|As always, if you're new to foraging and want to give it a try, please read the first diary in the FFF series for some important information.
Today's first plant is wild ginger, also known as Indian ginger. This native herb grows pairs of bright green, opposite, heart-shaped leaves from a slender rhizome just an inch or so below the ground. The leaves somewhat resemble violet leaves (also edible and covered in this diary), but wild ginger's leaves are lighter, a bit fuzzy and have smooth or lightly wavy edges in contrast to violet's smooth, toothed leaves that gently curl inward. In addition, wild ginger has a slender, ginger-scented rhizome and violet has a thicker, more vertical rhizome with little to no scent. (Left: Wild Ginger with Rhizome by wide eyed lib)
Wild ginger is usually about 6 inches tall although it can reach a foot tall in certain places. The leaves range between 2 and 7 inches across. It loves shady, slightly damp woods with intact forest duff. In early to mid-Spring, wild ginger develops a purplish-brown flower that's unusual in that it has no true petals. Instead, three sepals curl back to expose the flower's creamy ovary. The flower is very small and inconspicious, often lying directly on the ground.
A few very similar species range across most of the U.S. and Southern Canada apart from Florida, the drier Southwestern States, Alberta and Saskatchewan, with A. canadense occurring in the East and A. caudatum the most common species in the West.
Despite smelling and tasting like commercial ginger (Zingiber officinale), the 2 plants are unrelated. Collect the slender rhizomes from Fall through Spring when they have stored the most energy. Because taking the rhizome kills the plant, gather only where wild ginger is plentiful, and be sure to never harvest too much from any one colony. (Right: Wild Ginger Leaf Closeup by wide eyed lib)
Wild ginger's delicious rhizome can be used anywhere conventional ginger is used, although because it is only half as potent, quantities should be doubled. It's delicious in stir-fries and soups and makes a marvelous addition to desserts. I've also added chopped wild ginger to a pot of cooking rice. It can be dried and ground, frozen whole or candied in pieces.
Interestingly, despite the fact that they're not related, wild ginger has many of the same medicinal applications as commercial ginger. It's terrific for nausea and upset stomachs. It also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which makes it useful for wounds and keeping other foods fresh, and some studies have shown it to have antitumor properties as well. Finally, it stimulates the circulatory system and as a result can increase the effectiveness of many other herbs.
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I've mentioned the Kentucky coffeetree on a couple of occasions. This beautiful native tree grows 50 to about a hundred feet tall and has very large, thrice compounded leaves consisting of a central leaf stalk from which smaller, opposite leaflet stalks branch outward. From each leaflet stalk grow 7 to 13 paired, smooth, bright green leaflets. The entire leaf can exceed 3 feet in length making it one of the largest leaves of any North American tree. The structure of the leaves means that in winter these trees are unusually "clean" looking. They lack any of the small twigs from which leaves normally spring. The bark is grey and scaly and often shows orange-brown cracks. (Above: Kentucky Coffeetree Leaf, Winter Tree With Pods, Bark, and Fallen Pod, all by wide eyed lib)
In mid to late Spring, Kentucky coffeetrees develops large, branching flower heads from which grow many small, whitish-green flowers with 5 petals and 5 sepals. As yet another member of the legume family, after the flowers are pollinated Kentucky coffeetrees develop dusty purple pods each containing between 2 and 10 slightly flattened, shiny black seeds enveloped in sticky green goo. The seeds take most of the Fall to mature and the pods cling stubbornly to the ends of the branches until forced down from Winter through Spring by snow, storms or the growth of new leaves.
All parts of the Kentucky coffeetree are poisonous. Seedpods falling into troughs poison the water and have been known to kill cows, goats and horses. For this reason, these trees are not typically found on farms or in areas that used to be farmland. However, their unusual foliage and striking winter form have made them popular in cities and non-farm landscaped areas. They're now found throughout hardwood forests in Ontario and the Eastern half of the U.S. excluding Florida, Louisiana, Vermont and New Hampshire. They're naturally most common in the lower Midwest, though even there they are considered an uncommon tree. (Left: Kentucky Coffeetree Flower by wide eyed lib)
Those of you paying attention may be wondering why a tree whose every part is poisonous is featured in a foraging diary. The answer lies in the ingenuity of Southerners. Deprived of coffee for long stretches during the Civil War, they tried many alternatives including chicory and dandelion roots (covered in this diary) and the seeds of the Kentucky coffeetree. Luckily for them, roasting the seeds renders the toxin harmless.
There are several trees with compound leaves and dark colored pods and seeds that look somewhat similar to those of Kentucky coffeetrees, so it's very important to compare all the different structures to make sure they match before making an identification. Another cause for concern is that other people might think, after watching someone collect the seeds, that they're edible without understanding the specific process necessary to render them harmless. Some kids saw me collecting the beans and grabbed a few pods before I could get to them. Luckily there was an adult with them and I was able to stress that the seeds were poisonous, but I'm now more careful about the potential for being copied.
If you are lucky enough to positively identify a Kentucky coffeetree, crack open the pods to get the seeds, wash them (and your hands) thoroughly to remove the green goo and roast them in a 300 degree oven in a covered container for 3 hours. As they roast, they'll explode, so the cover is essential. After the seeds are cool, they can be ground in a coffee grinder just like coffee beans. I use an ordinary drip coffee maker filled with 6 coffee scoops of grounds to make 4 mugs of this delicious, caffeine-free coffee substitute. I actually prefer the taste to coffee. It's less bitter and has wonderful vanilla-like overtones. (Right: Kentucky Coffee Beans Before Roasting by wide eyed lib)
If coffee's not your beverage, the grounds can also be used as a flavoring in desserts and baked goods. They're especially good combined with chocolate to make mocha-like confections. I've used the spent grounds from coffee-making in muffins with good results, although next time I'd use a finer grind because the end result was a bit gritty. One of these days I'm going to use brewed Kentucky coffee to make tiramisu.
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Bite (or even touch) today's final new plants and they might bite you back. Stinging nettle and wood nettle are related perennal or biennial herbs protected by tiny, stinging hairs. These hairs are coated with formic acid, the same compound that gives ants and bees their sting. As a result, nettles should be gathered, rinsed and chopped only while wearing a thick pair of gloves. Getting stung at least once is almost inevitable when collecting nettles, so it's best to be prepared by gathering some jewelweed first (originally covered here). (Left: Stinging Nettles by wide eyed lib)
These two native plants and some extremely similar European and Asian imports are found in every U.S. state and all but the most northern portions of Canada. Stinging nettle has opposite leaves that are bright green, regularly toothed, rounded near the base and pointed toward the end. The veins are so deep that they make the leaves look creased. Wood nettle, in contrast, has darker, more oval, alternate leaves with smaller teeth and more shallow veins. Wood nettle is also shorter and has fewer leaves than stinging nettle, and stinging nettle's stem is grooved and hollow while wood nettle's is round and solid. In early Summer, male plants of both species and female stinging nettles will develop long, drooping strands of light green or green flowers from above the leaf stalks, while female wood nettle plants will develop a lacy, light green flower structure at the top of the plant. Both plants create large colonies via spreading rhizomes.
In the end the specific species doesn't really matter. All members of the Urticaceae family are edible once they have been cooked or dried to neutralize the stinging hairs. Some sources will tell you to boil the leaves and young stems to render them harmless, but that's not necessary. They taste better and retain more vitamins lightly sauteed or steamed, and five minutes of heat is enough to make them tender and delicious. They have a rich, hearty taste few other greens can match, which makes them a wonderful ingredient in soups.
One source claims that of the two, wood nettles are the more tender and delicious. I haven't tried wood nettles yet because I only recently positively identified them, but if I find this to be true, I'll certainly let you know. My apologies for not having a photo of wood nettles for you yet. I found a patch but neglected to photograph them, and when I went back today I couldn't find the patch. When I run into them again, I'll be sure to include photos in a future diary. (Right: Stinging Nettle Closeup by wide eyed lib)
All nettles are exceptionally nutritious. They are especially rich in minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium and sulfur. They're also good sources of Vitamin C, beta carotene and various B vitamins. By weight, they're 10% protein, which one source claims is higher than any other vegetable.
Nettles have been used medicinially for a very long time. Freeze dried nettles (available in health food stores in capsule form) have been shown to be a very effective treatment for hay-fever and seasonal allergies. They're an expectorant and thus used for flus, colds, bronchitis and pneumonia. They're also a gentle diuretic. Dried and finely ground nettles sprinkled on an open wound help blood to clot and have antiseptic properties. Nettles have also been researched for use in treating prostate cancer, hepatitis and gallbladder inflamation. Drinking nettle tea has positive effects on hair and skin. Finally, nettle stings have been used medicinially as well in a process called urtication. The stings improve circulation and nerve functioning in the affected area so they've been used, somewhat controversially, to treat arthritis.
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I'll close today with a few updates on plants I've already covered.
Common spicebush (originally covered in this diary) has been busy developing its berries. When ripe they'll turn red. All above-ground parts of this bush can be used as a sweet spice like allspice or to make a delicious herbal tea. (Above: Common Spicebush Berries by wide eyed lib)
In the midst of jungle-like growth, ostrich ferns (originally covered here) are developing their golden-brown fertile fronds. By identifying the fronds now, you can make a mental note of places to return to early next Spring for fiddleheads. (Above: Ostrich Fern Fertile Fronds by wide eyed lib)
Yellow wood sorrel (originally covered here) is beginning to flower, and the flowers are just as delicious as the leaves. (Above: Yellow Wood Sorrel by wide eyed lib)
If you're interested in foraging and missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 10 installments. As always, please feel free to post photos in the comments and I'll do my best to help identify what you've found. (And if you find any errors, let me know.)
Here are some helpful foraging resources:
"Wildman" Steve Brill's site covers many edibles and includes nice drawings.
"Green" Deane Jordan's site is quite comprehensive and has color photos and stories about many plants.
Green Deane's foraging how-to clips on youtube each cover a single plant in reassuring detail.
Linda Runyon's site features only a few plants but has great deals on her dvd, wild cards and books (check out the package deals in particular).
Steve Brill's book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places is my primary foraging guide. (Read reviews here, but if you're feeling generous, please buy from Steve's website.)
Linda Runyon's book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide contains especially detailed information about nutritional content and how to store and preserve wild foods.
Steve Brill also offers guided foraging tours in NYC-area parks. Details and contact info are on his website.
Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.
See you next week!
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