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!