In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Bonus Winter Foraging Post

I got called out for writing a cop out of a post yesterday. My reader raised an excellent point. If we were truly dependent on foraging for our survival, we wouldn’t let a little snow stand in our way. So here is the post you have gotten to read. Enjoy!

Here we see a photo of my favorite patch of chickweed (Stellaria media) (which you may be sick of hearing about before the winter is over).

Chickweed (Stellaria media) in the snow

Chickweed (Stellaria media) in the snow

As you can see in the photo, the chickweed is thriving despite the cold temperatures. It will continue providing us raw salad greens for some time.

In the below photo, notice the beautiful dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in the snow

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in the snow

They are in such good shape, I could harvest half of them for greens, and the other half to roast the roots for a caffeine-free coffee substitute.

And here we see a colony of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the snow

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the snow

I have very mixed feelings about having such a healthy “crop” of garlic mustard, since it is an invasive species that crowds out other native plants. I intended to cull this particular patch by dining on the greens, or making some intensely flavored pesto.

Last but not least, here is a tenacious burdock plant (Arctium minus).

First year burdock plant (Arctium minus) in the snow

First-year burdock plant (Arctium minus) in the snow

I am hoping this little guy makes it through the winter. Burdock is a biennial, and in its second year of life forms an edible flower stalk which I have yet to sample. (I was able to dig up a nearby first-year back in the fall to sample the burdock root.)

There  you go! Four edible plants that can be found even in the winter. Now that you know what to look for, you can successfully survive by foraging in the snow too!**

(**You know that’s tongue in cheek, right? Don’t actually try this…)


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 1/13/19

(Love my original blog post title?)

I had a few topics to choose from for this week’s post, but they all needed fresh photos. However, we finally got snow, so I am not going anywhere today!

Yay, snow! First snow of 2019.

Yay, snow! First snow of 2019.

Luckily, I had a backup post!

I’m technically cheating with today’s post – I previously discussed spotting persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) in the winter, once the leaves no longer hide the fruit. However, I recently took a new photo that showed extremely well how a female persimmon tree stands out against a clear winter sky.

American persimmons in the winter

American persimmons in the winter

At this point, in mid-January, these fruits are inedible. We’ve had several hard freezes, and the persimmons have turned mushy and sad.

But once you find the female trees, you know where to return next fall for a persimmon harvest!

(…assuming the trees are on your own property, or the property of someone whose permission you have to harvest from them, so you can clear the ground around the trees for the fruit that falls.)


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 1/6/2019

Winter foraging is mainly about locating plants to harvest from in a different season. The lack of foliage and undergrowth allows for better visibility of some characteristics.
A few plants are still edible in the coldest weather. But I promise I won’t sing the praises of chickweed *every* single week until spring arrives. (OK, maybe I will for a several weeks though.)
We start the new year with staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), a short tree or tall shrub I mentioned back in July. The female members of this species produce edible red drupes with a sour coating. The coating is water soluble so the drupes can be soaked in water to produce the base for “sumac-ade”. I tried making this myself, but it didn’t seem very flavorful, perhaps because the excessively rainy summer had washed the flavor away.
Remember, if the plant has white berries, it may be poison sumac rather than staghorn sumac, and is (surprise, surprise) poisonous!
Once the leaves have fallen, the female sumac shrubs are particularly easy to spot because the drupes cling to their bare branches throughout the entire winter.
Staghorn sumac drupes stand out against a winter sky

Staghorn sumac drupes stand out against a winter sky

Here are some staghorn sumac recipes from one of my favorite foraging authors, Leda Meredith (author of Northeast Foraging, one of my “go-to” foraging books):

Obviously these instructions won’t do you much good until later this summer … but by then you will know exactly where all the female staghorn sumacs are.

Except the ones alongside busy, fume-filled, dangerous highways. Leave those for wild birds!


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2018 Foraging Year in Review

As 2018 draws to a close, I reflected on the past year of foraging in central Maryland. I mean, a “year in review” is a thing people do, right?

The most notable theme for 2018 was “learning” – both learning what plants grew in this area, where they were (or weren’t) to be found, when and how to harvest them, and how much I still have to learn about, well, everything!

2018 provided some unexpected surprises, finding plants I’d never even known existed (like the flying dragon citrus), and amazing successes (like the local proliferation of pawpaws). But even these successes were hampered by learning curves: how do best make use of this abundance, now that I’ve found it? For example, I still have the Mason jar of pawpaw liqueur from early October steeping on my counter top, because I’m not sure what else to do with it! Other wild edibles I found but didn’t know how to actually take advantage of included:

  • acorns (which got its own separate post)
  • amaranth (mentioned last week – and I STILL haven’t managed to get enough of the chaff out to count as edible in my opinion)
  • pokeweed shoots
  • black walnuts and hickory nuts, both of which are so difficult to shell that I have only made a token attempt to use what I harvested

Another recurring theme from this year was my inability to find and harvest enough of a given wild plant to actually use. Wild grapes, chinkapins, ground cherries, and spring beauties come to mind. This particular challenge closely relates to another theme of the year: accessibility issues. For instance, my two local American persimmon trees had plenty of fruit, but I couldn’t get to them easily enough for a bountiful harvest due to the overgrowth that prevented me from gathering fruit that had already fallen to the ground.

Accessibility was also a challenge for cattails, sumac berries, and evening primrose, all of which seemed to grow best along roadsides. Particularly busy highways!

Additionally, my timing still needs a lot of work! Since this was my first year foraging year round, this comes as no surprise. Everything in nature has a rhythm, and matures in its own season. For example, I think my recent failure to harvest nutsedge tubers was mostly an issue of timing. I also missed the mayapples due to my inexperience. To complicate matters, the excessively wet year and late frost probably impacted the timing of harvests in ways I can’t yet understand, given how new I am to this field.

Last but not least, 2018 saw me reaching out to the local foraging community (and the overlapping tribes of permaculture and sustainability). Through visiting the Mother Earth News Fair, taking a class at the Fox Haven Learning Center, and attending the Third Annual Pawpaw Festival at Long Creek Homestead (which I apparently forgot to blog about!).

I debated whether to continue my weekly foraging post into the new year. Particularly as it is winter, and cold, and what is there left to say? Then I realized as I was writing this post, that I still have SO much to learn about nature and its bounty, and how humans can live more healthily and sustainably through foraging, and the best way for me to learn is to share my learning process with you, my readers. (All three of you… yes, I am up to three! *waves*) I hope you will continue reading and learning with me in 2019!

Also, if you are interested in more “real time” updates from my world of permaculture, gardening, foraging, and lower-energy-living, you can follow me on Instagram as @lean6life.


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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!