Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How to eat a Horsetail

Spring has arrived. The cheerful song of the American Robin wakes me up each morning, their is enough daylight for late afternoon frivolities, and the Western Chorus frogs are calling so jubilantly into the night now that they would put me to sleep if I wasn’t so excited to hear them. I open the window and cock my ear to the side to take in the sound that is occasionally audible over the constant grumble of the highway! In the woods the Bigleaf Maple flowers are popping out of their over-sized buds and the birches have given their last drops of sweet water. Like the leggy frogs that leap enthusiastically in the warm air after a winter burrowed in frigid mud, the plants too seem to be springing from the ground. Nettles grow visibly between my every-other day harvests and an often overlooking edible—Giant Horsetail—claims its place in the front of the seasonal line-up of tasty shoot vegetables.

In the Pacific Northwest we have several species of horsetail. Two are edible, three are useful as sandpaper, and the remaining are neither useful to humans, nor common (limited to sloughs and marshes). Following are descriptions of the edible species.

Giant Horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) description
Giant Horsetail is an herbaceous clonal species. New shoots emerge from an underground network of rhizomes beginning in early to mid-March. There are two types of shoots, the fertile (spore bearing) shoots appearing a week ahead of the vegetative shoots. Fertile shoots are ½-3/4” (1.5-2 cm) wide and 1-2’ (30-60 cm) tall. The stems elongate between nodes which are covered with papery brown bracts. At the top of each fertile shoot is a cone-like structure (strobilus) that changes from green to white and eventually matures to brown when it begins releasing spores. The vegetative shoots are slightly narrower and taller at 3/16-3/4” (5-20 mm) wide and 1.5-4’ (50-120 cm) tall. The nodes of the vegetative shoots are also surrounded by brown papery bracts, but they smaller giving room for the rings of needle like leave that give the plant its namesake appearance. The features that distinguish Giant Horsetail are most easily noticed in cross-section. A cross section of the vegetative shoots shows a large hollow center that is much wider than twice the thickness of the walls, and a cross section of the needle like leaves shows that they are rounded.

This oddball has both photosynthetic branches and a reproductive strobilus

Giant Horsetails grow at low elevations in loose, damp soil. They are found from Bella Coola and Haida Gwaii in British Columbia southward along the coast to Southern California. Their eastward range is limited by the Coast Range in BC, and the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, except for a few isolated inland populations in the Columbia River watershed. This pattern continues into California where they flourish along the Coast Range but have only limited distribution in the Sierra foothills.

Still OK (center); too old (right)
Perfect stage (left)
The fertile shoots of Giant Horsetails are best picked between March 15th and April 15th. At this time they are 4-8” (5-10 cm) tall and the cones are still whitish. Before this time they are hard to see and too small to be worth the effort, and after this time they become stringy. Palatability plummets after the cones brown. Pluck shoots at ground level and carefully peel off the coarse bract that surrounds each node. These bracts are filled with silicates that will sand away at your teeth, an anti-herbivory adaptation that usually keeps the deer from eating them unless they are really hungry. Once you have peeled the shoots, discard the strobilus, rinse off any dirt, and enjoy them fresh. Their mild flavor and juiciness is similar to celery, but they lack the annoying fibers. I didn’t learn to eat Giant Horsetails until nine years ago when my friend Trent picked one at the Outback Farm ate it. They have been among my favorite wild shoot vegetables ever since.

Unprocessed vegetative shoots (left) and fertile shoots (right)
Perfectly ripe and peeled
The vegetative shoots of Giant Horsetail are also edible, but much more work for a product that is not as tasty. You must pick them before the needle like leaves have started to extend horizontally. Remove both the bracts (as above) and the leaves since the leaves contain the same silicate grazing defense as the bracts.

Closely related species often are used in very similar ways. Most Rubus fruits are choice edibles and most willows provide good withes for basket weaving. So too is the ethnobotany of horsetails. When I skimmed through Daniel Moerman’s “Native American Ethnobotany” I quickly realized that Indigenous societies across the continent traditionally use E. arvensis, E. telmateia, and E. hymenale for similar things such as skin poultices, tonics for internal organs and sandpaper. However, a few accounts such suggest that the very coarse stems of Scouring Rush (E. hymenale) where traditionally eaten as medicine, and I suspect that this is a case of mistaken identity on the part of the ethnobotanist. The plants all share similar habitat and appearance, making identification without a reference specimen challenging. 

The fertile shoots of Giant Horsetail are traditionally pealed and eaten by Indigenous groups from the Yurok in California to the Nuu-chah-nulth on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and several in between (Moerman). Further north along the coast, the plant is less common; while it is still recognized, it is apparently not eaten (see Turner 2010; Turner and Bell 1973). The Makah (Gill 1983), Nitinaht, Nuu-chah-nulth (Turner et al. 1983; but see Turner and Efrat 1872), and Clallam (Gunther 1973) eat both the fertile and vegetative shoots. The Makah also eat the young strobilus after boiling it for 10 minutes, and have a special name for the reproductive shoots that reflects the “head” on the top (Gill 1983). In earlier times, the tubers were evidently collected later in the season and eaten raw by the Makah (Swan 1870), Cowlitz, and Swinomish (Gunther 1973), or boiled and served with grease by the Makah, Clallam, Quinault, Cowlitz, and Lower Chinook (Gunther 1973; Fleisher 1980). The Cowlitz also pulverized the dried cones to mix with salmon eggs (Gunther 1973). The shoots are universally regarded as juicy and thirst quenching but I can find no descriptions of the taste of the tubers (and have not yet seen or tried them myself).
The name horsetail aptly reflects the similarity in appearance of the vegetative shoots to a horse’s tail. This resemblance is also captured in the genus name which means “horse bristle” in Latin. The species epithet comes from the Greek word telmat which means “wetland,” where the plants are often found. A geographically distinct subspecies of Giant Horsetail is found in Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa and retains the subspecies name telmateia whereas our western North American taxon goes by the subspecies name braunii (in honor of the German botanist Alexander Carl Heinrich Braun, 1805-1877, who specialized in spermophytes).

A week too late
Related species: Common Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)
Common Horsetails are widespread throughout North America. From a distance, they can be distinguished from Giant Horsetail by their smaller size, more kinked needles, and longer primary (inner most) leaf segments on each branch. In cross section, the needle like leaves are angled so strongly that they appear winged, and the void in the middle of the main stem is equal to or less than twice the wall thickness. The fastidious will also find that Giant Horsetails have 20-40 ridges around the stem while the Common variety have 10-15. At harvest time, the shoot thickness and wall to central void ratio are the most discernible differences. Fertile shoots of Common Horsetail can be peeled and eaten in the same manner as Giant Horsetail. They are more work for less reward, and I find them to also be less tasty. The young vegetative shoots may well be edible as above, but frankly, I can’t see how they would be worth the trouble when the fertile shoots are available.

E. telmateia x-section
E. arvense x-section
 The species epithet arvense comes from the Latin adjective “in the field,” an apt name for this common agricultural “weed.”

Fleisher, Mark 1980. The Ethnobotany of the Clallam Indians of Western Washington. Washington State University.
Gill, Steven 1983. Ethnobotany of the Makah and Ozette People, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Washington State University, PhD. Thesis.
Gunther, Erna 1973. Ethnobotany of Western Washington. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.
Moerman, Danielle. Native American Ethnobotany database. University of Michigan, Deerborn.
Swan, James 1880. The Indians of Cape Flattery, at the Entrance to the Straight of Fuca, Washington Territory. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, Collins Printer, Philadelphia PA.
Turner, Nancy J. 2010. Plants of Haida Gwaii. Sononis Press, Winlaw BC.
Turner, Nancy J. and Barbara Efrat 1982. Ethnobotany of the Hesquiate Indians of Vancouver Island. Cultural Recovery Papers No. 2, British Columbia Provincial Museum.
Turner, Nancy J., John Thomas, Barry F. Carlson, and Robert T. Obilvie 1983. Ethnobotany of the Nitinaht Indians of Vancouver Island. Occasional Papers Series No. 24, British Columbia Provincial Museum.
Turner, Nancy J. and Marcus Bell 1973. Ethnobotany of the Southern Kwakiutl Indians. Economic Botany, Vol 2, No 3.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Birch- Maple's sappy boyfriend

Our warm winter has not been good for Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) sap production in Bellingham. There were some decent freezes in the late fall, but I didn’t bother tapping. In the past, the early season flow has been poor and the interval between cold spells, long enough that the taps healed over and the equipment needed to be washed. Sap did run the week following Christmas, but since then none of the frosts have been cold or long enough to stimulate any flow. Fortunately for me, Dad collected some maple sap just before the New Year while I was traveling for the holidays, otherwise I would have nothing to show for this year.

I didn't want to give up too easily. Last year, the majority of the runs happened in late February and early March. The weather was consistently cold, with a few storms thrown in. You might recall the Feb 23, 2014 snow storm that overloaded many tree branches. Such a “late” winter storm is not uncommon in this area. On the same day in 2011, it snowed 10” in Victoria BC; and on March 5, 2012 it snowed ½” in Bellingham. Beyond the tenure of my written records, I have numerous childhood memories of late storms shrouding crocuses with snow. These last few years’ experience have taught me that sap flows strongest during snow storms, so I wasn’t going to give up on the sap season during the balmy weeks in mid-February. I sanitized my taps, piled firewood, loaded my truck, and kept an eye on the weather.

Two weeks ago on Feb 21st, we had a frost that was heavy enough to leave ½” of ice in a pail outside, despite a low that was predicted to be several degrees above freezing. Freezing weather in Western Whatcom County is evidently hard to forecast. My theory is that we are close enough to the Fraser Valley that minor nighttime outflows of cold interior air provide us with lower temperatures than the rest of the Puget Lowlands. Despite the next nights forecast in the mid-thirties, I awoke to frost again on the 22nd, and decided to mobilize. I drilled into my first Maples around noon on a sunny day with temps in the low 50s, and the sawdust was dry. Two more Maples also yielded dry sawdust and no subsequent sap flow, so I gave up on Maples. Besides, I had noticed that a few of the buds had already burst. I think the Bigleaf Maples are truly done for the year.

But what about birches? I have heard that syrup can be made from birch sap too, and knew that they are said to run in slightly warmer temperatures. Why not try? I scouted the hillside with drill in hand and bored into the first Paper Birch I found. The saw dust was pulpy and my hole immediately started dripping sap! I rushed for supplies and after the first tap and pail were installed, located 5 more Paper Birches to tap.
In the 14 days since, I have collected 42 gallons of sap from those 6 birches at an average rate of ½ gallon per tree per day. The nighttime lows have been between 30 and 40, and the highs mostly in the 50s. Every other day I collected about 6 gallons, and reduced it to about 50 percent sugar before freezing it. With the exception of my first batch, which I was eager to taste, I waited until the end of the season to aggregated all my frozen near-syrup, and finish the syrup all at once. See my Bigleaf Maple syrup article for details on how to finish syrup.

The chemistry and concentration of birch sap is different than maple sap. Birch sap is mostly fructose and glucose, with small amounts of sucrose, whereas maple syrup is primarily sucrose with some fructose and glucose. The concentration of sugars is much lower in birch, often requiring 100-120 parts sap to produce 1 part syrup, compared to the 30-50 to 1 ratio for maples. The simpler sugars found in birch sap make it more prone to “scorching,” and for reason’s I don’t understand, the flavor of birch syrup is often described as “spicy” and “more savory than sweet.” I think the syrup tastes like roasted camas with a hint of peach. Katrina thinks it tastes like honey. 
Finishing a small batch of Paper Birch syrup

Paper Birch description
There are about a dozen species of birch in North America with the center of diversity in the Northeastern Woodlands. Only three species are native to the Pacific Northwest: Water Birch (Betula occidentalis) which grows along streams and wetlands east of the Cascades; Western Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), which grows at low to moderate elevations west of the Cascades as well as open woods east of the Cascades; and Swamp Birch (Betula glandulosa) which grows in very wet areas, mostly in the mountains east of the Cascade crest. European White Birch (Betula pendula) is also commonly found in yards and parks throughout our area, and has very white bark and fine, drooping twigs.

Drooping twigs of European White Birch
Upright twigs of Paper Birch

Collage showing color variation in Paper Birch bark
Paper Birches are small deciduous trees that mature to heights of 40-60 ft and usually 5-12" in diameter with rare individuals growing larger than 16" wide. The trunks are occasionally clumped or multi-stemmed near the base. The horizontally peeling bark that is so characteristic of mature Birch trees takes on more color variation in our region than the white barked variety of the northwoods; grey, copper, and orange tones are also common here. The trunks of Paper Birches in the west also carry a considerable load of lichens, and mosses may cling to the base. Whatever the color or age, all the bark is covered with distinct horizontal bands of lenticels that permit gas exchange.

Paper Birch catkins
Paper Birches branches ascend at a steep angle from the trunk. In young vigorously growing trees the branches are straight, but with maturity the trunk and branches take on a more twisted form. The fine twigs have a purplish black color and usually extend upward. Catkins emerge after Red Alder but still ahead of Birch leaf-out, and are usually in clumps of 2-3 at the ends of the previous year’s growth. Leaves are alternate, simple, and have serrated margins. The trees are short lived, but die slowly. Dead tops are very common in Paper Birches, and provide important habitat for cavity nesting birds. As decay extends downward, they frequently host useful and edible fungus.
The ethnobotany of our region includes virtually no food use for Paper Birch. Further north where birches are more common, the Upper Tanana in Alaska traditionally drink Birch sap raw (Kari 1985). Eastward, other northern Peoples make birch syrup, such as the Algonquin in Quebec and the Cree in Saskatchewan (Moerman). The Cree and Montagnais also traditionally eat the bark cambium of Paper Birch (Moerman).
Where birch occurs in the Pacific Northwest, the bark is used for containers and canoes, the wood for carving, and both the wood and bark burned. Birch has many traditional medicinal uses as well. The most interesting to me is the Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) use of birch sap as a spring time cold and cough remedy (Turner et al. 1990).

Sap isn’t the only edible part of a birch. Xylitol, an artificial sweetener that has a dramatically lower glycemic index than sucrose, is produced by wet oxidation or steaming and distillation of several plant based carbohydrates, especially birch wood. I will probably have to take some chemistry before I attempt doing this on my own.

In our region, collecting sap and making syrup are novel activities that, on good years, can supply the dedicated forager with their sugar needs for the year. However, Bigleaf Maple is on the margin of climate suitability (not enough freezing days; unpredictable season), and Paper Birch is on the margin of labor efficiency (the sap is 2.5 times more diluted than maple sap), and habitat suitability (not that common in the Western Washington). Even though both species have individual limitations, I have learned this year that Maple and Birch complement each other perfectly and can ensure that at least some syrup makes it into the pantry.

The folks at  Kahiltna Birchworks in Alaska are the only commercial source of Paper Birch syrup that I can find. I have never heard of anyone tapping any of our other birches.

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