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, November 15, 2014

Cinnamon Vine

 Last winter while going through my Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds I came across a plant I hadn't noticed before. The name is Cinnamon Vine, apparently the flowers have the scent of cinnamon when they bloom, so that's where it got its name.
 The plant has another common name, Air Potato, because the fruits resemble a small potato growing on the stem of the vine and not underground like a regular potato.
  In early Spring I planted some of the tiny "potatoes" in pots so I could bring them in on cold nights, and hoped for the best. They started sprouting rather quickly and as the soil began to warm up later on in the Spring I planted them outside under a home made trellis right next to my Mango Melons . Unfortunately as the season progressed so did the aggressive Morning Glory's and they covered up the cinnamon Vine pretty well so I never got a chance to see the flowers or to smell them to see if they smelled like Cinnamon or not.    Like most people who work 5 days a week, my garden falls prey to all the opportunistic plants whose seeds have been waiting all winter to explode into growth, and I don't always have time to clean them out.
  As the summer progressed I would check the vines now and again and finally one day I started to see some '"potatoes" forming on the vines. Very excited I cleaned the Morning Glory away from the vines to give them as much sun as possible to help them grow and in a few weeks they were ready to taste.
  The "potatoes" are very small and can be eaten raw or cooked. I tried both. Raw, they had that potato crunch when biting into them and had a white flesh the same consistency as a potato also. I grabbed a palm full of the "potatoes", threw them in a pot, added water and brought them to a boil and cooked then till they were soft. To my amazement they tasted just like a potato! So, of course I grabbed some Organic Butter, salt and pepper and seasoned them as I would a regular potato. They were good! Unfortunately I had barely two bites before these small veggies were gone. Too bad they don't get bigger, I could make a meal out of them.
  Supposedly the roots get big like a potato and are also edible. After taking all I could get from one of the vines, I dug it up to check out the roots, unfortunately they ware very small and not worth taking. Maybe the plant needs to be a few years old for the roots to get large enough to eat. I will see next year if the plants survive the Winter.
  I didn't eat most of the Air Potatoes, I saved them to plant next year to increase my yield. So glad to have a new Edible in my garden!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mango Melons

   A friend of mine brought me some Mango Melons to try awhile back which she got from the Farmers that supplied her CSA. I had never heard of these before so I gave them a try and they were pretty good. I kept the seeds and the next year I built a trellis for the vine to climb and planted the seeds at the base. Every one of the vines grew and I had a plethora of Mango Melons and have turned many a person on to these tiny melons. I have grown them every year since.
  Mango Melons or Vine Peaches as they are sometimes called, are small yellow Melons that grow on a readily climbing vine. The largest ones barely get to the size of a baseball. The anatomy is that of any other Melon except shrunk down proportionately, so there isn't that much flesh once you scoop out the seeds. The biggest complaint I hear from others is that what they get from them isn't worth the hassle of growing/harvesting/preparing them.
Cut Open

Seeds Scooped Out and Flesh Removed
They are also not as sweet as some other melons, another complaint I hear. The flesh is tangy maybe a little bit sour in some of the fruits. Maybe that why I like them so much, I like sour foods. I
 I got so many Melons this year I decided to freeze some to use for smoothies etc. I fleshed the melons and laid them out on a dish, keeping them separated so they don't stick together, then stuck them in the freezer to harden.
Ready for the freezer.
I like to make a "sorbet" with the frozen Melons. Just add water and frozen Melons to a blender and puree to a smooth consistency. Add some sweetener if you like or instead of water use coconut milk or other liquid to experiment with. Add them to your regular smoothies or just eat them the way they are as a snack. My friend puts Melons in her dehydrator for a chewy snack.
Mango Melon Sorbet!
If you think you might like to grow Mango Melons I have some Organic seed for sale HERE

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Whats going on? or Where have all the Butterflies gone?

This has been a crazy year on the Homestead. So many things have happened that I can't explain, it's on the verge of being spookie!
 First, we had a longer and colder Winter than normal, and to make things worse we had a late unexpected frost that did a lot of damage. A few years ago I got a Mulberry Tree ( stick) from the Arbor Day Foundation and it started to grow well once planted, and turned into a nice small tree. I couldn't wait till I started to get Mulberries form it. Well, this year it was finally going to happen! Early Spring tiny leaves started to grow and hundreds of flower spikes filled the tree. I was very excited. Than came the frost. One night after some nice warm weather, we had a hard frost. Didn't think much about the Mulberry Tree as Mulberry's grow in NY and I figured if they can handle a NY winter they can surely handle this freak frost. Well I was wrong. I went out a couple of days later and all the leaves and all the flowers were dead! Brown and shriveled. I hoped they would regrow but only the leaves came back. Looks like I will have to wait another year.
 One of the greatest disappointments of this cold winter was that all my Edible Canna Died. If you have followed this Blog you know how excited I was at finding and growing this new Canna and how beautiful and lush they grew. ( http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/2013/08/edible-canna.html ) and ( http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/2013/12/edible-canna-part-2.html ) Not one came back this year and many of my other Canna died off also.
 Another tragedy was the death of my huge and bountiful Prickly Pear Cactus ( http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/2010/10/tunas.html ). This Cactus has been part of my life since I bought this house, but after this winter, it ended up as a large gelatinous mass of dead pads. There is a silver lining though, I have seen some small pads growing out of the heap of dead ones that I hope will continue to grow and eventually flower and fruit some day.
 Another great tragedy was the loss of one of my Magnificent Mimosa Trees. ( http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/2011/06/mimosa-water.html ) For some reason it never made it through the Winter. True I still have 5 left, but to see this brown dead tree amongst the others that are in flower right now is just sad.
 Other things that didn't make it through the Winter are 3 large Butterfly Bushes. Many people consider these plants invasive, but they are a godsend to the pollinators in my area as I live amongst a bunch of toxic sterile farms with no color. God forbid a flower grows in their GMO fields! Quick, get the poison and pollute the water supply, there is a natural flower on my land!
 Another unexplained phenomenon is the lack of Butterflies on my property. This makes me so sad you can't imagine. I love Butterflies, I dream of one day of having a Butterfly house close to my house so I can raise and release all kinds of native Butterflies into the wild.  Every year I cant wait for my Echinacia patch to bloom as it attracts Butterflies from miles around to this little oasis of nectar. I have spent hours at my Echinacia patch photographing Butterflies and it was not uncommon to have 20-30 Butterflies at one time flying from flower to flower. This year there are none! Going out to my Echinacia patch is what sparked me to write this post. It just blows my mind that the only Butterflies I have seen there are a couple of Cabbage Butterflies resting amongst the leaves when I water in the morning before work. The Mimosa trees I spoke of before are incredible Butterfly magnets. Last year there were so many butterflies around just one Mimosa tree it prompted me to get my video camera to document the amazing sight. There were literally hundreds of Butterflies swarming my trees. I would just sit on my porch, drenched in the sweet perfume of the Mimosa Flowers and watch the Butterflies for hours at a time. Most were Tiger Swallowtails ( http://ethnobotanist128.blogspot.com/2011/06/mimosa-water.html ) but there were many other species also. Besides that, here were Hummingbird Moths, Bees, Hummingbirds, Wasps, Beetles and Flies just to name a few. This year there are NONE! Even around my Milkweed plants where I have counted 12 Fritillary's, including some Gulf Fritillary's ( a new species for me), at one time just on one plant. There are None!
 So, whats going on? Where have all the Butterflies gone? Is it a Natural cycle that I have never noticed before? Was it the cold winter? Is it the roundup ready corn and all the sprays my "neighbors" use on their property? Maybe all of the above. Maybe this year was just the perfect storm of Natural and man made assaults on the environment, I don't know. I do know it is sad to see and I hope this isn't the new norm around here.
PS If anyone has any incites on this and has noticed this in their area, I would be interested to hear from you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A New Plant!

I always get excited when I discover a new plant.
 In an area that I have an old overgrown garden, a new plant has emerged that I have never seen before. I haven't been in that area of the yard much this year and when I went to take a look the other day I saw a very beautiful plant, in flower, that I did not recognize. It was definitely some king of Mint. It had a square stem and the flowers were obviously Mint like. It was unique as the flowers were in whorls around the stem and there were four clusters per stem. The flowers were a beautiful pink color. As soon as I realized it was a mint, I squeezed a leaf between my fingers to see if it was aromatic and the smell was very strong... and familiar. It smelled a lot like Bee Balm, Monarda didyama., yet it was surely not, as Bee Balm has only one whorl of flowers on the end of the stem. So, I hit the books. No luck. Than I hit the web, still no luck. I uploaded a couple of photos to a website to see if anyone had ever seen it before. Two folks got back to me with the same answer, Monarda citrodora. Once I had a name, I went back on the web and the photos I found matched my new plant!
 Once I knew what it was I could start experimenting with this new plant. The first thing, after taking photos that is, was to taste one of the flowers. Definitely tasted just like Bee Balm, I guess it runs in the family!
 I plan to save some leaves to dry so I can taste the tea made from them. I would like to take a whole flower stalk to dry to make a leaf/flower tea but I am hesitant as there are only two plants and one is rather small. I really want to save as many seeds as I can to plant this beautiful flower in my herb garden for next year so I want all the seeds I can get. Maybe this is the year of discovery and next year will be the year of experimentation. I'll decide the next time I go to admire it.

Click on Photo to see full size

Saturday, April 19, 2014


 I know it's been a long time since I have written a post. The winter was long and cold and I felt I didn't have much new to say so I put things off for a while.
  Last year I bought some Burdock seeds because since I have been living in NC I haven't seen any Burdock in the wild. Where I come from it was very common and I missed my old friend. I planted the seeds in part of my Medicinal Herb Garden. The garden got over run with unwanted plants and it wasn't till the Fall that I noticed some small Burdock leaves amongst the rubble. This Spring the plants really started to grow well and are out competing the other plants so far.
The large leaves of the Common Burdock

  Burdock is a grandiose plant. The leaves are large and somewhat heart shaped and are more fuzzy than shiny. I have seen Burdock leaves over 12" long not including the leaf stem. The leaf stem looks a lot like Celery with the base usually a purple color, especially in older plants.

Celery shaped leaf stems, purple at the base.
   While out mowing, I saw a large Burdock plant on a part of my property I don't frequent very often and was surprised to see it there. I got so excited, I went back to get my shovel with thoughts of finally having something to write about. 
  Burdock has a long, usually straight tap root that is almost impossible to get out of the ground in one piece. I dug the shovel in as deep as I could working around the plant, than started to pry hoping to get as much of the root as I could. While prying I heard that familiar SNAP! as the plant gave way and popped out of the ground. As soon as I saw the root I realized I made a big mistake. You see, Burdock is a Biennial and the first year roots are what you are looking for. The second year roots are large, woody and fibrous, where the first year roots are solid, succulent and tender.
 As soon as I saw the large woody root I realized I let my excitement cloud my experience and knowledge, and I destroyed a plant that would have flowered this year and would have spread seed around to grow more plants. The only silver lining I can rationalize is the fact that I got such a small part of the root that most of it was still in the ground and hopefully will grow into a new plant. Also, I stuck the plant back in the ground in a different spot hoping it will continue to grow. 
  While working my way back, I started to notice a couple of younger Burdock plants growing in other places. I dug out a small one and actually got most of the root, it was a good one too! Interesting that I had never seen Burdock on my property before now it is in multiple places. Coincidence, or did birds take the seeds I planted and deposit them in other places?
Whole young Plant
This tap root was over 9"long!
  So, why go through all this trouble anyway? Burdock is a prized Edible and Medicinal plant used in many parts of the world. Most people use the roots but the leaf stems are also an important survival food source. The leaf stems are eaten in any way you would use celery. They can be eaten raw or cooked. Before using them though, the fuzzy coating should be removed. The easiest way to do this is to hold a knife perpendicular to the stem and scrape the stem till clean. It comes off easily and can also be done with your finger nail.
The celery like stems cleaned and ready to eat!
 The real prize of the Burdock is the root. I have seen burdock root for sale in health food stores for $26 a pound! As with most plants, collect the root in the late Fall or early Spring as to get all the stored energy and nutrients. The root can be eaten raw or cooked and when young and succulent, they are delicious. Use them in salads, stews or stir fry's.
  I first learned about the Medicinal qualities of Burdock Root a long time ago when I learned about a very famous Cancer Cure called Essiac. Burdock root is one of the main ingredients in this formula because it is considered a superb Blood Cleanser. You can dry the Root or make a Tincture for future use.
 Most people would think I am crazy because it is considered a noxious weed, but I am glad to see Burdock growing on my property and I hope it spreads around to provide me with food and Medicine as I need it.

PS Later on in the summer when Burdock blooms, you will be treated to some very beautiful Thistle like flowers!
Burdock Flower
If you think you would like to grow Burdock, I have some seeds for sale HERE

Friday, February 7, 2014


  Chufa ( Cyperus esculentus), also known as Nutgrass is not a grass at all but is a member of the Sedge family. I'll never forget the rhyme that helps me remember and helps me teach others how to differentiate between  three narrow leaved lookalikes; "Rushes have ridges, Sedges have edges and Grasses are all round". The "edges" in this rhyme refer to the triangular shaped stem of Sedges.
  I learned about Nutgrass or Chufa many years ago but never had much luck in the wild finding the"nuts". Than I came across the seeds in an Ethnobotanical seed catalog and decided to put them in the garden to see what would happen. Well, what happened is, they took over  a large section of my garden! I have since learned that they are considered a noxious "weed" in many parts of the country as they are very aggressive multipliers. I suggest if you decide to plant them you put them in a raised bed to tame their aggressiveness.
  Even though they have gone crazy in my garden, I don't regret planting them. They are one of my favorite tasting wild edibles. The Tubers are the "nut" part that you eat. Even though they are relatively small and not that easy to harvest, they are so good, it is worth it. They are sweet, succulent and taste like Almonds to me, maybe that's why another common name is Earth Almond.
  As with most root crops, it is best to harvest the Tubers after the plant dies back for the winter and you can continue to harvest them till they start growing again in the spring. Harvesting is a bit tedious so I will go through the steps I have come up with through trial and error. 

Chufa mixed with Rocks and Debris on screen
 First, I have a screen with 1/4" holes that I originally made for collecting Fossil Sharks Teeth but has become my go to screen for lots of other Pursuits. The "nuts" I go for are not that deep so I skim the surface to about 3"down with a shovel. I shovel it into the screen and shake it till most of the finer soil and debris has fallen through, than break up the clumps with my hands and shake some more. Now what I have is Chufa and lots of rocks and debris left behind.

Debris Floating on Top
  The next step is to wash the rest of the dirt from the screen with a hose. I blast it the best I can and than take the contents of the screen and put them in a jar or a bucket and run water into it. Everything that floats can be skimmed off and the water can run till it is relatively clear.
Clear Water with Chufa and Rocks
  The trickiest part of this whole process is separating the Chufa from everything else left in the jar. Originally I would just pick them out one by one, but this became rather tedious when I had a quantity to do. I had to think of another way. I decided to try some Physics. I recently did a Science program on Density for the Seniors I work with using some demo experiments I used to use when I taught kids as an Environmental Educator. 
  I noticed that the Chufa were more dense than water but not as dense as he rocks and sand in the jar. So to get the Chufa to float but not the rocks I needed to increase the Density of the water just enough to get the Chufa to float and leave the Rocks behind. The easiest and cheapest way to do this was to add salt to the water. I began adding salt to the water and as I added more salt the Chufa began to float.
Chufa Nuts Floating On Surface of Water
 All that was left to do now was to strain the Chufa out of the water and to rinse all the salt off.
Cleaned Chufa Nuts Ready to Eat
 The tubers are great just as they are and make a Delicious snack. They can also be dried and stored for future use. One of by favorite ways to use them is to make a "nut" milk out of them. Just place in a blender with water and blend till you have a thick milky liquid. Strain and drink, no sweetener needed, they are sweet on their own. As a matter of fact, the Spanish have a drink they call "Horchata de Chufa"which is basically a Chufa nut milk with sugar and cinnamon in it. Save the ground up Chufa as an addition to pancakes or muffins. The Chufa can also be dried and ground into nutritious flour.
  Chufa is also famous as a food for Wild Turkeys and Ducks. It is often planted by hunting clubs to attract Wild Turkeys to an area.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Poke as Medicine


 I have written about Poke before and it's many varied uses. From food to dye, Poke is an incredibly useful plant.
 One thing I haven't written about before is Poke as Medicine. There are a couple of reasons for this. As you know, especially if you have been reading this Blog, is that Poke is toxic and the root is the most toxic part of the plant. Even when using the leaves as food, there is a specific process and the toxins are boiled out of the plant.Well, the Root is the part used as Medicine and it is used raw! The other reason is that I am not an herbalist. I write from experience and there is always a chance that the plant can be misused by someone. Using Poke as Medicine is not like other plants I have written about that are used as Medicine. You can't mess up using, lets say, Plantain on a scrape or Echinacia for a cold. But Poke on the other hand should not be used by anyone other than a trained Herbalist because of it's potential Toxicity. Remember, these are MY Ethnobotanical Pursuits, not advice in any way. Please be responsible.
  The best time to gather the Roots is when the plant has died back in the Fall or before it starts to come up again in the Spring. The roots of some older poke plants can be quite large and the chance of getting the whole root is slim to none. As you can see in the photo above, all three are broken at the main tap root. That's OK though, as the root left in the ground will most likely produce another plant so you don't have to worry about loosing your Spring supply of food. The other thing is that you only need a small quantity as the dosage of the medicine is very small and a little will go along way.
Top of the Root where next Springs plants will sprout from
 Even though the Root is huge it is quite succulent and cuts easily with a knife. I usually make a Tincture of my Poke so this is the procedure I will discuss.
Beautiful pure white roots
  It is extremely easy to make a Tincture. Basically all I do is cut the Root into as small a pieces as I can, put those pieces in a jar and cover them with Vodka. Let them stay together for a minimum of six weeks than I strain the root from the tincture, toss the root into the compost pile, label the Tincture, store away from sunlight and  place it where no one who shouldn't can reach it. I actually put a skull and crossbones on mine just to be sure.
Tincture in the making

  I cannot talk about things like dosage etc. as I have no qualifications to do so, remember this is for a trained Herbalist only.
 Many Herbals talk about the uses of Poke as Medicine and Poke is used for various conditions in various ways. Personally I only use it after having a cold as it is said that Poke Root is one of the best lymphatic cleansers in the Herbal world.