Monday, September 24, 2012

Kousa Dogwood, another urban wonder

Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa)

Himalayan Dogwood (Cornus capitata)
The fun thing about urban foraging is that you have a chance to find plants from all over the world. Recently when I was walking through my neighborhood I spotted a dogwood with huge bright red fruit that reminded me of a tree that I saw 9 years ago in the Himalayan foothills of Central Nepal.  I was just starting a year of ethnobotanical work with Langtang National Park and went for a hike on a trail that led out of the village and up into the mountains. I came across two 10th grade boys walking down the trail carrying sacks of wheat. We got to chatting and I followed them to the water powered stone mill and watched them as they ground their wheat into flour. Afterwards we started talking about plants—at least as much as my rudimentary understanding of Nepali would allow—and I asked them about the large fruits that were scattered along the trail. They said they were called gulna (Cornus capitata) and that they could be eaten fresh, but I shouldn’t eat the ones that had fallen on the ground, which was too bad because there weren’t any left on the tree.

Heavy fruit production on this Kousa Dogwood
Ever since then I have always wondered what those Himalayan Dogwood fruits taste like. The fruits before me looked virtually identical, but after some botanical sleuthing, I determined that they were Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa), which are deciduous whereas those on Himalayan Dogwood are evergreen. Kousa Dogwood is native to China, Korea, and Japan. The fruit looks something like a strawberry, a pink soccer ball on a stick, or a sea urchin skeleton. Kousa Dogwood fruit is made up of 20-40 pinkish-orangish red fleshy carpels that are all fused together in a spherical arrangement atop a 3-4 inch long stem.

Nice ripe Kousa Dogwood fruit
Throughout their native range, Kousa Dogwood fruit are eaten fresh or fermented to make wine. The landowner allowed me to sample a few and I found that they have a soft creamy texture and sweet flavor similar to papaya. However, the skins are slightly coarse and mildly bitter, so I have learned to break them open and suck out the pulp.

A few minutes picking
Yesterday, Katrina and I picked a couple quarts of Kousa Dogwood to experiment more with and I learned that unripe fruit tend to have more orange colored skin, have pulp that is white and firm instead of orange and soft, and most notably, lack the sweet flavor of ripe fruit. A few fruits had hard seeds that are about the size of a Chokecherry pit, but contrary to my reading about this fruit, we did not find them to be particularly seedy, having found only 3 seeds in the 2 quarts that we collected.

Fruit mill making nice Kousa pulp
Spoon method
We started processing our Kousa Dogwood fruit by breaking them in half and scooping the sweet flesh out with a spoon, but soon tired of this and turned to my Squeezo fruit mill for assistance. The raw fruit went through the mill easily, but the few seeds that we came across were too large to fit through the auger and required several hard cranks to break them up and force them through.

The ground was covered with fruit
Our Kousa Dogwood pulp is juicy and sweet and a welcomed addition to the daily smoothie. Next time we pick Kousa Dogwood we will lay a tarp under the tree and shake it so that we only collect ripe fruit that are ready to fall off.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Manchurian Walnut, another street tree

Large clusters of Manchurian Walnuts
Today I biked around town looking for more Heartnuts and was excited to find what I thought was a LOADED Heartnut, but it turned out to be a LOADED Manchurian Walnut (Juglans mandshurica). The resemblance is striking and I was not surprised to learn that Heartnut is sometimes classified as a variety of Manchurian Walnut (Juglans mandshurica var. sachalinensis).

Light gray bark with deep fissures
A handsome Manchurian Walnut that wasn't producing
Manchurian Walnuts grow slightly larger than Heartnuts reaching 75 feet tall. Their bark is virtually identical, with the same light grey color, but (perhaps) with slightly broader planes between the long deep fissures. Leaves are very large (16-36 inches long), with hairy petioles and 7-19 leaflets that are 3-8 inches long and 1-3 inches wide. Each leaflet has an acuminate tip and broad base. The underside of the leaflets are fuzzy haired and the upper sides are only sparsely pubescent. Nuts form in large clusters of usually 5-15 but occasionally up to 20! The husks are egg shaped and covered with a dense coat of resinous hairs. Husks are easily removed from the nuts by stepping on them or pounding them gently. Wear gloves if you don't want the husk juice to stain your hands. The nut shells are not as smooth as Heartnuts, having a texture much like Common or Persian Walnuts (Juglans regia). They are 1-1.25 inches long and not quite as wide, with a relatively spherical appearance except for an abruptly pointed tip. Manchurian Walnut shells are more difficult to crack than Heartnut shells, lacking the convenient trait of easily splitting into 2 pieces. They are harder to crack than Common Walnuts too, but still easier than Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra). Unfortunately, the nutmeats of Manchurian Walnuts are also harder to remove than Heartnuts, but they aren’t impossible and I expect that they will get easier as the nutmeats season and shrink away from the deep internal shell lobes.

Because the tree was dripping with nuts, I was able to fill my bike bucket pannier in just a few minutes. They are now squirreled away with my Heartnuts for a cold winter day when I’ll be craving some oily Walnuts.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Heartnut, a cultivated Japanese Walnut

Heartnut hull, shell, and nut

Heartnut shells chewed open by squirrels
Today I picked Heartnuts (Juglans ailantifolia var. cordiformis) for the first time from a street tree near my house. I noticed the tree a couple months ago and was having trouble identifying it until I noticed some old heart-shaped nut shells beneath the tree.

A cluster of 10 Heartnuts
Leaflets with short petiolules and asymmetric basal lobes
Heartnut Bark is light grey and coarsely fissured
Heartnuts are a cultivated variety of Japanese Walnuts (Juglans ailantifolia) that grows about 60 feet tall and 16 to 36 inches in diameter with coarse, light grey bark. The leaves are very large reaching 3 feet in length and densely hairy with 11 to 17 pinnately arranged leaflets. Leaflets are ovate and 1.5-3 inches wide and 3-8 inches long; they have pointed tips, asymmetrically lobed bases, very short petiolules (less than 3/16 of an inch), and sparsely pubescent upper sides and densely haired undersides. Sometimes the terminal leaflet is missing or fused to one of the the first lateral leaflets giving it an odd appearance. The nut husks are fuzzy, egg shaped, 1-1.5 inches long and not quite as broad. Nuts are often in hanging clusters of up to 10. The husks can easily be removed by gently stepping on them and rolling them slightly beneath your shoe. The nuts are slightly smaller than the husks with a distinctive heart shape and a smooth outer shell and a significantly flattened appearance when viewed from the side. They crack easily to reveal a wing-shaped nut that is easy to remove unbroken. Like most nuts, they will be best after they are dried for a few months. Hopefully I will find a few more trees because the squirrels got most of the nuts from this one. I removed the husks from the few dozen nuts that I collected and will store them in a dry place until Christmas. They are supposed to have a sweet taste that lacks the strong aftertaste of Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra).
An odd Heartnut terminal leaflet doing double duty as a lateral leaflet.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Wild Blueberries," the Mountain Provides!

Yesterday, Katrina and I joined our local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society for a hike around Table Mountain near Mount Baker. Our route took us through many subalpine meadows where we were able to enjoy the late season wildflowers and periodically pluck the fat fruits of Black Huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and Cascade Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum). Together, these are two of our region’s most delicious Blueberry/Huckleberries, and I overheard a few arguments about which our members most favored.

A laden Cascade Blueberry bush
Black Huckleberry
There are other reasons to quibble over Blueberries and Huckleberries. They are part of the same genus and their names are sometimes used interchangeably causing much confusion over the difference between the two. For example, Cascade Blueberry is sometimes called Cascade Huckleberry and Velvetleaf Blueberry is sometimes called Velvetleaf Huckleberry. However, A simple pattern elucidates the difference. Typically all 7 of our native Vaccinium species with blue fruit are called Blueberries, and our 4 species that don’t have blue fruit are called Huckleberries. Thus, we have red fruited Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and black fruited Black Huckleberry. Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) sometimes challenges this rule with a rogue (and tasty) blue fruit variety, but the black fruited variety is more common. The red fruited Grouse Whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium) of the eastern Cascades has a nice unique name, but some people call it (appropriately) Littleleaf Huckleberry.

Allan "examining" Cascade Blueberries
Black Huckleberries (left) and Cascade Blueberries (right)
After our circumambulatory sampling of Table Mountain’s fruit, Katrina and I set out to collect enough berries to bring back to our own feasting place. We had found the fruit production of Cascade Blueberries to vary considerably between different locations. The berries near Artist's Point were sparse, but farther down the trail, at the junction of the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail and the Galena Chain Lakes Trail, the bushes were laden with large fruit (briefly focusing our botanizing to a sensory analyses of just one species). Fruit production was sparse through the Chain Lakes, over the pass, and much of the way down to the Bagley Lakes, but near the Visitor Center the bushes were thick with small fruit. We didn’t want to bother with tiny fruit and were too tired to hike back out towards Ptarmigan Ridge, so we decided to explore the more accessible Ski Area for good fruit. It didn’t take us long to find a shady patch of meadow that was thickly laden with large berries of both Black Huckleberry and Cascade Blueberry. In a little more than an hour, Katrina and I picked 3 quarts of berries and never moved more than 40 feet from where we started.

Approaching perfection
Both berries are sweet and delicious with a nice subtle tartness. Cascade Blueberries have a thick texture that is similar to Bog Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), or Salal (Gaultheria shallon) whereas Black Huckleberries have a much juicier texture. I think Cascade Blueberries are a little sweeter and milder flavored compared to the more explosive flavored Black Huckleberries. For me, the perfect handful is 10 Cascade Blueberries and 3 Black Huckleberries.

To the forager, every ecosystem can provide some form of delicious food. Supalpine meadows that are too rocky and steep for the plow, and have too short a growing season for “civilized” fare, are some of the most precious to those with a more adventurous palette. It is here that the forager finds mountain morsels with flavor—like the growing season—that is concentrated. So too is the picking experience... concentrated life!

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Traditional Foods Conference, Report

Camp Islandwood on Bainbridge Island
Last week Northwest Indian College’s Institute for Indigenous Foods and Traditions organized a three day festival of food on Bainbridge Island. The theme of this year’s inaugural conference was “Our food is our medicine.” Indigenous harvesters, educators, , herbalists, dietitians, and scholars shared workshops, stories, and foods from all corners of the Pacific Northwest.

Terry Maresca presented on Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) tapping. Terry comes from a long line of Mohawk sugarbush harvesters and when she moved to the Pacific Northwest, she decided to start making maple syrup from our native maples. We learned about the nutritional properties of maple syrup, how to install taps, and good strategies for boiling the syrup. At the end, Terry gave us a taste of her very own Bigleaf Maple syrup. It was fantastic!

Leigh with a Riceroot bulb. (N. Turner photo)
Later that day, Leigh Joseph presented on her effort to restore Northern Riceroot (lhรกsem; Fritillaria camschatcensis) in the mouth of the Squamish River so that the Squamish People can once again harvest the edible bulbs. This project was part of her Master’s Degree research and she employed both experimental and community-based research tools to simultaneously understand the ecological and educational parameters for a successful ethno-ecological restoration.
Elise's Fruit Leather
Heather and her bounty of traditional foods
That evening there was an open session for participants to share food and recipes. Elise Krohn gave us samples of her excellent Salal (Gaultheria shallon) - Blueberry (Vaccinium sp.) fruit leather. Heather shared a number of amazing foods that she and her boys harvested near Mt. Adams, including Bitterroots (kioxhay*; Lewisia rediviva), Biscuitroots (kaush*; Lomatium canbyi.), Black Huckleberries (wiwnu*; Vaccinium membranaceum), dried Salmon (nusux*), and dried Elk (yamish*). She said that once the Biscuitroots have been sun dried and mashed they are called luksh*. I have wanted to try Bitterroots for years and I was very excited to taste them. Heather prepared them by carefully peeling the roots and then drying them. She soaking them briefly in hot water before serving them. They were wonderful and not at all bitter (maybe the slightest hint of bitter aftertaste).*Names provided by Heather, orthographies and any mistakes are my own.
The next day the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium presented on their traditional food revitalization project called the “Store outside your door: hunt, fish, gather, grow!” They have teamed with a chef to prepare a number of short food films featuring regional and seasonal traditional foods throughout Alaska. Their films are phenomenal! Check out their youtube channel here.

Then Fiona, Earl, Anna, and JB discussed a variety of projects on Vancouver Island that have helped revitalize traditional foods. These include Feasting For Change, the Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities Indigenous Foods Network, and the Annual Traditional Foods Conference.
Deer Butchering

Hugh barbecuing Salmon and Venison
Boiling with rocks
That afternoon I stayed outside, participating in excellent hands-on workshops including a demonstration of deer butchering, and hands-sessions for salmon and clam barbequing as well as pit roasting. I also boiled some Ozette potatoes in my bentwood box.

After long days of learning, we gathered each evening around a campfire and entertained each other with personal stories, music, and tales of coyote, raven, and other heroes of the animal kingdom.

Common Hawthorn fruit
On the final day of the conference, Elise Krohn and Elizabeth Campbell presented a nice session on late summer berries. We all processed some Common Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) berries, learning about their tonic affect on our blood vessels, and made Black Huckleberry smoothies and Blue Elderberry (Sambucus cerulea) syrup.

I left the conference with a mind full of ideas and an appetite inspired for indigenous foods. Thanks to everyone who shared and the hard work of the organizers and volunteers.

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