Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wonderful Mint

“Parts is parts,” so the fried chicken commercial went. To many, the same lack of appreciation applies to mint. But mint isn’t just mint.

Most everyone who has ever cultivated a few herbs for kitchen use has set out some mint plants. These were either peppermint or spearmint. Of the two, peppermint has a more delicate nature and requires more care in order to keep it over the winter. Spearmint, though, seems capable of not only existing but also thriving in the most inhospitable environments.

Hybridizers have created lots of new mint varieties. These come in a wide range of flavors, some of which seem inappropriate (chocolate mint comes immediately to mind). Others have a pleasing appearance, variegated peppermint, for example.

But what did people do before the introduction of European varieties of mint arrived on these shores? Simple. They went to the nearest stream, brook or wet area and harvested the abundant wild mint that offers itself so freely to our use.

Wild mint, Mentha canadensis, grows throughout Maine. It differs from cultivated mint in that it has a more powerful and I think cleaner, minty fragrance.

Each summer, I visit different trout streams (fishing and foraging go well together) and do my best to catch a few brook trout and harvest a bag of mint. Whether or not the trout bite, I usually come home with some mint. This, I dry by placing in a brown ash basket and hanging it from a beam in my kitchen. The fully dried mint then goes into a recycled spaghetti sauce jar, there to remain until winter arrives and fresh mint is no longer available.

Sometimes I crave a cup of hot, mint tea. A heaping teaspoon of crushed, wild mint leaves and a scant cup of boiling water make for a strong brew. The hot water releases the fragrant volatile oils and these immediately infuse the air with their captivating aroma.

I sip on my wild mint tea, careful to finish it while it is still hot. The relaxing effect of this simple ritual is profound. For me, wild mint tea rivals homemade chicken soup in healing and comforting power.

People employed mint for culinary and medicinal uses since Biblical times. This unassuming plant long ago found its way into classical literature. Chaucer wrote in his Roumant of the Rose:

“Then wente I forthe on my right honde,
Downe by a little path I fonde,
Of mintes full and fenell greene.”

Alluding to one of mint’s medicinal virtues, Pliny wrote: “The smell of mint doth stir up the minde and taste to a greedy desire for meat.”

For me, mint is an old and dear friend. It soothes me, settles my tummy and does more than a little to promote good health.

Were I to have only one wild herb at my disposal, I would surely choose mint.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Home Canning Pays In Dividends

Canned food rates low on the list of gourmet foods. In general, fresh is best, frozen is okay and canned…well, canned goods don’t get any respect at all.

Perhaps canned food gets its bad name from the stuff we buy in the store. These vegetables are raised with little concern for taste or flavor. Instead, commercial companies must get the highest return for their cash outlay. So lots and lots of, for instance, big but not-too-tasty green beans outweigh a smaller crop of tender and sumptuous green beans.

But some canned goods truly rate as fine food or, as Alton Brown would say, “Good Eats.” Some home-canned products fall into this category.

As a forager, much of my diet consists of wild plants that I harvest in season and then either pressure-can or freeze for later use. As with domestic vegetables, I’ve found that some plants lend themselves well to home canning and others are best frozen. A few excel as either canned or frozen foods. Let me tell you about two of my favorite home-canned products.
Taraxacum officinale
Okay, I used a fancy word…actually, the official botanical name, for the common and lowly dandelion. But dandelions are more than just a favorite of old-time country people. And they have more to them than simply their inestimable value as vitamin powerhouses. Dandelions excel as a home-canned food.

It seems to me that something happens to dandelions in the pressure-canning process, something that enhances their inherent sweetness and diminishes that bitter taste that so many people object to. While I revel in fresh dandelions each spring (also in fall, after the first few killing frosts make dandelions less bitter), I absolutely go nuts for my home-canned dandelions in winter. These are so good that I save them for special times, to go with extra-yummy cuts of lamb or perhaps, fresh fish.

I would feel totally unprepared and even slovenly were I to head into winter without my shelf filled with home-canned dandelions.
Plantago juncoides
Okay, I did it again. Plantago juncoides is the scientific name for seaside plantain, or what old-timers once called, “shore greens.” The other common name, “goosetongue,” seems most appropriate, though, since the individual leaves are shaped much like their namesake.

Without going into detail about how to find or identify goosetongue (it’s all available in my book, Wild Plants Of Maine), I will say that goosetongue rates right up there with dandelions as a superb canned food. In fact, today I had a noontime meal of shrimp Scampi. This used my own, homegrown garlic and a side dish of home-canned goosetongue sprinkled with white vinegar and some Cajun seasoning. The end result was a gustatory treat.

For me, home-canned goods are preferable to even fresh, commercially-grown vegetables. My “freezer foraging” provides many inspired and elegant meals.

By the way, my next column in the upcoming winter issue of Maine Food & Lifestyle Magazine features freezer foraging and includes some recipes.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Enjoying winter in comfort

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

With temperatures holding in the low 20’s even in the daytime and a deep blanket of snow covering the ground, my cottage is finally warm.

Huh? Doesn’t that sound counter-intuitive? Sure it does. Let me explain.

As with so many Maine cottages, mine sits on posts rather than on a solid foundation or even a poured concrete pad. So each fall, I must apply banking to the bottom of my wee cottage. The best stuff for the job by far is felt paper, what most of us used to call “tarred paper.”

Tarred paper, being black, helps absorb heat from the sun. But far more important, it blocks the chilling effects of winter winds. And that means a lot. Even so, tarred paper alone does not fully stop the insidious incursions of creeping, arctic air. Add an insulating layer of snow, however, and tarred paper becomes a highly efficient insulator.

So this last storm, a blizzard, put me into the comfort zone by dumping perhaps 18 inches of snow around my house. This had the effect of raising the indoor temperature by approximately 5 degrees, a really big deal.

I get a charge out of this kind of thing, since it points out how closely tied I am to nature and to the vicissitudes and caprices of each changing season. Temperature, wind or lack thereof, moon phase, presence or lack of sunlight, all have a direct effect upon my life. I truly feel pity for those who are so dependent upon manmade things that they fail to notice seasonal nuances.

At the same time, I suppose someone out there feels pity for me, too, poor wretch, having to cut and carry wood just to keep warm. But it’s what I have always known and it’s my own choice.

So let the winter wind howl, the snow fall and the temperature plummet. I’ll entertain myself by sitting by the woodstove and playing my Irish bagpipes. Later, I’ll cook a meal, perhaps on the woodstove and if not, on a gas range, of food that I either grew, foraged or butchered myself. For me, it just doesn’t get much better.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mural

A huge mural covered an entire wall in an old-time doctor’s waiting room. It showed a stand of white pines in winter. It was early morning and filtered sunlight created a dappled effect on the snow.

The old doc has long since passed away, his home and office sold to people who probably never knew the man. But this isn’t about the doctor; it’s about the mural.

For me, that picture epitomized winter. While waiting to enter the examination room, I would often sit and stare at the thing, allowing myself to become part and parcel of it. It had a cold, yet clean and pleasing feeling about it.

That same feeling has come upon me many times over the intervening years and it always takes me back to that mural.

Every once in a while, the mural springs to life when hazy, cirrus clouds filter the morning sunlight in just the right way. Then, the white pines behind my house become the trees in that picture. Looking at them I tell myself that I have seen this before, have experienced this before. It becomes a moment in time that repeats itself every so often, an old friend with a likeable and familiar habit.

It seems improper for me to examine this thing too closely. Acknowledging and accepting it without question makes much more sense.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Learning, An Ongoing Process

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

For me the days of formal education are long past. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn. In my case, learning happens by watching, listening, observing and reading. Just this past week, I picked up a slue of interesting facts, a few of which I’ll share here.

First, I discovered something that shocked me. I read that red squirrels eat mushrooms that are toxic to people. It always seemed to me that animals shared the same fate as people when exposed to toxins found in certain mushrooms. Normally, I would have a difficult time believing this, but the source seems quite impeccable.

Next, I read that while a single, dead leaf weighs only a couple hundredths of an ounce, the total autumn leaf fall for one acre of hardwood forest weighs upward of one-and-one-half tons. Who would have thought?

And finally, I found that it is possible to “hear” a meteor shower. While the near-full moon made it difficult to observe the recent Perseid meteor shower, anyone with an old-fashioned radio could tune in, so to speak.

The trick to this is to find an open FM frequency somewhere around 91 on the radio dial and leave it on. When an unseen meteor darts across the sky way past the horizon, its path serves to bounce radio signals down on a wide angle. These are called “blips.” In other words, someone in Waldo, Maine, could hear bits and pieces of radio shows from, say, Oklahoma, Colorado or in fact, just about anywhere.

During an intense meteor shower, the blips can be near-continuous.

Such stuff as this fascinates me. I think that as long as I continue watching, listening and reading, the learning process will help to keep me young.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Live, Learn, Love and Be Happy

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Unanticipated distractions kept me from sitting outside Saturday night and enjoying the stars. Nonetheless, before turning in, I stepped outside and took a peek at what was going on in the heavens. Of course it wasn’t my normal stargazing hour and constellations were in a different part of the sky from what I was used to.

There in the southeast was what I thought was Pisces. But being tired, I didn’t take close note and so went inside and turned in for the night.

The next morning, just as I was leaving for church, I had a thought that stopped me from leaving at my normal time. A vision of that constellation came into my consciousness. I had to know exactly what it was and instead of heading out, went back to the table and consulted star charts for that particular time and date.

It was Pisces all right, the Circlet of Pisces, to be exact. I congratulated myself on being able to recognize the thing and set off for church, nearly 10 minutes late.

Down the road about 2 miles, I got a shiver. This one stretch of unimproved (and I use the term very, very loosely) road has been the scene of at least two one-vehicle accidents in the past month, each occurring on Sunday morning. Both were young people driving way too fast. One had rolled over, the other had jumped off the road and landed on the other side of the stream. To my knowledge, nobody was injured in either accident.

But this time was different. With thoughts of wrecked vehicles on my mind, I drove slowly, looking ahead, watching for that speed-crazed person who might ram me head-on. And then I saw it.

A bloody hand waving just over the guardrails by a stream crossing. Then the whole scene came into focus. The hand belonged to a young man on the ground and behind him was a truck on its side, flush against a large poplar tree. A fuel pump lay in the road, as did a wheel, some bits of grill, glass and lots of small parts.

I pulled to the side of the road, my stomach in knots. Walking up to the bloody human lying there, I felt my gorge rise. He was covered in blood, his face was covered, his eyes almost blotted out with blood and a huge gash on his back. I imagined I saw internal organs, but I’m not sure of that.

“Call an ambulance,” he yelled. Seeing that he was conscious, and also, that his vehicle was not on fire nor leaking gas…I didn’t smell gasoline, I left him there and drove to the next house to call for help. But the woman wouldn’t answer the door. Deaf, I would imagine. She is an old woman.

The next house was full of people and they responded quickly. I told them the location and then several of them headed back with me to the accident scene.

Piecing the thing together, it looked as if the guy had wandered off the road, inattention perhaps, jumped the guardrail, leapt over a 20-foot wide stream and slammed against a tree on the far side. I tried to calculate the speed it would require to accomplish this feat, but it was beyond my ability.

When others began arriving, I decided to leave rather than stay and be in the way. At church, I managed to get my rattled nerves back together, at least somewhat. And then it hit me.

If I hadn’t listened to that small, almost inaudible voice telling me to take time and look at my star atlas, I might have been on the receiving end of that misguided missile in the form of a pickup truck.

I escaped harm and also, just happened to arrive immediately after the crash so that I could go and call for help. What might have happened if any part of this scenario had been different? I shudder to think.

Just what is such a tale doing in my Wild Plants And Wooly Bears blog? Exactly this. Before these events took place, I was happily immersed in a beautiful, sunny late-fall day. My thoughts were on nature and all the wonderful things that creation provides us in this life. It never occurred to me that in a microsecond, everything could shut off, end for good.

This tells me that we need to enjoy, appreciate and do everything in our power to soak in every day, no matter if it be sunny or cloudy. The little things that bother us, disputes with others, noisy neighbors, political beefs and so on…. they’re all meaningless.

So enjoy each day. And enjoy tomorrow. Live. Learn. Love. And be happy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Need For Green Plants

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

We humans, whether we know it or not, have a need for green plants that transcends their ability to produce oxygen and provide food. It occurs to me now, while a few leaves yet cling to hardwood trees and my lawn cries out for one more mowing, that soon the world as we know it will undergo a dramatic transformation. It will turn white and green, growing things will seem so very distant.

Which is one reason that I do my best to circumvent the change, or at the least, stave it off for as long as possible. To that end, I have dug up some mint from outside and put it in a large planter in front of my south-facing glass door. In the same planter I have added Swiss chard. Hopefully, by mid-winter, I’ll have fresh chard for the occasional side dish and mint for use in tea and on lamb.

Also, the green stuff, chard and lettuce, in my unheated greenhouse, usually persists until well into December. When even that finally gives up the ghost, I resort to sorting through the plant photos that I took the previous spring, summer and fall. And sometimes, I’ll thumb through books, usually vividly-illustrated, old volumes featuring color plates of the various wild plants.

So viewing myself and my habits as if from afar, I realize that these things are all done according to a need. And as hinted at above, we all share that same need. Some evidence this by leaving Maine in late fall and heading south for the winter. It’s not just to get away from ice and snow, either. It’s to get in touch, once again, with green, growing things.

I'm sure that someone will wonder why I don't mention houseplants. These help, of course, but since they are present year-round, they never become conspicuous by their absence. Houseplants are fixtures, a given, and not indicative of change.

Taking things one step further, I believe that the green plants, particularly the wild ones, represent life. And more. For some, they are analogous to spiritual life, something beyond what we know now.

In short, our continuing relationship with green plants is a be-all to end-all of sorts, absolutely necessary for our well-being.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pink Asters

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

A mid-October fishing trip to the Piscataquis River in Guilford revealed a welcome sight. There, near a roadside turnoff, was a large clump of New England asters, Aster novae-angliae. That in itself is hardly remarkable. But their color, pink trending toward rose, was quite special.

These wild asters (relatives of the domestic asters that we go to so much trouble to cultivate) usually occur in a single shade of violet. Dark pink asters are relatively scarce. So I picked a large bouquet and put them in a cooler, along with some brook trout I had caught. Back home, these handsome wildflowers would grace my kitchen table.

New England asters usually last for a week or more when kept in a water-filled vase. Then, as they age, the petals, or rays, wither and white, fluffy seeds emerge in their place. I knew that would happen and so left my bouquet on the table. Visitors would probably think me slack, but it was my express desire that these asters would produce seed.

So now, probably this weekend, I will go out in my field and let the wind take the seeds to their final destination. And hopefully, these will come true to seed and next year or more likely the year after, my place will have, in addition to lots of violet-colored asters, at least some of the more rare, pink variety. And to me, that’s a big deal.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September Farewell

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Cobbling together a meal from what I can harvest, catch or grow appeals to my innermost being. From April through September, nature provides plenty of fixings for my wild meals. September’s bounty, although fleeting, has a special charm.

Today serves as a good example of that. My noontime meal consisted of skull-shaped puffballs (wild mushrooms from my woodlot), fillet of lake trout (caught yesterday in a nearby lake) and tender, young green beans from my garden.

These puffballs, like all wild mushrooms, present harvesters with only a short window of opportunity. Pick and enjoy them today, for tomorrow they are gone. Transients on my dinner plate, these mushrooms are.

Togue, or lake trout, bite best in September, given that cool weather arrives sometime in mid-month. That didn’t happen this year, so the fish I caught yesterday was a bonus. Besides that, the lake closes for the season on the first of October. Another year must pass before my next late-season togue-fishing trip.

And green beans, well they have a few weeks left, given that a hard frost doesn’t kill them. A note regarding these beans might prove valuable to others who enjoy green beans. Most varieties (Tendergreen comes immediately to mind) produce well, but after the first few pickings, become fat and generally misshapen. I bought my beans from a place called Vermont Seed Company, located, oddly enough, in Randolph, Wisconsin.

Anyway, these French fillet-style beans are called Straight ‘N Narrow and the name describes them quite well. No matter what, they remain straight and relatively narrow. And, of course, they retain their sweet, mild flavor. A helping of these culinary delights, freshly-picked, has to stand as one of September’s finest treats.

Oh, the ninth month has more going for it than what I have mentioned here. Earlier on, wild cranberries come around. Winter squash become ready for eating and white perch congregate in huge schools, a boon to those who relish their sweet, flaky flesh.

So as September winds down to pave the way for October, I bid it a fond farewell.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Fish, Some Mushrooms And A Late-September Day

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The last week of September means much to me. Trout and salmon fishing on most lakes and ponds ends this month, so the last week is a now-or-never situation. So I go to lengths to take advantage of that last, fleeting opportunity.

This year saw me scheduled for a two-day stint at a remote sporting camp in Northern Maine’s 100-Mile wilderness. Two ponds within walking distance of the cabins hold lots of native brook trout. So as September approached, my thoughts more and more turned to my trip upcountry.

But the weather didn’t cooperate. All reports predicted rain by sometime during the first afternoon, just about the time I was scheduled to arrive. And wind was supposed to pick up too, bad news for someone fly-fishing out of a canoe. So I cancelled my trip.

I woke up this morning crestfallen. But since it wasn’t yet raining, I decided to take my boat to a local lake and try my luck on togue, or lake trout.

I arrived at the place where fish usually congregate this time of year and found the bottom bereft of fish. My fish locator/depth finder failed to indicate even one togue. The wind picked up slightly and it seemed only reasonable to pack it in, to wind in my lines and go, top speed, for the boat landing. But something told me to wait, don’t be hasty. One spot on the west side of the lake sometimes produces fish.

Okay. I zipped over to the last-chance spot and within five minutes of letting out line, my rod tip bounced and I lifted the rod out of the holder and reeled like crazy.

Then the fight began. I knew it was a good fish, from the way it hugged bottom and from how the rod slowly pulsated. After what seemed an eternity, I saw a silvery sheen heading my way. Soon, I made out that it was a lake trout. But then it saw the boat and gained renewed energy, taking off, stripping my reel of line in short, powerful bursts.

But in time the fish tired and I slid the net under it and lifted it in the boat. I was overjoyed. It wasn’t the biggest togue in the world but it was my precious, last-of-the-season fish. I reckoned that it weighed about five pounds, the perfect size for eating.

After arriving home and taking care of my prize, I got a call from a friend who lives on Verona Island at the head of Penobscot Bay. He wanted me to assure him that the mushrooms he had found were indeed puffballs. From his description, I was sure that he had some good, edible fungi.

Later, it occurred to me to go out in my own woods and hunt for puffballs. That variety of mushrooms had been scarce thus far and I wondered if it wasn’t just a case of them being somewhat late. And so it was.

I picked enough puffballs to make two, good meals and headed home, happy and content.

A fish, a few mushrooms and a late-September day in Maine. That’s what it takes to make me happy.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Dandelions and Asters

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Soon, the first frost will change our landscape dramatically. But the change won’t just be visual. Plenty of other subtle shifts will occur as a result of freezing temperatures. Among these, dandelions will lose their bitterness. Foragers can then go out, dig the crowns and leaves and have a last fling, as it were, with wild potherbs.

Even better, dandelions appear much larger now than at the same time last year, understandable, given that our season has kept from two to three weeks ahead of itself.

At my place, dandelions grow along the edge of my gravel driveway. Here, I dig them every spring and by fall, new, young plants take their place. Leaving most of the root in place when digging guarantees is all it takes to maintain the crop.

On a melancholy note, a killing frost will signal an end to the incredible flush of color from New England asters. These violet – pink wildflowers were much in evidence this year, more so than in previous seasons.

So go, dig dandelions. Pick a bouquet of asters. And enjoy the glorious fall.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Soapwort's Sweet Fragrance and Stately Beauty

The downward spiral has begun. Well, it began back in June, on the first day of summer. Now, the sun sets a wee bit sooner and rises just a touch later. And one of my favorite wild plants, soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, comes into bloom at this specific sun time.

It took me years to get this lovely flower established at my place. Seeds failed and transplants died. But eventually, I managed to coax two or three plants into existence. And from them, this European biennial took hold and now, it enlarges its territory each year.

Soapwort, so-called on account of its ability to produce soapsuds when placed in a vessel with water and vigorously shaken, has considerable value as an emergency form of soap. It has a gentle effect, like that commercial product that proclaims that babies won’t shed tears if they get it in their eyes.

But I rarely use soapwort as soap. The double flowers, white-and-pink, have a delicious, I’d say Heavenly aroma. Besides that, I just like to look at them. They are wicked pretty.

Soapwort, like most of our other favorite wild plants, has a brief window where it sets flowers, the flowers get pollinated by visiting insects and then produces seeds. The flowering cycle doesn’t last more than two weeks, but during that time the soapwort in front of my house gives me two weeks of sweet fragrance and old-fashioned, stately beauty.

Could anyone ask more of any wild plant?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Sitting outside my place the other night, a welcome sight greeted me. It was the nightly dragonfly invasion. My two farm ponds prove fertile grounds for these prehistoric insects, a good thing for me.

In midsummer, biting insects descend upon my yard…well, call it a yard. Really, it’s an opening in the woods. Anyway, deerflies and mosquitoes make outdoor living difficult and at the least, less-than-pleasant.

Fortunately, just when that magic time arrives when the sun sinks low behind the tall white pines and the sky turns pink and gauzy-white, the dragonflies come around, picking off insects in mid-flight. Dozens and dozens of these helicopter look-alikes fly anywhere from ground level to perhaps 50 feet in altitude. And as they go, the blessed critters catch mosquitoes and other devilish pests by grasping them with their front legs.

I can just picture how it goes. The dragonfly sees a target, acquires it in its radar (okay, so it doesn’t have radar. But it has some kind of built-in acquisition device) and then ZAP! Gotcha! After being thus embraced, the hapless mosquito is then brought to the dragonfly’s mouth and summarily eaten.

There was a time when I used dragonfly nymphs for trout bait. These are easily gotten by walking along the shore of any small pond and with a hard-toothed rake, bringing bottom debris up on shore and watching as the alien-looking nymphs crawled back toward the water. But that was then. Now, realizing that not only are dragonflies beneficial as mosquito catchers, some species of dragonflies are becoming quite scarce, I wouldn’t think of harming any dragonfly.

For more info on dragonflies and their ultra-colorful cousins, damselflies, I suggest investing a couple bucks in the Maine Dragonfly Survey foldout fact sheet. This, courtesy of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, contains a full written description as well as accurate color drawings of all of the dragons and damsels in Maine.

To learn more, just go to

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Don't believe everything you read

A recent trip to a chain bookstore opened my eyes to the vast number of new books about the medicinal virtues of wild plants.

After thumbing through one offered by a well-known national publisher, I was astounded at what lay inside.

Here’s what bothered me the most. The book listed a number of common wild plants, none of which are known for their medicinal properties. In many instances, it seemed that the author stretched the point by listing all the various ills that the plants were supposed to treat. And that seems at best, misleading.

Such books typically target “newbies,” folks who have only recently become interested in wild plants and their uses. So they buy these books and consider information therein as gospel. But this can be terribly dangerous. Here’s why.

Lots of people can’t afford medical treatment for their health problems. Others simply eschew visits to the doctor. For these folks, wild medicinal plants offer hope and in some cases, panacea. But in so many cases, treating a serious condition with some plant that may or may not have any worth is risky business at best.

Even worse, books, not just the new batch of books to erupt out of the “green revival,” but even books of some generations ago, go out of their way to list every conceivable use for any given plant. Typically, we might read something like (I’m making this up, it’s only an example), “Cattail pollen, mixed with water, was traditionally used by Zuni Indians to treat pneumonia.”

In truth, anyone who thinks he or she may have pneumonia should head to the nearest doctor, hospital or clinic, pronto. Delayed treatment means delayed recovery, something that can lead to tissue scarring, not a good thing at all.

Of course lots of excellent wild plant medicines exist out there, but nowhere near as many as some people would have us believe. And worse, some plants can have serious interactions with prescription medications. In other cases, using wild plants as medicine can be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.

It is always advisable to check with a qualified medical practitioner first before ingesting any wild plant as medicine. And relying on some obscure reference in a book may be even more dangerous.

So think before treating. And don’t believe everything you read.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thump went the snake

Seeing is believing, so they say. And I surely would not have believed what happened this morning had I not seen it.

Sipping coffee in my kitchen and peering out at my yard, I saw something fall into some perennial plants outside my glass door. It seemed to have some bulk and I though that perhaps a bird had flown into the house and dazed itself. But I hadn’t heard that telltale, “thump.”

Intrigued, I stepped out into the 90-degree heat and looked all around, but saw nothing. Then, glancing up at where the object, or whatever it was had fallen from, I saw something that made me question my senses. There, on a ledge under the roof overhand, was a large garter snake, all coiled up, peering pack at me.

So it must have been another garter snake that had fallen from the ledge into my plants. The two were probably vying for space on the little ledge, when one lost its balance and fell to the ground.

I then remembered seeing a shed snakeskin in a closet area inside my house, directly beneath where the snake currently sat. “So that’s how they get in,” I thought. I took my walking stick and gently prodded the critter, but instead of dislodging it like its companion, it found a crack and made its way into the wall.

Instead of a stick, I should have grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos. Perhaps next time.

Still, the event makes me wonder, how on earth do snakes climb up a vertical wall and not fall off? My place has rough-sawn trim and pine shingles, so both would offer at least a little traction. But I just don’t know.

Nature is full of mysteries, but this one beats all.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Yellow Smoke

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Driving along a back road a few days ago, it seemed that my glasses had become foggy. But that wasn’t it. Then I realized that the air was filled with smoke. But it didn’t smell smoky. Besides, it was yellow smoke. What makes yellow smoke? Then the answer became clear. With each gust of wind, white pines released a heaping measure of yellow pollen.

Later, back home, I sat on my back deck and watched the tall pines behind my house. Each gust of wind precipitated a burst of yellow pollen, fine, smoky dust. Then a realization struck me. The pollen must not become available all at once, but in stages, over a fairly lengthy period of time.

Pines produce pollen on male cones. These are smaller than female cones and in evidence primarily at the start of the flowering stage. So we have male cones to thank for the yellow coating on our cars, picnic tables, roofs and even the surface of ponds and lakes. And, of course, this pollen provokes allergy symptoms in susceptible humans and probably animals as well.

Soon the time of “yellow smoke” will end and we will forget all about it. Until next year, that is, when the cycle repeats itself.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Save A Tree?"

My latest Central Maine Power bill has a provision for getting receipts for payment electronically. “Save A Tree,” it says. I pay automatically and find that option very useful. But regarding receipts, I like paper and for good reason.

Of course CMP is not unique in their tree-saving efforts. For sure, lots of people who opt out of hard-copy receipts do so in all earnestness. Besides, I’m sure it makes them feel good, too. After all, everything we can do to contribute to the health of our environment is a good thing. Isn’t it?

Let’s consider paper. Here in Maine, the pulp and paper industry (I have absolutely no connection to the industry, by the way) owns the lion’s share of our woodlands. With the exception of a few parks and other lands owned and/or maintained by the various land trusts, we have the pulp and paper people to thank for what wild land remains.

Taking things a step further, were it not for the paper companies, what do you suppose would happen to all this wild land that we are so proud of and that so many of us freely recreate on? I’ll tell you what would happen. It would be sold to private industry, read that to mean developers, before you could say Jack Robinson.

Like them or hate them, the paper companies have kept our woodlands woodlands. As Jim Robbins of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont once said, “In northern Maine, they cut trees and grow trees. In southern Maine, they cut trees and grow houses.”

Jim’s astute comment pretty much sums up the situation. As an example, consider Plum Creek, a mega-developer that eats up woodland and spits out resorts. Plumb Creek has, as we all know by now, gotten its money-making hands on land around Moosehead Lake, the premiere, wild lake of the eastern United States. The company planned to build from the start and after a long, legal struggle, has come out on top and now the once-pristine, Moosehead Region will soon resound to the “music” of heavy equipment and then, hammers and saws. That’s what happens when paper companies are driven to sell their woodlands.

“But these companies cut trees,” someone might say. Sure they cut trees. Paper is made of trees. However, the same person who so dutifully objects to taking the life of a tree has no idea in the world what kind of tree he or she is defending. But I do. Let me tell you.

Historically, paper was made and still is, of balsam fir, Abies balsamea. People who can’t immediately recall what a fir looks like have only to consider Christmas trees. Balsam firs are THE Christmas trees.

Firs grow well over 40 feet tall, but by that time, generally have been attacked by disease and insects. Cut a big fir and chances are good that it will be what woodcutters call, “hollow-hearted.” Firs are short-lived and for that reason, fast-growing. To put it simply, firs are a renewable crop, no more and no less.

In my own lifetime of a little over 60 years, I have seen many woods-cutting operations on the same plot of land. Private woodcutters did this, people who concentrate upon fir and sometimes spruce for the pulp and paper industry. In fact, I was once an independent logger and the woodlot that I now own and live on, was once my worksite.

While I’m getting a bit old to take on a full-fledged logging operation, my woodlot is about ready for another go-around. That’s how fast fir grows.

Industry has, since I carried a chainsaw into the woods for profit, developed a way to use poplar, too. “Popple,” as many refer to the various members of the Populus group, was once utterly worthless, not fetching enough money to warrant cutting it. Poplar is, first and foremost, a pioneer tree. It is one of those trees that quickly colonized cut or burned-over land, establishing the canopy so necessary for other, more long-lived trees to gain a foothold.

So here we have two, different trees that if not cut and used, will sooner rather than later, succumb to disease, insects and even high winds. It’s better to cut fir and poplar and allow a new crop to come online, than to keep the old specimens in situ. Regular, thoughtful and planned harvests insure that our trees and our forest in general, stay healthy.

So before jumping on the “save a tree” bandwagon, consider what trees are worth saving and what are better used to our good when they reach their prime. Besides, if we save too many trees, there might not be any more trees to save. Our forests will revert to houses and resorts, not a good thing at all. That’s the way it works.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dame's Rocket

In keeping with my tradition of encouraging native plants to grow on my property, I long ago scattered the seeds of dame’s rocket, Hesperis matronalis.

A place along the railroad track, overlooking a tidal river in Belfast, Maine, was alive with pink, white and blue dame’s rocket. This typically flowers in June and as summer progresses, is pretty much forgotten by casual observers. So I took pains to note the exact location of the plants and in late summer, harvested dozens of ripe seedpods. These were the genesis of the rocket that presently grows outside my office and around my front yard.

Of course this year, 2010, has seen things get a little skewed. The schedule of blooming and ripening is several weeks early. Consequently, the rocket that would normally cheer my senses in June is in full bloom now, in late May. Along with rocket are wild lupine and chives, all of a bluish hue. I used to call June the “blue time,” but again, that feature has been pushed forward by a considerable length of time.

Anyway, rocket looks very much like garden phlox, but it isn’t. Phlox has five petals to the flower, while rocket has only four. Rocket properly belongs in the mustard family, a showy example of what that group offers.

In addition to striking color, rocket releases a powerful, sweet scent at night and also on overcast days. The aroma has such an effect on me that when it wafts past my nose, I am a child again, carefree and totally happy. I’m not an aroma therapist, but it’s easy for me to see how scents and aromas can play on our emotions and well-being.

Anyway, if this has you interested in rocket, just keep a sharp eye out and if you see what looks like phlox (actual phlox comes around well after rocket has faded away), take note and mark the spot. Return in late August and bring a small bag. The seeds are borne in a typical, mustard seedpod. Hold the bag under the ripe pod and pull it from the stem. If it breaks, that only means that the seeds are fully ripe, ready for dispersal.

Then go home and envision where a three-foot, showy flower would look best and scatter the seeds. Wet them with a hose or watering can and with that, the “jobbie is deen,” as the Scots would say.

Don’t expect much the next year, but after that, watch out. These plants spread on their own after becoming established. Even when they show up in places I would prefer they avoid, I have never felt the need to pull them. They are simply too pretty, too deliciously fragrant and too ethereal. Soon, rocket will fade and other wild plants will take center stage.

But for now, dame’s rocket says it all. I just love it and hopefully, you will too. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Plant Succession Elicits Question

The different varieties of wild plants appear in a set order, a kind of succession that never varies. In other words, ostrich fern fiddleheads always appear before common milkweed. And common milkweed always shows prior to wild, daylilies.

All well and good. But something bothers me about this season. Everything is early, in some cases, two or three weeks early. So what happens if everything runs its course and the last plants of fall come and go, but it is still summer?

Picture New England asters in July and goldenrod in June. Since the next flowering plants to appear are those of spring, might we have a second bloom on some of our familiar, springtime plants? Might we go fiddheading in October?

This, of course, doesn’t take into account whatever plants may need as a period of cold stratification. But perhaps, some plants don’t require set, sub-freezing period.

It’s all interesting stuff, for sure. All I can say is that it will pay to keep a weather eye on wild plants as the season progresses.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wild Plants of Late May

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

By the third week of May the forest canopy has grown dense, a sign of another step forward for the change of seasons. Now, plants that thrive in the filtered sunlight of early and mid-spring have grown to maturity and set flowers and in many cases, seeds.

This week and the next carry many possibilities. Killing frosts are still possible. On the other hand, so are heat waves. In other words, we can’t count on much, at least not weather-wise. Still, hopeful gardeners set out tender crops and hope for the best. And wild food foragers set their sights upon a whole, new group of plants.

Lamb’s quarters, a plant that thrives on cultivated ground, becomes available for harvest. Also, common milkweed offers the first pickings of its tender tips.

So it’s a case of out with the old (fiddleheads and dandelions) and in with the new.

Folks who have never tried the above-named plants owe it to themselves to do so now. Lamb’s quarters rate as one of my favorite, leafy vegetables. Sweeter and milder than spinach (I just had some of my own spinach last night, and while delicious, it could not compare to lamb’s quarters), lamb’s quarters takes only a brief time to prepare. Just boil for perhaps a minute, simmer for another minute, drain and serve.

Common milkweed tips have a season of approximately two weeks, before the plant develops into the next stage. Don’t confuse this plant with toxic, butterfly weed, a type of milkweed that lacks the white, milky latex sap that distinguishes common milkweed. Also, butterfly weed sports erect, flat clusters of bright-orange flowers. The difference between the two is considerable, but still it pays to take heed.

Pick the tender tips, usually consisting of four, erect leaves, and boil for at least five minutes. This makes a fine, cooked vegetable.

These represent only a small fraction of the delicious, wild plants coming to a field, lawn or garden bed near you.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Legacy to Cherish

I went grocery shopping yesterday, the first time in nearly one month. The increase in food prices in that short stretch of time shocked me. In fact, the usual price of $1.29 for a 2-pound bag of onions had just about doubled. Ditto for a slue of other items.

My diet has not varied much since fishing season opened and wild plants became available once again. Trout, fiddleheads, dandelions, dock and groundnuts truly rate as epicurean fare. Yet, I longed for some store-bought food. And so when my paycheck arrived, I visited the local superette.

I wonder what other shoppers thought when they overhead me blurting out my astonishment. “My gosh, no way,” or “That’s robbery.” But that just illustrates the degree of my astonishment. At the same time I thought of others, people who depend upon grocery stores for their sustenance. I wondered what low-income types would do, now that food prices are on a par with luxury items.

My reason for mentioning this lies in the release of my latest book, Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide. It seems to me that people who spend hundreds of dollars a month (I spend about $40, if that) on groceries, can save bucks and eat healthier by taking advantage of the free, wild plants that grow all around. Given the unreasonably-high price of food, the time for getting back to the free bounty provided by nature has surely arrived.

In fact, were it not for foraging, gardening, fishing and so on, I don’t know how I would survive. Of course these things are more than just cost-saving measures…they are passions, part of my life that become more dear and important with each passing year.

So just maybe, in some small part at least, I can have some input in people’s lives through my writing. And that rates as a legacy to cherish.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Trademark of Maine Spring

I love the pink-to-magenta blossoms of azalea. They seem a trademark for mid-spring. But consider those still-raw, new settings where people cut all the trees, build a house and throw a few shrubs in the ground almost as an afterthought. Most of the time the shrubs they (or their landscapers) choose are azaleas. It all seems so artificial and contrived.

Enter rhodora, Rhododendron canadense. These have similar-colored flowers and bloom at exactly the same time as the azaleas that people plant. Rhodora has some interesting points, too. The flowers set on before the leaves fully develop, giving the plant a singular beauty when in full bloom. A close look at a flower reveals the top three petals are joined, forming an upper lip. The two bottom petals are nearly or completely separate. And the 10 stamens add a bristly, flowing appearance.

By now, readers may guess what form of “rhody” grows at my place. Of course, it is rhodora. These wild, native shrubs thrive in wet ground and my place has plenty of damp areas. My one shrub grows fuller and bigger around each year. The only drawback, and this we can hardly call a drawback, is that the flowers drop their petals all too soon. But that only means that we who so love these hardy plants must make sure to take time out and enjoy them while in season.

Maine has lots of wild plants that easily compete with their cultivated counterparts. In a future blog, I’ll give a description and photos of some of our native, flowering dogwood. Meanwhile, if they are still in bloom where you live, why not make it a point to get out and enjoy rhodora?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Worst Public Road In The State Of Maine

I live on the worst, most ill-maintained public road in the State of Maine.

Sure, we all hear of people who have gripes about roads. But this beats all. The last gravel hauled in here was about 15 years ago, and that was only in a few spots. The road gets graded twice each year, but these are ineffective, since the man running the grader goes so fast that a person running would have trouble keeping up with him,

The end result of high-speed grading is that the blade bounces, creating ridges that, in time, become gaping, horizontal ruts. The other negative end is that the blade never goes below the level of existing potholes. So within less than one week after the grader passes, the potholes are back in all their tire-breaking, wheel-bending glory.

In fact, some of these potholes are actually historical. Since they never fully disappear, I have names for them. We have Judy’s Pothole, Walt’s Pothole, The End-Of-The-Road-Pothole and on and on.

Our selectmen could not care less about our plight and repeated calls and letters have gone unanswered. So today I contacted newspaper and television people.

The road is so bad that people stopped jogging on it. Bicycles no longer use the road, either. Modern bikes cost big money and it’s no wonder the leotard-clad class has learned to avoid East Waldo Road like the plague.

People on the road are organizing and in the end, I suspect that something might get done. But it’s a long, hard battle.

My 2008 Ford Focus has developed squeaks and rattles that are directly attributable to this horrible excuse for a road.

There. I have vented. But believe me, my description of this hellish highway does not do the thing justice. It must be driven to fully appreciate the criminal neglect on the part of Waldo selectmen and our road commissioner.

Again, this is, without a doubt, the most ill-maintained public road in the State of Maine. The Waldo selectmen and road commissioner should be ashamed of themselves.

Knotweed Time

I’m a knotweed apologist. I mean Japanese knotweed, Polygonum cuspidatum, the stuff that so many people incorrectly refer to as “bamboo.”

Well, knotweed is at the perfect stage for picking, here in Mid-Coast Maine. The basic recipe requires steaming or briefly boiling the tender, young shoots in a scant amount of water. The other recipe, one for knotweed chutney, somewhat more complicated, involves home-canning the stuff. That recipe is found in my new book, Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide. Look for the link to that on this blog page. The book is scheduled for release very soon, hopefully within one week.

But back to knotweed. Yes, it’s knotweed time and for at least the next week, I will probably consume a side dish of knotweed every day. That’s how these things go with me, a mad fling while the plant remains at its prime and then on to the next wild, edible.

The accompanying photo shows some knotweed growing along my driveway. The story behind those plants is worth sharing.

Termed an “aggressive, non-native,” most people despise the stuff. However, the aggressiveness is somewhat understated. Knotweed only spreads when its roots are disturbed. Left alone, it expands at something slightly less than a snail’s pace. All the same, homeowner efforts to remove ancient plots of knotweed usually fail. Like horseradish and mint, once established always established.

Anyway, given all that, who would think that anyone in their right mind would purposely attempt to encourage knotweed to grow on their land? I plead guilty. Here’s the reason.

Much of my foraging takes place on other people’s property. Each year, more and more of these sites are placed off limits by posted signs. New property owners typically erect no-trespassing signs before the ink has dried on their deeds. That spells doom and gloom for foragers, hikers, bird-watchers, hunters and fishermen. Requests to continue using the land, with all due respect, are usually denied. It’s a new age we live in, definitely not in the old-time Maine tradition of permissive trespass.

Therefore, I try to encourage as many of wild, edible plants as possible to grow on my own property. And knotweed, being one of my favorites, stood at the head of the list. Oh, yes, I have long ago distributed seeds of common dandelion and curled dock, to name only a few.

Back to knotweed. I dug some clumps and planted them in a convenient location. They did not grow. My clay soil was too hard and the stuff never gained a foothold. After three years, more than long enough for my knotweed to begin growing in good shape, it was clear that my efforts were in vain.

Not to be thwarted, I tried again, this time planting the root clumps in the loose, gravelly soil along the edge of my driveway. Now, again three years later, my knotweed has finally become established.

So much for its “aggressive” tendency. I won’t pick my own knotweed this year because I don’t want to set it back. But in one or two more years, I should be able to enjoy at least a limited harvest.

Picking knotweed takes little time or effort. Just bend the young shoots until they snap. This usually produces a fairly loud, popping sound. Take them home and rinse. Then, set perhaps a half-inch of water to boiling in a frying pan, introduce the knotweed shoots and cook only until they turn a light shade of green and become fork-tender. Drain thoroughly and serve with salt, pepper and butter.

I forgot to mention, knotweed does have one, other use. It makes a delicious dessert. Stewed knotweed tastes something like stewed rhubarb. Just boil knotweed stems and add sugar to taste while stirring. Cool and place in the refrigerator. Use as is or as a pie filling.

Yup, I’m a knotweed apologist. And glad of it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Blackflies And Wood Chips

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Blackflies intrigue me. These pests begin life as aquatic larvae, living in clean, running water. Then, when temperatures rise to a certain point in spring, they hatch out in droves and mate.

Why, then, does digging in wet, wood chips, dirt or compost, stir up such huge swarms of these biting insects? What are they doing there in the first place? In the beginning, I thought that perhaps blackflies spent the night hidden in such places. But time of day appears to make no difference. Stir a pile of wet material and out come blackflies.

So it’s for certain that blackflies spend time in wet, damp, cover. But why? Nothing I have read addresses this.

Such a thing may not count as a big deal to most folks, but since I have a giant pile of wood chips to move, it affects me in a big way. Perhaps 10 minutes of shoveling and the combined result of buzzing, humming, crawling and biting becomes unbearable. It cuts down on my productivity, big-time.

Any, be warned. Wet grass, brush, any sodden material will likely host untold thousands of blackflies, at least for the next month or so.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

God's Creation

There just isn’t much to say regarding this post. The photo pretty much says it all. It is of a lupine leaf group, with one, drop of water in it. Look closely at it and see a tree in the reflected image.

Nature sometimes trumps anything we can do or say…


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Putting Up

My friend Dan grows raspberries and blueberries in raised beds. Dandelions have found their way in and now, crowd the berries. Knowing my fondness for dandelions, Dan told me to come over any time and take all I wanted.

The loose soil made popping the dandelions out with a dandelion digger easy. Soon, I had filled a large, canvas tote and also, a brown ash basket. My plan was to gather enough dandelions for home canning.

Back home, I spread my bounty on the grass and with a garden hose, gave them a thorough rinsing. Then, turning them over, rinsed them again. After that, while sitting on an upturned, five-gallon pail, I checked each dandelion plant individually, removing any clinging debris or grit and giving one, final rinse.

Then it was on to canning. This involved setting out all, needed equipment, including clean jars, lids, screw tops and jar lifter. Then I cut the dandelions into manageable-sized portions and dropped them into a large pot of boiling water, leaving them there only until they wilted and assumed a darker shade of green.

Then, it was into individual, canning jars and on with the process, which took 70 minutes per run. As the pressure weight hissed and jiggled, the house filled with a delicious aroma, soothing and alluring. I made two batches, a total of 25 jars of home-canned dandelions.

Something about putting up my own, wild food not only thrills me but also, provides a great sense of satisfaction and security.

My goal this year is to home-can as many, different wild foods as possible. Even if cultivated crops fail, as they did last year, wild plants always produce. So from now until frost puts an end to the growing season, I plan on prowling about woods, fields, wetlands and streamsides, in search of healthful, vitamin-filled, tax-free, wild edibles.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Keeper of The Kerr's

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Many years ago, a dear friend, now long gone, introduced me to a species of potato that he had brought here from Scotland in the first half of the 20th century. Although called Kerr’s reds, they are mostly purple. To my knowledge, nobody else in Maine grows or even knows of, these remarkable spuds.

Kerr’s have a somewhat mealy texture and a rich, sweet flavor. They are small, the biggest running a mite smaller than the average, Maine potato. Also, Kerr’s make the absolute best home-fried potatoes going. I absolutely love them.

Potatoes take quite a bit of garden space and I was never able to grow my Kerr’s in quantity. Sometimes, I’ll grow a few in a five-gallon pail, covering them with dirt as the vines spread. And on occasion, I’ll cover a handful with hay and grow them that way.

At any rate, I consider the ongoing care of Kerr’s reds something of a sacred trust. I am, in fact, the “keeper of the potatoes.”

These are, of course, an heirloom variety. If only for that fact, they should not be allowed to perish. I’m not even sure of Kerr’s status in their native Skye, Scotland. It seems to me that even there, they are a scarce commodity.

If anyone desires to assist me in my charge, I would be more than happy to give them a few seeds to begin their task.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tom Finds Good in The Bad

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Last year’s continual rain and cold caused massive crop failure throughout Maine. But they say that every dark cloud (and it seems that those were the only kind we saw last summer) has a silver lining. Accordingly, I can name two benefits that are directly attributable to the “summer that wasn’t.”

First, high water meant that brooks and streams never fell to their usual, low, summertime levels. This translated into more successful spawning, or “recruitment,” as the biologists say, for brook trout. Also, predators had a hard job to catch trout from the unusually-high water. So the native, brook trout population in rivers, brooks and streams has boomed, a very good thing.

Next, one, particular wild, edible plant has managed to pop up in areas where it never before had even the slightest chance of success. Curled dock, Rumex crispus, has appeared on a normally, dry section of my lawn. The leaves of this plant make a delectable potherb, or cooked, green vegetable.

Here’s what happened. Dock, a relative of our cultivated, buckwheat, sets thousands of seeds each summer. These fall to the ground near the plant and also, are spread by the wind to places quite far removed from the parent. In the case of my lawn, dock, growing in a low, wet area along the wood’s edge, sets seed. These are dispersed around my property, to dry out and die. But not last year. Even the most obdurate, hard-pan soil was wet and soft, the perfect host for dock seeds. And now, my lawn has young, dock sprouting up all over, a perfectly agreeable situation.

So last night, I had my first meal of the year of dock leaves. These were only the tenderest, young leaves, prime fare. They tasted something like spinach, but considerably milder. Along with the dock, I had two, brook trout, fresh from a nearby river. My cup truly runs over. I’m so happy to be alive and well in the State of Maine in glorious springtime.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Instant Green

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

“Instant green. Just add water.” That could be a slogan for springtime in Maine. Let me explain. Today is Monday. This last Saturday, Maine woke up to near-record, cold temperatures and a dusting of snow.

Crocus flowers had turned to mush, looking like so many crepe paper blossoms that someone had doused with water. The ground had re-frozen so that digging with spade or fork was impossible. In short, winter had returned, in a big way.

Last night, the weather warmed to above freezing. And it poured rain, soothing me while I lay in bed listening to the tempest beating on my metal roof.

But still, signs of spring seemed far off. Things changed in short order, though. My house has a glass door, which allows me to stand in my kitchen and gaze out at my lawn and nearby woods. The view from early morning to late afternoon varied to a remarkable degree.

This morning, robins and juncos hopped about on the still-frozen ground, foraging for insects, earthworms, seeds and whatever they could scrounge up. I pitied them.

By mid-afternoon, though, the ground had completely thawed and the birds, while still wet, didn’t appear as pitiful. Robins finally had access to worms and, well, juncos are hardy birds anyway. Then something else came to mind. The grass had turned greener. In the space of about seven hours, my lawn and garden had transformed from an inhospitable brown to a welcoming green.

The rain. That’s the wild card, that's what had to have done it. Plus, I recalled the old saying about snow being “poor man’s fertilizer.” Old-timers had told me that snow brought nitrogen to the ground, helping plants to grow lush and green. It seemed like nonsense to me, though. I never believed it. But perhaps, the old boys had a grasp on something after all.

Though I wouldn't have believed it until today, it may just be that the snow brought nitrogen down and the rain, washing it into the ground, physically applied it to the roots of grasses, weeds and other, green plants. And those plants responded in a big way. Instant green.

But whatever the cause, one thing’s for sure. My place went from drab brown to cheery green, in the course of one, single day. I find that fascinating.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Opening Day Arrives Early

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

A pool in a stream down the road from me often gives up one or two good-size trout on opening day. For many years, that much-anticipated date was April 1. It would have been this year, too, but for a special proclamation by the governor on April 25, declaring open-water fishing season officially open.

For a month previous, my attention was riveted upon a large pool in the stream a few miles down the road from me. Passing by there nearly every day, I practically drooled at the superb water conditions. These were not too high and not too low, but just right. “If only they would open the season on the first of March, rather than April,” I told myself.

In truth, our April opener has everything to do with tradition and absolutely nothing to do with resource management. This line of thinking comes directly from fisheries biologists with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the agency that makes such decisions.

So then, why April, rather than March or in fact, any time after January 1? Tradition. That’s what they tell me, year after year. People enjoy preparing for opening day and look forward to it as to an official holiday. I never found their line of reasoning satisfactory. But other than petitioning for an earlier opening date, there remains little for the layperson to do.

In fact, I mark April 1 on my calendar and start counting the days to fishing season, beginning sometime in late March. And like a child the night before some big event, I’m usually too wound up with anticipation to sleep well. Toss, turn, check the clock for how many hours remain before the alarm rings. Then, when it finally does, I spring from bed in the pre-dawn darkness, dress, put on a pre-made pot of coffee and get ready to go out and try the waters.

Then came April 25. The proclamation came in the morning, but owing to an ultra-slow, Internet connection and the habit of GWI of holding messages in a queue before sending them out, I didn’t get the news until 2:30.

By 3:00, I was the proud possessor of a 15-inch brook trout and also, a rainbow trout of nearly the same size. This was a gift, an unanticipated boon. I reveled in my good fortune and thanked the government, the first time I had a kind thought for that entity in many years.

Later, it occurred to me that my opening-day preparations were of little value at this point. The thing had come and gone. And now, the rest of the year remained. I had planned a big day along with a friend. We had our schedule all planned, including the restaurant where we would stop for breakfast. We even knew what we would order. My pal wanted a double serving of corned beef hash, two eggs, over easy and two slices of raisin bread. I planned upon one serving of hash, eggs the same, coffee and no bread.

So that’s how much planning, waiting, thinking and hoping went into our opening day. We got together, my buddy and I, on the next day and went to our spots. It wasn’t the same, though. The magic was gone. We had fun, caught trout and so on, but it was anti-climactic. Something was missing and there was nothing we could do to re-capture it.

Is there a lesson to take from this? Perhaps it is that the value we place on a thing depends upon how much it costs us. If we don’t work for something, don’t look forward to it and don’t expend a certain amount of emotional capital on it, then we probably won’t appreciate it as much.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Downtown Wildlife

Who would have thought to encounter a wild turkey flying down the middle of the road, while driving within the compact, urban limits of the City of Belfast? Certainly not me, that’s for sure. But that was exactly what happened this past Saturday.

I was a passenger in a ¾-ton pickup truck and not paying much mind to what lie ahead. But when the driver hollered, “look at that,” my attention immediately became riveted to the scene unfolding directly in front of me. A large, tom turkey, long beard swaying in the wind, was steadily winging toward our truck, at about windshield height.

At was apparent that the bird was trying valiantly to gain altitude. But would it? Could it? We began to slow down, but the turkey’s increase in speed made up for our loss.

When about a hood’s length from the windshield and more to the point, me, the turkey pulled it off. As I ducked, sure of imminent catastrophe, the bird got the lift it so needed. I looked up in time to see a pair of turkey feet passing just inches above the windshield.

At that point, the bird made a sweeping run for a nearby, white pine. It lit on an upper limb with more grace than I would have thought possible.

A memorable event, that was and certainly fortunate for all involved that it worked out the way it did.

So it was not surprising when, on Monday, I saw a small, brown animal waddling across the hot-top parking lot of the local credit union, also in-town Belfast. It was a muskrat.

This was a bit unusual, but not terribly so. In spring, when brooks and streams run high, muskrats go on the move. It’s mating season for them. The little, 1970’s ditty, “Muskrat Love,” comes immediately to mind.

All this just goes to prove that here in Maine, we needn’t live way out in the williwacks in order to experience wild nature. All we have to do is keep our eyes open.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Digital photography has made picture-taking so much easier than in the old days of film and color transparency. And it’s way cheaper and it saves time. In my case, taking photos for magazines and newspapers involved going to the photo shop to buy film, going out and taking the photo, returning the exposed film to the shop, waiting for them to develop it, picking it up and taking it home to study and finally, mailing selected photos in.

Besides making my work-related photography easier, I have discovered, thanks to Sky and Telescope Magazine, that anyone with a telescope and digital camera can take fairly decent photos of the moon and planets.

My first photo accompanies this blog. It wasn’t planned, either, but happened purely by accident. The moon was nearing a pine tree and would soon move out of sight. That made the image appear crushed on the right side. The other side shows a portion of the unlit part of moon, that which wasn’t reflecting sunlight. In an earlier stage, that’s called, “the old moon in the young moon’s arms.”

The other forms in the image are, well, I just can’t say. Are the perhaps, reflections? Were they there all the time but not visible? Beats me, but when I looked at the thing on my computer, I knew I had a winner.

Anyone wishing to try taking pictures of the heavens needs only to have a telescope, one with a sturdy mount so it does not wiggle, and a digital camera. Although my camera is somewhat complicated and larger than most, it worked fine. Also, I understand those new, tiny but powerful digital cameras work wonders for this application.

Might the thing even work with binoculars? Perhaps. It’s worth a try. In either case, just focus on something, the moon, for instance, hold the camera lens to the eyepiece and shoot away. Don’t expect miracles, but don’t be too surprised if one or two shots work out quite nicely. Most of all, have fun enjoying the moon, stars and planets.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Beware of Ticks

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Last night I went to bed with all intentions of reading a book on Abraham Lincoln. Upon removing my tee shirt, I noticed something on my chest. It was a tick and it had imbedded itself in my flesh. I immediately ran downstairs to the bathroom mirror, where I saw the thing in gruesome detail. Its legs were wriggling, no doubt in an attempt to drill even deeper in my hide.

Knowing that pulling ticks off with tweezers can result in the head remaining imbedded, I resolved to take a more reasoned approach. So I got a needle and some matches. Heating the point to red-hot and applying it to the tick resulted in it backing out. I then killed the creature by impaling it and later, placed the dead tick in an envelope.

Having met people who had suffered the terrible tribulations of Lyme disease, I have begun a vigil to monitor the bite site for the telltale, red “bull’s-eye” that indicates the presence of Lyme. So far so good, I’m happy to say.

Today, a friend mentioned that the lab at Waldo County General Hospital routinely sends tick specimens out for further analysis. This is a free service, except that the testing facility accepts donations.

However, the hospital rejected my request. They would not send the tick out for lab testing without doctor’s orders. Lacking health insurance and not wishing to incur doctor’s fees and being of a contumacious nature, I have decided to take the wait-and-see approach.

It strikes me as odd that such a reasonable procedure as testing a tick that had bitten a person must involve red tape.

I do suggest that anyone bitten by a tick, take the official approach and visit their physician. Early treatment is of the essence, regarding Lyme disease. The faster a victim is placed upon a regimen of antibiotics, the better the chances of not contracting the disease.

Here in Maine, we have several kinds of ticks. All of them are liable to attach themselves to humans. The life cycle of these parasites runs thus: Ticks disengage themselves from their animal hosts in March and fall to the ground, where they deposit their eggs in the leaf litter. The creatures may then find another host to affix themselves to. Early springs, such as Maine is currently experiencing, with lots of newly-bare ground, encourage a successful transfer.

Unfortunately, even though blackflies and mosquitoes have not yet made their presence known, ticks are active and plentiful. So after outdoor activity, make sure to check yourself for any, clinging ticks.

I have been bitten by ticks several times, and have never felt the bite. It was only hours later that I discovered their presence. So be vigilant and protect yourself. It only takes a minute to check your body for ticks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Spring officially arrives three days from now, on March 20. But in fact, it’s already here.

Today, by mid-morning, temperatures had shot up to the low 60s, prompting me to set aside all thoughts of work and go for a walk outside. The first thing that struck my eye was a small, orange-and-black butterfly.

To the best of my knowledge (I find butterfly identification maddeningly difficult), this was a hop merchant, or comma butterfly, a member of the Polygonia genus. These are also commonly called, “angel wings,” owing to the somewhat erratic shape of their wings.

This is one of the earliest butterflies to emerge, beating even the mourning cloak. All the same, never, ever, have any butterflies appeared around my Waldo home in mid-March.

Next, I gasped at the sight of blue crocus in full bloom, on a gravel bank by my house. These are at least three weeks ahead of schedule. I got down on my knees and marveled at this sure sign of spring.

A few days ago, coltsfoot began showing on a hillside by my farm pond. Today, many more have opened, shining bright yellow in the warm, spring sunshine.

As I walked, a warm breeze wafted a sweet, almost cloying, aroma over me. My heart jumped, as if physically recounting the most pleasant of memories. I became fully aware of my surroundings in every way, the milky, spring sunlight, the gentle, aromatic breeze, the sounds of woodpeckers hammering and crows squabbling in the distance. The essence of spring, gushing out for us to enjoy.

Next, digging down at the base of some dried-up stalks of last season’s Japanese knotweed, I found the little, red tip of what will soon become this years shoot. This, too, was at least three weeks ahead of time.

And along the edge of my gravel drive, I found the fernlike, shoots of Equisetum arvense, or field horsetail.

Perhaps in coming years, when spring seems so far away, the memory of St. Patrick’s Day, 2010, will buoy my spirits.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Early Spring, To Be Or Not To Be?

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Today, Monday, March 15, 2010, the ice left my farm pond. This marks the earliest date ever for ice-out. What’s more, coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara, blossoms are beginning to open. This usually doesn’t happen until the beginning of the second week of April, three weeks hence. I suspect that soon, people in southern Maine will report seeing dandelions in bloom. At first glance, coltsfoot flowers bear some resemblance to dandelion blossoms.

Weather forecasters predict temperatures in the mid-50’s for the foreseeable future. So what, if anything, does this mean in the long run?

It’s easy to assume that balmy conditions so early in the year indicate above-average temperatures for spring and summer. Such thinking only makes it more difficult to accept a sudden turn-about, if that should happen. Better to take it day-by-day and accept what we have to deal with in the here and now.

Last year’s cold, rainy weather set the stage for low expectations this year. By July 4, my garden vegetables had all yellowed and died, victims of standing water, cold temperatures and lack of sunlight. So this year, despite an unusually early spring, I’m taking measures to prevent another such loss. In short, instead of regular, garden beds, I’m building raised beds. These drain well and in the case of prolonged inundation, should give cultivated vegetables at least a 50-50 chance for survival.

And if, in fact, we here in Maine are blessed with a warm, dry spring and summer season, what of it? We can only say that it’s about time that Maine enjoyed the comforts associated with prolonged, warm weather.

So get out, enjoy the near-record temperatures. Watch for pussy willows to sport their fuzzy, white catkins. Sharpen that dandelion digger. Buy a fishing license. Do all the things that come to mind at the approach of spring. Maybe, just maybe, we will win this time, after all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When The Frost Leaves The Ground

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The piecemeal manner in which frost leaves the ground in spring fascinates me. At first glance, it seems natural enough to assume that the process occurs uniformly and gradually. But in fact, it doesn’t happen that way at all.

Of course it all depends upon how deep the frost has gone in the first place. And that, depends upon whether the ground was wet or dry, covered or bare and also, the type of ground, such as clay, sand and so on.

For starters, places that we keep open by shoveling have the best chance for frost to penetrate deeper than spots that were continually coated with snow. For instance, I always shovel the walk from my house to the greenhouse. When frost begins to leave the surrounding ground, the land appears to sink. But the shoveled area rises. This makes for a very uneven surface and difficult walking.

Other parts of my lawn are wet and others are bone dry. These, too, exhibit heaving and settling to varying degrees. To view such scenes, it seems impossible to imagine that in a few, short weeks, the entire area will be level…or, in the case of my lawn, sort of level.

All this brings to mind the frost heaves on our rural roads, “thank-you-mam’s,” that cause motor vehicles to leap into the air and come down with a bang. There are solid reasons why some parts of roads heave and others don’t. Refer to the second paragraph above.

I’ll end with a question, something that has always puzzled me. Why do they put warning signs on insignificant frost heaves and minor bumps, all the while leaving the truly huge ones unsigned?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Keep It Simple

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

A friend recently gave me a recipe book on “free” wild foods. Without exception, these recipes included components that were not at all wild and certainly not free.

For me, the whole idea of foraging is to procure a pure, wholesome product from nature that, when prepared with a minimum of muss and fuss, results in a palatable and healthful meal. The idea of going shopping for a half-dozen commercial products to make my wild food more acceptable goes against my grain.

A few of these concoctions involved so many different ingredients that the one, wild ingredient became of only secondary importance. If that’s what it’s all about, then why bother, I ask?

Sure, it’s fun to experiment. And yes, sometimes a relatively involved recipe that incorporates wild plants is a thing of beauty. In fact, my new book, Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide, includes a few complex recipes. But for the day-in, day-out wild plant fan, I feel it best to keep it simple.

Let me give an analogy to illustrate my point. I’m a dedicated fisherman, one who sometimes kills and eats his catch. To me, nothing beats the simple elegance of a native brook trout, cooked within hours of its being taken from the stream. Sprinkled with fresh-ground, black pepper, placed under the broiler and cooked only until the meat flakes, nothing beats it. But sometimes, people tell me of catching a trout, taking it home and stuffing it with who-knows-what, pouring marinades and sauces over it and then baking it in an oven. Yek!

So before subjecting that lovely trout to something better suited for farm-raised tilapia, or when considering how those dandelions or fiddleheads might fit into some long and drawn-out recipe, try my advice and just keep it simple. Often that’s the best way of all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Late Friday night, while viewing Saturn’s rings through my 8-inch Dobsonian telescope, I heard a large animal padding around in the woods by my house. “There goes a big buck,” I said to myself and quickly forgot the incident.

Saturn had just risen to a point where seeing was not severely compromised by the earth’s atmosphere and I reveled in the experience. My having been out in the dark long enough so that my night vision was fairly acute further enhanced the quality of my session.

While departing from Saturn to hunt for a nearby nebula, I heard the animal walking again, this time closer and possibly headed for me. “That ain’t no deer,” I thought. But what was it? Speculation runs rampant in darkness, especially in a woodland setting such as mine. Every species of big game living in Maine has, at one time or another, paid me a “dooryard visit.” And a few animals that aren’t supposed to live here have passed by, too.

Now, with a certainty, the animal drew steadily closer. I could take the suspense no longer and ran to the house in order to flip the switch that would turn on the outside light that would illuminate my dooryard. Night vision be darned, this was something of considerable consequence.

The light flashed on and there, at the edge of my lawn not 40 feet away and staring straight at me, stood a group of the largest ducks I had ever seen.

These were some kind of domestic ducks, as far as I could tell. But were did they come from? As I watched, the ducks, heads held high and not uttering a single sound, marched around the periphery of my woodland opening and disappeared into the darkness. Apparently, ducks do not quack at night.

The next morning just after sunrise, I awoke and went to my front door to peer out at the new day. And there, in front of my greenhouse, were five, huge ducks, huddled together for warmth.

As I write, the ducks remain, sitting on the sunny side of my little greenhouse. Whose are they? How did they get here? And what will I do with them?

Such are the questions that confront those whose lives revolve around wild plants and wooly bears.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

When The Wild Geese Return

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

All seasonal changes in nature take place on a sequential basis. These may occur earlier some years (as in the current, early spring) and later at other times. But the time between events, no matter when they begin, never varies.

For instance, when coltsfoot, a bright-yellow wildflower, blooms, anadromous (go to sea for a part of the year) brook trout ascend tidal rivers. Or, when mourning cloak butterflies emerge from hibernation and begin flying about, close to the ground, spring peepers will begin calling within one week.

Sometimes, we humans intuit coming changes, too. I woke up this morning, blinked the sleep from my eyes and listened. It was time for Canada geese to return. I fully expected to hear their noisy honking, high overhead. But no. Silence reigned. No geese, just total quiet.

Forgetting about geese, I opened my email and there was a note from a friend telling me that he had seen a flock of geese in a nearby field. So my instinct was right. The geese just didn’t happen to fly over my house, but they had, indeed, arrived on schedule.

It’s great fun to ascertain these patterns. Try noting when different birds arrive, when various wildflowers bloom and when frogs and insects become evident. Jot down the times of these events and then compare dates of one event to another. The time between arrivals, blooming times and so on may vary by a few days, but never by much more.

To get into this in an even larger way, begin observing the constellations. What happens when the Big Dipper rises to a certain point, as in over that pine tree out back? Certain natural events coincide with the ever-changing patterns in the sky.

Change. It’s something that most of us dislike, some fear and others totally eschew. But in nature, change always was, and remains, ongoing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

First Wild Plants

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The ground has thawed and a few of our hardier, wild edibles have become available. Yep, winter has loosed its grip on us and a new foraging season has begun.

First, I spotted several evening primrose plants. The red-tinted basal rosettes make finding these easy. Another simple trick involves searching to the downwind side of last years dried stalks. When the seed capsules explode, these biennial plants literally cast their seeds to the wind. A hand-held trowel suffices to dig the pink-topped, white root. And believe me, if my garden hadn’t already provided parsnips, evening primrose would certainly grace my table for the next few days.

Next, ice has receded from the banks of my farm pond, allowing access to clumps of cattails and the little, starch-filled sprouts that protrude from the rootstocks. But the thought of wading in ice water and pulling roots from soupy, gray clay gives me chills. All the same, it’s nice to know that these somewhat novel, food products are available.

Finally, although this seems way too early (not complaining, just observing) for them, the green tips of daylilies have risen to a point where, if need be, they could provide one of the first, wild greens of the season.

In truth, I’ll wait a bit before going out and digging or picking anything. Let the plants grow a bit larger. Besides, it’s cold and wet out there. But come the next warm, sunny day, I expect to have my first, wild meal of the season. And that’s an annual event that means a great deal to me.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Parsnips, Carrots and Earthworms

Parsnips, carrots and earthworms. What do these have in common? Well, on February 25, 2010, I dug all three from my vegetable garden. The root crops were no surprise, of course. Covering these with some kind of protective mulch and digging them throughout the winter is a time-honored practice. But finding the ground entirely frost-free in February and loaded with earthworms, no less? Well, that happens but rarely, once in a blue moon.

Here in Waldo, spring arrived almost as early back 1984. I was able to plant peas in a raised bed on a south-facing hillside around the third week of March of that year. That was the earliest that I had ever seen frost-free ground.

Lest the term, “global warming” enter into this, remember that early frost-free dates do occur fairly regularly. One notable, early spring happened in 1775. Minutemen left off plowing on April 19, to take part in the fights at Lexington and Concord. During the running battle back to Boston, British soldiers dropped like flies, from heat exhaustion.

So my best advice is to enjoy the current circumstance, without trying too hard to dissect it. Go out and watch the tender, green tips of daylillies as they emerge from the newly-thawed ground. Pick a few, forest-green lengths of newly-risen chives. And dig those parsnips, carrots and earthworms.