This is a blog about the pursuits of Naturalist Alan Russo to incorporate all things Natural, especially Plants, into his daily life. Living close to Nature has always been a passion of mine and I try, with natures help, to live a Healthy lifestyle for myself and for the Earth.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Passiflora incarnata

   It's been raining in my part of NC for a couple of days now so I haven't been doing much gathering etc.
The one thing I have been collecting is Passion Fruit. Everyday before I let the chickens out I collect the fruits that have fallen off the vine and collect them before the chickens tare them up to get at the seeds.
  Passionflower is not only a beautiful vine with beautiful exotic looking flowers and edible fruit, but it is also a respected medicinal plant.
  Passiflora incarnata is considered a nervine. A nervine is a plant that effects the nervous system in some way. Passionflower has the reputation as a gentle and very effective relaxing and sedative herb. It helps calm a restless nervous system and is considered an excellent herb for anxiety and insomnia. It is especially good for insomnia caused by an over active thought process, your mind just won't turn off because you are worried about something or very anxious about something. It has a very gentle effect and does not cause foggy thinking as some drugs might. Not only is it calming to the nervous system it also has anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory effects also, so it is used for muscle spasms and heart palpitations due to nervousness.
  It is considered a very safe and gentle herb and is used on children and the elderly. Because it is gentle in it's action it is used as a long term nourishing herb to the nervous system. 
  If you have been reading this blog you know how much I like the fruits. The seeds are the part that is eaten. The seeds are covered with a gelatinous substance which, if eaten at the right time, have a tangy exotic flowery taste. Always wait till the fruit falls from the vine, these are the best. The plant knows when they are ready. I have tried to pick fruits that looked ready, but they never are, so now I always patiently wait till they fall to the ground. I pick them every day because if they sit on the ground too long they start to get a funny taste that I don't like very much, they will easily last a week in the fridge.
  The vines also have a limited utilitarian use. They can be made into baskets or used to bind things together, though the vines are not that strong and break easily,  they can be used in a craft or survival situation.
  I suggest you do a lot more research on this herb as I am not an herbalist, I am a naturalist, I study the historical and modern use of plants and try to show people there is a lot more to the the plants, that people consider "weeds", than meets the eye.
Fruits on Vine

Opened Fruit

Monday, September 27, 2010

Milkweed Cordage

  One of my patches of milkweed was at the point I could harvest it for cordage. The stems of the Milkweed plant has fibers, which when extracted, make a nice fairly strong piece of rope.
 After collecting the stems, I cut off the dirty bottom end and the seed pods and look for the least damaged stems. After deciding which stems to use, I take the stem and crush it between my fingers continuing the full length of the stem. If the stem is too thick you can crush it with piece of wood. Now, rotate the stem 90 degrees and crush it again the full length. It should now be broken into 4 pieces. Open the stem so the inside of all the pieces are facing up and let about an inch hang over one finger. With your other hand press down on this part till the stem breaks over your finger. The hard brittle part of the stem will break but the strong subtle fibers should stay intact. Now peel the hard stem from the fibers. Continue this till all the fibers are extracted. If you want to make a soft, pretty looking rope, you will need to "buff" the fibers to remove the chafe. This can be done by rubbing the fibers between your hands or rubbing them on your pant leg. I didn't do this very well with this fiber because it didn't matter to me if it was soft. When the fibers are ready I start a technique called a "reverse wrap". I learned this technique in Tom Browns standard class but it is hard to explain in writing, its something someone has to show you. This piece came out kind of crude but the basic idea is there and it would be fine in a survival situation.
Milkweed with seed pods
Breaking stem into 4 pieces
Breaking over finger
Removing stem from fiber
Fiber removed
Reverse wrap
Finished cordage

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fall, Poke Juice and Luffa Omelet

Bucket - O - Berries
Over 4 Quarts Poke Juice

  Happy Autumn! The sun crosses the Equator today at 10:13 PM on its trip south towards the Tropic of Capricorn. The weather hasn't figured it out yet (in the 90s again this week) but as the angle of insolation decreases the less heat hits the Earth causing the Northern Hemisphere to cool. The days are getting noticeably shorter already and before you know it it will be getting dark by 4PM!
 I gathered a bucket full of Poke berries yesterday and squished them, mortar and pestle style, with a large branch yielding about four quarts of pure juice. I will freeze most of it and defrost as needed. I plan to test dyeing/staining a bunch of stuff to see if I can get it to hold it's color and see how it works on different woods.
  I ate some Luffa today for the first time! Most people don't realize that Luffa are edible.They think of the mature fruits that are used as "sponges" and think 'how could you eat that'! The young 'gourds', before they get their network of tough fibers are as tender as a Zucchini(and look like them too)   Many cultures around the world grow all kinds of Luffa just for food. They are members of the Cucurbits, who's familiar members are things like squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and gourds. Like squash plants the flowers are also edible and can be used in salads or fried like Zucchini flowers. I found a bunch of very small fruits that will never mature in time to become "sponges" so I thought I would try them for breakfast. I cut and sautéed about four of them and when they were slightly caramelized, I added some scrambled eggs. I guess it was more of a frittata than an omelet, whatever it was, it was good!     

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Artichokes, Luffa and A new Vase

  Well, I am hooked on Poke Berries! The stain is so beautiful I plan to pick all the berries on my property and save them for future use. I stained a new vase the other day and I stained a couple of wood tree ornaments. The vase came out really cool. See photo.
  Yesterday, the first Jerusalem Artichoke flowers opened! For those of you who don't know this plant, it is a good example of why you should not use common names to identify plants you will eat or use as medicine. First, it has nothing to do with Jerusalem and second, it is not related to Artichokes? It is actually a sunflower that has edible tubers. The tubers are numerous and substantial, making it a good food plant. You can eat the tubers raw or cooked. I really like them raw, eaten as is, or shredded on a salad. They can be cooked like potatoes; boiled, baked or fried. One of my favorite ways to eat the cooked tubers is scalloped, using organic heavy cream. PS. If you plan to plant these in your garden they will spread over your whole garden in a few short years, so plant where you plan to have them for a long time!
  Two years ago I planted my first Luffa plant, the vines grew well but I only got two small Luffa gourds, so I was a bit disappointed. I tried again last year and they did poorly and I got no gourds. I know Luffa need a long growing season so I figured that was the problem and vowed not to plan them again. Well , I changed my mind and planted about 10 plants this year.I planted them in pots and started them early indoors. I transplanted them at the base of the fence going around the chicken coop so they would have a place to climb. Man was that a mistake I thought, as the chickens found those tasty morsels and attacked them through the fence. I put up a small fence to block their advances and they found away around that barrier. I reinforce the fence and it seemed to work. Well, my neighbors Guinea's discovered my female Guinea (of course, it's spring!) and spent days pacing the fence trying to get in the coop. Of course, they trampled my Luffa plants to a pulp! I put up a fence on the outside of the coop to protect the Luffa though not expecting any to survive. They barely held on for weeks but I kept trying by watering and fighting off the onslaught.They finally started to show some life in the form of new leaves so I just kept up the ritual. Once they got tall enough, the chickens started to jump over the small protecting fence and eat the new leaves. I adjusted the fence to cover as high as they can jump and I figured this was the last I was going to do and let nature take its course because I figured that by now there would not be enough time left to produce any gourds. Boy was I wrong! Once thy got higher than the chickens could reach they exploded with growth. Today those surviving vines completely cover two sides of the coop fence, but the best part is there are easily 30 HUGE gourds in clusters all over the fence! The vines are beautiful, covered with dozens of yellow flowers. So, now what do I do with all those Luffa!

Poke Stained Vase w/Berries

Luffa Gourds and Flower
Luffa Vines

Jerusalem  Artichoke Flowers

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nature Observations

  This last week many things have caught my eye, most having to do with the changing of the seasons. It may still be hot in NC and although some plants and animals get fooled by weather, most do not, as their very survival depends on it..
  Canada geese started to fly overhead again, the first time I saw them was in the evening about a week ago, they were heading north-west in one big V. The next morning they were flying south-east in two smaller V shapes. I remember this from last year. I never see Canada Geese all summer and  than they just show up and go back and forth for a while. I remember thinking, hey you should be heading SOUTH not northeast! Maybe they are just practicing?
  There are two Argiope spiders I have been following for awhile, one is in my garden and the other is right outside my living room window. Today both caught grasshoppers. Ever notice orb weaving spiders are hard to find all summer but in the fall they are all over the place. I think it's because they are getting big enough to be noticed, not that they suddenly appear of course. My favorites are the Argiope's as the bright colors are strong and contrast the environment, which is great for photography, most other large orb weavers are in the redish-brown color spectrum. Not to mention there size, the one outside my window is easily 2.75in outstretched! One of the cool things these spiders do, if you touch them while they are sitting quietly, is to start "rocking" the web back and forth violently by pumping their legs. I guess this is to scare away any would be predators.
  I love milkweed plants and when I moved down to NC I brought some with me in case I didn't have any on my property. They are edible and can be used to make a great cordage, not to mention the flowers are not only beautiful but smell amazing and attract tons of bees and butterflies. These are the Milkweeds that Monarchs love, and I planted them with the hope of attracting and raising lots of Monarchs. This year I was very disappointed to have seen only two Monarch butterflies all summer long and NO caterpillars on the plants. I remember when I was a kid first learning about Monarchs, I could go to any Milkweed plant and easily find  5 or 6 caterpillars of varying sizes on any plant I found. Than I would go back weeks later and find lots of chrysalis hanging. Sad to say those days are over. But a glimmer of hope! In the spring, I had dug up the Milkweed in my vegetable garden to move them to my Medicinal herb garden and all summer I was getting shoots from the roots that we left in the ground. It was a loosing battle, so I finally let them grow. Because of this they were way behind in their cycle and flowered only about two weeks ago (the ones left to grow natural have already seeded and are almost completely dead). These flowers were a beacon to any butterfly that came even close to my property as all the other flowers on my land had gone to seed already. One day I counted 10 Fritillarys fighting over 6 flower heads. About a week ago I saw a Monarch butterfly landing on the fresh green leaves, so I ran over to check if she was laying and I found several eggs on the leaves she visited. Today I counted 12 caterpillars on this tiny island sactuary of Milkweed!
  I saw my first "Fall" Dandelion flower the other day. Dandelions don't like the heat very much, so this summer especially, there were none to be found anywhere on my property. Its good to see them back. Dandelions are the coolest plants, they are extremely nutritious and are strong medicines to boot!
  I hope, if you are one of those people that get up early, you go outside every once in a while and look up. If you do you will notice that Orion is much higher in the sky these days, a sure sign Fall is on it's way.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A good Day

  The day started off well. As I went to let the chickens out early in the day, I found 7 passion fruits on the ground! These are not the first but this is the most so far. I love passion fruit, I love the whole plant. The flowers are so exotic looking. I planted the vines along the fence of the chicken coop which serves three purposes, one, the vines have something to climb on. Two, they give the chickens much needed shade in the hot summer sun, you can always find them hanging out under the vines in the hottest part of the day. Three, I have the plant to use for food and medicine and to admire all summer long.
  While watering the medicinal herb garden today I noticed that the Lemon Balm was starting to come back after having a hard time all summer because of  the severe heat.  I decide to harvest some and make one of my favorite drinks which is a cold infusion of the fresh aerial parts of the plant. I take the leaves and stems and crush them a little before stuffing them into a large mason jar, fill with water and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. The only tough part of making this drink is having to wait till its ready! Not only is it delicious but it is extremely good for you, lemon balm is an amazing medicinal plant.
  While continuing my watering rounds, I noticed the Sumac berries were starting to dry out so I picked a bunch that were still good to make some Sumac aide. Sumac aide is just plain incredible, I love sour things and this stuff is sour! This is another drink that is best made as a cold infusion as Sumac is high in tannic acid which is water soluble, so, if you use hot water you will leach out too much tannins. The tannins are the medicinal part of the plant and there are times when you need the tannins but you don't want to much when you are drinking large quantities to quench your thirst.
  Since I was on a roll and I still had Poke Berries on my mind from yesterday, I decided to experiment a little. One of my hobbies is woodturning and since I played around a little with using the berries as a stain last year, I decide to turn a small vase and see if I could stain it successfully. I found a small piece of Sycamore, which is a very light colored wood which would be perfect to test the stain. I quickly turned a very basic shape and sanded it smooth. I went out with a pair of gloves on to the compost pile where there were a bunch of berries that I missed yesterday. I decided that to get the best color I would not add water to the berries so I squashed them in my hands and squished them onto the vase. The color was unbelievable! I took a rag and wiped it down to even off the color than let it sit out to dry. After it was dry, I sealed it with shellac, sanded it again and then finished it with a high gloss lacquer. I think the color is amazing and I hope it doesn't fade. Only time will tell, after all, that is what the whole experiment was about. If it works, I will use it on some nice pieces.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Todays Ethnobotanical Pursuit

 While watering the gardens today, I noticed some of the Poke Berries around my yard were ready to be picked. My plan is to use them as a dye, though I have not had a lot of success in the past doing so. The color is just beyond beautiful, almost florescent, unfortunately the color is not light or colorfast and washes out easily or fades to a brown color. I have researched this problem with poke berry dye before and have tried several things to remedy the problem but to no avail. This year I will experiment with a couple of different mordants to see if I have a better success rate. I have had some success staining wood with the berries though, and I plan to dye some woodturnings to see how they hold up after being finished.
 So, I picked the berries and decided to freeze them till I had enough to do my experimenting with. As more become ripe I will add them to the bag till I get what I need or come across some info on a success story dyeing with the berries.
 Fall is a great time of year to collect dyeing material. Some of my favorites are Black Walnut Hulls and Goldenrod Flowers.