Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tasty Trail Treats- Catbrier, Violet, and Star Chickweed

MST section 8: traveling east from BRP mile marker 379 to stream crossing

Distance covered: about 1/2 mile

Medicinal and/or Edible Plants Identified: Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens), Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza claytoni), Great Wood Sorrell (Oxalis grandis), Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), Hairy Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum pubescens), Spikenard (Smilacina racemosa), Three-lobed Violet (Viola triloba), Catbrier (Smilax rotundifolia), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis), Agrimony (Agrimonia sp.), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Other Notable Plants: Fairy Bells (Disporum lanuginosum), Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis)

A beautiful sunny day on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail today, in fact almost a little hot. Can y'all believe that we're already this far into Spring- so far that the violets are shrinking, both the toothwort and bloodroot have lost their flowers, and the Sweet Cicley is no longer the size of my palm but instead almost three hands big (one hand for each compound leaflet)? We seem to be entering a second wave of flowers and shoots here in the lower elevations of the mountains, and what a joy it is to be in spring's throes!

I'd like to first share with you another chickweed, Great or Star Chickweed(Stellaria pubera). I found it lining the trail and speckling the nearby woods. Though it grows in groups, each plant seems to stand a more erectly and independently than the other two chickweeds addressed in my last post (Mouse Ear and Common). It's flower is also markedly larger at about 1/2" wide.

So what clues can be used to differentiate this species from the others? It's stem is hairy, however not as much as Mouse-Ear, but more so than Common Chickweed with its fine mohawk. The leaves attach to the stem without stalks. Similar to Common Chickweed but unlike Mouse-Ear, it's 5 petals are cleft so deeply that they appear as 10 until you pluck a flower and turn it over, sepal side up. I also find its stamen much more conspicuous. In this pic, they are the little red/dark brown dots speckling the petals. Basically, this is a chickweed you can't miss.

This is also a chickweed you wouldn't want to miss because it's so tasty. (Again, let me stress that the plants we find on the MST need to be left for others to appreciate, but use the trail to get to know them so you can recognize them elsewhere for future use). I prefer my chickweed raw, but if you like to steam or saute yours, I bet this one would hold up well.  It has a light, crisp, and sweet taste.

Speaking of yummy plants, check out these new Smilax or Catbrier shoots!

For those who have ever walked through the woods, off trail, and gotten caught in a snaggle of catbrier, you may be thinking, "Why in the world would I want to eat a vine covered in thorns?" (This vine's other common name is Blasphemy Vine, and for good reason). And you know, up until a couple of days ago when I sampled some of the new shoots from a thicket by my house, I couldn't understand why either. But when young, the thorns are soft and pliable, not at all pokey, and those glossy green leaves are deeelish. Plus it's kinda fun just to pop a plant with such unruly tendrils right in your mouth - kinda reminds me of a sea creature. It is both sweet and sour. I haven't tried cooking it yet, but according to Brill, it is also good in soups, steamed or sauteed.

The leaves are alternate, round to heart shaped and about 4" long, with strong palmate veins, running from the base of the leaf to the top, almost parallel to the leaf margin. The margins of these leaves were smooth, though some species can be bristly. Leaves are shiny on both sides and smooth. Here in the south, theses vines are often evergreen, becoming more woody and tough, with sharp thorns, and darkened leaves through the winter. They are not edible in this state. Eat only the young leaves and new shoots.

Check out the flowers just beginning to form- they are very tiny and bunched together on short stalks in the axils. Male and female flowers grow on separate vines. The female will produce small blue-black berries, that are reportedly tasteless (they can often be seen still hanging on the vine in winter).

And lastly, for this entry, I'd like to share with you a special violet, as their flowering time seems to be passing (though there are still plenty to see!) Most of us are probably familiar with the Common Blue Violet (V.papilionacea) as well as other similar species, but the number of species is enormous. Newcombs alone lists 31. On the MST, the Three-lobed Violet (V.triloba) appears to be quite common, though I have yet to spot it on on my lawn or around my neighborhood.

 Its unusual leaves sets it apart from the others. Some of the leaves are a typical heart shape, whereas others are cleft into 3-5 lobes. Here you can see both forms.

Violets are excellent for cooling skin inflammation, bugbites, poison ivy, abrasions, as well as for cooling the mood. One can make a strong tea of the leaves and flowers and take internally or apply externally. Do not eat the roots which are poisonous. On one of my herbschool field trips, one boy acquired awful poison ivy and the rest of us were graced with horrendous bugbites. We made a tea of violet leaves, cinquefoil leaves, strawberry leaves, and plantain leaves, mixed it with mud, and applied it directly- I have never experienced such cooling relief and quick healing from any natural or over the counter anti-itch medication.

The leaves and flowers also make a delicious addition to just about any meal. Leaves hold up well in stir-fry and soup and make a good basic green for salads. The flowers are delicate but full of flavor with a hint of pungency. I like them in salads, sandwiches, and with eggs. And both flowers and leaves lend themselves well to baked dishes, both through taste and presentation such as this quiche (as do dandelion flowers!)... boy, will I miss eating such delicacies once on the trail...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mouse-ear Chickweed, Wild Strawberry, and Flowering Mustard, oh my!

So in the weeks leading up to the hike, I'll be playing around with the structure for my posts. I hope to create a consistent format for sharing with all of you a) the section of trail I am addressing b)the day's mileage c) a list of plants identified d) some fun plant musings as well as trail experiences. I also plan to post pics of plants I cannot ID in the hopes that, you, my followers, can help me out! I know I have a lot to learn from all of you.

Here goes...

MST Section 7: Traveling east from cow pasture at Azalea Road to road crossing with Blue Ridge Parkway. Distance covered is little under 1mile.

Edible/ medicinal Plants: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), Common Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris), Barren Strawberry (Waldensteinia fragarioides), Wood Sorrel (Oxalis sp.), Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), Common Chickweed (Stellaria media), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis), Periwinkle (Vinca minor), Violets (Viola spp.), Persian Speedwell (Veronica persica), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium pupureum), Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), Bittercress (Cardamine sp.)

Other Notable Plants: Narrowed-leaved vetch (Vicia angustifolia)

Whew! And all of these useful plants within less than a mile. In fact most all of these can be found within the first 1/4 mile. I hadn't intended on going out to the trail for anything more than a run, but alas, I find a simple run happens less and less. I mean, how can I just go pounding past these lovely little plants without stopping to at least say hello? I end up running from one flower to the next and make mental note of any those I'd like to revisit. So, once finished with my run, I begin hastily rummaging through the backseat of my car, in search of Newcombs. I will retrace my steps. However, considering my intrigue had been sparked as soon as I'd stepped out of the car into a thick strip of roadside plants, I don't make it very far. I am soon on all fours, my nose deep in the grass, in the effort to discern tiny hairs on skinny stems and basal rosettes amidst a tangle of grasses and other grown up greenies.

You can imagine my thrill when I spotted my first Mouse-ear Chickweed. Mouse-ear Chickweed's leaves and stem are fuzzy, hence it's name. But what first caught my eye about this plant was its flower. It looks almost like a Common Chickweed, with 5 little white petals. However, unlike Common Chickweed whose petals are so deeply lobed they appear as 10, Mouse-ear's chickweed's petals are distinctly 5, and only partially cleft. 

Mouse Ear Chickweed

Common Chickweed

Being that I was so close to the road and on Parkway property, I did not try nibbling. But as long as you don't have a problem with some fuzz, Mouse-ear Chickweed is edible raw, sauteed, or as a pot herb. Chickweed is also a traditional alterative (blood cleanser) and thus a good herb for lessening any wintertime lethargy while also supporting springtime vitality. Additionally, it makes an excellent vulnerary (facilitates the healing of tissue-both internally and externally), and so a good herb for cooling intestinal inflammation/heat, skin irritation, or bothersome bugbites.

I also spotted my first Garlic Mustard flowers. Notice the 4 petals arranged like the letter X - typical of the mustard family. Like the leaves, these flowers are quite tasty, in fact many people claim even more so. However being so tiny, they serve as only an occasional spicy-bitter walking treat.

And of course...the Wild Strawberries. Fragaria virginiana produces a juicy and deliciously edible berry - often tastier than those purchased in store. Look for them around mid-June depending on the elevation in sun-drenched locations.

Waldensteinia fragarioides, on the other hand, though complete with a radiant yellow flower, produces a hard inedible fruit, perfect for carrying seed but hardly deemed a fruit by human standards. 

F.virginiana offers an astringent infusion by way of its leaves. How astringent W.fragaroides is, I do not know. But being a member of the Rose Family, I am going to guess it shares this same property. Anyone else know for sure?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis)

Behold! One uniquely tasty community of Garlic Mustard! (At least from what I've heard/read about this plant's usual taste). It grows on a slope just above the narrow stream that runs past my house, partially shaded by a Chestnut tree.  It is slightly sweet and definitely garlicky, yet not so much that it offends the senses. I harvested a couple large handfuls, chopped them up coarsely and dropped them into my pot o' chilli the other night. Delicious. They added just a bit of garlic flavor and took the place of the kale or spinach I normally use. The mustard cooked up quickly, similar to how spinach would soften and shrink.

Brill describes Garlic Mustard as horribly bitter, as have several of my herbal friends. I believe this plant to just be young enough that it hasn't yet developed its bitterness - ah, we and plants share more attributes that we commonly realize. I took this pic about a week and a half ago, and as of the last couple of days, it has begun to form some tiny flower buds that resemble a small crown of broccoli (a typical form of the Mustard family). Now that these buds are forming, I do finally detect the slightest hint of bitter, but no where near that of a say, dandelion greens, even at their best.

Leaves have a scalloped margin, with a deeply heart-shaped base and a rounded apex (more mature leaves; the younger are more pointed) . They are palmately veined and have a sort of wrinkled appearance. Leaves are soft and thin. Veins (more so at the base), petioles and main stems have fine white hairs. The widest leaves on my plants are 4 1/2" across with sinuses (space between lobes) both 1" wide and almost 1" deep. However, the smallest leaves are just under 2" with proportionately smaller sinuses. When crushed, the odor of garlic is released.

I have seen Garlic Mustard along the MST just south of where it crosses Azalea Road in East Asheville, less than 0.1m after the cow pasture and overpass. These plants are not as large, however they have more plants to with which to compete. They share their space with a host of other edibles: Purple Dead Nettle, Purple Henbit, Wild Onion, Bitter Cress (I believe Cardamine Pensylvanica), Violets, and Chickweed. The largest patches of Garlic Mustard being at the base of a slope that leads up to the road (there's also a paved water run-off trench here that would funnel down lots of water) and in areas where the trees part, allowing more sunlight to the saturate the trail edges. Perhaps this area should be called Salad Slope!