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.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Edible Canna Part 2

  If you read "Edible Canna" ( http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/2013/08/edible-canna.html ) you may remember that I mentioned that Canna edulis is grown for the starch in it's edible tubers.
  The best time of the year to harvest the tubers are in the Fall and Winter when the foliage has died back and all the starch and nourishment is being stored in the roots for the plant to use in the spring to start growing again. As you can see from the photo above a hard frost killed the my Canna rather quickly this year and it wasn't long after I decided to give the starch extraction a try.
  First, of course, I dug up some tubers. The tubers were full of mud and dirt so I took them to the hose and used a strong jet of water to remove all the dirt etc from around the roots and tubers. I was amazed at how many rootlets there were growing from the tubers.
 I decided to remove the rootlets from the tubers before processing thinking there probably was not much starch in them anyway.

  Now, I have processed starch from Cattail Rhizomes before and I figured this wasn't going to be much different. I idea is to pound the Tubers in water and allow the starch to settle out, pour off the water, rinse the starch and continue till the water is clear. I decided to cheat this time and use a blender because I didn't get that many tubers and I wanted to get as much starch out of them as I could.
 I cut them up with a knife before putting them in the blender. This is also when I took the opportunity to taste the tubers for the first time. They were very bland with a hint of sweetness to them, certainly not bad, and I think I could eat a quantity if I had to in a survival situation.
  I added all the cut tubers to the blender and added about twice as much water as tubers so they would blend well. Something unexpected started to happen as the water started to sit, it started to turn brown! I figured it was some chemical in the Tuber reacting with the oxygen and hoped the starch was not turning brown also.

I blended the mixture well and it started to turn darker and darker. I dumped it into a jar through a strainer, to get the big stuff out, and let it sit awhile. The starch started to settle out almost immediately. I let it sit till I thought all the starch settled than carefully poured off the water. The starch was compacted at the bottom of the jar so this was easier than I expected. I added fresh water and  let it settle again and repeated the process till the water was clear.
I was happy to see the starch was white. One last time I poured off the water and this time I scraped the starch out onto a paper towel to get most of the water out than put it on a plate to fully dry.
As you can see the starch is pure white and powdery like Arrowroot or Kudzu starch. I tasted it but it really had no flavor, which is good, so it doesn't impart a flavor to the dish you are thickening. All that's left to do is store it in a moisture proof jar and wait till I cook up some dish that calls for a thickener.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


 When you mention Hops most people think Beer. The uses for Hops, Humulus Lupulus, go far beyond flavoring a fermented beverage. Hops has been revered as an Edible and Medicinal plant for century's.
 The young leaves of the Hop plant are Edible. The older leaves are also but they get tough and course as they get older and also start to get bitter. I always taste some new leaves in the Spring just to see how they taste but I have never made a meal of them.
Young Hops Leaves
Older Vine with Mature Leaves

 Hops really shines as a Medicinal Plant. It is a great Nervine for things like anxiety, sleeplessness, nervous tension and has a general calming effect on the system. You may have heard of Hops Pillows used to help people fall asleep faster and have a good nights sleep. This calming also works as an anti-spasmodic and is good for calming cough's. It is also a strong bitter and works as a Carminitive for upset stomach, gas and bloating. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. Recently, using Hops for its anti-microbial properties have been showing up in Natural product like deodorants. 
 The parts used are the Strobiles, the cone like structures, or Catkin like structures of the female plant. 


  I learned a lot about picking the Strobiles this year. You have to wait till they feel "papery" and make a dry sound when you squeeze them. Also, if they are not ready they will stay squished when you squeeze them but if they are ready they will bounce back after squeezing.
 Also, cut the Strobile open and make sure there are lots of yellow sacks, these are what hold the medicinal oils.

Yellow Sacks inside the Strobile
 I have read that women who pick hops for a living can have side effects due to the Estrogenic effect of some of the chemical compounds in Hops. Some even stop Menstruating during harvest season. If you feel Phytoestrogens can be a problem to you, please do further research before using the Herb.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Edible Canna

 Another plant I learned about after moving South is the Canna Lily. Not a true Lily, again, don't be confused by the common names of plants. They are tall plants with huge leaves and topped by beautiful delicate flowers. Generally the foliage is more impressive than the flowers but many cultivars have been bred to accentuate the flowers.
 When I moved into my new home it was winter so I had to wait till the Spring to see what plants and flowers were planted around the property. When Spring finally arrived, I noticed what looked like a bulb beginning to break the surface of the ground. As the summer progressed they got taller and taller till they were over my head, than a flower spike started to grow and beautiful red flowers began to appear. By this time I noticed these plants growing all over the place. Apparently a very popular garden plant in NC.
 I never really pursued any further knowledge of the plants till one day I was looking through my Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds and saw Canna listed. Turns out there are a couple of Edible species of Canna grown around the world. Of course I had to buy some seeds!
 Canna edulis is grown in parts of the world for its Edible tubers. They are grown for the starch that is used to thicken soups and stews etc.( like Arrowroot or Kudzu) and also for the tubers to be eaten like Potatoes.
  I planted mine in the early spring in pots so I could bring them in to protect from frost. They grew easily and I was excited that only one seed didn't come up. They grew rapidly and were ready to transplant as the weather got warmer. I really didn't expect to see flowers this year but to my surprise when they were about 4.5 feet tall they started to flower. These are spectacular plants. The foliage is magnificent and the flowers beautiful.
 I tried a taste of the leaves but they were bitter. Apparently you need to get them when they first come up and before they are unfurled. The young flower stem is supposed to be good cut up and sauteed, though I was not willing to sacrifice a new plant to try this. We will see next spring. I did try the flowers and they were good, though again, I wasn't willing to eat too many as I wanted to collect the seeds to grow more next year.
I also tried the young seed pods and they were also good, slightly sweet and a little mucilaginous. The mature seeds are rock hard so I wasn't willing to risk a broken tooth just to try them. I read somewhere one of the common names of the plant is 'Shot Plant' because the seeds are used as shotgun pellets.
 So, the adventure of the Canna Lily is just beginning. This fall I will dig some of the tubers and see if they have reproduced enough to sacrifice a few to taste then and to try extracting the starch to use as a thickener. Next year I will try the stems etc.
 If I try anything new with the Canna I will keep you abreast of the results.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Orach (Cultivated Variety)
 Orach is one of those Wild Edible Plants I have known for a long time. I remember the first time I found a stand of Wild Orach at a beach in Nova Scotia, I was so excited I made it part of our meal at our campsite that night. Along with other Wild edibles, mostly of the Mollusk and Crustacean type , we had a great free meal, compliments of Mother Nature!
 The Wild Orach, also known as Saltbush, is found in sandy soil at the beach. There are many plants in the Genus Atriplex and it is sometimes difficult to ID the species, to top it off , it looks a lot like Lambs Quarters to the untrained eye. The Wild Orach is best eaten when it is young and succulent as the older leaves can be bitter but the young leaves are very tasty.
  When I first started my garden, I was looking through my Ethnobotanical Catalog of seeds, and low and behold, I saw Orach listed! Of course I had to buy some seeds and have Orach in my garden. The seeds were easy to grow and before I knew it I had more Orach than I could eat! I did notice it was not the Orach I was used to seeing in my travels. The leaves were larger and lighter in color and more delicate than the wild variety.

Orach is used anyway you would use Spinach. It can be eaten raw or cooked and the cultivated varieties come in many colors. This year I bought some seeds for the magenta variety, vary cool looking plant.
Magenta Variety
 Orach makes a prolific amount of seeds and I have been saving my seeds from year to year so I don't have to buy them again. If you have a garden, I recommend giving Orach a try, it is a great tasting and nutritious vegetable and you don't have to live by the beach to enjoy it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Lambs Quarters

A Patch of Lamb's Quarters
  Lambs Quarters (chenopodium album) is one of those plants that has taught me a lesson. When I first got interested in plants, I resisted learning the Scientific names of plants. Not that I didn't like science, on the contrary, I loved Science! I guess I felt learning the Science would would keep me from getting to know the plant on a personal, more spiritual level. Than I started teaching and soon learned that common names are confusing because different people from different places call the same plant different things. Some of the names Lambs Quarters is known by are Pigweed, (because it was raised to feed Pigs) Goosefoot (because it is a member of the Goosefoot Family and has leaves shaped like a gooses webbed foot)
  Where I come from many people call Lamb's Quarters, Pigweed, where I live now the plants know as Pigweed are many different plants from the Amaranth family. Very confusing, and possibly dangerous, when trying to learn to use plants as food or medicine.
 Lambs Quarters is also one of those plants that are considered "weeds", and most will do away with it if they see it. Yet, like most other "weeds" Lambs Quarters is really a very nutritious vegetable. According to Euell Gibbons, lab analysis shows, Lambs Quarters is one of the top nutritious Wild Edibles you can find. One hundred grams of plant contains; 4.2mg of protein,  100mg iron, 11,600 IU vitamin A, 80mg ascorbic acid (vit C) and 309mg calcium. (all bioavailible, unlike milk which almost none is bioavalible . Some thoughts on drinking milk:  http://yougoddabekiddin.blogspot.com/2011/08/not-milk.html). As you can see this "weed" blows away many of your widely accepted Veggies.
White powdery look of the new leaves
 Lambs Quarters is pretty easy to ID. One of the distinguishing characteristics is the white powdery looking new leaves. The mature leaves are triangular in shape and deeply lobbed. The stem has purple where the branching stems meet the main stem:
Purple at the base of the branching stems.
and  the main stem is often vertically stripped light/dark green. I have seen the stem of some plants have some purple stripping also.
  Speaking of purple, you are able to find seeds for a purple variety of  Lambs Quarters in most Organic Seed Catalogs. I bought some this year and am growing them in my herb garden:
Purple Variety
 One word of caution. I have read many times that Lambs Quarters will take up and store toxic heavy metals from polluted soil. I don't know if this is one person parroting another, or if there is a real concern here as I have never seen the original research on this. But just to be cautious be sure you are harvesting in a non polluted area (which you should be doing anyway). This includes areas like the average toxic green lawn that has been sprayed or fertilized with petroleum based fertilizers.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Lady's Thumb

Lady's Thumb Flower Spike
 Lady's thumb is another one of those plants that many people recognize but considered a "weed". It can be quite invasive and will take over a garden in no time flat if allowed to go to seed but I think it is a very pretty plant when it is naturally on the landscape.
 Lady's Thumb ( Polygonum persicaria ) is a member of the Smartweed or Buckwheat family and there are many species the have similar characteristics. Called Smartweed because some of the species are sour in taste, though Lady's thumb itself lacks that characteristic. The "Thumb" part of the name comes from the prominent reddish brown triangle mark in the center of each leaf that looks like a thumb print.
"Thumb" print on the leaves
Another prominent feature are the Reddish "rings" around the stem where the leaves attach, and
Reddish Rings around stem
of course, the most prominent feature is the pink flower spikes that are so familiar in the summer time. (see first photo)
 The leaves flowers and stems of the Lady's Thumb plant are Edible. I remember when I first learned that the flower spikes were edible and I used to use them as a trail nibble when takings kids on hikes though the woods. Of course most of them thought I was crazy but others were brave enough to try them. Now that I have used the plant more extensively, the flowers are my least favorite part. The leaves don't have a strong taste so it is a good Wild Edible to show those who are wary of eating wild things.
 I have read that some American Indians used the plant as medicine but I have no experience with the medicinal qualities of this plant.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grape Vine Fun

 Grape vines are just incredible plants. There is just so many things you can use them for, from eating the fruit and leaves to making baskets and dying wool. Grapes, of course, are the most important and delicious part of the vine and the one that most people think of when you mention Grape Vine. The leaves are also edible and many cultures take full advantage of this part of the vine.
 One part of the vine most people don't know is edible are the Tendrils. The Tendrils are that part of the vine that wraps around things to support and hold up the vine as it climbs. I think the Tendrils are just plain fun to eat and I use them as a snack when ever I run into them whether on the trail or in my yard. Kids love to eat Tendrils and have a ball when you show them that they ere edible. One cool thing about Tendrils is the fact that they try to wrap themselves around anything that they touch, this sometimes makes for some interesting shapes. Another reason I like the Tendrils is that they are sour in taste and I like sour. Try to get the newest most succulent ones as they get woody as they get older and stronger.
 Be careful, there are many Vines that use Tendrils to climb, so not all Vines with Tendrils are Grape Vines. Some vines even have grape like fruit but are not Grapes. Some vines are toxic or even poisonous so be sure what you have is a GRAPE Vine and not something else.Have Fun!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dame's Rocket

My Dame's Rocket Patch
 Dame's Rocket, also known as Sweet Rocket, is considered a noxious weed in many States and many an organization has plans to poison our Environment and Water supply to eradicate it from the environment. This is another of those introduced species that is under attack because it is considered invasive. Again we blame the plants for Mans stupidity, it was not the plants idea to come here from Eurasia. (see  http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/p/some-thoughts-on-invasive-species.html )
  I have a long history with Dame's Rocket. When I was much younger, I spent a lot of time exploring the natural areas on Long Island where I am originally from. One day I came across a beautiful plant I had never seen before in a park not far from where I lived. I knew the caretaker of the park and inquired about the plant. By the time I came back from my hike there was a note on my windshield that simply read "Dame's Rocket"

Four Petaled Flowers

 Fast forward about 32 years. I was reading through my "Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds" and saw Dame's Rocket listed, well you know I had to buy some seeds! I threw the seeds into a cleared patch in my Echinacia garden and a bunch started to come up in less than a week. They grew quickly and were flowering before I knew it. It was as beautiful as I remember it. It was good to see my old friend again.
 It was quite obvious, as the plant started to flower, that it was a member of the Mustard Family. The four X shaped petals of the flower and the long thin seedpods were unmistakable. Of course now I'm thinkin "is it edible"?
  Well it is! The young leaves are great in a salad but the older leaves don't taste that great. The flowers are an nice addition to a salad also. The seeds, which I haven't had a chance to experiment with, are reported to be high in healthy oils and are ground and eaten or sprouted and eaten for there high nutritional value. If you have ever seen or grown other types of Rocket, or any Mustard for that matter, you know they are prolific seed makers. A testament to their survival ("invasive") characteristics.
  Last year I took all the seeds from the original plants and planted them in their own garden. This year I have a beautiful purple flowered garden. The flowers make excellent and beautifully fragrant cut flowers also.
 Dame's Rocket is often mistaken for Phlox. From a distance they look quite similar, but on closer inspection you will see Phlox has five petals and the leaves are different. Don't mix them up because Phlox is not edible.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


  Well, I finally did it! After all these years of contemplation and putting it off, I finally took the plunge and it felt good to just let go and do it!
  I have had a long history with the Poke Plant and have had many experiences involving all parts of the plant from the Roots to the Berries. From using the root medicinally, to dying wood art with the Berries and swallowing the Berries whole. But in all this time, I had never eaten the plant itself, probably the most famous part.
  For years I have known that "Poke Salet" was a traditional Springtime favorite of Southerners and after moving to the south I have spoken to many "old timers" about their experiences with poke. Yet even after living here for seven years, I still hadn't tried it.
  Sometimes knowledge can hold you back. I have always believed that traditional knowledge was more important than scientific knowledge. What I mean is, if a culture has been using an herb successfully for thousands of years, and modern science says the plant is dangerous, I would always lean toward the traditional knowledge. On the other hand, being a science lover, I would also take the modern knowledge as part of the equation and weigh in after careful study and thought. And though I wasn't afraid of Poke, after all I had learned and experienced over the years, I thought there were plenty of other Wild Edibles to forage on and Poke was not something I HAD to have.
  One real tipping point for me, among others, was a paper I had read about Poke. I used to teach a two day Wild Edible and Medicinal plant segment for a Natural Medicines class at South Hampton College when I lived in NY. I got to the school early one day and while waiting in the Professors  office, I picked out an interesting book from her great library, and started to read about some Medicinal plants. When I got to the section on Poke, the author quoted some studies of the effects of Poke on the human body. All were negative, but the one that stood out for me was the study showing that Poke actually deformed white blood cells and had a very negative effect on the immune system. The authors recommendation was to never even touch the plant, as even handling the mature plant showed negative effects on white blood cells and white blood cell count.
  Now, on the other side of the coin, one day, while taking a group of 5th graders on a hike to do a Field to Forest Program, I stopped to show the kids the Poke or "Ink" berries and how you can use them to paint your skin. I cautioned the kids never to put the Berries in their mouth as they were very toxic. The schools would often send a chaperone  with each group to help supervise the kids. This day, the Grandmother of one of the students was with us. She later pulled me aside to tell me that when she was younger, her Grandfather and Father would take Poke Berries and place them in Brandy or Vodka and they would drink small amounts through out the winter to help them stay healthy and to help with the pains of old age. I questioned her memory, as I had always learned that the Berries were very toxic, and she assured me that this was the same plant.
  Now you can see why I was being cautious about Poke, these were only two of the many contradictory learning experiences with this intriguing plant.
  Fast forward to the present. I decide to give Poke the chance it deserves in my repertoire of Wild Edible Plants. So, using what I had learned over all these years, I just went for it. I picked the poke at the very young stage, just as it was emerging from a long winters sleep and still not fully unfurled. This is the safest time to use poke and I have learned that once the base of the plant and the petioles and leaf veins start to turn red, they are getting toxic and should not be picked.

Young Poke plants before turning Red at the base

  Poke should never be eaten raw! Where people get into trouble is misreading "Poke Salet" as "Poke Salad" and get sick when they make a salad of raw Poke leaves. Always cook Poke in two changes of water before eating. It is best to have a second pot of boiling water ready so you can add boiling water to the hot Poke after straining off the first boiling water. It is not a good idea to add cold water to the pot to start the boiling from scratch again.
  This may seem like a lot of trouble to go through to eat some plant, but with the abundance of Poke around this time of year it is no trouble at all for a bunch of good healthy meals.

Ready to Eat!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Scrambled Eggs and Nettles

It's that time of year again, where my Nettle patch is exploding! No food in the fridge for lunch, what to do? Nettles of course, simple and fast.
  I heat up the frying pan and add oil, than add the Nettles and keep them moving. To speed up the process, I add about a half cup of water and cover quickly to steam the Nettles till they wilt, than remove the cover and let the water evaporate to make sure the Nettles are dry when I add the eggs ( I hate watery eggs). Scramble as many eggs as you like and add them to the Nettles and keep them moving. Viola! A supper healthy lunch.
PS Check the archives for other great stuff to do with Nettles

Monday, April 15, 2013

Spring Salad

  I know, it's been awhile, a long while, and I apologize. Life often gets in the way of Living! I had a tough winter, but now that the Spring is here, things are getting better, and I have had some time to spend with the plants, but of course, not as much time as I would like too.
 I did make my first official wild Spring salad the other day. I say official because I have been nibbling here and there as I find patches of certain plants but have not had much time to put it all together into a salad. We had a cold Winter this year that lasted through the first week of April than over night went right into Summer. Of course I am referring to the Weather not the Astronomical Sun/Earth alignment. It literally went from the 20s and 40s to the mid 80s in two days! So, the early abundance we had last year took awhile to happen, but it is finally here.
 Today's salad consisted of Chickweed, Mustard Flowers, Violet Leaves and Flowers, Dandelion Leaves and Flowers, Cleavers, Thistle Leaves, Tulip Flowers, Queen Annes lace Leaves, Redbud Flowers and probably a few bugs of various kinds! I topped it with homemade apple vinegar with Field Garlic as a seasoning.
  A nice way to start off the season.