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 future...my 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 leather...in 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.

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