In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Updates, Week Ending 9/23/2018

For this week’s foraging post, I have two updates about wild plants I have covered previously. Part of what I love about foraging is constantly learning. Even when it means I have to revise my previous understanding of the abundance that surrounds us every day.

Update one: Butternuts.

About a month ago, I posted all giddy thinking I had found wild butternut (Juglans cinera) near my house.

I regret to say, it is highly doubtful the tree I found is, in fact, butternut. At the Great Frederick Fair this past week, there were displays of both black walnuts (Juglans nigra) …

Black walnut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

Black walnut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

… and butternuts …

Butternut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

Butternut samples at the Great Frederick Fair

(Sorry it’s so blurry! The camera on my phone was really acting up that day.)

You can see the staggering difference between the two nut shapes. I thought the butternut was just a “little” pointier or more oblong than the black walnut, but wow, was I wrong. This next photo shows the shapes (sorta) of the nuts I harvested and cracked open from the tree near my house:

Bitter about the butter(nut)

Bitter about the butter(nut)

You can see how, despite the pointy ends, the nut shape really is much closer to black walnut that butternut. Alas. But seriously, I am not bitter about the butternut. It gives me something to keep looking for!

(P.S., it is currently black walnut season in central Maryland. If you aren’t careful, standing under one of these trees can be dangerous! I hear that the nuts are so hard to get into, squirrels won’t bother, which leaves plenty of nuts available for humans. I will try to post more about foraging for black walnuts in the next few weeks.)

Update two is much more exciting: I found my elderberry shrub (Sambucus nigra)!

Stop laughing! I’m serious!

The whole time we’ve lived here, we’ve waged battle against the overgrown side yard. “Unfortunately”, since I’ve learned more about wonderful wild plants, it’s gotten harder for me to find the will to work on it. In a rare show of enthusiasm this spring, we leveled most of it except for a few precious trees – hackberries (Celtis occidentalis),  black locust  (Robinia pseudoacacia) and mulberry (Morus nigra) – and anything entwined with poison ivy… which was actually most of it.

I think during the clearing spree (which took place before the spring green growth had started) we mistook bare elderberry branches for staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina).

In the weeks and months that followed, the ground was too rough to mow, and so Nature reclaimed much of our work with K-selected species and stubborn survivors. And staghorn sumac wasn’t among them.

This past week, I walked around the overgrowth to see how much work we faced next year. OK, honestly I was checking if there was anything “good” among the weeds. Burdock. Yellow rocket. Pokeweed. Then lo and behold – I spotted the compound leaf typical of elderberry.

Compound Elderberry Leaves

Compound Elderberry Leaves

When I looked for my missing elderberry before, I was looking for flowers and then fruit. But I think the elderberry didn’t flower this year because it spent all its stored strength trying to grow again. We removed other plants from its perimeter so it won’t get accidentally cleared again, and now it has less competition for soil nutrients.

Ellie the Elderberry, Hiding among the Weeds

Ellie the Elderberry, Hiding among the Weeds

I’ve named it Ellie.

Yes, I name my plants. Doesn’t everyone?


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Foraging Finds, Week Ending 8/19/2018

You guys, I found BUTTERNUT! … Maybe!

No, not a feral squash … or even an invasive domesticated squash overtaking the rest of my garden. (I already knew where that was!)

When butternut squash goes rogue

When butternut squash goes rogue

Nope, what I found was evidence of a butternut tree (Juglans cinerea) when I picked up a funny shaped nut. I’d assumed I had a better chance of finding morels than butternut trees, thanks to a fungal disease (cleverly called ‘butternut canker’) which had largely decimated the wild population. The Maryland Biodiversity Project even categorizes butternut trees as “state rare”.

But I found one, less than a mile from my house. And then a week later, I located another possible butternut near a friend’s house in Washington county. One of the key characteristics is the shape of the nut. The hull has a oblong, almost football shape. The nut inside has a prominent beak on one side.

Possible butternut

Possible butternut

Butternuts are cousins to the more prevalent black walnut (Juglans nigra). I haven’t foraged black walnuts because they feature thick, black-staining hulls and difficult-to-crack shells. Accumulating enough nutmeat for a recipe or snacking takes significant time and effort. Additionally, the flavor of black walnut does not appeal to everyone. You can sometimes find black walnuts in grocery stores, if you want to taste them to decide if they are worth the effort. (Or Amazon.com. Everything is on Amazon.)

(Immature black walnuts can also be used to make a liqueur called nocino, but I’ve already missed the window for this particular experiment.)

Butternuts, by contrast, are described as having delicious nutmeats…buttery flavored, even. I haven’t tried it yet because the butternut-shaped-nut had a cracked hull, so the nut inside was probably compromised.

Possible Butternut Tree

Possible Butternut Tree

I couldn’t tell the potential butternut tree from surrounding black walnut trees. Also I have struggled to tell black walnuts (or butternuts) from staghorn sumac or tree of heaven (especially at a distance). They all have  compound leaves with pointy, lance-shaped leaflets. Staghorn sumac tends to be shorter (35 ft), and up close the leaves have serrated margins. For females, the red drupes are a dead giveaway. Tree of heaven is more problematic, because the trees can grow as tall as black walnut (80 ft). But if you get close (i.e., not gazing at trees flying by as you hurtle down the interstate), the bark is a smooth light gray versus the deep furrows of walnut bark.

In the summer though, you know for sure if you have a black walnut if you spot the round green shapes of future nuts in the trees.

Walnut Leaves and Nuts

Walnut Leaves and Nuts

To complicate butternut identification, there are also hybrid butternuts, which the nuts shown below may have been. Note their less pointy shape than the nut in the first picture.  It can be hard to tell the hybrids from the full butternuts, but hopefully either will be just as tasty.

Possible butternuts

Possible butternuts

Apparently some years butternuts produce a good crop, and some years there is no crop at all. I’ll definitely be back to check on both trees later this year to harvest the actual nuts.

Everyone recommends wearing gloves or plastic bags over your hands when removing the hulls to prevent staining, unless “diseased” is the look you are trying for. I have read suggestions for stomping the nuts, or driving over them with cars.  You can also use a wooden board with a hole in it, and a mallet or second board to force the nut through hole, scraping off the hull. Other sources recommend just using a sharp knife to peel away the husks. (Carefully, of course!)

The nuts are also very difficult to crack.  Regular nutcrackers aren’t up to the task. One book recommended pouring boiling water over the nuts, letting them stand for 15 minutes and then trying to crack the shells with a hammer tap. Butternuts can be eaten right away, unlike black walnuts which should be allowed to fully dry and ripen in their shells for several weeks or months.

Will all the work – identifying, harvesting, hulling, shelling, and finally using the nuts – be worth it? Stay tuned! We’ll find out!