Sunday, September 20, 2015

More Dallas Area Hiking and Wild Plant Foraging

So with the weather cooling off slightly (temperatures of 95, instead of 105!), I'm trying to get outside more again. I'm still exploring the Dallas area, for exercise, interest and, of course, wild edible identification.

Being in an entirely new area and ecology really opens my eyes in a different way as I hike. I realized that back home my brain was mostly queued to look for only a handful of wild edibles--things that I knew well and knew I liked. But bereft of those plants and mushrooms, I'm constantly evaluating everything I see, trying to look for similarities with what I know, and just letting myself enjoy the experience.

Acorns of the Burr Oak

As I walked along, scanning the ground, my mind said: "fallen oak leaf". Then it said: "look for acorns". Then I saw these funky nuts, which some sort husk completely enclosing them, and my brain said "Acorns? No, not acorns". Take three steps. Brain said "Wait. . .maybe acorns you are unfamiliar with?" So I bent over, scooped some up and found some whose husk had peeled away . . . and of course, the familiar acorn shape was within.

Turns out these GIGANTIC acorns are from the Burr Oak (also Bur Oak and Mossy Cup Oak. Latin name: Quercus macrocarpa). They're huge size really got me excited about acorns for the first time since I was 12. I've known for as long as I can remember that acorns were a staple food for all peoples of temperate regions of the world, and I've known for almost as long that you have to leach the tannins from them to render them edible in quantity. At age 12ish, I set out to do just that--and never did it again.

I'm lazy. I fully admit it. Though I enjoy foraging, you'll notice I never go crazy with anything that involves a lot of work to gather or process. (Nothing that has to be winnowed, milled, or involves extensive labor to prepare). And acorns involve work to both process and to gather. Mostly to gather. There is a lot of bending involved, and inspecting for insect damage and wasp larva. Then there's removing the tannins. Work, work, work. Though I am glad I know all these things, in any sort of survival situation, it never seemed worth bothering on a regular basis.

But with these humungous acorns available, (more meat means less bending), I might just give acorns another shot. Of course, if Green Dean is right about the cap/body ratio of acorns, then these burr acorns probably have considerably more tannin, requiring more water, energy and time to process.

Another find I'm excited for is the Prickly Ash, or Hercules Club. (Latin: various Zanthoxylum species.) My husband and I are addicted to Schezwan (or Sichuan) Chinese cooking. From the Schezwan provence of China, this is the spiciest cuisine from that country, and one of the spiciest in the world. It's also famous for it's mouth-numbing effect, which is produced by the seeds of Asian Prickly Ash, Zanthoxylum species.

Hard to find in the US, and somewhat pricy, we've been looking to find our own Prickly Ash trees. We never were able to make a positive ID in NJ, but I am certain I have found some sort(s) of Zanthoxylum here in Texas.

I am not sure of which variety (or possibly 2 varieties), because these trees were mature--and identification depends on the leaves--which were way to high for me to see.  I'll also need to find shorter plants if I hope to be able to harvest the seeds for Schezwan cooking.

Green Dean says the American prickly ash varieties have a medicinal taste/after taste, which makes them unsuitable for eating. If I can find some trees low enough to harvest from I'll give them a try for myself. It might be a regional, varietal, or even tree-to-tree variation.

I also found a curiously isolated husk of a plant which appeared to be a local milkweed, my gut/educated guess says Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis).

The milkweed I know from back home is Asclepias syriaca, the "common" milkweed. I have a theory about the term "common" milkweed, and how it may have led to one of the biggest foraging misconceptions of the past few decades. Being here in the south and southwest will help me test my theory, by sampling the locally "common"milkweeds, including Spider Milkweed.

I'll be sure to check back next spring for a better ID, though of course I wouldn't harvest where the plant is scarce.

Again, relying on what I know from other plants back home, I found some sort of Locust tree, which I think might be the Honey (or Thorny) Locust.

Interesting to note: though both are called "Locust" trees, the local Locusts are members of the Gleditsia genus, not the Robinia genus, which includes the Black Locust that I know and love. (Visit my Black Locust ID page).

Though not in the same genus both trees are in the same family, Fabaceae, which includes peas and legumes. There are obvious similarities between the trees: bean pod production, compound leaves (though the types of compound leaves are different) and, presumably, flower structure. Though I won't know that for sure till next spring.

If this is the Honey Locust, then the pulp of the bean pods should be edible. Unfortunately, I think I will need to wait a full year to get to know the plant entirely (especially to see the flowers), before I can trust myself to try the bean pod pulp. Right now, the thorns are throwing me for a loop, as most images I see show clustered growth of thorns on the trunk, and these are individual and on the branches. It might be more than another year before I taste the pulp, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

I will keep researching. Who knows? Maybe I will find another way to do a positive ID.

There are plenty of juniper here in Texas, of a different variety than back home. I am not sure if this juniper produces edible "berries" (actually they are the plant's cones) but a taste-test can tell you. You don't want bitter berries.  Unfortunately, I'm violently allergic to anything juniper (even gin!), so despite seeing it everywhere, it's not something I can experiment with. Even touching the fronds can make me itch, and a gin and tonic can give me hives.

For anyone else, juniper has a variety of uses. You can infuse alcohol (of course!), add it to marinades and rubs for meat, and use the wild yeast which coats the berries (that would be the white "bloom") as a sour-dough starter. Since it's coated in wild yeast, you can also just ferment the berries by themselves.

Juniper was used in the middle ages to induce miscarriage, as it can cause the uterus to contract. I don't know which varieties did this, or what amounts are needed, but women who are pregnant or looking to become pregnant should probably avoid consuming juniper.

Of course, sometimes you simply don't have a frame of reference for a plant. That's what happened to me with this tree, which I have since identified as a Soapberry (Sapindus), most likely the Western Soapberry: Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii.

The Soapberry is toxic, and can be lethal in quantity. But apparently it has other uses, the most notable being (and this is a huge surprise, I'm sure): soap.

Survivalists, nature-enthusiests and anyone who hates using chemicals will be happy to know that the berries of Soapberry contain saponins, which foam and form a lather when added to water and stirred around a bit.

The berries must be harvested late in the year, when brown, cleaned, de-seeded and dried. Since I am the aforementioned lazy, I probably won't be doing a post on alternative laundry detergent, but I did think it was worth sharing.

Soapberry is most often confused with Chinaberry (an invasive), though the leaves are really quite different. Here is an excellent explanation of the difference. Maybe at some point I'll do my own in-depth ID of the plant, once I am fully familiar with it.

Finally, the find that has me the most excited! Wild Persimmons! Entire groves of trees, simply laden down with bushels of unripe fruit.

This is another situation where existing plant knowledge was key in pointing me in the right direction for an ID. Knowledge doesn't have to come from the wild, in this case, it came from the grocery store, and from taking the time to familiarize myself with the food I eat. (Not that I eat persimmons often, mind you!)

I think I've only ever tried them once, maybe twice, but I see persimmons in Asian markets periodically. They have a very distinctive 4 leaf (petal?) formation at the top. And I saw this formation again on the way these plants attached to the tree. "That's a persimmon!" I immediately thought. Then I noticed the black nip at the base of the fruit (sorry I didn't get a picture that featured this), and I was even more convinced. And sure enough, after a quick google search, I used the bark and leaves to give myself a positive identification of The Virginian persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

Without using my observational skills on a daily basis, I would have needed to take these trails at the right time when the fruits were ripe if I hoped to make an identification. Because unripe the color and texture (persimmons are very soft, and these were super hard) is so different, I probably wouldn't have even known what to search for in google. 

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