Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wild Buffet: Part 2' Plants you didn't know you could eat!

Now that the obvious foods are out of the way it’s time to talk about the things you may not have realized you can eat. Today we have five common plants found in the landscapes of the eastern coast that can be grown by green and black thumbs alike.  Each one requires preparation, but all are easily identified in the field, and only one has any risk of poisoning with misuse.

Also to recap some of what was said at today’s neighborhood grange meeting, below is a list of recommended seed catalogs and local retailers.

Seed & Supply  Catalogs:
Botanical Interests  - Seeds
High Mowing  -Seeds
Johnny’s Seeds – Seeds & Supply
Richters –Seeds & Plants
Seed Savers - Seeds
Southern Exposure -Seeds
Totally Tomatoes - Seeds
Worm’s Way -Supply

Some Local Retailers:
Eastover Garden Center
3465 Murphy Road, Fayetteville NC 28312
(910) 321-6044

Flow & Grow
4521 Cumberland Road, Fayetteville NC 28306
(910) 423-3569

With all that said remember, now is the last time to effectively start your cool season seeds, and without further ado here are the forage foods!

American Yew – Taxus Canadensis

While American yew is not a common sight in the south as it prefers cooler temperatures up north it is often the replacement for podocarpus, and select types of cedar and juniper. Most of the plant is flat out poisonous; however the soft fleshy red coating on the seeds is edible. This fleshy coating should be handled carefully as the seeds themselves like the rest of the plant contain a powerful alkaloid.

Common Daylily – Hemerocalis fulva

Daylily grows like a weed in most parts of the eastern coast, up north the family is exemplified by the tiger lilies seen growing by streams and in the south by the day lilies planted along roadsides as erosion control. The flower buds can be pickled or dipped in batter and fried. The tuberous roots can be cleaned chopped and used like potatoes. For note all parts of daylily have a laxative effect so eat in moderation.

The Yucca Family
Yucca baccata (Soapweed)
Yucca glauca (Spanish Bayonet)

(Spanish Bayonet) Cut the young flower stalks into sections and boil for 25-30 minutes then peel off the tough outer rind season to taste and serve. The flavor of this preparation varies by the seasoning but most liken it to asparagus. The fruit of this yucca can be eaten raw or cooked. You may also collect and roast seeds at 375 degrees until dry then grind coarsely and boil as a non-flour type grain.
(Soap Weed)  Harvest the young flower stalks before the flower buds have expanded.  Cover one cup of buds with water and boil until tender which is roughly 15-25 minutes. Drain and chop coarsely then add pimentos or green peppers, several eggs and milk then cook like scrambled eggs.

Wax Myrtle – Myrica cerifera

The Wax Myrtle is also known as the Southern Bayberry. Surprisingly as we have no shortage of this plant in the southeast amazingly it is a source of greens, as the leaves can be picked at any time but are best in early summer.  Wash the leaves and dry the leaves in a shaded area then store in tightly sealed jars in a dark place. The leaves can be ground or crushed and added to stews and sauces for cooking and serving meats in the same way sweet bay might be used. The berries can be picked from late summer into winter as a seasoning and to provide a source of wax for candle making.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wild Buffet: Part 1: Common weeds you can eat!

We’ve heard the term forage or famine foods before, but for those readers not familiar with the term, both typically denote plants that can be eaten but typically are not at the top of the list for obvious reasons. In this two part series I’ll be covering a few weeds that are easily found in most landscapes that can be eaten and how best to do so. In the first installment of this series the eight weeds are common plants found across a good sized area of the eastern coast. Each weed has at least one recipe and a little information on how to find, cultilvate and of couse in what quantities theya re safe to eat.
Chickweed – Stellaria media
Star Chickweed - S. pubera
James Chickweed – S.  jamesiana

The chickweed group of plants are a common cool-season weed seen in moist soils often competing successfully with lettuce, cabbage and other cool season crops you may be already growing.  The good news is that chickweed happens to make for a good green manure and cool season cover crop if kept in reasonable boundaries. Another advantage is that the entirety of the plant is edible, bearing a mild flavor and chickweed plants have no poisonous look-alikes.  Generally one can eat the new growth of chickweed as a salad green with no ill effects, of boil for 2-5 minutes as a tender cooked green. It is suggested that chickweed be prepared with a bit of butter, light seasoning and garlic and or onions.

Sheep Sorrel - Rumex acetosella
Curled Dock/Sour Dock/Yellow Dock - Rumex crispus

The dock family bears several distinct food plants two of which are commonly considered weeds when in fact they both bear useful traits.
Sheep sorrel bears a sour flavor which makes it ideal to add flavor to salads in the absence of a good dressing. Also the leaves of sheep sorrel can be used to produce a beverage by boiling 1 cup of loosely packed leaves per quart of water for 2-3 minutes. After boiling cover and allow the leaves to steep for 15 minutes then strain and add a sweetener to taste. Also it is possible to boil the leaves of sheep sorrel in 2-3 changes of water to make a pleasantly sour pot herb that can be used as a side-dish, added with other cooked greens or used with fish, vegetables or any grain dish. Sour dock on the other hand should be cooked for roughly 10 minutes using less water then one would normally use for a green like cabbage or spinach.  Any new greens cooked this way have a flavor resembling Swiss chard especially if onion and salt or merely garlic is added. Older leaves of Sour dock need more cooking to become palatable, and should be cooked longer and thus may need more water changes overall to reduce sour flavor. Sour dock tends to pair well with greasy foods such as butter, bacon, fatback, fried eggs ect. As a final note, the seeds of sour dock can be hulled, winnowed, and ground to make workable flour, but the effort put into this is prohibitive. Lastly, be cautious of the amount of dock ingested in any sitting or in a given day as large amounts of leaves may cause an upset stomach.

Henbit – Lamium amplexicaule

Henbit is a common weed in gardens, at this time it’s a small weed that often is hard to spot and is often mistaken for chickweed. The visual difference becomes apparent with maturity, as henbit has square stems, lobed leaves and purple-lavender flowers that when open clearly identify it is in the mint family. Interestingly enough, henbit has hollow stems which seem to facilitate its sprawling habit. What makes henbit useful is that the new growth of henbit is absolutely edible, and this plant has no poisonous look-alikes. Generally the new growth is cooked as a potherb with other mixed greens and light seasoning. However a good recipe for Henbit is to chop 4 cups of henbit, cover with water, then boil for 10 minutes. In a separate pot or pan melt 3 tablespoons of butter, add 1 teaspoon curry powder, 2 whole cloves, and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon. Stir and cook the spice mixture for about a minute until warm and well mixed then stir in 2 teaspoons flour and cook another minute. Finally add one cup of the ‘broth’ from the pot with the henbit, and stir until smooth.  Finally mix the contents of the spice mixture with the henbit, and add ¾ of a cup sour cream then simmer gently for 15 minutes. Let me tell you this recipe for all its complexity is gourmet worthy!

Japanese Knotweed – Polygonum cuspidatum

Japanese knotweed or Mexican bamboo is now known as Fallopia japonica to most horticultural experts. This aggressive and invasive seed is a non-native species that is commonly found near riverbanks. The roots of Japanese knotweed can extend for upwards of nine meters while the stalks can easily reach up to four meters if left undisturbed. However the flowers of Japanese knotweed are a preferred course of pollen for honey bees and, despite the plants invasive habits it can effectively stop erosion on river banks. As for culinary uses, as it turns out this knotweed’s young shoots can be cooked and eaten exactly like asparagus. In fact most recipes for Japanese knotweed involve serving it like asparagus too! You can make a fine casserole out of the cooked shoots, bread crumbs, grated cheese, cream, ands seasonings. This ‘wilderness’ casserole should be baked at 390 degrees until the top is browned evenly. You can also peel older stalks and use like rhubarb, in any dish that calls for rhubarb.  Lastly the shoots can be used to make sauce if 4 cups peeled and cut shoots are combined with a cup of sugar with nutmeg added. The resulting mix should be summered until soft and served either hot or chilled and served cold as needed.

Pigweed – Amaranthus retroflexus
Green Pigweed – A. hybridus

Pigweed is a common sight in the United States and may even have reach beyond North America. It is noted by the USDA that pigweed is one of the first weeds to display noticeable resistance to common herbicides especially roundup.  Pigweed and green pigweed are useful as a potherb requiring about 10-20 minutes worth of simmering becoming tender after which one can season to taste.  Fresh young leaves and growth may be used as a primary component of salad greens. The leaves can be dried for future use in soups and, the seeds may be harvested and ground into light flour.

As a final note, always make sure of your identification of the plants listed below if you are planning to try any of the noted recipes. While we at LITFM tried to pick plants with no poisonous look-alikes nature itself does not read the books we do nor does it put the same things in everyone's yards.  As always be careful, and if you are in doubt seek professional help, as the last thing anyone wants is the risk of accidental ingestion of something particularly nasty.  In next week's article we will be covering some unusual plants that could be called weeds that have useful aspects as forage plants.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Coffee in your Backyard: Local sustainable alternatives to the coffee bean.

Today’s topic is about local substitutes for coffee, obviously anything listed in this article will produce a coffee-like beverage. Admittedly for the most part there really is no substitute for the real thing, coffee is still coffee.  Considering the vulnerability of the transportation systems of most countries and the ever uncertain national-political trends of the time it is wise to know what you can work with should something make coffee inaccessible by price or quantity. The very idea of coffee-beverage it self is no new concept, the peoples of the world have been making beverages of similar use for ages before coffee itself was a world-wide commodity. There are a number of things used to make coffee-beverage, and a few uncovered in my own research of the topic lacked full  information that could be verified by any reliable source for their effects, cultivation or how they are processed or made into a beverage. For instance, Ganoderma  and Chagas are both fungi, one is from Asia, while the other is a common fungi found growing on birch. Neither seems to have any real information that is safe regarding their processing. Other unverified plant materials used to make coffee-beverage include; Malted Barley, Beet root, Corn, Rice, Cotton seed, Figs, Peas, Potato peels, Rye, Wheat bran, Asparagus, Persimmon seed and, Sweet Potato. While some of the aforementioned plant materials certainly are unlikely to harm the user how to process them is unclear. If any of you out there know how to make coffee-beverage out of these plants feel free to post your recipes and their sources so everyone can try them out. Now without further ado here is a list of plants found in the north and south eastern states of North America that can be used to make coffee-beverage.

Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioica
The seeds were roasted in the same way as coffee beans, and prepared the same way by early American settlers. For note this plant is slightly toxic and should NOT be imbibed with the same regularity as traditional coffee. It does contain some caffeine however.

Yaupon Holly, Ilex vomitoria
The common yaupon holly has been used as a caffeinated coffee substitute by the native Americans for quite a long time. The beverage it self is rather dark in color, and is made from the stems and leaves of the plant and of course was drank hot. From what information exists it would be prepared not unlike a tea though I did not see any mention of if the twigs and leaves were dried or fresh. For note, it is clearly stated by numerous sources that the Yaupon holly may be the only North American native that contains caffeine.

Bed Straw, Galium aparine
Bedstraw is a common clingy weed found growing wild in disturbed soils. All of its leaves and stems are covered with fine hairs that can cause some minor skin irritation.  The fruit and seeds however are the parts you want to collect. Between June and July look for the rounded greenish fruiting bodies and pick them before they turn brown. Wash and then roast at 300 degrees until dark and crisp or up to 1 hour, then grind the cooled fruits to a fine texture.

Cat’s Ear Dandelion, Hypochaeris radicata
Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
Chicory, Cichorium intybus
All three plants belong to the aster family and, it is no surprise that all three are thought of as weeds. On all three plants you need to harvest the taproot, scrub it clean, and roast it in the oven until brown throughout. After that you may grind in a coffee grinder and use at the same proportions as plain coffee. None of the three plants have caffeine present at any point however and thus the drink only tastes like coffee.

Sunflower, Helianthus annuus
The common sunflower, a cheery staple of the summer, surprisingly is a purveyor of a coffee substitute. Ironically sunflowers might be the weirdest source of coffee substitute as the beverage is made from the hulls of the seeds.

California Juniper, Juniperus californica
This juniper is noted as a coffee substitute for this region due to it’s wide useage in cultivation. The California juniper is often found in use with Xeriscaping but is a popular bonsai plant. The part used to make coffee-beverage however is the small fruits which are dried for upwards of a month or more roasted like coffee beans and then ground. This particular juniper is preferred as it has less resin and is thus less bitter.

White Oak Grouping:
Quercus alba, Quercus prinus, Quercus gambelii, Quercus douglasii
The oaks provide more then a fine flower via their acorns, as it turns out the acorn meal can be roasted, and used to make a coffee substitute. Generally the white oak group is preferred as the nut meats and acorn shells contain far less tannins and this are less bitter. All you have to do is roast the acorn meal at 380 degrees until the meal is dark or crisp or for about 30 minutes. Use ½ cup of roasted acorn meal to 4 cups of water and combine in a pot then boil for 15 minutes, then strain and serve, caffeine free.

Red & Black Oak Grouping:  Quercus rubra
Making coffee-beverage from the red and black oaks requires an additional step of preparation. Red and black oaks bear larger amounts of tannins in their acorn which in turn means that you must leach this from the acorns to make a palatable beverage.  In order to remove tannins, place the nut meats from acorns in a mesh bag or some sort of strainer that will not melt, then place within a pot of boiling water. Boil until water darkens, discard water and refill with fresh water repeat until the water remains clear. After the tannins are leached you can proceed to roast them in the same way as noted in the white oaks group.

American Beech Fagus grandifolia
Aside from being beautiful trees at maturity the American beech is a sustainable supplier of coffee beverage. Collect mature nuts after they drop of just before they do, shell, and roast the chopped nut meats at 320 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Allow the resulting nut meal to cool and grind, use in the same proportions to water as oak with the same preparation.

Allegheny chinquapin Castanea pumila
Allegheny Chinquapin is a native chestnut relative that is commonly called American chinquapin or dwarf chestnut. The nuts meats are the part you use to make a coffee-beverage, however the nuts are covered with spines so extracting the meats should be done with caution. Once you have extracted the edible portions, chip them finely and roast at 375 degrees until they are dark and dry and then allow cooling. Once cool enough to handle, grind to a fine texture and when ready, gently boil 1 ounce (28 grams) per cup of water for 15 minutes, strain and serve hot, caffeine free.

With all that coffee substitution it’s not hard to imagine a particularly clever gardener could combine several of the above and make a particularly unique blend of non-coffee, coffee!  As always I advise the readers out there to play it safe and triple verify what they are about to brew or roast and try a little bit first to check for any possible allergies before you dive fully into experimenting. On Sunday the 25th at 2:30 is the next neighborhood grange meeting at the Cape Fear Museum if you've got time and read this blog come on down! Best of luck to all you urban farmers out there, make sure to check back in next Sunday when the first installment of ‘Wild Buffet’ covers some common garden weeds you can eat! 

>Edit: date and time of grange meeting has been moved, see underlined text for changes.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Keeping it growing

Pseudofumaria lutea (syn. Corydalis lutea) - Yellow Fumewort 

The above is the same yellow fumewort plant covered in the plant spotlight on 5-29-2011. Outside of bulbs the fumewort may be the first garden perennial to bloom in spring and does so about the same time if not earlier then the rosemary. The name fumeword comes from the strongly scented oils released when handling the foliage of the plant. While descriptions of the scent vary I'd personally say it resembles model airplane glue. Scent aside yellow fumewort likes light shade, and decent soil, and will willingly resow itself to take over a limited area. Thankfully other then occasional watering in drought periods, it needs virtually no care considerations.

What a winter, score one for the case proving global warming is real. But jabs at the naysayers aside today’s topic of discussion is how to keep harvesting the kind of foods you like regardless of seasonal changes.  It’s a fact that certain plants produce during certain seasons of the year. Some food crops require cool weather some prefer hot, and then there are the limitations of the three plant life cycles. All plants fall into the category of being a annual, biennial or perennial. For those new to gardening; these three groups can be defined as follows.

1.     Annual- Any plant that germinates, matures and produces seed within a single season.
2.     Biennial – any plant that germinates, matures and then produces seed in its second year, and dies thereafter.
3.     Perennial – Any plant that lives more then two years often maturing within a year or longer and that produces flowers and seed almost every year once fully mature.

Of course these life cycles sure as soil quality, insect and disease problems death and taxes are something we gardeners must learn to plan for. We have the dubious distinction of being comparatively long lived compared to our most common food crops so our want to eat say, lettuce year round has to be tempered by the fact that these plants we grow do so in their own time frames. Before you throw up your hands and head for the produce aisle at the super market know this; there are seasonal alternatives to our favorites that can add flavor and variety to an otherwise bland diet. Below you will find a list of cools season crops and their warm season replacements.

1. Spinach:
- Giant Goosefoot (Chenopodium giganteum)
- Orach (Atriplex hortensis)
- Malabar Spinach (Basella alba)
- Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor,  A. hypochondriacus)
- New Zealand Spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides, T. expansa)
- Strawberry Spinach (Chenopodium  capitatum)

2. Swiss Chard:
          - Beet Greens (Beta vulgaris)

3. Snow & Sweet Peas
          - Southern Peas (Vigna unguiculata)
- Asparagus Peas (Lotus tetragonolobus)

4.  Arugula
          - Nasturtium (Tropaeolum minus, T. majus)

5. Mesclun
          - Mustard, Mizuna (Brassica juncea)

6. Cilantro / Coriander
          - Vietnamese Cilantro (Persicaria odorata or, Polygonum odoratum)

7. Common Sorrel
-Purselane (Portulaca oleracea)

8.  Celery
          - Lovage (Levisticum officinale)

9. Cucumber
          - Armenian Cucumber (Cucumis melo)

10. Radiccio, Endive, Escarole
          - Chicory (Chicorium intybus)

As you can see from the list above,  most cool season crops have readily available replacements that take similar care yet need only the expected change in temperature to do well. One group excluded was the cabbages, from which several types are typically started in late spring for minor harvests through summer into the next year. Other cabbage crops however start bolting when the temperature spikes above sixty degrees for any length of time and thus are exclusively cool season crops.  In a number of cases there simply is no seasonal substitute for the real thing as seen in the tomato, pepper, eggplant, bean, and lettuce crops. As a last note for you observant gardeners out there, #10 and #2 are unusual situations. In the case of #2 both swiss chard and Beets in general have the scientific name Beta vulgaris, as they are divergent types of the same plant give or take one produces a edible root and some leaf greens where as the other just produces larger leaves. In respects #10 is similar; Escarole, Endive Radicchio and Chicory are all in the Chicory family. Radicchio is essentially a divergent cultivated Chicorium intybus, where as Escarole and Endive are related and scientifically named under Chicorium endive with a variety based additional identifier after such as ‘var. crispa’ or ‘var. latifolium’

As a final thought for today’s post when your attempting to maintain a constant supply of some sort of food item it pays to understand that item’s life cycle and to keep a careful eye on the availability of other possible alternatives.  In some cases you will find no shortage of alternatives and yet in others you may need to look no further then close relatives or alternate forms of the same plant. In short often with urban farming plant alternatives it quite literally takes one to grow one.  Stay tuned for next weeks post where we cover the assorted plants that can be used to make substitute coffees.