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Archive for the ‘Wild Edibles’ Category

summer hare

Though tame rabbits might prefer carrots, the wild ones in my yard leave the wild carrots alone.  Instead, these snowshoe hares prefer eating dandelions and plantains throughout the spring and summer months.

hareAlthough there is a great diversity of plants for the hares to choose from, they repeatedly eat the same ‘weeds.’  During the winter months, I often see them sitting up on their back legs eating from the low branches of young balsam fir trees.

One of the plants that I’ve never seen the rabbits eat is the Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot.  This plant is in the same Parsley family (Umbelliferae) as the carrots whose orange colored roots we eat.  The plants in this family have compound umbels, tiny umbrella-shaped clusters radiating from a central point.  Their flower stalks are usually hollow.

queen annes lace

There is such variety among wild carrot plants that it’s very difficult to tell the difference between them.  The Daucus carota growing in my yard, shown above, has elongated green stalks covered with fine hairs, while the marsh growing species shown below, which I’ve yet been able to identify, has reddish stalks.  Their leaves are also different, but since the flowers are so similar, it might be easy to mistake one type for the other, especially if they’re not growing side by side.

marsh carrots

Discerning one species from another becomes even more difficult when plants are found growing in the wild intermingled with other varieties, as shown below.  Water hemlock, which also has similar flowers, is the most poisonous plant in North America.  It’s so toxic that children have died just from drinking liquids through the plant’s hollow stalks.  Although some of the species in this family are edible, such as wild fennel, I don’t think I’d be brave enough to eat any of them. Dandelions and plantains seem like a safer choice and come highly recommended by the local rabbits.

wild carrots in marsh

For more information on snowshoe hares see The Hare Whisperer and The Advantages of Being Harebrained.

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salt marsh just before dawn

It’s just before dawn in the salt marsh and the tide is low.  Herons and sandpipers are already busy looking for breakfast.  Several seagulls fly by with crabs in their beaks.  Birds aren’t the only creatures looking for food at this hour.  Motor boats can be heard in the distance.  The clammers are out, their silhouettes barely discernible in several spots in the marsh.

clam digger

Considering the large number of people out in the marsh digging for clams at a time when most would rather be in bed, the effort must have its rewards.  The work is back-breaking and the mosquitoes are a nuisance.  A young clammer was diligently at work with his short pitchfork when I photographed him.  He said the pay was good for skilled diggers, but he didn’t consider himself a very good one.

clams

Illustration of Happy Clams by Sydney Smith ~ Ecology Action Centre

Clammers find clams by looking for their breathing holes in the sand.  Though some clams may just be a few inches below the surface, others may be down a foot in the mud.  Clammers make use of spades, pitchforks or their hands to find them.

Clams should not be harvested during periods of algal bloom, known also as Red Tide, when phytoplankton increase in concentration in the marine environment.  Warning signs are frequently posted at a location near Rainbow Haven Beach where boats are launched into the marsh area.   Contaminated clams don’t have a particular taste and toxins cannot be eliminated by cooking or freezing.  The paralytic shellfish poisoning caused by harmful algal blooms (HABs) can cause death.

Clams play an important role in the ecosystem by filtering water.  A large clam can filter about a gallon of water in an hour.  Their presence is an indicator of the health of the environment.

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garden slug

If we eat escargots, why don’t we eat slugs?  They’re boneless, meaty (likely high in protein) and many species are herbivores, so we’d be eating fairly low on the food chain.

Of course, they might sound tastier in French:

I’d like to order an appetizer of limaces s’il vous plaît, with a glass of red wine. Better make that a bottle.  

Like escargots, slugs (or limaces, if you prefer) would probably taste best cooked with lots of garlic, butter and a bit of parsley, but could also be thrown into a stew, battered and fried or added to a Caesar salad.  

L.E. Adams 1896

L.E. Adams 1896

Slugs thrive in moist environments. I’ve seen slugs near misty waterfalls on the west coast of Canada that were close to six inches in length.  The ones here on the east coast aren’t nearly half that size, but they are nevertheless quite common in the garden.  They’re eaten by birds, reptiles and amphibians.  Although they shrink their bodies when threatened and can be rather slithery to grasp, they are still fairly easy to catch.  Slow food.

A few years ago, on a dare, an Australian ate a couple of garden slugs.  I can see someone doing that, especially after a few beers.  It seems harmless enough.  He nearly died.  Neurologists concluded that he had acquired both meningitis and encephalitis from the leopard slugs he had eaten.  The article cites a couple of other individuals who didn’t survive.  Apparently, the larval stage of the parasitic worm Angiostrongylus cantonensis lives in molluscs, including slugs.  Extreme heat will kill the worm but it may not be worth the risk.  Some slugs would probably be more suspect than others, but to the untrained eye, it would be difficult to tell the difference between one species and another.  The chart above shows types of slugs found in Great Britain. 

Meanwhile, in one corner of southern Italy, it’s believed that eating a whole, raw slug will aid gastritis or stomach ulcers.  Slug mucous is also used there to treat skin ailments.  See reference here.

garden snail

This is the first year I’ve noticed several garden snails in the yard.  Their shells are fairly delicate and the snails themselves are quite small.  An Italian friend in Ontario used to pick and cook land snails she’d find along the railway tracks.  The ones she picked must have been closer in size to the periwinkles found along the shore here in Nova Scotia.

periwinkles on driftwood

To my knowledge, periwinkles are not eaten in Nova Scotia.  However, they are cooked and eaten elsewhere in the world.  Food tastes are cultural.  Meningitis and encephalitis, however, are cross-cultural infections.  There’s a Chinese belief that eating molluscs while you have a wound on your body will lengthen recovery time.  Even Leviticus 20 in the Old Testament warns against eating any manner of living thing that creepeth on the ground.  It might be best to be safe than sorry the next time someone dares you to eat a slug.

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In this my green world
Flowers birds are hands
They hold me
I am loved all day
~ Kenneth Patchen

bumblebee
Refreshing rains and sunny skies have transformed the outdoors into a green wonderland. Though you may have seen each type of plant and creature many times before, everything looks brand new and is a joy to behold.  Ferns and small woodland plants cover the forest floor. Each one is so delicate that you hate to crush them beneath your feet as you walk through the woods…

green

june 8
These bright white flowers will transform into perky red bunchberries later this summer.

This year’s new light green growth adorns the evergreen trees. Eaten by deer, hares and squirrels, they are full of vitamin C. Hemlock, balsam fir and spruce needles are all edible and suitable for teas. Simply steep a few tips in a cup of hot water.

new growth
balsam fir
Snowshoe hares dine on the dandelions growing in the lawn.  They eat the green leaves, stems, flowers and puffballs.  I wonder if they taste as bitter to them as they do to us.  Hopefully there will be baby bunnies in the rosebushes again this year.

rabbits in grass2

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vole

Eaten any field mice lately?  I’m guessing you haven’t.  Humans are probably the only meat eaters whose diet doesn’t include field mice, also known as voles.  Foxes, wolves, coyotes, owls, hawks, felines and snakes are among the many creatures that eat these tiny-eared mice.  Could we be missing something?

Voles are herbivores, which is a good thing if you’re a carnivore trying to eat as low on the food chain as possible.  They eat a lot of grass, pretty much their weight’s worth daily.  Ounce for ounce, there’s more protein in vole meat than beef, though you’d probably have to eat several voles to get a decent serving.  The good thing about eating voles is that you don’t have to de-bone them.  You’re actually better off eating them whole for optimum nutrition.

vole holeYears ago I came across a recipe for Souris Cordon Bleu that recommended using Deer Mice.  However, due to their association with the Hanta Virus I think I’d alter that recipe and use voles instead.  Though they are a bit smaller and you’d likely have to catch quite a number of them (especially if you’re cooking for guests), it’s better to be safe than sorry.  That recipe involved skinning, gutting and stuffing the mice with Swiss cheese and ham prior to frying them in butter and serving them with a cream sauce. 

If you don’t have time to fuss, you could simply skin them, dredge them in flour and fry in butter.  Frying them in bacon fat might improve the flavour as they taste fairly bland on their own.

The Meadow Vole pictured above lives under a birch tree near my bird feeding station.  I see him regularly dart around, usually when the birds aren’t present.  Yesterday was the first time I managed to capture him in a photo.  He’s very sensitive to sound and quickly runs into his hole if he hears me coming.  He has quite a few of these little holes in the area, so there always seems to be one nearby where he can escape.  In the winter he creates long tunnels under the snow.

Voles only live for about a year, though they can reproduce at an astounding rate.  However, their populations are not consistent but cyclical, likely affecting the populations of their predators as well.  I wonder:  Could this be why they never caught on as a staple of the human diet?

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violets2

May is the month when wild violets grow in the woods in Nova Scotia.  Delicate and fragile, they grow so close to the ground that they are easy to miss.  Yet, such down-to-earth flowers are worth a closer look.

Not many plants can reproduce without any assistance whatsoever from insects, the wind or other plants of the same species.  Violets are among the few that can self-pollinate without ever opening their petals.  This means that they can keep reproducing, even if very few of them are present in an area. 

It’s no surprise then that the number of wild violets in my yard has been steadily increasing since I first transplanted a clump from the woods years ago.  Yesterday I picked several blooms for drying purposes.  It’s been such a long time since I’ve had any violet tea and I thought I would try to make some myself. 

In the past, I’ve also candied violets with friends.  Despite the presence of black flies and mosquitos, we set out into the woods together and gathered as many violets as we could find during a sunny morning’s walk.  We spread the violets on a wax paper sheet, brushed them with whipped egg white, drizzled them with fine sugar and then let them dry under a watchful eye at the lowest heat in the oven for a few minutes.  They were so lovely and special.

wild violets

Violet Teas in springtime were a popular activity among close friends during Edwardian times.  Despite all our recent gains in positioning, it seems we women have lost some of our finer manners and gentler practices along the way.   We’ve compromised by drinking coffee and tea out of paper cups with plastic lids on a daily basis, often while juggling a cell phone from behind a wheel.  Something’s amiss.   

In the language of flowers, violets are symbols of modesty, humility and faithfulness.   These are certainly qualities worth emulating, especially in the 21st century.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds
on the heel that has crushed it.
— Mark Twain

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Young Dandelion Leaves in the Lawn

Young Dandelion Leaves in the Lawn

Most North Americans think of Dandelions as weeds, not food.  Considering the state of our health, perhaps we should consider the benefits of this common plant.

You see here what virtues this common herb hath, and that is the reason the French and Dutch so often eat them in the spring; and now if you look a little farther, you may see plainly without a pair of spectacles, that foreign physicians are not so selfish as ours are, but more communicative of the virtues of plants to people.  

~  Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654)  English herbalist and physician

Dandelions have their uses in soups, wines and coffees but they render their greatest health benefits when served soon after picking in a raw salad.  In fact, the more quickly they can be brought to the table, the more nutrients will be present. 

This common plant is easily identified by the coarse toothed edges on the leaves which give them the name of  ‘lion’s tooth.’  Dandelion greens should ideally be picked in pesticide free lawns in early spring, prior to the blooming of the bright yellow flowers.  The younger leaves are less bitter than older ones. 

Here are comparisons of the nutritional values of 100gr of Dandelion greens with an equal quantity of other foods, known for their exceptional vitamin and mineral benefits:

Vitamin A:  Dandelions ~ 14,000 IU  /  Carrots ~ 11,000 IU

Potassium:  Dandelions ~ 397 mg  /  Bananas ~  370 mg

Iron:  Dandelions ~ 3.1 mg / Broiled beef ~ 3.9 mg

Calcium:  Dandelions ~ 187 mg / Whole cow’s milk ~ 118 mg

Dandelions in a Salad

Dandelion Greens in a Mixed Salad

If you find Dandelions too bitter to your taste, it may be best to introduce them into your diet in smaller quantities as shown in the salad above, where they are mixed with spinach, orange peppers and feta cheese, and drizzled with olive oil.

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rowan12“Some things you must guard with care:
There are Rowans in the dooryard;
Rowans in the yard are sacred,
Rowan branches too are holy
And the leaves upon the branches -
And the berries even holier.
By their means a girl may learn,
A young woman may be guided
To affect her sweetheart’s feelings,
Even to command his heart.”

~ from ‘The Teaching of the Bride’ in ‘The Kalevala,’ Finland’s great epic poem

 Late winter is a good time for dreaming up plans for springtime plantings.  I’ve been wondering what type of tree or bush to plant near my front door to replace the Cedar that gave up the ghost last year.  I’m leaning towards Mountain-ash, a tree very closely related to one known as Rowan in the Old World.  Rowans are supposed to bring good fortune and repel negative energies, qualities that make them ideal plantings near the entrance to one’s home. 

Referred to by the Celts as ‘Fid nan Druad’ or ‘wizard trees,’ Rowan Trees have been regarded by Northern Europeans as magical trees since ancient times.  They are often found growing near ancient settlements, churchyards and henges (stone circles).  A large number of Mountain-ash saplings, just the right size for transplanting, are presently growing towards the edge of my backyard. 

Rowan Leaves by Andy Goldsworthy

Rowan Leaves & Hole - by Andy Goldsworthy

A Scottish superstition warns that it’s bad luck to cut down a Rowan Tree.  Its wood was traditionally employed in the fabrication of walking sticks, coffins, crosses and wizards’ wands.  The trees are associated with prophecy and creativity.  Quickbeam, one of Tolkien’s Ents from the Lord of the Rings saga was a Rowan.

The name of Mountain-ash is misleading, since this tree is not a true Ash but rather a member of the Rose (Rosaceae)  family of plantsMountain-ash leaves are a favorite of White-tailed Deer, Moose, Fishers, Martens, Snowshoe Hares and Grouse.  Squirrels, mice, voles, grouse, jays, robins, thrushes and waxwings all enjoy the berries.  Fermented berries can be intoxicating to small animals.  Years ago, I stopped to pick up a robin that had flown into my windshield while I was driving.  Its mouth was full of Mountain-ash berries.

I’ve yet to figure out exactly why the above lines from the Kalevala say that a young woman can affect her sweetheart’s feelings through the use of Rowan berries.  Certainly any food or wine prepared with care and a loving heart will inspire good feelings, especially today, St. Valentine’s Day.

For anyone who has access to rowanberries and is curious about their possible ‘love-potion effect,’ here is a recipe for rowan jelly that I found in Pamela Michaels’ cookbook All Good Things Around Us. 

allgoodthingsaroundusRowanberries make a light red jelly with a sharp flavour that goes beautifully with venison or game, as well as with lamb and pork.  You can make the jelly with green cooking apples, but crab apples give the best flavour.

1-1/2 kilos / 4 lbs rowan berries  +  1 kilo / 3 lbs crab apples  +  water  +  sugar

Wash the berries and strip them from their stalks, wash the crab apples, cut them in half and nick out any bad bits.  Put both fruits in a large pan, add enough water to barely cover, bring to the boil and cook for about 20 minutes until the fruit is soft and pulpy.  Pour into a jelly bag or double thickness of muslin and drip overnight.  Measure the juice into a pan and add 400 g / 2 cups / 1 lb sugar for each 500 ml /2-1/2 cups / pint of juice, heat slowly, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then boil rapidly for about 7-10 minutes until the liquid jells when dripped on to a cold saucer.  Skim and pour into warm dry jars, cover with waxed circles while hot, seal with cellophane covers when cold.

For more information about Rowan trees, see: 

www.rowantree.info

http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/rowan.html

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