Saturday, March 28, 2015

Looks like winter takes another shot at us

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market! I know this post is a few days late but; here it is a somewhat short but intriguing look into the greater world of the natural and as this week’s topic is about another weed that you likely did not know you could eat.

Cardamine hirsuta – Hairy Bittercress

The hairy bittercress is a common cold-season weed that is considered to be a short-lived annual. There are dozens of regional varieties of this plant with minor at best differences scattered across the continent. None of them are known to be poisonous but you should consult an expert before you eat anything and keep a good guide to edible weeds handy that has high quality photographs to avoid any error. With that said this article focuses on the Hairy Bittercress which is common to the Sandhills region and is very visible in most yards right now.  The first thing you should know is that Hairy Bittercress is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) and will occasionally show up in older weed guides using the old name for the cabbage family which is cruciferae. In comparison to the cabbage family members we know Hairy Bittercress is as noted before, it’s short lived and the harvesting window is incredibly short if foraged in nature. The seed can be collected, and a potentially easier and longer living crop can be grown. 

But about that name “Bitter Cress”, it doesn’t seem particularly tasty now does it? The truth is that the harvesting window for this plant is short, as with a fair number of cabbage family members once the plant blooms it goes bitter. So of course bitter cress when first encountered was probably picked and tasted after it flowered and thus the misleading name. The leaves are the part you eat, and they are equally edible raw in a salad or cooked gently to maintain their somewhat spicy cress-like flavor which is where the rest of the plant’s name originates from. I’ve heard of this plant’s leaves being used as a garnish with something savory or with a baked meat item. As always I advise you try a little bit of this plant first before making a large pot of stewed greens and then try a large helping. It might not be to your taste or you might have an unexpected reaction. As with any forage weed, it is wise to play it safe.

Now for a third and more interesting use, as it turns out, this weed is a magnet for Aphids, probably because what makes it eventually bitter, and provides that spicy cress flavor might serve as a chemical defense against predation of the aphids. For those of us who like to keep things organic, these little weeds are excellent as a trap crop to lure in pests for eradication wholesale by either an organic non-chemical insecticide or by means of the natural predators which will eventually follow in the aphid’s trail.
That wraps up our short post for this week. Next week we’ll have the last installment of the weeds you can eat series, and by then the last of the winter storm damage will have been cleaned up at the test gardens so we will have a before and after photo for your viewing amazement. As a final note at the end of April Sustainable neighbors will have the 3rd Annual Sustainable Garden Tour. Who will be on the tour and want delights will be shown this year? Stay tuned and find out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It has begun!

Welcome back to the first spring episode of Lost In the Farmer’s Market. In case you missed the memo Friday is the first official day of spring, and with it the temperatures and weather should level out just a bit making gardening a bit easier. Today I’ve got the first surefire sign of spring in the test gardens. In our first photograph we have the first spring-blooming shrub at the test garden which is a rabbit eye Blueberry. Blueberries are some of the most reliable indicators of spring because they always bloom within the same time period regardless of how cold the winter was. Additionally rabbit eyes are more native to the region and thus once established are reliable and heavy producers of larger than average berries.

Let’s just say the pollinators are going to love this.

But with that talk of spring we have the spring weeds, and our main topic. In the last two episodes we spoke of weeds that were perfectly edible. This week the weed in question is the plant pictured below.

Henbit – lamium amplexicaule
For those of you out there who are plant Latin aficionados, the first name ‘Lamium’ means this plant is related to the dead nettles and by extension is a member of the mint family. It has square stems that are hollow, and bears light fuzz on the stems and leaves. This cool-season weed emerges in mid-late spring and may persist into the heat of summer and may be found in plant containers and in shady areas well into the dog days of August. Otherwise much like chickweed, Henbit will appear and disappear than reappear from seed once cool weather returns in fall. Being a member of the mint family it does produce nectar for pollinators and has a somewhat attractive lavender-purple flower.

Hey there henbit, just hanging around?
Now what do you do with henbit? Well it’s edible and you can harvest the young leaves and shoots in spring. You can combine it with other greens in a salad, where it will add texture and color and a minty-flavor. As a pot herb you can collect up to 4 cups of shoots and leaves, cover them with water and boil for 10 minutes. Separately melt 3 tablespoons of butter, add a teaspoon of curry powder, 2 whole cloves and 1/4th teaspoon of cinnamon. Stir the mix and then add 2 tablespoons of flour and cook for another minute until you get a smooth consistency. AT this point you can add 3/4th cup of Sour Cream, or parmesan cheese to taste. Lastly you should simmer the final mixture for about 15 minutes very gently. What you end up with is a sort of ‘creamed spinach’ sort of dish that goes well with rice and chicken. The last time I made this, I served the henbit-crème inside of a ‘bowl’ made of the rice with chicken on the side. I also substituted Cajun seasonings for the curry powder.

As always, this weekend we have another Fayetteville City Market, and it is the first of spring 2015. The market runs from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM and is located on 325 Franklin Street in the front and back parking lots of the Fayetteville Transportation Museum. This week I’ll have soup kits, but also the first of the new spring product.

-Swiss Chard
-Parris Island Lettuce
-Rouge D’Hiver Lettuce
-Rosso di Chioggia Radicchio
-Dinosaur Kale

So the weather is supposed to be decent on Saturday and hopefully I’ll get to see you at the market. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for next weeks ‘edible weed’.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

DST Anyone? No? Me neither!

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market,  As you may well know daylight savings time went into effect at 2:00am on Sunday and it is a source of considerable irritation to pretty much everyone. What you don’t know is that it is a myth that it helped farmers use more daylight to perform their tasks. This myth comes from the idea that by getting up earlier somehow you’re getting extra daytime when in fact the number of hours in a given day is give or take the same with adjustments for winter/summer seasons. It’s clearly as much a myth as the old world war two myth that carrots help your eyesight. For note the carrots myth was created by the British military as misinformation to fool the axis powers into not noticing that the British were using radar to find targets. I’ll go out on a limb and say that daylight savings time should be dumped as it literally serves no purpose and any real energy use savings are so tiny that it can’t even be touted as an ecologically useful yearly habit.

But of course this LITFM episode is not about the uselessness of DST, but rather we have a continuing topic of edible weeds, and a rare picture and as if that were not enough we also have a picture of what will be coming to market soon.  But first the main topic, todays subject is a weed that I would imagine everyone who reads this has seen and is very familiar with. It only emerges in the spring and fall once the temperatures tend to top off at about 50-60 degrees and can survive frosts, and winter weather with ease. If you go out and look at any recently disturbed patch of soil or in your planters it is surely growing there.  “Ok so what is this edible weed?” you no doubt want to ask. Well look below for a example

Stellaria media – Common Chickweed
This common garden plant is considered an annual, as it only persists in the cold season but falls apart rapidly during the warm seasons.  There are a few species of chickweed out there with varied edibility standards so this information only pertains to common chickweed.  Common chickweed can be eaten simply by picking the small leaves for use in salad in any amount. The foliage is mild in taste and can be used to effectively counter-balance more pungent leaf greens.  As a pot herb, you would want to cook this one more gently then something like spinach, usually 2-5 minutes at a full boil will suffice and common flavoring additives it needs are butter, a bit of your preferred spices and salt and some chopped onion. Fortunately chickweed has no known poisonous lookalikes, and the entire grouping of true chickweed plants. For note the chickweeds are in the Caryophyllaceae family which is best known for its most famous species the Carnations.

Asarum virginicum - Heartleaf Wild Ginger
This leads to the current photograph of note the flower pictured above is from a perennial cutting of a Wild Ginger plant. Wild gingers are a true wild flower that you plant in a partial-to almost full shade area with decent moisture and forget about. But before you say it, it is not the flower that makes this species special but the evergreen variegated leaves. The leaves are an intense deep green with a silvery-white heart-shaped variegation. Overall a group of these plants forms a nice ground cover that is both exotic looking and well-behaved. It should be said that the wild gingers resemble hardy cyclamen until the bloom and for several months I had the pictures specimen mislabeled until it bloomed just this week. I know the bloom isn’t exactly a show-stopper but it is interesting, and it serves as a biology lesson because you have to ask just what sort of pollinator this flower is intended to attract. My bet is on a beetle or ants as the flowers are very low to the ground and may resemble carrion.

 I get that the angle of this shot is odd but you can see all the current spring crops at once.
We at LITFM are pleased to announce the first spring crops for the market; some of them will be familiar to you, Parris Island Cos Romaine Lettuce, Rouge D’hiver Romaine, Lacinato/Dinosaur Kale, Rosso Di Chioggia Radicchio and, Northern Lights Swiss Chard. In the background you can see the seed starting kits and in them is some good stuff, exotic salad greens and snow peas so sit tight, more of the good stuff is yet to come. Barring bad weather this weekend I plan to bring some of the above listed cold-season crops to market due to your requests. For note most of them were moved up from the cell packs I started them in roughly a week ago.
For those who have not heard, the Fayetteville City Market occurs on Saturdays between the hours of 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM, in all but the absolute worst weather. The market is located on 325 Franklin Street in the front and rear parking lot of the Fayetteville Transportation Museum. The market is a year-round affair unofficially but our official season kicks off in April so stay tuned for the announcement of the market’s big spring celebration. Either way we’re open for business.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

And Yet More Winter!

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market. We’ve got a good episode in store covering a topic that becomes more critical in winter months than others so sit tight today we will be talking about weeds. Before I get into that I do have to post a word to the wise for all you gardeners out there, the weather has made cabin fever a little worse this year than in others and so those shiny seed catalogs keep showing up.  The issue with this is that a gardener is highly tempted to buy more than he or she can realistically handle or buy things above your skill level. It’s always wise to show some restraint when dealing with ordering things from the catalogs because you may not know how they actually perform in your area or there may be cultivation tips for growing that you are currently unaware of.  For instance, growing milkweed or say lupines is far harder then you realize and without a good reference or someone to consult who’s done it before you may suffer a lot of avoidable disappointment. I bring this point up because winter is coming to its end even if it is tossing storms as though it were having a tantrum.  Needless to say there are three things you should ask yourself before ordering anything from a seed catalog.

1.      Have I grown this before?
If your answer is no; be careful - seed packets and their catalog listings might not tell you the special growing instructions for some species.

2.      Do I know how well this handles my local climate?
This can help you avoid invasive species, even mint can become invasive in the right spot.

3.      Will it need special care?
Orchids look wonderful, but can be difficult if you don’t know what to do. Some seed requires scarification, stratification, acid treatments or may take up to two years to germinate.

There is one other point to be made here, the garden catalog’s exist to sell you things, so they tell you just enough to get you started but not enough to really educate you in what you are getting into. So be careful before you order and try to start with a set budget before you start compiling a seed list and in theory you should be able to keep that winter garden mania under control.

So with the forst bit covered let’s talk about today’s main topic. If you’re a regular reader you know that I define weeds optimistically as the following.

“Any plant whose chief virtue has not yet been noticed.”

That may annoy some of you ‘lawn care professionals’ out there and the herbicide industry but no one cares what you think anyway. The fact is that weeds can be beneficial in a number of horticultural roles such as telling us things about the soil conditions, or the amount of sun or lack thereof that an area receives. Some indicate how high the water table is or where water often pools others indicate how long ago the native environment was disturbed by construction or human activity in general. Others still provide food sources that often go ignored because we don’t recognize them as such. Today’s such plant calls in that latter grouping. Today I am talking about Rattlesnake Weed.

Florida Betony/ Rattlesnake Weed - Stachys floridana
The above picture shows a cultivated specimen of this species. In the garden rattlesnake weed is considered a weed because it is a cool season perennial that spreads rapidly during a time period in which most cultivated plants are winding down. This spread gives the appearance of it being invasive when in fact it is a native species. It is thought that Rattlesnake Weed was contained to Florida up until the 1940’s to 1950’s when it got outside of the borders of Florida most likely though nursery plant stock.

A close up of the leaves, notice the similarity to the herb Betony?
What makes Rattlesnake weed interesting is that it reproduces through its tuberous root stock; this is asexual reproduction so it can spread without a pollinator which allows it to colonize large areas. It responds to even the faintest traces of fertilizer and can handle all but the wettest of soils with ease. The plant gets its name from the shape of its tubers which resemble the tails of rattlesnakes. The tubers are often white with some tinges of green where they were exposed to sunlight and tend to be about ½” wide and on average 1-4” long, some specimens have been recorded as growing up to 8” long. New tubers are formed in late spring as the soil temperatures rise. Rattlesnake Weed typically goes dormant or semi-dormant for the hottest summer months. It will tolerate full sun if ample moisture is present but seems to prefer partial shade. Although I have not personally witnessed it all references to this plant indicate that it has trumpet shaped flowers that may be white or pink and may have purple spots, it’s suggested that blooming occurs in late spring. There is no information on what the germination requirements are for seed from Rattlesnake Weed.

With all that said here is why it is interesting, Rattlesnake Weed is in the Stachys family which means it is related to Lamb’s Ear Stachys Byzantina, Betony Stachys Officinalis, Chinese Artichoke Stachys affinis and, Hedge Nettle Stachys sylvatica. All members of the family are called woundwort because some aspect of their bio-chemical composition aids in the healing of wounds. When they do bloom members of this family are very attractive to bumblebees and honey bees so they serve as a nectar source. I might add that all Stachys are in the Lamiaciae family group making them relatives to mint which explains rattlesnake weed’s habits. Ironically it also makes lamb’s ear the most un-mint of the group, apparently the “square” in a family or wild and crazy herbs.

Now why eat rattlesnake weed? Well the tubers contain a sweetening compound called Stachylos which is not completely digestible which may have some benefit to diabetics. It is also suggested, though I cannot absolutely verify it, that the special sugar compound in rattlesnake weed promotes friendly gut microbes and inhibits the growth of certain types of infection. For food purposes the leaves can supposedly be used in place of tobacco for antioxidant purposes. The tubers can be eaten raw albeit sliced thin in salads and are said to have the texture of radish, with a sort of cauliflower-jicama flavor. It’s referenced in several texts that the roots can be used to supplement potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, or fried to a crispy texture in a stir fry with onions.

Personally as you see I have a lab specimen I’m cultivating, I found it makes an interesting house plant. Rattlesnake weed is seemingly pest free, vigorous as any aggressive philodendron and as long as I keep it in its own pot with a big saucer beneath and it’s well-behaved. Not bad for a ‘weed’ really, it’s one of the few things where I could see palpable growth on a weekly basis. Who knows it may have a future as a pollution-proofed food source or something. Either way considering the rangy looking plant corn came from; with cultivation perhaps betony will put potatoes out of business in the future too.

That covers our topic for this week, next week we’ll be talking about another weed you can eat that is incredibly common this time of year in your yard. Check back with us next week and if you have any questions about the content you can visit us at the Fayetteville City Market this at 325 Franklin Street this Saturday between the hours of 9:00 AM to 1:00PM.