Saturday, March 28, 2020

The case of the mysterious blossoms

On a blue-sky afternoon last week I hopped into the car. Twenty-six minutes later  - thanks to the new normal of light traffic in New York - I had rounded New York Harbor, passed under the beautiful Verrazano Narrows Bridge, waved at Coney Island, turned east towards the sandy barrier islands on the city's Atlantic edge, and parked.

A few empty car spaces from me a tattoo-ed girl also parked, and let out her pitbull for  a walk. We smiled the shy COVID-smile, gave each other a wide berth, and headed down different backroads of the dunes at Fort Tilden.

Fort Tilden is a national park, but ragged at the edges due to chronic federal underfunding. It is also a decommissioned missile site, a relic of a cold war, and now suitably post-apocalyptic and nature-shrouded.

I have visited in many seasons but more often since having a car. It's reachable by subway and bus (and bicycle), but it is a long trip, and right now no one takes public transport voluntarily. A spring walk and picnic had been planned here, but everyone's planned spring is on hold, for obvious reasons.

There were beautiful pussy willows in bloom, showering yellow pollen.

A solitary pollinator was very busy. From an unphotogenic pond ringed by bleached Phragmites came the first, bright calls of spring peepers, the invisible chorus that confirms the arrival of spring. I collected some baby pine cones to turn into pine cone jam (with the delicious by-product of pine cone "honey": not honey at all, but the sweet, dark, resinous cooking syrup rendered thick by repeated boilings). My ever-present hand sanitizer was useful for dissolving the resin on my fingers.

Wandering in the dunes the tattoo'd girl and her dog were approaching and we both stepped off the sandy path to give each other at least six feet of room.

What made this trip different from any other was the fruit blossom. Lighting up the winter-brown scrub were dozens of shrubs in bloom and bud.

Bayberry and beach rose are still bare, and even the choking honeysuckle and greenbrier have not sprung back to life. The trees are leafless. At first I thought these shrubs must be native beach plums (Prunus maritima) but their shape was wrong, and the beach plum shrubs were still sprawled fast asleep, their buds tight knots against the dark bark.

These branches were upright and loose, rather than the tight knit and more horizontal habit of the beach plum, whose late summer crop is delicious. But why had I never noticed fruit, before? All these blossoms must mean fruit. Surely.

What else blooms this early, this shape? Could they be immature apricots? No. Another plum? I thought peach. 

There is a community garden nearby where Friend Frank used to have his Beach Farm. Perhaps marauding raccoons or possums stole long-ago fruit and dropped the pits en route to their critter home in the tangle of the dunes. But that's a lot of pits.

Back at the car pitbul-girl had also just finished her walk, too. Two different people. One dog. Same trajectory. We smiled our COVID-smiles goodbye.

When I messaged Frank (who now lives in Minnesota), he pointed out that peaches are not known for their feral ways. I had to think again. The Prunus genus is huge.

I returned twice last week, both times with the Frenchman.

On a sheltered dune,  on a chilly, breezy evening, we had drinks ornamented with sprigs of the mystery-blossoms.

And then yesterday, after our work-at-home Friday ended at 4pm on a glorious day that defied a miserable forecast, we returned so that he could run, far from crowds.  At home, on top of one another, or nearly, we stressed by slow work and uncertainty, and nature is important. But our local Prospect Park has become very crowded: everyone is home and everyone has cabin fever. It is harder to avoid people who jog past you, breathing heavily. (So we're uptight).

Nearer to the usually empty Breezy Point the carpark that is usually deserted in spring (except for a Russian fisherman or two) was packed. The beautiful day, the need to escape, had lured other viral refugees.

The Frenchman went for his five-mile, low-tide run to the tip of the island, but I avoided the usually peaceful beach where dogs barked and children outscreamed the oyster catchers, and disappeared along the less popular paths and empty roads.

Just a few days after I first saw them, the blossoms were now at their mysterious, magical peak. Some pale pink, some white. Clustered thickly on vertical branches.

But something was different:

Leaves had appeared. While flowers are often the easiest identifier for a plant, in a genus like Prunus with hundreds of species, the leaves can hold the key. And these were different. Not peach, not apricot, not plum, and no cherry I have ever seen. I was thrilled.

Strangely, the distinctive and fine creases or ridges (described as rugose, in botanical terms - think of beach rose, Rosa rugosa's name) reminded me strongly of jetbead, Rhodotypos scandens, an Asian shrub, although the flowers and bark were obviously wrong. But that was my first stop on Google, back at home. Maybe the larger family had this strange-flowered relative.

It didn't.

No. I had no choice. I had to plunge into that intimidating Prunus genus, hundreds of species deep. In I went, holding my nose.

Clues? Frank had made a point about saltwater inundation during Hurricane Sandy. Could it be a native shrub inured to the conditions?

A sand cherry relative? Prunus pumila var. susquehanae? No.

I began to feel a prickle of potential success once I deployed "bush" with my cherry search.  The images were looking promising. Prunus jacquemontii - Afghan bush cherry, definitely present in the US. Potential.

Prunus triloba - flowering almond. I backtracked. Googling "leaf" for each of them.

Success! I recognized the leaves in an image (large picture on the right if you click the link) in a chat thread about a different species: Prunus tomentosa.  Nanking cherry. An east Asian plant. I cross referenced its presence in New York state on the New York Flora Atlas. A tiny patch: on Long Island. Bingo.

I think its patch is bigger...

Nanking cherry.

That was around midnight. And that is why I become annoyed when people send me images of plants and say (no salutation, no please): What's this? And is it edible.

Do the work...

The Frenchman had gone to bed and said I should wake him if I found out what the blossoms were. I didn't, of course, but I left a message.

I have heard about Nanking cherry, and it seems to be popular in niche-cultivation, but it was right off my radar. Thinking back, I have a vague memory of seeing small, hard green fruits clustered right against branches of a shrub I did not know. Those strange leaves. I may even have take a picture at the time and discarded it if it was out of focus.

So that's what I think these are. The ripe, scarlet fruits will be very small, but also very edible. And if I ever chance upon them ripe (why haven't I?), I will pounce. I am thinking June.

The one remaining mystery is that the USDA describes the shrub as being intolerant of salt. So I will leave that question mark.

Walking the paths, mostly alone, sometime passed by cyclists (who greeted me), I was reminded of why we return to a place we know. Because we never know it. And the better we know it, the more we discover.

Every season, every week of a season, shows us something new. 

Just be willing to see.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Some ramps and a mountain stream

Last weekend we fled the madness. And it is madness.

Two and about-a-half hours north of the city is a place we first saw ten years ago. It doesn't seem like ten years. So much has happened. I might have done a few things differently, had I known. But some things have stayed the same. And those are good. This is one of them.

We came here for the first time in the fall of 2009. My mother was visiting New York from Cape Town, and we took her to see the beautiful turning leaves in these old - but new to us - mountains. 

We stayed then at Woodstock, and we later chanced upon this river on a meandering drive. We were hungry and it was time to picnic. (You can see that picnic here.)

It is now deep in our bones. We have returned in every season. Even an hour here makes us better than we were when we arrived.

For our visit the other day, I was trying not to hope for ramps, but I hoped, anyway. It is still very early. But there they were, emerging on a sunny and steep slope. It's a warm spot for them. The other side of the valley was in deep shade, and still iced over.

They were growing in pristine mountain water trickling through the tree roots and rocks.

I collected a lunchboxful of leaves, taking a leaf from a plant and leaving the bulbs unmolested. Commercial foragers satisfying markets, supermarkets (like Whole Foods), and restaurants can clear out sackfuls at a time. As a result ramps are threatened. Ten years ago I would have collected the bulbs, too.

In the moss was ample evidence of last year's ramp blossoms. They bloom long after the leaves have become summer dormant. (You can grow ramps if you have moist, acidic soil in high shade. I had success at 1st Place (our last in-ground garden), and was very sad to leave those ramps behind when we moved.)

Green, aromatic treasure. At home I processed most of these ramp leaves into a vivd green oil to keep in the freezer (the method is in Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine).

Look at that water. It is fed by dozens of little streams, and is very close to the top of a watershed - it's so clean.

At one of those little streams the fastidious Frenchman rinsed the leaves we would wrap into our sandwiches.

Not very photogenic. Inside is egg salad and wintercress and crisp bacon.

A digression: The wraps are Joseph's pitas made with flax, oats and wholewheat - if you are looking for low-carb pita or bread stand-ins, this is the one: 9 grams per serving (minus 2 if you subtract fiber). The keto-Frenchman is hooked. We discovered it by chance at our local supermarket but my quick Google now shows you can buy it online.

And then it was back to Ntini (um, yes, our car is named - and see her little Cape Town silhouette sticker?). We drove back home, counting groundhogs along the way, our usual amusement. We entered NYC with no traffic at all, not even over the G.W. Bridge.

In many ways it is very like 9-11. But that was an attack. I am not sure what this is. But it will be analysed for years to come. The real toll will only emerge when every consequence has been identified and herded into a chaotic room and sorted into tidy rows by unemotional statisticians.

But that has no bearing on the present.


Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Edible Weeds - Garlic Mustard and Sauce Alone

Here we are in our second week of COVID-19 lockdown. The only reason we go out is to exercise. Or forage! (Read essential state guidelines regarding safe and reponsible living here.)

For anyone longing to get out of the house for a solitary, socially distanced treasure-hunt, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of the earliest edible spring edibles to appear on still-brown forest floors and along their sunlit edges. These delicious greens are very tempting: the leafy vegetable tastes like a very mild broccoli rabe after blanching, and is peppery and garlicky when raw. It costs nothing, is versatile in the kitchen, and collecting it immerses us in nature at a time when the changing season seems like the only normal thing in our lives.

So what is this edible weed? Garlic mustard is highly invasive in the States -place it at the top of your invasivore spring menu. It is prolific where it grows wild - so your conscience can remain clear when uprooting it. It is a biennial plant, meaning it lives for two years. What we see in spring are its two forms: the leafy, second-year rosettes that germinated from seeds last spring, and a mass of newly-emerged seedlings (dispersed last summer), like a green carpet growing on the still-brown forest floor. Here in the Northeast, both forms appear around early March.

When the weather is still frosty at night the leaves on the rosettes are small, dark blue-green, and quite tough. But as the days lengthen garlic mustard becomes fatter and taller and the emerging leaves become bright emerald and tender.

Under the ground is a hidden treat, if you are willing to scrub and trim it at home: the contorted fat roots are as hot as horse radish (see Forage, Harvest, Feast - A Wild-Inspired Cuisine for that relish).

By mid-spring garlic mustard is bushy and lush. Its tender flower stalks in April are perhaps the best part of all, juicy and snappable when young, and resembling broccoli florets in miniature.

The flowers are of course edible, too. Pretty, peppery treats.

Those flowers are a hidden menace, Stateside, because they are the precursor to the plants setting seeds. Thousands and thousands of seed. Once dispersed they lie in wait for a year to emerge as that edible mat of microgreens – wonderful for foragers but terrible for biodiversity. This invasive plant is a thug that crowds out native flora. Harvesting this edible weed is an act of environmental kindness. Collect and preserve poundsful at a time with impunity.

One of the most evocative English common names given to garlic mustard is sauce alone. While I have made and eaten dozens of dishes featuring this plant (it hogs its own chapter in Forage, Harvest, Feast), I had never really thought about that. Until now. Perhaps COVID-19 made me re-focus on the basics – we need simple things. And we feel we must provide for ourselves.

So this vibrant bowlful is my idea of what ravenous hedgerow mice would cook for their spring dinner. If mice cooked. I think they’d like it with a cheesy sauce, so I have included that in the method, too.

The basic, cooked greens (above) are good enough to eat as a delicious side, a topping for pizzas, or filling for savory tarts and phyllo. The substantial Spring Green Purée that follows is a perfect bed for eggs. Or swirled into dashi or a miso broth. Or a stew of chickpeas or beans (you have those, right!?). Make it the basis of a minestrone with farro or pasta and canned tomatoes.

Sauce Alone uses just 1 cup of that purée. The rest I cool then freeze in a ziplock bag, pressed flat - very stackable and space-saving in the freezer (what, you don't have pine pollen in your freezer? Go out and get some! Ripening now).

At the cheese-sauce stage, top it with poached eggs, or add it to mashed potatoes and cauliflower for comforting bowlfuls.

For my allium elements (leeks, field garlic) – substitute any onion you have around: onion-onions, shallot, wild garlic, chives, ramp leaves, or scallions.

Sauce Alone - Serves 4

Spring Green Purée

3 tablespoons butter (or oil if you go vegan for the basic purée)
Leaves from 2 large leeks (about 4 cups), well washed and roughly chopped
2 ¼ lbs* garlic mustard leaves and stalks (about 10 – 12 plants), washed
¼ cup finely snipped field garlic

*The cooked yield should be 10 oz, squeezed dry

Basic Cheese Sauce

This is a thick sauce, for a runnier version add another ¼ cup milk.

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
2/3 cup grated cheddar (or whatever)

For the Purée: In a pot warm the 3 tablespoons of butter or oil over medium-low heat. Add the chopped leek tops. Cover, and cook gently until the leeks are very soft – about 15 minutes (stir occasionally).

While the leeks are cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the garlic mustard. Cover, and when the water boils again cook uncovered for 2 minutes, pushing the green mass down every now and then. Drain the boiling water and refresh the greens in a bowl of cold water. Squeeze it as dry as possible. Then, using your fingers, tease the compressed greens apart to loosen the mass.

Increase the leek pot's heat to medium and add the field garlic and blanched garlic mustard. Stir well and season to taste with salt. Cook for a couple of minutes.

Transfer the cooked greens to a food processor and whizz until very smooth. This (above) is now the thick, hearty purée base for a hundred digressions.

For the Cheese Sauce: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour until thoroughly blended. Allow this roux to bubble - without browning - for a minute. Slowly drizzle in the milk, stirring very well as the mixture suddenly seizes up and thickens. Once all the milk is incorporated cook the milky mixture, stirring, until it thickens evenly. Add the cheese and stir until it has melted. Taste, and season with salt and pepper. Now stir in 1.5 cups of the reserved Green Purée. Warm through.

To serve, dollop into bowls and top with pat of butter.


Friday, March 20, 2020


Iridescent lesser celandine (Ficaria verna). Loaded with sunshine.


Friday, March 13, 2020

Forage Walks and COVID-19

[Updated 3/29/20: Unless we are given the all-clear (unlikely), April walks are cancelled]

For the curious and concerned, here is how things are, and our current drill at home:

🌷 For anyone who has purchased tickets for a walk, credit will be offered for any future walk in more normal times. If this is a hardship for you, or if you were coming from out of town I will issue a refund.

🧼 This is our preventive routine at home, and out and about (the Frenchman and I have always been slightly obsessive about common sense hygiene, but our normal measures have been ramped up):

🤲 Hands are sanitized if we are away from home, using a 70% ethyl alcohol gel. We do not touch our faces. We wash our hands the second we walk through the door.

💳 Anything store-purchased in containers or bags is first wiped down with sanitizing solution* on our landing - our new staging area before anything comes inside.  Our door handles and common surfaces are wiped down with the solution twice a day: taps, light switches, handles on anything that opens and shuts (including fridge, dishwasher and oven), credit cards, keys, and phones.

*1 tablespoon bleach to 16 fl oz/473 ml water in a spritz bottle.

⛑ Indoor surfaces touched by objects from the Outside are wiped down immediately with sanitizing solution. But we have that staging area.

🤛 There is no handshaking. Forget about hugging. And elbow bumps are better than fist bumps. But there is no emoji for an elbow bump. Yet. [Update: This seems quaint, now. That was before the six-foot rule.]

🌿 Foraged ingredients are gathered in clean places in clean bags by my clean hands. They are washed or cooked, as always.

For you at home? Pay attention to anything anyone has handled or touched at any point: Objects, delivered parcels, mail, money, door handles, shopping basket handles, so on. Shared surfaces are the enemy.

My personal feeling is that being outside* is the best antidote to stress. These are stressful times and stress is very harmful. Please do go out, walk, and find nature. It helps.

[* Poor South Africans are not allowed to exercise. This is very rough]

New York is blessed with big and small green spaces. Prospect Park and Central Park, of course, but Inwood Hill Park, Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx), Forest Park, Alley Pond Park (both in Queens), Mt Loretto Unique Area, and Conference House Park (the last two are on Staten Island) are my favorite wild refuges and places to stretch your legs.

Another unlikely therapy for stress is...the jigsaw puzzle! I discovered this quite by accident in Cape Town - this gorgeous $19.95 botanical illustration by Johannes Gessner cured a heart condition (serious arrhythmia) of three months that had befuddled cardiologists and cost thousands of dollars in testing (the tests revealed that I have a very strong heart!). It concentrates one's mind in uncertain times and blocks out the noise - real occupational therapy (my issue was probably embedded stress - family-related, triggered by an anniversary). I know, I'm off topic.

Here is Bug Slayer, from the the Elderberry chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast. Timely. Three parts gin, 1 part each of elderberry cordial and fresh lime juice. Elderberry has antiviral properties.

If all goes as planned - and it may not - I will also be: In Inwood Hill Park for a Forest Revival on April 11th, at Green-Wood Cemetery for blossoms galore on April 18th, teaching at the New York Botanical Garden on April 19th, guiding an Earth Day Invasivore Walk on behalf of the Alley Pond Park Conservancy on April 22nd (just $10), leading a Between the Woods and Water walk at Pelham Bay on April 25th, and hosting an Edible Plant Blitz at Fort Tilden on May 16th. You can read more about the first and last two on my Forage Walks and Classes page.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

The state of things

Tell the trees to sneeze into their trunks. They have been frightening the flowers. Their leaves are dripping on the spring shoots. The buds are sniffling.

Lecture the breeze for blowing, there are droplets in the branches. Tell the birds to fold their wings, their flight is causing panic.

The bees should work at home.

Love bugs are gathering in unsafe numbers, heedless of warnings.

The squirrels keep touching their faces.

Ask the forysthia not to bloom, it is Asian and in the wrong place. The callery pears have weak crotches and are susceptible. Red maple buds are flouting recommendations. The daffodils are incontinent and the crocuses keep congregating.

Sanitize the chickweed, it is hugging the grass. The dandelions look damp. The germination of seedlings is inadvisable.

Mask the winter honeysuckle; it can be smelled from unsafe distances. 

Find the earthworms, they have not reported and may have gone underground. The robins have been asking.

Secure the compost heap - steam has been seen.

There is a general, and alarming greening. A statement will be issued.

The moon is still traveling, despite warnings. Find her and tether her. (She may require meals at home.)

Moths will be fine.

Magnolias will open, regardless.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Worm moons

The Frenchman and I were sipping our drinks on the terrace last night and discussing the spiraling of events in the time of Virus - wondering whether or not to jump on cheap air tickets or whether travel will be shut down (I say, Jump), when I spotted this moon rising above his right shoulder.

We stopped talking, as one should, and watched.

His pictures will be better.

It had to be a special moon, and turns out it was: the first of three supermoons this year (a supermoon is when a full moon coincides with its perigree - the point in its orbit when it is closest to Earth). And this one is known as the Worm Moon! Because worms tend to break dormancy around this time of year. Since yesterday's temperature was 20'C/68'F - let's assume the worms are woke!

Come and greet the worms and early spring things (maple blossoms, lesser celandine, field garlic, garlic mustard and so much more) on my walk on March 19th, our Vernal Equinox, on an early evening stroll in Prospect Park (5pm - 7pm), There will be a wild drink and spring snacks. Book via the link below.


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