Saturday, April 28, 2007

Harvest Day in the Yard

The wild plants are in peril of being mown down, so I harvested a lot of greens from the yard today. The bowl in the picture is about 16" across, so I got a pretty good amount, don't you think?

The plantain was big and healthy. Still no sign of a flower spike, so it should still be nice and tender.

Plantain, Chickweed and Violet leaves
Plantain, Chickweed and Violet leaves

I separated the plantain leaves from the rest of the harvest. I'm going to cook these by themselves in some new and exciting way. I'll let you know how it goes. There were enough to fill a quart zipper bag.

There was also a good amount of violet leaves. I probably got about a cup.

Most of the dandelions have gone to seed, but there were a few that hadn't flowered yet. I picked about 10 leaves.

I also picked about a gallon of lanky chickweed. There was a lot of plant material but not a lot of leaves. the stems are still tender and crunchy though, so I'll see how they work out in a soup with the violet and the dandelion.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Pokeweed - the Fountain of Youth?

Pokeweed has a folk reputation as a youth restorative. It is also said to be toxic. So, is it okay to eat pokeweed or not? It depends on who you listen to.

There's no doubt that pokeweed contains toxins. Our ancestors boiled the shoots in several changes of water to remove the toxins and make the greens safe to eat. People still cook pokeweed this way. Only you can decide whether to eat pokeweed or not. If you're pregnant though or are nursing a baby, you shouldn't eat it. And don't give it to very young children.

Pokeroot is very toxic. If you do harvest pokeweed, be very careful not to get any root. Fortunately that's easy to avoid, since you'll be harvesting the tips of the young shoots.

Traditionally, pokeweed is used as a spring tonic. My grandma used to cook up pokeweed every spring. She'd boil it in three changes of water to remove any toxins. Her mother taught her to cook it this way, just like generations before her. A lot of mountain folks attribute their longevity to having their spring kettle of pokeweed.

And it doesn't have to be only in the spring. You can enjoy pokeweed all year if you decide to can or freeze some. Poke's abundance makes this easy. Most of the shoots come up in a two week period or so. If you find a big patch, you could get a bushel of greens without too much trouble. And even though you boil it for a long time, it doesn't shrink a whole lot.

When you harvest poke shoots, only take the tender tips. In the kitchen, cut out the stems and discard. You want to have young leaves only with little or no purple (yes, purple!).

Wash the leaves and boil for about 20 minutes in plenty of water. Pour through a colander and boil again in fresh water for about 10 minutes. Drain it a second time and put it in the third water to boil. This time, add any seasonings like onions and garlic, spices, salt, etc. You could also add a ham bone or something if you'd like.

Cook at for at least 10 minutes or as long as you need to cook the other ingredients Voilà! You've got a lip smackin' mess of poke grandma would be proud of.

And what does it taste like? Even after all that boiling, poke tastes strong. It has a bold, acrid flavor. Some people love it, while it's a little strong for others. Serve it with cornbread, whose natural sweetness complements the hearty flavor.

Poke plants are striking, 5 or 6 feet tall and up to 5 feet wide. They are a handsome yard addition and birds love the berries too, according to Severson Dells Nature Center. There's a nice description of the poke plant here as well.

There's an interesting post on poisonous plants in the garden over at the Garden Rant blog. Some fine ranting indeed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Solving the Waybread Mystery

Some diligent Internet research by a friend has revealed an answer. Plantain may have been called "Way Broad" because the leaves were wide (broad), and it grew by the road (way or wayside). Over time, "Way Broad" became Waybread. This explanation was offered on several websites, most notably in the glossary on Beowulf Online.

Plantain with Dandelion Seed Heads
Plantain with Dandelion Seed Heads

Plantain does often grow in rocky road side soil. It out competes fussier plants by being tough. This is one of the plants you will find growing up in cracks in the sidewalk. I'm actually going to transplant some to my garden to see just how big they'll get.

But for now, I'm taking advantage of the fact that our lawnmower is broken down. The wild foods are growing lush and tender with that threat removed for a couple of days, and I've got a magnificent crop of dandelions going to seed. Luckily, my neighbors have a natural lawn too, or they might holler!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Plantain, a Tasty Healing Herb

Plantain (plantago) carries the old label of waybread. This term usually refers to a hard bread that you can take traveling. It keeps for a long time and will sustain you on a journey.

Very Young Common Plantain
Very Young Common Plantain

Now where plantain fits into this definition, I don't know. I did find mention of an herb that you could eat that would sustain you for 12 days. That begins to make some sense, because plantain is a very nutritious and medicinal herb.

Plantain is very edible, though a little strong. It is best before flowering since the leaves begin to get really tough after that. I still use it throughout the year; just slice the leaves across the fibers and cook well. It has an interesting and hearty taste, and it's very good for you, with lots of calcium and vitamin C and a good amount of vitamin A. The flower shoots can also be eaten when tender and provide you with some B1 (thiamine).

It is thought to have been a European herb originally, but nowadays, it can be found growing throughout the world. Plantain seeds have even been found in Egyptian tombs, so you know it's been around a LONG time.

Once, a friend of my daughter was bitten by a brown recluse spider. After several trips to the doctor and a referral to a surgeon, he put some macerated plantain (plantago majora) leaves on the bite. That night, a lot of black liquid came out. The plantain seemed to have drawn the poison.

The next morning the bite was much improved and he could actually walk. When he went back to the surgeon later that day, there was just a deep hole where the bite had been. There's something really gratifying about seeing the surprised look on a doctor's face when he doesn't understand what has happened.

Pliny the Elder once said that you could put plantain into a pot with pieces of flesh, and the pieces would join back together. This herb is well-known as a natural remedy for wounds and bites. See this post on the Herbal Healing blog for some usage tips.

Did you know that legislation is coming up in the United States and that would make the use of herbs illegal? So what, chewing some plantain leaves and putting the paste on an insect bite will be a criminal act? Who would this benefit? Not me or you for sure.

Sign the petition HERE. Comments are due April 30th, 2007.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Frosted Wild Veggies

We've had several hard freezes in a row, and tied a record low at 20° this Easter morning. Some wild plants were knocked down by the cold, while others did just fine.

Frosted Plantain, Dandelion and Clover
Frosted Plantain, Dandelion and Clover

Two days before the temperature drop, a poke shoot came up next to the house where it was protected from the westerly winds. Here are some before and after pictures of the effect of freezing on the poke shoots.

Tender Young Poke Shoot
Tender Young Poke Shoot

The Same Poke Shoot after Freezing Temperatures for Five Nights
The Same Poke Shoot after Freezing Temperatures for Five Nights

The chickweed didn't handle the cold very courageously. Great masses of it lay down in surrender the first cold night. The strategy seemed to protect them from further damage by getting them down next to the ground heat. Some of them which were growing up against my garden bed didn't lie down because of the protection they were already getting from being next to the wood and earth.

Frost Effect on Chickweed, The Ones against the Board were Not Laid Over
Frost Effect on Chickweed, The Ones against the Board were Not Laid Over

The Daylily shoots were frozen badly, and the tops fell over to protect the heart of the shoot. I'm hoping to see new growth come from these old shoots, because right now it looks like someone dumped an entire bushel basket of wilted produce by the driveway.

Daylilies Decimated by Frost
Decimated Daylilies

Freeze Damage on Nettles
Freeze Damage on Nettles

Most of the nettles were barely damaged by freezing,. Today I gratefully harvested some undamaged nettle tops (about the top three leaf joints) and cut off the leaves and very tops of the shoots (and threw away the stems). I cut the leaves up with scissors, and added snipped wild onion tops.

These were sautéed in butter (with a few drops of olive oil to prevent scorching) for a few minutes, and I added some salt and a sprinkle of granulated garlic. The nettles and onions were then steamed by adding a few tablespoons of water to the skillet and covering it. A couple more minutes, and they were ready to serve.

I'm happy to report that the nettles still taste really great, and this turned out to be a good recipe. I'll try harvesting quite a few of the nettle tops this way. It will be interesting to see if two new tender shoots sprout from each cut stem for another harvest.

Don't forget that nettles will sting you, so wear gloves to harvest and handle them.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Salad with Spring Flowers

There are several edible flowers blooming now. Yellow and purple go really well together, don't you think? So maybe Redbud and Forsythia flowers together would look nice on a salad.

Some people have described Redbud flowers as tasting spicy, but I couldn't detect that flavor. They're just incredibly sweet and yummy. The Forsythia flowers didn't have much flavor, but they were necessary for the color scheme to work.

Chickweed Salad with Forsythia and Redbud Blossoms

Actually, the taste of the flowers got lost in the taste of the stronger greens. I think I'll try the Redbud flowers on ice cream instead. That way the flavor won't be overwhelmed and they'll still look really pretty.

A Young Thistle

If you've ever tried artichokes then you've eaten a thistle. Wild thistles can be eaten as well. This one isn't to that stage yet, but when it flowers (if it can dodge the mower) it will have a flower spike that can be harvested at a foot or two high. Peel it and you've got a tender vegetable that you can steam or eat raw. It's really pretty good, kind of like celery.

I suppose you could eat the leaf bases as well, as long as they were peeled. Haven't tried that yet though. There may not be enough tender flesh to bother.

The Nettles Are Getting Lanky

I'm going to pick the tender tops of these nettles. They may be getting a little old so I'll let you know how they turn out. It's getting ready to freeze and I don't know how cold hardy these plants are. I guess we'll find out!

Once nettles get tough and flavorless, you can still use them to make a great hair rinse. I suppose that an infusion steeped from the older leaves would also be full of vitamins and minerals. Nettles are a nutritional powerhouse.