Summer is nearing its end, and with it goes the last wave of wild edible fruits here in Colorado. One fruit in particular seems to be very abundant this year: the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). It is a tart fruit that is perfect for jams, syrups, or liqueurs, and has been used by Native Americans for many things, but most notably for pemmican, a crushed and seasoned jerky. These small trees can be identified by a combination of characteristics.
- Habit: small tree
- Bark: gray with white spots, or lenticels, which form to allow gas to exchange between the plant and the atmosphere
- Leaves: 2–4 inches long, with a leaf tip that looks as if it has been pinched, alternate and simple, with minutely serrated margins
- Flower: raceme; each flower has 5 white petals and 5 sepals
- Fruit: drupe (stone fruit); green when unripe, red intermediately, and deep red-black when ripe
- Habitat: rocky slopes, canyons, gulches, open forest, and along streams from 4,000–10,500 ft.
Last weekend, I was able to gather two cups worth of these little cherries in Roosevelt National Forest, and found a recipe on Home and Family that seemed to suit my needs. Since I had only two cups, I decided to try their chokecherry liqueur recipe. I removed the seeds from the fruits because they contain hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which can be toxic in high doses.
We will see how it turns out in a month or so!
- Ackerfield, J. (2015) Flora of Colorado. Forth Worth, TX: Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
The southern live oak is a large, rounded, semi-evergreen tree. It grows rapidly when young, but slows down significantly over time, reaching a height of 25 feet in 20 years, and a mature height of about 50 feet within 70 years. They are known for their wide crowns averaging about 80 feet in width. The leaves of a southern live oak are stiff and leathery, and they grow in an alternating pattern on the branches. These leaves are generally elliptical in shape, curling in just barely at the edges, often with very slight, sporadic indentations.
Unlike many oaks, the leaves rarely if ever have any kind of point on them. The size of the leaves varies greatly on individual plants from two to four inches long, and are usually about two and a half times as long as they are wide. The top side of the leaf is dark green and glossy, while the bottom side is lighter in color (almost grey in some cases) and often downy.
Southern live oaks produce acorns that mature at less than an inch long in clusters of one to five acorns. These acorns are darker and more elongated than the traditional image of an acorn, and have light-colored caps. The bark is blocky in appearance, and the color varies from grey to dark brown. The most notable feature of this tree is its thick, curving branches.
The southern live oak grows in Hardiness Zones 7–10. and does best with at least four hours of direct sun. As adaptable as it is sturdy, it grows well in almost any soil condition found natively in the state, from alkaline to acidic, and from heavy clay to sandy. It thrives best in Zones 8b–10 and sandy, alkaline, coastal conditions. It is more resilient to salt spray and soil salinity than most trees.
The only major threat to the health of a southern live oak is oak wilt (Ceratocystis fagacearum). There are plenty of fungi and insects that commonly cause damage to these trees, but nine times out of ten, the damage is aesthetic, and has no meaningful impact on the overall health of the tree. Southern live oaks have great wind resistance, but can be uprooted in the wrong conditions. They are fairly cold-tolerant, but the combination of winter foliage and unbending branches often result in broken limbs in freezing rain or snowy conditions. They are not considered threatened or endangered.
There aren’t any commonly-used human applications for the southern live oak other than ornamental. In the past, it was prized as lumber because of its incredibly dense and strong wood, and was often used for building sturdy ships. The acorns are a preferred food source for wildlife such as birds, squirrels, and deer. It is also a common host for Spanish moss.
Hemp is a miracle plant. Not only is it easy to grow, the whole plant can be used for various materials and applications. Before I go into all of the wonderful benefits of hemp, let's get rid of some of the stigmatization behind the plant. Yes, hemp is a cousin of marijuana. No, you cannot get high off hemp. Hemp contains 0.3% or less of THC, the chemical in marijuana that produces a mind-altering effect. The only reason industrial hemp has not been grown in America is due to a misrepresentation of the plant, and a 1937 drug law, which made it illegal to cultivate. In 2014, President Obama signed a provision that removed hemp grown for research from the Controlled Substances Act; however, this is not enough. Here's why:
There are two main parts of a hemp plant - the seeds and the stalk. The seeds contain meat, shell, oil, and cake. The stalk contains bast fiber and hurd. Below is a breakdown of what each component can make.
- Meat: Food; dairy products
- Shell: Flour
- Oil: Cooking oil; personal care products such as shampoo, soap, and lotion; bio-fuel; non-toxic and biodegradable paint and varnish
- Cake: Animal feed; food; beer
- Bast fiber: Fabric; insulation (known as hempcrete); rope for varying uses; pulp/paper
- Hurds: Compost; bio-fuel; mortar; absorbent bedding
- Leftover waste: paper, fertilizer, animal bedding
Hemp seeds are extremely nutritious. They are 30% healthy fats (omega-3 and omega-6) and 25% complete proteins. They also have high levels of vitamin E, potassium, phosphorus, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron, and zinc. This makes hemp seeds beneficial for both dietary needs and topical applications - skin and hair care.
Hemp stalks are the strongest natural fiber in the world, making it a great material for rope and sturdy textiles.
Not only does hemp create some great products, it is also easy to grow.
Hemp needs little water, which makes it perfect for arid regions. It also makes it a sustainable crop in a world where water scarcity is looming. Hemp also prevents soil erosion, does not require chemical fertilizers, and usually improves soil conditions. It takes 120 days for a hemp plant to mature - versus the 20 years it takes for a tree to mature. An acre of hemp produces four times as much paper as an acre of trees. Using hemp instead of trees for paper could protect some of our precious forestland.
Hemp has a significant history in the US - Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper! Yet, most of the hemp and hemp products are imported into the US instead of grown here because of US drug laws. Change is in the air though as many lawmakers seek to legalize industrial hemp.
For now, just know that hemp offers great eco-friendly alternatives. If you're trying to limit your waste - try buying hemp clothing which is biodegradable. If you want to maintain an all-natural personal care collection, try out some hemp shampoo or hemp lotion next time you go to the store. Hemp is a miraculous useful plant, and it is time we start seeing it as such.
Now that it’s winter, I’m dreaming about my late summer getaway with my husband and dog to the Redwoods National Forest. We were looking for anyplace other than an overcrowded city like Vegas. I was craving quiet and serenity. My nerves were raw and tired from the “go, go” of the city.
We decided to take highway 101 South up the Oregon Coast, on into California. The coastal fog followed us all day, and thickened as we reached the Redwoods. I had never seen these mysterious trees. I recall people saying that the trees are taller than most skyscrapers. I just thought, how wonderful and amazing could these trees really be? It wasn’t until we wandered into our campsite, got out of the car, and looked up. The sun peaked through, but I still couldn’t see the sky. The rough, red-clay-looking bark seemed energetic, with branches and leaves dancing and draping over us. The forest ranger was youthful, brisk and happy, like she knew she had the best job around. She said crisply, “Welcome to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, a place you will never forget.” We just wandered around, speechless, with our dog. She stretched and stuck her nose as high as she could, like she was trying to smell with her whole body.
We walked across a long, narrow swaying bridge to cross the Smith River to the Stout Grove hiking trail. It was the same place where Return of the Jedi was filmed. As we walked, the trees, standing so tall, commanded our attention. I felt my feet sink into the forest floor; it was cool, soft, and doughy, like it was about to rise and push me up to the treetops. My dog ignored us, fascinated by all the cedar and wood musk smells. The Redwoods acted like we were strange visitors, like we were interrupting a ceremony of some kind. It seemed the trees were having deep discussions about us; when I looked up, they pretended like they were doing nothing, yet they allowed me to stand next to them. They allowed me to touch them. They allowed me to stand in awe of something more—more than omnipresence; it was something more. I felt closer to my husband and other hikers as they smiled and passed by, in the same kind of trance. No one was talking, just trying to take pictures to capture the expanse of the Redwoods. No picture, no postcard could capture their expanse, breadth, and stature.
As we walked away to cross the river, I looked back, and they ordered me not to forget them—like I had a secret that needed to be shared. A secret to let others know we need to protect them. We need them. I walked away with my head bowed. That night, in our tent, I floated off at Campsite 83 as the campfire popped at me and the Redwoods watched over me. Though it is winter now, the memory of this keeps me warm.
If you go:
The Redwoods comprise three State Parks:
1. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
2. Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
3. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.
All of these parks are just off of Hwy. 101.
If you want to get to the Redwoods quickly, take Interstate 5 to Grants Pass 199, to the 101. This is about a 5 ½ hour drive from Portland.
For a scenic drive from Portland, hit Highway 101 up to Lincoln City, on to Florence, Bandon, and Crescent City, California. Once at Crescent City, take extra time and drive the old stagecoach road known as Howland Hill Rd. You will eventually get to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. At this park, make sure to hike to the narrow swaying bridge across the Smith River; this is the longest free-flowing river west of the Continental Divide. This bridge takes you to Stout Grove, a beautiful hiking trail. Watch for banana slugs hiding under ferns. Look for nurse logs, old tree stumps that act like planters for sprouting new growth.
After 1–2 nights of camping at Jedediah, continue south and take the 101 to Del Norte Coast. Camp there, or continue to Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway just off of the 101, leading you through to Prairie Creek Redwoods.
For a break from camping, continue south on the 101 to Arcata, California, and make slumber in this small town, home to Humboldt State University.
With the rains come the mushrooms. Little (or sometimes quite large) gifts from the earth are beginning to proliferate across the land, especially in the drippy Pacific Northwest. This has me more excited than I have any right to be, considering how poor of a mushroom forager I am. I’m still a beginner, and so while I know a few things to look for, such as certain species that often form symbiotic relations, I am not well practiced, and I am still too new to the area to know which forests produce which kinds of trees and plants that help mushrooms flourish. I get excited when I see photos of people bringing home pounds, sometimes in the double digits, of lovely chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), or robust porcinis (Boletus edulis), but I often manage to find only parasitized specimens that were not edible even at their peak condition.
At the very least, however, my status as a beginner does mean that I find additional pretty things to study while strolling through the woods. So here are a few photos from one of my recent romps. I have named the ones I can, though as I said, I’m still a fledgling forager. I am fairly certain that most of these are inedible, but if you are more knowledgeable than I am, please let me know otherwise! Enjoy, and remember, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Above: A clump of Pholiota squarrosoides on a stump.
Above: A small Xerocomellus chrysenteron, possibly. Note how it bruises blue due to oxidation (where my touching it has broken cell walls). This is one of the healthiest specimens I found, as most were being consumed by a kind of white fuzzy fungus (hypomyces chrysospermum, most likely). It has pores where many other mushrooms have gills.
Above: Another pored mushroom, this one most likely a Polyporus badius.
Above: Phaeolus schweinitzii, often called velvet-top fungus or dyer’s polypore.
The American Chestnut is an endangered tree that grows in the Eastern Woodlands of the United States. This tree is very susceptible to blight. (Blight is a plant disease.) The invasive Asian Chestnut is much more blight resistant and has outcompeted much of the American population.
Chestnut was a big in the furniture making business. When the American Chestnut farmers heard of the blight brought over by the Asian Chestnut they harvested most of their crops. This created a bottle neck effect. (A bottle neck effect is when a large portion of a species dies reducing genetic variation.) This reduction of genetic variation made it less likely that the American Chestnuts would be naturally resistant to the blight.
American Chestnuts can be distinguished from Asian Chestnuts by the serrated edges of their leaves and their very deep veins.
American Chestnuts can be found on Long Island on the highest point of the North Shore. The North Shore soil is much richer in nutrients as opposed to the sandy South Shore soil. Efforts to reinstate this population have been taken by local environmental group. One group in Seatuck has made efforts this year to cross pollinate an established American Chestnut with a younger one on Stony Brook University property. The chestnuts will be harvest by the organization, planted and watched closely until they are strong enough to be planted.
Helping this cause would help biodiversity, our environment, and our wildlife.
You can learn more about this on ACF.org (American Chestnut Foundation).
While ambling along the French Quarter in New Orleans with a friend in December of 2013, a boutique called Queork selling goods made of cork struck my fancy. Having been familiar only with cork stoppers for wine bottles, cork bulletin boards, cork yoga blocks and cork shoes, what we found inside the shop was fascinating: bags, belts, wallets, watches, bracelets, hats, dog collars, umbrellas … I still think about the uniqueness of some of those items.
Cork continues to show up in new and desirable product design. Last year the vegan bag and accessories brand Matt & Nat launched a collection of cork bags that includes a swoon-worthy backpack. And, notably, cork is showing up in sophisticated furniture and furnishings, such as sofas, tables and candle holders. Home decor company Corkinho’s collection is rather chic. In addition, sustainable-notebook brand Michael Roger makes attractive journals and sketchbooks with cork covers.
Cork has many favorable properties: It’s lightweight and buoyant with low density, impervious to mold and water, flame retardant, pliable and rebounds nicely back to its original size and shape. Furthermore, cork is ecological, recyclable, biodegradable -- and both beautiful and smooth to the touch. Cork bark, a renewable natural resource, has been responsibly harvested by hand from the cork oak tree in sustainably managed forests for centuries.
Cork oak landscapes are an exemplary example of balanced conservation and development. These landscapes also play an important role in ecological processes such as water retention, soil conservation and carbon storage. As well, the cork industry supports the livelihood of an estimated 100,000 people in the Mediterranean region, according to the World Wildlife Fund. By buying a natural cork product, you are protecting cork’s future.
Mushrooms are nature’s alchemists. Rather than turn lead into gold, they transform waste into food. Oyster mushrooms in particular are mysterious and strange; they’re one of the world’s few omnivorous mushrooms, subsisting mostly on dead wood, but also on nematodes and bacteria. These ravenous fungi go beyond these foods. They also devour oil spills. Mycoremediation is a burgeoning field of environmental science, examining the ways in which the incredible power of mushrooms can be harnessed to help solve particular pollution problems.
People used to believe that mushrooms grew from moonlight rather than sunlight because it was – and is – clear that mushrooms operate on a fundamentally different level than the more familiar kingdoms of animals and plants. They’re fungi, genetically more similar to animals than plants, and they have many properties that to this day defy our understanding. For example, with wild mushrooms, it’s unknown what circumstances prompt them to fruit – to create the part that we eat and think of as being a mushroom.
There’s a great deal more to the oyster mushroom than the part that we can see. The largest element of any mushroom by far is the mycelium – the long, thin strands (or hyphae) that exist underground. In oyster mushrooms, these mycelium work away ravenously at dead wood but to the mycelium, a petroleum spill is a suitable replacement. The mycelium digest the matter into harmless molecules and every now and again, a fruit pops up – with no pollution inside.
In addition to helping clean up oil spills, oyster mushrooms can be enjoyed a lot closer to home. They’re among the easiest mushrooms to grow inside and many kits are available for purchase online. Because they flourish in dead wood, all you need is a log, some mycelium, and a dark, cool place, and you can grow your own oyster mushrooms at home.
They’re incredibly popular culinary mushrooms due to their light, nutty flavor and relatively inexpensive price tag. In order to make oyster mushrooms last as long as possible, make sure to keep them in a paper bag rather than a plastic one. One of my favorite ways to eat oyster mushrooms is sautéed with a little olive oil and pressed garlic because their mild taste is complemented by the simple preparation.