Growing pains

Abandoned toy


UPDATE: This site can now be viewed directly at

Sometime in about a week, I will be switching web hosts.  This will enable me to let my blog better reflect the business behind it, which would otherwise be against policy.

All of the content (save this post) has been exported to the new (but offline) site already, including your comments.  There will be no more ads.  There will also be no more “likes”.  But the blog will look much the same, with all the parts in the same place it has been, and you’ll have more options for sharing posts that you like.

Important highlights for regular readers:

  • The web site address will still be, but at the switch or shortly thereafter, the site will direct to a static home page and there will be a menu option for the blog.  Those of you with bookmarks will probably want to edit your bookmarks to go direct to the blog.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts by following on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ will still get updates that way.
  • Those of you who keep up with the latest posts on RSS:  It might work, or you might need to reset your feed.  I am about 80% sure you will need to change nothing.
  • Email subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site.
  • subscribers: Your subscriptions will be moved for you to the new site, but you will no longer get email notifications from  If you want email notifications, once the site is moved you will have the option to subscribe there.
  • readers who aren’t subscribed but see us in Reader: The site will no longer appear in Reader unless you manually add it or follow us using one of the methods above.

I am very excited about the move, as it opens up a lot of options for me.  When the site is officially moved, I’ll post a quick note on both the new and the WordPress link  If you don’t see that within 10 days, please check in manually.

I hope you will join me at the new site, and bring your friends and questions!


Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) tea

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) is an evergreen vine native to the southeastern United States which grows in sunny woodland edges and in clearings where it can get enough sun.  It climbs pretty much anything except a solid surface using twining tendrils with holdfasts like suction cups on the ends.  It is sometimes grown as an ornamental since it has showy orange trumpet-shaped flowers for a brief period in the summer that are attractive to hummingbirds.

Crossvine blooming

Crossvine blooming

In the summer, the leaves and stems are mostly green, however in the winter the undersides of the leaves and stems turn purple.  It is a very common plant and really stands out when the woods are brown and barren in the winter.  If foraging for this plant, it is very important not to confuse it with the red-flowered Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) or Carolina Jasmine.  Trumpet Creeper is called Cow Itch because it causes rashes and skin irritation in many people.  Cow Itch fortunately looks quite different once you know what to look for, and is deciduous instead of evergreen.  Carolina Jasmine is evergreen and highly toxic, but looks quite different.  The key to identifying Crossvine with certainty is the cross-like stem arrangement.  It has compound leaves with only two leaflets plus a modified leaflet that is a tendril, which are opposite each other.

Crossvine detail

Crossvine detail

The leaves themselves are what we are after for tea.  Some of the Native American tribes of the southeast used crossvine for a number of medical uses.  Knowledge about the plant was passed to African slaves but largely fell out of use.  Tommie Bass learned of the plant and used it to get overworked, exhausted mules and horses back on their feet, then on similarly exhausted women, and among a few herbalists in the southeast it continues to be used as an adaptogen and to boost energy.  (Yes, it works for men, too.)  Given the uncommon use of this plant, it is unlikely any pharmaceutical trials will be performed on the plant, but we do know the plant contains reserpine.  Reserpine reduces blood pressure and may reduce heart rate, and is used as an anti-pyschotic.  From the International Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemical Research 2012; 4(3); 89-91:

Subjective accounts of the effects of ingesting an infusion of three dried leaves of B. capreolata daily over three days describe it as energizing (this dose represents about 0.35g of dried leaf containing approximately 85 μg reserpine).  While this is not necessarily a reported effect of reserpine administration, it is possible that alterations in sympathetic tone caused by reserpine could promote restfulness and feelings of rejuvenation. Still, it seems more likely that the unique effects of B. capreolata are due to a synergistic effect of reserpine and other, unidentified constituents.

So in a nutshell, it works, but we don’t really know why.  Modest intake is suggested due to the potential side effects of reserpine.  All the contraindications of reserpine apply: do not take if pregnant or nursing, if you have low blood pressure, or if you are on any blood pressure or anti-psychotic drugs.

To make Crossvine tea, bring water to a gentle boil, reduce heat and then add about 2 or 3 leaves.  (Don’t boil the leaves.)  Infuse for several minutes.  The tea is mild tasting.  It can be drunk hot or cold,and if you make a larger batch it can be stored in the refrigerator for several days and consumed as iced tea.

Foraging in the yard: Wild Garlic (Allium vineale)

wild garlic bunch

Edible wild garlic

A familiar lawn “weed” is popping up now: wild garlic.  Numerous plants are called “wild garlic,” but this is Allium vineale.  It is often confused with wild onion, which is also a lawn weed popping up right now that looks almost the same and also has many cousins sharing the same common name.  Unfortunately, due to the number of species’ with these common names, there is a lot of internet flotsam about how to tell the difference between the two, for example saying wild garlic has flat leaves or that the leaf stems of wild garlic are hollow and wild onions are not — vice versa.  When you add in garden chive escapees, it adds to the confusion.  In my region, the local variants can have hollow leaves or not and neither has flat leaves.

wild garlic

Wild garlic looks almost exactly like wild onion in the lawn

Fortunately, the confusion is mostly academic.  If you find a plant in the southeastern United States that looks like the one above AND smells strongly of onion or garlic, it is safe to eat, but BOTH must be true.   If in doubt, don’t eat it.  All parts of the plant are edible, with the bulb being the strongest tasting and least fibrous.  Bulbs may be up to 1/2 inch in diameter.

The plants growing in my yard are usually wild garlic.  Upon dissection, the key identification difference is that wild garlic has a papery membrane (just like cultivated garlic) and wild onion bulbs are covered with a reticulated mesh.  Further, if the plant has side bulblets growing off the main bulb, it is wild garlic.

wild garlic cross-section

Wild garlic: note the papery husk

A native of Europe, north Africa and western Asia, in some areas wild garlic is considered invasive.  Like all alliums, these are toxic to dogs and cats, particularly small dogs and cats.  Your animals are unlikely to eat them in the yard, but if they do it’s a practice you want to discourage or else attempt to remove the plant from areas they can access.  Those with dairy animals are not going to view this as a welcome weed either, since it imparts an unpleasant taste to milk.  For the rest of us, however, wild garlic is an abundant plant in the early spring that can be a tasty addition to your kitchen.  Once warm weather sets in, they will vanish, so collect them while they are available.

I Am Not a Weed: Plantain

buckthorn plantain

The edible, nutritious and medicinal buckthorn plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

One of the first plants to begin to flourish in the spring here is plantain.  It never really disappears in hot weather — it just shrinks down and sleeps under the plants that thrive in the heat of summer.  This past weekend I noticed it popping up everywhere, a harbinger of spring despite weeks of cold weather still ahead.

Various species of plantain (Plantago spp.) grow almost everywhere in the world.  It is an incredibly tough perennial plant that grows in lawns, by roadsides, in mowed fields and almost anywhere else it can gain a foothold including cracks in concrete and asphalt.  Compacted, infertile, acidic soil?  No problem for this pioneer plant.  Lawn aficionados hate it.  Their kids turn the seed heads on their tall stalks into projectiles and shoot them at each other.   And almost all of us at some point have consumed psyllium husks, which are the seed hulls of an Indian species, Plantago ovata, with a large glass of water.

Today, some folks try to stamp it out but former generations readily spread the seeds and took the plant with them when they migrated.  All of the parts above ground are an effective medicinal herb.  While the seeds and husks are used for constipation, the green parts are used for irritated nasal passages and throats by shrinking swollen tissue and coating it with a soothing layer.  Used externally it is an anti-toxin for poison ivy and other minor skin irritations and injuries.  Growing up, all the kids knew that if you chewed up some leaves and placed them over the wound plantain would ease the pain of a bee sting.

For eating, pick the young leaves, wash and cook like you would any other green and you will be rewarded with a dish similar to spinach which is high in vitamin A, C and iron.  Since the leaves are quite high in fiber, a modest serving is suggested.  The flower pods and stalks can be dried, ground and saved for use as a laxative or used like sassafras leaves (aka gumbo filé) to thicken stews.

There are several species of plantain naturalized in this area: P. lanceolata, P. cordata, P. major, P. virginica and sometimes P. wrightiana, but they all work the same although, P. virginica is too hairy for eating for me.  As always, when foraging in the wild be 100% sure of your plant identification and always verify that your local species’ are edible and do not interfere with any personal health conditions.  Finally, like any bulking laxative, do not use if you have or suspect an intestinal obstruction.


Vitamin C in Winter

violets of 2013

Photo courtesy of John Lodder on Flickr

As winter settles in to stay a while before warm temperatures return, the vegetables we are overwintering in our gardens fall out one by one, either eaten or killed by colder temperatures.  Appalachian folk called late winter and spring the starving time, when food stores were running low, new crops weren’t yet ready to harvest and people had cravings for something new and fresh.  Today the grocery store has fresh food shipped in from distant continents year round, but if you are trying to live frugally, the prices of these fruits and vegetables in the off season can be steep.  And home canning significantly reduces the nutritional qualities of foods.  So what’s a frugal gardener to do?

There are many sources of fresh nutrients in winter if you live somewhere with a mild climate like the Southeastern US.  Let’s just look at one nutrient: vitamin C.  It’s one of the more difficult ones to store, and one that is more likely to be in deficiency when people subsist on stored food for an extended period.

  • Citrus is in season in the winter.  Although the vitamin C content of citrus is overly hyped in an era where fruits are bred to be sweet instead of tart, it’s still a good, tasty source.  If you live in Zone 8b or warmer, you can grow your own or likely have a local source nearby.  There is about 50mg of vitamin C in a lemon sized fruit.
  • Cabbage stores well in the garden until the temperatures start dropping below 20F, and then they need to be harvested.  Stored at about 32F (like in a refrigerator), heads of cabbage will remain fresh for months.  Fermented cabbage (sauerkraut, kimchee, and other lacto-fermented dishes) will keep for many weeks.  So you can play a good cabbage harvest out for a long time into the cold months.  There is about 25mg of vitamin C in 1 Cup of shredded fresh cabbage, and that nutritional content is not lost during fermentation.
  • Rose hips, from wild or domestic roses, can be harvested in late fall and early winter, dried and stored very simply.  It makes a tart tea.  Don’t boil the water if you want to retain the full vitamin C content.  There is approximately 1700mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of dried fruit.
  • Sumac berries can be harvested in fall when the sprays of berries are a deep, rich red.  They dry and store easily, and are also quite tasty.  You can eat them whole, but the seeds are not what you are looking for: you want the fleshy coating.  This coating makes a wonderful tart drink similar to lemonade.  You can also buy bags of the berries (a different species) in spice stores and Middle Eastern markets.  Many cultures use it for cooking much as we’d use lemon or vinegar.  Those with cashew and related allergies should use this plant with caution.  I was not able to find a good estimate of the vitamin C content, unfortunately.
  • Pine needles, particularly the young growing tips, can be infused into tea.  Some people love the taste, others hate it.  Pine needles also contain shikimic acid, which is a potent chemical that prevents viruses from replicating.  How potent?  It’s the base material for the anti-flu drug Tamiflu.  The quantity in pine needles is unlikely to help much with a full blown viral infection, but it might help fight one off in the early stages.  Pine needle tea contains ~75mg of Vitamin C per fluid ounce depending on the strength of the tea and the individual plant characteristics.
  • Nettles show up in early spring, invading gardens as a weed.  Picked young, they haven’t developed their sting yet and can be lightly sauteed for a nutritional powerhouse of greens.  I found a test that showed nettles had 83mg of vitamin C, but it didn’t state in what amount of vegetable.  I would guess that figure is for about 1 Cup fresh.
  • Chickweed is another weed with a superb nutritional profile, and contains 375mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of plant.  You can eat everything above the ground, raw or cooked.  It isn’t bitter like many wild greens and tastes quite good to me.  Chickweed is also reputed to be effective for weight loss.  You want the common star chickweed, not the fuzzy mouse-eared chickweed.  Both are equally nutritious, but the fuzzy leaves are not conducive to a good eating experience.
  • Violets, the common garden variety weed with blue or purple blooms of any species — but not the African Violets which are unrelated and toxic — have very edible leaves and blooms.  Surviving all through the winter, the leaves are good tasting, not bitter, and contain 50mg of vitamin C in a cup of fresh leaves.  Given what a tenacious weed this plant is, it makes me happy to know it has other redeeming characteristics.

Needless to say, before foraging in the wild be 100% of your identification.  You really don’t want the white berries of poison sumac, for example.  But fresh, healthy food is available ever when it’s as cold outside as it is right now.

Practical Foraging: Lion’s Mane Mushroom


Lion’s Mane Mushroom detail

I admit it, I’m not a mushroom fan.  They are the darlings of foragers everywhere for their nutrition,  but I find them tasteless and the texture unpleasant.  Nonetheless, if I am out learning to forage, I pay attention to the major mushroom edibles in my area and will try them if a new tasting opportunity presents itself.

Last weekend’s opportunity was Hericeium erinaceus, or Lion’s Mane Mushroom.  Often perched high in hardwood trees, the hairy appearing texture no doubt gives it its common name.

The recipe?  Sliced and on the grill.



There’s no happy ending here.  I think, like all mushrooms, it is tasteless and very rubbery toothsome.  Grilled, it retained more of its chewiness than it does sauteed (I have also had it sauteed in the past).  If you are a mushroom fan, now is the time to search out these for your own culinary pleasure.  I shall let you have my share.

(By Nicole Castle)

Practical foraging: hickory nut broth


A hickory tree in full fall glory

Despite the 24F temperature when I woke up, yesterday I went on an edible plants hike with Darryl Patton, The Southern Herbalist.  We walked on private property that was teeming with hickory nut trees, and they were loaded with nuts.  I discussed the virtues of foraging for hickory nuts a little while ago, but sometimes the nut meats inside hardly seem worth the effort.  The group gathered some to make a broth from hickory nuts — shells and all.  This is a great option for when only smaller nuts are available.

Step 1: Clean off the worse of the dirt and put them in water.  Discard any nuts that float; they’ll be bad.

Step 2: Smash them up.  A couple of gentlemen did the honors using a cinder block and some bricks.  High tech kitchen tools not required.

Step 3: Boil.

Step 4: Strain and enjoy.  We skipped the straining.  This was primitive style.  We just ladled the both off the top and tried to avoid the shells.  Finding the soft nuts made a chewy treat.


Hickory nut broth (in progress)

We boiled them for about 15-20 minutes, but I imagine if you boil them longer the nutmeats would eventually disintegrate and produce a thicker broth resembling nut milk.  What we got was a rich, smoky broth.  The warmth was quite welcome on a chilly day, and the broth was quite filling, probably due to the oil content in the nuts.  It ended up being my lunch along with a few other wild edibles.

I think the broth would make a great base for soups, especially when paired with some foraged bitter greens, many of which are available throughout the cold weather season.  The rich taste would also stand up well to red meats like bison, venison or beef, or smoked pork.  It will add a hint of hickory smoke grilled flavor.

Although the flavor was worthy of high class kitchen cuisine, it’s also something that can be easily made over a campfire or rocket stove.  Hickory nut broth gets two thumbs up from me.

(By Nicole Castle)