Evergreens of Rushmere Country Park

I go for a walk with my son in the clear cold air. Rushmere Country Park is evergreen Plantation at one end, but at the Stockgrove end is mostly much older Broadleaf woodland. It’s all beautiful no matter which end…

Now is the time to have fun learning to tell which evergreen tree is which. They may all look like a blur of dark green at first glance, but bring out a Collins guide and the conifers, pines, yews, cypresses and cedars all start popping out of the green sward.

Clockwise from top: California Redwood, White Spruce, Blue Colorado Spruce, Scots Pine, Leyland Cypress.

So can you use any part of these trees, for food or otherwise?

Well, you can eat young spruce tips – watch outdoor the new young growth in Spring. When I get hold of some I’m putting them in a rice salad with some fruit. Yummy.

The Scots pine exudes a resin when cut (NB: It wasn’t me that cut them! It was like that when I got here.) When this is mixed with powdered bone and powdered charcoal, it makes a strong waterproof resin glue that can be used to waterproof canoes and containers. The bone gives it the flexibility so it doesn’t crack like pure resin would. When I tried this with my son, I tried grating some old sheep bones (you might not want to use your Mum’s best grater, there’s a lingering scent of mutton grease) but it was quite a mission, especially with a then 4 year old in tow. In the end we melted the charcoal, bone gratings and pine resin together in a pan and dipped a thick stick in the goo again and again until they was a big blob on the end. This can be heated up and dripped onto the thing that wants glueing, a bit like an archaic glue gun. it was fun anyhow, even if it was hellish cleaning the pan afterwards.

Redwood is good for looking a bit posh, and Leyland Cypress is good for..um..causing disputes with the neighbours – then blocking out said disgruntled neighbours. If your’e into that sort of thing. It does smell nice though.

Evergreens of Rushmere Country Park

The Hungry Gap

January, traditionally known as the ‘hungry gap’, where the feast of Christmas was over and all that was left was dried broad beans, pickled veg and whatever porridge oats the rats hadn’t got at. It’s not quite the same today, with food flown in from the tropics and out of us with fridge freezers powered off the grid. However, for those of us wanting to live lightly on the planet, its worth going back to the wisdom of ages past.

Beans, beans the musical fruit…

First off…do you REALLY need a fridge in this weather? I have lived the last 17 years with no form of refrigeration excepting a zeer pot. More about that when it gets hotter and we need a fridge. For now, all I do is stick my perishables in wicker baskets in the bathroom. The wicker lets the air circulate around the food, which stops vegetables rotting. Instead they just dry out. A metal lockable box just outside works well too. The floor is always colder, store milk and suchlike in boxes with water in down there. Hundreds of years ago, this room would have been the classic pantry, or a cellar. Fridges use a lot of power, so you are saving the planet and your wallet as well! (Plus you don’t have to listen to that annoying humming noise).

Wicker and willow boxes in the bathroom.

So what vegetables and fruit would be in season?

This is the perfect excuse to try Medlar, Mespilus Germanica, a relative of apples and quinces. This strange fruit was eaten as a dessert in the 19th century and in the time of the Tudors. It is eaten once it is bletted (frozen) and left to ferment, which makes the astringent fruit very soft and sweet. Eat it with cream or ice cream for the full whammy! It is hard to find at Tesco, try to make friends with a neighbour with a medlar tree or grow your own.

Kale and winter cabbage are still trooping on if you planted them early enough in the late summer and early autumn. Their thick fleshy leaves are resistant to frost and full of iron.

As for forageable veg, much depends on the severity of the frosts.

I’m still finding Chickweed, or Stellaria media, at the top of the Canal bridge in window boxes and in cracks along paths. This delicious salad leaf is sweet, tender and full of much needed Vitamin C. Cleavers, Galium aperine, is still poking up tender shoots which help cleanse the blood and kidneys of toxins – just what the doctor ordered after Christmas indulgence!

Lastly, we equate January’s cruel deluge of bills and taxes with Janus, the two faced Roman god of doorways, change and transition. It is important to remember that the freezing weather is actually essential for many British native trees to reproduce. Many seeds, such as apples, need a period of scarification by being frozen for a certain period of time. which ‘unlocks’ them so they can grow in the Spring. In these times of global warming, many British trees that reproduce this way face an uncertain future. We could expect to see plants and trees from Mediterranean climates start to thrive instead.

The Hungry Gap

Foraging – Monkey Puzzle Nuts

Some awesome research here and a great recipe. We have these up in Plantation Woods…

Urban Huntress

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s niece! Monkey Puzzle trees produce these amazing big edible nuts!

Okay. They’re actually seeds, but I like calling them nuts since we’re all familiar with pine nuts. And, yes, those are actually seeds as well.

Araucaria araucana (a.k.a. monkey puzzle tree, monkey tail tree, Chilean pine, or pehuén) is an evergreen tree which can reach over 150 feet in height and can live to be a thousand years old. These trees take twenty years to reach sexual maturity and similar to other ancient trees like gingko biloba, and fellow Araucaria genus member the bunya, they are dioecious having distinct male and female trees with different cones. This means it takes a male and a female to produce their nut-like seeds. The pollen from the oblong-shaped male cones is blown by the wind to the female cones. This feature of the tree…

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Gallery

Winter Meat

This being hunting season, when greens are scarce and meat would have sustained us, I will share some of my wild game stories with you. Traditionally the meat that would have been available to the Commoners (that’s us) would have been Rabbit and Wood Pigeon, with Pheasants poached from the rich people…

Pheasant that gave his life (to someone’s car) so we could eat.

RABBIT

The first time I ate Rabbit was when the owner of a greyhound handed a dead rabbit to me and my friends on the GU canal in Brentford. The dog had raced off and killed the rabbit of its’ own accord. I skinned it with the help of my then boyfriend, he cut off the head with an axe whilst I skinned. I peeled the skin from the hind legs up to the neck. I kept wondering how it would feel if it was done to me. It did make me squirm. We boiled it in a pot in a tipi on our shared Permaculture allotment and whist we were waiting, a very sensitive vegan type we knew came and had a chat. She couldn’t even handle someone eating a supermarket chicken sandwitch.

“What’s in the pot?” she kept saying.

We didn’t have the heart to tell her, we kept fibbing.

It tasted like chicken, but more tender.

PHEASANT

Myself and my then boyfriend were on a bike ride along the North Downs Way when the car in front of us hit a male Pheasant. He was still warm, but his neck was broken and he was gone. I admired his chestnut and satiny green-blue beauty, his feathers light and warm gossamer. I said a prayer then put him in a pannier. We camped in Guildford Woods (illicitly) and I plucked him, I can’t honestly remember if I gutted him or not. We cooked him on a spit over a camp fire, with roast potatoes and carrots in the embers and a Cep mushroom I had found in the woods at the end. In the morning we got kicked out by a ranger who had spotted our fire smoke.

He tasted like bloody chicken again. Tasty though.

WOOD PIGEON

I was gifted two shot wood pigeon when I moored my boat in Rugby. A local boaty guy had an air rifle and had been catching them for food. Wood pigeon has been known through the centuries as the poor man’s food, so I wasn’t expecting much. But what a surprise!

I plucked the two birds (I didn’t hang them or anything, letting maggots drop out is not my idea of appetising), then basted them with a blob of butter and honey and roasted them for 40 mins in my vintage 1970’s boat oven. They are only little, so you may get away with less than this, but I was being cautious.

The dark meat was delicious, rich and gamey. this has to rank as my favourite wild game, and I have had deer too, but good pigeon is still my favourite.

As far as ethics go ,I feel happier eating something when I know it has had a good life doing what it does rather than being farmed.

What do others think? Im aware this a controversial topic!

Winter Meat

Wrestling with Burdock

Even through snow and ice, if you know where the burdock patches are you can still get to the all important roots, stuffed with carbs and starch to keep energy up in the cold. Arctium lappa/minus (Greater and Lesser Burdock respectively) can be used in just the same ways as each other.

Burdock in Spring & Summer

Those giant cabbagy leaves are a giveaway, with their wavy, scalloped edges and white, suede-like underneath. They are thick and have a leather feel. They come from a central rosette low on the ground. What we are looking for is the first year plant (Burdock is a biennial plant), without a central flowering stem. A second year plant won’t kill you, but its root will be tough and fibrous instead of tender!

Bring a ruddy great spade, as the root can easily go down to 2m underground. if your’e not sure where to dig, look for the tall second year dried seedheads. There are usually some first year plants nearby.

Remember, all the energy of the plant has gone down to its root to prepare for next year, so don’t expect glamour from the aerial parts at this time of year (this was taken in December). In fact, Burdock looks like something you wouldn’t wipe your bum with right now, but that’s not the part you’ll be eating, so try not to worry. Dig all around the root to two or three spade depths, or whatever you can manage. (I hope you asked the landowner for permission, too!) Leave some of the root in the ground so the plant can regrow. This is also far easier than digging it all out…

WARNING! BURDOCK SEED IS EVIL! It will stick to your clothes and hair and butt and is extremely difficult to remove…this is how the plant spreads its seeds. It is also VERY ITCHY! If you can get beyond these drawbacks, the seeds are an important Chinese medicine for clearing toxins out of the body. I tried this and got the seed hairs, which are like glass fibre, in my eyes. Best leave that to the experts.

So here comes the even more entertaining part…making this into something my 6 year old son will eat.

Burdock root can be chopped like parsnip, boiled for 5 mins then braised with butter and a little honey to glaze. it has a naturally sweet flavour, (like aniseed crossed with parsnip). But i’ve done that before, so I decided to make Burdock & Pine Nut Latkes. A latke is a Swedish fritter made with grated or mandolin’ed root veg and eggs plus a little flour. These are great with strongly flavoured fish and some salad.

BURDOCK & PINE NUT LATKES

350g (or 2 x 20cm pieces) Burdock root

1 large carrot

3 eggs

flour to taste

salt and pepper

1 tsp cumin powder

handful of pine nuts (I used wild Monterey Pine)

Groundnut or sunflower oil

Clove of garlic

  1. Clean and scrape the burdock roots. Grate on a large grater together with the carrot. There will be a core which is too tough, throw this in the compost!
  2. Put in a bowl and beat the eggs in. Mix. Add 2 tblsp flour, pine nuts, cumin, salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Chop and fry the garlic in the oil.
  4. Squish the mixture into patties the size of a small burger.
  5. Pat both sides with flour.
  6. Heat the oil then fry the patties til crispy and brown, flipping over once. This takes roughly 10 minutes.
  7. Pat dry with paper towel, then serve warm with sour cream or yoghurt. I made a salad with tinned mackerel in tomato sauce and cucumber cut up small.
  8. Enjoy! Burdock root helps you eliminate toxins from your body, too – great for that post Xmas hangover.

So my son’s verdict? “It’s ok.” he admits, and eats half of one Latke before going back to his frankfurters. One thing I would say is make sure you scrub those roots well, otherwise you get some crunchy soil in there too…but that’s good for you too, isn’t it. 😉

Wrestling with Burdock

Edible Tree of the Week: Monterey Pine

Now’s the time of year to celebrate our evergreens. So here we have the Monterey Pine, or Pinus radiata. This beautiful, lush 3 needle pine has spreading branches that can hang low down. When I say ‘3 needle’ I mean that the needles are arranged in bunches of 3, and they are around 15cm long. It can grow around 30 to 45m tall.

These are the trees that sheltered John Steinbeck’s homeless, alcoholic ex soldiers in his classic novel ‘Tortilla Flat’, set in Monterey, California! It hails from a small section of the California coastline, but is planted in milder parts of the UK. I have been nicking pollen off the ones at my local lake for several years now!

So onto edibility.

Make a Vitamin C rich tea by boiling the needles. Cut the freshest, most bright green ones, rinse, and erm..boil, until the water changes colour and the needles go from green to dull umber. Trappers and hunters would use pine needle tea to prevent scurvy (and other awful things that happen to people that don’t eat any fruit).

Something more substantial, you say?

Most pines have Edible seeds, but many are pretty small and a faff to use and harvest. Monterey Pine cones are large, ripening to 15cm long and 9cm across. The seeds are sealed in these things until a ruddy great bush fire comes along and causes the cones to pop open, scattering the seeds over what is (by now) a lovely nutritious layer of ash. You can help nature along by heating the cones on top of your stove or in your oven.

The pine nuts that drop out are nutritious, rich in good fats, omega 3, vitamin E which helps skin and hair stay healthy, iron,magnesium and fibre.

They need rubbing in the fingers to separate the wings from the dark nuts, then ‘micro winnowing’ (stick them in a bowl, then blow on them…the lighter papery wings will fly off and leave the nuts behind, all over your kitchen).

Lightly toast them in a pan then sprinkle on soups or salads. (or stay tuned for my Pine Nut recipes)! Im not sure how accurate this story is, but a young Japanese girl ran into the forest during the war and spent several years subsisting on pine nuts and needle tea, too afraid to return her village. She was eventually found once the war had ended. However, she was in good health (and I’m assuming she had great skin and hair!).

What I got from 3 cones…

But that’s not all our Monterey Pine has to offer.

In Spring the male parts of the tree release a bright, sulphur yellow pollen.This contains quite a lot of testosterone, so It makes a great tonic for those who wish for hairier chests, deeper voices and a heightened sex drive! Obviously one to avoid if you are not wanting these, or if pregnant or breastfeeding. The pollen can be added to flour to make cakes and breads to spike your man with (NB: The author is joking, spiking is naughty. Tell them first.) You can also eat the catkins as they are.

Collecting It is fun: tap the catkins into a plastic bag or large jam jar. The pollen will puff out in a yellow cloud.

Check later in the week for my Monterey Pine Nut & Burdock Latke experiments!

For more recipes with Pine Pollen in Spring, follow my blog http://www.hedgewitchadventures.com

Have fun!

Monterey Pine Nut & Burdock Latkes…earthy, aniseedy, crunchy!

Edible Tree of the Week: Monterey Pine

Ravishing Rosehip Crudites

Now is the time to go out gathering rosehips, the fruit of our native wild Dog Rose, (Rosa canina). Once the frosts have come, the previously rock-hard hips are ‘bletted’ , which means they go soft and ripe, ready for picking. So how can you recognize when they are ready? It’ll take a bit of trial and error, but soon you will notice the ripe ones have gone from red and very shiny to a matte, duller finish. As soon as you touch it it will be squidgy and come off the stem easily…though also check whether the hip has ‘gone over’ – runny liquid and smell should let you know soon enough!

Once you’ve picked a load, traditional recipes involve boiling them down in just enough water to cover and adding sugar, which makes a lovely jam, but gets rid of all that lovely Vitamin C that rosehips are famous for. (Rosehips contain 5 times more Vitamin C weight by weight than oranges, and were part of out staple diet during WW1 and 2.)

You can also make a raw rosehip syrup – stuff a sterilised jam jar with alternate layers of uncooked rose hips and white sugar. Prick the rose hips with a fork first to help things along. Make sure the last layer on top is sugar.

For immediate gratification, healthy eating and artistic flair, try my Ravishing Rosehip Crudites recipe.

(Not to blow my own trumpet too much…)

You will need:

Thinly sliced rye sourdough,

bletted (soft ) rosehips,

soft cheese such as Philadelphia or vegan scheese,

butter or margarine,

🥒 cucumber!

1)Toast the sourdough slices,butter them and cut into 3cm squares.

2)Dollop the soft cheese into a piping bag (or, if your’e not into fripperies, make your own out of a plastic document wallet, as I did)

3)Squeeze a blob of soft cheese onto each little rye toast.

4)Pointing the end which came off the stem down (you will see the hole,not the scruffy little star thing), squeeze the red paste out of the rose hip and onto the soft cheese blob. This can be fiddly! IMPORTANT: Do not eat the seeds! They make you itch! Give the rest of the rosehip back to the wild.

5)Cut one round of cucumber into tiny little pizza wedge slices (8 is a nice number). Garnish each crudite with a cucumber wedge pushed into the cheese, and arrange some rose hips. A voilà!

6)Enjoy with drinks of choice!

Ravishing Rosehip Crudites

Pseudoacacia…The Flower Jam of the Black Locust.

Also in an airy Grove near the edge of Plantation Wood, we happen upon Robinia pseudoacacia, the False Acacia, or ‘Black Locust’ as it is known in its native Missouri, US. They are They are strange, atmospheric sight, pinnate leaves rustling in the light and trunks covered in the tree equivalent of weals.

The False Acacia is a legume, which means it can fix nitrogen in the soil and make it available to other plants (and itself, its not that philanthropic). Which Is handy if your’e a tree and your’e colonising poor soils, like desert sand…

It makes excellent firewood, furniture and is good for carving. The wood is one of the hardest woods in America and is resistant to rot, so it Is used to make small boats. HOWEVER the wood, bark and leaves are toxic to horses and people!

What Is interesting is the mixed messages on the Internet, including several plant databases, which claim this tree has Edible seeds. This is a dubious claim which needs someone (like me) to go and bloody eat some and see if they give me liver failure. As this claim may pertain to the Honey Locust (Gleditsia) and its sweet seed pulp (hence the name).

You can’t really see from the photos, but the false Acacia has modest spines in parallel pairs at the base of its leaves. The honey locust has fiercer spines and pointer leaves.

Apparently in France, Italy and Romania the fragrant flowers of False Acacia are tempura ‘d or made into ‘beignets’. The Romanians boil down the flowers into a scented jam.

It would make sense, then, if the seeds could be eaten as they used to be the flowers. In one extract from PFAF database, the ‘shelled seeds are harvested from summer to fall, both raw and boiled’.

Best wait and see if myself or Phil die first. If not Il let everyone know how tasty they are.

Pseudoacacia…The Flower Jam of the Black Locust.

Giant Sequoia – A Gentle Goliath

On our first Tree ID foray into Plantation Wood Phil and I happen upon a Wellingtonia, or Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron gigantum. The vast tree tilts skyward, and my fingers push into the thick shaggy burgundy fibres of the bark. Normally they grow about 50m tall, but in their native valley of Sierra Nevada in California, they can grow up to 90m tall. The tallest Giant Sequoia, ‘Hyperion’ is 112m tall, whilst the widest is General Sherman at a diameter of 7.7m. General Sherman weighs as much as 400 elephants – that’s about 200,000 tonnes!

The mighty Redwood is slightly conical in shape. It is the tallest tree in many areas of Britain and was often planted by rich landowners to show off how wealthy they were.

So how did the Wellingtonia come to our shores?

An English plant hunter named William Lobb raced back to England in 1833 with Giant Sequoia seeds,and beat his American counterpart Dr Kellogg to name the tree after the Duke of Wellington. Otherwise it would have been called ‘Washingtonia’ after America’s first President!

The Giant Sequoia was once an endangered species due to climate change and logging, plus it is not tolerant of pollution. What saved it was partly the fact its wood is not actually that durable compared to other trees, and it was tough going cutting them down. Imagine sawing through a trunk with a girth that could fit 40 people and a grand piano, and you’ll understand what I mean.

So why does Wellingtonia love being burned to a crisp?

Here are its cones.

The Giant Sequoia needs fire to open its cones and germinate its seeds. Every so often wild fire will race through the Redwood groves of places like Kings Canyon National Park, and the burning Sequoia cones open like magic boxes, spilling seeds onto the newly cleared forest floor. There they can grow with the competition for light and nutrients eradicated by the fires.

Clever huh!

Giant Sequoia – A Gentle Goliath

Freaky & Fearsome Fungi!

I bring to you all the creepiest mushrooms in time for Halloween…as if the mycological world isn’t odd enough already!

  1. 1) Dissolving into Black Goo : Ink Caps First prize for disgusting mess goes to the Ink Cap family (Coprinus sps). Some, like the Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus) are good to eat when young and drumstick shaped. Once they age they deliquesce – dissolving into a slimy puddle of jet black Ink which can really mess up your clothes. This ink can actually be used for writing! Also, the Common Ink Cap (Coprinus atramentarius) is used in medicine form to make alcoholics vomit if they drink any alcohol.
Common Ink Cap by the boat toilet point in Leighton Buzzard

2) Tree Murderer: Honey Fungus

This ruthless fungus kills live trees. You do not want It in your garden. However, when young It is good to eat, unless you are one of the unlucky ones that has a reaction to it and spend the next few days spewing and on the toilet….Waitrose include it in their dried mushroom selection, so I am assuming they know what they are doing….

Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea). And a handy skull.

3) Most Corpselike: Dead Man’s Fingers

This Xylaria family member really does look like the black shrivelled fingers of a hurriedly buried corpse. If you break one off it is hard to the touch and white inside, just like a bone…urrgh. Don’t bother trying to eat it (just in case any of you might possibly want to).

Xylaria polymorpha
Xylaria polymorpha – Dead Man’s Fingers

4) Most Bloody: Beefsteak Fungus & Bleeding Mycena

This joint prize goes to the gory Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica) which feels and looks like someone’s stolen liver. Please don’t ask how I know this 😅. The Beefsteak bleeds red gore when cut. Then you can take it home, slice it finely and fry it with some onions, just like a real liver. The taste can be a bit acrid, and salty. Some cannibals enjoy it raw.

Beefsteak Fungus

The prize is shared by the Bleeding Mycena and the Orange Milk Mycena, both of whom Bleed all over your hands when you pick them. Lovely. Inedible, but actually quite pretty, until it drips all over you like a slender vampiric bride.

Mycena crocata – drippy

5) Most Disgusting and Smelly: Dog Stinkhorn

Mutinus caninus is also related to Phallus impudicus, the Stinkhorn. Both of them stink like rotten flesh and blocked sewer drains. It takes ages for the odour to go away. The mushroom does this to attract flies, which help spread its spores. It also looks like an erect penis, one that hasn ‘t been washed for quite a while!

Dog Stinkhorn – now that’s disgusting!

Well I hope that has managed to put you off your dinner. That’s just some of the weird and freakish fungi that myself and Phil have found recently. Do come on a Fungi Foray with us, if you dare! Check Hedgewitch Adventures Facebook Page for upcoming dates or send me a message on hedgewitchkat@gmail.com

Freaky & Fearsome Fungi!