Forage Friday 1 Cattail

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Before I begin I feel the need to explain the concept behind Forage Friday. First and foremost, Forage Friday is not intended to teach you everything you need to know about wild foraging. Many of the plants I’ll be covering do have toxic look-alikes and for an inexperienced person could result in disaster. It’s highly recommended that you seek out further information before trying it yourself. One of the best resources will be those of the older generation from rural areas who have relied on wild foraging to get by in hard times. They’re just full of knowledge and crave interaction. As you’re reading the post please remember that the author is very human and as such is capable of errors so it’s best to double check with other sources. With that said, it’s my hope that you are entertained and inspired learn more.

One of the first wild edible plants that I learned is also one of the easiest to identify, I’m speaking of course of the common cattail. I remember that when we were kids we’d pretend that the distinctive flowerhead was a corndog. After all, it’s a hotdog shape on a stick. It even looks like it’s breaded. The “hotdog” is not really edible. It’s densely packed fluff would be like trying to eat a down jacket. This is actually the seeds. However, in its season the male flowers are loaded with bright yellow pollen. The pollen is collected by sticking the spike in a bag and shaking it gently. Soon you’ll have a protein rich powder that is generally mixed 50/50 with wheat flour. I have not actually tried it myself but I’m told that it makes awesome pancakes!

What I have tried is the cucumber flavored rhizome and stem base. They are carbohydrate rich and as a type 2 diabetic I tend to avoid carbs these days. But they are tasteful! The big thing to avoid here is contamination. Cattail is capable of absorbing both chemical and biological toxins. Because of this they are quite useful as biological filters in septic systems and in areas where the capture of chemical run off needs to be dealt with. That’s not to say that you can’t ever give them a try but be selective about where you find them. Open ditches in urban and suburban areas are most likely to be full of lawn chemicals or sewage. That pond out in country is a better choice but there’s still agricultural chemicals. Basically, if you wouldn’t eat the fish out of that water source then avoid the water plants as well. As I’ve matured and learned more about things like cryptosporidium I would no longer recommend raw cattail. Instead, scraping the starch out of the stems and leaf base to thicken soups.

Other than the food value of cattail it’s got some tool and craft uses. The fluff from the “hotdog” is a great tinder for your campfire. When I was a kid in Civil Air Patrol we learned that fluffing the down and stuffing it under your jacket makes a great insulation. The leaves are strong enough to be woven into mats or twisted into a string but it’s fairly weak and not suitable for anything that is under stress. But making a sun shelter for an extended stay in the woods is a perfect application.

Cattail is referred to as “Mother Nature’s supermarket. If I tried to list all of the tips and tricks that I’ve learned concerning cattail the post would be so long that reading it would take more time than most people are willing to invest. However, I do know that most of my fellow Appalachians probably have a trick or two to add. The majority of my readers find my posts through groups that I share with on Facebook. I want to encourage you to either comment on the post, or my Facebook page and even my blog is open to the public. I’d love to hear about your experience with cattail. How did you use it? Did you ever fall into the pond when pulling out the stems and leaves?

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Winter And Wild Teas

In the natural world winter is a time for rest. The animals tend to stay in their dens. The hardwood trees are in a deep sleep as are the bears. Even the deer find a nice place in the deep woods where they can shelter from the cold. The days are still short and the cold nights are long. Just perfect for deep rest.

The giant elm tree in tonight’s feature image is just as beautiful in the winter as it is with its leaves on in the warmer months. One of the special treats of the colder months when I was a kid was bark teas. I’d be careful about where I harvested the bark (see note below) but elm actually has a nice spicy flavor. Several years ago I was able to try it for the first time. Traditionally it’s used for sore throats and colds ( I’m not a doctor or a certified anything so this is historical statement and not medical advice) due to the gelatinous fiber it yields. The flavor is similar to the Balsam Poplar that grows in higher elevations. In just a few months the buds will begin to swell and they make a good tea as well. In the old days, the Basswood (Linden or Lyme in Europe) buds were a source of winter food for my ancestors. Winter hikes in my teens always included stopping by a grove of black birch for a handful of wintergreen flavored twigs to nibble on. Sassafras was also a wonderful bark tea with an aroma that filled the house. There’s also the Carolina Spicebush who’s twigs provide a very lemon like flavor and the red berries of the stag horn sumac which has to be filtered well but gives us a pink lemonade in winter.

Perhaps that’s why I like this big old elm tree so much. It’s not only because it’s awesome to look at but it reminds me of all the cool stuff that the Appalachian forests provide even in winter.

(NOTE: WHILE THE TREES AND FOOD USES MENTIONED IN TONIGHT’S POST WERE TRADITIONALLY USED IN APPALACHIA THERE ARE HAZARDS AND FOOD ALLERGIES TO CONSIDER. FOR EXAMPLE, THE ELM IN TONIGHT’S POST IS GROWING NEAR A PLACE WHERE HAZARDOUS SOIL CONTAMINATION IS A RISK AND THEREFORE I WOULD CONSIDER THIS PARTICULAR TREE UNSUITABLE FOR CONSUMPTION. IT’S A SAD REALITY OF THE MODERN WORLD AND JUST NOT WORTH THE RISK. MCHM IS IN USE IN THE REGION AND LOCALS KNOW ALL TOO WELL THAT BY THE TIME A SPILL IS REPORTED IT’S ALREADY TOO LATE TO PREVENT CONTAMINATION. )

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Blackwater Falls Through Old And New Eyes

The cold weather if late Fall and early Winter always draws my imagination to the Pleistocene era. I can imagine how the lone hunter must have seen his pristine world. He walks through a land untamed by clocks and unnatural restrictions. As he steps out of a thicket his eyes behold the falls for the first time. He is at one with the rhythm of nature as he approaches the edge of the water. He sees the fluid movement of the shadows as they dart around beneath the falls. His feet are in tune with the earth as he raises his Atlatl spear and slowly gets into position. As he casts his stone tipped dart towards the target his eyes never lose focus. There’s no splash as the dart penetrates the fish below the water’s surface. His skills with the weapon are so deft that the rest of the fish are undisturbed until he wades into freezing water to retrieve his meal.

Today Blackwater Falls is a popular tourist attraction in West Virginia. A paved path leads to the wooden staircase and there are platforms for taking in the view. However, it’s still easy to imagine that you’re a wild human roaming the wilderness in the distant past as you look down into the Falls.

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The Big Old Tree On Route 60

I love big old ancient trees. The older the better. In ancient times, big old trees were thought to be magical entities that stood between heaven and earth. They guarded the secrets of the universe. Trees also represent a shelter for weary travelers. The give us food and medicine. I believe that the tree in the feature image is a Red Elm tree. Also known as the Slippery Elm, the inner bark yields a mucilaginous substance that is used to treat respiratory ailments. The tea made from the inner bark has a sweet spicy flavor that’s pleasant enough to enjoy just for relaxing. Don’t drink too much because it’s also a laxative.

I’m really surprised that this one is still around. Sadly, the Elm population was nearly destroyed by Dutch Elm Disease. In the spring the government hangs purple boxes in the trees that attracts the beetles responsible for the spread of fungus. The beetle traps seem to be working well so hopefully we’ll have these awesome trees around for generations of travelers to shelter under or collect medicine from.

The Providence Of God & Walking With My Grandfather

Some of my most cherished memories are the long walks with my grandfather. He was World War Two veteran who walked with a cane due to shrapnel that was embedded in his leg but that never seemed to slow him down. He would come over to our little house trailer which was next door to his house and invite me to help him check on the cattle. He was also a survivor of the Great Depression and on our walks he would teach me about the things that they used to do to stretch the budget. One their best resources was the wild edible plants that are found in abundance in Appalachia. Pictured here is Chicory. All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves are eaten as a salad green and the roots are roasted and then ground into a coffee substitute. ( no caffeine). The blue petals if Chicory are a natural litmus test. When exposed to an acid they change from blue to red.

In the background of the image is Queen Anne’s Lace. ( the white flowers). Now, you have to be careful about collecting it because there’s also poisonous look-alikes such as hemlock. Queen Anne’s Lace usually has one tiny little blood red flower in the center of all that white. How’s it used? Well, I’m pretty sure that most of the world already knows because it’s simply a wild carrot. The root doesn’t really look like what you buy in the store or raise in your garden. It is small, white and kinda bland. But, it is a carrot none the less.

Most people look at the plants that grow without any help from humans and all that they see are weeds but I see the province of God and hear the voice of my grandfather.