Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cattail Season in Maine

Many of us establish our own little traditions, things we look forward to from year-to-year. One of mine involves harvesting seedheads from common cattails, Typha latifolia, for my Fourth of July celebration.

Picking the green seedheads is easy, but finding them at just the right stage for harvesting often requires repeated visits to wetlands or small ponds. When ready for cooking, the seedheads (that is, the sausage-shaped spikes atop the plant) should be light green in color and just soft enough to crumble under moderate pressure from a thumbnail.

It takes but little effort to snap many dozens of ripe seedheads from a colony of cattails. And the week of July 4, give or take a few days, stands as the height of cattail season in Maine.

Take the spikes home and set a pot of water to a rolling boil. Drop in the seedheads and cook for about 10 minutes. Drain and serve with butter, salt and pepper. Then, treat as per corn-on-the-cob. Hold the seedhead by what remains of the spike and gnaw away, twisting the spike as you nibble.

I used to blanch and freeze these specialty items for winter use. But with limited freeze space, it’s difficult to decide among all the wonderful wild foods. Cattails are delicious and perhaps some will wind up in my freezer this year. But if not, that’s okay too. Such high-grade treats as these are best enjoyed fresh.

Anyone who has not tried cattail seedheads has a fine treat in store. But don’t wait too long, because the seedheads will eventually become covered with pollen and no longer good for cooking. The pollen has its uses too, but that’s a topic for a future blog.

Monday, June 27, 2011


One line from the movie Tombstone stands out in my mind. Doc Holliday has just bested Johnny Ringo in a gunfight. As Ringo fell, Holliday looked at him and said, “You’re no daisy. You’re no daisy at all.”

Which, as you might imagine, has me thinking of daisies. Ox-eye daisies have edible buds. These taste so much like carrots that as I chew on them, I keep waiting for the crunch.

The foliage is edible too, but it’s the buds that are my favorite. These are best used in a salad, where they impart a definite carroty flavor. Don’t use too many, though, since they can overpower other elements of a garden or even a wild, salad.

Also, I see that purslane is starting to show in my garden beds. By mid-to late-July, I should have sufficient purslane for a hearty stir-fry. Then, I’ll take a picture and post it here.

Here in Waldo, Maine, the season is a bit tardy. Plants should be larger and further along than they are. But if and when sunny, warm weather reigns again, they will catch up quickly. Until then, we at least have daisies.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Maine's Short Growing Season Prompts Rapid Plant Growth

Regular readers will recall my oft-repeated admonition to study our wild plants during all the different stages of their growth. Now, in late June, we have an excellent chance to study two common, edible plants. These are curled dock, Rumex crispus and bunchberry, Cornus canadensis.

Driving down most any rural road (and even some major highways) will reveal the striking seedstalks of curled dock. These are long and tapered, with the lance-shaped leaves often hanging down in the manner of a partially-husked ear of corn.

Anyone wishing to introduce curled dock to a new location need only wait for the seeds to fully mature and dry. Then, it is a simple job to walk about and shake them off the seedhead. Or, you could even go to the trouble of saving the seeds and planting them in cultivated ground.

Later, these same seedheads will serve as a center foil in any dried flower arrangement.

Next, bunchberry has a month or so before the bright-red berries develop. Right now, the plant is still in flower, although around my place, the flowers are beginning to fade. But a shady woodland, carpeted with blooming bunchberry, makes a striking sight.

All of Maine’s useful wild plants share one thing in common. They must break ground in spring and begin growing to maturity as fast as possible before the first killing frost. In many cases this involves flowering, developing and shedding seed, all in about five months, more or less.

Such an abbreviated growing season means that none of our wild plants look exactly the same from one month to the next. Some undergo remarkable physical changes from one week to the next.

Foragers and those who just plain appreciate wild plants will do well to learn to recognize plants at all stages of their development.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A good day in Maine

For me, every day is a good day. Of course some are better than others. But yesterday excelled.

I had the pleasure to fish the Kennebec River from Augusta to Hallowell, with a friend who also happens to be my boss. This humble man knows the river as I know my woodlot…that is, intimately.

Harry gave me a detailed history of what we saw along the shore, as well as what fish populated the river and when and how they came to be. But he also added something that shattered one of my long-held beliefs.

Specifically, I had always thought that on any tidal river, the water was at least partially saline, or brackish, as far upstream as tidal influence held sway. For instance, I would have testified that the Kennebec, as far as the first dam in Waterville, had at least some salt content. After all, the water rises and falls according to the tide.

Not so, according to someone who has studied and researched this topic for some time. Harry explained it to me this way.

While the salt water flows in with the tide, a flowing, freshwater river exerts a like influence. “The river never stops flowing,” Harry said.

It works this way. Fresh water from a river (or even a stream, on a smaller scale) meets salt water from the sea. The salt water pushes in with the tide, an inexorable force. But there comes a point where, although the tide continues to push in, the two waters do not mix. Fresh water pools up and because the tidal push is so great, the fresh water rises upstream, even in purely freshwater sections of river.

So the head of salty influence on any flowing water is yet to be determined. I plan on doing a taste test on several local streams and rivers. And no, I won’t drink the water but I shall stick my finger in and then give a perfunctory lick in order to see if it exhibits any saltiness.

Consider the map of Maine. Look at any coastal town, village or city. Frequently, you will see a place named, rather generically, “Head of Tide.” I always thought that this referred to the line of demarcation between fresh and salt water. It doesn’t.

Let’s add something else to the mix here. Tides are not all the same, ever. The moon exerts a certain pull, or lack of. And this affects the strength and consequent height of any given tide. Add winds, either onshore or offshore and we have a very unpredictable subject.

Clamdiggers are well aware of this. Although the tide chart indicates a negative tide, just the ticket for exposing far-out portions of clamflats, an onshore wind can thwart the moon’s influence, making it a poor day for clamming. The reverse is also true. A stiff, offshore wind can make a marginal tide into an exquisite one.

Every day, I try and learn something new. Yesterday, I learned enough to boggle my mind. Which is why I like being around those who have more knowledge than me or who are just plain better informed and even smarter.

It’s a dull individual indeed, who does not rejoice in adding to his or her personal body of knowledge. For me, it makes life worth living and I truly believe, keeps me young, at least in mind.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Woodland Wildflowers

As a forager, wild edible plants take top priority. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy non-edibles, either. Wild plants of every type interest me, especially our woodland wildflowers.

I’m not alone in this, either. During my field trips, participants often ask me to identify various plants and many times, the plant is not edible.

Studying wildflowers makes a great and very fulfilling hobby. And since we foragers spend much of our time in the woods, along field edges and along streamsides, we necessarily encounter a host of different wildflowers. Some of these are native, some alien, or introduced. All are interesting.

One wildflower in particular that draws people’s attention is starflower, Trientalis borealis. A member of the primrose family, this 4- to 9-inch plant likes the dappled shade of forest edges. There, it often grows in vast profusion.

Look for two 6- to 7- petaled or pointed star-like flowers (thus the common name) on thin stalks, standing above a whorl of between 5 and 9 long, pointed leaves. Starflowers are blooming now and anyone who goes in shady woodlands ought to locate a stand without any problem.

As with any discipline, it takes time and regular effort to accumulate a personal database. For beginners, this requires a good field guide. My personal favorite, Peterson’s Wildflowers, has it head-and-shoulders above all others simply because of its excellent line drawings. I’ve often said that one good line drawing is worth 1,000 blurry photos.

I also use my Peterson’s guide for pressing flowers. I’ll identify a new flower, pick it and then press it in the book. Right now, my book bulges with pressed and dried specimens. These can last for 100 years or more if properly cared for.

I’ll highlight other wildflowers as time goes on. But for now, starflower is the wildflower of the week.