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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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 Fails, Week Ending 9/2/2018

For this week’s foraging post, I am going to once again focus on plants that I failed find or harvest in the central MD area.

Cattails (Typha spp.)

Cattails are one of the most celebrated wild foods because so many parts of the plant are edible. Both broad-leaved (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved (Typha angustifolia) varieties grow in this area. However I have failed to find any in a location where I feel comfortable harvesting any of it. The one population where I could get permission from the land owner is too small just yet. The rest of them either require trespassing (not okay) or dangerous or polluted locations (also not okay).

Cattails too close to train tracks

Diesel-flavored cattails, anyone?

In late spring the shoots can be collected; during the summer, the pollen can be gathered from the flower heads and added to baked goods (like quick breads) for extra protein and a cheerful yellow color. The male flowers at the tips (above the “hot dog” looking part, which is the female flower) can be steamed or boiled either in pieces or whole like a teensy corn on the cob. The rhizomes are edible as well.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) 

My failure to forage elderberry is particularly sad. One of these leafy shrubs used to grow in the wild tangle of weedy plants along the side of my yard. That was several years ago, before I really knew how amazing the berries were. I didn’t think  we cut it down while cleaning up the overgrowth, but this year I was unable to locate the plant. There are two hackberries, one black locust and a mulberry … but no elderberry! I have no idea what happened to the shrub!

The elderberry flowers are showy white against a green canopy. The flowers can be used for liqueurs or battered and fried. But the berries are the real gem. They seem to boost to immune system, possibly even helping fight against the flu.

I have seen several elderberries on my daily commute, but they pose two recurring problems. 1) They are on my commute which means they are roadside plants and thus subjected to the pollution which comes  with um, being alongside the road. And 2), if they are alongside the road, they are on someone else’s property and swooping in to collect either flower or berries is, shall we say, legally problematic?

Maypop / Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata)

Maypop’s ridiculously alien-like flowers are definitely an eye-catcher, and I was sure I would have spotted them at some point during the summer. They tend to grow along fields and fences, which we have plenty of around here. The fruit starts as green egg-shaped orbs, maturing to yellow when ripe. The leaves are practically shaped like a T-Rex footprint, mashed up with a clinging vine and alien flowers. How could I possibly not find one, if there was one to find? There is still opportunity to find the flowers or fruit, based on the dates on the photos on the MD Biodiversity project, but date of first frost is a month and a half away. The days are counting down!

Rather than continue to drive myself crazy trying to find them, next year I plan to just grow them myself! Several online merchants sell either seeds or young plants.