Report 10/11/2009

Quite an active week for hearty autumn foraging. Nuts are ready, and we have picked up some black walnuts (Juglans nigra) which are drying in the window. There was a surprise drive-by find of chestnuts--Chinese species (castanea mollissima)--but still roasted and delicious, hoping to head back this week. Hickory nuts are also ready and dropping fast, it is almost difficult to get them before the squirrels do. Shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) tend to have bigger, meatier nuts than shellbark (Carya laciniosa) and pignut (Carya glabra) hickory.

For mushrooms, we needed some advice and went on a tour with Wildman Steve Brill. We found some adorable pear-shaped puffballs, honey mushrooms, and something he refers to as a Reishi mushroom.

One of our favorite wild edibles is at top gathering quality right now, the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). It grows at the edges of open areas, abundantly along roadways. The silvery foliage is dropping, and the red berries are heavy on the branches. We have made two batches of jam, fruit leather, and purée for the freezer, and will pick more for wine and to freeze whole.

We used our shovels for some ramps (Allium tricoccum) bulbs for cooking, and some sassafras (Sassafras albidum) root for teas. We gathered some garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola) seeds for seasoning, and Lambs quarters (Chenopodium album) greens are still tender enough to eat.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Someone had recently posted a question on AtlasQuest on a discussion board about chestnuts, about what they look like and if horse chestnuts were edible. I referenced a few books and answered the question, and then decided to go out and get some nuts.

First up, we will look at edible chestnuts. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) is native to North America. Unfortunately, many were devastated by a fungus introduced in the late 1800's from Chinese chestnut trees being imported. It is thought that three billion trees were killed. American chestnut still grows in the northwest, some pockets in Michigan and New Jersey, and throughout Appalachia. Another name for native American chestnuts is chinquapin. It is very difficult to distinguish American chestnut from Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), and they often hybridize with each other. Both trees have green, sharply toothed leaves, the C. dentata more so than the C. mollissima. The flowers are produced in yellow-white catkins in spring, with a somewhat offensive odor. The nuts are encased in an incredibly spiny burr, that will open to drop the nuts soon before the first frost. Nuts from both trees are edible, although C. dentata is said to be sweeter. One of the few distinguishing characteristics is the twig buds. On C. dentata, the buds are smooth, on C. mollissima the buds are downy. It apppears we found a Chinese tree. The nuts had already released from the burrs, and we could see the ponty end with a hairy tuft and the oblong lighter spot on the other side of the nut. We grabbed a few nuts and brought them home to roast. Before roasting them in a very hot oven at 400°, I scored an "X" on the bottom of each nut to prevent them from exploding. The nut is covered by two skins, the leathery, brown outer hull, and a papery skin under the brown hull. Chestnuts contain very little fat compared to other nuts, and almost have a starchy taste and texture from their high carbohydrate content. You may have had them in stuffing during Thanksgiving. American chestnuts were an important food source for early settlers before the blight. The wood was good for houses and barns. Many animals like deer and turkey also relied on the chestnut. New, blight resistant American chestnuts are being developed, in hopes to re-establish the species, and fill a demand for the nuts.

Next is the horse chestnut (Aesculus). There are some North American species, referred to as "buckeyes", and European species referred to as "horse chestnuts". The leaves are large and palmately divided into 5-7 leaflets. The flowers are showy in spring, arranged in a panicle. They mature into a round, sometimes spiky hull with 1-3 nuts inside, each nut having a large, white scar--the "eye" of a buckeye. There is no hair or tuft on these nuts like the edible nuts. I think we found a European tree(Aesculus hippocastanum), with the spiky hull. This late into October, it was nearly impossible to find any nuts on the ground. Aesculus nuts are poisonous to consume, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides, although deer can eat them safely. In Europe, the nuts (which are botanically seeds) were used for whitening hemp, flax, silk, and wool. We have heard of an unsporting method of crushing the nuts and placing them in a pond to slightly poison fish into a state of paralysis for easy gathering. The nuts are pretty, but do not eat these! There are several trees at Harkness Park in Waterford, Connecticut, probably planted as ornamentals. The nuts are used to play a game called "Conkers" which involves stringing the nut and swinging at your opponent's nut with the objective of breaking it.