Monday, October 24, 2011

Zimmerman Farm

Looking out from the haybarn

Randy enjoying a Black Birch (Betula lenta) chew stick
 Several afternoons ago on a crisp autumn day, a friend and I ventured up to Zimmerman Farm just outside of Milford on Route 209. Parking the car at the bottom of an old carriage road, we walked only a short distance when the buildings came into view. On a small portion of this 1300 acre estate sits a stone house, stunning in its architecture with a short but stout steepled tower, large 4-paned windows with green shutters each adorned with a single cresecent moon, and a wide outdoor stairway and patio leading up to its back-of-the-house barn-style double doors. Surrounding this well-preserved home, built sometime in the early 1900's, are numerous outbuildings, a hay barn, and two smaller residences perhaps for family or farmhands.

Apple trees and unique ornamentals - unknown to me- can be seen lining old pathways, however, the landscape is largely overgrown. Blackberry and Barberry now dominate, along with a host of wild lettuces, tall grasses, and dried stalks of wintering plants. This landscape is probably abuzz with insect life in the spring and summer when blossoms are popping. Although now quiet and entering slumber, this earth still offered some bright plant life...

Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora)

Yellow Foxglove (Digitalis grandiflora) flowers up-close
 I found this plant growing in clumps not far from one of the secondary residences. Although Foxglove is not native to this area and often hybrized as an ornamental, I believe this to be one species that has long since naturalized in this region. The dried leaves of this plant have powerful glycosides called digoxin. You may recognize digoxin as a pharmaceutical used in regulating and strengthening the heart, though it does contain extracts from Foxglove, it is from a different species, D. lanata. This is a medicine to be respected and handled with great caution, as it can easily cross the line from therapeutic to deadly. Considering the host of safe herbal medicines for conditions of the heart, I would not recommend Foxglove as medicine.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)
 Mitchella is a creeping evergreen vine, most often found trailing along the ground in Pine woods. In late spring and early summer it bears two 4-petaled white flowers at the end of its branches, by fall producing two edible (though tasteless) red berries. A fellow classmate once suggested cooking them up, adding lots of sugar and some pectin might produce a tasty jam. This plant is excellent for toning the tissues of the uterus, bladder and urethra. It can be helpful in bladder infections, interstitial cystitis, and urinary tract irritability, as well as protatitis. Historically it has also been used as a partice preperator, strengthening the uterus in preparation for childbirth. A tea can be made of the dried leaves, using 1teaspoon per cup of water or it can also be taken as a tincture, 2-5 dropperfuls three times day. This plant is on a "watch" list of potentially endangered plants, so if you must use it as medicine, please do so respectfully, taking only what you need and not uprooting.

Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Finally, here is an easy plant to identify that can be gathered in abundance and easily enjoyed as a wild edible. Meet Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae). This plant can be found growing from between rocks, hugging the base of trees, throughout old farm fields, along the edges of roads, and anywhere soil seems thin and dry and available. Notice the two lobes at the base of each leaf, making it appear like a lamb's head with its ears sticking out to either side. It has a strong lemony flavor and makes a nice addition to salads, sandwiches and soups.  

As we wandered further from the buildings, following the old carriage road as it wound up and around a steep hillside and into open woods, we paralleled stonewalls which led periodically into old clearings and crumbling foundations. We came to a swamp, the overflow of a nearby pond, catching a Bald Eagle as it flew between standing wood from dead trees whose bases had been gnawed away by resident beavers to the shape of hour-glasses. And with the sun beginning to dip below the treetops, we decided to call it a day, turning round and heading back to the farm. Thank you Zimmerman Farm.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Living on the Edge

Trail through Milford Experimental Forest

Before I delve into this post, I'd like to give you a sense of place. I am presently up in Milford, Pennsylvania and will be residing here at least through the winter. Although I miss Asheville immensely, I have family here as well as a welcoming community of fellow plant lovers and hikers. Asheville is a place with its roots deep in the earth, full of knowledgeable plant experts and appreciators of wilderness. Milford and the surrounding area - rural New Jersey and New York contain similar pockets of like-minded people that are ever growing. So, being that I  have a set of roots here, I'd like to water them a bit and contribute some to this place I called home for so many years. I will still be returning to Asheville to teach various plant walks and classes in the branches will simply have to reach a little ...

The good news is that most of these northeastern plants can be found in Western NC as well!

To one side of my house is the Milford Experimental Forest: 1000+ acres of undeveloped forest land protected by Peter Pinchot, grandson to conservationist, Gifford Pinchot...these are the woods in which  I have spent and still spend most of my time. To the other side of my house, just a ways down the road is the I-84 overpass and a sand quarry (not quite as picturesque, eh?) However, as discovered on the MST, civilization does not necessarily equal the absence of useful wild plants.

White Pine woods by sand quarry

A couple of days ago, the rains finally subsided, crisp fall air and bright shining sun abounding, I was called to meander into the sand quarry. Surrounding the quarry are dark White Pine woods filled with moist mosses and mushrooms of every color. But between wasteland and woods is meadow and thicket. The plants found here thrive on the edge of both habitats, enjoying the open sky and run-off waters. 

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Seeing the irregular shaped flowers gathered into a thick spike above opposite toothed leaves, I knew surely what family I was looking at: Mint (Lamiaceae). Rubbing the leaves between my fingers, the strong scent of mint roused my senses. But what kind of mint was it? Upon closer inspection, I saw the leaves were more oval shaped than spearmint and the spike not interrupted. The larger leaves were stalked, like that of Mountain Mint, but Mountain Mint's flowers come together in whorls at the axils (clustered at leaf stalks in circular arrangement) rather than this singular terminal spike. Mints do have an easy ability to hybridize, so I am always a bit skeptical of my found mints, but this one seemed to sigh Peppermint (Mentha piperita) from every angle.

Peppermint - soon to be tea!

Free of dust and debris, non-native, and growing in abundance, I quickly harvested a fat ziploc, which I plan to dry for tea. Always a pleasure to drink tea from one's very own surroundings. How this mint came to be here I do not know, but mints seem to easily travel and create homes and with this being a populated area, likely it came from an old homestead or nearby house.

Wondering from the quarry I followed the Sawkill Stream towards the base of the overpasses. Excited at first to stumble upon an abandoned falling apart shack, I examined its construction, making notes for my own someday and wondering if this one could still be salvaged. However I then spotted a very much inhabited house through the trees just on the other side of the stream. Hmph. Not wanting to disturb anyone (or their dogs), I hustled up the steep embankment to my right towards the road. It was here that I spotted little buttons of red amongst the leaf litter, the red berries of Wintergreen.

Wintergreen  (Gaultheria procumbens)

Wintergreen or Checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens) is evergreen, like many members of the Heath Family (Ericaceae). With alternate, oval shaped, slightly toothed, dark green leaves, it is low to the ground, easily passed over when hiking in thick woods. However, look closer and you may find a carpet of it beneath you (as I did further into the woods) In summer it bears small white flowers that hang beneath the leaves, but by fall these have turned to a bright red edible, though tasteless, berry. Berries will often hang on until following spring. When crushed, they smell strongly of wintergreen and can be gathered throughout the year to make a tea.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)

Last but certainly not least, I have been very much enjoying the ripe berries of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). This is a non-native invasive shrub, which was once often planted for ornamental and wildlife purposes (deer looove it). The leaves are alternate and often somewhat curling or crinkled on the margin. Undersides of leaves are shiny silver as are the branches. The berries have their own sort of sparkle, speckled with golden dots. Each berry has a single fibrous seed. These shrubs line the road en route to the overpass and are quickly overtaking the fields behind my house. Easy to harvest, they are delicious with cereal, salads, on ice cream, and make an excellent sauce or fruit leather.

underside of Autumn Olive leaf

Speaking of fruit preparation for my MST hike I thawed several quarts of autumn berries I had harvested in the fall and cooked them up, adding just a touch of sugar - they can be quite astringent. Next I mashed them up and pressed them through a sieve to remove the seeds. Though edible, the seeds can sometimes be a bit tough and troublesome. Then, pouring the makeshift puree into a pan, 1/8 - 1/4" thick, I baked it on the lowest heat possible -about 200degrees- for several hours with the door slightly cracked to allow moisture to escape. I then sliced it into strips and peeled off. Perfect hiking food!

Check back soon for more plant info and hiking adventures in the Northeast! I apologize for the lengthy gap in posts, but it's taken me some time to get myself up and running here...techie stuff...always a challenge.