In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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Winter Foraging Fails, Week Ending 3/17/2019

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m not wearing green, but I do find myself surrounded by it!

Day lily shoots, harbingers of spring

Day lily shoots, harbingers of spring

By the time I write next week’s foraging post, it will officially be spring. Of course, no telling whether or not Maryland’s weather reflects this! Even the weather forecast is no help… whatever it says now could very well be the exact opposite seven days later.

Since this will be last ‘official’ winter foraging post, I decided to discuss the wild edibles I failed to locate this year.

1. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) – apparently also known as Eastern Teaberry, which is why we are grateful for Latin names. They let us know we mean the same plant, regardless of the common name(s). This tiny plant features leaves which can be harvested year round, but the berries themselves are only ripe in the winter. I know it grows in this area, thanks to its listing on the Maryland Biodiversity site, but I didn’t spend enough time in the woods this winter to have a decent shot at finding it. The leaves and berries taste like – you guessed it! – wintergreen flavoring, except REAL.

2. Japanese Knotweed – ok, Latin names aren’t always helpful, because there are four different Latin names for Japanese knotweed, and I never know which one is “official”. But anyone who knows this plant, knows it by its common name. Japanese knotweed is one of the most invasive plants on the entire planet. I am not exaggerating. In winter time, the dead stalks look like reddish, feathery-tipped bamboo. There are photos here and a nice close up of the dead stalks here.  The spring shoots are edible, and according to a number of sources, downright delicious. Finding the dead stalks in winter would have allowed me to monitor the patch for new growth in the spring, and try the shoots when they were most tender. However, because it is so invasive, I should probably be grateful rather than disappointed that I never found any in this area.

3. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) – I have already found two plants called “cress” growing locally: Belle Island cress (Barbarea verna, also known as upland cress) and wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris, also known as yellow rocket). I figured with the extra wet year we had last year, I would have no problem finding watercress. I was very, very wrong. No watercress, anywhere.

Last but not least – I never did return to the Jerusalem artichokes to dig for whatever tubers I could find. Instead, I am doing the next best thing: ordering some commercial, garden quality tubers to plant in my own yard, and harvest next year!


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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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The Dead of Winter, Week Ending 3/3/2019

The weather in central MD in early March continues to alternate between soggy and frozen… when it isn’t both simultaneously! Even today, the forecast calls for anywhere from four to eight inches of snow. I have not tried to dig up the wild Jerusalem artichokes because the ground remains frozen.

Despite the cold and damp, some wild edibles continue to thrive. This week, I’ll be talking about one of the less appreciated greens available this time of year: purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is as ubiquitous as field garlic, spreading in massive tangled carpets across any disturbed ground it can reach.  Purple dead nettle is most recognizable in early spring, when the purple flowers and leaf tips blanket roadsides and fields.

Purple dead nettle is a member of the mint family, and shares the characteristic square stem cross section of other mints. (As does henbit, it’s more frilly cousin, which I may discuss in a future post.) The leaves are heart-shaped, especially when younger, and become more elongated and pointy as the season progresses.  The younger leaves may be confused with garlic mustard first-year leaves, and I discuss the differences here. The leaves also look similar to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but the fine hairs on the leaves do not sting – hence the name “dead” nettle.

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

Purple Dead Nettle Leaves and Flowers

As the season progresses, the tips turn purple as the flowers begin to form. At this stage, purple dead nettle is very recognizable. (You can see some icon photos on the Maryland Biodiversity Project site.)

Despite the small leaf size, it is easy to harvest dead nettle in quantity. If you find a healthy patch, you can collect entire lengths of stem, with the leaves attached. Once back in your warm kitchen, you can remove the leaves from the stems if you prefer, but both are edible. If using the greens in a recipe (for instance, as a replacement for spinach), I prefer just the leaves. Because of their relatively small size, they do not need to be chopped prior to use.

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Cooking with Dead Nettle

Purple dead nettle is a great solution for “my recipe calls for spinach, but I don’t want to drive to the store to buy some.” Yes, I have actually done this myself! The photo above shows dead nettle used in place of spinach when I made Creamy Tuscan Garlic Chicken last week.

The cooked leaves hold their texture very nicely in sauces and offer a mild chewiness compared to other greens. The stems, in turn, are crunchy so work better sauteed or steamed with the leaves as a vegetable side dish. While purple dead nettle can be eaten raw as well, I am not a fan of the slightly fuzzy texture to the leaves.

Generally speaking, I would choose wild greens like stinging nettle or lambs quarter over dead nettle for most culinary uses. But in early March, we take whatever edibles nature sees fit to give us!


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 2/24/2019

Today I offer not just a foraging post, but a cautionary tale. My husband picked up a tick in the woods yesterday.

You heard (read) right.

In late February. In Maryland. An active (though very hungry looking) dog tick. Thankfully he caught it before it bit him, but we were absolutely stunned to have encountered one so early in the year. I don’t know whether it reflects the unusual weather (five inches of snow Wednesday, all melted by Friday, temps in the 30s Saturday, temps in the 60s and rain on Sunday…) or some other change in the wild animals the ticks live on. All I know is I STILL feel phantom creepy crawlies on my skin. Shudder.

Luckily, today’s winter forage does not require me, or anyone else, to make trips into the woods. In fact, if you have a lawn, or have seen a lawn, or encounter grass at all in this area, you’ve probably encountered today’s subject: field garlic (Allium vineale).

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Field garlic stands out against the grass

Especially in the winter, field garlic pops out against a background of lawn grass. The grass is dormant and thus remains short, while the field garlic thrives despite the cold. Once you spot the clumps of tall “grass”, that on closer inspection are actually round stems, you will see field garlic absolutely everywhere. In fact, it’s categorized as a non-native invasive species on the Maryland Biodiversity website.

It’s also one of the few wild edibles that are best foraged in the winter and early spring, rather than in the summer or fall. Field garlic is so tenacious, in fact, that it happily keeps growing right through the snow.

Field garlic doesn't mind the snow

Field garlic doesn’t mind the snow … or rocks, or weed block

And in pea gravel. And through my weed block surrounding my garden paths, apparently.

A few other wild plants look similar to field garlic, but none of them have the distinctive garlicky-oniony that field garlic sports. Maryland does also have a native wild garlic species, Allium canadense, which is also known as wild onion or meadow garlic, but I haven’t encountered it personally. (Probably because it has been crowded out by the much more invasive field garlic.)

Field garlic spreads through clumping bulbs and through bulbils that form in the late summer from the flowers. Honestly I have never seen the bulbils because all my field garlic is well mowed that late in the year and blends in with the surrounding grass.

Every part of field garlic is edible, including the bulbils. The underground bulbs are smaller than cultivated, store bought garlic, but are just as flavorful. I prefer to harvest them on wet, muddy days – which we have had a ton of lately – because it’s easier to get them out of the ground. This also means lots of washing to clean them up before using them.

Harvested field garlic

Harvested field garlic

Ways to enjoy field garlic include:

  • Mincing the green stems to substitute for chives
  • Using the bulbs in place of store bought garlic (it just takes a lot more)
  • Flavoring for soups and stocks, where size doesn’t matter
  • Drying the entire plant, and then grinding to a powder to use for seasoning later
  • Steeping the plant in vinegar to infuse the flavor into the liquid, and then using the liquid for seasoning, salad dressing or cooking (a great use for the smaller bulbs)

My personal favorite: field garlic herb butter. The recipe couldn’t be easier. Add 1 Tbs minced field garlic and 2 Tbs of other herbs to 1 stick (1/2 cup) of room temperature salted butter. Mix thoroughly, and allow to rest a few hours for the flavors to meld. Use for any savory butter purpose, such as slathering on sourdough bread, sauteing vegetables, or rubbing on a chicken prior to roasting.

This time of year, the only other herb prominent in my yard is my rosemary bush. For whatever reason, his Mediterranean self doesn’t seem bothered by the weather, although I do need to figure out how to prune him to a healthier shape. There is also creeping thyme (cultivated) and sheep sorrel (wild), but neither are thriving at the moment. So for a seasonal- and place-appropriate herb butter, I went with rosemary and field garlic. (Disclaimer: the butter I used is not actually local butter… but it could have been, as there are local dairies around. I just didn’t have any on hand to use for this post/meal!)

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

Field garlic, rosemary and butter for garlic herb butter

I would love to share a photo of our Sunday dinner roast chicken with its crispy brown skin flecked with garlic and herbs. But we ate it all! Suffice to say, any “Butter Roasted Chicken” recipe (like this one) will work with this particular wild foraged compound butter.


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Winter Foraging, Week Ending 2/17/2019

(Is Sunday “really” the end of the week though? Or is it the start of the following week? I can’t believe I’ve posted (almost) every Sunday since April 2018, and that question only just occurred to me.)

This week we are discussing Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), which are not in fact artichokes and do not in fact come from Jerusalem. Rather they are members of the sunflower family; however, rather than edible seeds, the tubers are the parts that are eaten.

Unlike many wild edibles, winter and early spring are the ideal times to harvest Jerusalem artichokes. Winter’s cold actually improves the edibility of Jerusalem artichoke tubers, because the freezing temperatures convert inulin into more digestible simple sugars.  Inulin is a non-soluble prebiotic fiber, which is a polite medical way of saying that it may cause serious gastrointestinal eruptions after eating.  Collecting the tubers after several freezes is one way to reduce their inulin. Another is to cook them extensively. Using both methods produces the best results. Especially if you have an important business meeting the following day.

Here are photos I took of Jerusalem artichokes back in August of last year. This is an ideal time to locate the plants, because the golden flowers stand out brilliantly against the green foliage.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers

Because of how tall the plants can get, the flowers manage to peek out from even massive tangles of roadside weeds.

You can just see the Jerusalem artichoke flowers in this pile of weeds.

You can just see the Jerusalem artichoke flowers in this pile of weeds.

By contrast, here are two photos of Jerusalem artichokes in the winter. They are much harder to recognize, unless you know where the colonies were growing earlier in the fall.

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers in Winter

Jerusalem Artichoke Flowers in Winter

(I guess those are technically seed clusters, not flowers, but you know what I mean!)

These were some of the few stalks I found which were standing upright. The vast majority of stalks are flat on the ground, bent over near the base of the plant.

Jerusalem Artichoke Stalks in Winter

Jerusalem Artichoke Stalks in Winter

Luckily even bent over stalks remain attached to ground, giving you a starting point to dig for the tubers. They can be anywhere from 1-4 inches down, and up to a foot away from the stalks, so a dense colony of plants is your best bet for a good haul.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to actually harvest any myself. The weather here in central MD has fluctuated wildly between temps well below freezing and ice storms, and then sunny and highs in the 60s! Which is then followed by rain, and more ice as the temps slide back to “normal” for February. As a result, the ground is variously frozen solid or swampy mud. Neither condition is optimal for digging up tubers.

I have toyed with the idea of planting Jerusalem artichokes somewhere in my yard. Then at least I wouldn’t have to go hunting them when the ground finally thawed enough to dig them up. However, the plants can grow up to eight feet in optimal conditions, which means finding a location where tall flowers – followed by flopping stalks in the fall – aren’t a complete eyesore. Also, Jerusalem artichokes can become a nuisance, as any piece of tuber left in the ground (and there will always be tubers left in the ground) will regrow into new plants the following year. Basically, once planted, you will have Jerusalem artichokes forever. In fact digging up the tubers improves the health of the remaining plants, because it creates additional room for new plants to grow. And they will spread if given the slightest opportunity. Definitely a crop which needs forethought and planning before planting!


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Brambling On, Week Ending 2/10/2019

In this week’s post, we’ll look at another way the lack of winter foliage reveals wild edibles for later in the year. When the understory is smothered with leaves and thorns, it can be hard to know if anything buried under there is worth fighting to reach. In the winter, however, we can see the stems and note the location for future foraging forays.

A tangle of brambles in the winter

A tangle of brambles in the winter

Here are a few of the central MD canes and brambles you might encounter on a winter hike, with photos to help tell them apart.

Blackberry: most of the local wild blackberries appear to be Rubus pensilvanicus. There are also Alleghany blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) in the area, and they have narrower leaflets. (I am not sure there is a way to tell them apart by winter stems… I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen an Alleghany blackberry).

Blackberry in winter

Blackberry in winter

Blackberry canes have wicked sharp thorns, and often feature furrows and ridges lengthwise along the stem. They may be branched or not, depending on whether the tip of the cane was injured during the previous year. (“Tipping” is a pruning approach used for domestic blackberries because the branches will produce more fruit than a single long cane.)

Black raspberry: The other native bramble species, Rubus occidentalis, can be easily distinguished from blackberries by the purplish coloring on the stems. Like blackberries, the fruit grows on biennial canes that grow one year, survive over the winter, and flower the following year.

Black raspberry in winter

Black raspberry in winter

The new canes that grow the following year will also have an eye-catching color, though light blue rather than purple. The black raspberry’s thorns are also thankfully smaller than those of blackberries.

Wineberry: Black raspberries often share a habitat with Rubus phoenicolasius, a non-native bramble species.

Wineberry in winter

Wineberry in winter

In addition to thorns, wineberry canes bristle with red prickly hairs. In roadside thickets of brambles, the reddish color makes wineberries stand out almost as much as the purple stems of black raspberries.

Multiflora RoseRosa multiflora, technically foragable but not really interesting due to its small flowers and fruit (called “hips”). A non-native invasive species in central MD, this is the only kind of wild rose I have encountered so far.

Rose in winter

Rose in winter

While similar to blackberry canes, the multiflora roses of my acquaintance tend to be more upright (rather than long and arching); more likely to have branches; and less likely to be deeply furrowed than blackberries. Oh, but the thorns are just as sharp!

The last two plants in this post are visually similar to the previous ones, although they are not related. (Blackberries, raspberries, wineberries and roses are all members of the Rosaceae family.)

Elderberry: The winter form of Sambucus canadensis shares the long, arching leafless stems of the previously discussed canes.

Elderberry in winter

Elderberry in winter

You can tell elderberry by the lack of thorns, the larger size compared to the other canes discussed in this post, the scars from last year’s leaf stems, and the raised bumps on the bark.

Greenbrier: Smilax rotundifolia is a small sprawling vine that also has a thorny stem that looks similar to roses.

Greenbrier in the winter

Greenbrier in the winter

However roses stems are pale green or sometimes red (depending on the amount of cold it has been exposed to), while greenbrier sports glossy green stems, which look almost artificially colored compared to the dull, washed out shades of most winter plants.


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The Forager’s Dilemma, Week Ending 2/3/2019

(Sorry, Mr. Pollan, I couldn’t resist!)

When I started foraging a few years ago, I never imagined I would be in the crux of a conservation crisis.

I just thought it was cool that humans are surrounded by food. Free food. Natural food. Food that has never shivered in refrigerated tractor trailers; food that has not been yanked from its natural habitat to be shipped around the world to a consumer who knows (and cares) nothing of its homeland; food that wasn’t forced to grow under the frequent rain of chemical pesticides and artificial fertilizer; food that remains untouched by plastic wrap and unlit by fluorescent bulbs.

Unfortunately, some of that food is unwelcome and unwanted.

Meet the much maligned focus of this week’s winter foraging spotlight: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiola).

First year garlic mustard basal rosette

First year garlic mustard basal rosette. (Note the leaf in the foreground is slightly frost-damaged but the rest are fine.)

Garlic mustard is an invasive plant that grows under tree-lined property edges and in the understory of mature forests. It especially loves disturbed ground (like many invasive species). It has a two-year lifecycle, that is to say it is a biennial, surviving the cold of winter as a basal rosette (a group of leaves that spread out in a circle and stay close to the ground), and then producing flower stalks in its second year. It produces tiny, easily dispersed seeds like many members of the mustard family. But in addition to its cold and shade tolerance, and its prolific seed production, garlic mustard is also allelopathic. That is to say, its roots exudes chemicals that suppress the growth of other competing plants near by.

Garlic mustard is bad news, from an environmental and ecological perspective.

But garlic mustard is edible. Some people like to use the first year leaves as a seasoning, although others say it’s too bitter and strong. The second year shoots, young leaves, and flower buds are apparently its tastiest stage when enjoyed as a spring vegetable. The seed pods and seeds can be eaten as well, although by that time, garlic mustard is already well on its way to invading yet patch of soil.

But any plant conservationist (and a LOT of websites) will tell you to pull garlic mustard up by the root as soon as you see it.

But if you do that to the first year plant, you won’t get to dine on the flowering stalks the second year.

On the other hand, if you pull up that first year plant, apparently the roots are edible too, with a flavor similar to horseradish.

(But don’t try this when the ground has been frozen – like recently in central Maryland – because the leaves will break off leaving the roots thoroughly stuck in the soil.)

What’s an environmentally conscious forager to do?

… yeah, I’m gonna eat those weeds. Later. In mid-spring when the flowering stalks are at their best. As long as I pull them and eat them before they can go to seed, I think it will be OK. I hope, anyway!

In order to harvest the young flowering stalks in spring, one first needs to know how to recognize the first year plants. First year garlic mustard leaves are very distinctly shaped, often described as kidney-like as they curve back around the stem.

The following photo shows a garlic mustard leaf surrounded by chickweed (Stellaria media) and purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), two other winter-hardy wild edibles. (I guess one single garlic mustard plant can’t exude enough chemicals to fend off the other weeds!) The garlic mustard and dead nettle look similar but can be distinguished with a few details. Note how they are both roughly circular, but the garlic mustard leaf (upper right) curves back around the stem unlike the dead nettle leaf (lower left). Purple dead nettle leaves also grow from a stem, rather than a basal rosette.

Garlic Mustard leaf (upper right) compared to Dead Nettle (lower left)

Garlic Mustard leaf (upper right) compared to Dead Nettle (lower left)

If you harbor lingering doubts, you can tell the difference by touch or smell. Purple dead nettle has the characteristic square stem of members of the mint family, and the leaves are covered with soft hairs as opposed to the smooth leaves of garlic mustard. Additionally, when garlic mustard leaves are crushed they smell pungent, like, well, garlic and mustard. Purple dead nettle leaves by contrast do not have any strong, distinctive aroma. (Unless “green” counts as a smell.)

First year garlic mustard leaves are also similar in shape to common mallow (Malva neglecta).

Common mallow in the winter

Common mallow in the winter

However common mallow leaves are much smaller overall, and grow from a stem rather than from a single, central point in the ground.  Also, while both mallow and garlic mustard leaves have toothed margins, those of mallow are sharper versus the rounder margins of garlic mustard.

Second year garlic mustard plants have more elongated, almost triangular-shaped leaves. I don’t have any pictures yet… hopefully I will be able to share those photos (and recipes) with you later this year!