Black Walnuts: Working and playing with my son.

My son and I hung out all day today, (as we tend to do, I am a stay at home dad). Over all we had a good day. It was too cold and windy to go for any kind of a real walk, but we had a little picnic in the woods, in the living room, and in the basement. We also processed a few black walnuts (Juglans nigra). They were some of the eighty pounds (unhusked weight) that we foraged in the fall.

Processing black walnuts is pretty hard work, but having a little guy running around makes it a lot more interesting. On the one hand he does slow me down a little with his amazing antics, but he also speeds things up because I can’t get carried away trying to get every last little crumb out of the shell. If I do, he might come stomping through the work area like a tiny hyperactive dinosaur, or decide that my whole system should be rearranged without warning.

Anyway, it is great having a two and a half year old who can learn with me.

I may not be posting as much over the next week or two, don’t worry I haven’t lost interest in all this, I just have a lot of framing to do before my first photography show.

Thanks for reading,

Nate

Bluegill Tempura: a first time fisherman’s delight.

A quick note to my vegan and vegetarian friends: While I am pretty excited about learning to fish, I promise this blog isn’t going to move away from mostly covering plant life, foraging, ecology, gardening, and art. Fishing to me is more about helping to feed my family, while my passion for plants is much more holistic and multifaceted.

That being said, here are some impressions from my first real foray into the world of fishing.

I have been wanting to go fishing for a while now, but the opportunity just never worked out. Last year, after reading Euell Gibbons’ classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus, I decided that I just needed to read as much as possible, get my license, and see what I could figure out.

After my experience pretend fishing with my son the other day, I was pretty sure that I could catch some panfish (not sure about the exact species, from here on I will call them bluegills until I get a firm identification) pretty easily on my homemade fishing pole. My pole is made from Norway maple, about six foot long, with a hollowed out walnut as a float, a bent pin for a hook, and is wood burned with simple designs and a verse from the Bible (as has become customary for me when making my primitivish hand tools).

Well, the easy part turned out not to be as true as I had thought. I started at the far end of the pond so my shadow wouldn’t be in the water. I placed some bread dough on my hook, cast my line, waited a short while, then pulled my rod back firmly at the first tug.

No fish and no bait.

After about twenty repetitions, I took a short break to reevaluate my technique. I decided to forget about my shadow and find a spot where I could get a better view of the fish. I found a spot with a less steep bank and good visibility. Now I could see them steeling my bait, and attempt to figure out why my hook wasn’t working.

I’m not sure how much I really figured out, but after losing my bait about ten more times, I pulled back on my rod right as a small bluegill bit down on the dough ball, and was surprised to to discover him flopping on the bank.

Photo of panfish, probably bluegill.
My first panfish, probably a bluegill.

I caught two more over the next twenty minutes or so, and headed back home to see if it really is possible to learn to fillet bluegills by reading a couple books and watching a bunch of videos on YouTube.

Apparently it is possible, even when the fish are only four or five inches long. I have decided that filleting isn’t an efficient enough use of such small ones, so in the future I will be trying other methods.

Photo of bluegill tempura in my pan.
Bluegill tempura sizzling in my pan.

Once I had all three filleted, I dipped them in tempura batter and fried them up. I used Euell Gibbon’s tempura recipe. Everyone agreed that it was wonderful and a great recipe for stretching tiny fillets. I can’t wait to try it with nearly whole fish stuffed with foraged herbs.

Photo of me cooking bluegill tempura.
Me frying up the bluegill tempura.

So overall I am pretty pleased with how things went. Next time I’m going to try using bread instead of dough balls, and not using the float. I think a squirrel must have stolen the float the other night anyway.

I was expecting to feel more regret and sadness, I am an animal lover who cares for all creatures. It isn’t that I didn’t feel for the fish, but other a little bit for the possible indignity of being caught by a novice, I didn’t feel any real reason why I should feel guilty. I probably caught and killed them more humanely than if I had happened to be an egret or a heron.

Fishing is really different from foraging. I’m not sure I can really put the difference into words yet, but the plant world definitely has more of a hold of me than fishing does at this point.

Thanks again for allowing me to share my adventures.

Nate

Spring is Here, and some fishing stories.

Spring is here, it is official. Not so much because the calendar says so, but for me at least, because the world around me says so. Everywhere I walk there are new faces and familiar friends emerging from the cool damp soil. There are daffodils blooming on the way to the library, leaf buds forming on the branches of spice bush, and an old man with a big white beard casting his line into the pond at the park.

The old man told us that he had caught a huge bass, but it had fallen off his hook and flopped back into the water. I was fairly skeptical about the veracity of his story, but much less so five minutes later when we saw (and heard) a real big one jumping and splashing near the opposite bank.

Speaking of fishing, I will share the details of me and my two and a half year old son’s first timid steps toward becoming fishermen. Before that however, are photos of some of the plants that are displaying signs of new life. I will discuss all these plants and their uses in further detail in future posts, but for now I just wanted to show them as they first appear.

Photo of spring beauty plant in the woods.
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) in the woods (mixed in with various other plants).
Photo of spring beuaty plant in a pot.
A potted spring beauty.
Photo of honewort emerging.
First honewort (Cryptotaenia canadenis) leaf emerging next to last year's stalk.
Photo of new wineberry leaves.
New wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) leaves.
Photo of violet leaves emerging.
Violet (Viola species) leaves emerging.
Photo of my son playing with mullein.
My son playing with mullein (Verbascum thapsus).
Photo of my son holding his fishing rod over the pond.
My son (mr. jeremy fisher?).

So today started out rainy and not nearly as warm as is has been. I figured that my son and I would be stuck inside for most of the day. In the early afternoon, I realized that it had stopped raining, and decided that we needed to head out for a brief walk. I grabbed the fishing rod that I just finished making for him, and put him in his stroller. As we approached the edge of the yard, I told him that he could practice fishing while we walked. He had a different idea however. He said “Go to the park, Go to the park, Go to the park!”. So we walked to the pond at the park and went sort of fishing.

I say sort of because we didn’t actually have a hook on the end of the line, I just tied a little piece of bread to the end. I haven’t gone fishing since I was five years old (and swore that I would never go fishing again, It isn’t a pleasant story), so I might not be the best teacher. I was impressed with how little help he needed, and he got three bluegills to take the bait well enough that I’m sure we would have caught them if there was a hook on the line. We also manged to start a bluegill feeding frenzy, which turned out to be as interesting to him, so we switched over to just feeding the fish.

I’m going to get my license soon (sorry five year old Nate). Hopefully I will be catching some bluegills to put on our plates, but I’m still not sure if I want my son to have a hook on his line yet.

Thanks for reading,

Nate

Foraging in March: some early greens.

Life is really busy for me right now. I am working on a small reforesting/edible landscaping project, preparing for a photography show, recording an album, attempting to document the changing of the seasons, as well as just being a dad. I have however, had time to do some foraging.

Here are some plants that I have eaten recently. They are all non-native weedy greens. I am much more into learning about native plants, but might as well know about these too. They are here so we might as well use them, and foraging can be part of managing their populations.

Photo of field garlic
Field garlic (Allium vineale).

Field garlic is very common around here. It is one of the few plants that usually sprouts in fall and sticks around all winter. I usually just eat little bits here and there, but I have also used it as flavoring in my cooking, as well as in salad dressing.

I don’t recommend eating much of it (or other Allium species) if you are concerned about pollution in your foraging grounds. Steve Brill says that it can accumulate toxic metals. On the other hand, if grown in a clean environment, they can apparently also remove metals from your body.

Close-up photo of young dandelion rosette.
New dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) leaves.

Most people know dandelion, but I would suggest getting to know it better. There are a few similar looking plants that are often confused with it (as far as I know, all of these are also edible). There are many uses for dandelion, and most foraging books cover it.

Photo of me holding garlic mustard.
Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Garlic mustard is a serious ecological problem, it out competes native woodland plants and is highly invasive. This makes it a very important plant to learn (and use). As is usually the case, I completely agree with Samuel Thayer’s assessment of garlic mustard’s best culinary uses. He suggests harvesting the second year shoot before it’s flowers open and the flavor is still mild. The rest of the year garlic mustard can be eaten (even in winter if you can find it under the snow), but it is much too strong to be eaten in any quantity.

Photo of veins on underside of garlic mustard leaf.
Veins on underside of garlic mustard leaf.
Photo of me holding garlic mustard plant, showing roots.
A fairly large garlic mustard root.

I learned how to find and use large garlic mustard roots as a substitute for horseradish from Steve Brill’s book Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants. Dig them in the winter, clean and chop them, and put them in vinegar. They have quite a nice bite.

Photo of sheep sorrel.
Young sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) leaves. Avoid the reddish ones, as they are more bitter.

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I was only recently able to find and identify sheep sorrel. It is apparently quite common, and often one of the first wild foods people learn.

Anyway, I have now found a very nice patch of it at the park near here, and have sampled it a couple times. As I said previously, I am not real big on non-native plants, but this one is an exception. It has a wonderful lemony flavor, and really is quite beautiful.

Close-up photo of sheep sorrel leaf.
Slightly larger sheep sorrel leaf, note the shiny specs.

Thanks for reading,

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.

Signs of Life: Ostrich Fern in Early March.

My son and I went for a walk in the woods today. It was nice and sunny and not too cold. I took some pictures of ostrich fern rosettes to show what to look for in the off season. Last year I didn’t have a confident identification until after the fiddleheads had opened too far to be edible. This year I am waiting in eager anticipation, and was quite happy to see signs of life in the dormant rosettes.

Most of what I know about ostrich ferns has come from Samuel Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest (the book, as well as the DVD by the same name).

Photo of ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris) showing rosette with two kinds of fronds from last year's growth.
Ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris).

The rosette above has both infertile fronds and one fertile frond from last year’s growth. Not all rosette’s have both still attached by this time of year. The one closest to my hand is an infertile frond, and the darker somewhat blurry one bellow it is a fertile frond. Both of these show the deep groove that is characteristic of ostrich fern.

The next three photos show this year’s fiddleheads starting to form inside the papery sheaths that they will soon begin to outgrow. I believe that the tiny dark brown fiddleheads around the edges are ones that never fully developed last year, but I’m not sure (anyone else know?).

Close-up photo showing ostrich fern fiddle heads preparing to emerge from rosette
Rosette with fiddleheads preparing to emerge.
Close-up photo showing ostrich fern fiddle heads preparing to emerge from rosette
Another rosette with fiddleheads preparing to emerge.
Close-up photo showing ostrich fern fiddle heads preparing to emerge from rosette
And yet another rosette with fiddleheads preparing to emerge.

All of these pictures were taken in a small floodplain next to a creek that runs through the woods, but ostrich fern is sometimes used as an ornamental landscaping plant. I actually hope to transplant some from a flowerbed at my parent’s house one of these days.

Photo of me using thumb to show the groove in a dead ostrich fern frond
Another view of the groove in last years frond.

Once the fiddleheads start coming out around here, I will try to keep you updated.

Thanks for reading,

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.

A minimal forage garden, and garlic sprouting.

Photo of staghorn sumac and evening primrose in a large pot.
Evening primrose (Oenothera species) rosette on left, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) on right.

I transplanted a staghorn sumac tree and an evening primrose plant into a large pot today. I guess that is about as small a forage garden as one could create.

What is a forage garden? I use the term to mean any area of wild plants specifically planted and or tended by humans with the purpose of using the plants for food or other household uses. I also use “forage garden” instead of the more popular “forest garden” for reasons that I will have to cover in another post.

This potted forage garden isn’t really permanent, once we own some land the sumac will likely be transplanted into a thicket or woodland edge, while the evening primrose’s descendants will be planted in a more sunny area.

Photo of garlic sprouting.
Heirloom garlic sprouting.

In the realm of more standard gardening, our heirloom garlic started sprouting this week. In the fall we went to a Skill Share Collective garlic planting workshop at the Lancaster Farmacy, and came home with several varieties to plant in our own garden. We are very thankful, and excited to harvest the garlic scapes as well as the bulbs.

Thanks for reading,

Nate