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 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.