Saturday, April 25, 2020

Ramps, aka Wild Leeks

Ramps, aka wild leeks (Allium tricoccum)
Down south, we call 'em ramps, up north we call em' wild leeks. Scientifically speaking, they are called Allium tricoccum. Call 'em what you want, there's no denying they are one of the tastiest members of the onion family. However they are also over-harvested. For this reason, I do not often feature them in my writings. So many articles have been written about the infamous ramp, hence their popularity. They top many a foodie's list and speckle the menus of upscale restaurants. But perhaps this is all the more reason to share how we can sustainably harvest them or simply leave them be. Also, we cannot hide our treasured edible and medicinal plants. To learn about our wild plants, especially our human's history of use, is to foster relationship with these plants for years to come. And nurturing our human-plant relationships is more important than ever.

Ramps in a typical mixed hardwood forest, enjoying moist soil and the company of other native woodland plants. Fellow plants are: Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum), liver leaf (Hepatica), wild ginger (Asarumcanadense), Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), and violets (Viola).
Look for ramps in moist soil in mixed hardwood forests. They particularly enjoy sloping areas alongside lakes, ponds, streams, and rivers. When first leafing out they require a sunny open canopy, but by flowering time need dappled sunlight filtered through leafy treetops. It is unlikely you will find ramps growing in heavily disturbed areas, although I have found them on lightly traveled trails. Look for them amidst our other precious native plants. The photo above highlights a preferred habitat. Notice the Virginia waterleaf, Dutchman's breeches, and wild ginger. They also delight in the company of spring beauty, trout lily, wood nettle, and jewelweed.

Ramps with mottled leaves of trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
Ramps are most easily distinguished by a pair of floppy basal leaves, 1- 2 1/2 inches wide and 6 - 12 inches long. Leaves are parallel veined with a sometimes strong center vein and smooth margins. The petioles (leaf stems) may or may not be reddish.

Ramp leaves, highlighting strong midrib, parallel veins, and smooth margins
Underground ramps bear a slender white bulb a crown of white roots. Think of the white part as a scallion and you'll have the idea. This is the part of the ramp that we do not want to harvest. I'll come back to that in a little bit.
Ramps on washed and ready for use on cutting board
All parts of the ramp will have a garlicy/oniony aroma when crushed or broken. Here in the northeast, ramps will begin to appear in early to mid April and their green leaves will persist until late May. Come June, these leaves will quickly wither away and by July, plants will begin to send up flowering stalks. Each mature plant will bear just one smooth reddish-green stalk with a tight papery sheath terminally. This sheath will unfold its crinkly bracts revealing an umbel of small white to cream-colored flowers, each with 6 petal-like parts. Finally, in late summer, flowers give way to round shiny seeds that resemble tiny black pearls.

Ramps in seed stage
Ramps are in danger because we humans are overzealous when it comes to this wild edible. Folks will pay big money for ramps at farmer's markets and chefs are always eager to craft the next creative dish. However, we should only be wild harvesting ramps for our own use - that means yourself and your family. Secondly, we should only harvest ramps from those places that are abundant in ramps and from where others are not harvesting as well. Find your ramp spot and keep it secret! 

So just how do we sustainably harvest our moderate amount of ramps for personal use?
Ramps take seven years to reach reproductive maturity and are more likely to reproduce by bulbs than by seeds. Therefore it is imperative that we leave a portion of the bulb in place when we dig for ramps. Use a digging knife to dig the soil around a ramp, exposing its bulb, then be certain to cut well above the rounded bulb, leaving the bulb and roots in place in the earth. Distinguish ramps by their seed stalks and you can harvest the bulbs late in the season after the plant has dropped its seeds. That is, if you must dig for bulbs at all. The leaves are equally flavorful and may be sliced just above the soil. Take just one from each plant and you are doubly likely to ensure a plants survival.

Ramps with peppers and onions to be sautéed 
So, now what do we do with these ramps once we have carefully procured them? They are incredibly versatile and accent most any savory dish with a unique garlicy flavor and aroma. I leave leaves whole or dice and use in veggie sautes, scramble with eggs, use as a pizza topping, and simmer in soups. Don't use them in combination with too many other stronger tasting veggies or they may get lost in the mix. Use them in a recipe where they can shine. Recently I sautéed ramps with mushrooms and baked them in a quiche, topped with purple dead nettle flowers.

Quiche with ramps, mushrooms, and purple dead nettle flowers (Lamium purpureum)
Ramps also make an vibrantly green, tastebud-tingling pesto. And this pesto requires no garlic! Coarsely chop ramps leaves, then combine in a food processor with olive oil.

Ramps coarsely chopped
Add grated parmesan and/or nuts if you like, then puree until mixture is creamy. I am not big on exact measurements. But I suggest going light on the olive oil to start and gradually adding until you reach your desired consistency. Brighten and preserve your pesto with a squeeze of lemon and put on the finishing touches with a bit of salt.

Ramp pesto
Just a dab will do of this pesto. Blend a half teaspoon with a cup of ricotta cheese to top pasta or pizza. Smear sparingly on crusty bread or cheese sandwiches. Since just a little goes a long way, freeze the remainder of your pesto in small containers until needed. 

A couple more important notes on ramps.

Firstly, be careful not to confuse ramps with Lily of the Valley or False Hellebore. Both of these plants are toxic and when first sprouting, they strongly resemble the leaves of ramps. False hellebore, in particular, will often share the same habitat with ramps as well. Get to know these plants before harvesting ramps. Here are a couple of helpful links.

Lily of the valley -
False hellebore -

Lastly and not least importantly, there are many other, less threatened plants we can harvest that have a garlicy/oniony flavor. My very favorite is garlic mustard, a non-native invasive that we would be doing good to eat. Check out my blog post about how to identify garlic mustard and puree into a pesto here: Wild onions or onion grass is yet another. You'll be able to locate this one when mowing your lawn. Smell onion? It's right beneath your feet and looks just like grass but with hollow leaf blades and an oniony smell.

Ramps are delicious but precious native inhabitants of our remaining wild places. Please consider and handle them with reverence.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Southeast Journey - Connection amidst Covid

Wise Man, Joan Jarvis, Bot, and Amos (I'm pretty sure Amos is hoping Joan's got some more sour cream for him)
From Withlacoohee State Forest, we continued our journey south to reconnect with a very special trail angel, Joan Jarvis of Oveido, Florida. Joan was a life saver, or shall I say a thru-hike savior, last year when we were on the trail. She assisted us in so many ways. She helped Scott get to an outfitter for a much needed pair of shoes, kept us dry during a very cold all-day rain, and made sure we were well-fueled with many a home-cooked meal. But, it was her company that kept us full in spirit. She is a long-time supporter of the Florida Trail and its hikers in so many ways. On this visit, Joan graciously allowed us to park in her driveway for two nights and we rejoiced in her company and good cooking once again. Amos got his first taste of chicken, sour cream and bacon bits and may never be the same. He deemed her his travel trailer angel! While with Joan we also had the immense pleasure of spending the afternoon with Sandra Friend and John Keatley. Sandra and John have authored countless books about hiking in Florida as well as the comprehensive website They have supported hikers through their research and commitment for many years. Their book, A Guide to the Florida Trail, proved invaluable during our 2019 thru-hike.

Prairie along the Florida Trail
Sandra suggested we gather at Joan's rather than a restaurant to "socially distance." We first thought Sandra was simply in  need of some quiet time and as fellow hikers, we get it. This was the first we'd heard this term "social-distancing." But she soon clarified for us that these recommendations were coming from the CDC. Sandra, John and Joan, caught us up with the pandemic unfolding in the rest of the civilized world. The local news then declared that Seminole County, which was where we were, had it's first covid case. Next, we received a text from home that our county in PA had four cases. Covid was getting real. I realize covid had been very real overseas for some time, but it was the first that we actually grasped the reality of its being on our very soil. From here on out, our Southeast Journey would begin to quickly change form. We decided we'd retreat to one of the most empty places we knew - the Florida prairielands.

Wise Man, Peacock, and Bot
We bid our friends adieu and later in the day we found ourselves on desolate roads in Desert Ranch. These roads are home to the Florida Trail for roughly thirty long miles. The walk is mind-numbing with nothing but farm-fields and powerlines as far as the eye can see. We thankfully had the help of trail angel, Trucker Bob for part of this section. It would have been hard-goin' without him! When all of a sudden we spotted a figure in the distance. As we grew closer we could see he wore a backpack and carried hiking sticks. A thru-hiker! We were delighted to pull over and say hi. One of our big movitators for returning to Florida this year had been to provide trail magic to this year's hikers, however since we'd gotten such a late start, the typical hiker season was nearly over. We hadn't expected to find one this far south. Meet Peacock, who was out for his first long hike. Being a Florida native, the high temps he'd be walking into as spring progressed didn't scare him. He happily received a cold beer from our trailer fridge and we passed along some of Joan's homemade fudge - both were gone in a gulp! More evidence of how trails build connections not only between places, but people.

Scott and Amos walking beneath Spanish moss on Hickory Hammock Trail
We found ourselves a campsite at Hickory Hammock Equestrian Campground, free of charge, through the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). The SFWMD generously allows folks to camp without cost on its lands. Sites must be reserved through their website, which can be a little tricky to navigate, but its well worth it, as sites are often remote, not overcrowded, and in beautiful locations. We parked beneath the limbs of a live oak that provided much needed shade in temps that were continuing to rise as our trip carried on, and enjoyed a peaceful night. The next day we took a hike on the Hickory Hammock Trail which runs 11 miles, paralleling the Florida Trail, and passed directly through our campground. We walked sandy sund-drenched paths through saw palmettos, bowed beneath live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and rejoiced in the company of palms. And the array of plants we spied within even our first steps were astounding.

Netted paw-paw (Asimina reticulata)
In my time in Florida I have spotted far more paw-paws than I ever have in the Appalachian mountains. However, here in Florida, those I have seen are of the smaller variety. The woody-stemmed netted paw-paw, scientifically named Asimina reticulata, grows no more than roughly four feet tall, but is related to the full-sized tree Asimina trilobal, that which many of us think of when we think of paw-paws. However Florida's smaller species, such as this one, also provide edible fruits. The flesh is reportedly fruity tasting and loaded with protein. However be cautious in consuming them as some people can have allergic reactions. The seeds and skin should not be eaten under any circumstances. I have yet to try one of these native fruits. Have any readers tried a smaller species paw-paw?

Cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculata)
Cardinal airplant (Tillandsia fasciculata) is a state-listed endangered plant. Airplants enjoy the forest canopy, taking up residence on tree branches. We found a couple of these plants upon the ground, still attached to a fallen limb. The leaves of the cardinal airplant are long and sharp-pointed creating a gray-green rosette. However, its purple flower and pollen-coated stamens were most eye-catching. Due to an introduced Mexican weevil which bores into airplants, the cardinal airplant is presently endangered.

Rabbit tobacco (Pterocaulon pyncostachyum)
Here's a plant with a fun name - rabbit tobacco - a fitting one to discuss in our Easter season. However, what it's got do with rabbits, I don't know, perhaps it is rabbit height. Native Americans would smoke the leaves as a tobacco substitute, hence the tobacco reference. Another common name is blackroot, for the reason that the roots produce a poisonous black sap. It's an altogether strange looking plant that to me resembles a fat purple-tipped pipe cleaner.

Campsite marker on Hickory Hammock Trail
Although not part of the Florida Trail thru-trail, Hickory Hammock Trail is still considered part of the Florida Trail and is complete with a backpacker's campsite, which we hiked to, making for four miles round-trip. We kept Amos well-paced on this day and were certain to carry not just a liter of water but a gallon for our boy. We've been learning that hiking with a dog is oh so different from hiking without one - it's paced us as well. We're sauntering as John Muir would have liked. All the more time to notice the plants! And critters like this...anyone know what we have here?

Frog on palm frond - anyone know this guy's name?

Oh and climb trees...

Hanging out in a live oak - trickier to climb than they look!
We spent the next two nights at Starvation Slough campsite, another SFWMD site, and we had the place completely to ourselves. It was dreamy. Even if Amos periodically awoke to a wild hog passing through, which he scared off with some tremendous growling we'd never before heard from him. While at Starvation Slough we took an eight mile hike out-and-back to Starvation Slough North campsite along the Florida Trail. This was one of the first portions of the Florida Trail we ever hiked and has remained one of our favorites. It leads you through fields filled with primrose willow shrubs and past a deep pond, surely home to alligators. Here we spied some plants we've seen time and time again in this very spot.

Maryland meadowbeauty (Rhexia mariana)
Maryland meadowbeauty is a beauty indeed with conspicuous stamens and pale pink petals. This is a flower I also regularly enjoyed finding on the Mountains to Sea Trail, although deciphering between species can sometimes be tricky.            

Orange milkwort (Polygala lutea)
This flower is a common sight in the prairielands. Orange milkwort or Polygala lutea, is also called candyweed because some species' roots smell of licorice, such as Polygala nana. I have pulled up Polygala lutea in the past and was certain that I smelled licorice, however I now cannot find evidence to support my memory. I'll have to try another when we return. Nonetheless, this licorice smell leads me to wonder if these species contain methyl-salicylic acid, a known pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. Locals simply call it "swamp Cheetos" because perhaps being low-to-the-ground as it is, it looks just like that - like some poor hiker dropped a cheese puff in the grass.

Live oaks along Florida Trail between Starvation Slough and Starvation Slough North campsite
After the pond, the trail carries you beneath canopies of live oak, branches intertwining overhead and adorned in wild pine air plants and Spanish moss. The sound of the breeze through the large fronds of  squat cabbage palms was dreamy. We encountered wild oranges that we now knew better than to try and eat - these were very bitter last we tried them - but the smell of their blossoms still lingered. Intoxicating. It was hot but the forest canopy made for dappled sunshine and we were all grateful for the shade. Amos clearly was adapting to the Florida temps as he completed this hike without a hitch, however he sure was ready for a dunk in Starvation Slough when we again neared camp. Worry not, we did inspect it for gators first!

Amos cooling off in the muddy waters of Starvation Slough
Although isolated in the prairie, we were not without cell service, and the texts from home kept coming. We talked to our friends back in Asheville one evening and they were in full on social distancing mode, which is not easy in the shared homes in which many of them live. Although we were basking in the Florida sun without a care 'cept for the gators and hogs, these texts and phonecalls were foreboding. We questioned if we should head south to see Scott's mom in Sarasota as planned. She assured us we should come nonetheless and so we braced ourselves for the big city, packed on camp and hit the road.

Spider web - these net-like webs ornamented the palmetto fronds, glistening in the morning dew in Apalachicola National Forest
We visited Mom and felt safe and secure in her condo, we dined in by choice, and enjoyed homecooked meals yet again. Amos spent the day at his first dog-sitters - Auntie Kara's Canine Camp - and rocked it. Look her up! She was amazing, so patient with the worrisome parents and so caring with Amos. Of the six dogs he shared the camp with, he chose to make best buds with her nine-year 8-pound chihuahua, Fenway. While visiting, we had do a shop as did she and so we ventured out to several grocery stores in the area. In the midst of our errand running, we got word from back home that all but essential businesses were now closed and restaurants were on take-out only. My mom phoned and reported that she would be catching the first flight back to PA from Illinois where she'd been visiting her 99-year old father due to her later flight now being canceled. For the first time, seeing empty shelves in the supermarket and the fervor with which people shopped, put the fear in us. Covid was now undeniably real. As much as we would have loved to stay and visit with Mama Weis longer, we no longer felt safe in this metropolitan area, rather like bugs caught in a spider's sticky web, in immanent danger. Vulnerable. We spent the night in the parking lot at Big Slough Preserve, 40 minutes east of the city. It was illegal to camp here overnight but we were unable to find a single campground with any vacancy and hotels that took pets were over three hundred dollars a pop. We got through the night without a hitch, were greeted by an equestrian rider in the morning and promptly headed back north for the panhandle. The wilds of Apalachicola National Forest never seemed so safe!

Lady lupine (Lupinus villosus) - clumps of these colorful lupines dotted the sandy soil near our campsites in Apalachicola National Forest
We retreated to known places - first the Jewel trailhead for two nights - the same place where we'd met up with Flat Top and Steps and then back to the dry swamp in the shelter of pond cypress trees. Within just a couple of days, campgrounds had closed in both state and national forests and we felt less inclined to cruise around burning gas, looking for novel places to camp. We were doing our best to hunker down. One day we took a hike, heading south, on the Florida Trail from the Jewel trailhead towards Porter Lake. The trail was blissful and in much better repair than what we had remembered from the year before due to hurricane damage. We hiked amidst long leaf pines and saw palmettos, letting their roots and boughs take our worries, while marveling at the wildflowers that seemed to not have a care in the world.

Sweet pinxter azalea (Rhododendron canescens)
Sweet pinxter, a native azalea in full bloom, speckled the green understory. It seemed spring had truly sprung. Nature would continue its cycles even if life as we knew it was coming to a grinding halt.

Bearded grass-pink (Calopogon barbatus) - the "beard" is the yellow tuft at tip flower and pollinia is at tip of curved reproductive column below
Bearded grass-pink, an eye-catching orchid, illuminated the grasses here and there. It's scientific name Calopogon means "beautiful beard" and that it had. I couldn't help but notice what looked like a tiny drop of dew on a curved petal. Further research has told me that this "curved" petal is actually a reproductive column that contains pollinia (mass of pollen grains). Pollinators, such as bees, mistake its yellow "beard" for stamens. When then dive in, the weight of the bee forces the upper lip to bend downward, unknowingly dunking the belly of the bee into the pollinia. These flowers are pretty clever.
Dwarf sundew (Drosera brevifolia)
Here's another wildly unique plant, dwarf sundew, scientifically called Drosera brevifolia. It may look sweet and mild-tempered, but if you're an out! Sundews are carnivorous. At the base of the plant is a small rosette of scarlet leaves. Each of these leaves possesses stalked sticky mucilaginous glands - these can easily be seen with the naked eye - which trap insects. This mucilaginous secretion is also rich in enzymes which then works to digest the insect and provide nutrients to the plant. Look for sundews in damp sandy soil.

Scott and Amos on Florida Trail between Jewel trailhead and Porter Lake
However, upon returning to camp after our hike we were met with a horrific site. We were covered in ticks, from full-bodied to so tiny they were nearly translucent. We picked them off ourselves as best we could and then got to work on Amos. This poor guy had them in his crotch, behind his ears, and even in between his toes in the pads of his feet. Being from the northeast, we're used to ticks, but this was like nothing we'd ever seen. When we hiked the Florida Trail last year, we had no more than a few ticks on us the entire hike. We hadn't even been worried about them this time around. Apparently a week of higher temperatures makes all the difference. Terror overwhelmed us at the thought of getting sick and not knowing if we had covid or lyme. I've had lyme. It's not pretty. And these ticks, with a conspicuous white dot on their backs -lone start ticks - were not like those we have back home. A little google work some days later put us a ease, when we read that, according to the CDC lone stars do not carry lyme. In fact, they carry a bacteria that can allegedly counteract lyme, although I think this statement must be oversimplified. There bacteria can cause various other problems, like a red meat allergy, but given the fact neither of us has even red meat in over twenty years, that wasn't a worry. Still, we couldn't bear the thought of another tick infestation for poor Amos or us. So our next hike took us back to Saint Marks NWR where we hoped the ticks were lesser.

A crane amidst palms in Saint Marks National Wildlife National Wildlife Refuge on primitive trails
We began at the parking area for primitive trails not far from the park entrance. Here we hiked a roughly six mile loop (following trails 105A-114-127-106) that was stunningly beautiful, even if a little frightening for we were flanked on both sides by canals nearly level with the trail. We kept Amos close and never did have to wrestle alligators however we startled flocks of strange birds and spied a cottonmouth making his way through the dark waters beside us. The flowers of every color guided us, giving us safe passage. Ticks were nowhere to be seen.

Southeastern sneezeweed (Helenium pinnatifidium)
Southeastern sneezeweed stood tall and shook in the light breeze. Reportedly Native Americans would dry and powder sneezeweed to use as snuff. Sneezeweed could be confused with tickseed, however they have wider "button" or circular arrangements of disk flowers at their centers.

Swamp leather-flower, aka fairy hat (Clematis crispa)
Swamp leather-flower hung humbly amidst the low walls of green vegetation to either side of the trail. This would be an easy one to pass by as they dangle inconspicuously from twining vines. Another darling name for these flowers is fairy hats, which should you stumble across one, you'll see why. Cup-shaped, they bow their plant faces towards the earth, curling only their petals upward like the brim of a hat.

Following Florida Trail along Sopchoppy River bluffs - notice the knobby knees of cypress knees and exposed roots
The last hike we would take in the Florida wilds would be on the bluffs of the Sopchoppy River. We hoped that here too we could find a less tick ambushed trail. We parked at Oak Park trailhead and walked to Monkey Creek. Old man's beard (Usnea), a highly medicinal lichen, hung in clumps from tree limbs, knobby cypress knees protruded from the Sopchoppy's black waters, and we startled a fox that went leaping through saw palmetto. We hadn't planned on this being our last hike, but when we returned to the parking lot, roughly 3.5 miles later, we and Amos were again littered with ticks. That evening, while camped in the same parking area, we decided the high temps, ticks, and fear of covid was enough. Also we hadn't had a shower since Sarasota and there was no hope for another with campgrounds closed. Wet wipes only go so far. It was time to say goodbye to Florida until next year and head towards home. 

Sunbathing outside the trailer, see Amos in his background, at Starvation Slough campsite
But we were reluctant to let go of the adventure. We decided we'd head north by way of Mississippi. I had never been and there were national forests there where we could boondock. Also, temps looked lower, so perhaps ticks would be lesser. Covid cases were still few and the weather looked good. We drove nearly seven hours and landed in Bienville National Forest at nightfall only to find a locked campground and a sign that read: Closed due to Coronavirus. It was like something from a bad horror movie. We tried in vain to find a roadside pull-off, but the forest was flooded. Narrowly we managed to turn round after venturing down a bumpy sand road and parked just in front of the campground. That night, a train barreled by every few hours, blaring its horn, less than a quarter mile away, its lights shining through the trees into our camper. In the morning we explored the Shockaloe Equestrian Campground, also home to a 22-mile trail. It looked lovely. The smell of sweet wisteria flowers filled the air. It was all so bittersweet. Then we took a look at the weather forecast. Tornadoes, heavy rain and hail were predicted from here to central Tennessee. That was it. It was time to get home.
Amos at ease in his very tiny home on wheels
We drove ten hours - the furthest we'd traveled with the travel trailer in one day - making it near delirium, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, and more importantly just north of the storms. A Bass Pro Shop seemed a fine place to call it a night. The parking lot abutted forest and we shared it with only a lone Mack truck. Amos was remarkably better, even in this paved paradise, and we remarked on how far he had come. We'd gotten into this peaceful routine of arriving at camp every night, and while we popped up the trailer, cleaned up and got dinner cooking, he'd dig himself a shallow hole in the dirt and lay down to nap until sundown. Even then, we'd often have to pull him inside, where he'd chew on a bone for a bit and sack out for the night. In the morning, he stirred when we did and would bound to the truck with excitement as we folded down the trailer. This from the dog who on the first night of our adventure, whined and fussed for three hours straight. This from the dog who, back home, would quiver to even drive through a tiny town. This from a dog who would pee on the floor in fear when entering a new space. He brought such joy to our days from car rides to hikes and we brought to him security and love and in the process, he'd become brave.

The next day was the same, a ten hour drive, this time with flashing alerts all along the highways that blinked, "Practice Social Distancing" and "Shelter in Place." My parents back in PA called us to tell us how very relieved they were that we were returning. We were too. It would not have been responsible for us  to continue our journey, nor was it safe with the need to use public facilities and fill up on gas on the regular. We also knew to fall ill in the wilds of a national forest would be a dire situation for not only us, but undue stress placed upon a small neighboring trail town. But, still we wondered if we were really any safer to be driving closer to the epicenter. Milford, PA is after all, just 90 minutes from New York City. But alas, we'd be home, which felt like a pretty safe place. On the way, we washed our hands after every gas stop and made a point to pull off and pee in the woods rather than use a restroom. We were eager to be off the road. We made it as far as another Bass Pro Shop outside Harrisburg, PA and slept with one eye open, near a busy intersection threaded with periodic disconcerting passerby. In the morning we awoke to pounding on the door from mall security. He stated firmly, "You can't stay here." We assured him he would be on our way asap and in a less gruff town, replied, "Stay healthy." By noon that day, driving through light snow into our flat-topped Pocono Mountains, we arrived safe and sound. Amos ran circles on the lawn.

Hickory Hammock Trail 
We are grateful to have had the time that we did down south. Every single day of our roughly five-week venture was a gift. We are thankful to be healthy and to have all that we need. We are blessed to be in the company of family. Our journey was graced with friendship, tremendous beauty, wonder, and of course so many a unique flower. There are still so many places we wish to revisit in Florida and still so many places we wish to explore for the first time. To this we have to look forward. Thank you to all who made our experience truly a journey of the heart and soul. We'll be thinking of you and those towering cypress until we meet again...
Scott amidst the pond cypress trees in dry swamp, Apalachicola National Forest

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Southeast Journey - Florida Trails, Botanicals, and Magic

Scott amidst the long leaf pines in Withlacoochee State Forest
After a magical visit in Asheville, North Carolina, we continued our journey southward, heading for the lands of towering long leaf pines, canopies of live oak limbs, and sharp-toothed saw palmetto prairies. Amos took it in stride. Having enjoyed daily runs with Addy and Alex, many a group potluck surrounded by new friends both human and canine, and living in his even tinier trailer home, he had become expert at daily adventuring. While on the road for many hours, his preferred spot, despite his weighing in at nearly 70 pounds, was on my lap.

Amos taking the ride in stride on my lap
Our first stop - Lee, Florida. Population 326. If that count included the goats, I am not sure. Lee, Florida is a small community made up of mostly farms and forest located in the panhandle, less than an hour south of the Georgia border. Why, Lee you ask? Well, our hunt for southern property was to continue and nearly one year ago I had saved some possible plots of land on Zillow. This was the only one still available. It was priced right and better yet, not far from where the Florida Trail passes through the town of Madison. Why not?

Sheep at Homefield Advantage Farmstead greeting his new guests
We secured a site through Hip Camp - a website I would recommend in a heartbeat to anyone considering road-tripping - at a friendly little working farm called Homefield Advantage Farmstead for just $20 a night.
Homefield Advantage Farmstead
Alpacas at Homefield Advantage Farmstead
Here we had electricity for our trailer, a shared bathroom with shower and even a commons space stocked with pots/pans, a refrigerator, microwave, and goodies from the homestead should we have needed anything. Look them up! Especially if you're hiking the Florida Trail - the farm is just a few miles away. We enjoyed the company of goats, sheep, alpacas, pigs, and chickens. Amos thought it was grand, well except for the pigs...he steered clear of those oinkers.

Potential two-acre property in Lee, Florida
We stayed in the tiny town of Lee for two nights and spent a day visiting our potential property, which was oh-so-very-different from that which we'd been looking at in Asheville. This plot was two acres, completely fenced, with neighbors visible on all sides. However, we still had to travel down a bumpy sand road, so little traveled grass grew in patches. Two of our four neighbors had goats in the front yard and it was so quiet we could hear only birdsong and wind through the trees. It seemed an idyllic spot, especially with septic, water and electricity already ready to go. Amos reveled in running off leash around the perimeter. Afterwards we perused nearby downtown Madison, which was darling and reminded me of tiny towns in the Midwest, plus with a coffee shop and Mexican restaurant, what more could one ask for? However tempting, it was the first property we had visited, so we decided we would take some time to think on it.

View of Saint Mark's River in San Marcos de Apalachee Park
We drove southwest, more or less following the course of the Florida Trail, towards the town of Saint Marks. Saint Marks is a quaint fishing village and the only place on the Florida Trail where you have to literally flag down a passing boat to cross the river and continue westward. When we were here last year, town was nearly empty as it was still suffering the blows of Hurricane Michael. However when we arrived on a perfect Florida weather day, tourists walked the water's edge and families rode bicycles down its narrow streets. It was again alive. We toured the picturesque San Marcos de Apalachee Park which sits along the shores of the Saint Mark's River and marveled at enormous bull thistle roadside.
Bull thistle (Cirsium horridulum)
Bull thistle may be yellow or fuchsia, both are still Cirsium horridulum. It's scientific genus name means "swollen vein" and speaks to tea that can be made from its leaves for treating varicose veins. Despite its spiny appearance, described by its species name which means "prickly," it is also edible. However one must take the utmost care in harvesting so as not incur injury or dermatitis. Wear gloves! Midribs (center vein of a leaf) may be eaten raw or cooked, as can the inner stalks (stripped of green fibrous casing) of second-year plants before then have grown very tall.

Gator in Saint Marks National Wildlife Area
That evening we headed to Porter Lake Campsite, a free roadside camping area within Apalachicola National Forest. We largely had the place to ourselves, sharing it with just one other woman who was car-camping. We warmly remembered camping here beneath a full moon when we were thru-hiking the Florida Trail and again on this night, one year later, the moon shone bright and round. The next day we headed to Saint Marks National Wildlife Management Area...home to so many gators. This part of the Florida Trail was one of our favorites. Roughly 800 plus miles in and it was the first time we had smelled the salty ocean air. From the dike where we hiked we peered out at marsh grasses, punctuated here and there by only a stark palm tree, that reportedly stretched all the way to the Gulf. On this visit we hiked a eight miles out-and-back from Lighthouse Road to Ring Dike campsite along the Florida Trail.
Scott walking Florida Trail in Saint Marks National Wildlife Area
Ring Dike Campsite
Wildflowers dotted our path and we felt as if we were graced with a sneak peak of what new life was to eventually come back home, even if these were vastly different plants.

Wand goldenrod (Solidago stricta)
Goldenrod is a proliferate plant up north however, down in Florida I spotted species that were wholly new to me. Wand goldenrod is easy to identify because of its upright, non-branching flowering stem. The leaves and flowers of goldenrod may be steeped in hot water for a tea and are one of our best medicines for treating seasonal allergies. Unfortunately, this may come as a surprise given that it's gotten a bad rep for the company it keeps. Goldenrod can often be found sharing space with ragweed, which in actuality, is the plant that causes us to sniffle and snort. Ragweed has light, fluffy pollen easily carried on the wind, whereas goldenrod has heavy pollen that's carried off unsuspectingly by its insect pollinators, too heavy to be wind-dispersed. 

Carolina desert-chicory (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus)
Carolina desert-chicory was an entirely new plant face for me to meet. As soon as I saw it I exclaimed to Scott, "Look! It looks like a yellow chicory!" Chicory is typically blue and is a common roadside plant in the Northeast. You can imagine my pleasure in learning it's common name which pays homage to this resemblance. However despite that common name, it does not share the same genus with chicory (Cichorium), merely its family, Asteraceae. Some further research told me that Native Americans used the plant in cleansing the blood and consumed the roots as food, two uses that it does indeed share with chicory. This is certainly a plant to explore further.

Lighthouse at Saint Marks National Wildlife Area
We paid a visit to the lighthouse, which we hadn't had the luxury of visiting on our thru-hike, and set foot on the one and only, all be it very tiny, beach we would see in Florida.

On the beach at Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge with Amos
Speaking of Florida may be wondering just where our journey stood on the covid pandemic timeline. When we were in Asheville, news of covid hitting the US and its eventual spread was beginning to trickle in, but the world was still in full swing. Our newlywed friends had departed as planned for Peru and my mom would soon be hopping a plane for Illinois to visit her 99-year old father. We had attended a wedding where we'd all held hands in a circle, gone out to eat at numerous establishments, and shook strangers' hands. Once in Florida, we continued to hear through periodic phone calls home that the scope of the virus was worsening, but still we didn't question stopping at Rocky's gas station for fried okra, sitting at picnic tables, or using public restrooms. We also didn't hesitate to embrace our trail family friends when we met them later that evening.

Steps, Flat Top, Bot and Wise Man
Our motivation for heading towards Apalachicola and Saint Marks, besides our love for the area, was to connect with Flat Top, or as some of you may better know him, Sean of Kelly and Sean, the incredibly generous couple who had assisted us on multiple occasions during our thru-hike. Several nights they had put us up in their home, helped us resupply, slackpacked us, and even retrieved us from the northern terminus. Flat Top was thru-hiking the Florida Trail for his first time, along with his hiking companion, Steps. With just two weeks from the end of  their journey, these guys were HUNGRY! We knew they would appreciate some trail magic. So we stopped in Crawfordville at a Pizza Hut and gas station and then drove that pizza, ice cream and soda 45 minutes to the Jewel trailhead in Apalachicola National Forest. Here we pulled out our trailer's folding table and a couple of camp chairs and dined like trail royalty. What a joy it was to talk trail and swap stories! It was fun to learn more about Steps and his previous long hikes and when Steps learned my trail name, The Botanical Hiker, he realized that he'd read my blog post about the dog we'd also named Amos that had followed us on the FT last year, inspiring us to rescue this Amos. Amos was famous! Evidence of how trails bring people together - what a special community we have as hikers.

Amos and our A-frame trailer in dry swamp in Apalachicola National Forest
We returned to Saint Mark's NWA for some more hiking, this time along dikes not part of the Florida Trail and then camped again in Apalachicola National Forest in a hauntingly beautiful swamp gone dry. The sweet thing about the National Forests is that you can camp just about anywhere you please as long as you're a safe distance from a roadway, trail or water way. In a trailer instead of a tent, this is called boondocking as you have no amenities such as electricity or a water hook-up. We were learning pretty quickly that this was the way to go - complete privacy and the bonus of discovering somewhere you might never have otherwise found. Unknown to us, we would return to this place later in our trip. It was enchanting. Pond cypress trees towered in a circular fashion and held vigil over the yellow grasses and lance-leaf violet that sprung from the sandy soil. We felt safe in their care.

Lance-leaf violet (Viola lanceolata)
Lance-leaf violet is one of over 600 species of violet in the world and one very unusual one in that it has lance-shaped leaves. Typically violets will have heart-shaped leaves, or less frequently, lobed or spoon-shaped leaves. My mentors knowledgeable in Appalachia taught that the flowers and leaves of any violets which are white, blue, purple, or a combination of, were safe to consume. But what about this unique beauty? Does anyone know?

Cedar Key State Park with historical marker for John Muir's 1,000 mile walk
We continued south and made a stop at Cedar Key, one very special town nestled in a cluster of islands on the Gulf coast of Florida. Years ago, long before I knew anything of Florida, I had read John Muir's, A 1,000-mile Walk to the Gulf, which through journal entries documents his long walk from Louisville, Kentucky to this very island. These journals were not published until after his death. Few know John Muir was, what we would call today, a long-distance hiker, although he didn't prefer to describe his excursions as hikes. He said we ought not hike in nature, but saunter, taking enough time to appreciate one's surroundings. This journey was one of his first immersions in nature, long before he traveled west and created his relationship with the Sierra Mountains. We sauntered down a trail near the museum at Cedar Key State Park and discovered Yaupon, a common shrub in this habitat, but oh-so-special, thriving in the shoreside forest.

Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)
Yaupon, a member of the holly family, is our only North American caffeine-containing plant. Leaves may be roasted and then using a just a few, steeped in a mug of hot water for a pick-me-up infusion. It's scientific name, Ilex vomitoria, may not sound all that appealing, but don't let that put you off. Native peoples used to make a much stronger version of this infusion which would induce vomiting, in ceremony. Be cautious in harvesting Yaupon however, because many hollies are toxic. Typical of the holly family, Yaupon has evergreen leaves and bears red berries, but leaves are only subtly toothed and about one inch in length.

Yaupon leaf
Cedar Key was a charming village, however a wee crowded for our taste and so we traveled on to Withlacoochee State Forest. We were excited to explore a little piece of the western corridor of the Florida Trail which runs through this state forest. Last year on our thru-hike, we had chosen the eastern corridor given that there were fewer road-walk miles, however we knew there were some gems on this western route we'd missed. We spent the night at Holden Mine Campground, which was clean, quiet, and complete with electric and water hook-ups. This would be the one and only campground we would pay for and camp at on this entire trip. After a restful night with much appreciated air conditioning (our ac won't run off the battery while we are boondocking), we hit the trail the next day.

Scott on Citrus Trail in Withlacoochee State Forest
The Withlacoochee State Forest is home to the Citrus Trail, a 39-mile loop trail considered one of the Florida Trail's over 1,300 miles of trail. The easternmost part of the loop runs concurrently with the Florida Trail's thru-trail. Within this large loop are several smaller loops that may be hiked in a day's time. We chose loop A, given that it was the shortest of the hikes weighing in at 8 miles and we were getting a late morning start. The temperatures which had been hovering in the mid-seventies had risen significantly into the eighties and barely a breeze wafted through the treetops. But we didn't let that stop us! Amos was in the lead, free of his gentle-leader, pulling us down the trail beneath majestic long leaf pines. Long leaf pines don't bare foliage until nearly their uppermost third, and so we were able to spy the forest between their slender trunks far and wide. And on this day, the purple flowers were particularly enthralling.

Early blue violet (Viola palmata)
Early blue violet (Viola palmata) leaf
It was the flower that caught my eye, but it was this violet's leaves, that really drew my interest. Turns out this is an early blue violet, one that I know well from the Blue Ridge Mountains as well as back home in my Pocono Mountains, however never had I seen it bear leaves with just two lobes in an arrowhead shape. Typically early blue violet leaves bear many lobes with deep sinuses (the spaces between lobes). But a little time with my plant guides led me to conclude that this was still indeed Viola palmata. Florida you wow me regularly.

Sky-blue lupine (Lupinus diffusus)
Talk about WOW! I love the lupines of Florida. Only out west did I ever regularly stumble upon lupines. Here we have sky-blue lupine (Lupinus diffusus). It grew in abundant clumps in sandy clearings. Leaves are velvety soft and flowers are many. What a gift to the forest and to botanical hikers passing by.
Deer moss (Cladina evansii) - despite its common name, not a moss, but rather a lichen
Our hike was going great! Amos was ready to knock out long miles, prancing proudly amidst the tufts of deer moss...until suddenly he was not. We stopped for a break around mile 2.5 and Amos collapsed in the cool gray sand beneath the shade of an oak. This was unusual for him as he usually prefers to maintain hiking posture until we start walking again. He panted profusely slinging saliva at our feet. We offered him water and he drank a liter in 5 minutes flat. It was clear...eight miles was not going to happen. Our Amos boy was no Florida dog yet. So we turned 'round and head back the way we came, considerably slower than before, thankful to get Amos back into the cool air conditioning of the truck safe and sound. The Citrus Trail will be waiting for us next year. And Amos isn't the first hiker to let his enthusiasm for the trail get the best of him! From here on out, Amos wears his gentle leader in the Florida sun whether he likes it or not, it's exceptional at pacing him.

Amos with his gentle leader to pace him on hikes and keep him from pulling ahead with all his might - works like a charm!
Our journey continued southward to visit some dear friends and family and also make a return to the prairie...little did we know what covid had in store for us. But I think this post has trailed on long enough! Until our next installment of our Southeastern Journey, thanks for reading!