Quick Update

Apologies for not having posted anything for the last few weeks – my laptop was acting up and giving me much trouble, and I could not upload photos. It is currently in the final stages of software repair, so things should be back in order shortly, and I will be posting as usual soon.

GoBotany…an Online Guide to Plant ID

Just thought I’d share with you all a wonderful source for identifying plants and trees of this part of the northeastern US – https://gobotany.newenglandwild.org/

I have found it incredibly useful for pin-pointing individual species, as many field guides often list only a few common varieties of a specific plant genus. Gobotany has a ‘Simple’ and ‘Full Key’, excellent for novices to help with identification, as well as a ‘Dichotomous Key’ for the more experienced and botany-buffs. And, of course, you can type in a plant’s full scientific name (or just the genus), family name, or the name of the plant itself in the search bar and find results. Gobotany even classifies known subspecies if you really want to get accurate.

Each individual plant archived has pictorial reference, maps showing range and distribution, and categories of botanical characteristics as well as known facts and uses. It should be noted, though, that this website is not fully intended to be used as guide for edible flora, though it does note those that are more commonly recognised, such as Solomon’s Seal and Stinging Nettle.

Keep in mind that one should not rely on only one source for information when it comes to plant ID, especially with foraging – cross-check with no less than 2 references.

Spring Forage 2014

The weather has warmed up quickly as of late with temperatures soaring to 75 F (24 C) for the daily high. We’ve also had a good rain to soften the ground, and everywhere in the meadows and woodlands I see more plants popping up to greet the fine weather. Today seemed the perfect day for a bit of foraging…

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The meadows were full of Stinging Nettles, and so my gathering begun.

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And amongst the nettle colonies I found some Field Sow Thistle. The young leaves are quite tasty raw, with the spines removed, of course. Further down the trail I ran into a rosette of Common Thistle…I’m glad I don’t walk around barefoot ;) .

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And as with sow thistles, the tender young leaves of Common Thistle can be eaten. Some folks like to boil them, but I find they taste better raw – just remember to remove the spines.

Towards the bottom of the meadow I noticed many fertile fronds of what I thought were Ostrich Ferns near a running brook- turns out they were Sensitive Fern, Onoclea sensibilis. I headed over to see if there were any fiddleheads worth picking, but sadly all were still very diminutive, not even an inch above the soil.

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I did spot, however, bits of Peppermint poking through the dead grass.

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Like all mints, Peppermint can be eaten raw as is, or as I like, brewed into a tea.

Across the water I saw a bed of Field Garlic on the side of a trail. One point worth mentioning – eat nothing that looks like garlic or a wild onion if it doesn’t smell like one, as it could be Fly Poison. The bulbs of Fly Poison are layered like Alliums, but lack the pungent odor.

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Field Garlic can be consumed raw, but I later decided to try it in a stir-fry with other plants I gathered.

There was also some bittercress in the area, though I’m not quite sure which species it is.

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My best guess is Cardamine pensylvanica, or Pennsylvania Bittercress. In any case, it is an edible green, so I took a few leaves with me.

Going back to the crest of the field, I picked some Dandelion leaves and came across a rather interesting plant, a type of bedstraw (Galium).

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There was a time when bedstraw was used in an old-fashioned method of making cheese by curdling milk. And if I’m not mistaken, it is still used in some parts of Europe. I think I’ll leave it for the rabbits ;) .

I continued along the meadow’s path until I reached the shore of a large pond where reeds and cattails grow. Many folks are fond of cattails because they can provide food for nearly all parts of year, and food is only one of its many uses, which include basket and mat making from the leaves, and tinder as well as insulation from the downy seeds.

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This time of year, you can cut the shoots close to the water’s surface and peel the outer leaves at the base to reveal the edible white core, which can be eaten raw – its flavour is unique and delicate.

Further down the pond’s edge I found another patch of Sensitive Ferns, but in this location, the fiddleheads were large enough for picking :) . A common mistake I see with other foragers is the assumption that all fiddleheads are edible – this isn’t exactly true, and there is some debate in the foraging community as to which fiddleheads are safe for consumption. Ostrich Fern, Matteuccia struthiopteris, is probably the best known and is common in many places in New England woodlands, especially along stream banks, but I just can’t seem to find any in the area. In fact, I mistook Sensitive Fern fiddleheads for those of Ostrich Fern, but they are edible just the same. They can be eaten raw in small quantities…I’d say no more than 6 at a time. Cooked by boiling or steaming, they are really quite delicious.
For further reading about Ostrich Ferns, I highly recommend Samuel Thayer – http://foragersharvest.com/fern-fiddleheads-the-succulent-stalks-of-spring/

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In the same area I picked some Cleavers, (aka ‘Goosegrass’), a close relative of bedstraw – they share the same genus Galium.

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Cleavers is distinguished from other Galiums by its rather perverse tendency to stick to clothing due to its scratchy, bristly hairs. It isn’t advisable to eat Cleavers raw (unless you want a sore throat from all the hairs), so it’s best to cook it.

I headed into the woodland from the path and was greeted by masses of Hedge Garlic (aka Garlic Mustard) on either side. I gathered a lot of them because it’s an invasive species, and I like the mild flavour. Farther down I stopped to harvest some Wild Strawberry leaves.

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The leaves are rich in vitamin C and make a delightful tea…I think it will go well with the Peppermint I collected earlier. This is definitely a spot to come back to later towards the end of summer and early autumn for the juicy berries…if animals and other people don’t get to them first ;) .

I did see many Patridgeberries creeping along the ground, but the berries themselves are gone. The best time to gather them is in autumn, though you can often find the berries remaining attached through late winter and the earliest days of spring. Not to be discouraged, I dug up a few Ramps instead.

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There are many patches of this particular Allium in the woodland. Ramps can be enjoyed raw, or as many prefer, cooked in a stir-fry.

Onward I walked, and the path dipped down and became a large puddle in front of me from rainwater runoff washing down the hills. Many people were reluctant to step into the puddle judging by the footprints they left, but this is the perfect place to look for violets, as they need a cool, moist and shady environment to flourish. And, boy, were there a ton of violets! :)

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Here’s a close-up…

Violet leaves are packed with vitamins A and C…I find them best raw.

By this point, my hat (which I used as a basket) was getting rather full with all the plants I collected, so I decided to head back. There are lots of flowers to be seen now, speckling the woodland like stars on a dark night.

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Here’s a gorgeous Red Trillium on the bank of a stream. Notice the bedstraw on the left.

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And further downstream, Marsh Marigold like small islands in the rushing waters.

This is also the perfect place to look for Toothwort (aka Pepperwort). I found a group of them nestled in the sphagnum-covered rocks.

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Their tubers are quite zesty and can be used to make a horseradish substitute.

Going back to the pond, I encountered a rather forbidding plant covered in spines, Devil’s Walkingstick.

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It isn’t hard to see how it earned its name ;) .

I reached the end of the woodland and was about to make a turn onto a main trail when I almost stepped on a bit of Shepherd’s Purse. What a nice surprise :) .

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Notice the heart-shaped seedpods – this distinguishes it from the similar looking pepperweeds and pennycress. The young leaves are delicious raw, and the seedpods can be added to dishes as a mild pepper-like seasoning.

Well, here’s all the loot :) .

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We have Stinging Nettle tops, Common Thistle leaves, Field Sow Thistle leaves, Hedge Garlic tops, Peppermint, Field Garlic, Bittercress leaves, Dandelion leaves, Cattail shoots, Ostrich fern fiddleheads, Cleavers, Wild Strawberry leaves, Ramps, Violet leaves, Toothwort rhizomes, and Shepherd’s Purse. Quite a good haul if you ask me *burp* ;) .

Survival Knives

There has been much discussion over recent years about survival knives, fed by the enthusiasm generated through popular TV shows such as ‘Man vs. Wild’, ‘Dual Survival’, ‘Survivorman’, and others. Many will say that the knife is the most important tool in wilderness survival, and while I can agree with this statement up to a point, I find it is too often taken to completely different level. I know I’m probably stirring-up a hornet’s nest, but I feel that this issue needs to be addressed, so please bear-with-me.

Everywhere, on forums and youtube especially, I see people talking about the “ideal” survival knife, or their knife of choice if they were “going into a survival situation.” Then come the inevitable comparisons between different blades to determine which knife is superior. Many people talk of survival like it’s a game, or a cool activity – at least, that’s what it seems to me. But why would you want to be thrust into such a scenario where your life is in danger? Sure, you can discuss what may be a more useful blade to have for a particular type of survival situation, but all this is speculation.

Something else that perplexes me is how people want a survival knife to be able to withstand significant abuse – in other words, a full-tang blade often with a 3mm+ thick spine made of a durable carbon steel. Why on Earth would you want to beat up your knife (assuming you are very fortunate enough to not have lost it) in a survival situation?! In such circumstances, you should treat it with care and use it sparingly, as you don’t know how long it will take for the arrival of rescue, or for you to escape and reach help.

There is no guarantee that you will have your prized knife when things go downhill…there are many variables to consider. It could become lost or misplaced at the turn of events; perhaps left back at camp, or submerged in a river when your kayak or canoe capsized from the rapids (these are just examples). And, the average backpacker doesn’t carry a full-tang blade with a thick spine – folders are more commonly brought along because they tend to be a bit lighter, and most backpackers don’t rely on an open fire for heating and cooking. Some may not even bring a knife with them.

So, what exactly is a survival knife? To me, it is ANY blade that you have on your person when circumstances are dire that you use to help you get out alive– this includes scissors, the blade of a shaving razor, a folding knife, etc. If you have no knife or lost it, then a simple piece of broken glass will suffice, or you can attempt to fracture rocks into suitable flakes…I say ‘attempt’ because there is no guarantee that you will find decent stones, even if you know what to look for. But the advantage with making stone flakes is that it requires little skill, unlike precision knapping. And just what can you do with a shard of broken glass or a stone flake? Well, you can cut soft materials such as bark and other plant fibres, sharpen an end of a stick to use for digging, collect the resin from spruces and pines for fire lighting, scrape the bark of junipers and wild grape for tinder, etc. It may not be as efficient as a metal knife and take more effort, but when you have nothing else and are in need of a sharp tool, it will be a major help.

To that end, I certainly do not recommend travelling the wilderness without carrying at the very least one cutting tool, but in a survival scenario, one should be aware of other resources for making sharp implements should the need arise.