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)