Monday 29 July 2013

Nature's Pantry: July 22 - 28

We've had an extraordinary stretch of bright sunny days, the likes of which we don't usually enjoy in these parts until mid-August and September.  Hikers and cyclists are out in droves, beaches are busy with sunbathers and swimmers, neighbourhoods are filled with the sounds of children at play.
All this bright weather is causing things to bloom and ripen more quickly than they normally would.  Wild foods usually enjoyed mid-August are ready for picking now. 
We've been enjoying huckleberries, thimbleberries, wild black raspberries, and trailing blackberries for a couple of weeks now and, this week, we picked the first of the Himalayan blackberries.

These berries grow wild in virtually every "waste space" here, seeming to spring up from nowhere.  They're not actually a native plant but are, rather, an invasive foreign species. Fortunately, despite their rampant growth, they fit well within our local ecosystem, providing for a great many different species and still bearing enough large berries for we humans to enjoy and put by for the winter months. We picked a couple of gallons this week and will continue to pick on our walks for at least four more weeks to come.
This week found us picking flowers and digging for roots along roadsides and trails, harvesting both Queen Anne's lace and chicory.
Queen Anne's lace grows so abundantly here that it's not unusual to find entire fields full of it.  It likes poor-ish, very well drained soil, so it frequently takes root along the edges of trails and roads.
The flowerheads of Queen Anne's lace are actually umbles; a round grouping of many small blossoms.  In the center of each umbel is a single red or purple bloom.

I mention this because it's important to note this characteristic when harvesting the plant.  Both water hemlock and poisonous hemlock - members of the same plant family - closely resemble Queen Anne's lace but their umbels do not have that single coloured blossom at the center.
I gather Queen Anne's lace flowers for pressing.  They're beautiful when mounted against a dark ground; their delicate umbels resemble snowflakes.
The grandparent of our cultivated carrot, the edible white roots of Queen Anne's lace are rich in vitamin A.  Extracts of boiled Queen Anne's lace roots have long been used in traditional medicine as a diuretic and to dissolve kidney stones.  The plant's seeds relieve flatulence.

As with any wild herb, it is important to use Queen Anne's lace with care.  Do not consume the seeds of this plant if you are pregnant.
Chicory is another wild plant that grows in abundance here and loves poor soil.  At this time of year, it adorns roadsides throughout our area, often growing right at the edge of the blacktop, where there is the most gravel and the road's banking allows for good drainage.

Chicory is related to Belgian endive and, in early spring, its leaves make an excellent salad green.
At this time of year, it's harvested for its roots, which can be dried, roasted, ground and mixed with coffee.  It was widely used as a coffee substitute during the Civil War in the U.S. and  during times of rationing during the world wars both here and in the U.S.

Chicory's pleasantly bitter taste became so popular that it has continued in use, mixed with coffee, into the present day.  

Ground chicory root is the ingredient that gives New Orleans coffee its distinctive flavour.

I've set aside a couple of chicory roots for cultivation, planting them in pots with black collars around them to exclude as much sunlight as possible.  I'll harvest the pale leaves when they are a few inches tall, allowing us to continue enjoying chicory greens until cool weather causes the plant to die back.

Do you harvest wild plants in your area?  What plants are you gathering now?

Stop by my Facebook page or Twitter feed to share news and photos of your foraging finds.  I'd love to hear from you.

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