In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 1/20/2019

This week, I’m blogging about a previously mentioned plant, common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).  The original post showed summer time photos, as well as one picture of its “winter aspect.”

In the winter, evening primrose stalks stand out with their brown fluted seedpods. Like much winter foraging, identifying the evening primrose stalks in the cold months gives you a place to which to return when the weather warms up. This biennial plant offers edible roots in its first year, and edible flower stalks, flowers and seed heads in its second year of life.

I recently found evening primrose standing out clearly against the snow.

Evening Primrose in the Snow

Evening Primrose in the Snow

(There are some additional photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site as well.)

I haven’t been able to confirm this yet, but I assume not all evening primrose plants in a patch will be on the same life cycle. These dried stalks are from second year plants, and new first year plants will start from their seeds; but there must be other plants in the area that will be in their second year during 2019. I think. Maybe. We’ll see!

In addition to locating future crops, evening primrose has a bonus winter benefit. Some of these seed heads still have seeds in them!

I can hear some of you now… well, one of you in particular. “Are the seeds of sufficient caloric value to be worth the effort to harvest?” Obviously the crop would have been larger if you had gathered the seed heads before they dried and lost half their seeds; but perhaps you only just discovered the plants now, in the dead of winter. Or you’d used all the seeds you harvested in the fall. Or you just spontaneously realized you needed gamma linolenic acid (GLA) in your life.  Who knows? The point is: some seeds are still there.

The seed heads are made up of four chambers which can be pried apart down to the base. If there are seeds left in mid-winter, they will be tucked away in this part. Rather than separating the four chambers by hand, I find it faster to use garden sheers to cut through each seed head near the base. Doing this above a mesh strainer over a bowl allows the seeds to fall through into the bowl while the rest of the plant matter stays in the strainer.

Well. In theory anyway. Evening primrose seeds suffer the same harvesting challenges as any small seeds (mustard and amaranth, for example): winnowing is an essential step to remove the last traces of unwanted dust and plant bits from the seeds. The usual winnowing process involves pouring the seeds between two bowls while a light breeze blows. The seeds fall to the waiting bowl and the winds carries away the chaff.

The seeds in the following picture still need to be winnowed. Obviously!

Evening Primrose Seeds with Chaff

Evening Primrose Seeds with Chaff

Unfortunately, the breeze around my house is ALWAYS strong, which is why there is STILL no post about my amaranth harvest last year. (I tried, I really did.)

Once you have the evening primrose seeds cleaned – better than in my photo, please! – they can be used anywhere you would want a healthy crunchy topping. They can be sprinkled onto yogurt, desserts, or used in baked goods in place of poppy seeds. Some sources suggest toasting the seeds in a dry skillet over a low heat until they begin to smell fragrant. (I haven’t tried this personally so I can’t tell you what it smells like!)

Or you can do what I will probably do with my small, uncleaned harvest… scatter them around the yard and wait for next year’s crop to grow!


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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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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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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!


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Foraging Hack(berries), Week Ending 12/9/2018

This was the year of hackberry fail.

Unlike my typical “foraging fail” experiences, this time it’s not my fault.

I know where the hackberry trees are, and successfully harvested fruit last December. But this year, almost every tree sports bare branches. I blame the late spring frost that also killed most of the wild cherry blossoms in our area.

The common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a fairly, um, common tree in central Maryland. This tree is also known as the Northern hackberry. Southern hackberry (Celtis laevigata), or sugarberry, is closely related and produces sweeter fruit; unfortunately its range is further south so I cannot compare the two.

Hackberry trees are so common, in fact, I discovered a cluster of them growing in the wild portion of my yard earlier this summer.  While I was thrilled to find them, I was surprised to find they had no fruit. By summer, the fruit has normally set although not yet ripe. Then I realized – none of the hackberry trees on my typical routes had fruit. None.

Hackberry trees are (or should be) easy to spot in the winter, because the tiny berries cling to the branches long after the leaves have fallen. They can remain on the tree throughout the winter season, making the berries a valuable source of food when nothing else is available.

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry Fruit Clinging to Bare Branches

Hackberry fruit is small, crunchy, and sweet. Most of the berry is the seed, which is eaten whole along with fruit. They have almost no moisture at all. The berries are very high in calories for their size, and contain carbohydrates, protein and fat. They are reported to get sweeter the further into winter they go. Most years, the challenge in gathering hackberry fruit is that the trees grow to 30 to 50 feet tall, leaving most of the berries out of human reach.

A Bowl of Hackberries

A Bowl of Hackberries

I finally located ONE singular young tree with berries a week ago, but the fruit tasted rancid rather than sweet.

Hackberry trees also stand out during other seasons due to the distinctive texture of their light gray bark. The best description for it is “warty”.

Warty Hackberry Bark

Warty Hackberry Bark

Even though I can’t talk celebrate a hackberry harvest this year, last year I harvested enough berries to experiment with hackberry milk. Here is the method I used:

Clean the berries, removing stems and any berries that look bad. (Wrinkly and oxidized are okay; rotten is not okay.) Measure twice as much water as berries by volume, and place together in a blender. A high powered blender would be best; my regular old kitchen model didn’t pulverize the fruit nearly as thoroughly as I would have liked. Strain out the solids. Depending on how fine the strainer is,  the milk can end up with the consistency of a thin liquid or a puree. Add 1 Tbs of maple syrup at a time, checking for taste. (This step is probably not needed for sugarberries.) The fluid and solids will tend to separate, so stir regularly as you enjoy your drink!

Mmmmm ... Hackberry Milk

Mmmmm … hackberry milk

You can also use hackberry milk in cooking, but I haven’t tried this yet. Hopefully next year I will get the chance!