Strange and Beautiful #3

Welcome to installment #3 of Strange and Beautiful an ongoing series of short photo essays featuring some of the strange and or beautiful things I find in my wanderings.

Installment #3 is five photos of Eastern skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) flowers. I was planning on holding off on doing another “Strange and beautiful”, so as not to do three in a row, but yesterday I saw the first flower of the season poking its head through the snow that it had melted. Yes that is right, it can actually raise the temperature of its surroundings in order to melt the snow. That is just one of many reasons that skunk cabbage is the essence of strange and beautiful.

If you want to see these in their flowering stage, get out soon and look for flat mucky areas next to creeks and wetlands. The flowers will be opening any day now.

These photos are from last year around this time.

Photo of Eastern skunk cabbage emerging.

Photo of Eastern skunk cabbage emerging.

Photo of Eastern skunk cabbage flower.

Photo of inside of Eastern skunk cabbage flower.

Photo of inside of Eastern skunk cabbage flower.

Thanks for reading.

Nate

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Strange and Beautiful #2

Welcome to installment #2 of Strange and Beautiful an ongoing series of short photo essays featuring some of the strange and or beautiful things I find in my wanderings.

Installment #2 is three photos of some unidentified fungus growing on a log and three photos of ant or termite eaten logs, shot last week in the woods at the park near my house.

Close-up photo of white cracked fungus on a log.

Close-up photo of white cracked fungus on a log.

Close-up photo of white cracked fungus on a log.

Close-up photo of designs in a termite eaten log.

Close-up photo of designs in a termite eaten log.

Close-up photo of designs in a termite eaten log.

There is beauty everywhere, if you take the time to look.

Nate

Strange and Beautiful #1

Welcome to installment #1 of Strange and Beautiful an ongoing series of short photo essays featuring some of the strange and or beautiful things I find in my wanderings.

Installment #1 is five photos of some unidentified fungus growing on a log, shot sometime last fall in the woods at the park near my house.

Close-up photo of orange fungus.

Close-up photo of orange fungus.

Close-up photo of orange fungus.

Close-up photo of orange fungus.

Close-up photo of orange fungus.

I hope these photos are a reminder to get outside and discover the strange beauty in nature.

Nate

The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.

Photo of my copy of The Resilient Gardener.

The Resilient Gardener by Carol Deppe, Chelsea Green Publishing 2010.

Why would someone as passionate about wild food as I am choose a gardening book for their first book review? Well, when it comes to The Resilient Gardener, there are a bunch of reasons. For one thing, as much as I love foraging, I believe that small scale cultivation of staple crops will be an important part of any sustainable future. This book is also well written, thoughtful, and actually discusses the authors experience foraging large numbers of black walnuts and hazelnuts during one of her “hard times”.

The book walks you though ways to cultivate your life to be more resilient when difficult times (personal or global) happen, and how to make your garden an asset instead of a burden. Unlike some similar books, it manages to remain calm and upbeat, never descending into simplistic ideology, fear mongering, or individualistic survivalism.

While The Resilient Gardener is a far more useful “how to” book than many books that largely fail because they attempt to cover every possible garden plant, it is more than a “how to” book and every bit as much about the gardener as the garden. It is full of compelling stories from the author about her challenges with health, diet, and caring for her sick mother. Deppe’s personality really shines in this book. Her writing is thorough, precise, and scientific without losing the human touch. In fact this is one of the most human books that I have ever read. I am impressed that the publisher didn’t make her edit out some sections where she examines some of the minutest details of her dietary issues and health concerns. While there were points at which I was incredulous at the degree to which she studies herself and her bodies reaction to various components of what she eats, it is a more complete and authentic work this way.

The first half of the book looks at gardening and resiliency in general, delving into a wide variety of topics including climate change, traditional Native American agriculture, seed saving, food preservation, ecology, soil fertility, gluten intolerance, and a whole lot more.

The second half offers an in depth look at five different staple foods. These are potatoes, duck eggs, squash, beans, and corn. These five profiles tell you how to breed, cultivate, harvest, preserve, and prepare each crop. As well as offering tips on selecting varieties, and ways to obtain a good yield even in those times that you can’t afford the time or resources to pamper your garden the way you might like.

Photo of cornbread that I baked, based on a recipe in the book.

Each profile has several recipes. The picture above shows my version of Carol’s Skillet Cornbread. The only difference is that I use one sixth the amount of butter, and still get excellent results. This is a cornbread with no wheat to hold it together, yet it crumbles less than most cornbreads that I have tried. Deppe has such an obvious love of good food that by the end of the book, I almost forgot that it wasn’t just about enjoying homemade meals.

So why did I chose The Resilient Gardener as my first review?

I guess ultimately the biggest reason is because it is the perfect gardening book for a forager to own. It gives you a whole lot of good information on getting the most healthy and usable calories with the least amount of toil. Combining the knowledge in this book with that of a few good foraging books, could put you on a path towards better food security and a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. I just wish that I had this book last growing season, maybe my garden would have produced something worth what little work I put in.

Once again, thanks for reading. Comments and questions are appreciated.

Nate

Beyond Walking Distance: Hiking near the Susquehanna.

So I’m Tired. Good tired. Went hiking near (and in) the Susquehanna river with a friend today. Most of my nature adventures happen within easy walking distance of my home, but I got to get away to a larger more scenic area. Based on my photography, some people might think I live in some pristine old growth forest, but that is far from the truth. I mostly frequent two very small and poorly manged woods, it only looks pristine because I take extreme close-ups of my most notable finds.

I really am tired after today’s hike, so I will just let the photos do the talking except for mentioning two highlights.

1. We managed to make our way through silt, muck, mud, and water to a tiny windy island with seagulls and vultures flying nearby.

2. My friend spotted some small sassafras trees, so I dug some roots to share with a lady from our church.

Hopefully you enjoy actually getting to see some photographs with scenery in them for once.

Thanks for reading, I hope to actually get my 1st book review up soon.

Nate

February Warm Spell: Two walks in the park.

After an early February primarily filled with snow and ice, we have hit a patch of warm weather here in Lancaster county. Each day seems a little nicer than the last, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s.

Photo of moss in the snow
Moss growing on a large decomposing log, with melting snow.

I took this picture of moss growing on a large decomposing log, still partially covered with snow, two days ago near the creek in the woods behind the house. I have become very fascinated with documenting the beautiful fleeting moments that occur as the seasons continue their ancient dance.

With such pleasant weather, my son and I headed out for the park this morning and played in the playground and wandered in the woods. We had a great time, and saw something very interesting. My son was grabbing handfuls of snow and throwing them into the three inch gap between edge of the pond and the ice that still covers the rest of it. Each time he would approach the bank of the pond, dozens of little spiders would scatter. Some of these spiders walked across the water and onto the ice. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on me, so this post isn’t titled “Spiders on Ice”.

Photo of dwarf hackberries hanging form tree
Dwarf Hackberries (Celtis tenuifolia).

This afternoon, I headed back over to the park by my self, to gather some seeds and take some pictures. I stopped at a dwarf hackberry shrub that produced an abundance of fruit this fall, and thankfully there was quite a few still hanging to the branches. The pulp was no longer good to eat, but the seed was probably still viable, so maybe one day we will have our own dwarf hackberry shrubs providing for us and any other wildlife.

Photo of dwarf hackberries and staghorn sumac berries in my hand
Dwarf hackberries and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) berries.

Next I headed down a path, still largely covered with snow, lined on both sides by an assortment of trees, including a large number of staghorn sumacs. Scattered all along the edge of the path were the fuzzy little berries from last years fruit clusters. More seed for some future forest/forage garden.

Photo of evening primrose leaves.
Evening primrose (Oenothera species) rosette.

Finally, headed back around to a sunny spot at the edge of the woods where a cluster of evening primrose grows. Evening primrose forms a rosette (pictured above) it’s first year, then sends up a flower stalk the next. The leaves of the rosette turn reddish in the cold, but will return to green in the spring.

Photo of evening primrose seeds in my hand.
Evening primrose seedpod and seeds.

After the flower stalk dies in late fall, the seedpods dry out and gradually release their seed. This patch still has most of it’s seed in the seedpods, and each stalk has at least a couple dozen seedpods. I gathered a fair amount of seed while leaving the vast majority of it to fall where it may.

Thanks again for reading, please leave feedback if you have a minute, I’m new to this whole thing, and interested in what people think (I know my use of commas is, inconsistent, and usually wrong).

Also, Lancaster people check out the Lancaster Skill Share Collective. They are doing some pretty good work.

Thanks,
Nate

* any pictures or descriptions of plants or information about them is provided for your information and inspiration. I highly recommend foraging, but buy yourself a reliable guide like either of Samuel Thayer’s books from Forager’s Harvest Press.

** I rely heavily on Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and to a lesser extent Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill. All three books are quite good, however I find Thayer’s work more reliable and detailed.

Foraging Highlights #1: Last year’s fruit harvest.

Other than eating a few wineberries as a kid, I have been foraging for over a year and a half now. Last year was my first full year seriously foraging, and I learned a whole lot by obsessively reading and exploring the woods. I tried over 30 new plants, being more cautious in my identification than I think some foragers are. That being said, if I could go back and do it over again, I would have focused more on learning to really use some of the more important species instead of trying to just learn as many as possible.

This year I will mostly be figuring out how to cook, preserve, and propagate the plants that I already know. I am also planning to learn how to fish this year, maybe how to bowhunt small game too, but probably not for another year or two. I’m learning to take things slow.

In the meanwhile, I am recapping last year’s adventures in several parts.

Here is part #1, Last year’s fruit harvest.

Photo of mayapple plants in the woods.
A patch of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) plants in bloom.

It feels appropriate to start out with mayapple plants (Podophyllum peltatum), considering they probably provided me with the most emotional ups and downs of any plant last year.

I must say from the start that every part of the mayapple plant, other than the ripe fruit, is quite toxic. Also, the fruit does not necessarily sit well with everybody, especially when raw.

When I first spotted a large colony of them just opening up last spring, I didn’t know what they were, and couldn’t believe that I had never noticed such an unearthly looking group of plants so close to the edge of the yard. Especially when they are young, mayapples really do look like they are from some other planet.

Anyway, after studying them briefly, I hurried back to the house and looked through my books. I found the section on mayapples in Steve Brill’s book, and was pretty sure that that was what they were. I still wasn’t positive of my identification however, so I was very happy when I received Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer, and conclusively confirmed it. The photos and plant descriptions in his books really are quite superb.

I was surprised to read that despite their abundance, most years the plants don’t produce much fruit. Certainly my patch would be different though.

Mayapple flower
Mayapple flower.

I found several other patches nearby, and soon they began to bloom.

What gorgeous flowers, and so many of them too. My son and I became obsessed with with wandering around the woods pausing to look at the flowers. Every once and a while he still asks where they went, and we discuss the seasons.

Photo of unripe mayapple
Unripe mayapple on the stalk.

As the season progressed many plants were shaded out by jewelweed and other taller plants, but I was amazed at how many did start to grow small fruit. During summer, long before any of them were even close to ripe, almost all of the plants died back and dropped their leaves.

Nature’s Garden had said that they might do this, but not nearly this early in the season. I was sure that the entire crop was lost.

Photo of ripe mayapple in my hand
Ripe mayapple of typical size.

I was wrong once again. While many didn’t ever ripen, a couple dozen hung on to their withered stalks and ripened into beautiful yellow fruits with a hypnotic tropical aroma.

Inside the skin of the mayapple, was pulp with seeds that clung to it very tenaciously. I tried them raw, spitting out the seeds as I went, and was instantly addicted.

Photo of the inside of a mayapple
Inside the mayapple.

Unfortunately, the third and fourth time I ate them, I felt vaguely nauseous afterward. Next year, if the mayapple crop is good, I might try cooking a small amount or just leave them for the box turtles.

According to Plants to Watch “Researchers have discovered that Eastern Box Turtles ( Terrapene carlolina ) have a remarkable impact on mayapple seed germination, and are the primary dispersal agent of the species. According to Braun and Brooks (1987), seeds ingested by the turtles exhibited a 38.7% germination rate, whereas un-digested seeds only had a success rate of 8.5%.”

Photo of my son picking raspberries with my wife.
My son picking raspberries (Rubus species) with my wife.

Speaking of box turtles, they don’t just like mayapples. There is a nice patch of raspberries right at the edge of the yard, so for a little over a week we get a big bowl every day with very little work. One day the three of us were picking away, when we discovered that we were not alone. A box turtle was picking off all the low hanging fruit from inside the tangle of raspberry canes.

Photo of raspberries in my hand
Raspberries (can't wait for next raspberry season).

Not sure if these are a native species or not, but they are so good that I will definitely be propagating these when we get some land.

Photo of serviceberries with leaves
Serviceberries, juneberries, etc. (Amelanchier species).

After reading about serviceberries in several of my books, I searched pretty much every inch of the small woods near here. I could not find a single serviceberry shrub or tree.

Then one day, when my son and I were taking a walk, we spotted three large shrubs absolutely covered with red and purple berries. Several branches of one of the shrubs were hanging out well over the street and littering it with berries, so I snapped off a small twig with some leaves and berries on it. We walked home and broke out the books. Yep, definitely serviceberry.

Photo of a plate of serviceberries
Serviceberries about to magically disappear.

The taste was not at all what I was expecting, but very good. Their flavor was somewhat like a blueberry with a fairly strong cherry cough syrup flavor mixed in. That probably doesn’t sound real appealing, but those several branches provided two or three quarts over the next few days, and we didn’t have any trouble getting rid of them.

This is one berry that I plan on preserving in large quantities in the future.

Photo of picking black cherries
Black cherries (Prunus serotina).

We have a fair number of black cherry trees around here. Most of them are too tall for easy harvest, and their flavor is often not real great.

However, while we were on vacation in the small town of Mexico Pennsylvania, I did find a fairly young open grown black cherry tree with pretty good fruit. Most afternoons I would wander across the campground where we were staying, pluck a large handful or two, and go sit on the porch to enjoy a nice snack.

While I don’t think that I will ever go to great lengths to gather black cherries, I do think that the trees are visually quite elegant, and I will always count them as one of my growing number of wild friends and allies.

Thanks for reading, I hope to have Foraging Highlights #2: Various Small Plants posted soon.

Thanks,
Nate

* any pictures or descriptions of plants or information about them is provided for your information and inspiration. I highly recommend foraging, but buy yourself a reliable guide like either of Samuel Thayer’s books from Forager’s Harvest Press.

** I rely heavily on Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and to a lesser extent Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill. All three books are quite good, however I find Thayer’s work more reliable and detailed.

Foraging in February: honestly mostly just observing nature.

Photo of Nate.
Mandatory overly serious self portrait.

One of the things people often say to me this time of year is “Have you been out foraging much? Probably not, right?”. Well, I really haven’t been doing too much foraging, but I do try to get out in the woods as much as I can.

If you want to be eating lots of foraged food this time of year in PA, hopefully you were out harvesting and preserving when it was warmer. However, there are some foods that can be foraged even in the ice and snow. Last year I found garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) leaves and roots, under almost 3 feet of snow. I had been watching that patch before winter really hit. Good luck finding root crops in deep snow if you don’t know the area well.

Anyway, like I said, I have been trying to get out as much as possible. I have mostly been studying the woods in its winter state, taking photos, and even eating a few morsels here and there. So here are some stories and photographs some of the plants that I have been learning from.

Photo of common hackberry.
Withered leaves and fruit of Common Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis.

The Last couple days should have been great for collecting Hackberries. There is a couple feet of snow on the ground, with a nice covering of ice. The white color of the snow contrasts with the almost black purple of the hackberries, and the ice keeps the berries from sinking into the snow as they fall from the tree.

How do you get them to fall from the tree? By throwing a nice sized stick at the lower branches.

Photo of the fruit of common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis in my hand.
Fruit of common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis.

Hackberries have a thin sweet pulp around a proportionally large seed with a small nutmeat inside.

Photo of nutmeat inside the seed of common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis.
Nutmeat inside the seed of common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis.

Unfortunately the last couple days haven’t been real good for harvesting hackberries, because all the nearby trees dropped the vast majority of their fruit before they ripened this year. Most of the fruit that did remain on the trees is not viable. I have managed to find one tree that does have a few with viable seeds to eat, but even on these, the outer fruit layer went bad before it dried.

Fortunately I got to eat a bunch of good hackberries from a dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia) tree this fall.

Photo of aniseroot or sweet cicely seeds covered with ice.
Aniseroot or sweet cicely seeds covered with ice.

Aniseroot and sweet cicely are two very similar plants that taste like liquorice. You can use the leaves in spring and fall, and the root can be eaten from late fall to early spring.

This and other members of the carrot family should be given extra caution in the identification stage, as they can resemble hemlock plants.

Photo of aniseroot or sweet cicely seeds covered with ice.
Either aniseroot or sweet cicely (Osmorhiza species) seeds.

Since I don’t know whether you can eat the dry seeds of aniseroot or sweet cicely, I just picked a few and planted them under the snow.

Photo of lamb's quarters stalks and seeds covered with ice.
Lamb's quarters stalks and seeds (probably Chenopodium album).

I transplanted some lamb’s quarters into a large pot this summer. During the fall I dried most of the seeds, but left some on one of the smaller plants, and I’m glad that I did. They look quite beautiful all covered with ice. Now I just need to get around to winnowing the seed that I did harvest.

Photo of rose hips covered in ice.
Rose hips from non-native multiflora rose (Rosa Multiflora).

Multiflora rose hips are a sweet nibble all winter, as long as you separate the pulp from the fine hairs that surround the inedible seeds. They are not native, so try not to spread the seeds.

Photo of basswood nuts and bract.
Basswood (Tilia species) nuts and bract.

There are several basswood species in North America, all of which have nuts attached by a stem to an odd leaf called a bract. I am mostly interested in basswood for their spring leaves, which can be used a salad green (or eaten right off the tree, as seen in Samuel Thayer’s dvd). The nuts are too small to really be very useful, but my son and I gather a few off the ice and took them home. Unfortunately I can’t describe their flavor, because none of the ones we gathered were viable.

Photo of an aerial pod of what I believe to be ground bean.
An aerial pod of what I believe to be ground bean (Amphicarpaea bracteata).

I believe these to be the aerial pods of Amphicarpaea bracteata, what Samuel Thayer calls “ground bean” (most sources refer to it as hog peanut), however I am not completely positive about my identification.

Photo of aerial beans of what I believe to be ground bean in my hand.
Aerial beans of what I believe to be ground bean (Amphicarpaea bracteata).

I planted these with the hope of a confident identification in the future. If they are ground bean, they are beautiful little native nitrogen fixers that were cultivated by some tribes. They produce both underground and aerial beans, and apparently benefit from the soil being disrupted while people the subterranean ones. Ground bean is definitely going to find a place in my family’s native first forage/forest garden when we have some land.

Photo of seeds and stems of honewort.
Seeds and stems of honewort (Cryptotaenia canadensis).

Honewort is one of my favorite plants, I eat the leaves and stalks in spring, the leaves in fall, and dry some to use as a seasoning year round. Fresh honewort has a wonderful taste, somewhat like parsley, only much more subtle and pleasant.

Thanks for reading, I should have some more foraging posts, as well as some book reviews up soon.

Thanks,
Nate

* any pictures or descriptions of plants or information about them is provided for your information and inspiration. I highly recommend foraging, but buy yourself a reliable guide like either of Samuel Thayer’s books from Forager’s Harvest Press.

** I rely heavily on Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and to a lesser extent Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill. All three books are quite good, however I find Thayer’s work more reliable and detailed.