In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 6/17/2018

Summer is the season for fruit! Except summer starts next week, so we’re still awaiting nature’s bounty.

The exception is black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis), which are the first cane fruit to ripen. Blackberries and wineberries won’t be far behind.

Black raspberries

Black raspberries

These black raspberries became accessible when a road crew “finally” (alas) mowed the roadside, reducing the chance of an unfortunate encounter with ticks and poison ivy. (Random mowing. Yet another reason why you shouldn’t count on roadside foraging.)

Recently, I found a wild pear (Pyrus pyraster) tree. The fruit doesn’t ripen until  November, and remains small and gritty compared to cultivated pears. Rather than eating straight, their flavor is best enjoyed in infusions. Pear liqueur, anyone?

Wild pear

Wild pear

I also FINALLY found pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees in the area. As is so often the case, they were there all along, I just didn’t know what I was looking for. The fruit should grow larger and turn yellow by August. I hope the weight of the fruit will help bring the branches closer to being within reach.

Pawpaw

Pawpaw

I am currently dreaming up a “food forest” for my front side yard, and pawpaws will play a role in the design. More on food forests in another post.

Deeper in the woods, female spicebush (Lindera benzoin) shrubs are starting to show berries. They will be ready to harvest when they turn red, much later in the summer and into the fall.

Spicebush berries

Spicebush berries

What I did not find in the woods: mayapple fruit! The lush carpet of mayapples had vanished. The few scraggly plants I could still find were too small for fruit, or the fruit was already gone. In two weeks, the entire harvest was just poof. Gone.

Not fruits, but still worth noting: yarrow & day lilies are finally flowering. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) made an appearance on this blog two months ago. This pretty herb is primarily used for tea, seasonings, or garnish. I am waiting for more flowers before I harvest any, so I can’t report on its flavor yet.

Yarrow in flower

Yarrow in flower

The shoots, flowers and tubers of day lilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are all edible, although some people find it upsets their digestive tracts. When introducing wild foods, you should always try a small sample first in case of adverse reactions.

Day lilies

Day lilies

Day lilies exemplify one of the main differences between foraged food and the industrial-agribusiness-grocery-stores. While they provide three different edible parts, the flowers (which are prime forage now) are each only available for a single day. You can’t really “plan” on having enough flowers on one day to feature as an appetizer for a dinner party. Nature doesn’t care about your hors d’oeuvre tray!


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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!