In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Tiny Steps

You might’ve noticed, I’m a bit of a self-help junkie.
While I haven’t read any self-help books recently – so I can use the time spent “fixing” myself through exercises to write instead – I’m still getting emails from a few self-help guru-types, and well, they’re just emails so they don’t take that long to read. And they usually don’t include exercises. (I might’ve snuck in an audiobook or two, but shhhhhhhh don’t tell.)
Recently there was an email from Courtney at Be More with Less about toasting “tiny steps”. She discussed her own life experiences, the tiny steps she’s taken, and how long it took to transition from where she started to where she is today. I found the article particularly inspiring because so often it feels like we’re not doing enough. Like we’ll never get to wherever it is we want to be. Like you feel as though you’re getting nowhere, so why even bother? Particularly if your tiny steps are focused on transitioning to a lower energy lifestyle, consuming less, and eating more naturally. The overwhelming majority of your friends and neighbors aren’t bothering, and you find yourself wondering what’s the point.
Well, here is a list of tiny steps I’ve taken over the last year(ish). As I was trying to recall exactly how long it has been, I remembered … I have written about tiny steps before! It’s fascinating to see what I meant to do, compared to what I have actually done. This list may have to become an annual tradition!
Consuming stuff:
  • Using fewer single-use disposable items. We rarely use paper plates anymore; I reach for a sponge or cloth towel before a paper towel. Not always successful, but again, this is about tiny steps.
  • Not using plastic produce bags at the grocery store for fruits or veggies that have their own wrapping (sweet potatoes, lemons, limes, etc … although the cashiers hate finding that one extra lime in my order because they weren’t all bagged together)
  • Reusing single-use disposable items wherever feasible. For instance, when I do end up with plastic produce bags, I save them to store veggies I harvest from my garden. The plastic containers that hold deli meat get reused to pack lunches.
  • Compost what paper napkins and paper towels we do use, so at least they aren’t cluttering up landfills.
  • Started a ‘deep pantry’ so I can buy food staples when they are on sale, rather than when we run out.
  • Figuring out ways to use possessions we already have in new ways to solve problems, rather than immediately purchasing a solution.
  • Reading books through the library and free ebook services rather than purchasing books. Not always 100% successful … trying to buy used books when I simply can no longer resist.
  • Mending clothing, which says a lot because I hate mending.
  • Simplifying my wardrobe… I even tried Project 333, but it really didn’t work for me. (Sorry, Courtney!)
Still working on…
  • Phasing out paper napkins… even though they are teens, my kids are still really messy
  • Shopping less. I’ve tried, but the results are inconsistent at best.
  • Watching less TV.
  • Spending less time on my cell phone.
Eating:
  • Reducing food waste through ninja meal planning skillz.
  • Eating out less often, particularly at fast food restaurants.
  • Eating more produce from my own garden. I had wanted to join a CSA, but I can’t even properly use everything from my own garden before it rots. It didn’t seem responsible to buy even more produce I would struggle to use.
  • Incorporating more wild foods into our diet.
  • Eating more food in season and local to the area. I mean, there is nothing sadder than a grocery store tomato in Maryland in February!
  • Using more permaculture techniques (like intercropping and polyculture) in my garden to improve overall health and reduce the need for energy-intensive human interventions.
Still working on…
  • Preparing at least one vegetarian meal per week
  • Preserving or sharing garden produce rather than letting it go to waste
  • Finding innovative ways to feed my family whatever I can harvest yes, really, one more time. Ask my kids how sick they are of green beans!
  • Actually listening to my body and putting the fork down when I’m full even if it’s wasteful to stop, or so delicious I don’t want to.
Energy Consumption:
  • Sewed light-blocking curtains for the full-length windows flanking our front door. The summer sun streaming into the foyer made the whole house an oven, and the AC worked overtime. In the winter, cold radiated from them. The curtains let us control the temperature better on the main level of our house.
  • Installed a new attic fan and skylight. OK these were big steps, but we needed to redo our roof anyway so both attic fan and skylight got upgraded as well. The skylight has a remote control which allows you to open and close the curtain to allow or block the sun as needed, or open the skylight to allow hot air to escape. The attic fan has also kept the temperature upstairs more comfortable.
  • Trying to combine errands to use less gas… or better yet, just not go out!
Still working on…
  • Finding and completing more projects to insulate and weatherproof our home. For example, I bought foam to insulate hot water pipes after reading Green Wizardry last year, and they are still just piled all over our basement floor.
  • Line drying more clothing.
Friends and Family:
  • Making time to actually listen to the kids.
  • Spending time with friends and family, sharing a home-cooked meal rather than going out to a restaurant.
  • Sharing experiences instead of exchanging store-bought gifts.
Still working on…
  • Working to connect with other people locally who share my interests and values.
  • Learning to enjoy what the local environment has to offer rather than going on fancy vacations; there’s lots of local opportunities for hiking and camping, for instance.
I am sure to many people these tiny steps seem like self-deprivation and misery. (Although people who feel that way probably aren’t reading my blog in the first place.)
But putting one more plate in the dishwasher is no more work than throwing out the paper plate.
Cooking at home from scratch is more work, but allows my husband and I time together while we prep the meal; we enjoy the meal together as a family, and we’re all healthier as well.
Instead of shopping as a past-time with the kids, we’re actually having conversations and trying to cook together, while the money saved has helped us better cope with a few financial crises.
Hanging laundry up to dry is actually better for the clothes as well as the environment.
And even though I still abhor mending, it brings with it the quiet satisfaction of fixing a problem myself, and returning a loved garment to my wardrobe rather than scouring the malls or internet hoping I can find *and* afford its replacement.
Last but not least, I find joy in knowing that in even small ways I am cutting back on waste and reducing the degree of variation between my values and the life I’m actually living. And that’s worth more to me than any minor inconvenience which may be caused by these tiny steps.


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 9/16/2018

In late summer in central Maryland, fruit continues to take center stage in the world of wild edibles … though depending the weather, other tasty food may be available as well.

I knew autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) was ripe following last week’s class with Fox Haven, so this week I set out to find some shrubs of my own to forage from.

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Unfortunately, many of the shrubs near me were still very tart or astringent. I was able to harvest some, but haven’t decided what to use them for. Making autumn olive ketchup seems like a wasted opportunity! In the meantime I will freeze the berries I have until I find a worthy recipe.

Don’t confuse autumn olive for the equally invasive honeysuckle bush (Lonicera maackii). The fruits appear similar at a casual glance, and both are ripe and red now. However autumn olive berries are flecked and hang below the branch. Honeysuckle bush has rounder fruit which sits atop the branch, and has slight striations within the fruit skin. The honeysuckle’s bark also lacks the smooth surface of autumn olive.

Grapes (Vitus spp.) are finally turning ripe as well. I’d been hunting for wild grapes all year, and finally found some that I monitored for several months. (I found another cluster of wild grapes, but they were behind a wall of poison ivy. I didn’t try…) I’d even passed on the chance to use these guys for verjuice as described in The Wildcrafted Cocktail.

Wild Grape Clusters

Wild Grape Clusters

Wild grapes are much smaller than their cultivated cousins, and have multiple seeds to boot. To add insult to injury, I couldn’t reach enough grapes to actually DO anything besides sample. (Jelly or jam requires a significant amount of fruit.) Although I might have brought home a few heavily seeded fruits to deposit in a corner of my yard.

Itty Bitty Grape

Itty Bitty Grape

In addition to being very small, the fruit were intensely sour. I guess I now know where the term “sour grapes” originated!

Don’t confuse grape with “bur cucumber” (Sicyos angulatus), a variety of wild cucumber with wide leaves similar to grape, and grabby tendrils which allow it to climb trees and shrubs in the same fashion as grape. The bur cucumber sports a hairy stem, flower clusters that reach upward rather than hanging down like grapes, and spiky fruit.

Bur Cucumber

Bur Cucumber

Oh, and the bur cucumber doesn’t have grapes hanging in clusters in the mid-September time frame.

Just like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and autumn olive were both flowering at the same time earlier this year, their fruit are turning ripe at the same time too. Luckily spicbush berries ripen over several weeks, so the harvest is spread out.

Ripening Spicebush

Ripening Spicebush

Visiting various locations, I was able to collect two cups, though I discarded about a half cup of berries with black or blemished spots.  As mentioned last week, spicebush is best dried then stored in the freezer for optimum freshness.  Currently I have an electric dehydrator full of berries for (what I hope is) a year’s supply of seasoning.

Following a week of blistering hot weather, the past week was abnormally cool and wet. My garden has basically molded over, but the weather was excellent for a particular genre of wild edible – mushrooms. In the woods, I was able to find a meal’s worth of wood ear  (Auricularia auricula-judae). This fungus is also known as jelly ear due to the gelatinous texture.

You might’ve noticed I don’t often blog about fungus. There are many more poisonous mushrooms than poisonous plants, and I don’t want my meager experience to misguide my two and a half readers! But wood ear is one fungus I feel comfortable in identifying. Its REALLY hard to mistake this guy for anything else. Though please remember, this blog isn’t a fool proof foraging guide – please consult local experts and additional resources before collecting mushrooms especially. (For more foraging safety, see here.)

Wood Ear on a Dead Tree

Wood Ear on a Dead Tree

Even if wood ear is edible, it must be cleaned immaculately in order to eat without gastric distress. It is possible for fungus to be covered with fungus, which might be less congenial to one’s digestive tract. These specimens though made a delightful stir fry … although they were not, in fact, seasoned with spicebush.

Spicebush seasoned wood ear for dinner

Spicebush seasoned wood ear for dinner!


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My New Earthing Shoes

Yes, I meant earthing, Earthling.

Since first learning about earthing in the book Head Strong, I’ve become a fan of going barefoot outside. Earthing – also known as grounding – promotes the idea that being in direct contact with the earth’s surface allows the planet’s negative charge to impact the body. Restoring this connection, which is often interrupted by our modern nature-free lifestyles, can supposedly bring about a wide array of health benefits.

If you do an internet search on the term “earthing”, the first search results are all for fancy gadgets to simulate that electric charge: while sleeping, while working on your computing, even while relaxing on your couch in front of the TV.

What about just, you know, being in direct contact with the earth?

I’m not going to spend a ton of money on a fancy earthing mat or any of the other “trending” earthing products, because that is not aligned with my values. I go barefoot primarily in my own yard, where I know exactly what has been sprayed on the grass (nothing for at least a year) and it’s relatively easy to dodge any “presents” from the neighbor’s dogs. Gardening barefoot has been my major source of earthing time. I have no evidence either way if earthing has impacted my health or mental well-being, but there are a lot of things we do (like taking vitamins) without *really* knowing if they make a difference.

Until it nearly killed me.

Well, I am exaggerating. Slightly. But it could have. You see, I got stung when I stepped on a honey bee.

In previous years, we’ve had few, if any, honey bees in our yard. But since we stopped spraying the grass to kill the “weeds”, and persistent wet weather had prevented mowing, clover was EVERYWHERE. Plus, I suspect someone in our area got a hive, because it went from ZERO honey bees last year, to honey bees everywhere this year. (Thank you, neighbor, whoever you are.)

Honey bee with clover

Mmmm, Clover!

It was great, all those extra pollinators buzzing around my yard. Until it wasn’t. I hadn’t been stung in over 30 years, and I’d completely forgotten how much it hurt. Plus when the sting is on the bottom of your foot, how do you hobble the 100+ feet back to your house to get help? I finally reached the house; my husband removed the stinger and applied ice, no big deal.

Then two days later, my foot swelled to the point where I couldn’t wear any shoes but flip-flops. As a result, I learned that you can in fact be allergic to bee stings without experiencing anaphylaxis. I thought those were the only two options – just a sting, or slow suffocating death as your airways swell shut. Nope, somewhere in between those two ends of the spectrum is me. Although if it had been multiple stings, or it had been near my face or neck, the story might have had a different ending. And apparently allergic reactions can worsen over time with repeated exposures, eventually reaching the anaphylaxis level.

Can you tell which foot was stung?

Can you tell which foot was stung?

Needless to say, I don’t garden barefoot anymore. Flip-flops or sloggers – and their thick rubber soles – protect me from wanton insects. And the static charge of the earth.

Enter: my new gardening shoes.

My New Earthing Shoes

My New Earthing Shoes

I had scoured the internet for ‘earthing shoes’ previously, without much luck. I wanted a shoe that didn’t keep the earth’s charge from reaching the wearer. This could be accomplished with an entirely leather shoe, perhaps, or with capacitive materials running through the sole to allow the charge to pass from earth to shoe to person. With a few exceptions, every shoe out there anymore has rubber or plastic soles. (Some men’s dress shoes for example … not gonna wear those while gardening though. Same for the “Dash Runamoc” shoe from softstarshoes.com – I am NOT wearing anything that pricey to garden!)

So I did what I always do when the marketplace fails to provide the product I want to buy. I made it myself. And by “I”, I mean myself with a lot of support from my husband who is better at leatherworking than I am. And by “a lot of support”, I mean he basically made them according to my instructions!

Apparently “barefoot running” is a thing, and provided a good starting point to fashion my own sandal. I used this site and this site as my main sources of inspiration. I thought I would be clever and use my favorite sandal to cut the pattern. After a shoe isn’t “really” the shape of a foot, it’s the shape of an object encasing a foot. Not so much – look at that weird shape.

Sandal tracing - terrible idea!

Sandal tracing – terrible idea!

So I stood on the paper and my husband traced around my actual foot. You can see the difference in the sandal shape (right) and my actual foot shape (left).

Tracings Compared (Foot, left; Sandal, right)

Tracings Compared (Foot, left; Sandal, right)

We (he) free-handed the holes between the toes, and the tabs on the sides to lace through. The leather is 4/5 ounce vegetable tanned cow. Yes, we are the kind of family that has hides laying around the house waiting to be fashioned into crafts!

Completed Earthing Shoe Pattern

Completed Earthing Shoe Pattern

The first attempt worked ok, only needing minor adjustments to better follow the shape of my toes. The second attempt was a substantial improvement, but you can see from the photo they are stiff and flat. The side flaps jut out awkwardly to the sides.

Shoes 1.0 ... Still Pretty Stiff

Shoes 1.0 … Still Pretty Stiff

The next step is getting the leather wet so it can mold to your feet. The challenge is, since this is untreated leather, it will always get floppy any time it gets wet, like in the dewy early morning (the only reasonable time to garden in the summer months), or following rain. Any time the shoes get wet from gardening, I just wear them until completely dry so they can re-mold to my feet. Once they are dry, they fit perfectly again!

Mmmm, Sexy Shoes!

Mmmm, Sexy Shoes!

An extra tab of leather behind the heel allows for a nice, snug fit that stays tight throughout my various gardening activities.

My only complaint is that the front of the sandal tends to fold under while I’m walking, especially if they have gotten wet. I might try a thicker leather in the future, or moving the lacing holes forward for more support. But that is a very minor issue, compared to being almost barefoot in my garden again. These shoes are super lightweight and easy to replace as they go through wear and tear. They are biodegradable too – no landfills for them once they do reach the end of their useful life.


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Foraging with Fox Haven, Week Ending 9/9/2018

This week, I had the opportunity to forage with a group, as part of a class offered through Fox Haven Farm & Retreat Center. They run a series of foraging classes throughout the year, and people can sign up for the entire series or just individual classes. I happened to learn about this past week’s class via a Facebook event – possibly the only good thing that has come from Facebook all year – and I had to sign up when I saw the class name: Pawpaw Haul!

Fox Haven is “a farm, non-profit ecological retreat, and learning center”. They practice organic gardening, offer retreats and classes on a variety of subjects, run an herb-specific CSA, and provide our local coop with produce. Most important for foraging, they participate in the “Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program” which allows them to leave land for native species in the local area. The land set aside for conserving natural resources is where we we spent the day hunting for fall wild edibles.

Thankfully, the blistering heat and humidity of the previous week had finally ended. The morning was cool and overcast, perfect for hiking through the woods. Lacey, the foraging instructor, led us to the area where the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) could be found. She taught us that if you shake the tree, any ripe fruit will fall to the ground. Unfortunately, this time the only fruit which fell was small and rock hard. The weird weather we’ve had all year may have been a factor in how small and late to ripen the fruit were. She said you can try roasting them if they are almost ripe to soften them up enough to eat, so we kept the handful we collected to try. I was particularly curious about this suggestion, since in Eating Appalachia they had specifically warned against overheating pawpaw when cooking; but Lacey said they had used that technique successfully at a local restaurant where she used to work.
Fox Haven Pawpaws

Fox Haven Pawpaws

Next on our class “to-find” list was autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). Autumn olive is a very invasive species, but it also provides food for wildlife and humans. The berries contain more of the antioxidant lycopene than tomatoes do, and the seeds are high in omega-3 essential fatty acids. The seeds are so large, compared to the overall fruit size, it is easiest just to eat them along with the flesh. One shrub can apparently produce almost eight pounds of fruit, which is good and bad: it’s a lot of food, but a lot of seeds that can be easily dispersed and allow the shrub to spread even further.
Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

Ripe Autumn Olive Berries

I learned that each individual shrub tends to have its own flavor; some will bear more sour fruit, and some sweeter. You can harvest fruit from different plants for different uses. The first shrub we visited had very astringent fruit (like an unripe persimmon, if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing that). The second shrub had berries so tart they made my mouth pucker. (That one was my favorite.) Since we were planning to make Autumn Olive Ketchup, we wanted sweet fruit. At the third shrub – the sweetest so far – it began to rain. We ended the gathering early due, and only ended up with about 1.5 cups of the berries.
We also harvested some goldenrod (Solidago spp.) for tea. Please note this beautiful yellow spray of flowers is NOT what is causing your fall allergies! Goldenrod often gets blamed for what is ragweed’s fault, because goldenrod is easier to identify. But the pollen too heavy to be spread by the wind, and needs insects like bees to carry it.
Goldenrod Flowers

Goldenrod Flowers

We went back to the farm for lunch early, hoping the rain would end so we could forage more in the early afternoon. We were supposed to go harvest spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries but the rain never let up so we remained trapped near the buildings. Dried ground spicebush can be used as a substituent for allspice in most recipes. However the oils in spicebush fruit go rancid quickly (even after drying), so it should be stored in the freezer for the longest useful life.
The other plant planned for harvest during the class was Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). The Jerusalem artichokes thankfully were in the garden near the buildings and barn where we tried waiting out the rain. Jerusalem artichokes, also called sunchokes, are a member of the sunflower family with edible tubers. The tubers apparently form as nodules along the plants roots as they grow during the summer.
Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

Feral Jerusalem Artichokes along a Roadside

The tubers are very high in inulin, which is prebiotic fiber that feeds the intestinal flora and fauna.  This is another great example of a food that should be sampled in small quantities the first time, or maybe even several times. If you are unused to that level of inulin, it can result in a very “fragrant” experience. They are even sometimes jokingly referred to as “fartichokes”. The inulin can be reduced by roasting, cooking with lemon juice, or waiting until after several frosts to harvest the tubers. Or you can build up your tolerance gradually by increasing the amount of Jerusalem artichoke you eat over time. Don’t eat it the evening before anything important, like a major presentation at work, an interview, or any other time you have to be serious. Trust me on this one. I don’t care if you are a grown up; farts are funny.
However, the plants we dug up had no significant growth on their roots at all. We tucked them back into the mud, hoping they would grow more. Jerusalem artichokes are practically weeds, and any part of their tubers that get left in the ground results in even more Jerusalem artichokes the next year.
While we were in the garden, Lacey pointed out different herbs and invited us to pick a few to make infused vinegar. I chose yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), and a few pieces of cayenne pepper(Capsicum anuum) for mine, and added goldenrod to it as well. I have no idea how it will turn out after a few weeks of steeping, but that is part of the adventure!
Herbal Infused Vinegar

Herbal Infused Vinegar

At the end of the class, we hadn’t harvested much to cook together! The small, unripe pawpaws were roasted at 350F, but they came out gray-fleshed and mushy looking. I wasn’t brave enough to try them! We also didn’t have Jerusalem artichokes to roast and sample with the autumn olive ketchup. Fortunately, another of the Fox Haven staff members had found some chicken of the woods mushrooms (Laetiporus sulphureus) while on a separate trip, and he shared his find with our class.
Chicken of the Woods

Chicken of the Woods

While Lacey sliced and sauteed the mushrooms, we made a small batch of Autumn Olive Ketchup since we weren’t able to gather enough berries for a full batch. The recipe we used was similar to this one although we used ground spicebush that Lacey had gathered a previous year in place of the allspice. The mushrooms were delicious dipped in the “ketchup”. And yes, the flavor and texture of the mushrooms eerily resembles chicken.
I really enjoyed the class, despite the disappointing harvest. It was a very different experience to go into the woods with other people, rather than my usual solitary excursions. It would have been nice to find more edibles, and at one point, Lacey mentioned that if we were only eating what we could forage, today would have been a day that we went hungry.
However, I think there is a different mindset between a class and foraging for survival. The only things we tried to forage were the specific items we were looking for as part of the class: pawpaws, autumn olive, goldenrod, spicebush, and Jerusalem artichokes. If we really focused on survival, on the other hand, we would have harvested everything we found, such as dandelion greens, chickory, and the earliest hickory nuts. Additionally, if this had been our only food, we also wouldn’t have let the rain discourage us because hunger is a powerful motivator!


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Pawsibilities

This week we have a bonus foraging post! Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: pawpaws. The pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is almost as mythical a foraging find as morels and ramps. The difference? I actually found pawpaw fruit!

The fruit is extremely soft when ripe, the yellowish green skin easily torn, and it often looks unsightly with discolored or black spots. Which means you’ll never find pawpaws in grocery stores! The pawpaw is indigenous to the Appalachians. Luckily I live just on the outskirts of the mountains so of course I had to try finding some for myself!

The pawpaw is a short understory tree. (Or an overgrown shrub.) The trick was first recognizing the huge leaves in the local woods; then spying the fruit high up in the branches. There are some guidelines to tracking pawpaws here.  They don’t always produce fruit consistently, depending on the conditions from year to year. They are pollinated by flies instead of bees, so apparently roadkill or scat helps produce more fruit. The larger ones seem to produce the most fruit, which unfortunately means they are out of reach. Once I finally confirmed the trees with fruit, I began stalking a few local groves.

Can You Spot the Pawpaws?

Can You Spot the Pawpaws?

Fast forward several months to early September. I didn’t mean to come home with an armload of the fruit. I just wanted to check if any nuts had fallen from the possible butternut tree. But the road was muddy where we wanted to pull over, so we drove about a mile or so past the tree. And since we were going to be near the pawpaw groves anyway, we decided to check how close the fruit was to being ripe.

I figured we were still a few weeks early because any fruit we could reach to check was rock hard. Thankfully, my husband remembered something I’d just told him from my recent reading of Eating Appalachia. You know the fruit is fully ripe when it falls to the ground. So while I was looking up (in disappointment), he looked down. Sure enough, green ripe fruit lay scatted among the leaves and weeds. So it didn’t matter after all that the fruit grew out of reach. Except may be it getting more bruised on its way to the ground. Critters and ants had beaten us to a few, but we still gathered a lot.

Pawpaw Harvest

Pawpaw Harvest

Interestingly enough, when we checked other trees, there were no fruit found on the ground at all. Not sure if they had already been eaten by forest creatures, found by other foragers, or just hadn’t ripened enough to fall yet. We also collected the end of a branch loaded with fruit that seemed almost ripe. Still to be determined whether they only will ripen on the plant (like strawberries) or off the plant (like tomatoes).

The seeds are huge compared to the overall fruit size, and present a challenge to effectively eating the fruit or extracting its pulp. The easiest method is to slice open the fruit and eat the yellow pulp with a spoon, discarding the seeds as you encounter them like watermelon seeds. (Except don’t try to swallow these, please!) Each fruit tastes different, and no two people will interpret the flavor the same way. The one consistent impression is “tropical”. You can variously experience banana, vanilla, mango, or pear. Or a mix of multiple flavors. The flavor is overwhelmingly sweet; I couldn’t eat very much since I eat very little sugar in my diet. Sometimes there is a bitter aftertaste, which may increase as the flesh oxidizes. I haven’t worked with it enough to confirm if that is the case. The texture is like custard, or pudding.

That's a lot of pawpaw seeds and pulp

That’s a lot of pawpaw seeds and pulp

After eating a few, we processed the pulp from the rest. We tried to use a food mill, but the size of the seeds prevented the mill from turning at all. So we separated seeds and skin by hand, then ran the resulting pulp through the food mill for a more consistent texture. We ended up with about two cops. I added a tablespoon of lemon juice to help preserve the color. I used part of it to make the Eating Appalachia recipe Pawpaw simple syrup – yes, for cocktails. Don’t judge!

Pawpaw Simple Syrup

Pawpaw Simple Syrup

The Pawpaw Whiskey Sour recipe was waaaaay too sweet for me; instead of 2 parts pawpaw syrup to 1.5 parts whiskey, our ratio ended up closer to 1 part pawpaw to 2 parts whiskey. We froze the rest of the pulp for future use… maybe for ice cream! The possibilities are endless.

Pawpaw Whiskey Sour

Pawpaw Whiskey Sour

If you cannot forage pawpaws locally, you can actually order frozen pulp online, for example from Integration Acres.

Obligatory warning: some people feel sick, even to the point of nausea, after eating pawpaw. Always sample new foods in small amounts first to ensure they agree with you before eating larger amounts. Additional foraging safety tips are here.


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 9/2/2018

For this week’s foraging post, I am going to once again focus on plants that I failed find or harvest in the central MD area.

Cattails (Typha spp.)

Cattails are one of the most celebrated wild foods because so many parts of the plant are edible. Both broad-leaved (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved (Typha angustifolia) varieties grow in this area. However I have failed to find any in a location where I feel comfortable harvesting any of it. The one population where I could get permission from the land owner is too small just yet. The rest of them either require trespassing (not okay) or dangerous or polluted locations (also not okay).

Cattails too close to train tracks

Diesel-flavored cattails, anyone?

In late spring the shoots can be collected; during the summer, the pollen can be gathered from the flower heads and added to baked goods (like quick breads) for extra protein and a cheerful yellow color. The male flowers at the tips (above the “hot dog” looking part, which is the female flower) can be steamed or boiled either in pieces or whole like a teensy corn on the cob. The rhizomes are edible as well.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) 

My failure to forage elderberry is particularly sad. One of these leafy shrubs used to grow in the wild tangle of weedy plants along the side of my yard. That was several years ago, before I really knew how amazing the berries were. I didn’t think  we cut it down while cleaning up the overgrowth, but this year I was unable to locate the plant. There are two hackberries, one black locust and a mulberry … but no elderberry! I have no idea what happened to the shrub!

The elderberry flowers are showy white against a green canopy. The flowers can be used for liqueurs or battered and fried. But the berries are the real gem. They seem to boost to immune system, possibly even helping fight against the flu.

I have seen several elderberries on my daily commute, but they pose two recurring problems. 1) They are on my commute which means they are roadside plants and thus subjected to the pollution which comes  with um, being alongside the road. And 2), if they are alongside the road, they are on someone else’s property and swooping in to collect either flower or berries is, shall we say, legally problematic?

Maypop / Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Maypop’s ridiculously alien-like flowers are definitely an eye-catcher, and I was sure I would have spotted them at some point during the summer. They tend to grow along fields and fences, which we have plenty of around here. The fruit starts as green egg-shaped orbs, maturing to yellow when ripe. The leaves are practically shaped like a T-Rex footprint, mashed up with a clinging vine and alien flowers. How could I possibly not find one, if there was one to find? There is still opportunity to find the flowers or fruit, based on the dates on the photos on the MD Biodiversity project, but date of first frost is a month and a half away. The days are counting down!

Rather than continue to drive myself crazy trying to find them, next year I plan to just grow them myself! Several online merchants sell either seeds or young plants.


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Plant Profile, Week Ending 8/26/2018

If you have been anywhere in central Maryland the past few weeks, you’ve see this yellow flower EVERYWHERE. It’s along every roadside. This lovely trumpet-shaped blossom is common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).

Evening Primrose is Everywhere

Evening Primrose is Everywhere

Every part of the evening primrose plant can be eaten, as long as you get your timing right. Evening primrose is a biennial, in the first year producing only leaves, and the second year sending up a tall stalk to produce flowers for seeds. Like chicory and salsify, I have only been able to recognize evening primrose when its showy flowers are on display, at which point I have already missed half the foraging fun.

Anywhere you see evening primrose flowering, you should be able to find first year plants close by.  Unfortunately the first year plant bears very little resemblance to the second year flowering plant. It starts life as a basal rosette (low lying leaves in a circle around the root), with lance-shaped leaves featuring a prominent white midrib.

I found this little guy close by several blooming evening primrose. I assume it is a first year. Am I going to sample the leaves without REALLY knowing for sure? Of course not!

Possibly Primrose

Possibly Primrose

Naturally I had to dig it up to inspect the root as well. The root displays a trait of the evening primrose, with a red color near the soil line and a light tan below that. (This photo doesn’t do the colors justice.) Am I going to nibble on the root to see what it tastes like? Heck no!

Possibly Primrose Root

Possibly Primrose Root

The only way I will feel 100% comfortable with this identification is to stake out one suspected first year plant, and watch to see what it does the following year.

Evening Primrose

Evening Primrose

Why are we looking for the first year plants? At that age, the leaves and roots are edible. The leaves of the first year plants can be eaten raw or cooked like spinach and similar greens. You can harvest leaves in the fall of a first year plant, or early spring for a second year plant. Once the plant starts flowering in July and August, the leaves are too tough to eat.

The roots can be consumed raw, although according to some sources the flavor may be too spicy (like an extremely intense radish) for some people. Cooking helps tame the flavor. Other sources say the roots can be sweet, so maybe the flavor changes with growing conditions. Don’t harvest all the roots you find though, or you won’t have flowers to enjoy later.

The immature flower stalks can be harvested in the late spring or early summer of the plant’s second year. I have read that they need to be peeled before being eaten – I haven’t caught one at the right stage to try it myself. The flower pods and flowers are edible as well. The flowers have a mild sweet flavor, and would make a delicious decoration on salads or desserts. Just don’t harvest all the flowers, or there won’t be any seeds later!

The immature seed heads can apparently be cooked and eaten like a vegetable. And last but not least, once the seed heads are ripe (mid- to late-fall) you can peel them open to reveal the edible seeds.  The seeds are even good for you too. They contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid. The seeds are commercially processed to extract the oil and sold as nutritional supplements.

Seed Heads Still Holding Seeds in the Winter

Seed Heads Still Holding Seeds in the Winter

The seeds can be used like sesame seeds or poppy seeds to garnish baked goods, or sprinkled over yogurt or cottage cheese. Some sources recommend toasting them, but I would be concerned heat would damage the GLA. When I use the seeds I plan to harvest later this year, I certainly will not be heating them. Whatever you choose to do with them though, make sure to leave a few seeds behind to help seed the next crop of evening primrose!

For a reminder about foraging safely, please visit this page.