Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Nachusa Grasslands

Last week I made a family visit to the lil town of Princeton, Illinois. To a mountain girl I must say this town, although quaint and peaceful, seems mighty flat, surrounded by cornfields on all sides complemented by tall shade trees here and there. However ever since visiting a protected patch of prairie at Hennepin and Hopper Lakes with Uncle Rick some years ago ( I have known that there is far more to the Midwest than just corn even if it may appear that way at first glance, or second, or third. This landscape used to be tall grasses and wildflowers, roaming buffalo and insects endemic to the prairie flora and soil. The Nature Conservancy is working to restore a 3500 acre plot of farmland, now called the Nachusa Grasslands, to its once wild state. Lucky for me they were holding their annual Autumn on the Prairie event, a day of plant walks and bison tours, while I happened to be in town!

Bernie Buchholz identifying native prairie plants
I had the opportunity to take a walk with Bernie Buchholz. He claimed to be relatively new to the prairie ecosystem, however his last 10 years volunteering at the Nachusa Grasslands have served him well, as he was able to identify not only the flowering plants but the seedstalks and curling leaves of nearly every plant that surrounded us.

Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus)

Gentian (Gentiana spp.)

Blazing Star (Liatris spp.) gone to seed

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

 Marbleseed Plant (Onosmodium spp.)

As we crunched our way through the drying stems and stalks of summer's flowers we noticed the disproportionate ratio of flowers to grasses. This is because the grasses take longer to establish themselves than the wildflowers do. However, as walked further into the rolling landscape, the grasses became more plentiful as we then stood in a patch that had been managed and allowed to proliferate.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Restoring Nachusa is no small feat but rather one of autumnal seed gathering from the prairie, plantings in the spring and periodic burns. How the gathering and planting of seeds encourages growth is clear, whereas burning the very vegetation you wish to nurture may seem self-defeating. But, prescribed burns are quite the opposite. Burning portions of the prairie on a rotating schedule helps to stimulate microbial activity in the soil and therefore increase nutrient availability, suppresses non-native plants (in particular shrubs that can easily take over), and even extends the growing season for warm weather plants. The bison herd that was recently introduced here even plays a role in the maturation of the prairie by "tilling" up soil with their horns and hooves, inadvertently aerating the soil and planting seeds. On a well established prairie filled with grasses, they are also apt to eat grass as opposed to flowers, maintaining a healthy balance between the two.

Unfortunately I was not able to capture any photos of the bison herd as the line for the shuttles to that particular portion was easily 100 people deep. Now if the flowers could only get that much attention!

Trail through Nachusa Grasslands
After the guided plant walk I returned by shuttle, mind you this was a pick-up truck's tailgate packed with 10 other plant enthusiasts (this in all seriousness added greatly to the fun) to the main entrance of the Grasslands. Here I found a self-guided loop trail that one could walk with a number of prairie plants conveniently labeled for identification. Therefore any plants of which I had failed to scribble down the names as Bernie had rattled them off, I was able to gather here.

Prairie Thistle (Cersium canescens)

Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Not only is Nachusa home to native prairie plants and bison, but it also provides a home for some of the 1700 prairie dependent insects....perhaps these are a couple here....any insect experts reading?

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seedpods along with crawlies
Along this prairie loop the grasses also easily reached over my was once said that these grasses stood so tall, a man on horseback could stand amidst them and barely be seen, apparently the same could apply to an herbalist...

Me and Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) overhead
I  walked this loop, and then a trail that wandered further out into the prairie without any signs or posts or tags, in the golden sun and under an exquisitely blue sky, and found myself wanting to savor this place, a lil of the past in the present. I walked amidst the oranges and reds of the changing wildflower leaves and stalks, the cottony tufts of thistle seed heads and brown button-tops of dead standing coneflower. It was me and the flowers in a sea of Big Bluestem and others of which I hadn't yet learned the names. I stretched out my arms to feel the grasses on my fingertips, to be a part of this meadow for a moment. To commit its beauty to memory.

Yes...lucky me.

Thank you Nachusa Grasslands for nurturing this place and providing me with an opportunity to experience some true Illinois landscape, a glimpse into the past and a hidden gem amongst all that corn. I will surely be returning.

To learn more about Nachusa, visit, or volunteer, you can check out their website:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gatherings Galore!

The crew on the Abbot Loop Hike at the Finger Lakes Trail Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous over the weekend
I am excited to share that I will be giving a number of presentations this October. The first two will be at the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association 34th Annual Gathering at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, PA, held the weekend of October 9-11th. This gathering costs just $20 to attend and will be a weekend full of trail talk thanks to the many hikers that will be presenting on a slew of topics from stories of hiking long distance trails throughout the country to the nitty gritty details of how to plan for a long distance hike. Cost is only $20 for the whole weekend including camping (meals are extra but reasonably priced). This is not an event to pass up! Below is a description of my two presentations, one will be held Saturday morning, the other Sunday afternoon, exact times to be decided:

Thru-hiking the Mountains to Sea Trail:
Join me for a slideshow and discussion on North Carolina's 1200 mile Mountains to Sea Trail, including information about some of the most easily prepared wild edible plants she that found along the way. I will be comparing and contrasting my experience of hiking the MST with that of hiking the AT as well for those of who have already hiked this monster of a trail or are interested in perhaps doing a lesser known (and less populated!) trail. Question and Answer will follow.
Thru-hiking the Finger Lakes Trail:
Join me for a virtual trek along New York State's nearly 1000 mile Finger Lakes Trail. I'll be sharing tales from the trail to provide a better understanding of what it is like to hike this wilderness path as well as some of the edible and medicinal plants you can expect to encounter along the way. Lots of compare and contrast to AT as well. Question and Answer will follow.

Hiker Fair
Throughout the Gathering weekend I will be set up with a host of other outdoors vendors, selling my book, A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail. Be sure to stop by, grab a signed copy and talk trail!
To Register and for more info on the ALDHA Gathering please visit:
My third presentation will be at the local library here in Milford, PA on October 27th at 6:30pm. This talk will be information packed so be sure to bring a pen and paper...or perhaps your tablet or iphone...whatever you take notes on nowadays so you don't miss a plant! Below is full description of class:
Eat Local: Identifying the Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants in Your Own Backyard
Pike County Library, Milford Community Room
Join me for a walk through your own backyard, a trek in our nearby woods, and a stroll down our small town streets. Local wild food is abundant and delicious and can be found nearly anywhere you go! I will help you learn how to identify these wild edible morsels and useful medicinal plants as well as share some tales from the trail. There will be plenty of time for question and answer about all things wild!
To register for this event, please call the library at (570) 296-8211 or sign up at the circulation desk.

Taking a break at the Dunham Lean-to during Paul Warrender's hike inside the Finger Lakes National Forest with Peter Fleszar  of the Mid-State Trail) and Larry Blumberg  of the Tri-Cities Hiking Club
I'd like to close this blog with gratitude. I had a leg-aching, food-scarfing, heart-lifting time at the Finger Lakes Trail Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous this past weekend. I enjoyed the company of familiar faces from my good to see you again!...had the pleasure of finally meeting some loyal blog followers...what a treat!...and had the chance to learn from North Country Trail hikers and volunteers just what that 4000 + mile trail is all about. The North Country Trail shares 400 miles with the Finger Lakes I've already got a lil chunk done! I also devoured lots of delicious food, served just the way hikers like it, at a buffet that is, and attended two incredible hikes, hiking a total of 18 miles in a little over 24 hours. I left feeling both exhausted and filled up, grateful to be a part of this hiker community.
If I didn't see you there, I hope to see you in the spring at the Finger Lakes Trail Campout...or perhaps even sooner at the ALDHA Gathering in Shippensburg!

Fellow hikers on the Abbot Loop Hike - this hill contributed to the leg-achin' part!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Late Summer Savory and Sweet

As much as I'd like to pretend that the summer is not nearing it's end...evidence of the changing seasons is everywhere I look. Walking the woods, splotches of scarlet are bleeding through the green canopy overhead and yellow streaks by on my periphery when out for a run. Yarrow flowers are browning dried stalks and Wild Carrot's flat-topped doilies are now cupped bird's nests. However....good thing is...there's still a number of summer plants that we can continue to savor and a host of late summer/early fall plants making their appearance. Today I walked no further than my backyard and found enough to keep me busy in the kitchen for a good while....

Common Burdock (Arctium minus)
Burdock (Arctium lappa and Arctium minus) is easily identified by its enormous leaves that can grow up to 2 feet long. Leaf margins are curly and the long leafstalks will be solid with a single deep groove if you have Great Burdock (A. lappa) or hollow if you're holding Common Burdock (A. minus). Leaves are smooth and pale green above but covered in a thin wool on their undersides at any age. Burdock begins as a basal rosette in it's first year, and by midsummer of its second year has begun to form a tall, leafy flowering stalk. Flowers are purple and bristley, larger and long-stalked on Great Burdock, smaller and short-stalked on Common Burdock.

Burdock (Arctium) root
But enough about what's above ground, let's get to the root of the matter. Burdock roots are edible anytime during their first year's growth or during the beginning of their second year, or in other words, before it has sent up its flowering stalk. The roots are simple to prepare but not so simple to harvest. When Burdock is very young (leaves just 6-8"), the roots will be slender and skinny and easier to dig up, however you'd have to dig a lot of these to get enough for even a side dish. The larger leaved plants will possess very large roots, several feet long in fact, but good luck with digging up that entire root...especially in the rocky soil of the northeast! I managed to dig up some good hunks using a shovel and a sharp trowel, although a digging knife would have served even better.
Sauteed Burdock with minced garlic and olive oil
Burdock roots initally look like a dirty, knobby, woody mess, but dirt easily washes off under running water and the not-so-attractive outer skin yields to your average vegetable peeler. Once cleaned and peeled, I sliced roots on the diagonal into disks, simmered them for a few minutes on the stove top, and then sauteed for a few more minutes with some olive oil and minced garlic. If you do the same, be sure to save the water after simmering for a medicinal tea, beneficial as a liver tonic. These burdock morsels would make an excellent side dish with any protein, taking the place of a starch, or a nice addition to a veggie stir-fry. However, I simply savored them as is, enjoying their nutty, subtly sweet, flavor. One of Burdock's greatest nutritive properties, is its inulin, a fructooligiosaccharide that feeds healthy gut flora (think of it as probiotics for your probiotics, essentially a prebiotic) and helpful in leveling blood sugar.
Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa)
Speaking of teas...this is a prime time to be harvesting the abundance of Goldenrod that can be found flowering in dry meadows, along woods edges, and roadside, in fact very likely near Burdock and the following plant to be featured. What you see here is Rough-Stemmed Goldenrod (Solidage rugosa), however this is just one of many species that can be found in our region, and all are medicinal. When its flowers are vital and healthy looking, simply snip the stem at the base of the plant to harvest the above-ground-parts (stems, leaves, flowers), chop coarsely, and add to piping hot water. Allow the plant parts to infuse for 10 minutes, keeping the lid on the pot. Use one loose handful of plant to 16 oz of water. I added the portion you see above to a 1 1/2 quarts of water and it made a strong tea.

Tea will be yellow in color and bland tasting with a hint of astringency. Adding honey can brighten up the flavor some if you find it lacking. However, I enjoy drinking it alone for its ability to support kidney function. It can be consumed as a tonic, in this case meaning in moderation and regularly, to alleviate bloating, edema, as a preventative against UTI's, and even to assist in alleviating chronic environmental allergies. This is a gentle medicine that also has the capacity to resolve major issues, especially when used in conjuntion with other herbs. Leaves and stems may also be dried and saved for use throughout the year.
Berries of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
Last on today's menu was something sweet....Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) berries. As you can see from the photo, these are just beginning to ripen so get 'em while the gettin' is good! The birds will be quick to pluck these berries from their silvery stems although if you're lucky to find them after a frost, they are even tastier then. Autumn Olive berries has an unsual confluence of flavors, being both sweet, tart, and astringent, and it is one that I adore. 

Underside of Autum Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) leaf
Autumn Olive is a large shrub, widely branching, with not only silver speckled berries, shimmery twigs, but also green leaves that bear irridescent undersides. It may be a non-native invasive, escaping from landscaped lots or gamelands where it is planted to attract wildlife, but it is a pretty escapee nonetheless. Berries contain two fibrous seeds that are edible but can be some work to chew. If you prefer your berries seedless, this fruit makes a delicious spread or fruit leather. Simmer the berries, stirring and crushing, strain out seeds, add sugar, and you have a tasty Autumn Olive mash.

With all these wild edible delicacies, how can I not embrace the coming autumn, not to mention those scarlets and yellows will soon mingle with oranges and tans and every earthy color inbetween.

And for those of you attending the Finger Lakes Trail Fall Campout and North Country Trail Rendezvous tomorrow in Cortland, NY, I am so looking forward to seeing you there!! Unfortunately, I can only attend Friday and Saturday but I intend to make the most of those two days.

Stay tuned for an update on the classes and presentations I'll be giving in the month of October. The details are all worked out, but there is not enough space in this post to share them!