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...

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