Sunday, July 15, 2012

Northeast Amblings

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
This fair maiden was inconspicuously sitting amonst tall grass in a dry meadow where I often like to take a moment to catch my breath while out on a trail run. When I retured to this very spot just a week later, she and her friends had dried and shriveled to brown husks. Now, a good month later, all that remains are the thick velvety basal leaves. It was a privilege to admire you for the short time you bloomed.

Let me begin by saying it's been a full spring and summer thus far. Four days a week, after working 10 hours in a 100 degree kitchen whipping up cupcakes, flipping omlettles, and pressing paninis, I drag my slug-feeling self to the trail, lace up my sneaks and sprint. The first half mile is always the toughest as the thoughts of doubt creep in..."maybe it's too hot out here today"..."you had a long day, maybe you should just take it easy"..."maybe I'll just run to that bend and turn around"...but before I know it, my tight hamstrings have loosened up, my blood feels thin and flowing easily, my arms pump in unison with my legs, and all I can hear is the periodic birdsong loud enough to be heard over the whooshing wind in my ears and the huffing and puffing of my breath...and I can run for miles. By the time I return to where I've started it's as if the workday never even occurred; I have reset.

Spleenwort (Asplenium) - This single frond stood tall amidst the brown leaf litter alongside a trickling spring off of Old Mine Road in Montague, New Jersey.

The spring surfaced from beneath this enormous Oak - to give you a concept of size, Kiely here is 6'8" and normally appears quite tall. A deep stone pit along with a rusty pipe remained at it's mouth, evidence people had once collected water from this spring for use. The water was crystal clear and cold- refreshing on a muggy, buggy, humid NJ summer day. 

On my days off I sleep in late with my sweetie, have a lazy breakfast of eggs, toast, and cowboy coffee, and ponder what we'll do for the day. It may be a stroll along the D&H towpath following the Mongaup River dropping in for a dip in its frigid fast-flowing mountain waters. This path is lined with blooming Rhododron and Mountain Laurel, reminiscent of the southern Appalachians, trailing arbutus, and hemlock. Other days, we drive a windy road up to Point Peter- the highest peak in Port Jervis, NY, mind you a rather short peak in comparison to the nearby Catskills- where we can follow a deer path along the ridgeline, affording us expansive views of the grimy town below and flat-topped NJ/NY green/blue moutains in the distance and Mack trucks rolling along like ants on I-84. At our feet are oak saplings, blueberry bushes, barberry. In the moss and collected soil on the rutted cliff rocks are corydalis and various members of the Heath family. On days where we have more time  we'll take a longer hike to Stairway Falls, a rocky narrow trail through mixed woods, where Dwarf Ginseng, Common Cinquefoil, and Blue Violets isit at our feet. The reward at the end of this walk is a crystal clear lake, complete with water fall, dying trees on the horizon and a sweeping view of the Delaware River below and Appalachian mountains beyond.
Viper Bugloss (Echium vulgare) - This all-over bristley black-speckled member of the Borage Family was crowded amongst Common Moth Mullein, Milkweed, Daisy Fleabane, and tall grasses inside the Iona Island Preserve located in Bear Mountain State Park, NY. According to Peterson leaf tea is useful for promoting sweating, as a diuretic, and externally in healing boils; however it also contains the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids which can cause liver damage. I would recommend using this plant as an external medicine only.
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) - Check out those "fairy wing" stipules (to quote Juliet B.)! This is a key identifier to Red Clover, that and its cluster of irregular magenta colored flowers that resemble a pom-pom. This flower makes an excellent lymph-mover when steeped as a tea, while also offering a healthy dose of phytoestrogens. Ladies, drink up! Be certain to only harvest fresh flowertops, as the brown and wilting ones can have a blood thinning effect, dangerous to those on meds such as warfarin. I have seen these beauties along roadsides, in meadows, and on the edges of woods - an abundant medicinal wildflower.

What I have by far loved the most however about being back in this area is the easy access to swimming holes and river rock from almost anywhere in the area. Within minutes, I can be jumping over a jagged cliff into the Delaware, bracing my feet against slippery smooth stones in the rushing Mongaup, squatting in a shallow swimming hole in the Sawkill between car-sized boulders, or wading into the Raymondskill at the base of a crashing waterfall. It has by no means been a summer of hardcore hiking, but certainly a season of greeting the colorful faces of woodsy, roadside, and railroad wildflowers from Bloodroot in the early spring to Prunella and Wild Strawberry in the late spring to Milkweed now in midsummer.

Just one of the many lovely swimming holes along the Sawkill Stream. I took this pic while literally hiking up the stream, the large flat rocks combined with thick treeroots making perfect flat steps to make the hike easy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Old Mine Road

On a recent sunny afternoon, I found myself, my love and his mother in my ol' Ford Contour, bumping and bouncing along down one of the oldest continuously used roads in the country. Old Mine Road runs 104 miles from the Delaware Water Gap to Kingston, NY and is said to have been in use, firstly as a Native American trail since the mid-1600's.  From the Water Gap to Port Jervis, NY it is a rural two-lane road bordered on either side by dense mixed woods, cornfields, old barns, historic churches, and tiny graveyards. Traveling from Port to Kingston it is improved (or so they say), becoming a NY state highway. I have explored portions of this road before as it is a corridor leading to some gorgeous trails, many of which lead to the river. But what made this time different was that I was doing so with a new set of eyes. I now saw the plants.

We chose an unassuming trail. After straddling a rusted iron gate, we strolled down a wide path, bordered on either side by White Pine, Hemlock, and Oaks, interspersed with Iron Wood and Beech. The ground was unusually soft and springy, seemingly silty and covered in a carpet of green moss.

Northern White Violet (Viola pallens)

We soon came to a cemetery with headstones, some as simple as a jagged piece of slate stuck into the earth, others shaped and engraved yet so weathered they were hardly legible. I must admit, I spent little time inspecting dates and inscriptions but rather found myself on hands and knees exclaiming at various Violets peeking through the yellow-green grass, the white-speckled carpets of  Chickweed running from head to foot-stone, and the delicate Bluets clustered about the bases of gnarled trees. Not only was the sight of all these Spring -sprung wildflowers beautiful, illuminated in dappled sunlight, colorful and vibrant amidst gray standing rock; but it was an edible utopia - the most abundant I'd seen since being home.

Unknown blue Violet (Viola )

 All Violets consist of 5 petals, irregularly shaped and arranged - meaning all petals are not the same in shape, size and color. Most bear only basal leaves such as these two seen here, however some do have alternate leaves as well. Heart-shaped leaves dominate the species but their are a few with tear-drop shaped leaves as well as many-lobed. Some flowers can be as small as 1/4-1/2", such as the Northern White Violet, where as others can be as large as 1". Blue or white violet flowers can be consumed raw in salads or sandwiches and usually have a mild spicy flavor. The leaves are also edible and can be eaten raw, sauteed or stewed as one would spinach.

Creeping Bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia)
There are two kinds of Bluet (Houstonia) that can be found in our area, one is the Creeping Bluet (H.serpyllifoila), the other simply known as Bluet or Quaker Lady (H.caerula). The photo above was taken on the MST in NC, but happened to be the best I had to show off the Bluet's tiny 4-petaled face, pale blue with a yellow ringed center. The Bluets here in the graveyard were actually H.caerula, differentiated from H.serpyllifolia by their slightly longer, more oval shaped leaves, arranged in a flatter, more spreading basal rosette, and with more erect stems. H.caerula does not seem to cluster as tightly together as H.serpyllifolia, each flower standing independently. These make a nice addition to salads or sandwiches or simply plucked and eaten raw.

Running Cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) bearing last year's seedpods 
 Hiking on from the graveyard, the trail narrowed and darkened, the mixed woods turning mostly to evergreens, many of the Hemlock's lower branches bare and dead, easy to snap. Here the plant community entirely changed. The trail was lined with thick clusters of Lycopodium, a group of ancient plants belonging to the clubmosses. Clubmosses are not actually mosses but are more closely related to ferns. Lycopodium were once as tall as trees back in the days before the dinosaurs, but like many living things since that time, have shrunk. Though they do reproduce by seed, they reproduce mostly by rhizomes. These are roots that spread and just above or below the soil, sending shoots upwards, giving rise to new plants.

Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)
 It was here that the single Canada Mayflower leaves began to appear like little rippling seas of green. These will eventually produce a raceme of tiny 4-petaled white flowers perched atop a stem bearing a few alternate shiny leaves. Being part of the Lily family (Lilaceae), these are also referred to as Wild Lily-of-the-Valley. The entire plant is reportedly astringent and has been used by Native Americans and settlers to soothe sore throats and ease coughs. I myself have never used it as medicine nor do I know how it was prepared or ingested.

Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) leaf
Suddenly we spotted something amiss in the glossy green leaves of Mayflower...the mottled leaves of Trout Lily. These too begin by sending up a single leaf but when in flower (seen below!) will bear two leaves and a single nodding yellow bell-shaped flower. The bulbs are edible, though I have yet to find this flower growing in large enough communities to feel comfortable harvesting them. They can be boiled for 20-25 minutes and served with butter (Peterson Field Guide). The leaves are also edible, boiled for 10-15 minutes and yummy served wtih vinegar (Peterson Field Guide). I do plan on revisiting this area and harvesting a few leaves to test Mr. Peterson's recommendation.

Trout Lily in flower
The narrow trail again widened, soon becoming imperceptible as it wandered and spread out in multiple directions through barberry bushes, beech saplings and tall grasses. We had reached the river, with a view of Minisink Island directly across from us. Here, the plants again changed and we caught sight of the large-headed vibrant woodland wildflowers, such as the Trout Lily above, which grew in communities seemingly circular shaped just before the embankment leading down to the water. With enough sunlight, these flowers were  a step ahead.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
On the thick mud and rock covered slopes we spotted Bloodroot. This is the first I've ever noticed this plant up north. I don't know if I simply wasn't paying attention before or if it grows less abundantly here than in the mountains of NC. This was a plant that made me smile every time I passed it's bright white petals and hand-shaped leaf (fingers and all!) while on trail runs. Just before a storm or in the dusk when the light lessens, the single deeply lobed leaf will curl around the stem just as this one here and the flower will close to protect its pollen. This flower is termed bloodroot because of the bold orange-red juice of its roots and stem. Bloodroot has a long history of use among both Native Americans and the eclectics as an emetic and  in curing warts. It is also used today in some toothpastes as an antimicrobial. It is however a strong medicine, shown to produce lesions when applied topically in excess, as well as act as circulatory and respiratory sedative when ingested in large amounts. This is a plant to be respected and allowed to proliferate, considering its populations are not as large as the used to be.

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) 
Lastly, as we wandered the topmost edge of the river's slopes, we brushed by clumps of little white "breeches" trembling in the wind. I looked for little men running about at my feet without their pantaloons, but alas perhaps they were all red-faced and hiding. Again, a medicine used by native peoples but with central nervous system depressant qualities and tending more towards poisonous than medicinal, one to be respected. However, I must say I do like it's lore as a love amulet. One tribe's young men liked to throw these sexy breeches at potential mates to secure their affection. A bit of botanical strip tease perhaps? If this didn't work, the man could nibble the root and his breath would attract his desired woman even against her will (Peterson). Hmmm, considering this bit of info, I'll close this post on a word of caution: Ladies, better keep an eye out for those sneaky breeches.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spring Amblings

Milford has been experiencing unusually warm temps for this time of year, and so for once, the spring time blossoms have actually correlated with the Spring Solstice. As strange as it's been to roam the woods in shirt sleeves and shorts and still break a bit of a sweat in March and April, it's been absolutely blissful to again experience the warm evening breezes, morning birdsong, and falling of confetti like petals from the tree-tops above. In addition to the moderate temps, it's been a dry season with little snowfall to saturate the soil, but the woodland plants seem not to mind, sprouting and shooting and popping from the forest leaf litter.


With the longer days, most of my hikes have been late in the day, after work with dusk quickly approaching or on a lazy afternoon in golden slanted rays of sun. What a trip it is to again be walking these woods on a regular basis. To look to the horizon and see the familiar flat-across-the-top Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey Appalachian Mountains, the thickets of barberry and piles of shale deep in the woods, and nature persevering side-by-side with man's footprint of pavement, construction, and junk...I know these are my woods. These woods are home.

But enough with the musing...I'm just putting off the difficult task of choosing just which plants to feature in this post!

Stellaria media (Common Chickweed)
These two beauties were part of a thick community of Chickweed and Cleavers (Galium aparine) carpeting an embankment along the Neversink River Park walkway in Deerpark, NY. Using a pocketknife, I quickly harvested two handfuls - the plants being about 6" tall, it was easy to grab the above ground parts and simply slice across at soil level. I stewed them up that evening in sweet potato stew, and keeping them refrigerated, enjoyed them for several more days on cheese and veggie sandwiches. Chickweed is one of the first edibles flower in the spring and likes moist soil and partial shade.  Not only can humans enjoy nibbling this super yummy green, but  cotton-tailed critters like 'em too!

Rabbit in chickweed thicket - notice white topped flowers in background
 Along the edge of the sandy gravel walkway, basal rosettes of Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) sat like giant velvet green flowers, not yet bearing their flowering stalks, which will appear the second year of Mullein's life. The yellow 5-petaled flowers of this plant are excellent soothing expectorant for the lungs -try drinking as tea or taking as a tincture - as well as helpful in breaking up wax in the ears. Common practice is to make an oil infusion of the flowers, however, I have found a simple tincture, using just a few drops, works just as well if not better.

Verbascum thapsus (Mullein)

Speaking of plants in poor soil, it often seems some of the most thriving edible plant communities exist in, unfortunately, the most polluted of places. Below is Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum). This cluster was growing amongst Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea), Cleavers, Dandelion (Taraxcum officinale), and Garlic Mustard (Alliara officinalis) upon a rocky riverside embankment on the Delaware River. Being close to residences, a neighborhood park, and the bridge which links Matamoras, PA and Port Jervis, NY, this strip of land had collected much trash that had both washed ashore as well as been swept downhill with run-off. Broken bottles shone admist the smooth river rock and plastic bags shook in the breeze from their tangled perches in the cherry tree saplings and yellow grasses. Sad to see such a beautiful area marred with garbage, but good to see the beauty that can coexist. Perhaps this is the mere nature of vitality, to thrive even amidst the muck.

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)     

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Asheville- A Glimpse of Spring

Kiely and I just off the parkway near the MST with Looking Glass Rock behind us
Oh Asheville! I visited with friends, savored amazing Asheville food and drink, and got out into the woods! I returned to portions of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where it parallels the parkway, meandering familiar running routes and hopping rocks down the river that runs through Graveyard Fields (thanks to this one above who prefers to pick his own path). I remembered the bliss of hiking through these mountains, spectacular vistas around every corner, and felt grateful to know them so well. They too have become a home for me.

Thank you to the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for putting on such a wonderful event for hikers and those interested in hiking/supporting the trail. It was awesome to meet fellow hikers Scot, Danny, Sharon, Heidi, and William and hear your stories. Good to know there is so much enthusiasm and love for the trail...and to all those interested in the plants of the trail, know that my book is in the works! Any help in regards to potential publishers and marketing would be greatly appreciated.

Above all, how sweet it was to walk the trails and see tell-tale signs of spring popping up from the mica-speckled red clay and drying leaf litter. Sweet as it was, mid-February is a bit early for some of these appearances. Friends expressed concern at what would happen with a cold snap that will inevitably come in the mountains before true spring arrives. But, the good news is that many of these plants are adapted to the cold weather and are nearly indestructible with their trailing interconnected root systems. I think these hardy greenies will do just fine.

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)
This wild edible was one of the first spring greens I exclaimed over while hiking on the River Trail at Warren Wilson College (my alma mater). Although called a "nettle" this plant is actually of no relation to true nettles (members of Urticaceae), however they are thought to resemble them due to their heart shaped leaves and hairiness. They are called "dead" because unlike true nettles, these do not have hairs that sting. Purple Dead Nettles are members of the Mint family (Lamiaceae), easily identified by their opposite leaves, square stems, and irregular 2-lipped (bilabiate) flowers. Found growing in dense colonies, they are a common weed throughout waste places, along roadsides, and in gardens. The above ground parts can be harvested and eaten raw or boiled with a change of water as a pot herb. Don't be scared by the hairs, simply make sure you have some water nearby to chase your trailside snack.

Bird's Eye Speedwell (Veronica persica)
Not far from Purple Dead Nettle, I found a carpet of Bird's Eye Speedwell, yet another wild edible. This plant is a member of the Plantain Family (Plantaginaceae), with Veronica being the largest genus therein. Though at first glance its flowers may appear regular (equal in size, shape, and color), notice that one petal is actually slightly smaller than the rest. The leaves are alternate and its stem round, both softly hairy, though not as much as the Purple Dead Nettle. I came upon this plant regularly while on the more "civilized" parts of the MST, as it is a common weed along roadside and on lawns. In this case, I found it underneath a cement bridge that crosses atop the Swannonoa River.

Wild Onion (Allium spp.)
And now the spice to add to your salad of Dead Nettle and Speedwell- Wild Onions. These are members of the Lily famlily (Liliaceae) and consist of various species such as A.cernum, A.canadense, and A.vineale, some refered to Wild Garlic as well. I find it difficult to discern just which I am looking at without seeing its flowers which will be 6- petaled and regular. Leaves are long and narrow and hollow (seen here) and arise from a underground bulb. Strong in flavor, they can be chopped up and eaten raw, sauted, or added to soups and stews as one would chives. There are poisonous look-a-likes, though all are odorless and will not have 6-petaled flowers growing terminally in umbrella-like clusters as onions do.

Among these edibles, I also found baby Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Chickweed (Stellaria spp.), and Common Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla).

Putty Root (Aplectrum hyemale)
Here is a non-edible that I came across that I feel still deserves some attention. A member of the Orchid family (Orchidaceae), this leaf will persist all winter and in the spring shoot up a pencil thin stalk bearing alternately stalked and slightly drooping tiny greenish-purple flowers. The leaf can be up to 10" long, though those that I have found are most often between 6-8", and 3" wide, easily identified by its parallel silver venation. It is an endangered plant, at least in NC, so if you come across it, handle with care! The name Putty Root results from the glue-like substance which the Native Americans found could be derived from its bulbs.

A view from the River Trail

Thank you Asheville. A week in the sun with clear blue skies, 60 degree temps, magnificent mountains and love all around did me good. And I'll have you know, Milford, I bottled up some of that bright southern sun and brought it back with me. So although it's presently snowing and gray and cold, I'm right now popping the cork and spreadin' it 'round, let it shine!   

Monday, January 30, 2012

Return of the Greenies!!

Potentilla sp. (Cinquefoil - species unknown)

While out for a good long hike yesterday, soaking up the last bit of clarifying sunlight of the day, I actually stumbled upon some of the first fresh greenery of the season.  It is only the end of January and here in Pennsylvania, spring time plants popping this early are rather rare. However, our weather has been unusally warm and the skies snow-free (I wish I could say the same for rain - but at least we are getting some moisture which may hold us through the often dry summer), and so I think these beauties may be showing their faces ahead of schedule. I only hope that their slender stems and delicate veins can stand the cold temps yet to come...perhaps their roots are hardier than their above ground parts let on.

Newcomb's Guide lists 12 species of Cinquefoil for this region and I suspect there may be even more. A plant this young can be hard to discern, but I am guessing this is Dwarf Cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis) due to the fact that it's leaves are toothed only above the middle and not along the entire margin. It is also weak-stemmed and low to the ground. All Cinquefoil are astringent, which makes them helpful in tightening the mucus membranes and tissues in general, and in decreasing inflammation. One can make a tea of the leaves to alleviate diarrhea or to gargle with in the case of a sore throat. On a field trip with my herbal medicine class, we made a strong tea (equal parts plant and water) of Cinquefoil, along with other astringent/anti-inflammatory herbs such as plantain and violet, and  applied it topically along with heavy smearing of mud to a student's severe case of poison ivy. His rash had lessened and his symptoms greatly improved by the next day. I in turn used it on my ever swelling and itching bugbites that covered my feet and ankles and was able to actually sleep through the night for the first time in several, without waking up in a scratching frenzy.

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens)
Meet Trailing Arbutus, a low-to-the ground evergreen plant that will in early spring bear white or pink cup-shaped edible flowers. These reportedly make a delicious sweet-sour addition to salads or as a trailside nibble (Peterson). The leaves can be made into a tea, effective against urinary infections and as a diuretic, essentially used as one would Uva-ursi (both are members of the Heath family). However, just as Uva-ursi should only be used for short periods of time, so should this plant (no more than a week). It contains arbutin, which is a strong urinary anti-microbial that prevents the adherence of bacteria to the urinary tract lining.

Rock Tripe Lichen
There are two genera that are considered Rock Tripe- Umbilicaria spp and Gyrophora spp. - I do not know which one I spotted here, but whatever it was it was thriving. Rock Tripe has always reminded me of rubbery looking leaves clinging to the sides of already lichen covered rocks. They are often brown/green above with black/dark brown undersides which curl up readily to show themselves. This lichen is allegedly edible if simmered for an hour with a change or two of water, however I have also heard it to be merely a "survival food", aka, "too horrid-tasting to eat unless on the verge of starvation." But, please don't let me deter you if you feel so compelled. I plan on trying it myself at some point, I just can't say I've really felt the urge.

Cladonia cristatella (British Soldier)
These little red caps immediately drew my attention as they blinked from a bed of green moss and white scaley lichen. These are considered Frutose lichen because they stand upright (Frutose can also refer to lichen that hang down such as the medicinal Usnea spp.) The little red caps are the spores which can take up to four years to form. These are the reproductive bodies. These lichen can be an important food for white-tailed deer and turkey during the long winter months, as well as shelter for such often under appreciated creatures as the water-bear which share similar attributes as lichen- such as the ability to dessicate and go into long periods of hibernation as well as survive the vacuum of space (no I'm not kidding about that last one). I am uncertain of their edibility or medicinal use as far as we humans go, but many lichen do contain anti-microbial properties...and if nothing else such a unique relationship between a fungus and an algae, as well as a groovy little red hat, should be respected.

A mossy rock formation alongside trail in Pinchot Experimental Forest
 To wrap up this entry, I'd like to say...I realize the greens may have gone into hiding the last couple of months but I too have disappeared and would like to explain my absence. A poor excuse I know, but the working world has sucked me in. I am happily baking at a family owned eatery here in Milford and getting to know such plants as Wheat, Sugar Cane, and Cocoa quite well and they demand my attention 5 days a week, 8 hours a day.  On the eve of my days off, I fantasize about awaking to a crisp clear winter morning and hitting the trail, getting lost in the woods with nothing more than a camera, a backpack, and some peanut butter...but wuh -wah, I have awoken every day for the last month to pouring rain, icy sleet, or some combination thereof. Winter in the northeast I suppose. I've also been quite happily settling into a social life here and working at building relationships that feed me on levels the plants cannot always fulfill. Life has been generous with family close, friends abundant, and love sweet. 

But...the woods they are calling. The days are getting longer- I even catch the tail end of a setting sun at the end of my workdays now - and though we are only now approaching February, I can feel spring is on the way. My feet will again be shuffling through the leaf litter of the previous year with my eyes to the budding branches of the season to come. I will continue to be recording my adventures, insights, and findings here. So please, STAY TUNED!

Also, this Saturday, on February 4th, I am heading down to Saxapahaw NC for the annual Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Conference. Here I'll be recognizing all the volunteers that work so hard to make the trail what it is as well as talking a bit about my experience thru-hiking. From here I'll be cruising onto Asheville (by car!) and spending 5 blissful days in the mountains - so if any of my fellow plant/trail lovers are about, please shoot me an email and I'd love to catch up!