It’s time to start watching the ground when I walk.

And sometimes, the trees.

I have been interested in wild foods since I was a very young girl. It absolutely amazes me that I feel like I don’t know more about the subject, by now I’ve certainly had enough time to become an expert. True, a lot of the time I can look down and point out one or two things around me that I can eat or use for medicine, but I know exactly how much there is that I don’t know. There are so many commonly mentioned wild foods and medicines that I have never tried, even though I know they are all around me.

I know part of the problem is that when I pick up a book on the subject and begin reading, I become overwhelmed with information. And I won’t put a wild food in my mouth until I’ve read several sources about it. So, a couple of years ago I decided I would learn one or two plants a season. This means looking in detail at look-alikes, growth patters, and ways to prepare the plant for medicine, food, and other uses. So instead of learning a little about a lot of plants, I have started learning a lot about a one or two at a time. This has helped.

Know what’s helped even more? Drawing them. Okay, yeah, I already knew that would help. I’ve already sketched several plants in my life. But this blog? The feeling of an invisible audience (even when it’s a very tiny one on this brand new speck of a blog), that puts the pressure on to start churning out some quality material. Know what I just now learned how to identify for an upcoming page? Poison ivy. I should have learned that years ago, given the amount of time I’ve spent running about in wild to wildish places. I just kept away from funny looking vines and left it at that.

Now I’m focusing on something that I wanted to try years ago, but never did. Pine. I was too worried that I might not correctly identify an edible species and was unsure what the risks were, so instead of looking it up I just kept putting it off. But now, at the tail end of a way too long winter, I’m getting itchy for dandelion season to begin but it’s slow to start. I want something, anything, to forage. Well, pine is forageable all year long, so it’s time to figure it out.

I keep seeing Pascal Baudar’s photos in the facebook group Wild Fermentation. He’s working on a book that uses a lot of wild foods and wild fermentation, ever since I’ve seen his photos of a pine/fir wild soda I’ve really been into the idea. Yet I don’t even know how to tell you the difference between pine and fir, or how a spruce or cedar might be different. I have no clue. How can I have been eating spring lawn greens every year without really “branching out”. Heh. Anyway, this urban chickie with a wild heart is going to start tackling more woodsy and less “park across the street” stuff soon.

Anyway, my dandelion page is finally up, and the grass is starting to look green. I’ve got more pages in progress, but more importantly I have a plan for this spring. If I can keep the mice and birds out of my indoor plants, I want to forage for seeds whenever I can. I’m thinking that in order for me to get to an area where I don’t have to worry about city pollution on my food, I have to ride my bike for several miles. In the meantime, if I gather seeds for microgreens (especially dandelions), I should have a relatively tiny amount of contaminants. I already sprout, so I’m hoping this year works well.

By the way, I had kefir ice cream after dinner. With cacao powder, orange zest, banana, allspice, and blackstrap molasses. My new ice cream maker is so cool. I’m also playing around with cheese molds and stumbling through developing a few new recipes.

Yay, it’s mah birthday. I’m buyin’ myself kefir :).

My birthday is always a special day for me. Although I don’t actually care about the birthday part of it. I care about the groundhog part of it. Mostly because asking a groundhog if spring is coming reminds me of the other day it is.

It’s Imbolc, a Pagan holiday that celebrates the coming of spring, the time of year that we honor that cows begin lactating and seedlings germinate. I like playing with my houseplants, I like foraging, I like warmer weather and longer days, I like spring being near and the season of hope and joy and youth that it represents, love, frolicking, all that. So, it’s one of my favorite holidays. Sure, the actual spring solstice is nice too, but Imbolc means its soon to be here, and I love having something to look forward to :). Festival meals usually include dairy and sprouts.

This means two things for me:

1) Time to plant my seeds, and I get to do it in a way to honor my religion! Oh. Dang. This year I already planted my seeds, because they had to be in the refrigerator for a month, and I wanted them in the ground by April (after I let them get started here). Usually I don’t have seeds, but I can at least propagate my houseplants. This year I’ve already planted some ginger root already and some dandelion roots to grow those as houseplants (we’ll see how that goes), so that part all came early this year. So far the dandelions are growing like weeds ;). I only planted them a couple of days ago. I planted the ginger about a month ago.

 

Spring is settin' forth to spring

2) In my area, the dandelions are starting to become visible out on the lawns as well. Foraging season begins :). No blooms yet, but I’ve already added the greens to some soup (obviously where I got the roots for planting). This year I’m gonna ferment the flowers too, maybe not the traditional dandelion wine way, but in a ginger bug soda. I also have a small sample of the roots pickling, so I get to try those in a couple of weeks. More foraging is peeking out, chickweed and henbit are both very prolific in my apartments and I’m starting to see signs of them. Since I didn’t get to forage (here at least) last year because I thought they were spraying, I will really enjoy the fact that they actually aren’t, and all because of my weird ass.

Anyway, this year I’m going to celebrate the dairy part as well (the purchase of it anyway). My son and I are lactose intolerant, but I can eat cheese and yogurt. So I risked drinking a quart of kefir to see what would happen, and since I didn’t explode that widens my possibilities some.

After much deliberation (between yogurt, kefir, and kombucha), I shall add kefir to my kitchen pets. There’s going to be so many things I can make now.  Dips and cream cheese will pair well with Bob’s children. Sourdough Bob has given me more flatbreads lately, and crackers (kind of tired of bread for a bit). I’ve been thinking about trying pitas, or returning to pretzels. All of those (and bread itself) will go great with dips and spreads made from my kefir :). It will be nice to have dairy in the house that won’t um, make my home less hospitable to company.

Bonus, my super picky kid loved the kefir. He actually doesn’t remember reacting to milk and keeps “correcting” me saying he’s not lactose intolerant, he just hates milk. He is though, and I’m looking forward to us both being able to consume more calcium and b12 on a regular basis.

Only I get to buy the kefir culture with my birthday money from Grandma (thanks Grandma!) which means I won’t have it in my hands for a bit. Sigh. The planting came early and the dairy comes late. I’ll be at a loss for what to do today. Well, I might splurge on more store-bought kefir, and put some sprouts in with dinner. I wish I knew some Pagans to go run around in the damp grass all barefoot with. Oh well.

How have my kitchen experiments been going you ask? So far, still experiments. I think I’ve made some serious progress with how to handle my ginger bug (I’ve had a problem with too much sweetness, fermenting too fast or too slowly, how to handle spent wort, stuff like that). Still working on that too though, but I’ll let you know more soon I’m sure. Anne-Marie of The Zero-Waste Chef pointed me at an Alton Brown recipe for candied ginger for my wort, and that turned out fantastic. In a few weeks I should know more of what I’m doing here, so I’ll let my tiny corner of the world know about it then.

 

Candied ginger from ginger left over from making ginger ale. Waste not!

Remember the kvass?

Pretty just never really lasts, does it?

I really did enjoy those pretty stars for a day or two, but I hoped I’d end up with a pink monochromatic watercolor with little light stars on a dark beet background. You can’t even see the stars! Anyway, most of the recipes I saw said a day or two for kvass, so after about three or four days I still wasn’t getting a hint of tang or bubbles. I juiced it and it was way too salty, and very inactive. So, I went ahead and put it back in the jug, minus the fiber from the veggies, and watched it for a week. Nothing, really.

I tossed a pinch of Bob the sourdough king in there (poured out a cup of kvass, whisked him in, and added it back to the mix) and the next day it was really active. The day after that it was very pleasantly tangy (made me smile with delight at the tang) but still way too salty. Next time I’ll try 1% brine instead of 2%. Also, the recipes said a day or two, but then I ran across other recipes that had a much longer time frame. So, I’ll still play with this one for a bit and see how it goes. I might even do stars to make me happy for a couple of days :).

Or flowers. I totally wasted some money on vegetable cutters back when I did bento, and I hardly used them because I had to get a wide enough carrot to use the cutters on, and all that slicing into rounds and punching out flowers wasn’t worth the effort. I was hoping that if i put flowers in my son’s soup, he might eat the carrots. He didn’t. We’re still working on getting beta-carotene into him, though he does like the purée in soup.

Anyway, I ran across a YouTube video that made the pretty carrots so much easier. Check her out at about 1:03. The rest of the video is cool too :).

By the way, the pulp from the juice after I ran the kvass through the juicer? Excellent in sourdough crackers. The crackers weren’t quite perfect in texture just yet, but the flavor was great and I see a lot of potential here.

Oh, and one more thing about fermentation that I’ve learned: I hate Rejuvelac. No matter how I flavor it. That is all.

Save the Monarchs: Planting and Using Milkweed

My wild food goal is to learn one or two plants to identify and start using each season. This year, the importance of one of them fell into my lap. Bees are not the only pollinator threatened, our monarch populations are on the decline.

I ran across an article on the Denver Post that explains how GMO crops made to be resistant to herbicides are being sprayed for weeds, and this spray is causing a decline in milkweed plants that monarchs need for breeding. The impact seems to be more than small, the Smithsonian reports a 90% decline in migrating monarch populations over the last two decades. Why has this news taken so long to get to me? Where on earth have I been?

That is so sad, just thinking of the beautiful migration, those lovely trees covered in massive amounts of butterflies no longer existing, that just hurts my heart.

This also made me sad for three other reasons. One, I know the importance of pollinators. Food is kind of an important thing, it would be sad if we had less food. Two, I’ve always wanted to try milkweed pod pickles (small pods can be pickled like capers), and this new fermentation pickle thing I’m so all over right now makes this possibility seem even more fun. If milkweed were harder to find, that possibility might not ever become actuality. Three, milkweed has fibers that can be spun into rope or used in paper making. I already spin, and I’d love to start making my own paper (I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for discarded broken screens to use). There’s a ton more uses too, check out my milkweed page in the new foraging section (more articles are definitely coming in that section).

Seriously, one of the reasons I love to spin my own yarn is so that when someone says they like my sweater, I can say “thanks, I made the yarn myself. Got that golden color by dyeing it with coffee grounds.” Their eyes totally pop out of their heads, you’ve so just won the interaction. I think it would be cool to make a milkweed purse (with the end of the season plants that are going dormant so as to not damage the supply) and pull that same trick.

Milkweed seeds

So, this is a problem that has a remedy. If we start planting milkweed in our gardens, or scatter the seeds around fields and other places that may give the plant a chance to grow (scatter in late fall), we can help provide the Monarch with this plant that is so critical to their survival. Growing it in your own garden (perfect for a butterfly garden in general, or a child’s garden) is one route to take. Another thing you can do if you don’t have access to your own garden is to encourage your child’s school (and some non-profit organizations) to apply for free plants. I’ve already emailed my son’s science teacher (she said it was perfect, they’re about to study ecosystems).

I have seen debate about this. I’ve heard the argument we should not mess with nature, that we could disrupt ecosystems and nature is better left on it’s own. Perhaps, but in some situations (and this one is very much included in that) we’ve already messed with nature, that’s the problem. If you are planting local species, things that are already a part of the ecosystem and are not likely to take over the area, then situations like this call for action.

Know what to plant though. The popular tropical milkweed species may actually damage monarch populations. Asclepias curassavica is green all year long, where species native to America die back in the winter. This dying back is important for two reasons. One, when it dies back it kills any potential infestation of a parasitic protozoa that weakens monarchs and makes them unable to survive during the migration. The plant dying back keeps this protozoa under control, as when the plant returns in the spring it will be parasite free. Two, if the plants don’t die off in the winter, the monarch migration patterns are disrupted, thus disrupting the cycles that monarchs have evolved to thrive under. (Three, the dying back plant can be harvested for fiber and paper ’cause I’ve got the greedy.)

So, A. curassavica is out as an option. Asclepias syriaca on the other hand is native to most of North America (including Canada). This is the species I highly recommend spreading, if you live within its native area. If you don’t, take a look at the milkweeds from where you are. If it isn’t A. syriaca, it won’t be that edible so go ahead and see what that page recommends is needed to balance out your local ecosystem, (or do that if you don’t plan on harvesting any edibles from your crop).

To find seeds, The Xerces Society has an online seed locator that may be of help. I’ve also seen them for sale on eBay and Amazon.com. I found some sources of seed online, but I want to make sure that I get Asclepias syriaca, because I want to possibly eat it, and some sources were offering mixed species, did not list the species, or annoyed me by acting like the seeds were free but then asked for a “donation” or charged shipping rates that equaled the usual cost of a pack of seeds. I ended up going with an eBay purchase myself. Make sure to do your search by the species name and that the name is clearly stated as the product.

The milkweed seeds I bought

Seeds are best started indoors. I’m all ready for it, I’ve been saving plastic egg cartons. The only free range eggs at my local store come in a crate of clear plastic. At first I didn’t like that, I wanted cardboard that is biodegradable. However, it’s a nice little greenhouse so I do get some re-usability out of it at least.

Milkweed seeds need cold stratification, they will not germinate correctly unless they think winter has come and gone. This can mean that you plant them outside during the fall, or you can keep them in your refrigerator for a couple of weeks. My seed packet recommends 30 days. I’ve done this only once before, you soak the seeds in water for a day in the refrigerator, then you either plant them and keep them in the refrigerator or you place them inside a moist paper towel that is then tucked into a plastic baggie.

My seeds did not germinate last time (I tried passion fruit), but this time I have more seeds. I scarified (scratched the seed lightly with a pin) some of them. I’m going to try planting in soil rather than the paper towel method this time, hopefully that works. I covered with just a tiny layer of soil and watered with a spray bottle to prevent disturbing placement on my seeds. In theory, once I bring them out next month they should start to germinate (not before they are removed).

Wish me luck. If I can get a few seeds to grow, I may end up watching them in whatever wild spot I take them to and gather more seeds for next year.

If you wish to check around your area for milkweed that is already growing, take a look at the new foraging section that I have under my banner. There is a page on foraging basics, and a milkweed page gets to be the first plant up. I’ve got things in progress that will help that section start to grow soon.

(Something just occurred to me. If I do make that milkweed purse, I can say I actually started from seed. How’s that for making something from scratch?)

 

Posts around the web:

How to fix a butterfly’s wing. Wow. This is dedication to the cause.

Monarch Watch has several resources (including the previously mentioned free plants for schools and non-profits), especially resources to help teach your kids more about monarchs or links to other sites on the subject.