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Posts Tagged ‘Wild Edibles’

snowshoe hare eating spruce needles

‘Eat your greens’ we’re told from a young age.  Young snowshoe hares need not be reminded.  Nothing green seems to get overlooked by their taste buds.

hare nibbling on spruce branches

Once new growth emerges on the lower branches of fir and spruce trees in the yard, the tender needles replace dandelions on the hares’ seasonal menu.  Hungry bunnies reach the higher branches by standing on their hind legs, carefully balancing themselves in order to grab a bite.  Who knew snowshoe hares could eat standing up?!

Snowshoe hares are amazing runners whose reproduction rates are legend.  Could the greens in their diet be a key to their boundless energy?

Even keen salad eaters wince at the idea of eating evergreen needles but we don’t need to eat an entire bough to benefit from such nutritious fare.

balsam fir new growth

A simple tea made by steeping a sprig of new growth needles in hot water will provide a good dose of vitamin C.  Balsam fir needles are used for colds, coughs and asthma according to my Peterson Field Guide of Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs.  As wild as it sounds, it’s probably tamer on the body than most drug store decongestants.

fresh green growth

The Green shopping aisle

Spruce and fir needles can also be dried and crumbled for use as a wild accent in a variety of kitchen fare.  Think of adding a bit to rice, venison or even Christmas cookies.   At least the shopping aisle won’t be crowded and the Grocer’s selection will be a feast for the eyes as well.  Recent rains have encouraged so much evergreen growth that Nature’s bounty will be great enough for both humans and hares to have plenty to share and enjoy.

Text and photographs copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2013

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Violets have been blooming in the woods and yard for the past few weeks. Their time is coming to an end… Soon I’ll be able to mow the lawn without having to worry about cutting them down.

Wild white violets growing in the lawn

They’re so delicate and small that they’re frequently overlooked.  Perhaps it’s their half-hidden shy nature that makes them so endearing.  The Lucy in Wordsworth’s poem must have been a wild violet…

SHE dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!
~ William Wordsworth

Tame violets, on the other hand, are a deeper more showy purple with large leaves that are easier to spot in the flower bed.

Tame violets

If you have the patience to pick them, wild violets are edible and an aromatic addition to teas.  They can be dried or eaten fresh.

A violet tea with sponge cake

Violets are a reminder of slower times, when people took a moment to take notice of the gentler arts on a regular basis.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make an effort to take back some of these enjoyable moments, if only each year at Violet Time.

You can learn more about the Manners of Wild Violets in a previous post here.

Text and images copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2012

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Why did the snake cross the road?  Didn’t it feel the vibrations from oncoming traffic? 

Hey, do I look worried?

This maritime garter snake managed to survive being run over by a truck, luckily slipping between the tires.  Why was it willing to risk life and limb to get to the other side?  Was it looking for something tasty to eat? Snake berries perhaps?

For years I’ve heard both adults and children talk of ‘snake berries.’  Could these be berries that were frequently eaten by snakes? 

As children, my sons and their friends used the term to describe the fruit of the bunchberry plant, shown above.  It seemed that only the daring among them had ever tried tasting these snake berries.  My friend Sandy thought snake berries were blue. Others who knew of snake berries weren’t able to describe the plant in any detail. 

After a bit of digging, I discovered that the term is used to describe any berry of questionable edibility.  So, if you are in the woods, and see a berry that you’re not sure you can eat, you might choose to call it a snake berry.  All snake berries are therefore considered poisonous.  By the way, bunchberries are edible.  They’re bland with a large pit, but edible nonetheless.

Since the berries shown above are unknown to me and I’m not sure if they’re safe to eat, I’ll call them snake berries until I can learn more about them.  And since all snakes are carnivores, there’s no way that they would eat this or any other berry.

So, as to why the snake crossed the road… in Cow Bay, there can only be one answer:  it was the pheasants’ day off!

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What would happen if I ate a slug? Is eating slugs dangerous? Are slugs nutritious? Enquiring minds want to know. And so, several times a day for the past 18 months, visitors have arrived at Flandrum Hill in search of answers.

Back in July of 2009, I wrote a post about Eating Slugs and Snails.  To date it’s received more views than any other post on this site. 

I’d wondered if slugs were edible ever since I marvelled at the sight of 6 inch long ones in British Columbia decades ago.  Even the smaller ones in Nova Scotia looked meaty and boneless, and I wondered why nobody seemed interested in cooking them up for nutritious fare. Well, apparently there’s a good reason for this.

Slugs harbor a host of parasites. You can contract meningitis by consuming them.  Not to mention death.  So there you have it. I hope all those folks who visited my post found the answers they were looking for and had their sluggish apetites curtailed.

Still, if you aren’t yet convinced that there are better things than slugs with which to satisfy your apetite, at least cook them well before you eat them.  In order to kill any bacteria, it’s recommended that turkey be roasted to an internal temperature of at least 165ºF.  I’d go with at least that (and then some) if roasting slugs. 

Even in January, slugs can be found curled up under rocks in my backyard.  You’re welcome to come and pick your own.  Just remember to put the rocks back in place when you’re done.

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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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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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bunch berries

The fastest plant in the world resides unassumingly in Nova Scotia’s cool woods. Botanists have discovered that the petals of bunchberries move at a speed of 22 feet per second when they open, releasing a flurry of pollen into the air.

In late summer however, it’s the red berries of this plant that dot the forest floor.  Their leaves are worn and streaked with burgundy, duller versions of the fresh green plants that brightened the ground back in June.

buncberryThese bland tasting berries are edible but far less enjoyable to the palate than the blackberries available in the wild at this time of year.  Yet children often enjoy them and find them easy to pick.  Berries can be found on plants consisting of six leaves.  Also known as dwarf dogwood, the plant will acquire an overall burgundy color later in the fall.  Berries dry as the season progresses, providing food for deer, moose, grouse and songbirds.

With a preference for acidic woods, bunchberries often grow in partially shaded spots.  They are known to neutralize the effects of acid rain.

Known as Cornus canadensis in Latin, bunchberries are native to northern North America and have a history of being used medicinally for kidney ailments, to lower fevers and treat infant colic.  Leaves have been applied topically to stop bleeding and heal wounds.  Berries can be made into a poultice to treat burns or taken internally to help counteract the negative effects of ingesting poisonous plants.  Their use is being investigated for cancer treatment.  

bunchberries in bloom

High in pectin, berries can also be made into jellies and puddings. In the fall, they were gathered by native people by the bushel full and later either frozen or stored in bear fat for use in winter. The berries are thought to promote mental strength and clarity which is reason enough to give them a try.

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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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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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