Saturday, May 29, 2010

Indian Cucumber

Not many foraging books will discuss Medeola virginiana, since it can be difficult to find, and is considered endangered in Florida and Indiana. The plant prefers open forests with moist soil. We have found some colonies in Gay City State Park in Hebron CT, and at Browning Mill Pond in Rhode Island. Sometimes only a few plants are found, but in these two places there are large amounts to dig.

The plant has a cottony bloom along it's single stem base. It can either have one set of whorled leaves, or a double tiered set of leaves, producing a flower cluster at the top tier. The bottom tier has between 5-11 smooth, tapered leaves. The top tier, if present, will have 3 leaves and the yellow, hanging flowers. The flowers will produce a small, purplish-black, inedible berry. The veins in the leaves run parallel from the base to the tip.

A few inches below the dirt, running horizontally, is the white, edible root. It can be 1-3 inches long, waxy, and crispy. It washes up easily, and tastes really fresh and sweet, like a cross between a cucumber and a water chestnut. We don't cook it, but eat it raw as a trailside nibble or in a salad. We don't usually gather a large amount, as the plant is killed once dug up, and can be scarce.
We have a letterbox planted in Gay City SP, Foraging Indian Cucumber. It is placed with a second letterbox, Foraging Wild Ginger, which was originally planted in Vermont for the Back to Our Roots gathering.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Black Locust

There is about one week in spring when the Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) blooms and we gather the flowers. The smell is sweet like a perfume, and lends itself nicely to sweet foods like fritters and pancakes. The blossoms attract lots of bees, and ants.

Black Locust is native to the Appalachian Mountain area, and is considered an invasive tree in other places. It grows quickly, and often in clusters, crowding out native vegetation and aggressively invading fields. The roots alter the nitrogen content of the soil. Most parts of the tree are toxic, causing digestive system problems. In late summer the tree produces flat, green seedpods that looks like beans containing flat seeds. It is only the flowers that we gather and consume.

The bark of older Black Locust trees is grey and deeply furrowed. The tree can grow up to 100 feet tall, and the trunk is usually crooked. The wood is very strong and often used in posts. The leaves are compound with 7 to 21 oval, smooth edged leaflets. On smaller trees, a pair of thorns grow at the leaf axils. The white flower clusters droop from the trees in late spring, making the entire tree appear white. Each flower in the cluster has a yellow spot on it's top petal, and the flowers look like pea blossoms. They are crispy when picked, and can be refrigerated or even frozen for later use. They are most fragrant right before opening, or within a day or so.

The best way to eat the blossoms is raw from the tree. Use them in a salad, or stir them into hot oatmeal. We remove the flowers from the cluster stem and add them to pancakes. Robert makes a sweet drink with the flowers steeped in water, honey, and lemon juice. This year, we are trying a peasant wine made with the blossoms. We have a letterbox available,Foraging Black Locust , in a small riverside park filled with very tall Black Locust trees.

Foraging Report 05/24/2010

Nothing new to report this week, just more of the same. In some areas, the blueberries and huckleberries are growing nicely. We picked more smilax shoots to eat, dug some more Indian cucumber roots as a trail nibble, plucked monkey tail tendrils from grape vines to munch, and tried to finish eating the Black Locust flowers up in the fridge.

While out letterboxing, we were able to find our 5th CT DEP State Forest Box, earning a patch. We went to Meshomasic and Cockaponset Forests this weekend. Cockoponset has regularly scheduled controlled burns, so there are areas where the tree canopy is not nearly as dense, resulting in great foraging spots. Some of the first plants that will reoccupy a burned area are the bushy wild blueberries and huckleberries. While there, we also spotted a garter snake and a big,black snake, and a robin's nest with 3 bright blue eggs. There is a vernal pool in the area, with a duck we startled and plenty of frogs and tadpoles.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Foraging Report 05/17/2010

In typical New England fashion, the weather has been up and down, hot and cold, windy and drizzly, and we are getting a bit of everything each day. I heard some commercial fruit growers and orchard owners were worried about early blossoming, and then late frosting of buds this year. Last year the overabundance of rain that ruined everyone's tomatoes was fantastic for blackberries and grapes! There doesn't seem to be any ill effects on the wild blossoms like cherries and blueberries, and blackberries are flowering nicely.

This week started the very short Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) blossom season. The smell of perfume is heavy in the air around the trees, and we went out gathering the flower racemes. Robert likes to make a sweet drink from them by infusing them into honeyed water with lemons and dandelion flowers. We also picked a big bag full for a batch of peasant wine, and hope to try some fritters. There is a park here in Norwich that has quite a few very tall Black Locusts that are impossible to pick from, but we did hide a letterbox there, Foraging Black Locust. The only edible part of the tree is the blossom, all other parts are a bit toxic.

We went out to gather more garlic mustard greens and green seed pods to boil and stuff into a bread to take to a potluck letterboxing gathering. It was Wanda and Pete's retirement from letterboxing, and a great group of friendly letterboxers showed up to hike, eat, exchange and chat. We met Veganf, Misplaced Manatee and lionsmane, and chatted with Celtic Roots, Bluebird, Wanda and Pete, and others. Lenny from The Compass Cuties made some fresh Rhode Island Chowder to end the afternoon. Robert hiked with some folks, and Teabass was so brave to try some wild edibles they found!

At the Browning Mill Pond Recreational Area, we found the biggest patches of Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana) we have seen. In some areas like Florida and Illinois the plant is endangered. We don't usually dig a lot of roots, since they are small and it kills the plant, but they make a nice trailside nibble. They like rather wet and shady areas with rich soil. The foliage is out now, and some plants are producing flowers. Robert brought some home to sautée, and they keep their sweet crunchiness with cooking. We planted Foraging Indian Cucumber last year at Gay City State Park in Hebron, Connecticut.

Another new edible we tried this week is smilax, or greenbrier. There are more than 300 species of smilax, but they all have similar characteristics. They are a vining shrub and will grow into large thickets. They have thorns and tendrils, and the identification is based on the placement of the leaves and tendrils. The very top portion of the vine is snapped off, and either eaten raw or lightly boiled. We both agreed it is pretty tasty, and will experiment with it some more.

We noticed the withered, brown Japanese knotweed patches along the roadsides in rural Connecticut. They are spraying them with herbicides to try to eradicate this invasive plant, but I think all they are accomplishing is poisoning the environment. It takes numerous applications of poison to kill the plant since it reproduces through it's rhizomes as well as it's seeds. We do not recommend foraging near roadways and along railroad tracks due to herbicide and poison usage, and pollution from cars and salt.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Garlic Mustard

Another book that we find useful in our research is "Invasive Plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species" by Sylvan Ramsey Kaufman & Wallace Kaufman. It very precisely describes where the plants grow and what they look like. It provides some interesting information on where the plants originated, and when they were introduced to North America. Coincidentally, many of the plants in the book are edible. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is in the book along with ways to eradicate it, such as pulling up the plant and poisoning the plant, but we like to eat the plant. Garlic mustard will completely overtake areas, crowding out the native plants and producing compounds that discourage growth of other plants in the area.

Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning the plant lives 2 years then dies. The first year plants form a rosette of scalloped, kidney-shaped leaves with long stalks. The leaves emit a strong garlicky scent when crushed, and are too bitter and tough to eat. In the first year, we dig up the white taproot to use like horseradish.

The second year plants produce a long flower stalk in early spring. Several racemes of small, four-petaled, white flowers open at the top of the stalk, and these flowers will soon produce 1-3 inch long, skinny green seed pods. The pods will dry out and turn brown and papery, and the black comma-shaped seeds will fall and spread.

The flower stalk is edible before the flowers open, picked and leaves removed then lightly sautéed. The flowers are edible in salads, adding a garlicky bite. When the seeds are black and dried, they are easily separated from the papery sheaths, and we add them to toasted spice mixtures and sprinkle them onto breads. The smaller, triangular, irregularly toothed leaves growing along the flower stalk are tender enough to eat sautéed or lightly boiled. Our new favorite is gathering the green seed pods from the top, and lightly boiling them about 1 minute, then serving them with butter and salt. Other popular uses for the tender second year leaves is making a pesto, and stirring them into risotto at the end of cooking. We also add them to soups.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Foraging Report 05/09/2010

Do we spend all of our time foraging? No, I go to the grocery store every week, Robert works, Gillian has preschool, and we letterbox, too. If we are lucky, we manage to squeeze in a bit of foraging everyday, though.

We took a trip down to a beach one day, and came across some Mayapple plants. They were blooming, one pretty white flower each, and will produce one fruit for each singular flower late in the summer. Unfortunately, this is a landscaped, high-foot traffic area, and we are thinking they will not survive until then. There was an enormous bunch of winecap mushrooms, also a bunch of enormous winecap mushrooms! We are still not totally confident with identifying mushrooms, so we only gathered one to take home to make a spore print and to study further, we did not pick or eat any more. We saw the bay laurels making their flower catkins, and saw some sumacs growing new shoots. Robert went out looking for some edible seaweeds, but didn't really find any. I found some pretty beach roses blooming pink and white, and we are looking forward to the tasty rosehips for tea and jelly in early autumn.

While out letterboxing, we picked another bagful of nettles for soup. Jewelweed, a wonderful remedy for nettle stings and poison ivy, is growing nicely in the same area. The old farmstead field contains some thistle, and curly dock. We gathered the flower stalks of each to (carefully!) peel and eat raw. We saw the wild black cherries are flowering, and a few black locust trees will flower very soon. Wild strawberries and dewberries are also flowering.

At another letterboxing site, we came across Solomon's Seal and Solomon's Plume. Robert dug a few roots from each to taste and compare. I picked and peeled some black birch for Gillian to chew on, she loves the wintergreen flavor. We noticed the grapes have leafed out, and picked a few of the curly tendrils to snack on. I noticed a small clearing off trail where there were some very large autumn olive shrubs growing in what used to be a field, and planted Foraging Autumn Olive in the vicinity. We also saw the lady slippers and trilliums blooming, such pretty flowers.

Finally, at our favorite open area very close to home, Robert stopped to pick some second-year garlic mustard tops, with the green seed pods and small leaves. Most of the flowers have gone by, and the plant is producing long, green seed pods that will soon dry out, turn brown, and release many small, pungent black seeds. The leaves are still good to eat, and we experimented with the green seed pods. We will gather the seeds to add to toasted curry spices and sprinkled on breads in the summer. He gathered some more orpine to eat raw, and to try sautéed. We also tried some milkweed shoots, lightly boiled and served with butter and salt--delicious!

Solomon's Seal, False Solomon's Seal

Which came first, letterboxing or foraging? In our case, it was foraging. I learned about letterboxing from a friend, and figured it would be a good hobby since we were already walking around in the woods being very observant. Our week usually consists of seeking out foods in known spots, and letterboxing in a new area hoping to get lucky with some edibles. We went out to find a box, found some Solomon's Seal and False Solomon's Seal along the way. This is a new edible for us, so we took some photos, gathered the edible roots, and came home to try some. There are similarities and differences between the plants.

On the Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum, or Polygonatum commutatum), the stalks are singular, arching and smooth, and it's leaves are alternate, elliptical, without stems, and the veins run parallel from base to tip. The plants grow very slowly in colonies, so you should only dig a few from each area at any time, since taking the rhizome will kill the plant. Beneath each leaf axil grow the flowers, which are white, bell-like, and tubular. It's root is white once dug and scrubbed. Each flower will later become a dark blue fruit in late summer. They are not edible, but useful for identification purposes later in the season when you can dig for the roots, although they are supposedly sweeter in the spring.

On the False Solomon's Seal, or Solomon's Plume (Maianthemum racemosum), the stalks and leaves are very similar to the Solomon's Seal. The visible difference lies in the flower stalk, or plume. The white flowers grow in a terminal panicle, clustered at the end of the stalk. Each flower is tiny, with 6 petals. These flowers will become spherical red fruit in the autumn, and are edible, but not really palatable. These plants also grow very slowly in colonies, and need to be carefully and selectively harvested. We dug a few rhizomes, and they are a light tan color, with many small roots coming from the rhizome.

The roots were about as thick as a marker. The rhizome only grows about 1-3 inches a year, and you can see where last year's stalk grew along the length of the rhizome. We scrubbed the roots, and tasted then raw. They were very fibrous, and a bit sweet and nutty. Robert then cut them into 1/2 inch sections and boiled them briefly, and they seemed softer. Both ways, the roots were tasty, although not a favorite of ours. The shoots of both plants are also edible in early spring, and we will return to this area to try some next year. It was a nice surprise to find them on our walk today, and a good tasting experience for us.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Violet Recipe - Violet Jelly

I had tried to make violet jelly last year, but it did not work. It never set, and I had 2 jars of violet syrup. I made a teeny batch again this week, just to try another recipe, and it works great. We don't make a lot of jellies in our house, mostly jams. We purchased a food mill last year just for jams, and it removes seeds wonderfully, while retaining pulp from fruit. Jellies are clear, almost like looking through colored glass, while jams are opaque, filled with fruit pulp. This violet jelly is the prettiest shade of electric lavender, it almost looks artificial, but it's all natural.
Violet Jelly makes about 5-8oz. jars
2 c. violet flowers
2c. boiling water
1/4 c. lemon juice
4 c. sugar
1 3oz. pkg Certo liquid pectin
1. Pour the boiling water over the violet flowers in a heatproof glass measuring cup. Allow the violets to steep at least 2 hours. Strain out the solids through a coffee filter.
2. In a large saucepot, stir the lemon juice and sugar into the violet infusion.
3. Bring the infusion and sugar to a rolling boil. Add the liquid pectin, and boil for 2 minutes.
4. Pour the hot jelly into hot, sterilized jars, cover, and process in a water bath for 10 minutes.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Foraging Report 05/02/2010

We picked some more of the same spring greens this week, along with some violet flowers for jam, sassafras root for tea and jam, and more ramps. The ramps are just starting to wind down here, and will soon send out their flower stalk to bloom. We found a teeny bit of watercress to munch on, and tried a few trout lily leaves too. Their yellow flowers have already passed, so they are not in the best season to eat the leaves, but we can now wait for the foliage to pass and dig some bulbs soon. We spotted tons of orpine around, and it is great as a trail nibble, tasting just like raw green beans. Robert gathered a big bag of young yarrow leaves to dry for tea, and he transplanted a few plants here in the yard. He found a big patch of sheep sorrel, also called sour grass, and grabbed another big bag of that. Cattails are putting up shoots already, and the blackberries and wineberries are leafing out. Wild blueberries and huckleberries are flowering, and Gillian likes to make yellow resin prints on her fingers from the huckleberry leaves.
We ordered a new book by Samuel Thayer called "Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants". It has some great photos, and some super, in-depth information on one of our favorite edibles-autumn olive. It also has a chapter on trout lily which we have in abundance in our area, and which we were previously unfamiliar with as an edible. This book will join his previous book "The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants" on our ever-growing bookshelf of reference material.