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PhotobucketHappy Mother's Day to all the Moms out there!

My Mother-in-law is currently at a rehab center recovering from a bad fall. She'll be fine but it was scary. We brought her a New Zealand impatiens bursting with hot pink flowers for Mother's Day. When she's out, hopefully she'll be able to plant it in her garden. (Right: Robin's Nest by wide eyed lib)

I also came across a mother-to-be today. I noticed this nest a couple of weeks ago. It had been hidden in a small tree in a thicket, but the park groundspeople cut back the thicket leaving the nest exposed. I assumed the nest had been abandoned, but when I peeked in today, I spied 4 bright blue eggs, so Mommy and Daddy robin were somewhere in the vicinity. I took a couple of photos, then tiptoed away. If all goes well, in about 5 weeks, there should be a clutch of little robins. By that time, the thicket might have grown back a bit. At least I hope so for their sakes!

Covered: wisteria, watercress & mullein

Updated: winter cress

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PhotobucketIn honor of Mother's Day, I thought I'd start with a lovely, fragrant flower. Wisteria is a climbing vine with smooth bark and alternate, oval, toothless, feather compound leaves that consist of a single terminal leaflet with several pairs of opposite leaflets. The edges of the leaflets are gently wavy. The flowers are lilac, purple, white or a combination and sweetly fragrant. You can sometimes smell them before you see them. They droop from the vine in long clusters, and each individual flower has its own stalk and is shaped something like a pea flower. In the Summer, wisteria produces a green, irregularly lumpy seedpod between 4 and 6 inches long. Asian species have velvety seed pods and while native species are smooth. (Left: Wisteria Flowers by wide eyed lib)

All species have edible flowers that bloom in the Spring. No other part of the plant should be eaten, especially the seeds, which are extremely poisonous. As few as 2 seeds can make someone very, very sick and more than that can kill you. Because wisteria seeds are poisonous to most animals, they aren't spread in the normal fashion. Instead, once the seeds are fully developed, the pods explode, shooting the seeds in all directions. The sound is sometimes mistaken for gunfire.

PhotobucketThe flowers have a flavor that's difficult to describe. They impart a wonderful cooling sensation in the mouth that lasts a long time and are very refreshing and succulent and just a bit floral and sweet. If you have the opportunity, you should definitely give them a try. They work really well in salads and can be added to soups at the last minute. Because their flavor is delicate, they should be paired with milder items so that their unique qualities will shine through. As two final ideas, they can be used instead of berries in pancakes or stirred into oatmeal right after it's taken off the heat.

To continue enjoying them after their short season, they can be frozen whole but drying renders them flavorless. (Right: Wisteria Leaflets by wide eyed lib)
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The next plant is watercress. Watercress is a member of the very widely spread and delicious mustard family, along with winter cress (covered in this diary) and garlic mustard (covered in this diary). Like winter cress, watercress' alternate, compound leaves consist of a large terminal lobe with anywhere between 3 and 11 pairs of lobes that get smaller as they move down the stem. In early Summer, watercress will develop slender flower stalks at the point where the leaves meet the stem. The flowers (like most mustard flowers) are small and white with 4 petals roughly forming a cross. Beneath the flowers on the flower stalk, thin stems will support long, narrow seed pods about an inch in length. (Above: Watercress by wide eyed lib)

PhotobucketOriginally from Europe, watercress now grows in most of the United States and Canada. It thrives in fresh water, whether still or flowing. It's best collected in Spring and Fall because it loses some of its larger leaves in Summer when it flowers. Unfortunately, watercress can harbor parasites and harmful bacteria, so it's very important that you only harvest from places where you are certain the water is clean and pure. If you're not sure the water is potable, have it tested or forage something else. In a survival situation, cooking watercress in boiling water for about 5 minutes will kill many of the nastiest organisms, but in more ordinary circumstances, it isn't worth the risk of picking up a parasite capable of feasting on your liver. (Left: Watercress Closeup by wide eyed lib)

Wild watercress is very similar to its domesticated relative, though it is sometimes stronger in flavor, so try some before using it. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of eating British afternoon tea is probably familiar with egg and watercress sandwiches, but that's just the beginning of its usefulness. For a decent overview of the many possible ways of eating watercress, click here. Best of all, watercress is exceptionally nutritious with high quantities of Vitamins A and C, as well as iron, folic acid and calcium.

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PhotobucketKnown more for its healing properties than its edibleness, mullein is one of three herbs anyone venturing outside should know. (One of the  others is jewelweed, covered in this diary. The last of the three is aloe which I haven't found near me, though it's supposed to be available.) As with many of the most useful plants, mullein has almost as many names as my cats, including Jacob's staff, flannelleaf and feltwort. (Right: Mullein by wide eyed lib. Wood sorrel and mugwort are also pictured.)

Mullein begins life as a basal rosette and continues as one for its first year, growing very unusual, light grayish-green, oval, fuzzy leaves that can be more than 2 feet long. The leaves feel exactly like felt. In its second year, mullein sends up a thick flower stalk that can reach 10 feet in height. In mid to late Spring, the stalk develops small, densely clustered, terminal buds that open into five-petaled yellow flowers. Below the flowers grow tiny, woolly seed capsules, each with 5 sections. The flower stalks persist over the winter, which can aid in locating the highly useful roots after the leaves have disappeared.

Having been brought over by the earliest settlers and quickly adopted by Native Americans, mullein now grows in fields, along roadsides and in disturbed areas with at least some sun throughout the United States and Canada. It thrives in places where few other plants can grow, like sandy or overly alkaline soils. The place near me where it's most abundant is on a hillside where there's almost as much broken glass as soil.

PhotobucketLinda Runyon's book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide contains a chart that lists some of the useful qualities of mullein.  It has antihistimine, antiseptic, pain inhibiting, antispasmodic, tranquilizing and sedative qualities. In addition, it can help heal wounds, soothe burns, reduce swelling, stimulate growth and soften skin.

A tea made from the leaves and carefully strained to remove the hairs contains loads of B vitamins as well as vitamin D, choline, hesperidin, PABA, sulfur, magnesium, mucilage, saponins and other active substances. It's one of the most effective remedies around for a sore throat or bad cough. Somewhat paradoxically, smoking the leaves can alleviate asthma, bronchitis and other lung ailments. One source says it's been used to greatly slow the progress of tuberculosis. (Left: Mullein Leaf Closeup by wide eyed lib)

A tea with many of the same properties can also be made from the root; this is especially helpful during the winter after the leaves have vanished. Tea made from the flowers has been used to treat migraine headaches, and oil extracted from the flowers has cured ear infections. The yellow flowers contain a color-fast dye that can be used on cloth or, as many Roman women did, to dye hair blond.

The leaves can be used to treat arthritis because they increase blood flow wherever they are applied. They are also one of the best things around to use as an impromptu bandage. Linda Runyon tells the story of a Girl Scout whose ankle gets kicked by a horse. (If that's never happened to you, be grateful. It's hard to fathom just how strong horses are until you've been kicked by one.) Linda wrapped the ankle in mullein that had been bruised with a rock, used mullein stalks as splints and took the girl for medical help. The doctor who examined her was astonished. Although the girl had suffered a chip fracture, she was in very little pain and her ankle was barely swollen.

In less dire circumstances, the leaves can be placed directly against the soles of the feet to reduce swelling and pain and provide some additional cushioning on long hikes.

I've only scratched the surface of the many uses of mullein, but hopefully the information here will help you appreciate this extraordinary herb a little more the next time you see it.

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This is our old friend winter cress, first discussed in this diary. As you can see, it now has flower stalks with terminal clusters of four-petaled yellow flowers. The flowers are edible and considerably milder than the leaves, which means they can be used in greater quantity and don't need to be combined with milder greens in order to be palatable. (Left: Winter Cress In Flower and Right: Winter Cress Flower Closeup, both by wide eyed lib)

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If you're interested in foraging and missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 7 installments. As always, please feel free to post photos in the comments and I'll do my best to help identify what you've foraged. (And if you find any errors, let me know.)

Here are some helpful foraging resources:

"Wildman" Steve Brill's site covers many edibles and includes nice drawings.

"Green" Deane Jordan's site is quite comprehensive and has color photos and stories about many plants.

Green Deane's foraging how-to clips on youtube each cover a single plant in reassuring detail.

Linda Runyon's site features only a few plants but has great deals on her dvd, wild cards and books (check out the package deals in particular).

Steve Brill's book, Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places is my primary foraging guide. (Read reviews here, but if you're feeling generous, please buy from Steve's website.)

Linda Runyon's book The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide contains especially detailed information about nutritional content and how to store and preserve wild foods.

Steve Brill also offers guided foraging tours in NYC-area parks. Details and contact info are on his website.

Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.

See you next Sunday!

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Originally posted to wide-eyed wanderings on Sun May 10, 2009 at 04:36 PM PDT.

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