In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Backyard Foraging, Week Ending 8/5/2018

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_hedge

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 Flower

Asiatic Dayflower Flower

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.”

Lady's Thumb Flower and Leaves

Lady’s Thumb Flower and Leaves

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.

Amaranth Flowers

Amaranth Flowers

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.)

RIP Lamb's Quarter "Tree"

RIP Lamb’s Quarter “Tree”

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.

Ground Cherry Flower and Leaves

Ground Cherry Flower and Leaves

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.

Ground Cherry Husks

Ground Cherry Husks

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!

Milkweed - The Resurgence

Milkweed – The Resurgence

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!


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Learning From Nature, Week Ending 7/29/2018

I fear the time is coming – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon (within our lifetimes) – when increasing numbers of us will have to grow increasing quantities of our own food.

Supermarket shelves are fully stocked at the moment, but just one major weather event massively disrupts distribution chains … and lately, “once in a century”-strength storms occur with increasing frequency.

More and more food crops which underpin grocery items are grown overseas, subjecting the supply to possible disruption by global political events that we cannot control.

Gas prices continue to creep higher, with the resulting ripple effect at every level of the industrial food production system.

And how many of us are already living paycheck-to-paycheck? Where will we get food if we lose our jobs, especially with grocery prices on the rise?

More of us need to start gardening, with all the associated painful learning curves. Taking clues from nature can help us understand planting cycles and environmental effects that impact both wild plants and their domesticated cousins; paying attention to nature can help shorten the learning curve. Here are a few examples from late July in central Maryland.

The wild amaranth (also known as pigweed, Amaranthus spp.) growing between my backyard and the farmer’s field has already grown to four and a half feet tall. The top of the plant reaches my chest!

Wild Amaranth

Wild Amaranth

The Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) I planted this year, by contrast, is a foot and a half tall at best. It should be seven to eight feet tall when full grown; I don’t think it’s going to make it!

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Mayo Indian Grain Amaranth

Lesson? The two plants photographed experience similar growing conditions – they are separated by around 60 feet. Maybe the soil is better closer to the field, but I doubt it. Most likely, I waited too late to plant. In 2019, I will try a month earlier and see how it goes.

My blackberries, while productive, have started looking worse for the wear. The leaves are turning yellow and brown, developing spots, and even falling off altogether. What on earth have I done wrong?

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

Domestic Blackberry Leaves

And then I realized wild blackberries look just as awful!

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Wild Blackberry Leaves

Probably some environmental factor is impacting the wild and domestic varieties equally. Perhaps they are succumbing to an unseen infection following weeks of soaking wet weather, followed by weeks of excruciating heat and aridity, followed by another week of damp. Or – maybe it’s just what blackberries endure in mid-summer, having sunk all their energy into growing this year’s fruit and next year’s canes at the same time.

The last three examples all concern the timing of fall garden planning. In central Maryland, we are lucky to have a relatively long growing season. In my location, average date of last frost is April 15; average date of first frost is October 15. That’s six months (only counting half of April and October); plus at LEAST another month on either side (eight total) if you grow frost-hardy crops and use season extenders. (A twelve month garden is still my ultimate goal.) While no one wants to dwell in the garden in summer’s heat and humidity, now is definitely the time for planting fall crops!

The earliest Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) flowers have already started setting seed.  If it’s good enough for nature, it’s good enough for me! Now is the earliest opportunity to plant carrots for harvest later this year.

Queen Anne's Lace Seeds

Queen Anne’s Lace Seeds

Field mustard (Brassica rapa) has also gone to seed, although conditions aren’t quite ready yet for the seed to disperse. Still, we can determine that soon we should plant Brassica crops like radishes, turnips, kale, cabbages, collards, and kohlrabi.

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Field Mustard Seed Pods

Last but not least, wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) has bolted and flowered – it no longer even resembles lettuce as it towers over neighboring plants.

Wild Lettuce Flowers

Wild Lettuce Flowers

In a few more weeks we should begin planting lettuce … assuming we haven’t already … because we’ve been suffering without home grown lettuce in our salads since everything in the garden long since bolted … I mean, just saying.

Also, a correction to some previous posts. Twice I have identified local weeds as upland cress (Barbarea verna), when they were actually the closely related yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris). (Which is sometimes called winter cress, just to keep things confusing.) I have corrected the ID in both posts: Weed Walk, Week Ending April 8 and Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27. Whatever it’s called, it’s still super tasty!


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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; don 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!


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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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Shut Up and Eat Your Weeds

Well, I’m not dead so I am thrilled to announce: I ate weeds and they didn’t kill me.

Specifically, I harvested milkweed flower buds to serve with dinner last night. Rather than just posting photos of weeds I “could” eat, I decided it was time to put my wildflowers where my mouth is. Um. Literally.

Milkweed Flower Buds

Milkweed Flower Buds

I found a milkweed patch that seemed safe-ish for foraging. Close to a road, but a small one which only gets local traffic; near a farmer’s field, but it hadn’t been sprayed in months. It only took two adults 15 minutes to harvest enough for a side dish. (Imagine one gallon-sized freezer bag full).

Note: if you try this, you have to choose whether to pluck the flower buds off with your fingers, or use snips. The fingers are faster, but you get sticky white sap all over your hands. Also, don’t pick all the flower buds. Take only one or two per plant, and not every plant. Leave enough for flowers and seed pods later, plus some for the plant to propagate next year’s crop. This is especially important given the dependency monarch butterflies have on common milkweed for their life cycle.

Remember, as you read the following – I am no foraging expert. Perform your own research and use all due prudence if and when you decide to try wild food. Some guides recommend boiling milkweed-anything in several changes of water. In my world, boiling most vegetables even once produces inedible mush … which defeats the purpose of harvesting wild edibles in the first place!

I washed the flower buds thoroughly. As you can see in the photo below, the white milky sap did not come off.

Milkweed flower buds, washed and ready to cook

Milkweed flower buds, washed and ready to cook

I steamed the flower buds in a steamer basket over simmering water with a dash of lemon juice. I started checking tenderness around 10 minutes; they probably cooked for 15 minutes overall. I think they cooked longer than really necessary. Once I removed them from the heat, I dressed them with melted butter mixed with lemon juice to taste.

Milkweed steaming in a pot

Milkweed steaming in a pot

Will I die because I didn’t actually boil the buds? It was time for the true test.

I am here to tell you, I ate steamed milkweed flower buds, and lived to tell the tale.

The flavor is mild and sweet, though not as sweet as peas. The buds were very tender (like I said, I probably overcooked them). They seemed remarkably, well, vegetable-like, with not a single hint of bitter flavor.

Milkweed. It's what's for dinner.

Milkweed. It’s what’s for dinner.

The kids’ reactions were predictable. “Ew, what’s that?”

I replied, “They’re milkweed flower buds. You know, unopened flowers? Like broccoli.”

“Why can’t we just eat broccoli?”

I might’ve been frustrated at this point. “Because I can never get broccoli to grow nice in my garden no matter how much work I put into it, and milkweed grows whether I do anything or not. Shut up and eat your weeds!”

I would love to say we all lived happily ever after. At least no one died from eating weeds (although you would’ve wondered, watching the faces my kids made…but that’s just what they do when they eat veggies.)


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Future Foraged Fruits, Week Ending 6/3/2018

It’s early June. The air is drenched with humidity and honeysuckle fragrance.  Between the sticky heat and afternoon thunderstorms, the last thing anyone wants is to spend time outside. But now is the time to start locating the fruits that will feed us this summer and into the fall.

Blackberries (Rubus spp.) carpet the edges of meadows with white flowers. Last fall I also found black raspberry canes closer to these woods. Unfortunately, in late spring the thorns, ticks and poison ivy are so thick I couldn’t get closer to check on them.

Blackberry flowers

Blackberry flowers blanket the horizon.

Japanese wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are an invasive cane species that are also flowering now. Unlike blackberries, which flower and ripen over a period of several weeks, wineberries ripen all at once, and then they are gone.

Japanese wineberries

Japanese wineberries

Wild roses (Rosa spp.) rub elbows with the blackberries and wineberries; they are equally thorny. Most of the local varieties I have found produce small rose hips, barely worth harvesting in the fall and winter, but still a good source of vitamin C in times of need.

Wild roses

Wild roses

Now is also the time to scope out wild grapes (Vitis spp.). They can be harvested young for verjuice – not this young obviously – or allowed to mature for eating, juicing or jelly making.

Wild grapes

Wild grapes

Mulberries (Moraceae spp.) are starting to ripen, but due to the erratic weather this spring the flavor is… um… lacking? Definitely worth continuing to check as the weeks go by. Mulberries grow around this area like weeds, so there are plenty to be had if you just keep your eyes open.

Mulberries

Mulberries

Back in the forest, mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), which we saw a few weeks ago, are setting green fruit – just one per plant. The fruit will be ripe when they turn yellow, hopefully in a few more weeks.

Mayapple Fruit

Mayapple Fruit

This very afternoon, I found a new-to-me berry at eye level behind large, glossy leaves. Curious, I crept in closer for a few photos. Turns out … THIS IS POISON IVY (Toxicodendron radicans)! Luckily I didn’t brush any leaves aside to take the photo (I think).

Don’t eat the poison ivy.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy Berries – DON’T EAT THESE

(I didn’t really need to say that, did I? Please tell me I didn’t.)

The one photo I don’t have is a fruiting serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). Its berries ripen in June which is why the shrub is also called juneberry. I have been unable to find any of these wild, so I bought one of my very own at the Mother Earth News Fair in Frederick this past weekend!  Hope to have pictures to share next year!


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Stalking the Wild … Oh, Oops

OMG, YOU GUYS!

I found a feral yellow salsify (Tragopogon major)!

A Feral Salsify

A Feral Yellow Salsify

I knew they grew around here. And by “knew”, I mean I researched them on the Maryland Biodiversity Project website. And by “researched”, I basically mean stalking.  That’s what I do.

Unfortunately, by the time you spot the flower to find the plant, the salsify root – like other biennials, including wild carrot – has turned tough and unpleasant to eat. So I left this one alone. I have domesticated salsify seeds for my fall garden, and hopefully the experience growing them will improve my ability to spot them in the wild… you know, before the flower appears.