A Walk in the Woods

Maryland weather has been extra erratic this summer – if you can believe that! We suffered a long dry spell, followed by a month’s worth of rain in a few days. Plants, both wild and cultivated, struggle with the inconsistent moisture. Or so I thought. I went on a long walk in the woods to see for myself.

Black cherries (Prunus serotina). Given how much I have struggled to find and harvest black cherries in previous years, I was surprised to find a tree still covered with fruit. I have had my fun with them this year (aka, I’m still traumatized) so I left these for whatever birds may not have gotten their fill yet.

Black cherries
Black cherries

Black walnut (Juglans nigra). No impact that I can discern from the inconsistent weather.

Black walnut
Black walnut

Given the local squirrel population, it remains to be seen whether there will be any black walnuts left by fall! Here we see an Eastern “gray” squirrel whose mouth and paws have been stained brown by black walnut husks, even though the nuts are far from ripe.

An Eastern gray squirrel who has enjoyed some black walnuts
An Eastern gray squirrel who has enjoyed some black walnuts

(Because of his torn ear, we have nicknamed him Evander.)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This find was an absolute surprise to me. After several years of modest spicebush berry production, the female members of this native shrub are heavily laden with fruit this year.

Spicebush berries
Spicebush berries

I haven’t done the best job using spicebush berries in previous years, so it remains to be seen whether I can really make good use of this bounty!

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense). I was surprised to find these delicate heart shaped leaves on the forest floor. Usually by mid-summer they are crowded out by undergrowth and retreat from the summer sun until spring brings them out again.

Wild ginger
Wild ginger

I have never found a big enough patch of wild ginger to justify harvesting any, given how slowly this forest floor native grows. The flavor is said to be somewhat like store-bought ginger root, with earthier, more peppery notes. The leaves, stems and rhizomes are edible, although overharvesting the rhizomes can severely impact a colony.

Orange and yellow jewelweed (Impatiens capensis and I. pallida, respectively). One of the few plants I harvest primarily for medicinal / cosmetic purposes, although I cannot tell which jewelweed plant I have found until the flowers bloom.

Orange jewelweed
Orange jewelweed

Both I. capensis and I. pallida seem to be equally prevalent in the area, and luckily both seem to be equally effective at soothing irritated flesh!

Yellow jewelweed
Yellow jewelweed

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba). Most of the pawpaw fruit I spotted were relatively small, even though only a month or so remains until they ripen. A few larger specimens graced some of the trees, which will be worth keeping an eye on in the coming weeks.

Pawpaw fruit
Pawpaw fruit

Wild grapes (Vitis spp.). Amazingly enough, this year I FINALLY found wild grapes within extremely easy reach. No excuses to not try them this fall! Now is the ideal time to figure out how to use them. Because of the size of the seed and high tartaric acid content, they need to be juiced rather than eaten … hopefully this goes better than when I tried to extract juice from black cherries!

Wild grapes
Wild grapes

As usual, I feel obliged to point out wild grape “lookalikes” which grow in the same habitat. Well, they don’t really look like wild grapes at all, if you’re carefully to look at the leaves, stems and how the fruits are clustered. But still, make sure you know which plant you are harvesting!

Greenbrier (Smilax spp.): OK, this isn’t the best photo but you can see the clusters of green fruit in the middle of the photo.

Greenbrier berries
Greenbrier berries

While greenbrier shoots are edible in the spring, I have yet to uncover definitive word about whether or not the berries are also edible. Until I know for sure, I plan to continue avoiding them.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) peeks into the upper left of the photo above, but here is a photo with green berries as well.

Poison ivy berries
Poison ivy berries

Of course, no walk in the woods would be complete without a rundown of our favorite invasives. This year we have a new addition to the list, Japanese hop (Humulus japonicus). As far as I have been able to discern, there is no foraging value to this plant, or any actual value at all. It spreads like kudzu, without the benefit of edible leaves, flowers and tubers.

This view from above shows some of my favorite pawpaw trees almost completely drowned in the Japanese hop vines.

Japanese hop
Japanese hop

In the lower left you can also see the long, graceful leaves of a tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), another invasive species disrupting local ecosystems. Given its allelopathic effect on surrounding plants, I will be curious to see if the Japanese hop vines or the tree-of-heaven win. (If I owned these woods, neither would!)

Other invasive species at least have redeeming features (to humans) in an edible landscape. There is always Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius); too late this year for harvesting, however, since they peaked over a month ago.

Japanese wineberry
Japanese wineberry

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). Slightly less useful of a plant, at least for me, as I still have yet to harvest any rose hips for tea or other uses. This particular specimen had barely any fruit, just prickly thorns to grab skin and clothing.

Multiflora rose
Multiflora rose

Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). An invasive species that promotes mixed reactions, even for me. Yes it displaces local species, and yes it spreads readily to new habitats – but those prolific berries can be so very tasty!

Autumn olive
Autumn olive

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Technically also not-native, but so adored for its edible and medicinal uses that most folks overlook its foreign ancestry.

Stinging nettle
Stinging nettle

Stinging nettle – at least this patch – dies back during the summer and comes up again as shoots later in the year.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis). Meanwhile stinging nettle’s native cousin, wood nettle, is happily hanging out under the forest trees despite the weather.

Wood nettle
Wood nettle

Perilla leaf or beefsteak plant (Perilla frutescens). This invasive species may look similar to wood nettle at first glance, but upon closer inspection is actually a member of the mint family. (Always check whether the stem has a square cross-section!)

Perilla leaf or beefsteak plant
Perilla leaf, or beefsteak plant

Like most members of the mint family, perilla leaf has an intensely aromatic flavor. In my opinion it tends towards an anise or licorice overtone, which means we don’t use it very much personally! It might work better in small amounts mixed with other greens. If you have tried it in a dish where you thought it worked well, I would love to hear about it in the comments below!

I was surprised, given the watering intervention my own garden plants needed, by how well the wild edibles in the forest were managing despite the lengthy dry spell. How has the weather been for you? How has nature – either wild or cultivated – fared this summer in your area?

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s