In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 2/17/2019

(Is Sunday “really” the end of the week though? Or is it the start of the following week? I can’t believe I’ve posted (almost) every Sunday since April 2018, and that question only just occurred to me.)

This week we are discussing Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), which are not in fact artichokes and do not in fact come from Jerusalem. Rather they are members of the sunflower family; however, rather than edible seeds, the tubers are the parts that are eaten.

Unlike many wild edibles, winter and early spring are the ideal times to harvest Jerusalem artichokes. Winter’s cold actually improves the edibility of Jerusalem artichoke tubers, because the freezing temperatures convert inulin into more digestible simple sugars.  Inulin is a non-soluble prebiotic fiber, which is a polite medical way of saying that it may cause serious gastrointestinal eruptions after eating.  Collecting the tubers after several freezes is one way to reduce their inulin. Another is to cook them extensively. Using both methods produces the best results. Especially if you have an important business meeting the following day.

Here are photos I took of Jerusalem artichokes back in August of last year. This is an ideal time to locate the plants, because the golden flowers stand out brilliantly against the green foliage.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers

Because of how tall the plants can get, the flowers manage to peek out from even massive tangles of roadside weeds.

You can just see the Jerusalem artichoke flowers in this pile of weeds.

You can just see the Jerusalem artichoke flowers in this pile of weeds.

By contrast, here are two photos of Jerusalem artichokes in the winter. They are much harder to recognize, unless you know where the colonies were growing earlier in the fall.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers in Winter

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers in Winter

(I guess those are technically seed clusters, not flowers, but you know what I mean!)

These were some of the few stalks I found which were standing upright. The vast majority of stalks are flat on the ground, bent over near the base of the plant.

Jerusalem Artichoke Stalks in Winter

Jerusalem Artichoke Stalks in Winter

Luckily even bent over stalks remain attached to ground, giving you a starting point to dig for the tubers. They can be anywhere from 1-4 inches down, and up to a foot away from the stalks, so a dense colony of plants is your best bet for a good haul.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to actually harvest any myself. The weather here in central MD has fluctuated wildly between temps well below freezing and ice storms, and then sunny and highs in the 60s! Which is then followed by rain, and more ice as the temps slide back to “normal” for February. As a result, the ground is variously frozen solid or swampy mud. Neither condition is optimal for digging up tubers.

I have toyed with the idea of planting Jerusalem artichokes somewhere in my yard. Then at least I wouldn’t have to go hunting them when the ground finally thawed enough to dig them up. However, the plants can grow up to eight feet in optimal conditions, which means finding a location where tall flowers – followed by flopping stalks in the fall – aren’t a complete eyesore. Also, Jerusalem artichokes can become a nuisance, as any piece of tuber left in the ground (and there will always be tubers left in the ground) will regrow into new plants the following year. Basically, once planted, you will have Jerusalem artichokes forever. In fact digging up the tubers improves the health of the remaining plants, because it creates additional room for new plants to grow. And they will spread if given the slightest opportunity. Definitely a crop which needs forethought and planning before planting!


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The Forager’s Dilemma, Week Ending 2/3/2019

(Sorry, Mr. Pollan, I couldn’t resist!)

When I started foraging a few years ago, I never imagined I would be in the crux of a conservation crisis.

I just thought it was cool that humans are surrounded by food. Free food. Natural food. Food that has never shivered in refrigerated tractor trailers; food that has not been yanked from its natural habitat to be shipped around the world to a consumer who knows (and cares) nothing of its homeland; food that wasn’t forced to grow under the frequent rain of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer; food that remains untouched by plastic wrap and unlit by fluorescent bulbs.

Unfortunately, some of that food is unwelcome and unwanted.

Meet the much maligned focus of this week’s winter foraging spotlight: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola).

First year garlic mustard basal rosette

First year garlic mustard basal rosette. (Note the leaf in the foreground is slightly frost-damaged but the rest are fine.)

Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that grows under tree-lined property edges and in the understory of mature forests. It especially loves disturbed ground (like many invasive species). It has a two-year lifecycle, that is to say it is a biennial, surviving the cold of winter as a basal rosette (a group of leaves that spread out in a circle and stay close to the ground), and then producing flower stalks in its second year. It produces tiny, easily dispersed seeds like many members of the mustard family. But in addition to its cold and shade tolerance, and its prolific seed production, garlic mustard is also allelopathic. That is to say, its roots exudes chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants near by.

Garlic mustard is bad news, from an environmental and ecological perspective.

But garlic mustard is edible. Some people like to use the first year leaves as a seasoning, although others say it’s too bitter and strong. The second year shoots, young leaves, and flower buds are apparently its tastiest stage when enjoyed as a spring vegetable. The seed pods and seeds can be eaten as well, although by that time, garlic mustard is already well on its way to invading yet patch of soil.

But any plant conservationist (and a LOT of websites) will tell you to pull garlic mustard up by the root as soon as you see it.

But if you do that to the first year plant, you won’t get to dine on the flowering stalks the second year.

On the other hand, if you pull up that first year plant, apparently the roots are edible too, with a flavor similar to horseradish.

(But don’t try this when the ground has been frozen – like recently in central Maryland – because the leaves will break off leaving the roots thoroughly stuck in the soil.)

What’s an environmentally conscious forager to do?

… yeah, I’m gonna eat those weeds. Later. In mid-spring when the flowering stalks are at their best. As long as I pull them and eat them before they can go to seed, I think it will be OK. I hope, anyway!

In order to harvest the young flowering stalks in spring, one first needs to know how to recognize the first year plants. First year garlic mustard leaves are very distinctly shaped, often described as kidney-like as they curve back around the stem.

The following photo shows a garlic mustard leaf surrounded by chickweed (Stellaria media) and purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), two other winter-hardy wild edibles. (I guess one single garlic mustard plant can’t exude enough chemicals to fend off the other weeds!) The garlic mustard and dead nettle look similar but can be distinguished with a few details. Note how they are both roughly circular, but the garlic mustard leaf (upper right) curves back around the stem unlike the dead nettle leaf (lower left). Purple dead nettle leaves also grow from a stem, rather than a basal rosette.

Garlic Mustard leaf (upper right) compared to Dead Nettle (lower left)

Garlic Mustard leaf (upper right) compared to Dead Nettle (lower left)

If you harbor lingering doubts, you can tell the difference by touch or smell. Purple dead nettle has the characteristic square stem of members of the mint family, and the leaves are covered with soft hairs as opposed to the smooth leaves of garlic mustard. Additionally, when garlic mustard leaves are crushed they smell pungent, like, well, garlic and mustard. Purple dead nettle leaves by contrast do not have any strong, distinctive aroma. (Unless “green” counts as a smell.)

First year garlic mustard leaves are also similar in shape to common mallow (Malva neglecta).

Common mallow in the winter

Common mallow in the winter

However common mallow leaves are much smaller overall, and grow from a stem rather than from a single, central point in the ground.  Also, while both mallow and garlic mustard leaves have toothed margins, those of mallow are sharper versus the rounder margins of garlic mustard.

Second year garlic mustard plants have more elongated, almost triangular-shaped leaves. I don’t have any pictures yet… hopefully I will be able to share those photos (and recipes) with you later this year!


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Pokey Foraging, Week Ending 1/27/2019

This is the year I am eating poke sallat. Yes, I know. I’m crazy.

DISCLAIMER: my own plans to try poke sallat should not be construed as endorsement that pokeweed is safe to eat. Pokeweed is toxic except in very narrow circumstances. The author does not assume responsibility for anybody getting sick or dying because they rushed out to eat pokeweed after reading this blog.

OK, on with the post.

Last year I lacked confidence in my timing to harvest pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). The plants went from tiny shoots to large and pink-tinged in a few weeks. Since doing additional research, I believe the early- to mid-May shoots & leaves were probably fine. Although earlier would have been better. Pokeweed turns magenta as it ages, and with more sun exposure. Also the leaves apparently can be eaten as well, and seem to be even more commonly consumed than the shoots.

Why am I talking about pokeweed in winter? Well, now is a great time to identify opportunities for spring consumption because dead pokeweed is very dramatic. The formerly magenta stalks fade to light brown, making them stand out starkly compared to surrounding plant matter.

Pale Pokeweed Stalks in Winter

Pale Pokeweed Stalks in Winter

Sometimes the leaves and shriveled berries still cling to the plants, which helps confirm the identification.

Once dead, the hollow stalks will often be bent over but still intact.

Bent Pokeweed Stalks

Bent Pokeweed Stalks

Pokeweed is a perennial which grows from very deep, aggressive root systems. Wherever you see winter pokeweed, start looking for new shoots from the crown by late April. (In central Maryland, anyway. The timing may be different elsewhere.) Pokeweed also grows from the seeds scattered everywhere by the birds which love the berries, but there’s no way to predict where these new plants will grow.

My plan is to harvest the pokeweed when it is about 6″ tall or less. Some authors say that any time before the berries turn green is safe, but I am unwilling to test that theory…let me survive one meal first! Because the roots are especially toxic, I will cut off the shoots at ground level rather than trying to dig or pull the stalk to harvest the edible parts. A lot of sources suggest that pokeweed needs to be boiled in three changes of water for at least 20 minutes – that is an hour of boiling, so I am pretty skeptical of whether the remnants are even worth eating at that stage. The least boiled-to-death guidance I have read suggests one minute in boiling water, then another 15 minutes in a fresh pot of boiling water. Either way, pokeweed can absolutely never be eaten raw.

Best of all, I have a significant “crop” of poke growing throughout my yard. I should be able to collect and enjoy a decent amount. (Although I may be the only one in the house who eats it!)

Why am I bothering, you may ask? Because it’s there, and I have to know. Plus, pokeweed is supposed to be delicious. (Sources say if there is any trace of bitterness left, it needs to be boiled longer – it should never be bitter.) Last but not least, it apparently contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. In a simpler time, after a winter of living on dried, canned and root cellar foods, pokeweed would have been a nutritious and tasty way to welcome spring.

If you want to do your own research on the edibility of pokeweed, here are some links:

https://www.houzz.com/discussions/1855434/poke-salat-truth-vs-myth

http://www.eattheweeds.com/can-be-deadly-but-oh-so-delicious-pokeweed-2/

https://delishably.com/vegetable-dishes/Poke-Sallet-Poke-Salad-Recipe-How-to-Handle-Harvest-and-Prepare-the-Poisonous-Pokeweed

Additionally, here is a site with nutritional info:

https://skipthepie.org/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/pokeberry-shoots-poke-cooked-boiled-drained-with-salt/


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Bonus Winter Foraging Post

I got called out for writing a cop out of a post yesterday. My reader raised an excellent point. If we were truly dependent on foraging for our survival, we wouldn’t let a little snow stand in our way. So here is the post you have gotten to read. Enjoy!

Here we see a photo of my favorite patch of chickweed (Stellaria media) (which you may be sick of hearing about before the winter is over).

Chickweed (Stellaria media) in the snow

Chickweed (Stellaria media) in the snow

As you can see in the photo, the chickweed is thriving despite the cold temperatures. It will continue providing us raw salad greens for some time.

In the below photo, notice the beautiful dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale).

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in the snow

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in the snow

They are in such good shape, I could harvest half of them for greens, and the other half to roast the roots for a caffeine-free coffee substitute.

And here we see a colony of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the snow

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the snow

I have very mixed feelings about having such a healthy “crop” of garlic mustard, since it is an invasive species that crowds out other native plants. I intended to cull this particular patch by dining on the greens, or making some intensely flavored pesto.

Last but not least, here is a tenacious burdock plant (Arctium minus).

First year burdock plant (Arctium minus) in the snow

First-year burdock plant (Arctium minus) in the snow

I am hoping this little guy makes it through the winter. Burdock is a biennial, and in its second year of life forms an edible flower stalk which I have yet to sample. (I was able to dig up a nearby first-year back in the fall to sample the burdock root.)

There  you go! Four edible plants that can be found even in the winter. Now that you know what to look for, you can successfully survive by foraging in the snow too!**

(**You know that’s tongue in cheek, right? Don’t actually try this…)


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 1/13/19

(Love my original blog post title?)

I had a few topics to choose from for this week’s post, but they all needed fresh photos. However, we finally got snow, so I am not going anywhere today!

Yay, snow! First snow of 2019.

Yay, snow! First snow of 2019.

Luckily, I had a backup post!

I’m technically cheating with today’s post – I previously discussed spotting persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) in the winter, once the leaves no longer hide the fruit. However, I recently took a new photo that showed extremely well how a female persimmon tree stands out against a clear winter sky.

American persimmons in the winter

American persimmons in the winter

At this point, in mid-January, these fruits are inedible. We’ve had several hard freezes, and the persimmons have turned mushy and sad.

But once you find the female trees, you know where to return next fall for a persimmon harvest!

(…assuming the trees are on your own property, or the property of someone whose permission you have to harvest from them, so you can clear the ground around the trees for the fruit that falls.)


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2018 Foraging Year in Review

As 2018 draws to a close, I reflected on the past year of foraging in central Maryland. I mean, a “year in review” is a thing people do, right?

The most notable theme for 2018 was “learning” – both learning what plants grew in this area, where they were (or weren’t) to be found, when and how to harvest them, and how much I still have to learn about, well, everything!

2018 provided some unexpected surprises, finding plants I’d never even known existed (like the flying dragon citrus), and amazing successes (like the local proliferation of pawpaws). But even these successes were hampered by learning curves: how do best make use of this abundance, now that I’ve found it? For example, I still have the Mason jar of pawpaw liqueur from early October steeping on my counter top, because I’m not sure what else to do with it! Other wild edibles I found but didn’t know how to actually take advantage of included:

  • acorns (which got its own separate post)
  • amaranth (mentioned last week – and I STILL haven’t managed to get enough of the chaff out to count as edible in my opinion)
  • pokeweed shoots
  • black walnuts and hickory nuts, both of which are so difficult to shell that I have only made a token attempt to use what I harvested

Another recurring theme from this year was my inability to find and harvest enough of a given wild plant to actually use. Wild grapes, chinkapins, ground cherries, and spring beauties come to mind. This particular challenge closely relates to another theme of the year: accessibility issues. For instance, my two local American persimmon trees had plenty of fruit, but I couldn’t get to them easily enough for a bountiful harvest due to the overgrowth that prevented me from gathering fruit that had already fallen to the ground.

Accessibility was also a challenge for cattails, sumac berries, and evening primrose, all of which seemed to grow best along roadsides. Particularly busy highways!

Additionally, my timing still needs a lot of work! Since this was my first year foraging year round, this comes as no surprise. Everything in nature has a rhythm, and matures in its own season. For example, I think my recent failure to harvest nutsedge tubers was mostly an issue of timing. I also missed the mayapples due to my inexperience. To complicate matters, the excessively wet year and late frost probably impacted the timing of harvests in ways I can’t yet understand, given how new I am to this field.

Last but not least, 2018 saw me reaching out to the local foraging community (and the overlapping tribes of permaculture and sustainability). Through visiting the Mother Earth News Fair, taking a class at the Fox Haven Learning Center, and attending the Third Annual Pawpaw Festival at Long Creek Homestead (which I apparently forgot to blog about!).

I debated whether to continue my weekly foraging post into the new year. Particularly as it is winter, and cold, and what is there left to say? Then I realized as I was writing this post, that I still have SO much to learn about nature and its bounty, and how humans can live more healthily and sustainably through foraging, and the best way for me to learn is to share my learning process with you, my readers. (All three of you… yes, I am up to three! *waves*) I hope you will continue reading and learning with me in 2019!

Also, if you are interested in more “real time” updates from my world of permaculture, gardening, foraging, and lower-energy-living, you can follow me on Instagram as @lean6life.


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Foraging Fails, Week Ending 12/16/2018

As 2018 draws to a close, I still had two more foraging posts planned. Both posts were going to cover tubers that can be harvested well into the late fall and early winter, as long the ground isn’t frozen solid.

This week: yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus). I had first identified this common yard weed back in July, when its spiky flowers clearly marked the plant’s location. However the small tubers underground are the real prize, and the part which is harvested when nutsedge is grown as a crop. (Here’s a photo of the tubers.)

The tubers are reported to be sweet and nutty flavored, hence their other names: earth almonds, or tiger nuts. I was very excited to excavate this wild food which appeared to be growing everywhere in my yard. Tasty free food. What could be better? I even tracked down a horchata recipe, so I would be ready when the time came.

A clump of yellow nutsedge

A clump of yellow nutsedge

You guys, I have nothing to show for my patience except for several muddy holes in my lawn.

I dug up three different clumps of nutsedge, certain I would find at least a few tasty nuggets clinging to the roots. No such luck! Every vaguely-tuber-looking lump turned out to be thick, heavy clay mud. No earth almonds anywhere.

Nutsedge roots - no tubers here!

Nutsedge roots – no tubers here!

I’m not sure what I did wrong, except that maybe I tried harvesting too early or too late. Or perhaps I misidentified the plant (although the leaves do have the triangular cross-section typical of yellow nutsedge). None of my go-to foraging books covered nutsedge at all, and while many blogs note its edibility I have yet to find a step-by-step foraging guide. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write one… if I ever succeed in finding them myself!