In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/16/2018

As 2018 draws to a close, I still had two more foraging posts planned. Both posts were going to cover tubers that can be harvested well into the late fall and early winter, as long the ground isn’t frozen solid.

This week: yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus). I had first identified this common yard weed back in July, when its spiky flowers clearly marked the plant’s location. However the small tubers underground are the real prize, and the part which is harvested when nutsedge is grown as a crop. (Here’s a photo of the tubers.)

The tubers are reported to be sweet and nutty flavored, hence their other names: earth almonds, or tiger nuts. I was very excited to excavate this wild food which appeared to be growing everywhere in my yard. Tasty free food. What could be better? I even tracked down a horchata recipe, so I would be ready when the time came.

A clump of yellow nutsedge

A clump of yellow nutsedge

You guys, I have nothing to show for my patience except for several muddy holes in my lawn.

I dug up three different clumps of nutsedge, certain I would find at least a few tasty nuggets clinging to the roots. No such luck! Every vaguely-tuber-looking lump turned out to be thick, heavy clay mud. No earth almonds anywhere.

Nutsedge roots - no tubers here!

Nutsedge roots – no tubers here!

I’m not sure what I did wrong, except that maybe I tried harvesting too early or too late. Or perhaps I misidentified the plant (although the leaves do have the triangular cross-section typical of yellow nutsedge). None of my go-to foraging books covered nutsedge at all, and while many blogs note its edibility I have yet to find a step-by-step foraging guide. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write one… if I ever succeed in finding them myself!


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Foraging Hack(berries), Week Ending 12/9/2018

This was the year of hackberry fail.

Unlike my typical “foraging fail” experiences, this time it’s not my fault.

I know where the hackberry trees are, and successfully harvested fruit last December. But this year, almost every tree sports bare branches. I blame the late spring frost that also killed most of the wild cherry blossoms in our area.

The common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a fairly, um, common tree in central Maryland. This tree is also known as the Northern hackberry. Southern hackberry (Celtis laevigata), or sugarberry, is closely related and produces sweeter fruit; unfortunately its range is further south so I cannot compare the two.

Hackberry trees are so common, in fact, I discovered a cluster of them growing in the wild portion of my yard earlier this summer.  While I was thrilled to find them, I was surprised to find they had no fruit. By summer, the fruit has normally set although not yet ripe. Then I realized – none of the hackberry trees on my typical routes had fruit. None.

Hackberry trees are (or should be) easy to spot in the winter, because the tiny berries cling to the branches long after the leaves have fallen. They can remain on the tree throughout the winter season, making the berries a valuable source of food when nothing else is available.

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry fruit is small, crunchy, and sweet. Most of the berry is the seed, which is eaten whole along with fruit. They have almost no moisture at all. The berries are very high in calories for their size, and contain carbohydrates, protein and fat. They are reported to get sweeter the further into winter they go. Most years, the challenge in gathering hackberry fruit is that the trees grow to 30 to 50 feet tall, leaving most of the berries out of human reach.

A Bowl of Hackberries

A Bowl of Hackberries

I finally located ONE singular young tree with berries a week ago, but the fruit tasted rancid rather than sweet.

Hackberry trees also stand out during other seasons due to the distinctive texture of their light gray bark. The best description for it is “warty”.

Warty Hackberry Bark

Warty Hackberry Bark

Even though I can’t talk celebrate a hackberry harvest this year, last year I harvested enough berries to experiment with hackberry milk. Here is the method I used:

Clean the berries, removing stems and any berries that look bad. (Wrinkly and oxidized are okay; rotten is not okay.) Measure twice as much water as berries by volume, and place together in a blender. A high powered blender would be best; my regular old kitchen model didn’t pulverize the fruit nearly as thoroughly as I would have liked. Strain out the solids. Depending on how fine the strainer is,  the milk can end up with the consistency of a thin liquid or a puree. Add 1 Tbs of maple syrup at a time, checking for taste. (This step is probably not needed for sugarberries.) The fluid and solids will tend to separate, so stir regularly as you enjoy your drink!

Mmmmm ... Hackberry Milk

Mmmmm … hackberry milk

You can also use hackberry milk in cooking, but I haven’t tried this yet. Hopefully next year I will get the chance!


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/2/2018

I had great plans for this week’s post.

I wanted to cover winter tubers which are great for foraging this late in the year. Unfortunately here in the mid-Atlantic we suffered from yet more rain this week. (While California burns, and then turns to mudslides in the rain… Remind me again how climate change isn’t “really” a thing?)

But I digress. Since localized flooding is occurring, I cannot dig up the roots this week. Heck, I can’t even find the plants in all the mud and silt and runoff. So instead, I will talk about a strategy for dealing with foraging disappointment: instead of hunting for the forage, bringing the forage to the hunter.

Meet Thelma and Jeff, my new hazelnuts (Corylus americana)!

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

Thelma and Jeff, My Hazelnuts

(Sorry the photo is so blurry – my smart phone struggles to focus on objects that small!)

They are both cultivars of the American hazelnut: Thelma is a “Theta”, and Jeff is a “Jefferson”.

While American hazelnuts grow wild in this area, I have failed to find any in central MD. The last time I saw wild hazelnuts was last year, in West Virginia, while property hunting.  I didn’t know what they were at the time, but the plant’s features were so striking I took pictures for future identification.

Hazelnut Leaves

Hazelnut Leaves

Now I know what they were, and I’m very sorry not to have found any since.

Have I mentioned I LOVE hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly involucre

Hazelnuts wrapped in frilly leafy coverings

Ultimately, I hope to use hazelnut flour to replace almond flour in my non-grain recipes, because I worry about the environmental impacts of almond cultivation in California, where most of the commercial almond crop is produced. Not so concerned that I would go back to eating grains, mind you, because of the severe pain they cause my body; but concerned enough to try growing or foraging my own replacement with a crop native to this area.

Unfortunately, hazelnuts can take several years to start producing, and Thelma and Jeff were much smaller than I thought they would be. I have never ordered a tree or shrub from a catalog before, and while I knew they wouldn’t be full grown it didn’t really dawn on me that they would be, well, almost invisible to the naked eye.

I mean, seriously. If I hadn’t told you there were hazelnut shrubs in the wire cages in this photo, you would never have noticed them there.

Two planted hazelnuts

Two planted hazelnuts

Since it will take a while (maybe a long while) for these little guys to produce, my days of hunting wild hazelnuts are not over yet! Maybe I’ll find something next year … 2019 or bust!


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 11/25/2018

I originally planned to skip this week’s post. (I’ll spare you the list of excuses… so when I need them in the future they will sound fresh and new!)

But I realized today that I was wrong last week, when I said the foraging season was drawing to a close. It’s not ending, merely changing.

Check out this patch of wild salad greens I found this morning!

Fall Salad Garden

Fall Salad Garden

Top notch chickweed and garlic mustard, enough to last me well into the winter. Let the foraging continue!


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The Case of the Mysterious Citrus, Week Ending 11/18/2018

It’s mid-November and the foraging season is winding down in the mid-Atlantic region. We had our first major snow last week – five inches locally! – which is unheard of, to have this much accumulation prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. [Insert gratuitous climate change remark here…]

But I am not done posting! This week I will share with you the case of the mysterious citrus: the single strangest wild forage I found the entire year. Like the chinkapins from last week, I have never found reference to this plant in the (mumble) foraging books I have read.

In fact, I had no idea that citrus of ANY sort could be grown in Maryland, much less occur naturally, of its own accord, in the wild.

Meet: the flying dragon citrus. Also known as the trifoliate orange (Citrus trifoliata or maybe Poncirus trifoliata). I first stumbled upon this spiky guy back in August while stalking the local pawpaw groves to determine which had the best fruit.

Mysterious citrus

Mysterious citrus

There was no mistaking the plant was citrus. But at the time, that was all I knew. I noted the soft downy surface of the green globe; its three-lobed leaf; and the wicked sharp thorns. (OK, maybe I felt them more than I saw them!) But… what was it?

And how did it get here? I was also baffled by how this plant ended up growing wild so close to my home. Did someone toss a fruit out their car window while driving through the woods? How do citrus normally spread anyway? None of it made any sense.

Fast forward another month. In late September, I attended the 3rd annual Pawpaw Festival in Frederick MD, hosted by permaculturist and published author Michael Judd. While touring the property, I noticed a citrus tree/shrub growing out in the open, in agricultural zone 7a/6b. I had recently purchased a Meyer lemon, which is only hardy to Zones 8 – 11 so it must be taken inside to overwinter. It was odd, I thought, to plant a citrus plant outside like this, but I failed to connect this tree, in a permaculture context, and the wild plant growing less than a mile from my house.

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

A citrus at Longcreek Homestead

Over a month later, Mr. Judd (@permacultureninja) posted to Instagram the final clue to my puzzle – a name.

Flying.

Dragon.

Citrus.

I love the name, and even better, I love knowing that the name belongs to the soft fuzzy fruit and piercing thorns.

After the snow and ice last week, I decided to go check on my local flying dragon citrus (FDC). I was impressed to find that it didn’t just withstand the cold; it seemed to thrive. The frost damage to the neighboring foliage made it even easier to see the fruit and its dark green leaves against its dull brown surroundings. Flying dragon citrus is deciduous unlike the “regular” citrus plants which are evergreens. However these specimens kept their color long past everything surrounding it.

In the following photo, the green three-part leaves and ripe orange fruit stand out in stark contrast from the tree the citrus has gotten tangled in.

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

Flying Dragon Citrus in the wild

A lot of fruit had fallen from the plant already – again, the distinguishing characteristic of ripe fruit this late in the year. Any other fruit dangling within reach likewise fell from the tree with the slightest touch.

Underneath its branches, we found multiple offspring, demonstrating that this plant (or plants?) was very fertile.

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Baby Dragon (Citrus trifoliata)

Since so many of the fruit were ripe, I felt it was my privilege, nay my duty, to take a few fruit to help spread the seeds to new locations (such as my yard).

This photo shows the size of an average FDC fruit compared to a key lime  in my hand.

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

Flying Dragon Citrus compared to a Key Lime

In addition to the small size, note the lack of reflection on the wild fruit. While a certain amount of shine on the key lime could be a waxy coating used on commercial citrus, the FDC’s appearance is also muted by its soft downy skin.

The flavor of the FDC fruit is less piquant than a lime or lemon, yet more tart than an orange. The seeds in the ripe fruit are huge compared to the juice vesicles, similar to a bitter orange (Citrus aurantium) rather than the more common grocery store offerings (Citrus limon and the Citrus limon x latifolia hybrid which is the fruit most commonly sold as “lime”). The flavor has an underlying hint of spice which adds depth  beyond the simple “sweet” or “sour” we expect of citrus in our modern world.

And yes, I planted the oversized seeds. It’s what I do…


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Chinkawhat? Week Ending 11/11/2018

Before we even start this week’s post, let me state clearly: I did not find an Alleghany chinkapin (Castanea pumila). This plant is also known variously as chinqupin or dwarf chestnut, and is closely related to the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) which has been severely decimated by the cleverly-named chestnut blight. Chinkapin grows in the same range as the American chestnut, which includes central Maryland; since chinkapin is more resistant to blight, the smaller trees – and their nuts – should be easier to find.

What I found instead was a pile of discarded branches.

Allegheny Chinkapin Branches

A pile of discarded Allegheny Chinkapin branches

I don’t know who dumped these branches on the roadside. I saw them on a walk to the creek near my home last month. (Yes, it took me a while to write about them… sorry!)

I wasn’t sure what they were at first, but when I saw the burs which looked so much like chestnuts, I had to investigate.

Chinkapin Branch with Burs

Chinkapin Branch with Burs

Here’s the thing: none of my foraging books, NOT A ONE OF THEM, had mentioned anything about the chinkapin. It was just me and my Google-fu. Luckily I quickly found my answer.

Once I knew for sure what I had found, I went back to scour the dead branches for any fully developed nuts. Apparently the nuts are even sweeter than regular chestnuts, and unlike chestnuts can be consumed raw. They are not found in stores however, for several reasons. The nuts are small and tend to only have one nut per bur.  Oh, and they have an annoying habit of starting to germinate before they even come off the tree. (See for instance the photo about halfway down this page.)

And let me assure you: those burs hurt if try to handle them without gloves! Notice how my sleeve is pulled protectively over my hand in this photo!

Chinkapin Bur

Chinkapin Bur … Ow ow ow!

Why would someone cut off these branches and dump them like this? I have no idea but I wish they had waited a little longer! Unfortunately the branches appeared to have been cut just as the nuts were starting to ripen. Of all the burs we pried open, only three had fully developed, beautiful round nuts. (The roundness of the nut is another identifying characteristic, as opposed to chestnuts which have one flat side.)

One Perfect Chinkapin Nut

One Perfect Chinkapin Nut

So I did what any forager, gardener and permaculturist would do in my place: I planted them! We’ll see what happens. I tried to treat the nuts like nature – like they had fallen on the forest floor to suffer through the cold, damp winter until the warmth of spring reaches them. Unfortunately I will have to wait for months to know whether it worked!


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 11/4/2018

Along with the various nuts available for fall foraging, this is also the season for a native fruit, the American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

American persimmons are usually dioecious meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees so both are necessary to produce fruit. Occasionally trees occur that are monoecious, but from what I have read this is particularly rare in persimmons. The best way to know you have found a female tree is to check in late fall, after the leaves have fallen but fruit still clings to the branches.

Spotting Persimmons in the Fall

Spotting Persimmons in the Fall

The fruit are much smaller than the Japanese varieties of persimmon you may find at the grocery store. They are also trickier to eat unless they are. Absolutely. Perfectly. Ripe. Woe be unto the tongue of anyone sampling a fruit even slightly underripe. The high level of tannins in the unripe fruit creates a mouth-drying experience that is intensely unpleasant. Unfortunately “ripe” for persimmons means “soft” and “easily damaged.”  Like pawpaws, the ripest fruit can be found on the ground, often leading to a muddy, thorny, or poison-ivy mess depending on the tree’s surroundings.

Unfortunately, the tree I found sits on a cluttered, overgrown roadside so it was challenging even reaching the tree, much less finding edible fruit on the ground surrounding it. We’ve had an abnormally wet year here in the mid-Atlantic, and the ground almost everywhere is mud.

Roadside Persimmon Tree

Roadside Persimmon Tree

Additionally, persimmons take a long time to ripen. Between the timing, the mud, and the delicate nature of ripe persimmons, I only found a handful of usable fruit the last time I visited the tree. Luckily the temperature has only dropped below freezing a few nights this fall, so I hope more fruit will ripen before they get damaged by a major freeze. (There is a common belief that frost helps the fruit ripen. While it does help soften them, this is due to damage, not the fruit being any riper. It just happens that persimmons tend to ripen around the time when freezing temperatures occur more regularly.)

Ripe persimmons... aren't they lovely?

Ripe persimmons… aren’t they lovely?

Even though I only gathered a handful of persimmons, I still tried using my chinois to process the pulp since that was the technique described in Eating Appalachia. It went very slowly due to the size of the seeds compared to the fruit overall. Between removing the seeds and the peels, the seven persimmons pictured above only gave me about two tablespoons of puree! Once again, I am stymied by inadequate quantities of foraged harvest to actually use for anything.  All the recipes in Eating Appalachia, for instance, called for a cup or more of puree. Adding insult to injury, the puree still has a trace of the astringency which makes it unpleasant to eat straight.