Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Balsamroot- the challenge continues

I am posting the results of another Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) experiment.  My results aren't great, but I figured they might be useful to others so I am sharing them.

Materials: I harvested a few roots from the Methow Valley 2 weeks ago.  They were moderately sized (about 1 inch in diameter at the widest point) and from plants that were in flower, or about to flower.

Preparation: I removed the bark and steamed the roots for 2 hours in a pot.  I tested the roots and they were still very fibrous.  I put them in a pressure cooker and cooked them for another 4 hours.

Results: Tasting the roots was still akin to chewing on a hemp rope soaked in Cottonwood resin.  The flavor was nice, I just couldn't bring myself to swallow a mouthful that was 90 percent fiber.

Discussion:  I have yet to pit cook Balsamroots for 48 hours like was traditional, but I am loosing optimism that the tough fibers will soften into something edible.  The cooking water in the pressure cooker was milky from what appeared to be a carbohydrate like substance  Steamed and baked roots would probably not suffer the loss of these carbs.  I cooked the Balsamroot with the root of Fern-leaved Desert-parsely (Lomatium dissectum).  The Desert-parsely root took on the resinous flavor of Balsamroot, but was still too bitter for me to enjoy.  Balsamroot was traditionally cooked with other roots, and I am starting to wonder if it was used primarily as a flavoring, despite the plethora of ethnobotanical evidence that says Balsamroot itself was eaten.

Conclusion:  Try collecting 1/2 inch diameter Balsamroots in the spring before they flower and steaming them for 48 hours in my slow-cooker.

I would love to hear from anyone that has successfully eaten Balsamroot.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

First Fruits! Salmonberries Sweetened by Song

A perfectly ripe Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
I guess I’m not a very good mushroom hunter, or maybe I just get distracted too easily.  Early last week heavy rains and warm temperatures forced the Nooksack River over its banks in a few places and the last few days of sunshine got me thinking about mushrooms.  Katrina and I packed our baskets and headed out towards Everson to walk the sandy floodplain cottonwood forests in search of Morels.  The woods quickly swallowed us as we followed an overgrown dirt road that parallels the river.  Cottonwood fluff drifted through the bright shafts of light with such placid uniformity we felt like we were part of a gentle current underneath a kelp forest.  If mushrooms were there, we probably walked right over them because we had such a hard time keeping our eyes on the ground.  The calls of Robins, Townsend’s and Orange Crowned Warblers and a few exuberant Pacific Wrens provided further excuses to tune our attention upward.  That’s when we started to hear the unmistakable upward spiraling call of the Swainson’s Thrush. 

Cottonwood fluff, like snow, coated our path
Easily one of my favorite bird calls for its beauty alone, the music conjures smiles for another reason as well.  My mentor, Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla, loved to tell a story about the Swainson’s Thrush (Salmonberry Bird) who summoned the hungry and winter weary people of his village together for a feast and used nothing more than his beautiful call to ripen Salmonberries for his people to eat.

A feast fit for a thrush
Kwaxsistalla’s telling of the story has a magic about it that was well recalled amidst the drifting cottonwood fluff, wild rose scented air, singing birds, and… what’s that… ripe Salmonberries!  The further we ventured into the musical woods, the riper the Salmonberries got.  We picked without a care in the world and soon our baskets were filled with the glistening jewels.  Our mushroom hunt couldn’t have been better!

Salmonberries herald in the season of fruit, and while some may argue that they aren't the tastiest fruits of the year, I say that there is a lot of value in being the first.  And what do I have to compare them too?  Five long, rainy months have done a lot to sodden my memories of the last fresh fruit I ate, and several more since I ate Salmonberry's "tastier" cousins.  So in spite of the naysayers out there, I gladly break my seasonally imposed fruit fast on this colorful berry- sweetened (as I am) by the song of the Swainson's Thrush.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Garry Oak Gardening

Giant Camas in a restored meadow at Padden Lagoon, Bellingham
Late last fall Mom, Katrina, and I seeded several wonderfully edible Garry Oak Ecosystem species.  So far, the Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana), Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Common Camas (Camassia quamash), and Giant Camas (C. leichtlinii) have all come up.  Garry Oaks are a strongly taprooted species and the roots had already made it down to the bottom of the pint-sized pots and started to circle around (which probably isn't too good for the trees).  Mom transferred them into 3-gallon pots where they will continue to grow until next year.  I want them to be large enough that we can put tubes around their trunks to protect the bark from voles, which often girdle trees planted in grassy fields.

The twisted tepals of Giant Camas (left) and disheveled tepals of Common Camas (right)

Starts of Miner's Lettuce (left), Common Camas (middle) and Giant Camas (right)
Our Miner's Lettuce germinated decently from seed.  It is almost done flowering now, so I wanted to get it transplanted someplace that it can reseed itself for next year.  I decided to plant the Miner's Lettuce in with normal garden vegetables so it can provide a winter cover crop.  Both the Common and Giant Camas germinated very well.  You can already tell them apart.  The grass-like leaves of the Giant Camas are twice as thick as the Common Camas.  Katrina and I planted the Camas in garden rows so that they can continue to grow until we are ready to establish a more permanent Garry Oak garden.

Acorn Bread
To celebrate, Katrina cooked up our first batch of leavened acorn bread.  She just substituted leached acorns for corn in a cornbread recipe (acorn flour, wheat flour, eggs, maple syrup, oil, baking powder, and homemade sea salt) and the result was phenominal!  I can't wait to share it with others.  It has a chocolate color like brownies with a rich, nutty flavor, soft fluffy texture, and NO bitterness.  I don't think I'll go back to flat bread for a while.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Okanogan Roots: Mountain Potato, Glacier Lily, and more

What my friends planned to be a weekend Morel (Morchella sp.) foray in the Methow Valley turned into a timely harvest of a variety of root vegetables, many of which I have long wanted to try.  It wasn’t an intentional bait and switch, the Morels just weren’t out yet, and the roots were.

Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)
We were still descending from Washington Pass near Mazama when I pulled the car off the road to “see about a plant.”  A glimmer of yellow caught my eye on a snowless north facing slope and I instantly knew it to be Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum).  They have a knack for springing up and brandishing their relatively large flowers as soon as the snow has melted.

Glacier Lilies were a staple root vegetable for the Blackfoot, Okanagan-Colville, Shuswap, and Thompson (See Native American Food Plants).  The roots (corms), were occasionally eaten raw, but more commonly steamed, boiled, or sun dried.  The raw corms were said by some to be inedible, and by others to not be as sweet as the dried roots.

Unearthed corms of Glacier Lily
My friends and I harvested a half dozen Glacier Lily corms by following the long tender flower stalks 3-5 inches into the damp soil.  I learned that they are easier to gather by starting a deep hole next to a good sized clump and then extending the hole sideways until the corms are visible.  Each corm has a delicate string like appendage that easily breaks off.  According to Dawn Lowen—who studied the nutritional chemistry, ethnobotany, and ecology of Glacier Lilies with Thompson elder Mary Thomas—these appendages are capable of regenerating into new plants and were carefully replanted to ensure future harvests.
Glacier Lily corm clean and ready to be eaten
Glacier Lily leaf
I found the raw corms to be amazingly sweet, which was corroborated by Lowen’s phytochemical analysis.  She measured sugar concentrations that peaked when the Glacier Lilies are flowering.  I also enjoyed the fresh flowering stalks and leaves, but I felt like the leaves were slightly acrid (more subtle than the raw leaves of Siberian Miner’s Lettuce or Curly Dock).  Cooking will likely improve the flavor of both the corms and leaves.  I transplanted several corms into my home-garden to propagate for further experimentation.

Several flowering stems on a large Mountain Potato
While tromping through recently burned forests looking for Morels, I came across the small succulent leaves and Miner’s Lettuce-like flowers of another long anticipated wild food -- Mountain Potato.  Mountain Potato (Claytonia lanceolata) is actually a close relative of Miner’s Lettuce (C. perfoliata), but instead of having the spindly roots of an annual, Mountain Potato has a pea to cherry sized starchy tuber that persists from year to year.

Mountain Potatoes were traditionally eaten by the same people that ate Glacier Lilies.  They were consumed fresh or boiled and often stored fresh in large quantities for use during the winter (See Native American Food Plants).  For further reading, also read Carla Mellott's superb Master’s Thesis on the ‘Tsilhqot’in ethnobotany and ecology of Mountain Potato.

A medium sized Mountain Potato (Claytonia lanceolata)
Unlike many root vegetables in the interior, Mountain Potatoes are relatively easy to harvest.  The tubers are only 1-2 inches below the surface and they often grow from underneath rocks, which can simply be picked up to reveal the tubers.  Depending on the elevation, the specimens that I collected were either in full flower, or were just starting to go to seed (which is when they were traditionally collected).  I found the tender leaves to be delicious with nearly the same flavor as Miner’s Lettuce.  The tubers have a very starchy texture and neutral flavor.

Ballhead Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum)
The sea-anemone like flowers of Ballhead Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum) also caught my attention.  After my recent success with Pacific Waterleaf (H. tenuipes) I decided to give its cousin from the Eastern Cascades a try.  There is little ethnobotanical literature on Ballhead Waterleaf but George Dawson noted in 1891 that the Shuswap harvested Ballhead Waterleaf roots in June from Botanie Valley.  Nancy Turner, James Teit, and Elsie Steedman also noted that the roots were commonly cooked and eaten by the Thompson and Okanagan.  The fleshy, spreading roots are fairly easy to unearth.  I sampled one raw and found it to have a stringy and juicy texture and bland flavor. 
The stubby fingerlike roots of Ballhead Waterleaf

I also harvested some Arrow-leaved Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and a couple species of Biscuitroot (Lomatium spp.) which I hope to cook and provide an update on their palatability in the coming days.

The hunters and hunted (in total!).  Too early for Methow Morels

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Kelp and other seaweed snacks

Bountiful Sugar Wrack
One of the things that attracted me to the room we are renting was how enthusiastic our landlord (Casey) is about seaweed.  This weekend was our first opportunity to collect seaweed with Casey and the conditions were perfect.  When we arrived at Rosario Beach (near the spectacular tidal rapids at Deception Pass), the sun was shining brightly and the tide was negative and still falling.  We scooted past the barren pebble beach and on to the colorful jungle of tangled seaweeds that covered a near-by rocky point.  Pillow sized boulders on the upper beach were coated with Rockweed (Fucus gardneri) and plastered with half dried Nori (Porphyra sp).   Blades of Sugar Wrack (Saccharina latissima), Winged Kelp (Alaria marginata), Triple-rib Kelp (Cymathere triplicata), and Seersucker Kelp (Costaria costata) were just drying up.  Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) was floating just off the shore and the Splendid Iridescent Seaweed (Mazzaella splendens) shimmered in the shallow pools.  As we rounded the corner, other fun species showed up like Sea Cabbage (Hedophllum sessile), Dead Man Fingers (Codium fragile) and some exotic looking coralline encrusting algae.  See WSU Beachwatchers for great pictures of Common Pacific Northwest Seaweeds.

Sun drying Nori on the Central Coast of BC
Casey focuses his collecting efforts on Rockweed bladders, which he likes to dry into a popcorn like snack.  Katrina collected two species of Nori and Sea Lettuce (Ulva sp.), and I went after Sugar Wrack, Bull Kelp and Sea Cabbage.  The Nori was different from the species that I am used to harvesting on the Central Coast of Canada with my mentor, Clan Chief Kwaxsistalla.

Kelp fronds drying on a line
We returned home with enough time to hang up the kelps and lay the smaller seaweeds on trays to dry in the sun or in the food dehydrator.  By sunset much of the kelp had already dried to a salty crisp that makes an irresistible snack that I look forward to eating for months to come.

Dried Rockweed
Dried Bullkelp fronds

Seaweed is filled with so much goodness, I hardly know where to begin.  Last month Katrina and I listened to seaweed guru Dr. Ryan Drum lecture on the virtues of eating seaweed.  He was full of shocking statistics, but one that really stuck with me was that 90 percent of North Americans are deficient in potassium.  We crave salt because our body can’t differentiate between sodium and potassium, but eating seaweeds is a great way of getting potassium.  You can read more about the health benefits of seaweeds on his website.
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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Biscuits and Balsam, edible roots of the eastside

Biscuitroot flowering in the Blue Mountains
Yellow Fritillaria
While returning from Denver via the Blue Mountains, some Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) caught my eye so Katrina and I stopped to explore the flora around the John Day River in Eastern Oregon.  The Balsamroot were just starting to leaf out in a rocky seep with several other interesting plants.  Blue Mountain Onion (Allium fibrillum) was about to flower, two species of Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum and L. donnellii) were just starting to flower, and Yellow Fritillaria (Fritillaria pudica) were already in bloom.  All of these have edible roots, and I tried three of them.
Blue Mountain Onion

Using my trusty digging stick, I pried a few Balsamroots from the earth to experiment with.  While at the Ethnobiology Conference I had a conversation with Kimberly Chambers about my attempt last fall to eat the fibrous roots of Balsamroot.  Kim studied Balsamroot for her Master’s Degree and recommended harvesting smaller roots, earlier in the season.  The roots in front of me fit the bill since they were just leafing out and were no more than ½ inch in diameter.  I steamed them for half an hour and found that they were tender enough to chew and swallow.  They have a very resinous flavor, but I imagine that prolonged cooking (as was traditional) would leach out some of the resin and further soften the roots.

Nineleaf Biscuitroot just starting to flower
The Biscuitroots were even more exciting because I had never tasted them before.  I unearthed a few specimens of both Nineleaf Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum) and what I believe to be Donnellii’s Biscuitroot (L. donnellii).  Nineleaf Biscuitroot has relatively long, thin leaf segments and a long taproot that frequently has a tuberous enlargement several inches below the soil surface.  The roots that I dug up ranged from about 5-8 inches long, but the rocky nature of the soil made it difficult to get the entire root, and I always left an undermined length of root behind in the soil (perhaps part of the plants evolutionary adaption to being edible?). 

Nineleaf Biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum) roots
Nineleaf Biscuitroots were eaten by the Atsugewi (in northeastern California), Blackfoot (in central Montana) and other Native Americans living in Montana (See Daniel Morman’s “Native American Ethnobotany").  Lewis and Clark also noted that the Native Americans living on the Clearwater River (in Idaho) ate Nineleaf Biscuitroot.  The flowers and leaves were also dried as a food and spice.  I steamed my specimens for half and hour and peeled off tough skins to reveal the tan starch.  After a series of cautious tastes, I consumed the root and found them to have the dry starchy texture of an overcooked potato with a few fibrous strings and a mildly bitter flavor.

Possibly Donnelli's Biscuitroot
What I am calling Donnelli’s Biscuitroots were smaller at about 4 inches long and ¼-1/2 inch thick with a smaller tuberous growth near the bottom.  Because my identification was so uncertain, I planted a few in my garden so that I can observe their seed size and shape.  I cooked them in a similar manner and found that the flesh of the peeled root was white.  Donnelli’s Biscuitroots were less bitter than Nineleaf Biscuitroot, but they had a slightly peppery flavor.  There isn’t really any ethnobotanical information on their use, but this is perhaps due to their small size.  Eugene Hunn provides an excellent account of several Biscuitroot species in his book “Nchi’i-Wana, The Big River,” which is about the Native Americans living in and around the middle part of the Columbia River.  Hunn briefly discusses Donnellii’s Biscuitroot in his book, but he recently told me that incorrectly attributed his ethnographic account to that species.

I am very eager to continue experimenting and learning about the many wonderful root foods found east of the Cascades and I feel like I got off to a good start with Biscuitroot.

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