June in Central Park was the 2nd wettest since 1869 at 10.06". (Average June rainfall is 3.84.) This July has gotten only 7.11", but that's still 2.49 above average. I'm not sure if this includes the half inch from Friday. If Central Park gets 5.24" in August (1" more than average), it will be the wettest Summer ever. I suspect there are drier rainforests.
Unusual rain has come with unusual coolness. Central Park has had one day in June and July that exceeded 85 degrees (July 17th at 86). This is the fewest number of days above 85 for this time on record. Only one other year comes close--1996, which is the only other year not to record a 90 degree day in June or July. (All statistics from the National Weather Service.)
I'd gladly send some of our weather to OR (record highs) or TX (record droughts) if I could.
Covered: wineberry, sumac & black cherry
As always, if you're new to foraging and want to give it a try, please read the first diary in the FFF series for some important information.
I first previewed wineberries (also known as Japanese wineberries or wine raspberries) back in May in this diary. Wineberries, like raspberries, thimbleberries and blackberries (along with domesticated hybrids like boysenberries, youngberries and loganberries), are members of the Rubus genus, which feature perennial roots from which spring biennial canes. Most species have spines (modified branches or stems) or prickles (outgrowths from the epidermis or cortex of the plant), form dense thickets and create fruits that are aggregate drupelets. Although wineberries are technically a raspberry subspecies, they have a few characteristics that make them distinct and worth discussing separately. (Right: Wineberry Leaves and Buds by wide eyed lib)
While black and red raspberries are native, wineberries were imported from Asia as ornamentals and to create new raspberry hybrids. They quickly escaped cultivation and are classified as noxious weeds in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I'm pretty sure that New York State has either already classified them as invasive or is about to, since I've witnessed park service workers pulling them up in area parks, a treatment usually reserved for invasives.
While other types of raspberries have white flowers, wineberry flowers are pink to purple, with bristly sepals. The canes are covered with densely packed, hair-thin red prickles that give the canes a distinctive fuzzy cast. The leaves are also unusual. While they have 3 or 5 leaflets like most Rubus members, the leaflets are rounder than other species, and the leading leaflet is 2-3 times larger than the other leaflets. After the flowers fall off, the sepals close to form a bud shape, and only reopen when the fruit is nearly ripe. Finally, the fruits range from orange to deep maroon and have a distinctive winey flavor, much like a well-aged red wine or even a ruby port. They grow in partial shade to full sun in woods, gardens and at the edges of fields throughout the Eastern third of the U.S., although their range is spreading ever westward. (Left: Wineberries by wide eyed lib)
Wineberries can be used in any of the same ways as other types of raspberries. They make delicious preserves, pies, cobblers and pancakes, especially with a dash of port to enhance the wine flavor. They can be frozen or dried, and the leaves can be used to make an astringent tea. I'm not aware of any medicinal uses unique to wineberries, but if anyone else knows of any, please let me know. I discussed the medicinal uses of raspberries here.
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Small, smooth, grey-barked trees or shrubs of the genus Rhus are called sumacs (not to be confused with the Rubus genus discussed above). Some of you may remember that I gave a sneak peak of sumac berries here. Sumacs grow on well drained dry ground in sunny areas throughout all U.S. states other than Alaska and all southern Canadian provinces, as well as in Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe. Look for them in vacant lots and canyons, at the seashore, in the medians of roads and along the sides of railroad tracks, though in the latter 2 cases, you should probably harvest elsewhere. They are generally characterized by long, feather compound, lemon-scented leaves; upright, orange to red clusters of berries (officially deemed drupes); and growth in fairly dense stands that results from underground rhizomes sending up shoots each Spring. Their twigs tend to exude a sticky, whitish sap when broken. Regardless of cluster size, any sumac with upright, orange to red clusters may be used in the same ways discussed here, although this entry will focus mainly on the staghorn sumac. (Right: Staghorn Sumac Leaf by wide eyed lib)
In early Spring, established staghorn trunks generate long, gently serrated, feather compound leaves consisting of a leading leaflet and many pairs of opposite leaflets. A single leaf can exceed 2 feet in length. All new staghorn sumac growth is covered in a fine, downy fuzz that resembles the velvet of a stag's antlers and gives the species its common name. In late Spring, it develops upright clusters of greenish-yellow flowers that give way to equally upright clusters of hairy pink fruits. Before falling to the ground in late Fall, the leaves turn a spectacular scarlet hue, while the berries fade to a rusty brown and often tower persistently over the bare limbs until the following Spring. It's mainly found in the eastern half of the U.S. as well as Ontario and Quebec.
Other common species of sumac include smooth sumac with scarlet berries, a red tinge to the leaflet midribs, smooth rather than fuzzy twigs, and a range from coast to coast and throughout southern Canada; winged or shining sumac with the tallest, bushiest plants, looser fruit and flower clusters, distinctive flared leaf midribs (called wings), shiny leaves, and a range that spans the Eastern U.S. and Ontario; and skunkbush or three-leafed sumac, with 3 part palmate compound leaves where each leaflet resembles a small, rounded oak leaf; and smaller, rounded clusters of berries that resemble hairy cranberries. It's the most squat of the sumacs mentioned and grows in the western half of the U.S. as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Sumacs have 2 parts that are useful to the forager-- the Spring shoots and the fruit clusters. The shoots can be snapped off, peeled and eaten raw. They have an exotic fruitiness that's tart, crisp and sweet all at once. They make an absolutely fabulous trail snack. Just make sure that the shoots are opaque green in cross section. More mature parts grow a lighter center, and any portions with this center are too old to eat. The peeled shoots can also be sliced raw into salads and presumably cooked as well, but I've never experimented. (Left: Staghorn Sumac Flowers by wide eyed lib. Note the fuzzy stems.)
The shoots are delicious but most foragers are more familiar with the berries. They're too hard to actually eat but have a thin coating of ascorbic acid (aka Vitamin C) that ranges from pleasantly piquant to tongue curlingly tart and can be soaked off to make sumac lemonade. Different species and even different stands of the same species can have different flavors, so rub your finger across a berry and then touch your finger to your tongue to make sure there's enough flavor to make harvesting worthwhile. Also check to make sure it isn't infested with grubs, then either snap or slice off the entire cluster. The clusters persist over winter but are often tasteless by the end of October. However, occasionally a cluster will still retain some tartness even into early Spring.
For a pitcher of delicious sumac lemonade, gather 6 to 8 medium sized clusters, give them a quick rinse in cold water, then put them in a bowl and cover with more cold water (never hot). Plunge your hands into the bowl and rub each berry cluster firmly between your palms to loosen the fruits, then allow them to soak for at least an hour. Remove the berry clusters and strain the liquid through a cheesecloth, coffee filter or fine mesh strainer to remove any hairs and stray bits. Taste to see if it needs dilution or strengthening and sweeten to taste. The exotic lemony flavor and pretty ruby color makes this a beverage worth serving to company. You can also soak multiple batches of fruit clusters in the same liquid to create a concentrate that can be frozen and used year-round either diluted and sweetened for lemonade or full strength as a substitute for lemon juice in any recipe.
People interested in Middle Eastern cuisine might be aware of the spice known as sumac. It's created by grinding the sun dried fruit of a European species of sumac, Rh. coriaria . I'm sure this same method would yield a very similar spice when used with North American fruit. Ground sumac is delicious on meats, hummus and many other foods. This article has some recipes, and others can be found with a quick google. (Right: Ripe Staghorn Sumac Berry Cluster by wide eyed lib)
Staghorn sumac's principal uses in herbal medicine seem to derive from its being high in Vitamin C, astringent and very tannic. (In fact, it's actually been used to tan hides.) It's also treated diarrhea, fevers, asthma, hemorrhoids, general debility, and uterine prolapse. Chewed wood has been said to increase milk flow. Other parts have been used to treat sore throats, boils, venereal disease, warts and bedwetting. However, some people have experienced rashes from compounds in the roots, bark and wood, so caution is advised. Details about the medicinal uses of staghorn and other types of sumac can be found at Plants for a Future.
Reasons for caution:
- Sumacs are closely related to cashews and mangos, both of which are common allergens. Anyone allergic to cashews and mangos should probably avoid eating sumac as well.
- Poison sumac, poison oak and poison ivy (the latter covered here with additional photos here) were once all members of the Rhus genus, although they have more recently been reclassified into the Toxicodendron genus. All 3 cause the famous rash also known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, but the rash caused by poison sumac is usually the most severe. Poison sumac somewhat resembles staghorn, smooth and winged/shiny sumac in various ways, but poison sumac's fruit clusters are white and hang down and its leaflets are considerably wider spaced than those of the edible species. Poison oak somewhat resembles skunkbush or three-leafed sumac, but again the fruits hang down and are tan or white. While the color differences ensure there's little danger when collecting fruit clusters, it's very important to positively identify which Rhus species you're dealing with before harvesting any shoots. If you identify stands now by their berries, you can safely come back to harvest next Spring.
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Our final plant for today is the black cherry, which I previously offered a sneak peak of. Like sweet cherries (covered here), black cherries and all other species in the Prunus genus have edible fruit. Black cherry trees like full or nearly full sun and can be found in the Eastern 2/3rds of the U.S. plus Arizona, New Mexico and British Columbia. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their range extends further south down the West Coast as well. (Left: Black Cherry Bark by wide eyed lib)
The black cherry is a native tree that can exceed 60 feet in height and has dark grey, scaly bark with reddish, vertical furrows. The leaves are simple, glossy, alternate, pointed ovals with a serrated edge and a lighter colored underside. They're generally about 4 inches long and an inch wide but can vary in size. The twigs, when scratched or broken, smell like rotten almonds mixed with gasoline. The small, white flowers grow on long racemes, have 5 petals and appear in mid-Spring. The fruits are round with a single, large pit and only about half of the flowers form fruits. The fruit first appears in late Spring but takes about 6 weeks to ripen. It's very important to let the fruit get as dark as possible before picking because under ripe black cherries are pretty dreadful. They should be nearly black and perhaps even a little wrinkled. I've just spotted the first ripe fruits in my area, and the season won't begin in earnest for another 10 days or so.
Not everyone likes the taste of black cherries. For one thing, they aren't particularly sweet and the flavor has grapefruit undertones that some find disconcerting. Black cherry was also used in children's medicine to cover up other unpleasant flavors, and therefore it can be hard for certain people to taste anything other than cough syrup. So try a few of the ripest ones you can find before harvesting by the bucket. The flavor also varies from year to year and tree to tree, so it's worthwhile to try again at another tree or even in another year. (Right: Black Cherry Leaf by wide eyed lib)
Another issue with black cherries is the ratio of fruit to pit. It takes quite a bit of effort to get a small amount of usable fruit. Luckily, black cherry trees tend to be fairly plentiful, so gathering large amounts of fruit usually isn't difficult. (Do leave some for the birds, though, since all cherry species are important food for them.) One of the most efficient (if messy) ways to remove the pits is to cook the berries until soft and then firmly push the flesh through a colander with large holes but not so large that the pits pass through. You can then sweeten the mush to taste and use it in muffins, pancakes, pies, ice cream or to make jelly or jam, either by itself or mixed with sweet and/or sour cherries. The mush can also be frozen.
It's very easy to confuse black cherries with chokecherries especially since they have similar leaves, similar fruit and similar habitats (though chokecherry's range is larger). Luckily, they're both equally edible, but chokecherry's leaves are a bit smaller, its fruit is smaller and more astringent, and according to Steve Brill black cherry leaves have tiny reddish hairs on the reverse of the midrib, visible only through a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe. Unless you're planning to use black cherries medicinally (see below), it's perfectly safe to eat chokecherries in all the same ways as black cherries, though you'll need more sweetener for chokecherries. (Left: Barely Ripe Black Cherries by wide eyed lib)
Finally, as I touched on in the discussion of sweet cherries, the inner bark of black cherry trees has been used medicinally for centuries, but (and excuse me while I quote myself):
The leaves and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the different Prunus species contain varying amounts of amygdalin, an extremely potent compound that can convert into cyanide in the bodies of humans and other animals. Wilted leaves are especially dangerous, and a pound of wilted leaves is enough to kill a cow. Tea made from the leaves has also been known to kill humans, and it's possible, albeit unlikely, that swallowing a large number of cherry pits could also prove problematic. NEVER eat or make tea from the leaves of any Prunus species.
An infusion of the inner bark of black cherry stimulates the lungs while simultaneously relaxing the nerves that create the coughing reflex, making it a valuable home remedy for coughs and sore throats. It was also included in many commercial cough medicines. Black cherry bark tea has also been used for fevers, asthma, excess mucus, diarrhea and inflamed gums. Caution is advised in using it, not only because of the amygdalin, but also because removing the inner bark of a black cherry tree will likely kill it.
If you're interested in foraging and missed the earlier diaries in the series, you can click here for the previous 19 installments. As always, please feel free to post photos in the comments and I'll do my best to help identify what you've found. (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.
Samuel Thayer’s book The Forager's Harvest is perhaps the finest resource out there for the 32 plants covered. The color photos and detailed harvest and preparation information are top-notch.
Steve Brill also offers guided foraging tours in NYC-area parks. Details and contact info are on his website.
Don Wiss’s website is a treasure trove featuring hundreds of photos of common northeastern edibles.
Finally, the USDA plants database is a great place to look up info on all sorts of plants.
See you next Sunday!