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Archive for the ‘Wild Edibles’ Category

sensitive ferns

Sensitive Ferns

Ferns add a touch of freshness and elegance to Nova Scotia’s forest floors in late spring.  These beautiful green plants can also be found growing along ditches and in rock crevices.

Ferns first appeared on the planet hundreds of millions of years ago and are still thriving.   They reproduce by spores or rhizomes and are quite resistant to disease.  Ferns provide the surrounding soil with mineral nutrients while the structure of their rhizome root systems reduce soil erosion.  The sensitive leaves of these bioindicators are easily damaged by acid rain.

Cinnamon Ferns

Even in Nova Scotia’s temperate climate, ferns can grow to several feet in height.  Their leaf litter is so great that mounds are often formed in forest areas where they thrive from year to year.

polypody ferns

Polypody Ferns

Moisture, shade and acidic soil attract the growth of both ferns and mosses.  Polypody ferns, shown above, crop out of rocks near the salt marsh.

Bracken Ferns

In springtime, many people enjoy eating fiddleheads, the shoots of young ferns.  Ostrich ferns are especially tasty.  However, the safety of bracken ferns, shown above, is questionable.  Its consumption has been implicated in cases of stomach and esophageal cancer, especially in Japan where it is widely eaten.  Water from sources near growths of bracken ferns is also considered suspect.  (For more information on the toxic effect of bracken ferns on water, see The Fatal Fern).

Northern Beech Ferns

Shaded northern beech ferns, shown above, capture bits of sunlight through gaps in the forest canopy.  The effect is enchanting.

In Finland, gathering fern spores on Midsummer’s Eve is believed to give the gatherer the ability to become invisible.  Also, if one was to perchance acquire the elusive fern bloom on this special night, one would be able to uncover the treasure hidden beneath the magical lights of the Will o’ the Wisp.

Even if you don’t believe in the magical powers of ferns, or partake of fiddleheads in spring, they nevertheless make a wonderful contribution to the biodiversity of the forest ecosystem.

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The first wildflowers to bloom in Nova Scotia every spring are often mistaken for dandelions.  Coltsfoot has small yellow flowers that will appear along the roadside and in moist waste areas as early as March.  Their appearance usually coincides with first sightings of robins and pussywillows.

Non-natives, they were introduced to North America from Europe and are presently widespread across the Eastern Seaboard.  In Europe, their image has sometimes been used as a logo for apothecaries (pharmacies).  The blooms, stems and leaves have been regarded for millennia as a helpful medicinal herb.

Coltsfoot blooms appear long before the leaves.  Once the blooms die away, large hoof-shaped leaves emerge.    Dried leaves from last season can be seen in the image below.  In summer, the leaves are usually a dark green with a velvety white underside.

Like dandelions, coltsfoot blooms close at night and on overcast days.  Their closure often acts as a bioindicator for predicting rain.

Dried coltsfoot leaves have been smoked as a tobacco for relief of asthma and bronchial infections.    As a cough remedy, they’ve also been steeped as a tea.  Recent scientific research indicates that coltsfoot causes toxicity in the livers of rats.  Whether it’s considered a remedy or a poison is likely dependent on dosage.

Downy coltsfoot blooms that have gone to seed are used by goldfinches as a lining for their nests.

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fungi 10

Fall is an excellent time to see fungi in Nova Scotia’s woods.  Whether growing on the ground or on decaying trees, these life forms are varied, with some species being edible.

fungi

Of the ten types of fungi I managed to photograph in my yard in the past week, I am only confident of the identification of one, the orange jelly at bottom centre which is considered edible if boiled.  Even with the use of an Audubon field guide, I’m still wary of my ability to correctly identify the less colorful varieties.  Despite minute differences, they all look so similar to one another.

Although a distinction is often made between mushrooms and toadstools, with toadstools often considered toxic and with a tapered (as opposed to straight) stalk, there is no scientific basis for this.  The edibility of mushrooms is best determined by experts rather than through trial and error.  The adage that there are old mushroom pickers and bold mushroom pickers, but no old, bold mushroom pickers is probably true. 

fairy rings and toadstools by richard doyle

Due to the poisonous and hallucinogenic nature of some fungi, they have often been given magical properties in art and literature.  Faeries and gnomes are frequently depicted beside toadstools as in the 19th century painting of Fairy Rings and Toadstools (shown above) by Richard Doyle.  I once came across one of these ‘fairy’ rings in my yard.  They originate in the growth of fungi around the outer edge of the decaying underground roots of old trees.  It seemed pretty harmless in the light of day, but who knows what magic transpired in its midst during moonlit nights.

fungi with copper pennies

Copper penny test to determine toxicity of mushrooms as per Wind's comment

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autumn leaves

Autumn brings brilliant hues that brighten up the Nova Scotia landscape.  In the salt marsh, maple leaves and red apples stand in bright contrast to the evergreens and grey waters.

red apples

Bright orange rose hips replace summer’s pink blooms on the wild rose bushes. Full of vitamin C, they’ll provide a nourishing treat for birds in the cold winter months ahead. They’re often dried for use in herbal teas.

rose hips

nightshade berriesUnlike the rose hips, the elongated nightshade berries shown at left, are NOT edible. Both the fruit and leaves of this plant are extremely toxic. Consumption of fewer than five of these berries can be lethal to children. It’s best not to eat any wild berries that grow in a similar oblong (as opposed to spherical) shape.  These nightshade plants are  numerous along the edges of the salt marsh trail and can be identified by their purple flowers during the summer months.

Nightshade was used to poison the tips of arrows by early people.  It was also used to poison political rivals in Ancient Rome and employed by MacBeth to poison troops in Scotland.

This single long stemmed red rose was found wedged between two tree trunks along Rosemary’s Way, a small path that leads off to the side before the first bridge on the trail. How it arrived in this setting is a mystery.  Besides heralding the cooler days ahead, it would appear that Autumn’s colours reveal the fiery passions that still lie beneath the surface.

red rose

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wild blackberries

The blackberries that grow wild in my yard aren’t as perfectly formed as the genetically modified ones to be found at the grocery store, but they are tasty.  I let them grow where they will and over the years the number of brambles has increased along with the amount of fruit.

blackberriesNova Scotia is known for its abundance of berries.  Like other wild berries, blackberries are full of vitamins and minerals that make them an excellent food choice. For maximum nutritional value, they are best eaten raw, fresh off the vine.

For dessert, they can be piled raw into empty tart shells with fresh whipped cream.  Blackberries can also be enjoyed in pies, jams, pancakes and wines.  They are also delicious served simply with cream and sugar.  Their leaves can be made into a tea.

Berry bannock is an excellent native recipe that can be cooked in a pan over a campfire:

  • Mix 2 cups of flour with 3 tsps baking powder, 4 tbsps powdered milk and 1/2 tsp salt.
  • Cut in 6 tbsps margarine, butter or shortening.
  • Ad 1 cup washed damp berries, mixing gently to coat fruit.
  • Add 1/3 cup water and work into a dough.
  • Shape into a 1 inch thick rounded cake, dust with flour and place into a warm, greased fry pan.
  • Cook over moderate heat until a crust forms on the bottom.
  • Turn over with spatula and cook until browned and no dough sticks into a fork inserted into centre of dough.

Often the birds manage to get to the blackberries before I have a chance to pick them.  The bramble shown below was picked clean by wild creatures who obviously didn’t believe in wasting anything.  I’ve found a nest of cedar waxwings in the yard in the past, placed not far from some blackberry brambles.

blackberry stems

The following quotation was used in the first post I wrote in this journal last October.  I’m reminded of it whenever I pick the blackberries growing in the yard.

I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods.  Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.

~Wendell Berry

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Finding the name of a mystery flower can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  It’s often a  frustrating task.  Where do you start?

If you’re doing an online search, two other keywords besides color can be helpful:

  • A flower’s habitat. Is it growing in a meadow? a pine forest? a bog? on a lakeshore? a seashore?
  • The English or Latin name of the flower’s family. There are 7 floral families (listed below), each with a specific set of characteristics.

yellow small

Mustard Family - Cruciferae

- 4 petals
– seedpods follow a radial pattern around the stalk
– pods open from both sides to expose a clear membrane in the middle
– all edible

 

 

 

 

mint smallMint FamilyLabiatae

- 5 united petals
– square stalks
– leaves grow opposite one another
– usually aromatic
– all edible as long as they smell minty

 

 

 

 

beach pea

Pea or Legume Family -
Leguminosae

- irregular shaped flowers with 5 petals
– pea-like pods
– pinnate leaves
– vary from being barely edible to barely poisonous

 

 

 

 

star of bethlehem

Lily Family - Liliaceae

- flowers with parts in 3s with 6 stamens
– sepals and petals identical
– parallel leaf veins
– produce bulbs
– some edible, some poisonous

 

 

 

 

small pink hollyhock

Mallow Family -
Malvaceae

- 5 separate petals
– column of stamens in middle of flower
– moist and sticky texture
– edible

 

 

 

 

oxeye daisy

Aster or Sunflower Family –
Compositae

- composite flowers
– disk-like head
– each petal is an individual flower
– edible

 

 

 

 

lace small

Parsley or Carrot Family -
Apiaceae or Umbelliferae

- radially symmetrical (5 petals, sepals and stamens)
– compound umbrella-like design
– usually hollow flower stalks
– many are not safe for eating and can be deadly

 

 

 

You may still have to look at several images before you’re able to find the exact flower, but these keywords should help you narrow your search.  At the very least, you should be able to identify its family.  Good luck!

For more information on floral families, see:
Learning to Identify Plants by Families

For more information on flowers in northern North America, see:
Ontario Wildflower

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