Thursday, August 26, 2021

Ribes lacustre

Ribes lacustre
This entry is about another member of the gooseberry/current genus. Ribes lacustre is commonly known as swamp gooseberry. But some people call it swamp current, even though it has spines like a gooseberry.

It is a small spiny shrub, with smallish maple-like leaves and black berries. The flowers come in clusters of 5-12, not all of which will get pollinated and turn into berries, but you will see several black berries along with some empty stems. It looks a lot like Ribes montigenum (Mountain Gooseberry), except that the berries are black and the upper leaf surface is shiny. It also prefers wet areas, whereas Ribes montigenum prefers drier ground. I usually find Ribes lacustre next to streams, not in swamps. ("lacustre" refers to lakes.)

The taste of these berries is unfortunately rather bitter. I have occasionally found a bush with sweet berries, or with some sweet and some bitter, but most of the time they are bitter. I even searched them out at the very end of the season, when they would be the most ripe. Most of the berries had fallen off and the leaves where fading and starting to turn colors, but the remaining berries were still bitter.

I will try these berries when I find them to see if I get lucky and find some sweet ones, but generally I do not recommend them because of the bitter taste.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Amaranthus retroflexus

Amaranthus retroflexus is, depending on which sources you believe, either a highly toxic plant, or a highly nutritious plant and a staple of some traditional diets. The "toxic" sources seem to prefer the common name "redroot pigweed", while the "nutritious" sources just call it amaranth. Which are you going to believe? Obviously, I'm biased towards the "nutritious" side, but it's possible that they could both be true.

I notice that most of the "toxic" sources are from agricultural sources, and report toxicity to cattle, pigs, and even goats. Amaranth is known to be able concentrate nitrates in its leaves, and in areas where there is heavy usage of chemical fertilizers which have high levels of nitrates, amaranth may have high levels of nitrates. For this reason, I would recommend against collecting your amaranth from the borders of agricultural fields. My own garden, where Amaranthus retroflexus comes up every year voluntarily, does not get these kinds of chemical fertilizers, so I'm not at risk for that type of toxicity.

Amaranth is well known for its edible seeds, which are often used similarly to grains. I have not tried collecting the seeds yet.

The leaves are commonly used as a potherb. While they can be eaten raw, I find them to be rather tough. I don't like the leaves raw much at all, but as a potherb, it is one of the best I have tasted. Boiling them for 5 minutes makes them tender, and also improves the flavor, which is like a mild spinach. Young stems (if they are still flexible) can also be eaten, and soften up nicely from the boiling. Mainly you want stems which have not formed seed clusters yet. The plants I pick often have small clusters starting to form, but I just break those off and throw them away. The small prickly bracts in those clusters do not soften when boiled, so you would want to avoid including those clusters in your pot, but if a bract or two remains from the base of the cluster, they are hardly noticeable. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Solanum nigrum

Solanum nigrum
We were taking care of a friend's pets while they were on vacation, and they invited us to pick their "blackberries and huckleberries" while they were gone. The blackberries were excellent, but we had just returned from picking huckleberries in Wyoming, and my daughter immediately remarks that, "these don't look like huckleberries." They were little black berries growing in clusters, and the nearby flowers were clearly from the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), which includes crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant, as well as belladonna or deadly nightshade. These particular berries keyed out as Solanum nigrum, or Black Nightshade. After doing some research on their edibility (always be certain about what you are eating), we came back another day to pick them and found them to be very tasty eating.

The research was rather interesting on this plant, since there is some disagreement about its edibility and/or toxicity. I found common names for it ranging from poisonberry to garden huckleberry, both of which are completely misleading. It's not poisonous, and it's not in any way related to huckleberries. Trusted first-hand accounts of eating them include Green Deane of Eat the Weeds, and Sam Thayer in his book Nature's Garden.

The main problem causing confusion seems to be that belladonna (Atropa belladonna) can be mistaken for this berry. Belladonna is also a black berry in the nightshade family and is very poisonous. The berries are larger than Black nightshade, they generally grow singly instead of in clusters, and the sepals (on a tomato, they are the green bracts at the top of the tomato where it attaches to the stem) are much larger than the berry, where as Black nightshade the sepals are quite small. 

But returning to Black nightshade, the fruits themselves are quite small, like a huckleberry. They grow in clusters, though, and separate from the sepals easily. The taste is like a fruity tomato. It is sweeter than a cherry tomato, but not as sweet as a grape. It has plenty of small seeds, similar to but even smaller than tomatoes. They are not bothersome and slide down the throat easily. I enjoy the flavor a lot and would happily snack on them more often, but unfortunately they aren't found in the wild in my area. In my friend's garden, they grow quite well, and spread easily. I see them coming up in the cracks between pavers in various places in his yard.

My friend was a bit surprised when I said they were not real huckleberries. But they will continue to make pies and such things with them.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Calochortus nuttallii

Calochortus nuttallii
The Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttallii) is the Utah state flower and a very well known edible plant, because of the stories about the early Mormon settlers in Utah surviving on Sego Lily roots during the first year after they arrived in the valley. All these stories say the Native American Indians in the region told them about the Sego Lily roots, and all the stories also say the Indians told the settlers to eat thistle roots as well. Somehow the poor thistle has not gotten nearly as much publicity. 

It may seem strange that I have not written about such a well-known plant before now, but Sego Lily is really a desert plant, and I spend most of my time in the mountains. Sego Lilies are very abundant during the spring in the desert valleys in this region. They are much less abundant in the mountains, but one can still find them in hot, dry areas, usually on south-facing slopes. Note that in spite of being the state flower, they are abundant, and not legally protected in any way.

I have to admit that digging the bulbs is much easier in the sandy soils of the desert, than in the rocky ground of the mountains. But fortunately, the bulbs are not the only edible part of the plant. I enjoy eating the flower buds and the seed pods, and both of these can be easily picked without killing the entire plant. The bulbs are good, but usually just too much work.

Death Camus (top) vs Sego Lily (bottom)
orange coloration on sego bulb root end
If you do go to the effort of digging the bulbs, find some Sego Lilies growing in nice sandy ground, and bring a good spade. The bulbs can be 6 inches deep, so it takes some effort to get down to them. It's probably not worth the effort if the ground is rocky. You should carefully follow the stem down from the flower, so you can be sure of getting the right bulb. The bulbs average about 3/4 inches in diameter. They have a dry brown layer over the good white part of the bulb, which rubs off fairly easily. They have some noticeably orange coloration on the root (bottom) end. Like most bulbs in the lily family, they have layers like an onion. Sego Lily bulbs have only a few layers (around 5 or so), and they are of a consistent thickness. Another bulb plant which is very common in the same environments is Death Camus (Zigadenus species). Death Camus is very poisonous, so you should be careful not to accidentally include any of those in your foraging. The bulbs from Death Camus are about twice the size of Sego Lily bulbs, and they have many more layers, with the outer ones being especially thin. See the photo for comparison. 

The Sego Lily bulbs, when raw, are a bit crisp, and have a bland, starchy flavor. When boiled 10 minutes, the taste is similar to when they are raw; they are softer, but still have a bit of crunchiness, and the starchy flavor is stronger. I also tried roasting the bulbs for 15 minutes. This way, they were a little dryer and slightly tough, but the roasted ones were especially good with some butter and salt. Overall, it seems the flavor is similar any way you cook them.

bulbs, cleaned bulbs,
seed pods, flower buds.
So much for the hard parts. The easy parts are the flower buds and seed pods. The flower buds are tender and have a good mild flavor. The flowers taste similar, but are so pretty that I would rather look at them than eat them at that stage. The seed pods are three-sided (most things in the lily family come in threes) and taste rather like garden pea pods, crunchy and sweet, although not as sweet as garden peas. There is some hot spicy flavor noticeable after eating a few of them. When boiled for ten minutes, they become tender and mild, and the spiciness goes away, so this is a good option if you collect a lot, instead of eating them as a trail-side nibble.

Finally, here is a photo I thought was humorous. The Sego Lilies in this picture are being grabbed onto by American Vetch (Vicia americana), preventing them from fully opening. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Taraxacum officinale

Taraxacum officinale
The common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is one of the most well-known wild edible plants. But while it is very nutritious, the leaves are rather bitter. I know about a lot of better tasting leaves, so I seldom eat dandelion.

The flowers, on the other hand, are much better tasting, mild and with a flavor which can almost be called slightly sweet. I used the flowers to make dandelion fritters, which are a classic way to cook dandelions. Simply dip the fresh flowers in batter, and fry in oil. Most of my family described the taste as sweet, while people at work that I shared them with called them bitter, but those people are not used to wild foods.

The flowers usually close at night, and open when the sunlight hits them in the morning. So the best time to collect the flowers is in the morning, about an hour or two after dawn, when the flowers are at their freshest and fully open. They should be used as soon as possible, since they will begin to wilt, and will even go to seed if left for a day or two.

Dandelion flower fritters

I tried a couple different batters. One was half wheat flour and half cornmeal, with enough water to make a thin, runny batter. This resulted in a nice crunchy flower fritter. I also tried a tempura style batter, with equal parts wheat flour and cornstarch in an egg and water base. This results in a smoother fritter, crisp when fresh, but getting softer after a while, which is typical of tempura. The taste was good in both cases, but I preferred the crunchy texture of the cornmeal batter.

The unopened flower buds are also good, and make a nice vegetable to add to stir-fries and similar dishes. For this, make sure the buds are tightly closed at the end. If there is yellow or white poking out the end, they have already opened. They are more difficult to collect than the flowers, because they are small, green, and often still nestled in the base of the leaves. The bright yellow flowers stick up and are very obvious.

As I mentioned before, the leaves are plentiful, common, and easy to identify, because they usually have flowers or seed clusters above them. But they are bitter, so I don't enjoy eating them much. The white bases are a little less bitter, so you can pull up the whole plant, wash the dirt off, and just eat the white center of the leaf rosette.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Celtis reticulata

Celtis Reticulata
(closeup of split seed and fruit)
Celtis reticulata is a small tree which I find mostly at the mouths of canyons in my area. It is commonly known as Net-leaf Hackberry. This species is mainly noticeable because of the leaves. The leaves have a surface texture like sandpaper, and are fairly tough, so that they can stay on the tree all winter. The berries also persist on the tree all winter, which makes it even more noticeable when all the other deciduous trees have lost their leaves. The other distinctive feature of the leaf is the base of the leaf, which joins the leaf stem (petiole) at an angle. Finally, the bark has prominent ridges or bumps, at least on the larger trunks, but these are much more noticeable feature of the larger Celtis occidentalis (common Hackberry) which is found in the eastern United States. Being a small tree makes it easier to gather the berries from my local species.

The fresh, ripe berries are orange, round, less than a centimeter wide, and grow from the axils of the leaves. They have a large seed with a thin layer of yellow fruit. The seed has a hard brown shell, and a white kernel. At this stage they have a fresh, sweet taste which is mildly reminiscent of apricot. 

The berries persist on the tree in the winter and even through the next year, so they can be a source of food in winter and in the early spring. They remain edible all winter because, as Samuel Thayer notes, they are high in sugar and low in water, and also, as noted below, the fruit flesh is resistant to bacteria and fungus infestations. The older berries have a red skin, and persist on twigs without leaves, or with leaves which are old and dry. The fruit dries to a leathery but soft texture, not hard and dry. The old berries are still edible but the taste intensifies. Others who tried it said it tasted sort of like an apricot fruit leather. I thought it tasted like honey-flavored fruit leather, just not nearly as sweet as honey.

The seed is also edible, but the hard shell can be difficult to bite into, especially in old berries. Using a mortar and pestle, two rocks, the flat of a knife, or other grinding appliance is helpful for eating the full berry. This is worth it if you are doing more than just tasting, because the kernel is high in protein and fat, even though it has little flavor. Smashing the fruit and grinding it into a paste gives you a palatable, if rather crunchy, meal.

Tree in winter, with
dried leaves and fruits
Botanists placed the Celtis genus in the Elm family (Ulmaceae) based on morphology (physical characteristics). More recently, geneticists have placed it in the Cannabis family (Cannabaceae). Unlike cannabis, there is no evidence of any harmful or psychoactive chemicals, although there is evidence of antibacterial and antifungal activity, as well as antioxidants. Native Americans are reported to have used this plant to treat indigestion.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Quercus gambelii

Quecus Gambelii
There are many species of Oak, but in my area there is only one common species in the wild, Quercus gambelii, or Gambel Oak. This is a fairly adaptable species, and can grow into a tall tree in the right conditions, but mainly it adapts to the desert by becoming what it is more commonly known as: scrub oak. It is usually found on dry mountain slopes, where it forms dense thickets of scrub. There are no thorns on oak, but the tough wood and tortuous shaped branches make these thickets some of the worst terrain for off-trail bushwhacking.

The one advantage to getting your acorns from low growing scrub oak is that you don't have to wait for the acorns to fall to the ground on their own. You can pick them directly from the branches. Of course you should wait until they are ripe enough that some have begun to fall. I picked some off the ground, and some from the tree. Then I left them outside for a few weeks, so the green ones from the tree had time to fully ripen. They completed turning brown, and were the same inside as the ones from the ground. I think there were fewer bug-eaten acorns in the ones I picked directly from the tree, but that could also have been due to picking from a different location.

acorns before shelling,
acorns after shelling,
wet acorn meal after leaching.
Acorns are a labor-intensive food, and there are many guides on various ways to crack, shell, leach, and grind them to get acorn flour. Some people report cracking to be difficult, because the shells are tough, but because mine had set outside for a while, my shells were dry and brittle and cracked easily. I used a rock to crack them, either on a concrete surface or on a flat but slightly concave rock I found near a stream. The shelling was the most fiddly and time consuming part. Acorns came out in one of three ways. Most were white or pinkish because they were fresh. Some were dark brown and shrunken because they had had time to dry out while they were in the outside air. They dry ones fall out of the shell easily, and some people deliberately dry their acorns to make shelling easier. (I kept my dried acorns separate during the processing, and I did not notice any difference in taste in the end product.) The third category is a brown powder, which is what is left after the dreaded oak weevil grub has finished eating the acorn. Throw these ones away. There are always some of these, but if you see a small hole in the acorn, that is were the grub escaped from, and you can toss the acorn without bothering to crack it.

Next comes the leaching step. All acorns have tannins, and in fact every part of the oak tree is high in tannins. While small amounts are not harmful, they taste quite bitter, and large amounts are used for tanning leather, which you probably do not want to happen to your stomach. The traditional way to leach out the tannins is to hang them in a bag in a stream for a day or so, but by the time I got to this step, my streams were about half iced over. There are many other ways: hot and cold, slow and fast. I chose a cold, fast method. This requires the acorns to be ground up first. I used a blender and blended them about 2 cups at a time with some water to make an acorn slurry. This is placed in a filter bag and fresh water is run through it for 10-15 minutes. The acorns are the most bitter after grinding, and you should sample them after leaching to be sure all the bitterness is gone. My last batch needed extra time, probably because the bottom of the bowl had more of the nut skins, which are reported to be extra bitter. (If this seems like a wasteful use of water, try not to think about how much water we use to irrigate our lawns here.)

Acorn Bread!
My product after grinding and leaching was a wet ball of acorn flour, with about the same consistency as corn meal. So it seemed obvious to use a cornbread recipe to make acorn bread, but substituting acorn meal for corn meal. This turned out very good, and everyone liked it, especially with butter or honey or better yet, honey-butter. It was nutty and sweetish, and somewhat comparable to bran muffins in flavor.

Acorn pancakes
with elderberry-hawthorn syrup
To completely finish the process, the acorn meal which I did not use right away was dried and ground again into a finer flour. Because acorns are high in fat content, this is best stored in a freezer. Then I used this fine acorn flour to make acorn pancakes (using acorn flour, eggs, water, and baking soda). Since the acorn flour has less binding starches than wheat flour, the pancake can be a bit fragile, so it helps to wait a little longer before flipping. It seems best to wait until the uncooked side has set up a bit and lost the appearance of batter. But it still splats nicely on the flip and gets a good second surface, which wheat pancakes often do not do if you wait that long. My acorn pancakes had a pleasant nutty flavor, and tasted especially good with the elderberry-hawthorn syrup I made this year. This is a rare gourmet experience.