The milkweeds’ days are numbered in hours…
I know I already mentioned this podcast by Chris Martenson titled Living with Integrity.
I was struck, not just by the analogy of eating spoonfuls of oil, but his observations about dramatic declines in insect and bird life in his area. It made me reflect on how unaware I am of what’s “normal” here in central MD. I’ve never paid attention to birds and bugs before, beyond railing against Japanese beetles killing my plants…
…and the cardinals destroying my blueberries.
Then just a few days later, I read Chapter 10: The Myth of Nature from 33 Myths of the System. All of Darren Allen’s writing is powerful, and this was no exception. But I was surprised by the claim of 75% of insect life gone.
Seventy five percent? Really?
Today I was rummaging through the milkweed in the farmer’s field across the street. Good news! I actually have permission to forage here now, and the farmer hasn’t yet mowed. I am hunting for milkweed buds to eat as vegetables, and some milkweed flowers for a batch of liqueur.
Harvesting the flower parts should be “okay” from a ecological perspective because the farmer will probably mow this field in the next few weeks, before these plants could set seed anyway. No milkweed cheese for me this year! Even if my own modest patch manages to produce flowers, I wouldn’t harvest them (as flowers or young seedpods) to make sure I could plants more milkweed so the monarchs have something to eat next year.
So I creep through the tall grass in the field, harvesting milkweed flower buds and flowers, getting sticky sap all over my gloves, trying avoid any poison ivy and praying there are no ticks. I approach each plant carefully, tenderly, so I don’t disturb any caterpillars happily munching on the leaves. In fact, I might even relocate a few to my own yard, to make sure some survive the inevitable mowing of the field.
Only… there’s no monarch caterpillars.
Everywhere I look, the leaves are smooth and untouched by little caterpillar mandibles.
At long last, I find one. One singular monarch baby.
I carefully evacuate it to my yard, and hope I can find more in a few days … and that rain postpones the inevitable mowing further to buy me more time!
I truly believe that people need to take more responsibility for their own food production. I know this isn’t realistic for everyone, but if food production became more local – hyperlocal, in the case of the gardener or forager feeding themselves and their loved ones – it would do a lot to help heal the planet by reducing the demand for fossil fuels. The beginning of this podcast by Chris Martenson reinforced that for me. (Although I’ve also read a number of books that discuss the dependence of our industrial agricultural food complex on the continued supply of cheap oil – Omnivore’s Dilemma, Nation of Farmers, and Folks This Ain’t Normal, among others).
To that end, I may have gotten carried away with this year’s project: edible landscaping.
To show you what I mean, here is a tour of the edible landscaping in my meager 1.85 acres. I haven’t gone completely crazy – we still mow way more lawn than I would like. But I’m also still learning how to take care of all these various plants and trees so I’m adding to the layout gradually. I goal is to plant as many perennials and self-propagating annuals as possible, to make the landscaping easier to maintain over time. I will post a separate (but also photo-heavy) update about this year’s garden efforts as well.
Where to start, where to start.
We’ll begin our tour at the driveway, with the items you might see if you were coming to my house for a visit.
This photo shows the beginning of my food forest. A “food forest” is an engineered forest, modeling forests as they occur in nature, but planted with trees, shrubs, pollinators and other plants that primarily provide benefit to humans. (I have a lot more to say about food forests in a future post.)
As you can see, I have a ways to go until this reaches “forest” status! I planted primarily local fruit and nut trees. The mulberry and elderberry (on the left) were already growing on their own. There are also two hackberries and a black locust in the center (ish). I have added three hazelnut trees, two serviceberries, and another elderberry. You can’t really see them in this photo – they are in the green wire cages on the left. They are all plants mentioned in foraging books for this area, so I guess you could say this counts as reverse foraging too. The hazelnuts are particularly important to me to reduce my consumption of almond flour. Since I don’t eat grains like flour or corn, I use almond flour in a few recipes. But despite how trendy almond flour is, almond growing is actually very problematic from an ecological perspective. Unfortunately, it will probably take several more years until any of the plants I added actually produce fruits and nuts.
In additional to the food forest, we also built a little pollinator bed.
It has a ways to go. The plants here are primarily flowers to attract bees and butterflies, since they help pollinate food crops as well. I’m trying to pick plants with medicinal or edible value to humans as well. Johnny jump ups, for instance have edible flowers. I hope to add wild bergamot, echinacea, and milkweed (of course!) to this bed soon.
By the front door is my strawberry bed.
They are done for the year, so the photo isn’t nearly as dramatic as it could have been. Yes, my Junebearing strawberries are all tapped out of fruit by June. Go figure! We have discussed removing the existing shrubs from the house and replacing them with fruiting shrubs as well, but I want to do a little more research before making that change, given how expensive that project would be!
Around the side of the house we find my gooseberries and herb wall.
Honestly, I had never even tasted a gooseberry until my husband brought these two plants home from a local nursery! But all the edible landscaping books mention them, so I felt like I had to have them. They fit perfectly in this spot under the herbs on the shed wall, transforming this bare empty space with splashes of color and sweet-tart fruit.
If you turn around from admiring the gooseberries, you’ll see my leftover amaranth.
I germinated a lot of amaranth using a technique called “winter sowing” (which is a post I still need to write), and ended up with leftovers. I hate throwing away or composting extra plants, and couldn’t find anyone to adopt them. We carved out a space among the weeds next to the chicken coop, and planted the golden and purple plants there. You can barely see them for the weeds (look for the arrows); they have a little mulch around them but the pokeweed, grasses, lambsquarter, and even some wild amaranth are closing in!
Still with me? Great! There’s more to see! The edible landscaping continues onto my back deck.
I’ve mentioned my container tomatoes previously; I also have three pots of eggplants (two plants per pot). The flea beetles in my garden inevitably shred the eggplant leaves to the point where the plants die, but somehow they can’t find them safely tucked away on my deck! These eggplants produce a miniature variety of fruit, which is the perfect amount for me and my husband to enjoy periodically in a stir fry.
The deck railing supports several scarlet runner beans, which not only display stunning red flowers, but also feed hummingbirds and produce edible beans. Next year we’ll plant a few more, in order for better coverage of the railing. In some climates scarlet runner beans actually survive as perennials, but I suspect our winter temperatures plunge too low here.
On the back side of the railing are my blueberry plants.
They are all low bush blueberries, to fit into this small space. (If/when we replace the foundation bushes in front of the house, we may use high bush blueberries which have a bigger profile.) They get less sun in this spot than they would like, but they are hanging on despite the suboptimal conditions.
Our yard beautification project extended to the chicken run as well.
Here you see busy, thriving nasturtiums – edible flowers and leaves, folks! – with my poor little redvine passionflowers (see the arrows) planted in between them. I doubt the passionflowers will survive long enough to reach their full potential of climbing and vining along the chicken fence, producing edible fruit. (If you are wondering why I have such a dim outlook on their fate, you can read my tale of drama and woe here. Also, if you know of a source for maypops – the cold hardy variety of passionflower that WILL survive in my USDA zone of 7A – please let me know!)
There is also comfrey planted at the far corner of the chicken run, but you cannot see it in the photo because a cheerful nasturtium blocking the view.
We recently had a hand pump installed for our well.
Now if the electricity goes out for an extended period of time (which seems to happen more frequently each year), we can pump our own water instead of having to haul it from the creek – which is half a mile away, down (and then back up) a steep slope. This provided another great opportunity for edible landscaping in the form of rhubarb. I have been timid about harvesting the rhubarb though, so the crowns can get more established in the hard clay soil.
Several years ago, we had our hilly backyard partially terraced and hardscaped. We tried planting fancy, pretty plants but eventually everything was choked out by weeds. I sheet mulched the entire area over the winter (that’s another post I haven’t written yet), and this spring started fresh.
Currently this hardscaping features some pretty standard landscaping plants like liriope (to the left) and ornamental grass (to the right). But we also planted Jerusalem artichoke (the plants with pointy leaves), golden and purple amaranth (which are still too small to really see in this photo). Some random milkweed (the plants with rounded leaves) managed to grow through the sheet mulch and of course I let it go because that gives me milkweed I KNOW won’t get mowed by the farmer across the street.
You might have noticed that despite the variety, everything is on a relatively small scale. We don’t harvest a ton of rhubarb every year, or so many blueberries there’s leftover to preserve. I don’t think I’ll harvest enough gooseberries at one time to make a gooseberry pie! And It was a surprise earlier this year when we got enough strawberries to be able to freeze dry some. I’m still learning how to steward all these different kinds of plants, and what to do with the food they produce.
Stay tuned for the follow on post about how my little garden is doing this year!
This year, I missed the window for milkweed shoots.
I noticed the milkweed (Asclepius syriaca) coming up in the field across the street from my house a few weeks ago. Milkweed is one of the darlings of foraging, because it has so many edible parts through so many different seasons: shoots in the spring, flower buds in the summer, flowers in the late summer and edible seedpods if you catch them early enough (also in the late summer).
But you see, I already know what will befall the milkweed plants growing surreptitiously among the meadow grass and other “weeds.” In a few weeks, the farmer will mow his field to the ground, just like last year, and I – and all the monarch butterflies – will be deprived of this amazing plant.
Well. I can drive to the grocery store for food. This year, I am also “all in” on my garden, which will (baring any weather related catastrophes) will help keep me and mine fed. (Although the children will protest it, I’m sure.) The monarchs butterflies, though… that’s all they have. And they won’t have it for very long as it is.
Which is why I’ve decided to experiment with “reverse foraging.” I adopted this phrase from author Sara Bir, and I suspect most serious foragers have done something similar. The idea is straightforward enough: intentionally encouraging and even propagating wild edible plants. It can be as simple as ensuring optimal habitat is available for the plants – even just not mowing part of the lawn – or as complex as re-seeding ramps in a woodland patch getting bare. OK, I can’t actually do that because I still haven’t discovered ramps in the woods near me. But I can (and did) scatter milkweed seeds among the wildflowers I planted in my side yard to see if they would grow.
This week, I had planned to post about using “milkweed cheese”. Many milkweed seedpods are still at the perfect stage for harvesting both to eat as a vegetable, and to collect the creamy white silk from inside. However, while researching recipes I realized I had nothing to add beyond what Alan Bergo has already covered on his Forager Chef site. Except when harvesting, please mind the monarchs!
Instead, in light of the recent fate of a foraging cookbook recalled over possibly toxic ingredients, I decided to add my own “guide to safe foraging” page on this site. I’d meant to do so for a while. Now each time I post about foraging safety, I can link to that page, rather than boring you to tears with the same dire warnings over and over and over again.
I also recently updated this blog’s About page … I hadn’t touched it since 2009, and a lot has changed in nine years!
Today’s post showcases four weeds I haven’t covered previously, or only in passing. I’m also trying to include more recipes to help bridge the gap from “Hey, you can eat this stuff!” to successfully incorporating wild food into meals.
Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) is a sprawling annual with edible stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. The easiest way to gather them is to bend along the stem, starting either near the ground or from the tip. Where the stem easily snaps off (like with asparagus) the rest of the plant to the tip is tender to eat. Snapping off the ends allows the plant to continue to grow, so a patch of asiatic dayflower can produce food for months.
Asiatic dayflower plants have been prominent in my yard for many weeks now, but the flowers are now on display so they are much more photogenic! Each flower only sticks around for a day, hence the name “dayflower”.
Asiatic dayflower can be eaten raw, but I prefer to steam or lightly sautee the greens. They can also be served creamed. In fact, I thought I had posted previously cooking asiatic dayflower stems, but can’t seem to locate it now.
Lady’s thumb (Persicaria maculosa), also sometimes called redshank, allegedly earned the name because the leaves feature a dark thumb-print-like shape on each leaf. I have encountered this marking only occasionally, but there is no mistaking the pink column of flowers on this backyard weed.
Lady’s thumb is one of those weeds people just seem to hate, despite its pretty pink flowers. I saw some growing in a friend’s yard, and I complimented her on it. “That weed?” she replied. “I hate it.” When I pointed out it was edible, her terse response was, “Don’t care, I still hate it.”
The flowers and most tender leaves can be used raw in salads; the leaves can also be cooked for a spinach substitute. I will admit I have tried the leaves raw, and found them bland and uninteresting. Maybe they could be used as a filler if you were short on other greens for a recipe.
Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) provides both edible greens as well as seeds. According to Samuel Thayer, amaranth leaves are among the most widely eaten cooked greens in the world. But the seeds are trendy (because they are gluten free, and gluten free is trendy) so you are more likely to encounter seeds in recipes and grocery stores. Amaranth seeds are sometimes marketed as “grains” because they have a similar nutritional profile and can be cooked in a similar fashion. It’s sometimes called a “pseudocereal”. Wild amaranth seeds are brown or black, as opposed to the cream colored seeds in the grocery store.
This is the same wild amaranth plant from last week’s post, by the way. It is now as tall as me – almost five and a half feet.
While the amaranth leaves can be eaten raw, the texture improves with cooking. It can be cooked in any recipe that calls for spinach or kale. One option is stir fry. I am contemplating “amaranth chips”, since baking kale into chips is one of the few ways my kids willingly eat greens. Collect the most tender leaves from the tips of the plant. I haven’t tried amaranth greens yet because I’ve been blessed with so much lamb’s quarter to enjoy. (Lamb’s quarter is also known as pigweed, just to keep it confusing. I recently removed my six foot tall lamb’s quarter tree because I needed the bed for fall vegetable planting … RIP lamb’s quarter tree. You were a wonderful weed.)
Ground cherry (Physalis spp), also known as husk cherry, is a shy, unassuming plant closely related to tomatillos. You can buy ground cherry seeds from specialty company companies that focus on heirloom and heritage plants.
The berries are protected by a papery sheath, which is one of the easiest ways to identify the plant. The wild ground cherries have fruit which is much smaller than their domesticated counterparts. The fruit will ripen late summer at the earliest. The husk dries and turns brown, and the fruit turns yellow;. sometimes the fruit falls to the ground with its husk before it ripens.
I haven’t tried ground cherries yet because I missed the harvest window last year. According to some descriptions they are both sweet and tart, with an almost pineapple-y flavor. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and used in both sweet and savory dishes. I will probably go with something simple when mine are finally ready… eventually… much later this year… like this husk cherry and goat cheese salad.
Last but not least: an update on a previous foraging fail. Remember a month ago when I lamented the untimely end of “my” milkweed patch? Looks like the milkweed has the last laugh!
Unfortunately, this late in the year I doubt we’ll see flowers or seeds on these plants. However, they are at a good height (again) to use for shoots (minus the huge leaves, of course), lightly steamed or sauteed like you might cook asparagus. Or wrapped in pancetta and roasted at 400 degrees for 20 or so minutes … ok, now I am hungry!
This is where the milkweed grew.
The milkweed that fed the monarch butterfly caterpillars.
The milkweed that was blooming. The milkweed, a few of whose flowers I was going to transform into liqueur.
The milkweed that later would have produced seedpods to feed my family – okay, maybe just for one meal (that my kids would have hated) – and then spawned future generations of milkweed.
All gone. Sigh.