In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Foraging Fail, Week Ending 07/08/18

This is where the milkweed grew.

Here the milkweed grew

Here 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.


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Foraged Forays, Week Ending 07/01/2018

I’ve thought long and hard about how to articulate why I enjoy foraging, and why I think it’s important to share information about foraging with folks who stumble across my blog. I couldn’t think of just one singular reason! For this week’s foraging series post, here are the reasons why I forage. They fall under four main categories: financial, environmental, physical and mental.

Financial

  • It’s free. Given the economic instability of our era, knowing where to find and how to use free food is a valuable skill that should be developed before one’s sustenance depends on it.
  • No gardening expenses. Homegrown food can cost as much or more than store bought (although it’s still totally worth it), due to fertilizer, compost, soil amendments, seeds, or starter plants, mulch, pots, wood for raised beds, irrigation hoses, gardening tools, etc, etc. Wild plants don’t need all that extra fuss. (Although they might not mind a nice organic fertilizer occasionally.)
  • No weeding expenses. Instead of paying for costly lawn treatments,
  • Extra income. Some foragers actually earn money selling their finds to local restaurants or at farmers markets – ramps, morels, and stinging nettles come to mind. No, I haven’t reached that stage in my foraging career. Yet!

Environmental

  • Zero food miles – no fossil fuels burned to ship the food cross country and keep it chilled in the grocery store. (OK, obviously if you drive to where you forage, there are some food miles and fossil fuels consumed, but not on the scale of industrial food production. Read Omnivore’s Dilemma sometime – it is a real eye-opener.)
  • No added chemical fertilizers or pesticides. I say “added” because almost everything is contaminated by industrial agricultural production somehow.
  • Understanding the local ecosystem. Including (and maybe most importantly) where humans fit.
  • Sensitivity to the seasons. This includes spotting clues for garden timing, for example when wild greens, lettuce, and carrots (aka Queen Anne’s lace) have similar growing conditions and timing as their cultivated counterparts.

Physical

  • Food gathered at peak of ripeness and nutritional value (and flavor). Grocery store food – even farmer’s market food – has to be picked ahead of time to bring to market. The ripest produce would spoil too quickly. Foraged food can be picked the day you plan to eat it. (Although if you wait even a day too long, it may be gone!)
  • Diversity of plant matter consumed. The majority of Americans today have a staggeringly simplistic diet with a correspondingly narrow range of nutrients.
  • Exercise. Walking and hiking and digging for wild food is excellent free physical activity, and a great way to enjoy a natural setting in lieu of artificial lights, climate control and constantly glowing blue screens.
  • I also believe – though I cannot yet prove – that human nutritional needs are adapted to the cycle of available plant food. Sugars from fruits in the summer; more sugary fruits, fatty nuts and starchy tubers in the fall; more tubers and preserved nuts and fruits through the winter; and nutrient-dense greens in the spring to recover from the sparser diet available during the winter.

Mental

  • Humility in the face of nature’s bounty. It blows my mind how much food is all around us, but no one ever taught us to see it. For generations we grew up believing food came from these hyper-air conditioned, fluorescent-lighted caverns with aisles of boxes and cans and bags, with one token section for fresh fruits and vegetables. In recent years, farmers markets and co-ops have improved this situation, but we still largely depend on other people, on “experts” to feed ourselves and our families.
  • Brain calisthenics. I am constantly learning to new identify local species, and learning more about botany as a whole.
  • The thrill of the hunt. Granted, what I discover is almost never what I am looking for, but it’s thrilling none the less.
  • Constantly new experiences. Both in the wild and at the dinner table. Foraging is always an adventure! Especially when, as mentioned above, what I find isn’t what I set out to locate, and suddenly dinner plans radically change.
  • Adaptability. Like when dinner plans radically change.
  • Great conversation topic at cocktail parties & and a surefire way to embarrass my kids. Guaranteed. Especially in public. It’s awesome.


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Weathering the Weather

This week, I should have been enjoying my first real strawberry harvest.

This year, one of my gardening goals was to take better care of my plants, making sure they had plenty of space and healthy dirt and fertilizer. Taking a more proactive approach to gardening, as it were, rather than always playing defense against my garden foes. For instance, aphids often infest my strawberry plants, but if the plants are healthy they can still produce decent fruit.

They loved the attention. My strawberries were healthier and happier and thrived.

Strawberry Bed

Strawberry Bed

And then the storms and rain hit last week. Tuesday night, the hail drummed our house for 45 minutes. The storm Tuesday night resulted in local waterways flooding, and Catoctin Creek literally washed away parts of the road I live on. (Luckily, we live further uphill so weren’t impacted by the flooding.) The streets of downtown Frederick, MD gushed with water.

My strawberry crop is, in a word, ruined.

Sad Strawberry Mush

Sad Strawberry Mush

In a brief break in the rain yesterday, I cleaned out as much of the damaged, diseased, and rotting fruit as I could. Removed leaves clinging to broken stems. Even plucked off unripe fruit that was already showing water spots. (PSA: half rotten mushy strawberries may be the grossest things to touch. Ever.)

I shouldn’t complain, right? My livelihood doesn’t depend on these berries; my family won’t starve as a result of a lost crop. And many people suffered much worse as a result of the weather.

But it’s still a humbling reminder that whatever humans might think we control in the world, we are still entirely at the mercy of – and ultimately dependent on – the good will of Mother Nature.


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Autumn in the Spring

The maples are budding, daffodils and forsythia are in bloom and the weather is mercurial – must be Spring in the mid-Atlantic! (Who am I kidding, our weather is always mercurial.)
Most plants are still brown and lifeless, but the occasional splashes of color inspired me to go spicebush hunting. One foraging book nicknamed it “forsythia of the forest” because its yellow blooms arrive in early spring. I figured the spicebush (Lidera benzoin) would stand out against the muted brown backdrop of the local woods.
Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t see any yellow for all the … green? Turns out that another forage-worthy shrub is also coming out of dormancy at this early date: autumn olive, aka Japanese silverberry (Eleaganus umbellata). Everywhere I looked, my attention was drawn to the bright grassy color of new autumn olive leaves. This invasive species had apparently moved in and made this area its new home. Which meant I had to get up close and personal to make sure I could tell the difference between spicebush and autumn olive.
Here’s what I found out.
Both of plants feature multiple stems growing from the ground as part of one “shrub”. However it wasn’t clear in either case if these were individual plants that just grew together, or separate stems from a single plant. They also both have silver gray bark. In the winter, they would be especially hard to tell apart. Both produce edible fruit in the fall, which is the easiest time to distinguish them from one another. The spicebush fruit (primarily used for seasoning rather than eating straight) is a bright red, large berry that stands out against the dark green foliage. (Spicebush Photos) Autumn olive berries are also red, but small and speckled. (Autumn Olive Photos) The tart berries can be eaten raw, although the seeds make up the majority of the size so it’s not much fun. Alternatively the berries can also be processed through a food mill for pulp, or juiced. (Because autumn olives are invasive, picking the fruit and carefully disposing of the seeds so they don’t spread further could be considered community service!)
Generally speaking, spicebush appears to prefer growing in mature woods, under the canopy of tall hardwoods like hickory, oak and beech. By contrast I found autumn olive more frequently along the perimeter of wooded areas, along roadsides, or in open fields. If you drive anywhere in the piedmont region of Maryland right now and see “something” greening up under the trees along the roadsides, it’s most likely autumn olive. Although don’t look while you are actually driving, please – keep your eyes on the road!
In terms of height, spicebush only grows to about 12 ft (2 m) tall, whereas autumn olive can reach the height of a small tree, around 20 ft (6 m). Autumn olive also appears to have a much wider profile, as its branches tend to arch out more than spicebush (although this seems to vary).
Up close, the springtime differences between the two were more obvious. The spicebush buds are frilly looking yellowish flowers, whereas the autumn olive “buds” are leaves with reddish speckled undersides. Speaking of speckles, I noticed that the gray bark of the spicebush is sprinkled with lighter dots. The autumn olive bark is also dotted, but less dramatically than the spicebush bark.
Final remarks: spicebush twigs and leaves have the same aromatic flavor as the berries. If you are 100% sure of your identification, you can break off a dead twig and nibble it for the flavor, or collect several to brew a chai-like tea. NEVER NIBBLE A PLANT IF YOU HAVE ANY DOUBTS ABOUT WHAT IT IS. I.e., don’t nibble the twig to confirm that it is spicebush. Also don’t take any twigs that are clearly alive and growing. That’s just rude.
And for the record: by the end of April, there will be ZERO doubt which shrubs are autumn olive. They produce clusters of white flowers that smell AMAZING if you get anywhere near them.
Happy foraging!