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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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.


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Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27

I’m not going to debate climate change with you.

Either you believe that the earth is warming, leading to increasingly erratic global weather patterns – in which case I don’t have to convince you.

Or you don’t believe it – in which case nothing I can say will make you believe otherwise.

After all, the climate change debate inspires more devout and feverish faith than dietary preferences. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, make some room for me under that rock of yours!)

What I do know is that the Maryland weather this spring has had more mood swings than my 15 year old daughter, which REALLY says a lot. April averaged cool and dry, punctuated by occasional days with temperatures in the 90s. May brought with it more warm and muggy temperatures – it was like we skipped straight from late winter to summer – complete with flooding and a hailstorm that shredded everything green and leafy in my yard.

To be blunt, my spring garden is in shambles. Which is why today, I am showcasing the weeds to which I find myself turning in the absence of the vegetables I should have been harvesting by now. (Yes, I’ve covered many of these before, but it doesn’t hurt to showcase them again!)

Upland cress (Barbarea verna) – used raw, it makes a tasty, peppery addition to salads. Bonus: high levels of vitamin A and vitamin C.

Upland Cress

Upland Cress

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is just starting to come up. Yes, in my garden beds. No, I will not remove it … yet. Purslane is also an excellent salad edition – leaves stems and all – and is a great plant source for omega 3 essential fatty acids.

Purslane Seedling

Purslane Seedling

New colonies of chickweed (Stellaria media) continue to crop up around my garden despite the heat, and continue to find their way into my salad bowl.

Chickweed

Chickweed

Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) (or lambsquarter if you prefer) – another nutritional powerhouse. Currently my go-to green for cooking, since something fluffy, brown and hopping decimated the kale that managed to grow despite the weather.

Lambsquarter

Lambsquarter

And of course, spring’s dandelions seeds (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into any available space. This little guy is small enough to still enjoy raw, but I might let him grown a little longer to use in sauteed greens.

Dandelion

Dandelion

Hopefully the weather calms down some … hahahahahahahaha! OK, I couldn’t type that with a straight face. What I meant was, hopefully wild edibles will continue to adapt to the crazy weather faster than I and my garden can, so there will still be local, fresh vegetables to enjoy!


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Wonderful Weeds, Week Ending May 6

Dogwoods are in bloom and spring is truly underway in central Maryland, although the weather is still moody. Three days in a row last week, the temperatures skyrocketed into the upper 80s and lower 90s. Today, I’m bundled up against the damp chill appropriate to early April. Except it’s now May.

Only one new edible weed development this week – I finally found cleavers (Galium aparine) growing in a location where I felt it was safe to harvest – my own yard!

Cleavers

Cleavers

I have seen cleavers growing along roadsides for over a month, so it is not a “new” plant this week like most of my previous posts have showcased. But I avoid gathering plants from locations where they might have been exposed to exhaust fumes or leaky liquids from passing cars.

While cleavers are edible, my one nibble wasn’t that great. Cleavers are more known for medicinal rather than food uses, and now I understand why! I opted to make tea from the handful I collected.  Mild in both flavor and color, cleaver tea has a reputation as a tonic and alterative. (An alterative is a medicine that helps restore normal, healthy functions – yes, I had to look up the definition. And no, I don’t know if the tea restored any of my functions, normal and healthy or otherwise!)


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Weekly Weed Roundup, April 29

Just kidding! I would never use Roundup on my weeds. As I learn more about “weeds”, I am increasingly amazed that anyone would rather have a pretty green grass lawn instead of the natural bounty that surrounds us when the land is left to its own devices.

This week, broadleaf plantain (Plantago major) has become very prominent in my yard. For some reason, this is the only plantain variety around my house. The narrow leaf or ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) is very common in the mid-Atlantic… just not at my house.

Broadleaf Plantain

Broadleaf Plantain

While plantain leaves are edible, I find them unpleasant and stringy when they get much larger than shown in this picture. (Hopefully the grass leaves give you some idea of scale – the whole plant is only about five inches across right now.) The leaves can also be made into tea, and are rumored to help with seasonal allergies. If my allergies act up this spring, I’ll try it and share the results with you. (All three of you!)

I recently identified a burdock (Arctium minus) in a overgrown area of my yard. Normally, I struggle to distinguish between burdock and various other large-leaved plants such curly dock (Rumex crispus). But the pale green woolly undersides of the leaves help indicate this is, indeed, burdock.

Greater Burdock

Burdock

Greater Burdock - Pale Woolly Underside of Leaf

Burdock – Pale Woolly Underside of Leaf

Burdock leaves, roots, and young flower stalks are edible. You can even buy burdock seeds in some boutique garden catalogs. I decided to let this one hang around so I could photograph the flower stalk if this is a second-year plant. (Like many plants which are productive this early in spring, burdock is a biennial; it flowers in its second year of life.)

Speaking of wild things you can also grow in your garden… It was challenging to photograph this little guy among last year’s dead grass, but there is no doubt that this is a wild carrot, aka Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota). If they are growing now, in the wild, then conditions are ripe to plant the D. carota sativa in your garden as well.

Wild Carrot, aka Queen Anne's Lace

Wild Carrot, aka Queen Anne’s Lace

This carrot is still too small to bother eating, of course, but the roots are edible as long as you harvest before the plants form the white flowery umbrellas most people think of when they hear “Queen Anne’s Lace.” (Carrots are also biennials, like burdock.) The hairy leaves and stem provide one way to know this is “just” a carrot and not its toxic relative, poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).

I have been working in the garden, as well as foraging. Any day the weather is warm and sunny, you’ll find me outside! I was weeding one bed, when I realized – as I was pulling teensy seedlings up, roots and all – that the “weeds” were in fact the choicest possible species: lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album).

 

Lamb's Quarter Seedling

Lamb’s Quarter Seedling

Lamb’s quarter features sparkly – almost fairy-like – leaves at this early stage. Based on the reading I have done to date, they appear to be one of the healthiest greens a person can eat, and they have a long edible season as well. (Unlike dandelions or wild lettuce, for instance, which get more bitter as the summer sun and heat intensifies.) Needless to say, I left the rest of the seedlings be! They are welcome to grow here … until I get hungry later!