Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Freezer Foraging Time

Freezer foraging time has arrived. Cold, snow and generally harsh winter conditions have put an end to foraging. The season, though, was extraordinarily long this year, with such goodies as dandelions and dame’s rocket remaining available until well into December.

But now is time to break out those frozen, canned and dried wild foods and enjoy. My freezer brims with frozen goosetongue, lamb’s quarters, fiddleheads, dandelions and even a container of black trumpet mushrooms. And the bottom section of one of my bookshelf houses lots of home-canned goodies. In short, I could, if need be, eat well for several months without visiting a grocery store.

Some may call such as this hoarding. I don’t. Put simply, stores do not offer the same stuff that I pick in the wild or grow myself. Even in the case of domestic vegetables, I find that homegrown and preserved food beats all.

For instance, I recently broke open a jar of full-length, peeled carrots that I canned this fall. Even though coming from a Mason jar, these were far superior in flavor to the insipid, anemic offerings found fresh on greengrocer’s shelves.

So kick back, whip up a meal of those wild goodies you so diligently saved and enjoy. It’s time to reap the benefits of our labors.

By the way, my seminar which was scheduled for 4 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the Country Store in Bowdoinham is cancelled. However, my class at Merryspring on Feb. 14 is still on.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tom Tries New Plants

What a fall season we have had. Foragers, gardeners and fishermen were able to get out and glean from nature at a time when, in years past, extreme cold and snow would have surely ended our outdoor pursuits.

As for me, some late-season Swiss chard, kale and even dandelions, have kept me in fresh, green vegetables. And the two early-season snowstorms melted quickly, leaving plants and even lawns, looking green and lush. And it doesn’t look as though any major change is due any time soon.

While thinking on plants and such, I wish to mention that my publisher from Just Write Books, Nancy Randolph, has asked me to revise my book, Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide. This should, hopefully, be accomplished in time for a spring, 2012, release.

An upcoming meeting between we two will determine just which new chapters we will feature in the revision. I expect to offer at least a few common plants that should elicit comments such as, “I can’t believe it,” or perhaps, “Those are edible?”

My summer, at least part of it, was spent sampling new plants and trying new or different ideas. Some of it was rewarding, but two were big letdowns. Specifically, I had long read that northern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, makes a vitamin-filled tea, a tea that tastes like “evergreen.” The leaves of this common tree are said to be edible as well.

And so on supposed good authority, I brewed up a big pot of cedar tea. The resulting aroma had a pronounced pungency, something that got me wondering if the stuff was going to taste the same as it smelled. Much to my dismay, it tasted far worse than it smelled, and it didn’t smell very good. My overall feeling regarding white cedar tea is that it tastes something like a mixture of turpentine and skunk essence. After that initial sip, I simply could not choke any more down.

While I’m sure that white cedar contains all kinds of wonderful vitamins, I can’t think of any palatable way to ingest them. The aftertaste of the infusion, or tea, lasted for a very, very long time. Most unpleasant, as my English friend Malcolm would say. Other plants, though, excelled and those will appear in my book revision.

The other failed experiment, at least to my mind, involved the winged fruits of red maple, Acer rubrum, also called “Keys,” or “gyros.” Various authorities list these as edible out-of-hand, as “trail nibbles.” So back in early summer, when trees hung heavy with these fruit/seeds, I had at them.

The words, “pucker,” and “astringent” come immediately to mind. And as with northern white cedar tea, the taste of maple gyros lingered far longer than I would have wished. I understand that boiling in several waters can reduce the astringency. After contemplating this, it seemed to me that such trouble was simply not worth the while. In a case of starvation and extreme need, boiled maple keys would probably make a nourishing food. But the end verdict, at least as far as my experience goes, is “Yeccc!” Don’t bother. It’s not worth it.

None of these failed tries will appear in my book revision, space being limited and it being reserved for useful, not offensive, plants. But I mention them here for the benefit of anyone reading this blog who had ever wished to try the plants mentioned here. Hopefully, I have saved someone out there from an unpleasant experience.

At the least, you can be assured that everything listed in my book is something that I personally value and most certainly, eat or have eaten, myself. And I think that is vitally important for any book on edible plants.

Meanwhile, if I don’t get another post out before than, let me wish all my readers a merry and blessed Christmas and a happy, healthy and productive new year.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Lingering Leaves, Late-Season Trout

Deciduous trees shed their leaves in fall. Well, that’s sort of true but not quite. Some trees, beech for instance, hold their leaves until spring. Others, such as some oaks and to my surprise, certain apples, hang on to their leaves a lot longer than seems natural.

The reason for this, I’m told, is that trees that hold their leaves until spring have a need for spring mulch and if the leaves all fell in fall, as in October, they would suffer for it. This sounds to me like a reasonable explanation, especially since I cannot think of a better one.

Another thing that had not come to my attention until this past Wednesday is this. Some trees shed their leaves all at once rather than piecemeal.

An apple tree in front of my house held its leaves until Tuesday night. This, in fact, made it difficult for me to get a good view of the sky and caused me to walk just a bit further when setting up my telescope at night.

Anyway, I went to bed Tuesday and the leaves were all there. Wednesday morning they were gone. And yes, it was windy. But that wasn’t the cause, since instead of being scattered about, all the leaves were, and remain, directly beneath tree. It was as if someone had pulled a lever and “presto,” the leaves all dropped off en masse.

In other news, I took advantage of the lingering warm weather and went trout fishing Friday afternoon. Sure, my fingers got a little chilly, but the trout bit well, making any minor discomfort more than worth the effort.

This is the absolute latest that I have ever taken trout in open water. All of this thanks to new and more liberal regulations on open-water fishing, thanks to the Maine Department Of Inland Fisheries And Wildlife.

And if push came to shove, I could probably have gathered a mess of some kind of wild greens. This warmer winter weather may have serious consequences but for right now, it saves on wood and allows outdoor folks to get out and enjoy themselves even into the last month of the year. For me, that’s a good thing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Hedgerows

Hedgerows are overgrown strips of land separating two fields or other open areas. Hedgerows typically serve as home to a wide variety of plants, birds, animals and insects. With rampant development eating up farmland at an alarming rate, hedgerows become fewer in number with each passing year.

But another kind of “hedgerow” is popping up, and these, too, serve as sanctuaries for a variety of plants and other critters. I refer to the ditches, vacant strips and similar undeveloped slivers of suburban real estate found between stores and businesses. Every town and city has them, too, and they are visible reminders of what once grew and flourished in a once rural but now urban landscape.

This morning, while waiting for the auto dealer to put a set of snow treads on my Ford Focus, I took a stroll along the retail strip located between Route 1 and downtown Belfast, Maine. Here, parking lots and chain drugstores have replaced woods and fields. I can remember one place, now paved over and home to Duncan Donuts, Sears, Subway and several other chain stores, was once a family farm. I remember the school bus stopping there to let a boy (whose name I forget) off each day. Who ever thought that such a dramatic change would ever take place?

Anyway, these chain stores and other retail businesses, while close together, often have 10-foot-wide patches of unpaved real estate between them.

Many, if not all of these “suburban hedgerows” hold a wide variety of useful wild plants. In fact, urban foragers need not make the trek out to rural locations in order to find useful plants. All they need do is check out the in-town hedgerows.

Today, November 28 was unusually warm. Most of the snow from the pre-Thanksgiving snowstorm had melted, revealing green grass as well as a variety of edible plants. For instance, I saw common sorrel, curled dock, dandelions and common plantain. Most of these plants were in good enough shape to be used for food.

I wondered, though, what would happen if I decided to do some foraging here and someone confronted me. What would I tell them? I came up with several nifty answers, including, “Oh, I’m the Taraxacum (dandelion) inspector,” “Be careful there…this stuff is Glechoma hederacea (ground ivy),” and “It’s okay…I’m going to certify that your Thypha latifolia (cattails) is healthy.”

Upon discovering these urban oases I now realize that no matter how much we dig, cut, build and pave, we cannot stop nature. The plants will go on, no matter what. And that knowledge pleases me no end.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Stink Bugs Overwinter In Maine Garden Debris

I recently got a message on my answering machine asking whether or not I thought that stink bugs could become a perennial problem here in Maine.

My answer, sadly, is “yes.” These insects spread north from Mexico many decades ago and have reached most if not all of the various states.

In the south, these bugs breed year-round. But in the north, as in Maine, they overwinter in leaf litter and other vegetation.

Two types of bugs come to mind. One, the Harlequin Bug, a large, slow-moving orange-and-black bug, is said to be in Maine. I can’t recall seeing one of these, however. But, Tarnished Plant Bugs, brown, drab-looking bugs, are common here.

These bugs, in their nymphal form, damage crops by injecting a certain toxin into the plant at the same time they suck out its sap. This causes deformed leaves, stems and of course, produce.

To keep these garden pests at bay, make sure to remove all dead vegetation from your garden. Also, frequently check under boards and similar items, since this is where adult bugs hide.

Sadly, I had not yet removed all the debris from my garden before the big snow fell. And yes, I had a few stink bugs around last year. These will now have some safe places to hide. My only recourse is to get at the garden as soon as snow melts in spring.

The only good thing I can say about stink bugs and their ilk is that they will probably never become as numerous as Japanese beetles, another non-native, insect pest.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Harbor Pollock

Foraging has slowed considerably now and many of our favorite plants have already begun forming the new growth that will eventually be next year’s plant. Fishing, too, has slowed down. But not entirely.

Much of my free time as of late is spent fishing for harbor pollock. These look exactly like the bigger pollock found in offshore locations, except they are far smaller. Still, what they lack in size they make up for in other ways.

First, harbor pollock are exceptionally abundant. Near-limitless schools of pollock enter inshore areas in fall and swarm around docks, floats and piers. Willing biters, harbor pollock readily take a variety of baits (I use clam necks) and artificial lures.

Pollock, despite their diminutive (rarely do these exceed 12 inches in length) size, fight well and put up a fine scrap on ultralight spinning tackle.

Finally, pollock taste great. Old-timers used to “corn” them, meaning to coat in salt overnight. The fillets are soaked in fresh water before frying or using in chowders. Some people fry harbor pollock whole, the same as when cooking a small trout. I prefer my skinless pollock fillets rolled in McCormick Seafood Mix and baked in a toaster oven. This is a greaseless way to a healthful and super-tasty seafood dinner.

Few others take advantage of this outstanding fall fishery. I suppose that by November, most people’s minds are on other things besides fishing. But for me, the chance to collect any kind of wild food is enough to get me out of the office and out on the water.

I thoroughly enjoy harbor pollock. And if you like fresh fish, you would probably like them too. Just go to the nearest harbor and fish near a pier of from a float. Try to hit an incoming tide when it is about halfway in.

Note that Maine has a recreational daily bag limit of 6 pollock under 18 inches in Maine territorial waters. Given the huge numbers of pollock and lack of people fishing for them, this is a rather silly law. But six pollock are better than no pollock and so I head out once again, cooler in one hand, fishing rod in the other.

The inshore pollock fishery lasts until well into winter. Do give it a try.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Wildness Within Walking Distance

It’s not often that anyone’s poetry strikes a chord in me. But Wildness Within Walking Distance, Robert M. Chute, Just Write Books, 2011, has done just that.

Chute echoes one of my most deeply held convictions when he says, “…unoccupied and undeveloped open land—perhaps our most under-appreciated and endangered natural treasures.”

I’ve always maintained that my woodlot, my so-called, “back 40” is closer to true wilderness than many of our state parks and other organized wilderness areas. On my woodlot, the walker need not stay on marked trails. And there are no regulations to prohibit me or anyone from picking berries or anything else growing there.

My woodlot was never developed, but on the other hand it has been cut over more times than a math student could calculate. But what grows there is what naturally occurs. In other words, commercial interests never totally stripped the place and planted, instead of the mixed hardwood/softwood that grew there of its own accord, a monoculture of balsam fir or red pine. No, my woodlot, like so many other small plots of land, has always grown whatever wants to grow there.

As a lifelong hunter, fisherman and forager, my travels quite naturally take me through reverting farmland, places where old cellar holes tell a haunting story, if only anyone cares to listen. Long-forgotten stands of daylilies and even, to my great pleasure, plots of asparagus, indicate that here, someone lived, families loved, struggled and probably died.

Bits of broken china, kicked out of the earth by burrowing woodchuck, show that the family had placed great stock in such things and treasured a few plates and perhaps some silverware as if it were the jewel from a pontentate’s diadem.

Development, the slow, but steady encroachment of houses, pavement, dogs, cats and people who know not of nor could care less about the history of the place they despoil, pour in like a great molasses flood.

And so people such as Robert M. Chute find that they need to keep the old memories alive. Read his chapter, “The Chilman Place” and you will see just what I mean.

For anyone with a heart and soul that longs for simple but essential and indescribably valuable country knowledge, I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Another Storm Fizzles

Hurry up and shovel that snow befoe it all melts. The weekend snowstorm fell far short of what meteorologists had predicted. This was the snowy equivalent of our recent hurricane, the one that got continual hype on radio, newspaper and television but upon reaching Maine, hardly qualified as a tropical storm.

Like everyone else, I fell prey to the pre-“blizzard” mania and spent two days hauling firewood, putting machinery under cover and otherwise battening down the hatches. In Brooks, Maine, we even cancelled church services in anticipation of what the news media now calls a “severe weather event.”

I think that from now on, I shall go on my gut feeling and pay no mind to what weather prognosticators say. In fact, I did give my native intuition some head this time. Instead of putting the frame and winter cover on my boat, I decided that no matter what, the snow would eventually melt and I could yet get some boating (read “fishing”) in this fall.

So with temps predicted (here we go again with those predictions) to hover in the 50’s this coming week, it appears that the October snowstorm will dissipate as quickly as it arrived. And those of us who yearn for that last meal of dandelions or perhaps a shot of homemade bitters (ground ivy makes a great bitter tea, useful for toning up the digestive system) have some time left yet.

On to another topic. I have two wild plant seminars pending. Specific information on both is still forthcoming, but I can at least give dates and places. The first is for Long Branch School in Bowdoinham on February 4. There, I plan on showing a DVD presentation on wild plants and also, talking about the value of learning to recognize plants at different times of the year. Even in winter, we can easily spot the dead stalks and stems of so many valuable plants. This enables us to return in spring and reap the bounty.

For more info on Long Branch School visit www.longbranchschool.com.

Next, I will give a similar presentation at Merryspring in Camden on Valentine’s Day, February 14.

As soon as more specifics become available, I’ll be sure to post them here. In the meantime, don’t believe everything you hear from the weather forecasters. They are about as reliable as our weather. And you know what they say about that: “If you don’t like the Maine weather, just wait a minute.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Late-Season Foraging

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

The woodstove makes comfortable heat now, as long as it only feeds on lightweight wood such as poplar and birch. A big plus in favor of running a stove this early is that it also affords free hot water for washing dishes. A kettle of water simmering on the stovetop helps canny homeowners to cut down on energy costs.

And burning wood reminds me that the time draws near for us to get last-minute chores done outside and if any garden vegetables remain, to either freeze or can them. This week was my week to pressure can the last of my cabbages and carrots. I’ve enough canned vegetables now to last for at least two months if everything else went south. A good feeling it is, to know that my needs are thus supplied.

Open-water fishing has become a hit-or-miss proposition. Cold water and a change in fish habits make finding such usually cooperative panfish such as white perch and black crappies problematic at best. Some trout fishing still remains in selected waters. Last week, I fished several places in the Moosehead Region and also, went on an extended bird-hunting trip with my buddy Bob Lawrence of Lawrence’s Lakeside Cabins in Rockwood.

Bob took me around to places in the North Country that I had never seen, long, winding roads that opened to stunning vistas of Moosehead Lake, Seboomook Lake and beyond. One road led up the steep face of a small mountain. The place is called “The Stairway To Heaven,” and for good reason. The view was breathtaking.

Returning home with several partridge and a brace of hefty brook trout, it seemed to me that if winter hit us early it would make little difference. I had already had my outdoor fun.

Foraging for green plants has essentially ended, since a killing frost has long since killed most herbaceous perennials. Dandelions remain, however, and it may surprise some people to learn that after being hit with two or three frosts, the usually bitter plants become sweet again, the same as in springtime. So if the mood strikes, do try and get out and find some dandelions for a late-season, wild treat.

Certain apple trees hold their fruit, especially the wild trees found on long-vacant farmland. While it’s usually impossible to figure out the pedigree of these apples, the fact remains that many of them are winter types, the kind that attain their highest degree of sweetness only after a long stretch of cold weather. Some of these can even accept freezing with little or no obvious damage.

Wild root crops, if you can find them, remain available right up until snow covers the ground, making digging for them difficult if not impossible. Groundnuts and Jerusalem artichokes taste sweet now and it makes sense to go out and gather some of these too. Both keep well in the refrigerator, so take home as many as you care to harvest. You won’t hurt next year’s crop, either. Instead, taking a good portion of these tubers amounts to much-needed cultivation. Next year will see more and bigger tubers.

So get out while the getting is good. Do those last-minute chores and make sure to look around for some end-of-the-year wild edible plants. It’s a long time until next spring.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Mighty Karnac Knows

Wild Plants And Wooly Bears

Today is Tuesday, October 11, 2011. And without hearing or seeing a weather report, I would know without a doubt that within 24 hours or so, heavy rain will fall on Waldo, Maine.

I’ll explain by citing the late Johnny Carson’s character, “The Mighty Karnac.” Karnac would swipe a sealed envelope across his forehead and then come forth with the answer. After this, Karnac would open the envelope and read the question.

So let’s say that I am playing Karnac. I swipe the envelope across my head and exclaim, “Because they are grading the road.” I open the envelope and read the question. “How do you know it’s going to rain?”

Talk around town is that the road commissioner keeps a tight watch on the long-range forecast. Then when he is assured of impending rain, he grades the gravel roads. Within days, the roads are washed out and residents are compelled to drive on roads that are no better and sometimes far worse than before the grading took place.

Country life has its ups and downs and this is surely a big “down.” But other things, good things, make up for human ineptitude and neglect.

For instance, the weather up until now (yes, rain is surely coming) has been spectacular. Warm temperatures coupled with the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn leaves have combined to make life off the beaten path a physical and spiritual pleasure.

Also, while a few wild plants remain for dedicated foragers to harvest, my attention has lately focused upon picking and preserving vegetables from my garden. Winter squash, picked the day before a killing frost, must sit outside in the sun in order to harden off. At night, these go back inside.

Carrot tops remain green, so I allow them to linger in the ground. When the tops begin to die back, I’ll pull the roots and then pressure can them for winter use.

Swiss chard and kale continue to produce leafy greens and these I accept with much gratitude.

It was with sad farewell that I picked and later ate the last of my summer squash, zucchini and yellow straightnecks. I enjoy these so much that throughout the season, at every opportunity, I sliced and partially fried pounds of squash. Then I placed the rounds on a baking sheet and put that in the freezer. When completely frozen, the partially-cooked squash went into a freezer bag.

Later in winter, I am able to remove just the exact amount of squash for a meal, no more no less. These go from the freezer to the frying pan where they are cooked to perfection in olive or canola oil.

Sometimes I’ll get a hankering for fish and to that end, I have bags and bags of frozen white perch and black crappie fillets. These, too, taste nearly as good as when fresh because of having been cared for properly from the time they were taken from the water.

So my cupboard abounds not only with wild plants but also homegrown vegetables and also fish from local lakes, ponds and streams. I’m fortunate indeed.

To end, let me say that I hope everyone has enjoyed this glorious warm and sunny fall season as much as I have. Take it in now because soon, the heavy rain will fall. I know that because today, they graded the road.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Wild Mushroom Weekend

Wild mushrooms have taken center stage as of late. These delightful fungi appeared in great numbers over a long period of time, thanks no doubt, to our recent weather pattern of rain-dry-rain-dry.

My weekend was spent in Brunswick, Maine, doing book signings and giving talks on foraging. And because they now appear in such numbers, my seminars concentrated primarily upon wild mushrooms. And, of course, people have a great and growing interest in this topic.

Still, mushrooms are where you find them and when someone asks me to come to their place and identify the wild mushrooms there, I always say that I cannot guarantee finding one, single mushroom.

So it was to my great pleasure when Emily Equerin, a journalist from The Forecaster, asked me to take time between seminars and accompany her on a mushroom walk in some nearby woods.

We were counting minutes, since I needed to be back in town at a certain time for my next seminar. Nonetheless, we were less than 15 minutes into our walk when I saw some familiar orange mushrooms in the distance. These were chanterelles and my newfound friend and I immediately left the path and strolled over for a closer look. They were, of course, chanterelles.

So we took some time going over the look, feel and even smell of these common woodland mushrooms. After that, my journalist companion became so adept at spotting chanterelles that she often beat me to the punch in noting a distant mushroom or mushrooms.

Lacking a basket or other container, the young writer removed her jacket, placed it on the ground and loaded it to the brim with mushrooms. This, too, was something that I have done numerous times... used whatever was at hand to fashion an ersatz “basket.”

With time running out, we headed back to the car. On the way, I spotted some coral mushrooms and we took some extra time to go over them. All in all, it was a rewarding walk for the both of us.

My seminar went well. People were seriously interested in the topic and I fielded some well-thought questions.

Back home, a couple in my church mentioned that they had some large mushrooms growing on their lawn and would I be interested in them. By their description, I concluded that these had to be giant puffballs. And sure thing, I was interested.

On my way home I stopped at their place and found a number of these colossal fungi, one of them nearly as big around as a basketball. My friends declined the mushrooms, perhaps out of a distaste for wild foods and maybe because they were just too busy. I was busy too, but took the mushrooms anyway. Now my refrigerator brims with gallon bags of peeled and sliced puffball mushrooms.

I plan on freezing what I can, eating as many as possible and giving away the remainder. That’s how wild mushrooms are, too. These things wait upon no one and when they are ripe, that’s when we must pick them.

It has certainly been a productive and enjoyable year for mushrooms for me and perhaps, it is not over yet. But if it is, that’s okay too.

I do plan upon digging some Jerusalem artichoke tubers to keep in the fridge. These, when sliced, rolled in a rub or other spicy coating, are a fine breakfast treat, something interesting in place of home-fried potatoes.

And so it goes. The foraging life always holds surprises. Who knows what wonders will next present themselves?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Here in my basket are some late-summer mushrooms. The yellow ones are chanterelles and the black ones are black trumpets. Both came from my woodlot. The chanterelles were in a section of mixed hardwood/softwood and the black trumpets came from a large colony growing along and also in, a tote road.

The mushrooms in the photo below are spreading hydnums and are easily identified by the thick stem and distinctive whitish-orange (I liken this to the color of a Cremesicle that I ate as a kid) color of the cap.

But the most distinctive feature of the hydnum mushroom is the spiny-looking projections on the bottom of the cap. These were likened to teeth by whomever gave this mushroom its scientific name of Dentinum remandum.

Of course there are many other easily identified mushrooms around now, but these are probably the choicest, at least in my opinion.

By the way, I'm giving two talks on foraging this coming Saturday, October 1, 2011. These are at two locations in Brunswick. For more info on this, go to www.justwrite.com.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Plants With Symbiotic Relationships

Feast or famine, that’s what we foragers contend with. Right now, garden vegetables are coming in big-time and also, some of the “weeds” in our garden beds, actually wonderful, edible wild plants, continue to produce.

Today, I picked a big helping of lamb’s quarters, one of my favorite green leafy vegetables. Usually thought of as a plant that only yields its sweet leaves in early summer, lamb’s quarters continue pushing up new growth and also, older plants, those purposely left in the garden, constantly put forth new, tender tips.

In the photo accompanying today’s blog post, you can see me standing with my just-picked lamb’s quarters in my hand. I placed myself just in front of a curious combination of cultivated plants.

First, some “volunteer” winter squash that came up in a raised bed meant for beans and chard, has made its way up my grapevine. Airborne squash is fine with me, since it is always clean and usually insect-free.

In turn, the grapes have overstepped their bounds by growing up, in, on and through a nearby crabapple tree.

None of these adventurous plants has done the least bit of harm to the other. In fact, I enjoy the novelty of seeing squash up in a grape arbor and grapes winding through a crabapple tree.

Such apparently symbiotic associations also occur with wild plants. The Japanese knotweed along my driveway hosts the adventitious vines of groundnuts. At first, the groundnut vines choked out the young knotweed. But as it has matured, the knotweed plants have become more able to withstand the pressure from the groundnut vines.

These things might, perhaps, be indicative of both human and animal relationships. Everything depends upon something else in one way or another. There’s a lesson in that, somewhere.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Wooly Bear Makes Its Prediction

I stepped outside this morning to see the namesake for this blog curled up on a paving stone in front of my door. Seeing a wooly bear caterpillar now, in late August, is no big surprise. From now through October, these orange-and-black, 1.2-inch-long caterpillars, the immature form of an Isabella moth, are fairly active.

But this wooly bear was different. According to legend, the length of the black mid-section of a wooly bear, when compared to the orange front and back ends, indicate the length and/or severity of the coming winter. If we are to believe this insect, then winter 2011/2012 will come in like a lamb and go out like a lamb. The moth had no trace of black.

Do I believe the tradition of the wooly bear? Of course not. All the same, such fanciful stories are often rooted in at least a modicum of truth. Is it possible that the wooly bear really can, perhaps in some small way, predict the coming season? I just don’t know. But if the wooly bear on my front walkway is telling the truth, snowmobile, snow shovel and insulated boot sales will probably hit an all-time low this winter.

Other weather and climate traditions are based upon averages. For instance, old-time wisdom holds that when goldenrod (the same goes for Joy-Pye weed) blooms, the first frost of the season is only six weeks away. Well, since goldenrod blooms in early August, and the first frost often arrives around the second week of September, generally speaking, we can see how legend was interwoven with fact.

The same is true for Groundhog Day, or Candlemas Day, an old-time church holiday. Jump ahead six weeks from Groundhog Day and guess what happens? Spring arrives.

But getting back to the all-orange wooly bear. It does puzzle me. As per what happens this winter, we will just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pearly Everlasting Time

It’s pearly everlasting time. Often found in wild dried-flower arrangements, pearly everlasting, Anaphalis margaritacea, has a number of medicinal uses. Just the same, few, if any, depend upon this plant for medicine. But one of its uses would probably enjoy wide appeal if only more people knew of it.

The little white, globular flowers, when chewed, assuage thirst by keeping the mouth moist. When hiking, I like to chew on a few pearly everlasting flowers. Besides their thirst-quenching capabilities, these flowers have a mild but pleasant flavor…at least to my way of thinking.

The plant averages about 18 inches, but can grow as tall as three feet. The leaves, long, thin, grayish-green above and whitish beneath, grow alternately up the stem. The flowers, described above, are held atop the plant in clusters.

Late summer marks the height of pearly everlasting season. When present, these plants often appear in fairly large colonies. They prefer poor, even sterile soil, so common in much of Maine.

So next time you see pearly everlasting, stop and take a minute to pick some flowers. At first, they feel quite dry in the mouth. But with a bit of chewing, they swell and release their flavor. I much prefer these to chewing gum.

By the way, a friend tells me that he enjoys sweet everlasting in a tea. The trouble is, sweet everlasting does not grow anywhere near my friend’s house. I'm convinced that he is picking pearly everlasting and thinks he has sweet everlasting. The same guy also claims to use sweet goldenrod in a tea. That does not grow here either. He is mistaking Canada goldenrod for sweet goldenrod. This all points out the value in making a proper identification. In my friend’s case, there is no harm, since both the actual and imagined species are harmless. But if a look-alike plant was toxic, and someone mistook it for a good one, possibly bad results could occur.

So get a good field guide before using any plant internally. That said, be sure to try the flowers of pearly everlasting. They may become a regular part of your outdoor ventures in late summer.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Now is Time To Identify Wild Edible Plants

Entering late summer, many wild plants have already matured. This gives foragers an opportunity to examine them in their most easily recognizable form. It also goes hand-in-hand with my frequently stated admonition that we need to be able to recognize the wild, useful plants in all their stages of development.

Also, so many plants are only good as food when they are young. And that often presents a problem in locating them. Young plants are small plants and as such, are sometimes difficult to locate. By noting now where the mature plants stand, we can return to that same spot next spring and reap a harvest of young, tender plants.

Today’s highlighted plant, common evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, is well on its way to maturity. Individual plants have attained their maximum height and are now in flower. Their rocket-shaped seedpods will soon open and spread hundreds of seeds all around the base of the plant.

The second half of the botanical name, biennis, gives a hint as to the nature of common evening primrose. It is a biennial, meaning that it lives for two, perhaps three years, sets seed and dies.

In early spring, the carrot-shaped roots of first-year plants make fine eating when cooked. Also, the young leaves from the basal rosettes (that is, the leaves, when very young, lie flat on the ground, their stems emanating from a central point) make a nice salad addition and are useful as cooked potherbs.

But finding these plants just after snow melts, when they are at their prime, is a hit-or-miss proposition. That is unless you have an idea where to look. Noting the presence of last year’s dried stalks greatly simplifies the search.

So begin today. Look in fields and lawn edges for the mature primrose. Then, next spring, visit again and reap your reward.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Identify your wild plants now

Entering late summer, many wild plants have already matured. This gives foragers an opportunity to examine them in their most easily recognizable form. It also goes hand-in-hand with my frequently stated admonition that we need to be able to recognize the wild, useful plants in all their stages of development.

Also, so many plants are only good as food when they are young. And that often presents a problem in locating them. Young plants are small plants and as such, are sometimes difficult to locate. By noting now where the mature plants stand, we can return to that same spot next spring and reap a harvest of young, tender plants.

Today’s highlighted plant, common evening primrose, Oenothera biennis, is well on its way to maturity. Individual plants have attained their maximum height and are now in flower. Soon, they will develop rocket-shaped seedpods. These will later open and spread hundreds of seeds all around the base of the plant. The plant with numerous small yellow flowers standing next to my greenhouse in the above photo is an evening primrose. The second half of the botanical name, biennis, gives a hint as to the nature of common evening primrose. It is a biennial, meaning that it lives for two, perhaps three years, sets seed and dies.

In early spring, the carrot-shaped roots of first-year plants make fine eating when cooked. Also, the young leaves from the basal rosettes (the leaves, when very young, lie flat on the ground, their stems emanating from a central point) are useful in salads and cooked as a potherb.

But finding these plants just after snow melts is a hit-or-miss proposition, that is unless you have an idea where to look. Noting the presence of last year’s dried stalks greatly simplifies the search.

So begin today. Look in fields and lawn edges for the mature primrose. Then, next spring, visit again and reap your reward.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Forager's delight

A bout with bronchitis has laid me low and unable to go afield in search of wild plants. Fortunately, my garden has begun to produce beans, chard and summer squash, all favorites of mine.

Also, some garden “weeds” remain, having been purposely spared in order that I might harvest them upon maturity. One of these, purslane, is welcome indeed. This requires but little energy (something I am in short supply of at the moment) to pick…just grab and lift from the loose, garden soil. And if an entire plant comes up roots and all, what of it? Purslane self-seeds readily, so that’s not really a problem. Once established, always present.

Along with purslane and garden vegetables, trout in my pond have reached an acceptable size to harvest. These 9- to 10-inch brook trout are of a perfect length to fit in a frying pan. Also, they are just big and fat enough that one trout satisfies me.

So times are good. This is what we Mainers wait for all winter long. But make no mistake…the seasons continue to change, although it takes a bit of sleuthing to notice it. For instance, goldenrod has acquired its trademark golden hue. A few colored leaves drop from red maples and boneset has begun to bloom. These are all signs of approaching fall.

So while we revel in summer and its comfort and warmth, just remember that the “times they are a-changing.” But for now, enjoy.