Showing posts with label Edible Plants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Edible Plants. Show all posts

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Yew Berries and Dewberries


I've passed by this yew hedge on busy North Harrison Street thousands of times, and usually pay it no mind.  

But a couple days ago, I happened to be looking down at the sidewalk rather than the gazillion cars and trucks driving by, and saw something that caught my eye.

Yew berries! They look like small, bright red pitted olives, but the pit is definitely still there. Fifty years ago, in botany class, I learned that the juicy red part is edible, but the hard central pit is most definitely not. The side of a busy street is probably not the best place to be harvesting edibles, but I picked a few, ate the flesh and spit out the pit--an unexpected treat along a sidewalk in Princeton 

Technically, the yew berry is not a berry at all, but
an aril. All students of botany will vividly remember the moment in class when they learned that, as one website states, "in contrast to a berry, which develops from the ovary, an aril is an outgrowth of the ovule, or of the funicle which attaches it to the placenta." Botany is full of surprises.

The yew we sometimes see planted around houses is one of the few conifers native to England, according to the Kew Gardens website. America has a native yew, Taxus canadensis, which shows up on a 1960s plant inventory for Herrontown Woods, but I've never encountered it. 


One thing I discovered this year is that we have dewberries growing in the Barden at Herrontown Woods. I had thought we had three types of brambles in the Barden: blackberries, black raspberries, and the nonnative wineberries. But some of the blackberry-like plants were crawling along the ground rather than arching upwards, as brambles are more normally wont to do. These we decided were dewberries. They still have thorns, but you could say they lack spine. The whole concept of a dewberry was likable, from its less intimidating presence to the promise of fruit. They are very adventurous in some areas of the Barden, however, crawling long distances. We may need to curb their travels, even though the berries, ripening in mid-August, are pretty tasty.

Thursday, August 03, 2023

The Pleasures of American and European Elderberries

One of my favorite shrubs, the elderberry, took on new facets and dimensions this year. 

When I was a kid, we'd drive out to the countryside and harvest its berries, clustered on broad disks. What they lacked in size they made up for in numbers. Brought home in big brown paper grocery bags, they were soon on their way to becoming delicious jelly and pies. We made jelly out of wild grapes, too, but elderberries had a flavor all their own. It took a little time to strip all those small berries off the stalks, but the reward lasted all year.

How we managed to beat the birds to the berries back then is a mystery. Though we grow the shrub in our backyard in Princeton, the catbirds often make quick work of the berries.

Elder Flower Syrup

Fortunately, there's something amazing to be made of the flowers, and this year, we finally made it. One summer many years ago, a friend had served me an elder flower drink that was revelatory, but somehow I got the idea that only the flowers of the European species (Sambucus nigra) could be used. Searching today's internet, that distinction appears to have dissolved. The elderberry native to the eastern U.S., Sambucus canadensis, makes perfectly fine elder flower syrup. 

Our friend Joanna served as mentor and activator, directing us to pick the clusters when all the flowers were open but still fresh. For best flavor, one website suggests picking the flowers in mid to late morning. 

Some Caution

Some recipes are less concerned than others about including any fragments of the green stems, which are toxic. Only the flowers and the cooked ripe berries are edible. We stripped the petals off the stems by hand, which is time consuming but delivers good results. 

Making the Syrup

Recipes vary online, but all use lots of sugar and sliced lemons, which are added to the flowers along with some citric acid. Pour in boiling water and let it sit, covered, for most of a day, then pour through a cloth to get the syrup. We had to call around to supermarkets and hardware stores to track down some citric acid. 

Pour a little of the syrup in chilled water, white wine, or prosecco. It was a big hit at our Veblen Birthday Bash at Herrontown Woods. 

Elderberries Join a New Family

One bit of news from the turbulent, restless world of scientific nomenclature: the elderberry has been uprooted from its long-running membership in the Caprifoliaceae family and now rubs phylogenetic branches with Viburnums and a couple other genera in the Moschatel family, also known as the Adoxaceae

A Curious Variety of European Elderberry

On a recent roadtrip, I encountered a strange, purple shrub in a couple gardens. I was surprised that the botanist I now carry in my pocket, better known as an app called Seek, was calling it an elderberry. "Black tower" elderberry, perhaps--one of many bred varieties of the European elderberry. It's pretty, and different, but it's not something I personally would plant. Each gardener evolves differently, but for me, the sequence of interest across fifty years went from vegetables, to roadside weeds, to pretty ornamentals that were native or not (a black tower elderberry would be in this category), then to the community of native species that coevolved together over ions. It's a fidelity deeply rooted in a sense of place. 

Johnny Elderflower Strikes Again

If some combination of the abundant flowers and berries breeds in you a love of native elderberries, you can easily go forth and propagate them using 2' long cuttings from the dormant stems. The bushes are typically found in wet, edge habitat where there's some sun. Hopefully you'll emerge from your winter dormancy before the elderberry bushes, because they leaf out earlier than other native shrubs. Press the bottom end of the "live stake" as deeply as possible into soil to make roots, leaving a few buds above ground to make leaves. I've used this highly economical approach to propagation in many places over the years, most recently in a wet, open woodland area at Herrontown Woods. The act of planting is deliciously lazy, but followup is needed in the form of watering during droughts the first summer, and protecting them from deer browsing with wire cages. If things go well, in a few years the special flavors of elderberry will be all the easier to be had in Princeton.

Friday, October 04, 2019

The Edible Aril of Yew

Said the Duke to the Count
in the town of the Prince,
"Have you heard of the Edible
Aril of Yew?"

Said the Count in reply,
"I don't see how a cone
could be anything tasty.
Since yews carry poison
we best not be hasty."

And so they walked on
past the closely trimmed hedge,
for fear of the toxins
in needle and seed,

the better for me on the arils to feed.

(Note how the seed sticks out a bit from the surrounding mug-shaped aril that's red and fleshy when ripe. The ripe aril is edible, but spit out the seed.)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mulberries and Other Forgotten Crops in a Buyaday World

This time of year, if you see a sidewalk that looks like this, chances are you're walking under a mulberry tree. There are native red mulberries and Chinese white mulberries, the fruits of which are both tasty and largely ignored.

The fate of a bumper crop of strawberries in our backyard garden is not that much different. I munch on them as I pass by, but it's not easy to convince others in the family to try them, or to get myself to crouch down and do a thorough harvest. When relatively cheap fruit from who knows where floods the local supermarket year-round, seasonal local harvests lose their meaning. Much like the thought of scrutinizing a bus schedule when cars stand ready 24/7, it's hard to reorient to the periodic arrival of these small, variably shaped fruits growing outside.

Of course, it's nice to have so much fruit easily available throughout the year, but ignored local bounty is just one more of the aberrations of an era awash in unethical fuels.

A carbon fee and dividend, as advocated for by the Citizens Climate Lobby, would not only help save a shared future, but also help us to rediscover the world around us, and all it has to give.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Lonely PawPaw Seeks Cross-Pollination

Round about Mother's Day, my friend Karla received this email: "Lonely apple tree seeks similar for discreet short-term relationship. Afternoons preferred." Just in case there was any misunderstanding, some explanatory text was added: "My tree is blooming, for the first time; is yours? If so, can our trees make a date? Warm regards."

As it happened, her husband Steven was headed that very day to South Brunswick on a related mission, in search of pollen to satisfy the fruiting needs of another kind of fruit tree, the solitary pawpaw planted in their backyard some years ago that was now in full bloom. Though it had sprouted an additional trunk, it was still lonely, genetically speaking, and unlikely to set fruit unless visited by pollen from another pawpaw patch.

Thrust into the role of pollinator, Steven found himself at a distinct disadvantage. He had neither the wings to search the greater Princeton area for other pawpaw trees, nor sufficient olfactory apparatus to detect the subtle carrion-like odor pawpaw flowers use to attract pollinating flies. And since Google Maps does not (yet) provide directions to New Jersey's pawpaw patches, the search for prospective pawpaw mates required considerable research savvy. Even upon arrival at the best prospect he could find, the orchards at Rutgers, he still required the kindness of strangers to find the pawpaws amongst all the other fruit trees in the no-doubt vast plantings at Cook College.

This sort of matchmaking is becoming more common as the local food movement, perhaps abetted by backyards made sunnier by tree-toppling storms in recent years, prompts the planting of solitary fruit trees in cloistered backyards--peaches, apples, cherries, figs, persimmons, pears, and the occasional pawpaw--all with uncertain prospects for leading a healthy, promiscuous life of cross-pollination.

For those who know pawpaws only from the childhood lyric about a "pawpaw patch", they happen to be a native understory tree in the Annonaceae--a family of mostly tropical species. One relative of pawpaw grown by the Incas is touted as perhaps "the greatest fruit on the planet", with a taste combining mango and banana. Pawpaw, adapted to the north, offers a chance to grow tropical tastes in cold climes. Though delicious, its shelflife is short, which has thus far limited the pawpaw's commercial potential.

Thanks to the internet, I now know that the "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch" phrase that I've been carrying around in memory all these years comes from a boyscout song. I did not personally reach the status of boyscout, having earned my bobcat, wolf and bear badges in cubscouts only to lose momentum during a leadership void in that critical transition from cub to boyscout. The transition is called webelos, which stands for "we'll be loyal" scouts, a molting process that not everyone successfully completes.

If I had, I might have learned the complete lyrics for Pawpaw Patch, and known that "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch" answers the musical question "Where oh where oh where is Susie?" It matters where Susie is because she happens to be the "queen of Hawaii", which goes with the pawpaw's tropical family roots. If you ever go to Hawaii, you may encounter some of pawpaw's relatives, like the ylang ylang, soursop, and sugar apple. However, according to the song, you needn't go way down to Hawaii, because Susie will teach you to hulu way down yonder in the nearest pawpaw patch. If not completely distracted by Susie's hulu tutorials, the astute boyscout will note that "way down" and "patch" are descriptively correct, because the pawpaw tends to grow in rich bottomlands, and forms clones from its spreading roots.

There's another lingering pawpaw-related mystery knocking around in my memories. In my parents' Michigan backyard in the pre-internet 70s, a pawpaw sprang up spontaneously one year, grew into a patchlet of several stems, and after a few years began bearing flowers and a few fruit the size of a small mango. Where the pawpaw came from is a mystery, as was its capacity to bear fruit, because there was no known patch nearby, and the seeds looked much too large to navigate a bird's digestive tract. We didn't ask questions, however, because they were delicious. A bit of pollination assist with a cue tip may have helped with yield one year, which the raccoons and squirrels were grateful for.

Steven's recent research, empowered by the internet era, has delved far more deeply into the sexuality of a pawpaw. Way up yonder in this pawpaw post is a picture that Steven sent me of two pawpaw flowers, the green one not yet having acquired that lovely burgundy hue that flies are supposed to mistake for dead meat.

If a pawpaw flower were able to speak to its sexuality, it would say something like "I was female before I was male." Here to the left is a male flower, which is really a female flower a few days later. Looking closely, you can see a subtle difference. There are now yellow (male) anthers surrounding the green dot in the center (female stigma). The logic is that the anthers on any particular flower open up as the stigma is closing down, thereby preventing a flower from pollinating itself.

But that logic suggests that a tree with flowers in different phases could in fact pollinate itself, with pollen from one flower spreading to the next, and make fruit without importing pollen from elsewhere.

Still, the available information suggests that it helps to have cross pollination from one pawpaw patch to another, and that human-assisted pollination is often needed to make up for a lack of interest among the local flies.

Next year, Steven won't have to travel to South Brunswick in search of a "house of reputed pawpaws", because by chance I found a fine potential mate in the backyard of another friend, behind the Jewish center just a quarter mile away. It's a splendid specimen, thirty feet high, sporting perhaps a thousand flowers.

But pawpaw growers shouldn't have to depend on chance discovery. There needs to be an internet dating service for fruit trees. Sometimes it takes a village, or at least a good network.

Update, June 9: Just met a neighbor named Joe who has replaced the lawn in his side yard with four varieties of pawpaw and a lot of mulch. He says that wild pawpaws are common in Maryland, that raccoons and squirrels may be repelled by the bad-tasting skin of the fruit, and that it's easy to emerge from wild pawpaw patch with large buckets of fruit. I did not ask about any encounters with Susie, or if Marylanders are more adept at doing the hulu.

Some interesting links:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Frost and Water on Kale

Water interacts in interesting ways with a backyard kale leaf. Here's frost one recent morning, like a miniature game of pick-up sticks.
Put a curly kale leaf underwater, and it develops glittery metalic highlights, much like a jewelweed leaf.
The waxy underside of curly kale gathers water into droplets.

In the same genre, an oak leaf fringed by frost, reminiscent somehow of a deer antler.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Banner Year for Hickory Nuts, Hicans, Butternuts and Beechnuts

It's easier to dream of what bounty the forest once offered in a year when hickories and hicans are littering the ground with delicious nuts conveniently packaged for longterm storage. These in the photo are hickory nuts, which may trigger memories for some of Euell Gibbons pitching Grapenuts cereal.

In this photo, hicans from a hybrid pecan/hickory tree rub shells with butternuts (Juglans cinerea), also called white walnut. The butternut, particularly one that is pure native and not a hybrid, is fairly rare and made rarer by butternut canker. The canker disease, like so many diseases and insects that threaten our native trees, was likely introduced from another continent.

Some good news on that front is that local expert on nut-bearing trees, Bill Sachs, harvested 80 native butternuts from a local tree this fall, and has planted most of them in a small nursery for spring germination. He has already grown some from previous crops and planted them in various parks and preserves in Princeton, in an effort to help the species rebound in our area.
A good harvest of nuts deserves a good nut cracker--one that exerts pressure on either end so the meats inside don't get smashed in the process.

Given that this blog courageously endeavors not to turn its back on reality, and nature being what it is, there are some other--not particularly appetizing--species that take an interest in the nut crop. This, to me, seems like part of the adventure of real food, as opposed to the factory-like conformity favored on grocery shelves. Open-mindedness, though, is easier if the insects leave a goodly portion of the nuts untouched.

After collecting nuts from the ground, it's best to leave them in a metal bowl for a week or so to allow time for any pecan weevils to emerge. Nuts that don't have the characteristic exit hole should be fine to eat.
Another nut being scattered in Princeton's woodlands is the beech nut. Though it's reportedly edible, word of mouth has not been encouraging, and these in the photo turned out to be empty.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Edible Landscaping--Serviceberry

Serendipity can really add to the flavor of food. How else to explain the delicious taste of serviceberries encountered several summers ago out along Route 1 in front of the FedEx store, formerly Kinko's. The tree--more like a shrub, or a shree or a trub or maybe a trush, given its size--is still there. Hopefully it doesn't get sprayed when bearing.

I mention it in case anyone is planting in fall, or wants to daydream through the winter of new native fruits to try out next year. It must be a cultivar, because the unbred serviceberries I planted in my yard years back have not borne anything to rival its berries' size and taste. Maybe FedEx could be talked into boxing up theirs and sending it along.

Serviceberry (genus Amelanchier) is also called shadbush, because it is said to bloom in early spring when the shad migrate up New Jersey's rivers to spawn. A cluster of mature serviceberries, of tastiness unknown, can also be found near the play equipment behind Community Park school.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Chestnuts Boiling On A Stovetop Fire

This week's roadside menu features chestnuts. The American chestnut, once a prominent tree in our forests and an important source of food for wildlife and people, was laid low by a lowly imported fungus more than a century ago. The native species is making a slow comeback thanks to decades of breeding to develop immunity to the disease, but in the meantime, there are chestnuts of Asian origin scattered here and there in Princeton that scatter their tasty treats on the streets this time of year.

The treats come encased in a spiny covering that looks and feels like a baby brown porcupine.

Squirrels, as always, get first dibs, combing their whiskers at the same time.
But a few yield up a shiny treasure for lowly humans.

Though Mel Torme makes chestnuts roasting on an open fire sound appealing, the first batch tasted great after 15-20 minutes of boiling, with a flavor reminiscent of sweet potatoes. Recently, though, a friend roasted some on a gas grill for a similar amount of time, and it has to be said that the aroma generated by a plate full of freshly roasted chestnuts is enough to endear one for life to this rarely encountered food.

As any squirrel can tell you, the chestnut is not to be confused with the Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which lacks the dense spines and is inedible. Palmate (leaflets radiate out like fingers from the palm of the hand) leaf and nut in photo. I used to collect horse chestnuts as a kid, in part because of their lustrous beauty but also with big plans to use them as ammunition in defense of strategic positions. Can't remember if any battles were actually waged.

Below is some advice from Bill Sachs, our resident expert on nut-bearing trees, about eating chestnuts (Castanea sp.). Harvesting chestnuts from the roadside, it's hard to tell if they've already cured for a week, and the chestnuts we've cooked thus far have been free of any bugs, but it's good to keep these things in mind. Also, be sure to score the shell before cooking. Otherwise they can explode like popcorn. I had one spit in my eye.

From Bill:

"Most nuts need to “cure” for a week or more after harvest to reduce their moisture content before they acquire proper flavor and texture.

One note of caution… before you roast your chestnuts, cut a couple of them in half to see if they contain curculio larvae.  The chestnut curculio or weevil is a fairly widespread pest that lays its eggs in developing chestnuts.  When the chestnuts fall to the ground, the change in temperature signals the eggs somehow and they hatch.  The result can be an unpleasant surprise.  In their natural life cycle, the larvae emerge from the chestnuts by eating a small hole in the shell and burrowing into the ground to emerge a year or two later as the next generation of weevils."