Chickweed stole the show this weekend.
In well-watered spots chickweed was in green glory, lush, full, blossoming, happy to be alive. With such healthy plants it was easy to find the identifying characteristics: stretchy inner core, a single line of hair on the main stem that switches 90 degrees at the nodes, a five-petal blossom that looks like 10 petals, and uncooked chickweed tastes like raw corn. Also sprouting patches of green on the monoculture brown park were stinging nettles. It’s still early in the season for nettles with most of them no higher than four inches, just about the same height as our winter henbit also available for the picking. A private forage later on produced, surprisingly, some native mint and a lot of true thistles. Lot’s of food and flavor there. There were also ticks-a-plenty.
Before the state of Florida went on the Internet most of the information it thought fit for its citizens to know was produced in pamphlet form. When the shift was made to the Internet some information got lost or was dropped. One useful bit of advice was using sublimed sulfur to keep ticks off. Available online or through local pharmacies or chemical supply stores you put it in an old sock or the like and dust your cuffs and collar with it before entering tick habitat. It either repels them or vastly slows them down from finding a place to grab on, giving you more time to find the hardy ones. I have used it for many years very successfully. I still find a tick or two on me now and then but not attached. While I am not a biochemist I would suspect this would not be something you would do if you had a sulfur allergy.
Florida Herbal Conference is February 15-17. Organized by Emily Ruff, you learn better at conferences because you are getting a distillation of information from teachers with years of experience. Any questions can be answered quickly and to the point, no rummaging around to resolve an issue. You’re also with like-minded folks so there’s instant camaraderie. You are the majority. For more information and a discount if you use EATTHEWEEDS go to: Florida Herbal Conference.
Green Deane’s videos on DVD are nearly ready. All that is left is figuring out the printing on the DVD’s themselves. There will be 15 videos per DVD and nine in the set, ordered separately or together. It has taken a long time — a year — to put these together because of varying formats and basic video quality. There was also a compromise between quality and the number of videos that can be put on a DVD. I am hopeful that starting this month they will be available for order. The videos will be almost the same — in number and quality — as what is available online for free. However I know many of you want your own set. They will be ready soon.
If you didn’t find a weed book you wanted under the Christmas tree here’s one you can pick up locally or order. There isn’t as of this writing a good book about Florida weeds in the south with good pictures et cetera. However, the University of Florida has put out an unintentional one, Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses. What I mean is the book is not designed for foragers but rather land managers. However, the majority of the plants in the book are edible. It has 437 color photographs of 193 weed species found in the south usually on lawns and the like. As you can see by the link I have a list of them and what pages they are on. Many of my students just print the list then paste each entry on the appropriate page. There is also a link on the page to order it through the state of Florida. DO NOT ORDER IT THROUGH AMAZON OR OTHER BOOKSELLERS. Why? Because they can charge you from $49.95 to over $800 for a book you can buy at a local extension office for $8. If you order it through the link I provide it is $14 plus shipping. Yes, I actually found one bookseller asking over $800 for it. As it says on the link I do not get any money for recommending this book. It is just an inexpensive, handy book to have.
As Charlie Brown said often: Aaaaaaarughhhh. Preparing for a class Sunday morning (at 40 degrees) I carefully picked some stinging nettles with gloves on. The “Burning Dwarf” fought back with one finger bearing the brunt of its wrath. That burn will be with me for a week. Apparently I am amongst the most sensitive people on earth to its sting. As Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of each broadcast: “And that’s the way it is…”
We had a good class and managed to stay warm. I also took with me a natal plum, swinecress (which we later found there) some Usnea and a couple of Milkweed Vine fruit, some of which was mentioned in last week’s newsletter. While we nibbled on many things among them were Turks Cap, Oxalis, Black Nightshade (see photo below) Smartweed, Violets, False Hawk’s Beard, Plantagos, Fireweed, and Hairy Bittercress which is barely hairy at all. Also noticed during the forage was a tasty False Roselle not yet done in by the cool weather. And although the Eastern Red Bud won’t flower in profusion for couple of months we found a couple of cold-daring blossoms to look at.
What is the prime mistake made by foragers? That’s very easy to answer: They make the plant fit the description. It happens to beginners and old hands as well. The beginners don’t see the details and the more experienced are irritated the plant doesn’t fit so they stretch the definitions. But as the bromide warns the devil is in the details. I will readily admit I loathe details. It is not me by mind or personality. It is one of two reasons I did not stay with law…details and the you-must-win mentality even when you’re wrong. But details, as much as we might not like them, are what foraging is all about. If I can suppress my irritation with details and work with them so can you. The good part is that you can get to know a plant well enough that the details make a whole picture and you don’t have to think about them as much with plants you know.
I had a friend who thought of himself as an outdoorsman thus beyond needing to study edible plants. Many years ago he called me one day asking “how do I get the seeds out of the pigweed berries.” I knew there was a problem immediately. Our local “pigweed” does not have berries but our local nightshade does. Our “pigweed” (upper right photo) is an Amaranth and has seed spikes. About the size of fingers or more they are covered with tiny flowers that produce a multitude eye-of-the needle seeds, tan to black. No berries involved at all. Conversely the nightshade produces an umbrella-like spread of black shiny berries on one small stalk (photo to left.) It does have a lot of seeds inside the berries. So I thought I had better ask him why he wanted the seeds before I told him him the Amaranth didn’t have berries but the nightshade did. He wanted to grow some in his yard. They had been steaming the leaves and eating them like spinach! When I got done explaining he said “then that’s why we’ve all been getting headaches after eating the leaves.” Indeed. The leaves of this particular nightshade are edible but they must be boiled in one or two changes of water, not steamed.
My friend had skipped many details. The wrong identification also led to the wrong preparation compounding the error. Admittedly they did have a few things in common. They were both green, grew in Florida and had leaves that can vaguely be the same rough shape, diamondish. But the difference between a seed spike of small green flowers vs. a cluster of shiny black berries is not paying attention to details. Fortunately no great harm was done. No matter how much you study plants details are always the bottom line. I have been struggling this past week with a mushroom identification, an endeavor in which details can quickly mean life or death. I’ve got the genus figured out, Agaricus, but the species is eluding me. Supposedly there are no deadly species in the genus but I don’t want to prove an exception to the rule. It has come down to two details that are, thus far, thwarting identification: The spores are the color of milk chocolate. They are supposed to be the color of dark chocolate. And the annulus, that’s a ring around the stem. It basically doesn’t have one when it should. I think I have figured it out but I think it will take me another season — read a year — to be sure.
Details are important even though I don’t like them. But staying alive is even more important. Locally two plants you will commonly encounter that you need to know about are the edible elderberry and the deadly water hemlock. To the beginner they can look similar. To learn important details about them and how they differ click here.
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