Sunday, July 17, 2011

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina): Tart Summertime Refreshment

Finding: Staghorn sumac is such a common sight on the roadsides of central New England that one hardly need try to find them. Just drive to work and keep your eyes peeled. Ooga and Yub-yub were meeting me at the end of a long marathon training run when they decided to harvest a few. The big, red, fuzzy berry clusters are so distinctive. I often hear people referring to these plants as poison sumac, but poison sumac (Rhus vernix) has white, hairless berries that I can't imagine confusing with the fuzzy red "elf hats" we gather.

In July, when the berries become red, they are ready for making into an amazing and tart cold drink. The ones in this picture are a little on the early side, but we just couldn't wait for one of our favorite summertime refreshments. We gather about 5-8 depending on their size.

Preparation: Crush the flowerheads with your fingers into a half-gallon container. Cover them with cold water. Hot water makes it taste yucky! Then put it in the fridge for 24 hours. When the water blushes to the color of a raspberry iced tea, take it out and strain the flowers out. We use jelly bags now, but before we discovered these wonderful inventions, we used an old, clean T-shirt. It worked just fine. I love the tart flavor of the unsweetened drink, but adding a sugar syrup to taste is great. To make the syrup, add equal parts sugar and water and boil until the sugar is dissolved. We've tried just sweetening by adding sugar right to the liquid, but for some reason the results were always disappointing.

This concoction is a great way to pique the interest of folks who have never tried wild foods. I once served some to a skeptical bunch of middle-school kids who drank almost two gallons and then begged me for more.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Galinsoga (Galinsoga ciliata): Hidden in Plain Sight

I remember seeing this plant as a b0y. It grew as a weed in my mother's garden. It was one of those plants that I just never got around to keying out because, frankly, it looked boring. No big seed pods, no funky growth patterns, no sexy fruits or seeds. I often thought that I'd get around to keying that one out someday. Then I'd go do something important.

Our foraging friend, Arena, (a familiar name, no doubt, to foraging family readers) gave us some greens last year that she called galinsoga. We'd never heard of it and were having such a good time eating some of the exotic mushrooms that she'd gotten us that we forgot about it until it had wilted beyond recognition and any hope of culinary redemption. The other day, Arena gifted Ooga with some more.

Meanwhile, a good look at this plant while foraging for purslane in my mother's garden had reminded me of my oft-procrastinated resolution to key it out--a resolution that I promptly procrastinated because the purslane was so mouth-wateringly distracting.

So today when I found this patch of it growing in our very own meadow, I finally went in to get my dog-eared copy of Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (affectionately called The Duke after Duke Nukem from G. I. Joe). Well wouldn't you know it. Galinsoga. I ran back in to the refrigerator and looked in the goody bag from Arena. Sure enough. There it was.

Tonight we submerged it in boiling water for about five minutes, drained, and served as a side to a chicken dinner. It tasted very much like spinach or lamb's-quarters. We loved it.

Galinsoga might grow in your garden too. It has a cluster of composite flowers which means that each flower head contians a disc of lots of little individual reproductive bodies. The disc is yellow and is surrounded by five, widely spaced white petal that have three distinct lobes. These suckers are small so look carefully.
The leaves are opposite and coarsely toothed and the stems are hairy.

The can be easily distinguished from some asters that bloom at a similar time by their size and their distinctive three-lobed petals.

I know that in addition to being a great new edible for us, galinsoga will be a reminder that even the most plain-looking plants have worthwhile secrets for the enterprising naturalist.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Pasture Gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati)

We've had our eye on this shrub since we moved into our house. It had never borne fruit. But this spring the electric utility cleared some trees around nearby power lines, and this shaded shrub has enjoyed full noonday sun for the nearly two months.

Lo and behold, that's what it needed to start producing its prickly, intimidating fruit. Our guides tell us that they're not ripe until red-purple. Anyone out there have experience with gooseberries? What do we do with them once they're ripe?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Return of the Native or The Story of a Foraging Revival (Black Raspberries)

We hadn't foraged in weeks. Between a crazy work month in June for Thag, marathon training, Yub Yub's busy social schedule, Ooga's new job, and Ooga's role in a local theater production we'd hadn't even taken a walk in the wilds. So when we travelled down to visit our parents in Connecticut for the Fourth of July weekend, I (Thag) stole an opportunity to get out. Ooga's parents were playing with Yub Yub. I had about two hours time. Where to go foraging in the suburbs? The town where our parents live is nearly wall-to-wall monoculture sod carpeting. I had once witnessed a man unloading nearly a liter of Roundup on a dozen sidewalk dandelions. There was little hope of finding good eats within walking distance.

Even in the most intensively altered landscapes, however, there are islands of wild: a wetland that cannot be developed, a poorly tended hedgerow, the edges of a public park. Steve Brill has made a career out of foraging in New York City. I knew if I looked I would find something. I cruised along the outskirts of the neighborhood until I saw a small stream running through a culvert under the road. I got out of the car. The stream's path could be traced as a meandering line of trees weaving between the houses. There were cattails there. I haven't ever gathered cattail pollen and really wanted to try. But these cattails had already dropped theirs. Across the road I found a handful of black raspberries, just enough to whet my appetite for more. On the other side of the brambles were some dinner plate sized flowerheads on a American elder, but I decided not to wade through the thorny canes in shorts. I got back in the car and kept driving.

Then I remembered the old orchard. Some years ago the town where our parents lived had acquired a derelict orchard with the help of a grant from the state of Connecticut. They had preserved the acreage as an open space in the face of a seemingly unstoppable wave of urban sprawl. I turned down the road and found a place to park by a weather-beaten placard that proclaimed the area closed at sunset. I looked at my watch and the sky. I had about 75 minutes.

The milkweed had gone to flower, but I'd read somewhere that the flowers were edible as well as the unopened buds. They weren't supposed to be very tasty, but we'd never tried them. I judiciously gathered one or two clusters from each plant and figured we'd give them a try and decide for ourselves. Poison ivy grew everywhere. I hopscotched my way out of an overgrown field and into a brushy hillside. Some bright red elderberries hung temptingly, another plant that is purportedly edible but that has not gotten rave reviews from any foragers we know. (Some even contend that the red elderberries are poisonous. Thayer cites evidence that native peoples of the northwest made them a regular part of their diet. All non-berry parts of the plant are assuredly toxic though.) What the hell! If they're terrible, I won't eat them. I filled another bag with the berries. Now I had two questionable edibles and about 45 minutes left before the area closed.

An old trail led through the brush. That's where I found them. Arching canes of black raspberries were just beginning their season. Something about those little black cups of seedy sweetness just brings out my greedy side. Every few feet along the trail was a new bush with another handful. All I had for storage was a plastic bag, but it would have to do. I'd finally hit the good stuff, and I wasn't leaving those berries without a fight.

Forty-five minutes later I sat on the hood of my car, watched the sun set, and enjoyed almost a quart of some of the finest fruit that can be had--wild or domestic. How, I wondered, did I let myself get too busy for this?

PS--Pictured above is a red elderberry (Sambucus sp.) and common milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca) on the right. I ate all of the blackberries before I could take a picture. Told you it brought out my greedy side.