Newsletter 1 August 2010

Plant Detective

I don’t own a TV but I have seen many of the survival shows that have been posted in part on the Internet. In one Canadian Les Stroud is in a Georgia swamp. To quench his thirst he cuts what he called a “water vine” and drinks the sap. That got my attention because I wondered just what vine he cut.  In fact, two other survival shows by British experts do the same thing, always referring to a water vine.

To my dismay, a year’s worth of research off and on turned up nothing in Georgia regarding a “water vine.”  There are other vines in other parts of the world that qualified but none that I could locate in Georgia. Oddly enough, however, I found a possible answer in a discussion not about plants but English. That’s not too odd because to learn about plants one often has to study the language of those who used the plant.

There are several dialects of English. They include Irish, Scottish, Welch, BBC English, Australian, Canadian, and American (Actually English is the official language some three dozen countries.)   In American English “vine” can mean any plant that crawls along the ground, or climbs a tree such as a tomato vine, a poison ivy vine, the railroad vine et cetera. In all the other forms of English “vine” exclusively means the grape vine.  An Englishman would consider the phrase “grape vine” to be redundant in that vine means grape, specifically the vitis genus.

With that in mind Stroud cutting a (grape) vine in a Georgia swamp makes sense. Not only are there many wild grapes in the area but some that like their feet wet. More so, (grape) vines have an interesting vascular arrangement. If you cut them they don’t leak unless you turn them upside down. And when you do invert them you can get a quart of clean water out of a one-foot section. The plant itself acts as a filter.

Now it may be that Stroud used some other plant in his show, but as a speaker of Canadian English he could have been referring to what we yanks call a grape vine. Either way you now know of a source of clean drinkable water even when in a swamp.

Smilax Syntax

From thefe roots while they be new and fresh being chopt into fmall pieces & ftampt, is strained with water a juice that maketh bread, & alfo being boiled, a very good fpoonmeate in manner of a gelly, and is much better in tast if it bee tempered wih oyle.

While that is close to my spelling the report was written by astronomer Thomas Hariot in 1590 about the root of the smilax (bona nox.)  Thom was the fellow who introduced the potato to Ireland. He was in Viginia with Sir Water Raleigh’s expedition to have a look around some 420 years ago. Translated he wrote:

From these young, chopped and crushed roots you get a liquid to make bread, and after being boiled, it’s a good jelly-like soup, too, but it tastes better if oil is added.

That the tips of many smilax is a tasty green is well-known. And a starch can be settled out of the root, but it requires far more energy to get the starch than calories one gets out of it. Ten pounds of mature roots produce one pound of starch after many hours of work over several days. A better guess by the ethnobotanists is the — the Amerindians, or who I like to call the First Foragers  — used the starch not to make bread but as a thickener, like corn starch. In that case it was the use not the calories that was important.

Few folks, however, know you can also eat the very young roots cooked as is. Simply roast or boil them. As they age they get woody and tough. But when young and tender they make, as Thom said, very good fpoonmeate.

It Doesn’t Grow Here

It’s a joke I tell during many of my foraging classes: I show everyone a plant or a tree and then tell them it doesn’t grow there.

Granted, there are a lot of different species, some 25,000 in North America, maybe 135,000 world wide. Not every plant can be on every local list. That said there are some glaring errors on such places as the United States Department of Agriculture maps, or even state maps.

A particular tree grows near me, has for at least 40 years, and judging by their size and earlier reports they have been here for a century, probably more. Yet the USDA maps for the area say they don’t grow here. It’s the same with a particular wild pineapple. Again the Feds and the state say they don’t grow here though I know of at least three places in two counties where they do grow, happily. And then there is kudzu.

Hate it or love it kudzu is here to stay. It can grow half a foot a day and is a severe problem in many southern states. At least 15 years ago the state said it didn’t grow locally even though there was some just a mile away from me, and even more two miles away, and nines miles away a huge run of it.

Just yesterday I stopped at a gas station near my home and what did I see? A hallucination, of course, growing along the fence by the station. It surely looked kudzu to me. I blink and looked back and sure enough the kudzu was still there. and closer to me than it used to be. All I can say is the figments of my imagination are rather consistent.

Kudzu is quite edible cooked, from the root to shoots and young leaves, though the leaves have a texture issue. The seeds are not edible. As long as people are complaining about kudzu rather than surviving on it we are still in good shape.

I was reminded of this local kudzu denial when I visited a small county park about 25 miles north of me. It had been recommended as a foraging class site and I went to check it out. The park recently had a quarter of a million dollar renovation. It has plenty of plants and has been added to the list of sites to hold foraging classes. But, as soon as I smelled the intense aroma of cheap grape gum I knew there was kudzu nearby. And there is, everywhere, growing quite lushly. Now I have another place where a plant doesn’t grow.

If you are one who regularly checks USDA maps to learn if a species grows in your area don’t be disheartened if it says no. That map could be a century out of date. And, it might say certain species grow in your area that no longer do. To get on the list a specimen has to be collected by a bona fide botanist and turned over to an official herbarium for preservation. If no one has done that, the map says no. Also I don’t think anyone other than very local special interest groups ever check to see if a species no longer grows in an area. Some Native Plant Society chapters, however, do catalogue local species. Their lists are usually more up-to-date than state or federal sources.

Elderberries, Water Hemlock, Poison hemlock

Among beginning foragers there is often confusion between Elderberries and the poison hemlocks, especially the water hemlock which tends to like the same damp environment as the elderberries. There are several ways to tell them apart.

The most common is that the elderberry is a shrub and on older growth the elderberry has bark. The hemlocks are herbaceous, usually smooth-skinned, often the stalks are blotched, mottled or streaked with purple. Locally young water hemlocks can be entirely purple. Elderberries produce berries. The hemlocks produce seeds. The elderberries tend to have an inflorescence that is flat topped often indented in the middle. The hemlocks tend to have a more umbrella shape inflorescence. But there is one tell-tail sign of the hemlocks.

If you look at the top side of the leaves very carefully, the veins of the hemlocks terminate between the teeth of the leaves. They clearly end between the teeth in the notches. In the elderberry the top veins run to the tooth or fade before getting to the end of the tooth.

Pomegranate Ponderings

I planted a pomegranate bush some ten years ago and it is producing nicely. Insects leave it alone but squirrels are a problem. The fruit appeals to them to try but they don’t eat it, they just ruin it. So it doesn’t take many squirrels to eliminate a season’s crop. That’s when I break out the squirrel cage but that’s not what this entry is about. It’s the pomegranate peelings.

If you’ve ever mistakenly eaten a bit of pomegranate peel it is bitter and astringent. That’s why one picks over the seeds carefully. But, those peelings have medicinal applications. They are an excellent treatment for lower digestive problems, such as diarrhea.

Cut up peelings into small, nickel-sized pieces and dry them in the sun or dehydrator. To make a  tea, take 4-5 dry pieces and put them into a cup of boiling water. Some report one cup is enough to cure the problem though in severe cases you may need a cup of tea each day for several days. Whether you grow your own pomegranates or buy them save the peelings.

And Now For What It’s Worth…

Elephants hate chili. Firing Ping-Pong balls filled with chili at them keeps them away from crops.


If you’ve ever wondered, adding curry to livestock food reduces, ah… their methane production up to 40%. The curry kills the bacteria that produces the methane.


Price update:  Since June of this year wheat is up 35%, corn 15%, soy 10%. Wild edibles are holding steady.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • TON11111@LIVE.COM November 15, 2011, 8:10 pm


    • Green Deane November 15, 2011, 9:04 pm

      Not that I know of but you should get them from a nursery that way you are more assured you will get a productive tree.


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