During a class this weekend I noticed the Chinese Tallow trees are blossoming. The tree poses a challenge. It has an edible fat and a toxic oil. The question is how to easily separate the two. And if “easily” is the wrong descriptor then how can it be made worth a forager’s while?
The tree is an invasive species locally so finding a use for it would help the environment. Also as a source of fat it could literally be a life-saver in time of need because humans cannot survive without fat. In fact one can readily see the fat (also called wax.) It just doesn’t render easily.
Each seed has a thick coating of highly saturated fat, one reason why the species is also called the popcorn tree because when in fruit it looks covered by popcorn. By all reports the outer coating is edible and has been used to make candles, hence calling it wax. In fact the tree was imported from Asia by Ben Franklin specifically to start a candle-making industry in the South. As a saturated fat the outside is very solid at room temperature. Inside the seed is a liquid oil called stillingia. It is toxic to humans.
The “wax” is supposed to melt at 104 F. I’ve tried frying the fruit. The outer coating of fat stays solid. I’ve tried boiling. No luck. My readers have tried broiling — the seeds exploded — and micowaving, they got softer but did not melt. In China, reports Merriwether of Houston Edibles, they are reportedly softened the fruit in boiling water than scraped over a fine grater with 0.03-0.5 centimeter holes (Merriwether is a scientist.) Sounds like a great way to grind down ones fingertips. A third reader has a daughter who used it for a science project. Here’s what they did.
First they bought a hand-operated oil expeller. They cost about $150 on the Internet. (I’ve been trying to get some of the companies to give me one to review but without success.) They put the entire fruit through the press which also heats the material. Out comes a liquid mass that upon cooling has the solid saturated fat on top and wax on top and the oil on bottom. The student went on to make candles out of the “wax” and used the oil in a lamp. She won three science fairs and two scholarships. Way to go!
The next question we ask is whether the “wax” and the oil will sufficiently separate so the wax can be used as food? Also is it just as stubborn to melt even after being processed this way? My last question would be how digestible is it? The invasive species certainly has a lot of potential. You can read more about the Chinese Tallow tree here.
Fall is not the only time to harvest wild yams. We typically use obvious air bulbils in the fall to locate the vine often with large edible roots. But we can also locate smaller, edible roots this time of year as well. You look for the telltale square vines and pairs of opposite leaves. However, early in the season it can be a little tricky because young vines often haven’t developed pairs of leaves yet and will have singular leaves until older. However, the stem is square and the vine has what is called a Z-twist. That is at eye-level it twists from your lower left to your upper right, like the diagonal mark on the letter Z.
During class this past Saturday in Longwood it took only a few minutes to dig up several small yams, 20 ounces of roots in total that can be used like potato. They are perfectly stored and well-hidden from most eyes. In the fall one can find roots from five pounds shaped like a two-liter bottle to easily 30 pound or more. To read more about the Winged Yam go here.
After Sunday’s foraging class I visited herbalist Emily Ruff et vir for a wander around their fertile back yard and machinate about plants. It’s amazing what can be grown in a suburban back yard if you apply some knowledge and thought to it. They invited me to lunch but usually after class I avoid eating to help burn off some of that extra avoirdupois age silently packs on. After walking for four hours my body starts to tap into that fuel tank around my waist (some guys are working on six-pack abs, I’m trying to reduce the keg…) But when they offered me pickled Stachys floridana roots I could not say no. Absolutely wonderful: Crunchy, delicious, and a feast for the eyes as well. I would have easily begged for the recipe had Emily not promised that it will be posted on her website soon. When she does that relished repast will be resurrected here. Pickling is a fantastic way to preserve these delightful roots which already have a radish-like texture. Should they decide to go commercial with the product I even have a name for them: Staykles. To read more about Stachys floridana click here.
The fir tree called the Easter Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) has edible parts. Young needles are used to make a tea and the inner bark is edible as well. The tree is also quite threatened and down to 1% presence in some places compared to when Europeans first arrived. One reasons is many areas of the country are overpopulated by deer and their urine is threatening the tree’s future. Deer like to nibble on the Eastern Hemlock. They know a good thing when they taste it. Their urine, however, is high in nitrogen and hemlocks like low nitrogen soil plus they are slow growing. Trees such as the sugar maple, however, like high-nitrogen soil so they are moving in and outgrowing hemlocks. (Don’t confuse the tree called the hemlock with a green herbaceous plant call the hemlock, which is deadly.) And while permaculture is a related speciality and not my area of competency it might be nice to have a cute deer or two in the back yard to recycle “garden waste” and make nitrogen…
Upcoming foraging classes: Saturday, June 22nd, Florida State College, south campus, 11901 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32246, 9 a.m. Sunday, June 23rd, Colby-Alderman Park: 1099 Massachusetts Street, Cassadaga. Fl. 32706, 9 a.m. To see the full schedule go here.