In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Brambling On, Week Ending 2/10/2019

In this week’s post, we’ll look at another way the lack of winter foliage reveals wild edibles for later in the year. When the understory is smothered with leaves and thorns, it can be hard to know if anything buried under there is worth fighting to reach. In the winter, however, we can see the stems and note the location for future foraging forays.

A tangle of brambles in the winter

A tangle of brambles in the winter

Here are a few of the central MD canes and brambles you might encounter on a winter hike, with photos to help tell them apart.

Blackberry: most of the local wild blackberries appear to be Rubus pensilvanicus. There are also Alleghany blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) in the area, and they have narrower leaflets. (I am not sure there is a way to tell them apart by winter stems… I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen an Alleghany blackberry).

Blackberry in winter

Blackberry in winter

Blackberry canes have wicked sharp thorns, and often feature furrows and ridges lengthwise along the stem. They may be branched or not, depending on whether the tip of the cane was injured during the previous year. (“Tipping” is a pruning approach used for domestic blackberries because the branches will produce more fruit than a single long cane.)

Black raspberry: The other native bramble species, Rubus occidentalis, can be easily distinguished from blackberries by the purplish coloring on the stems. Like blackberries, the fruit grows on biennial canes that grow one year, survive over the winter, and flower the following year.

Black raspberry in winter

Black raspberry in winter

The new canes that grow the following year will also have an eye-catching color, though light blue rather than purple. The black raspberry’s thorns are also thankfully smaller than those of blackberries.

Wineberry: Black raspberries often share a habitat with Rubus phoenicolasius, a non-native bramble species.

Wineberry in winter

Wineberry in winter

In addition to thorns, wineberry canes bristle with red prickly hairs. In roadside thickets of brambles, the reddish color makes wineberries stand out almost as much as the purple stems of black raspberries.

Multiflora RoseRosa multiflora, technically foragable but not really interesting due to its small flowers and fruit (called “hips”). A non-native invasive species in central MD, this is the only kind of wild rose I have encountered so far.

Rose in winter

Rose in winter

While similar to blackberry canes, the multiflora roses of my acquaintance tend to be more upright (rather than long and arching); more likely to have branches; and less likely to be deeply furrowed than blackberries. Oh, but the thorns are just as sharp!

The last two plants in this post are visually similar to the previous ones, although they are not related. (Blackberries, raspberries, wineberries and roses are all members of the Rosaceae family.)

Elderberry: The winter form of Sambucus canadensis shares the long, arching leafless stems of the previously discussed canes.

Elderberry in winter

Elderberry in winter

You can tell elderberry by the lack of thorns, the larger size compared to the other canes discussed in this post, the scars from last year’s leaf stems, and the raised bumps on the bark.

Greenbrier: Smilax rotundifolia is a small sprawling vine that also has a thorny stem that looks similar to roses.

Greenbrier in the winter

Greenbrier in the winter

However roses stems are pale green or sometimes red (depending on the amount of cold it has been exposed to), while greenbrier sports glossy green stems, which look almost artificially colored compared to the dull, washed out shades of most winter plants.


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Berry Grateful

Welcome to my new series: how to suck at gardening and still feed your family!

One of the greatest disappointments we face when producing our own food is a scrawny, mangled harvest.

Mangled berries are still edible!

Mangled berries are still edible!

It’s important to keep trying, and not let your spoils, well, spoil.

Those mangled berries are edible, so use them! They are great in shakes, fruit leather, jams and syrups.


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Eats Shoots and Leaves (or Not), Week Ending May 13

Midspring in the mid-Atlantic. Asparagus is popping up in my garden with increasing frequency. A variety of wild edibles are producing shoots now as well.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) went from nowhere-to-be-seen to almost-too-large-to-eat  in the space of four days!
Milkweed Shoot

Milkweed Shoot

Unfortuantely at this tender, tasty stage, milkweed shoots look dangerously similar to dogbane (Apocynum cannibum) which is toxic. Both plants start the season as unbranched stalks with opposite, oval shaped leaves, and both ooze milky sap from hollow stems if you snap them off. As the plants mature, dogbane develops branched stems whereas milkweed remains a single straight stalk. But by then, they are too old to eat as shoots.
Dogbane Shoot

Dogbane Shoot – Don’t Eat This

Dogbane tends to be thinner and more red-tinged, however I would not rely on these traits to safely distinguish it from milkweed. It is especially difficult to tell if you don’t have a sample of each side by side for comparison. However, if you get reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaally close to the stem on milkweed, you may spot the super fine hairs on it. One blogger suggested using a jeweler’s loupe to see them – that’s how tiny they are. (As fine as frog fur, perhaps?) I tried to photograph the hairs with “meh” results. Trust me, though. If you can’t see the hairs, or aren’t sure if you can see the hairs, just give it a pass. Milkweed flower buds and immature seed pods are both edible as well, so if it does turn out to be milkweed you can still benefit from the plant later in the year.
Milkweed Stalk Close Up

Can you see the super fine hairs on this milkweed stalk?

If you were wondering, I did not eat the milkweed shoots I found. I only located two in a “safe foraging” zone (the safest – my backyard), and I am saving them both for flower buds and seed pods. If you do find milkweed shoots, apparently the best way to cook them is by boiling for 15 minutes. If I get a chance to try this, I will let you know how it turns out! (Fifteen minutes seems like a really long time to me…)
Another plant is producing shoots throughout my yard: pokeweed (Phytolacca americana).  Pokweed is edible before it starts turning magenta colored, at which point it becomes toxic. As you can see in this photo, all my pokeweed shoots, even the youngest ones in the background, have a LOT of magenta already.
Pokeweed Shoots

Pokeweed Shoots

In other words, I haven’t tried eating pokeweed either. If I can find some shoots where the pinkish color is limited to the bottom of the stem, I will cut off the pokeweed above that location and give it a try. Stay tuned!
Bramble shoots (Rubus spp.) are allegedly edible as well. I say “allegedly” because frankly, I have never been hungry enough to fight the prickles for the food underneath. Neither for wild blackberries that grow nearby, nor my own everbearing raspberries when they need to be pruned back.

Blackberry Shoots

Blackberry Shoots

In addition to my reluctance to fight the prickles, these blackberry shoots are too close to poison ivy for my comfort (you cans see the “leaves of three” clinging to the tree in the background).
Raspberry Shoot

A Prickly Raspberry Shoot

Yes friends, you read correctly. I’m surrounded by wild food this week, and didn’t eat any of it!