In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Winter Foraging,Week Ending 3/10/2019

I am cheating slightly with this week’s post.

I hope you’ll forgive me.

I’d already posted about finding female staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) during the winter, since the lack of leaves on surrounding trees made it easier to spot the fruit clusters clinging to the ends of the branches.

Honestly, I thought that was the point to foraging staghorn sumac, because most other resources only talk about the berries, and using them for seasoning or “sumac-ade”.

This was disappointing to  me, because I have several random sumac plants growing in the less-well-tended areas of my yard. But they are all male and therefore of no interest to foragers.

Or are they? (Cue dramatic music in the background.)

Recently I (re-)read The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and he thinks sumac shoots are not just edible, but downright delicious.

A young staghorn sumac plant

A young staghorn sumac plant

The best way to get staghorn sumac shoots is from the stumps that remain when you try cutting the plants down. The sumac will send new suckers out from the stump, and these are the ideal parts of the plant to eat, according to Thayer. Once the bark is peeled, they can be eaten straight, just as they are. He describes the flavor as fruity.

So in addition to the female plants, I am now on the lookout for male ones as well. Staghorn sumac stands out in winter by its very bare, sparse appearance. The plant does not have any twigs or small branches. Younger plants may not have any branches at all. In this photo, you can see the stark contrast between the staghorn sumacs and the tree to the right with its multitude of branches and twigs.

Branchless staghorn sumac plants

Branchless staghorn sumac plants

The bark is smooth gray with light speckles, with periodic rounded crescent shapes where the leaf clusters of the previous year had been attached.

Staghorn sumac bark

Staghorn sumac bark

One word of caution: Thayer also mentions that sumac is in the same family as cashews and mangoes, so anyone who is allergic to those foods may have a reaction to sumac as well. I had not read that warning before, so thought it wise to pass along.

Since I am not one of the unfortunate souls allergic to mango or cashews, I will definitely try the shoots later this year and let you all know if they are as amazing as Thayer makes them sound!  The shoots are available in late spring or early summer, so I am guessing around June in Maryland. Stay tuned!


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 1/6/2019

Winter foraging is mainly about locating plants to harvest from in a different season. The lack of foliage and undergrowth allows for better visibility of some characteristics.
A few plants are still edible in the coldest weather. But I promise I won’t sing the praises of chickweed *every* single week until spring arrives. (OK, maybe I will for a several weeks though.)
We start the new year with staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), a short tree or tall shrub I mentioned back in July. The female members of this species produce edible red drupes with a sour coating. The coating is water soluble so the drupes can be soaked in water to produce the base for “sumac-ade”. I tried making this myself, but it didn’t seem very flavorful, perhaps because the excessively rainy summer had washed the flavor away.
Remember, if the plant has white berries, it may be poison sumac rather than staghorn sumac, and is (surprise, surprise) poisonous!
Once the leaves have fallen, the female sumac shrubs are particularly easy to spot because the drupes cling to their bare branches throughout the entire winter.
Staghorn sumac drupes stand out against a winter sky

Staghorn sumac drupes stand out against a winter sky

Here are some staghorn sumac recipes from one of my favorite foraging authors, Leda Meredith (author of Northeast Foraging, one of my “go-to” foraging books):

Obviously these instructions won’t do you much good until later this summer … but by then you will know exactly where all the female staghorn sumacs are.

Except the ones alongside busy, fume-filled, dangerous highways. Leave those for wild birds!


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Fruitful Foraging, Week Ending 7/22/2018

Fruit continues to take center stage in the foraging world as summer progresses. Here are some of the fruitful edibles to find in the central Maryland area in late July.

Japanese wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius): If you blinked, you missed the wineberry harvest. This photo was taken a few weeks ago when they were starting to turn ripe. Wineberries all ripen around the same time, usually within approximately two weeks.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

As you can see in the photo, wineberries do have “leaves of three” like poison ivy, but the edges of the leaves are toothed, while poison ivy has smooth leaf edges. Additionally, wineberry  stems are prickly like other members of the Rubus family. Wineberry fruit is  especially soft, so use a rigid container when collecting them to make sure they don’t get squished. Assuming you don’t eat them all straight off the cane!

Blackberries (Rubus spp.): Unlike wineberries, blackberries ripen over multiple weeks, providing a longer harvest. Unfortunately, the recent dry weather has taken a toll on the fruit, which is undersized and unpleasant to eat because there is less flesh compared to the size of the seed. Pick only the plumpest berries, and watch out for the thorns!

Blackberries

Blackberries

Rain is predicted for most of this week, which could be good or bad. The fruit may be larger; however, the berries could end up with a thin, weak flavor, depending on how mature they were when the rain hit.

Grapes (Vitus spp.): Grape vines cover everything wild around here. (You can see their cameo in the wineberry photo if you look at the lower right.) Which would be great if I wanted to make stuffed grape leaves – but I have struggled to find actual fruit. Maybe the erratic spring weather contributed to the problem, or perhaps wild grapes are always this scarce. Or non-human critter might enjoy them best at this sour stage. They are still too small to use even for verjuice, so I need to keep checking back as the weeks and months pass.

Wild Grapes

Wild Grapes

Rosehips (Rosa spp): Rosehips are the fruit of roses. By now they have set, but (like grapes) aren’t yet ready for harvest. They won’t be ripe until they turn red, much later this year. But now is a fine time to start locating them. Since wild roses grow in similar environments as blackberries, you may find them without any extra effort.

Wild Rosehips

Wild Rosehips

The local crop of rosehips may be small because Japanese beetles love, love, love eating the flowers which prevents the fertilization necessary for the fruit to set.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): Sumac berries – called drupes – only appear on female plants. The drupes are covered with a sour coating which makes a lemonade-like drink once soaked in water. For weeks I have seen staghorn sumac along heavily traveled interstates, but failed to find any in a safer location for foraging. I finally found one, which was even short enough that I could reach a few clusters of berries. I harvested them just as the rain drops started to fall yesterday. Rain washes away the coating, reducing the sour flavor.

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

The drupes can also be dried to make the Middle Eastern seasoning known as sumac, although Rhus coriaria is usually the plant used rather than Rhus typhina.  Also note that despite the similar name, this is NOT the same as poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. If it has white berries, it is NOT staghorn sumac; do NOT eat it.

Mystery Fruit: I don’t really know what this is! It could be a variety of cherry, or maybe a crabapple. (I am mildly embarrassed that I don’t know for sure!) Later this year, once the fruit is more fully developed, I should be able to tell for sure. Am I going to eat the fruit before I figure it out? Of course not! Rule number of foraging: if you don’t know ONE HUNDRED PERCENT what it is, don’t eat it!

Mystery Fruit

Mystery Fruit

Bonus edible! The curious shapes hanging from this shrub caught my eye on a recent trip into the woods. Apparently, this is American bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Trifolia means three leaved – again, like poison ivy – so I was very careful leaning in for this photo…just in case!

American Bladdernut

American Bladdernut

You can see why it is called “bladdernut”. “Bladder” is the only term I can think of to describe the seedpods. The seeds inside are edible when ripe, so I will be visiting again later this fall to try for myself.

Despite the bounty surrounding us, remember to take care of yourself while foraging, especially during the hot, humid summer weather. Stay hydrated, watch out for poison ivy, and always check for ticks!