Tag Archives: wild food

Ode to the Oak: Acorn Harvesting, Preparation, Acorn Breads, and More!

Honoring the oak

With the cooler temperatures of September and October, the abundance of the Oaks come forth.  In my area, we have abundant oaks of a variety of species: white oak, chestnut oak, eastern red oak, swamp oak, and much more.  Each of these oaks, every 2-3 years, produces an amazing crop of nuts that simply drop at your feet. Acorn was once a staple food crop of many different peoples around the world–and in some places, it still is.  Here in North America, acorns and chestnuts were primary food sources for native American people. Cultures subsided–and thrived–on annual acorn harvests and the bread, cakes, grits, and other foods that can be made with processed acorns.  I really enjoy processing acorns and using them as ritual foods for both the fall equinox and Samhain.

Thus, in this post, we’ll explore the magic of the acorn, how to process acorns (through several methods), and a few recipes that you can use to create special foods from acorn flour. Because a small amount of acorn flour takes quite a bit of time and effort, I see it as a “special” food that can be integrated into feasts, celebrations, and more. I prefer to create enough acorn meal to enjoy for a ritual meal for both the Fall Equinox and Samhain.

Healing Harvests and the Sacredness of the Oak

Almost anywhere you live in the world, you are likely to be able to find one or more species of oak tree. Most areas of the world have some oak (Quercus) species, here in North America, we have over 50 varieties that vary quite considerably across bio-regions. The sacredness of the oak has been known across cultures and peoples–for more on the magic and medicine of the oak tree, you can see this post.  ALike most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived; white oaks (Quercus alba) can live 600 years or more. Given the beauty and majesty of oaks, it is certainly not surprising that the ancient druids revered the oak, and the term druid literally means “oak knowledge.” Within the druid traditions, oaks are tied to wisdom, knowledge, strength, power, and grounding.  By harvesting the oak and learning to work with the acorns, you can deepen both your connection to this wonderful tree, rediscover a fantastic food source, and honor the ancestral traditions of many cultures and peoples.

Rich finished acorn flour!

A single well-established oak tree can drop 500-2000 lbs of acorns in a single year (according to the delightful Acorn and EatEm book from the 1970s), depending on the size of the tree, the size of the acorn, and the variety.  It happens to be a mast year here and a single 300+-year-old Eastern Red Oak here on our property is dropping many more acorns than I–or any squirrel population–can harvest and eat. The oak has dropped acorns for the last month, and they are covering the ground so much that you can’t even walk without crunching them under your feet (even after I’ve harvested about 40 lbs to process).  It’s incredible to see how much bounty can come from just one tree that produces year after year and offer. And as a perennial, you don’t have to maintain a field or garden bed, plant seeds, or tend crops. All you have to do is harvest and process the acorns (which still takes some work) and you have a wonderful and magical food source.

Mast Years and Abundance

Harvesting Acorns with Goose Helper

One of the important things to understand about acorns and harvests is understanding that oaks do not produce equal numbers of acorns each year.  Every 3 years, oaks have a very large harvest, called a “mast” year.  This is an evolutionary adaptation–if oaks produced huge harvests of acorns each year, the rodent population would get out of control and all of the acorns would be eaten.  By having a mast year every 3 years, squirrels and chipmunks will harvest many, bury and forget many, and eat quite a bit.  Typically, all of the nut-bearing trees (oaks, chestnuts, hickories, butternuts, walnuts) will produce mast in the same year in a local area, so it is likely you will have years of plenty and years where there aren’t that many to collect.

On Slow Time and Cracking Nuts

Before we get into the process of actually harvesting and preparing acorns, I want to provide an overview of this process and a discussion of time.  Acorn processing is not fast. You should not be rushed or in a hurry. This is a deep practice where you invest a lot of time and energy to learn more about the oak and cultivate a relationship with the oak. This is slow food and this is slow time.  This is honoring and deepening our practice, learning the oak in a deep way, and taking time to simply be part of the experience.

The basic process is this: gather acorns, crack the acorns and shell them, loosely chop them up, remove the tannins from them, grind them into flour (or keep them as grits) and cook.  From start to finish, you are looking at anywhere from 1/2 a day to several weeks, depending on the leaching method you used.

Beautiful nutmeats shelled and ready to process

I did some calculations on one of my recent harvests to help share the time it takes so you can be prepared.  I am working primarily with Eastern Red Oak acorns, which are medium-sized acorns with a high fat and tannin content (which means longer shelling time and longer leaching time).  It took me 2 hours to gather 2.5 gallons of acorns, doing minimal checking, and sorting.  It took 30 minutes to sort bad nuts which left me with 2 gallons of acorns. Cracking and shelling represents the largest expenditure of time: 4 hours for 2 gallons of nuts, using a nutcracker (I would budget 5-6 hours for this if you did not have a nutcracker).  Cracking my nuts with the Davebilt Nut Cracker took only 20 minutes (which included setting up the nutcracker, wiping it down, cracking the acorns, and putting the nutcracker away). Investing in a nutcracker like this, even with some friends, is a really good idea if you are going to be doing this every year or processing more than a gallon of acorns.  Shelling is by far the most tedious process, this took me 2 hours to shell two gallons.  Leaching can go anywhere from several hours to several weeks, but a lot of that is waiting time, but I’ll budget 15 minutes a day to cold leeching methods.  Grinding your acorns will depend on your method.  I am using a small hand grinder (a Victorio VKP1024 hand crank grain mill), which takes about 10 minutes per cup to process (I grind them as I use them to preserve freshness).

So, all in all, the actual work time to gather and process 2 gallons of acorns is about 7-9 hours.  Two gallons of acorns resulted in 7 cups of dried flour (which is a sizable amount to work with). This represents the actual physical expenditure of time, spread across however long you are leeching the acorns.  If I was working with larger acorns with less tannin, the time would be less.

While this may seem like a lot of time,  remember that the acorns are abundant, a gift from the land, and creating acorn flour is a kind of extended conversation and communion with the oaks. Through this process, you are not only learning more about the acorns, but you are developing a deeper relationship with the oak and bringing that oak energy into your life.  Acorns are a gift from the land; you only have to gather them and process them.  You don’t have to sow them, till the soil, water, or anything else.  So while the processing time at the end of the season is considerable, it is all at once, and you are getting as many acorns as you want for free.

Gathering and Sorting: Weevils and Bad Nuts

Sorting nuts with Holly bird helping!

Harvest Timing. The best time to harvest is when you see green acorns covering the ground and when they are dropping from trees. Usually, for where I live (Western Pennsylvania, USA) this is the month or so around the Fall Equinox.  You can harvest them later in the season, even well into winter.  The nutmeats often dry out at that point but they are still good and are easy to crack.

Weevils and bad nuts. When you go to gather, it is important to know the difference between a good acorn and one that may contain a weevil or be rotten. Thus, before you put the acorns in your lovely forest basket, do a quick check for signs that a weevil might be present.  You’ll see this either as a large exit hole (the acorn weevil already left) or as a mark on the acorn that appears someone went into it earlier (usually a small black dot, looking like someone marked it with a black pen).  Leave any acorns with a weevil in the forest.  You can also look for other signs that the acorn may not be healthy–if it doesn’t have a whole shell, mold or discoloration, etc.  Acorns usually drop from the tree green and then turn brown, so you may see acorns in different phases of green and brown, and that is natural.

After you come back home, I recommend letting the acorns sit for 7-10 days.  This will make them easier to shell and allow any weevils you missed to come out.  I try to set up my acorns so the weevils can crawl and enter the ground on their own. If you have acorns in a box lid, the weevils won’t be able to get to the ground and die.  In that case, I feed them to my chickens.

You don’t have to wait–you can crack them and use them fresh. Expect to see some weevils still in the acorns as you work.

Sorting your acorns.  After you’ve let them rest (or not), you can do one final sort of your acorns.  I like to just lay the acorns out on a blanket and look at each one.  If its too light, discolored, or has a clear weevil hole, I return those to the land, and the rest I crack and shell.  For another method,  you can also use water to help you sort. Fill a bucket with water and put your acorns in the bucket.  Good nuts will sink (indicating that they have a good nutmeat) while bad nuts will float to the top.  You can also lay them out on a blanket and let your goose helpers sort for you.  An alternative to all of this is just to lay out your acorns somewhere and wait for the weevils to come out–they usually emerge within 3-7 days of an acorn dropping to the ground.

Cracking and Shelling Your Acorns

Processing acorns is mindful work–it requires patience and, preferably, some friends to sit around and do it while you all talk.  Most natural food preparation is similar–we have to invest the time to get the rewards of unique and wonderful foods. An evening cracking and shelling acorns will be richly rewarding, indeed!

Shelling 2 gallons of cracked nuts, oh my!

Cracking and shelling acorns is an art form.  You will find that different acorns may require different methods–some are very easy to crack and shell, while others can be tricky.  For my Northern Red Oak acorns, I prefer to let them dry in the sun for about two weeks (allowing any weevils I missed to emerge) and then sort them once more before cracking.  If they have dried for 2 weeks, they are more likely to shell more easily than if they are fresh from the tree.  What I suggest is try shelling some of your acorns green and others a little later and see what works for your specific variety.

Hand cracking.  For a long time, I used a method described by Sam Thayer in his Forager’s Harvest book. This involved lining acorns up on a hard surface and using a wooden round post to crack them in a line.  It worked quite well.  If your acorns are very fresh and the skins aren’t too thick, you can also cut them open with a knife.  I am way too much of a klutz to use this “cutting” method but it may work for you.  A mallet also can work (I prefer a wooden

What good dried or partially dried nutmeats look like – good color, no holes or discoloration

mallet to a metal hammer)  For Northern Red Oak, you can stand them up on the end and then use a light tap with a wooden mallet to crack them open.   As I mentioned above, my current cracking method of choice is a Davebilt nutcracker.  It is a fabulous tool and cuts several hours out of cracking.  I would only invest in something like this after you’ve committed to a yearly acorn practice and planned on doing larger amounts of acorns.

Once your acorns are cracked, it is time to shell them.  If you have a nutpick, this is ideal.  Any metal tool that can help you dig into the shell and pull out the nutmeat is useful here.  I strongly recommend you use a dull tool or you will invariably stab yourself.  As you shell your acorns, pay attention to how the nutmeats look–you want nutmeats that are white or cream-colored (when fresh) and intact and light brown (when dried).  If you see nutmeats that are wormy, black or dark gray in color–those aren’t good and you want to return those to the land.

Leaching the Tannins

Oaks and acorns have something called “tannic acid”; this is what makes the acorns bitter and makes your mouth pucker when you eat them. Obviously, to make acorn treats, you’ll have to remove the tannic acid or they won’t be palatable. Native Americans would place them in a stream with running water. Today, most of us simply leech them using water and jars or on the stove.  I’ll share several methods here that have worked for me.

If you are working with fresh acorns, you can proceed right to chopping them up.  If you are working with dried acorns or even those that are partially dried, I suggest soaking them overnight before proceeding.

Soaking overnight

After pulling out the nutmeats, I sent them through my food processor to get a rough chop.  You can also do this by hand but it would take a while (i’d probably do it dried in a mortar and pestle if I was doing it by hand).  To use the food processor, put a handful of nuts in your processor and then add water.  Process till they are finely chopped.  You’ll notice that the water is quite milky.  This is a good thing: that’s the acorn starch (which can also be saved).

Milky acorn mash in the food processor

Pour off the acorn starch and put it in your fridge.  In a few hours, it will settle in the jars.  You will leach this just like the rest of your acorns.  Acorn starch is a thickener and can be used just like cornstarch.  What you are left with are chopped up “acorn grits” which then you work to leach to create a palatable and delicious food.

Acorn starch ready to put in the fridge

Acorn starch after 4 hours of sitting in the fridge. Notice the dark color of the water? That’s the high tannins!

Chopping up the acorns to make acorn grits is important.  If you try to leach your acorns whole, they will take a really, really long time.  The grits are large enough not to go through a strainer but small enough that they have maximum surface area to be exposed to the water.

Now you have a choice of how to leach: cold water leeching, warm water leaching, or hot water leaching. Cold water leaching is the longest (7-14 days) but lets you have the lightest colored flour and also preserves more of the flavor of the acorn. Hot water leaching boils off a lot of the fat and taste and the acorns turn very dark but it can be accomplished in only a few hours.  Warm water leaching is a middle ground, also resulting in darker colored acorns but with more flavor than a hot leach.

For cold water leaching, you will pour off your starch and then add nutmeats to large jars and/or buckets.  They will need to be kept cool.  If you have a basement or cool porch, that will be fine, but if not, you will need to keep them in the fridge.  Twice a day, you want to pour off the water and add fresh water.  As you do this, the water will slowly leach the tannins from the acorns.  For high tannin acorns, this can take 7-10 days.  (The tannic water from early batches can be saved and used on sunburns or for tanning hides!).

A tip I want to share here is this–when you strain, you want to use some kind of fine mesh strainer so you don’t lose any of your acorn grits.  A real time saver for the acorn grits is to use large sprouting jars that have a built-in metal strainer.  You can also get cheap sprouting lids to go on a regular mason jar. This will allow you to easily drain the tannin water and add fresh without hassle.  For leaching acorn starch, you just have to carefully pour and not stir it up between water changes.  Your starch will leech much faster than your grits; you will know either is done by taste as well as the water staying clear.  The darker the water, the more tannins are present still.

Cold water leaching of starch and acorn grits–this is day 1 of the leaching process, so the colors are dark after being in the fridge for 12 hours

For warm water leaching, pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a good pan that will not singe (I used my cast iron dutch oven).  Put it on warm on your stove.  Pour off the water twice a day.  My acorns took about 5 days with this method.  You could also use a crockpot on a low setting or even do these on a woodburning stove.

For hot water leaching.  Pour off your starch and save it.  Add nutmeats to a pan and then bring to a light boil.  Boil for 30 min, then pour off the water into a very fine strainer and keep boiling.  Do this for a few hours, changing the water every 30 min, until the acorns taste good. My Northern Red Oak acorns take about 3 hours with this method.

Dried acorn grits with tannins leeched!

Toilet tank method. A final method that you can use is the toilet tank method.  I was very excited about this method till I learned that the tannic acid can seriously degrade the inner parts of your toilet if you do it too often.  The basic process is to pour off the starch, then add acorn grits to a nut milk bag and then let them sit in the clean tank of your toilet.  Each time you flush, you flush the tannins away and add fresh water.  It’s similar in timing to a cold leech method. Try it and see if it works for you!

As you are doing any leaching method, keep tasting your nutmeats.  Eventually, they will taste good and not bitter, and that’s when you know they are done.  You want all of the bitterness to be removed–even a little bitter can make recipes less satisfying.

White oaks have the least amount of tannins and are almost edible right off the tree.  Red oaks (of many varieties, with the points on the leaves) typically have more tannins and take longer.  In my bioregion, Chestnut Oaks are ideal, as the nuts are really large and require less work to get more acorn meal.

Making Acorn Flour

You now have good tasting “acorn grits” which can be used immediately or dried for later use.  If you want to create flour, you will need to do another step.  For milling your flour, you want dried grits.  I put mine in the dehydrator for an evening on a piece of parchment and by morning, they are dry.  The grits can then be frozen for later use or ground up.  I prefer to do my grinding just before I use the flour, as it preserves the taste better.

Milling flour prior to making pancakes on the equinox morning

Using a small grain mill, send your dried grits through.  You can also use a mortar and pestle at this stage to grind them up into flour.

Acorn Recipes

And so, after all this preparation, you have an *incredibly* sacred food that you can enjoy!   Here are two great recipes you can use that start with 1 cup of acorn flour.  You can use only acorn flour in these recipes, however, since its so rare and hard to produce, I find its better to cut it with regular flour–the delicious color and flavor of the acorns will still come through!

Acorn bread

Acorn bread

Sacred Acorn Bread

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF- I use organic bread flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1.5 tablespoons of  baking powder
  • 1 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1 cups milk (you can use rice or soy if you prefer)
  • 3 tablespoons  sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)
  • 3 tablespoons oil or butter

This recipe makes one loaf (you can double it to make two!)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Grease a loaf/bread pan.  Mix your dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then mix them together, just enough to integrate. The batter will be thick and a bit lumpy–that’s ok.  Pour your batter into the pan and place in the oven.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, till a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Pull out of the oven, remove from the bread pan, and then let cool for 10-15 minutes before eating.  The bread will keep for a week in the fridge or can be frozen.

Making acorn cakes

Acorn Pancakes

  • 1 cup acorn flour
  • 1 cup flour (white, wheat, or GF)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 eggs (I use duck eggs)
  • 1/4 cup of oil or better
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sweetener (I use maple syrup, you can also use sugar or honey)

This recipe makes about 12 pancakes.

Combine all dry ingredients then add wet ingredients slowly and stir till mixed. The batter should be smooth and pour well into the griddle.  If it’s too thick, add more milk. If it’s too runny, add a little more flour.  Prepare a griddle, allowing it to heat up.  Check your heat by putting a tiny bit of batter on the griddle and seeing how it does and then adjust your heat accordingly.  Lightly oil your griddle (butter, olive oil, bacon grease) and then pour out pancakes using a 1/2 cup measuring cup.  Cook on one side for 2-3 minutes, until you see bubbles rising through.  Flip and cook another 1-2 minutes.  Serve hot with fresh jam, maple syrup, and butter.  You can freeze the leftovers.

Delicious and slightly purple pancakes!

Gratitude and reciprocation

Part of the reason that I believe that the nut-bearing trees, including the mighty oak, have had

Thank you, sacred oak!

such a sacred place in human history has to do with this beautiful relationship between the near un-ending abundance they provide and the gratitude that people offered in return. As part of my fall equinox celebration, I make sure to take some time not only to eat of the fruit of the oak tree (through cakes and breads) but also, to offer something back.  I go to the base of the large oak and offer an acorn cake, build a shrine, and play some music.  And during the year, I visit frequently with the oak tree, spending time, communing, engaged in tree for a year work.  These kinds of reciprocal practices are as important as the technical skill of learning how to make food from acorns–they are the practices that allow you to deepen your relationship with all aspects of the living earth and engage in reciprocity.

Wild Food Profile: Eat Your Hostas!

Often, when you are interested in unusual and wild foods, a season for a delectable treat may only last for a few short days or weeks. A fun early spring food that is usually popping up around or before Beltane in temperate parts of North America is the hosta. Yes, you heard me–that large leafy green plant that most only consider a deer resistant ornamental. This plant is a favorite of typical landscapers; it seems to show up in nearly every suburban and urban yard. Because I like finding ways to turn typical lawns into more healthy ecosystems that create habitat, food, and joy and that “stacks functions” in permaculture terms, learning to do something with these “typical” lawn plants is a great idea. And so, hostas are a wonderful food this time of year to harvest when they are still in “shoot” form. They are quite good–have a taste that is slightly bitter, and somewhat like lettuce. Hostas been enjoyed around the world, particlarly in Japan (they also understand and eat Burdock regularly; burdock is another great spring food!) The Japanese call hosta “Urui” and eat them raw or stir fried, often with soy sauce (which is a great way to eat them).

 

In this post, I’ll walk you through how to harvest and enjoy this springtime treat!

 

The Gargoyle says, "time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!"

The Gargoyle says, “time for dinner! These hosta shoots are ready to harvest!”

 

Like many vegetables, the younger the plant, the more tender the vegetable. This is true of hostas–I am harvesting them after they have been coming up about a week–you can continue to harvest patches that are larger than this (although at some point, you’d switch to boiling them rather than frying them). Even larger and older hosta leaves can be treated like spinach and boiled and used in a variety of ways. But I like these tender shoots the best. This size to a bit larger (3″ – 6″) is a really good size for tasty and tender eating.

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

Cat Inspection of the hosta is a success

I have about six hosta plants at the new property, so I harvested 3-4 shoots from each plant.  According to other hosta connseours online,  you can harvest up to half the leaves without compromising the health of the plant. But I’m happy with a meal or two and enjoying the beauty of the plant for the rest of the season.

Success--shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

Success–shoots harvested with a simple kitchen knife

The pinkish part of the hosta that is the outer layer of the shoot as they come up is more bitter than the rest of the plant (which has only slight bitterness), so you will want to remove the outer 1-2 layers on the bottom for the young shoots. In the case of my photo below, I’m removing the two bottom pinkish layers.

Preparing the hostas.

Preparing the hostas.

Once you have your layers removed, it is time to cook them!

Ready to cook!

Ready to cook!

There are lots of ways to prepare some hostas. The simpleist way to prepare them is what I do for a lot of wild foods and mushrooms–fry them in butter and add a bit of salt and garlic.  A cast iron skillet works beautifully for this.  A good alternative is to fry them in sesame oil and add a bit of soy sauce, sesame seeds, and a pinch of brown sugar.

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Butter and garlic for hosta shoots

Pan fry them for 3-5 minutes until they turn a darker color. Again, the younger they are, the more tender they are and the less they need cooked.  Ones this young can easily be eaten raw, but I like them better this way.

Nearly done!

Nearly done!

They make an excellent side or main dish. Here’s to many springtime foragable foods!

Delicious!

Delicious!

Wild Food and Wild Medicine Profile: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria Vesca)

The delicious and delightful wild strawberry just came into season here in Western PA, and I thought I’d share a bit about how to find this plant and why it is worth seeking out both as a wild food and a wild medicine. Wild strawberry is incredibly flavorful and delicious, and in my opinion, is a really high quality wild edible that is worth seeking out (which, thankfully, isn’t that difficult). Strawberry leaves also serve a medicinal purpose as a gentle astringent. This post will detail where wild strawberry typically grows, its overall growth habit, two look-alikes that should be avoided, and some information on how to harvest and enjoy wild strawberry.

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

Delicious Wild Strawberries!

The wild strawberry is also known as the woodland strawberry, alpine strawberry (although there are other cultivars also known as alpines that are clumping, fragaria vesca is a running variety), or european strawberry. It is abundant and diverse and grows in many temperate places in the US and beyond. It is a great beginner wild food and wild medicine!

 

Wild Strawberry Growth Patterns

At the right time of year, you can spot the little white wild strawberry flowers underneath or alongside the wild strawberry leaves. They are in the rosacacea family, and so, have five white petals with five bracts (little leaves in between the petals) and a number of small pollen pods that are yellow surrounding a yellow stamen. About a month later (in my region, at least) you can find the delicious red fruits.

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road...

Wild strawberries on rocky soil marching across the road…

Wild strawberry prefers to grow in full sun and is found in open fields or along edges of fields and brush/forests.  This is where you will find it fruiting. I have found it a lot in fields that were once farms and with low soil fertility, also on the edges of roadways, etc.  It seems to have no problem with poor or rocky soil or soils that are partially bare and hot. But I’ve also found it along lush edge spaces–interestingly enough, the poor soils seem to produce smaller, but more flavor rich fruit. Like other wild berries, if there is little rain, fruits will be more potent and delicious than if there was a lot of rain before ripening (like this year). Wild strawberry grows other places as well, like inside forests with a bit of light, but often these plants do not have enough light to fruit.

 

Strawberry is a plant that travels as it grows–strawberries slowly creep from one area to another.  A single strawberry patch will expand eventually into a ring, and then break off in different directions; the older plants send out new runners and slowly expand as they go (which is an awesome thing to see)!  I saw this firsthand at my homestead in Michigan-what started as a sizable single patch, later turned into a ring and into diverse new patches; the original patch was taken over by ground ivy and cinquefoil, primarily.

 

 

Wild Strawberry Look Alikes

Wild strawberries are very easy to find, but so are their look alikes (and sometimes, they are all growing in the same area). There are two plants that look like wild strawberry, false strawberry (Duchesnea indica) and Cinquefoil / Polentilla spp. I’m going to cover each so you know what the differences are. 

Creeping Cinquefoil  (typically, Potentilla Reptans) is found in the same places as wild strawberry, often growing alongside it. Cinquefoil has five leaves and yellow flowers that look similar to strawberry flowers. Cinquefoil never gets a berry, however, so its pretty easy to avoid. In the photo below, There are some cinquefoils right in the middle of this strawberry patch (there’s also some small goldenrod shoots on the right next to the Cinquefoil).

Here’s a closeup of the Cinquefoil leaf (bottom) and a strawberry leaf (top).  The strawberry leaf has three leaves (trifoliate) while the Cinquefoil has five radiating leaves (palmately compound).

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil (bottom) and Wild Strawberry Leaf (top)

Cinquefoil itself is medicinal, its roots are moderately antimicrobial when put in contact with infected tissue (so you can make a salve or wash with them).  But they aren’t tasty like strawberries!

 

The second look alike is known as “false strawberry”, “mock strawberry” or “indian strawberry.” It produces berry that looks a lot like strawberry, and it has leaves similar to a strawberry, but the berry is flavorless. You can eat it, but who would want to? It tastes like nothing. The berry also has seeds on the outside (not indented like the wild strawberry) and many seeds in a very orderly fashion (see below). It has a yellow flower (so if you can ID the flowers earlier in the year, you will know it is a false strawberry vs. the white flower of the wild strawberry). A simple rule of thumb is to not eat anything with yellow flowers, and stick only to the white flowers. Its been a while since I’ve seen one of these; they aren’t nearly as abundant around where I live as the Cinquefoil (which is as abundant as strawberry herself).

Here’s a photo of one (courtesy of Wikipedia, I forgot to take a photo!)

Mock Strawberry

Mock Strawberry

The false strawberries grow up, pointing towards the sky while the wild strawberries are usually hanging or growing on the ground.

 

Harvesting Strawberry Leaf and Strawberry

When doing any wild food foraging, you should make sure that you are harvesting in a safe environment, free of toxins and not too close to houses with lead paint, roads, and so forth (see my earlier post on foraging part 1 and part 2).

 

There are a few tricks to harvesting wild strawberries. Like garden strawberry varities, dense foilage can often cover the tasty berries. You can use your hand to gently move away the leaves to get at the berries. You’ll also want to work your way carefully through the patch, trying not to step on any as you work through.  Although they are small, they are often abundant, and if you gather for even 10 -15 minutes, you’ll have several handfuls for fresh eating.  Remember that there might be a ring, or a line, or several patches in the area–so look carefully!  Strawberries ripen over a period of a week or so, so you can come back every day or so for more fresh strawberries.

Wild strawberries on the ground

Wild strawberries on the ground, brush leaves aside to see even more.

Since wild strawberry is so small, I typically just eat them fresh.  If you had them in extreme abundance, they’d certainly make a nice jam.  I once combined about 2 cups of fresh wild strawberries with some I had grown that were much larger for a jam–that was great.  If you had them in a lot of abundance, you can also dry them and enjoy anytime or make a fruit leather (see my instructions here).

 

Finally, a note about balance. I think that it is important to give something in return to the plant itself if you are harvesting fruit or leaves.  This can take a number of forms: a bit of organically grown tobacco is a welcome gift to many plant spirits.   If you are willing to scatter some of the strawberries themselves (with their seeds) the strawberries will be very happy.  You might find other things to do as well, but these are two I have found are very effective.

 

Strawberry Leaf as Medicine

Strawberry leaf is packed full of vitamin C and can be enjoyed as a tea either fresh or dried.  The tea has a mild and slightly fruity flavor (and some substitue it for green tea when a person can’t have caffiene).  I like to harvest leaves (maybe one per plant) when they are first blossoming.  They get a bit stronger after the fruit come in (still fine to harvest for medicine). A lot of folks will use these gentle leaves as a nourinshing tea that is tonic on the body and soothes the digestive system, particularly for those who suffer from diarrhea or loose stools and/or could use immune system support (provided by Vitamin C).

 

Strawberry leaf is also a gentle astringent (with a high tannin content).  I like to use it as part of an eye wash for conjunctivitis/pink eye when the eyes are goopy and watery (in conjunction with plantain for healing).  It is also great for a daily rinse for the gums and teeth.   Herbalists have used this successfully in tooth powder recipes to help treat plagque and bleeding gums (typically with clay, baking soda, and so on).

 

You can also brew up a strong cup of strawberry leaf tea and use it as a treatment for sunburn, simply lathe the affected areas with a soft cloth or cotton ball.  If you combine this with calendula or plantain, it is even more effective.

 

Please know that wild strawberry leaf is much more medicinal than its domestic counterpart.  You can use domesticated strawberry, but I have found the medicinal qualities much higher in wild strawberry (this is similar to Yarrow–the more difficult growing conditions, the more medicinal and aromatic the plant!)

 

Concluding Thoughts

I love the gentle spirit of the wild strawberry.  She is giving, soothing, abundant, and magical!  I hope that you will enjoy some of the benefits of this amazing and easy to find plant!

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Wild Food Profile – Burdock Root (spring and fall)

Great Burdock (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Foraging is an important part of my spiritual path, as it is one of the ways that I build a closer relationship with nature.  I also think its an important part of the “oak knowledge” that druids should consider cultivating.  As we regain our understanding of the plants, trees, and herbs around us, we grow closer to that landscape.  By harvesting food from my backyard growing wild, I’m taking that landscape within and allowing it to nourish me.  This nourishment comes in many forms, and not all of them are physical. As our amazing spring returns after a long, hard, winter, I am so excited to get out there and enjoy  wild foods!

The early spring or late fall is a wonderful time for wild foods. From violets to ramps to dandelion greens and dryad’s saddle and morel mushrooms, the leafy veggies, edible flowers, and mushrooms are just amazing.  What I like about fall is that many of the things you enjoyed in spring are back again, for round two, before the winter sets in.

Today I’ll be covering Burdock.  My experience is with arctium minus (common burdock) but what I’m saying can also apply to other burdock species, such as great burdock (arctium lappa).  Samuel Thayer, in his awesome book Forager’s Harvest suggests that the great burdock is more tasty than the common burdock.  But I only have common burdock, and it tastes just fine to me!

 

Burdock and its Nutritive and Healing Qualities

Burdock is a wonderful plant, despite the fact that most people who encounter it only remember it for its spiny seed pods that stick to you–and everything else.  Burdock is often one of those plants that end up on various township and city’s “noxious weed” lists because of its seed pods.  And yes, they can be absolutely wretched and itchy if they end up stuck to your clothing, socks, hair, and so forth.  And yet, here is a plant that provides us with nutritive, healing food and medicine anytime the ground is not frozen solid.

Burdock primarily is a nutritive and metabolic tonic; that is, it is rich in minerals and vitamins, and eating it is beneficial for digestion.  It is best eaten fresh or tinctured.  For a complete list of burdock’s medicinal qualities, I highly suggest Jim McDonald’s discussion of burdock.  Grieve’s Modern Herbal also has a nice entry. Burdock is one of those great plants that you can eat like food, cause it is food, but it has such good medicinal qualities that its like medicinal food.  Its really great and, I think, is really unappreciated!

 

Identifying and Harvesting Burdock Root

You can find Burdock three seasons of the year–in spring, summer, and fall.  Burdock root is best dug in early spring or late fall in late fall. I have a healthy burdock patch on my property, and more comes up each year.  I let the seeds fall in the fall and try to push them into the ground with the bottom of my shoe (being careful not to have them stuck to me), because I want the roots and stalks for good eating :).

Based on some tincturing experiments by my dear friend Sara and consultations of some herbals and my herbal instructor, we’ve concluded that the inulin in burdock, which is a source of much of its medicine, is much higher in the fall than in the spring (the plant likely lives off of inulin  in the winter to survive).  Inulin is a natural carbohydrate found in many plants. So you will want to keep that in mind when gathering your burdock roots.

Late Fall Harvests: The leaves die back in the fall, sending their energy back into the roots.  After a good hard frost or two, the burdock leaves will mostly die back on the first year plants.  This is the time to harvest the roots, especially for medicinal purposes.  You can wait a while to gather after this point, however, eventually the ground will freeze and then you won’t be able to dig the roots deeply. Its easier to identify the burdock in the fall, with its huge green leaves and long skinny stalk, and fuzzy green (and later brown) burs.  Usually first and 2nd year plants will be near each other–2nd year plants die off and go to seed at least a month before the 1st year plants lose their leaves.

Early Spring Harvests.  Likewise, in the spring, the energy is still in the roots, where nutrients  were kept all all winter long, and the nutrients push those nutrients upward and outward and leafy greens and flowers emerge once more. Before that energy returns completely, however,  early spring can be a prime time to gather root crops like cattails and burdock.  Once the plants just peek above the soil (or the water, in the case of the cattail) then you are ready to harvest. The key with harvesting root crops in early spring is to harvest them early, just when you see them peeking up and can identify them.  The longer you wait, the more energy from the roots goes into the leaves, and the roots become less tasty and nutritive. .In early spring you want the early 2nd year plants (the ones that didn’t go to seed the year before).

While its easy to identify burdock in the fall, its still pretty easy in the spring once you know what you are looking for and where to find it–soft, light green heart shaped petals, usually growing in small clusters.  The spring clusters will first have two leaves, and then a small rosette.  They will have the distinctive burdock smell–slightly bitter.  They come up at the same time that the violets bloom, and generally (at least here) before the dandelions bloom. I knew exactly where to look this spring, just in front of my garden along the pathway.  Here are the rosettes of the freshly sprouted burdock plants.  These burdock plants have to be dug up, because eventually if I let them remain, they will grow burs and the burs will stick to me each time I try to enter my garden.

The following photos are from my spring burdock harvest.  The fall burdock plants have much bigger leaves!

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Burdock rosettes of early spring

Once you find yourself some burdock rosettes, the real fun begins.  Ideally, you’ll have a long, narrow shovel (called a drain spade, like this).  I don’t have such a shovel, so instead, I put the shovel on one side of the burdock and jump on it, going as deep as I can.  Then, I do the same thing on the other side of the burdock.  One one side, I dig a small hole as far down as I can next to the burdock root, and finally, pry as much of it as I can up with the shovel.  Rarely does the whole root come up, but there is plenty for me to work with using this method.  The drain spade is MUCH better.  The key to buying a good burdock digging shovel is that it is sturdy–place your foot on the middle of it and try to bend the shovel.  If the shovel bends badly, its no good for burdock digging and you’ll break it on your first time out.

Digging Burdock

Digging Burdock

While you can get massive roots out of the ground like the one featured in the image below, these are usually more woody and a bit hollow on the inside.  Sometimes they can get long black cracks as well.  They are still ok to eat, but the younger roots, less than a year old, are much more easy to work with.

Huge burdock root!

Huge burdock root!

The day a friend and I were digging burdock, we filled up a 5 gallon bucket in less than 30 min.  We harvested in about a 15′ square area, and there is still a ton of burdock out there for the harvesting.

Bucket full of burdock!

Bucket full of burdock!

After we harvested the burdock, we didn’t wash it (you want to wash it right before you eat it to avoid any water loss–water loss is one of the biggest challenges for storing vegetables, even short term).  Instead, we put it in bags and stuck it in the fridge.  You also want to chop off all the green heads–the greens will cause water loss.  Storing in a root cellar would be better for this, but alas, I don’t yet have a good root cellar.

Burdock harvest

Burdock root harvest

Eating Burdock

To prepare burdock root, you’ll want to start by washing it well.  I use a carrot scrubber, which gets off most of the dirt.  I don’t wash my burdock until right before eating it.  Once you scrub the dirt off of it, you can peel it (I find peeling pretty much necessary b/c its impossible to get fully clean).  You’ll see that it looks and acts like a carrot–this is true for the whole preparing process.

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

Washed burdock (upper portion of photo); peeled burdock (lower portion of photo)

You can cook it in the same manner you would a carrot, and it has a similar cooking time.  I sliced up this burdock root and threw it in a pan to saute.  I then added some leftover rice noodles, leftover pesto pasta, and topped it off with feta cheese.  Nums!

Burdock dish

Burdock root with rice pasta, pesto, and feta cheese

 

Flavor and Taste

Burdock root doesn’t show up a lot in western cooking, but in Japan, it is a highly valued ingredient (you can search for “gobo root” and find all kinds of awesome recipes). I think its really delicious in the right kind of meal.  I treat it pretty much like I would a carrot in terms of where I would use it.

In terms of taste, I find burdock to be very mild and slightly sweet.  It tastes kinda nutty and earthy, and I find that it compliments many dishes.  Since it also has tonic, regenerative, and nutritive qualities, its just great to eat when you can get it. Its also a fantastic food because traditionally one would have long ran out of carrots by this point in the year, and burdock root would get you through the “hunger times” of early spring.

Wild Food Profile: Autumn Olive / Autumn Berry (Elaeagnus umbellata) + Autumn Olive Honey Jelly Recipe

 About the Autumn Olive

Autumn Olive in spring (Courtesy of Wikipedia; I forgot to photograph this in the spring)

Autumn Olive (also called Autumn Berry, Japanese Silverberry, or Spreading Oleaster) is a bush that is native to China and is considered an “invasive” in the USA. In a good part part of the 20th century, it was used extensively by the US Army Corp of Engineers to hold hillsides in place from the growing highway system spanning the US and to fix nitrogen. The Autumn Olive grows exceedingly quickly; it can rise up several feet in a few months and bush out. It also spreads rapidly due to its berries being a favorite of birds. It is a nitrogen fixer, so it is often found in abused land areas or landscape areas that are regenerating (like old farmer’s fields or industrial sites); I should add that its one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers we have and it does fill an important role in the ecosystem.  It is extremely prevalent here in Michigan; I’ve also seen it in Indiana and Ohio and in the warmer parts of PA (like Bedford county). If you search invasive plant sites or talk to people, they will often call this plant a menace plant. And while this bush does spread quickly, it does have its benefits, especially in the form of beautiful, tasty, autumn olive berries with their incredible cranberry-like tart and sweet flavors.

The fruit is extremely high in lycopene (up to 17 times more than tomatoes, according to a USDA report described in the linked article).  The fruit also contain high levels of Vitamins E, A, flavionids, and fatty acids.  Underripe fruit are high in tannins and are very astringent, but as they ripen, they get much sweeter (especially after a bout of cold weather!)  I know that there are people exploring commercial cultivation of this plant due to the berries’ nutritional value and the plant’s ease of growing. And they are super tasty!

10 gallons of autumn olive in one hour with three people harvesting--when its good, its really good!

10 gallons of autumn olive in one hour with three people harvesting–when its good, its really good!  And this many takes a very long time to process…lol.

Harvesting Autumn Olive

After 3 years of growth, the Autumn Olive bears fruit. You should look to start harvesting it somewhere in September, usually around the Fall equinox (if you live in Zone 6a like I do).  A good year of fruit can have up to 8 lbs of fruit per bush (I have found that in Michigan, we only get this kind of abundance every few years). The fruit is really delicious and tart and not really like anything else out there. The closest thing I can think of is a cranberry, but autumn olives have no bitterness and are more tart.

A very abundant fruiting bush!

A very abundant fruiting bush!

Autumn Olives flower in the spring, and have quite a pleasant smell and nectar that my bees certainly appreciate.  Seeing how many flowers there are in the spring should give you an idea about how much fruit you will find in the fall. Sometime in early September to mid October, the berries ripen going from green to orange to a dark red. It is when the whole bush is red, a deep red, and the berries are ready to fall off (and you see the birds eating them), that they are ready to pick.  If you see orangish berries still on the bush, its not ready, and you should wait a few days.  Tasting the bush will confirm this–even the red berries on a bush with orange berries aren’t going to be a sweet.

Not quite ripe fruit

Not quite ripe fruit (notice the orange)

Be sure to pick ripe bushes before a big rain….if the fruit are quite ripe, they fall off the bush easily and a hard rain will knock them all to the ground. I had a bush I was enjoying this year, the first to ripen on my property a few weeks ago.  A big storm came and dropped them all to the ground before I was able to harvest them!

Each bush also tastes slightly different–some are more tart, some are more sweet, some are more flavorful.  When I am picking, I will go from bush to bush and taste a berry or two on each one.  When I find a bush that tastes good, that’s the bush I pick (they are so abundant that I can skip bushes if I want).  If the fruit on a particular bush tastes too astringent, wait a few days and come back–it should ripe up soon enough.  I love the diversity of flavors that the different bushes produce, and so, I have certain “favorite” bushes I visit each year.

In a good year, two people can pick several or more of autumn olive in an hour or so (our record is in the photo above–10 gallons in one hour with three people  But that is a bit of a rarity.  More likely, its about a gallon per person per hour. In any year, the autumn olive is absolutely worth your time to pick.  Autumn olive makes fantastic jelly and fruit leather due to its tart quality.

Its not always like this, but when it is, don't miss out!

Its not always like this, but when it is, don’t miss out!

Autumn Olive Jelly

I’m going to walk you through the process of making an Autumn Olive Jelly, with photos, because this is one of the best ways to preserve these delightful fruits.  One thing about the jelly–the fruit juice tends to separate from the fruit pulp as it sets, so you get these interesting mottled looking jars of jelly.  I think they look kinda cool, but they might be a turn off (and frankly, that’s fine, because that’s more jelly for me).

Ingredients:

  • A bunch of autumn olives, washed
  • Pomona’s pectin (described in this post)
  • 1/2 cup  – 1 cup honey per 4 cups of processed berries

Equipment:

  • Hot water bath canner
  • 1/2 pint or 1/4 pint jars with new lids
  • Food mill
  • Masher (wooden or potato)

1.  Wash and prepare your berries. You want to wash your berries and also sort through them to make sure you don’t have any foreign objects, bugs, etc.  This process is called “garbling” (and I have no idea where that term came from).

Lovely fruit!

Lovely fruit!

2. Add them to a big pot and begin cooking. Add them to a big pot and put your burner on medium high.

Autumn Olives in Pot!

Autumn Olives in Pot!  That’s quite a lot!

3.  Cook and mash your fruit. You want to cook down the berries so that they are hot, and mash them down as you are cooking.  Make sure to stir often so you don’t burn your berries.  Once they get good and watery and they are broken up, continue onto step 4.

Mashing autumn olive

Mashing autumn olive

If you don’t want to mash your berries by hand, the alternative is to use a stick blender.  This makes VERY short work of the berries, but you will still need to cook them down a bit to have them go through the food mill or through a mesh strainer.   Before they are cooked, they don’t get as smooth as after, and that makes it hard to get the seeds out.  Be careful you don’t splatter them everywhere….I left a real mess in the kitchen this day.

Stick blender for autumn olive

Stick blender for autumn olive

4. Use a food mill or metal strainer/wooden spoon to remove seeds. You will need to get the seeds out of the mash, and I find using a food mill works really well for this purpose.  You’ll notice that the juice of the autumn olive tends to separate from the pulpy fruit and skin–that’s just how it is.  Here’s a photo of the food mill in action:

Food mill

Food mill

The alternative is to use a metal strainer and a wooden spoon.  Get a strainer with pretty large holes–it makes it MUCH easier.  One like the one in the picture works well–I processed 6 gallons of berries using this method in less than an hour.

Mesh strainer with wooden spoon

Mesh strainer with wooden spoon

5.  Prepare canner and lids.  Measure out autumn olive juice and get it back on the stove.  You need to measure out your juice so that you know how much you have for the purposes of adding pectin. The juice will be this awesome beautiful pinkish red…it might have foam.  That’s ok.  I will explain what to do with that in a bit.

Foam

Foam

6.  Prepare pectin: add calcium water to mixture. You might notice that many recipes call for nearly 50% sugar.  I don’t find these recipes healthy; they are too sweet and full of calories.  The sugar masks the real quality taste of the berries.  I found pectin called Pomona’s pectin – it allows you to can with much less sugar or to can with honey or maple syrup.  So for this recipe, we are using  Pomona’s pectin.  You can follow the directions on the label that are specific for jelly (like using grape juice).  To use this pectin, you will mix up calcium water and add it to the fruit. Next you mix the pectin itself into the honey.  Finally,  you mix the honey into the berry juice and bring it to a boil for a short amount of time.  You can use the ratios on the instructions; I found that only a little honey is needed so I have been using 1/2 cup honey to four cups autumn olive mix.  You can also add a little lemon juice–that makes a really nice addition to the jam.

Pomona Pectin

Pomona Pectin

7.  Add mixture into jars and hot water bath process for 20 min (1/2 pints). If you have foam at this point, you can skim it off and put it in a jar.  It will solidify, and then you’ll have a delightful treat to eat with a spoon. You can store the foam in the fridge and enjoy a scoop whenever you like.

Canning in progress

Canning in progress

8.  While jars are processing, lick the spoon and enjoy the leftovers in the pot. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step.

Num nums.

Num nums.

9.  Pull out of canner, wait till jars seal, and enjoy! You will notice that autumn olive separates a bit as its sets.  This is perfectly normal, but does look a bit weird.  The good news about it looking weird is that if someone is going through your cabinets looking for something to eat, they might be less inclined to eat your autumn olive jam, so I consider this a natural defense mechanism.  The jam is delicious!

Strange looking jam!

Strange looking jam!  Keeps people away so you have more for yourself.

Get as much as you can!

Get as much as you can!

Now if you strained this, you could probably get rid of the spoltchyness and only have one color of jelly.  But I like the way it looks, with its interesting patchwork colors and shapes.  Enjoy this often!

Finally, I want to direct you to also read Sam Thayer’s Autumn Olive page, because he has a lot of great info on this wonderful plant in terms of pounds per acre and so on.  He suggests that some are considering commercial cultivation of these wonderful fruits because of their vitamin and mineral content, nitrogen fixing ability to regenerate the soil, and potentially high yields.

Wild Food Profile: Ramps

I’m going to be doing a series of posts on wild foods, especially those that I’ve been gathering for a long time.  Why wild foods?  Wild foods are just that–they grow without cultivation, are delicious, and allow you to experience different kinds of flavors.  When gathering wild foods, you want to make sure you are gathering in a sustainable way (in other words, don’t over-harvest and make sure you have permission–of all kinds–to harvest).  My good friend Mark put together this awesome guide on ethical foraging–please read it before harvesting any wild foods!

The first wild food I’ll be discussing is: RAMPS!

Ramps (with wild nettle and other plants). The ramps are the green ones bending over slightly.

Ramps (with wild nettle and other plants). The ramps are the green ones bending over slightly.

What: Ramps are a plant native to North America (specifically, the eastern seaboard and Midwest regions).  They taste like a cross between garlic and onion, and as the season goes on, Ramps take on stronger and stronger flavor.   Ramps have a single bulb (which smells of onion/garlic and is quite unmistakable), two broad green leaves coming up from the bulb (the greens are also edible).  Later in the season, the ramps will turn yellow and eventually produce a seed head (which produces black seeds and looks a lot like a chive head).  Apparently, they have become commercially available in recent years, which I guess is a testament to their awesome flavor.

Where: Ramps can be found in wet forest areas.  They especially like to grow in valleys where spring rains cause small springs to pop up–this is where I always find them.  Look also along riverbeds and on the edge of marshes.  They are a full shade, deep forest plant.

Typical place to find ramps.  Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

Typical place to find ramps. Note: the druid has been here before and left a shrine!

When: Ramps come into season usually in late April or early May.  Depending on the warmth of the soil, they might come in a bit early (as was the case last year) or a bit later (as was the case this year–they were at their peak in the 2nd week of May this year) depending on spring weather.

What to harvest: The entire plant can be harvested anytime before it goes to seed.  Once the plant is in seed (known as “bolting”) the energy of the plant shifts from the leaves and bulb to the seed production, so the flavor suffers.

Ramps chopped up and ready for eating!

Ramps chopped up and ready for eating!

How to Preserve: I’ve only attempted one preservation method, which is drying ramps in a dehydrator.  They dry very quickly (4 or so hours) and break up into neat little rings.  I highly suspect that they would store decently well in a root cellar.  I’m also told they freeze well!

Jar of dried ramps

Jar of dried ramps

How to Eat:  You can use the green leaves in any way you would a green onion.  You can use the bulb like an onion or garlic. The photo below shows a wonderful fried rice dish that we made from wild woodland nettles (post on that soon), ramps, rice, and egg.  It was divine!

 

Ramp stir fry with fresh asparagus and fish.

Ramp stir fry with fresh asparagus and fish.