Sunday, September 27, 2020

Beautiful Fall Forage Classes at the NYBG

October is around the corner, and that means autumn, for real. 

In an unreal year.

I visited the New York Botanical Garden recently because I will be teaching there again in a few weeks: Two outdoor classes, on October 15th and October 29th. [Update: these classes are fully booked but there is one in WINTER! January 21st] The classes are really walks, and we will be visiting the Native Garden (above) and the Thain Family Forest. And probably meandering  a bit more if the mood strikes us. 

Come and learn to identify edible plants in their fall clothes, and understand how they fit into the bigger ecological picture. We will breathe in the good, fresh air of the mainland (hey, I live on an island; the Bronx is exciting to a Brooklynite!). 

Masks are mandatory - so our fresh air will be filtered - and attendance is limited for social distancing reasons. So book, soon.

I spotted a sweet hummer in the jewelweed patch. Planting annual Impatiens capensisis is a sure-fire way to attract and support the vulnerable little birds on their way south in early fall. Jewelweed self seeds very readily (and its seeds are edible!) so once you have it, it will be there forever. It likes dappled shade and a lot of moisture. Low-lying areas that don't drain well are perfect. But I have grown it successfully in pots and planters, too.

Still boggy, here is pickerel weed. Its young leaves, buds, flowers, and seeds are good to eat.

No, don't eat the pitcher plants. But it's fun to see carnivorous plants flourishing.

These are ostrich ferns. In spring their fiddleheads are delicious. Plant one and in a couple of years you will have a dozen. Perfect for a deep shade spot.

Golden rods (Solidago species) are often blamed for seasonal allergies, but they are innocent: their pollen is too fat to affect our sinuses. In fact, showy flowers whose job it is to attract pollinators are usually never allergen-culprits. Rather, it is the inconspicuous flower of wind-pollinated plants (like ragweed, and I suspect, mugwort) that is an irritant, because it is so fine and light, designed to be dispersed by the puff of a breeze. 

And yes, some golden rods are delicious...

The extreme climate of the Northeast is also home to a native prickly pear, Opuntia humifusa. Muggy summers and freezing winters do not rattle it.

Fragrant Pycnanthemum species love full sun and pollinators love them. Their leaves, flowers and seeds make refreshing drinks.

Imposter! Not native. But very closely related to our indigenous prickly ash (which can be used in the same way). This is Chinese pepper, or Sichuan, Zanthoxylum simulans: citric, cooling, numbing, unique.

Yes, the elusive pawpaw (Asimina triloba) lives at the NYBG. The fruit ripens under its green umbrella-ed leaves in mid to late September. This still-underplanted tree deserves a spot in every garden. This year I enjoyed wonderful pawpaws picked from a tree in Brooklyn's Park Slope.

And the delicious - or terribly stinky, like-sweaty-socks-that-a-cat-peed-on? - cranberry viburnum. The smell is in the details. How to tell the difference between the native and European species? We will learn! 

Use the links below to book.

October 15th

October 29th


Wild Foods Cookbook

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Conservatory Garden in September

Our brief residence in Harlem (late 2013 - 2015) and proximity to Central Park introduced me to the early autumn fireworks of the Conservatory Garden in the park's northeast corner (it is very different, but no less colorful, in spring). 

The Frenchman and I walked down there from 127th Street one September, to find tiny hummingbirds vibrating from plant to plant. Recently, we returned, all grown up, driving an actual car. (And paying $22 for three hours of metered street parking. Yikes). The Frenchman has treated himself to a new camera lens, and he needed lightning-fast hummers to test it (it passed the test).

I just wanted to see the flowers. 

If I ever had a prejudice against annuals - and I did, dismissing them as semi-industrialized bedding plants, planted in blocks or rows of thoughtless and often offensive color - this icon of New York horticulture cured me. Thanks to its curator, Diane Schaub, I get them, now.

But first, perennials: In the dappled shade of a magnolia, tall, red-flowered angelica was in bloom.

So were Japanese anemones, at their graceful peak.

And right above me, a tiny hummingbird, taking a brief break from her voracious quest for nectar, her resting heart rate a mere 400 beats per minute.

Ruellia: Slender stalks and willowy leaves with silky purple flowers offset against sturdy zinnias.

If you like salvia, this is the place to be. And September should be declared salvia  month.

Zinnias are deployed dramatically, here, providing structure and pink reassurance.

As well as sustenance for swallowtails.

These clumps of alliums were buzzing with honey bees. I know! More perennials! If you have full sun (meaning six hours or more of direct sunlight), and space, plant alliums. There's almost an allium for every month, starting in May.

Cannas, salvia, pennisetum, hot little pops of gomphrena...

And just for South Africans, bulbine. whose gel-filled leaves are a traditional southern African treatment for burns and skill ailments, but whose vivid orange flowers are now very popular, Stateside (and invasive, in some states; sorry, Florida!). Bees like them, too. I have a pot on our tiny terrace, for kitchen burns and terrace pollinators.

We will be back. October is just as rewarding. But we'll find different parking!


NYBG Class, 15 October

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Breezy Point - Backroads and Beyond

With the season turning towards fall the Frenchman and I migrate like birds back to the open spaces of Fort Tilden and Breezy Point, situated near the end of the long and skinny Rockaway barrier beach (the very end is a very gated, very white community* - to reach the point itself we use our legs, walking along the beach). 

[*Since I posted this the New York Times wrote about Breezy Point's Trump enclave.]

The reason we go back now is simple: we're allowed to park in the fisherperson's lot, again. After June 15th and before September 15th you need a permit (and to obtain it you have to show up at the permit office with a fishing rod). 

I walked alone on the deserted backroads, which were fragrant with autumn clematis in its glory. The roads are the abandoned infrastructure of a Cold War nuclear missile base - ponder that. The Frenchman left in the opposite direction, on his five-mile run along the low-tide beach while his camera gear waited for him in the car.  

Autumn pokeweed berries have been eaten from their fuchsia panicles by transiting migratory birds (as much as gardeners may dislike poke - Phytolacca americana - it is an important and native food for birds; and humans can eat the cooked spring time shoots - see Forage, Harvest, Feast for recipes and more detailed information).

In mid-walk my phone rang, which it never does. Frenchman. Birds on beach! Big birds! Beautiful wings, red beaks! They sounded like skimmers. He was running back, fast, to the car for his new camera. I about-faced and headed towards him. We met on the beach and speedwalked back out to the point, into the bright western sun.

On our way we passed little furries of piping plovers sanderlings [see comments].

I love how they scurry back and forth, pursuing the edges of the advancing and retreating water.

And at last, after a mile-and-a-half or so, the big birds that had excited the Frenchman: beautiful black skimmers in flocks on the sand. I have only ever seen one bird at a time. They all pointed neatly into the wind. Summer residents up the Northeast coast, they are also on their way south as the weather chills.

Cars are allowed on this beach, with permits. With dwindling safe habitats for shorebirds, and increasing pressure on their populations, I have never understood this. Shoreline ecology is exceptionally fragile. Tire treads just kill it. If you want to fish, walk.

Conservation should be at the forefront of any administration's funding. Instead, it is a distant afterthought.

On our more sedate walk back we were treated to the extremes of human behaviour. This lone fisherperson wearing their mask.  

And a hundred yards behind him: A massive, unmasked, packed-like-sardines gathering of humans at the Silver Gull Beach Club (which lies at the eastern end of the gated Breezy Point community). Do they all have COVID-resistance? Are their parents or grandparents and children and friends immune? What about their colleagues at work? What about the staff working there? 

Is this what is meant by a superspreader event

We didn't even like walking downwind of them.

(Honey, is that a tickle in my throat?)

And that's all, folks (or perhaps the beginning, for some). 


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Sesame leaf - stalked from behind

The secret undersides of sesame leaf. Backlit in the morning sunlight.

I use its toothed leaves as wraps for deviled eggs or spicy meatballs, or folded around quick-pickled vegetables. Or I sliver then soften them in good soy (try Ohsawa nama Shoyu) for 30 minutes and transform warm seven-minute eggs or steamed eggs with the aromatic dressing.

What's in a name? 

If it's a common name - that is, the lingua franca for a plant (or animal or fungus) in any given region, versus the Latin and Greek binomial, or scientific name - things can be confusing. Because sesame? This plant is not even vaguely related to sesame-the-crunchy-seed (that would be Sesamum indicum). Common names are notoriously confusing. Instead, the burgundy-shadowed leaf belongs to Perilla. Specifically Perilla frutescens var. frutescens

Nope, not shiso

Are your eyes glazing over, yet? Snap out of it! Because this herb is often sold incorrectly as shiso, and shiso it ain't. The plants above are sesame leaf, not shiso. Even the grower (at the Grand Army Plaza  greenmarket) got it wrong. Sesame leaf (above) sturdier and less aromatic than shiso, but its rose-petal flavor is very similar. 

This is shiso. Shiso is...tighten your seatbelts: Perilla frutescens var. crispa! I know! Just one door down from sesame leaf, in terms of classification. And she - shiso - has frilly leaf-edges. Forgive me for going Jar-Jar Binx on you, but if you think, "Shiso frilly," you'll know shiso when you see it. She may be red, or green. But she be frilly. 

And why does it matter? Because facts always do, despite Trumpiverse. 

Shiso is associated more with Japanese cuisine, is highly aromatic, but otherwise tastes similar to the rougher sesame leaf, which is traditionally beloved in Korean cuisine.

I grow both. 


Walk with me at the NYBG 

15 October

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Park

Until two weeks ago I had never seen a chipmunk off the ground. Now they are elevated. Here's one eating the seed heads of statuesque Silphium perfoliatum, reached from a handy pin oak perch in Prospect Park. 

Last week I saw a chipmunk chomping on spicebush fruit, hunting the ripe red drupes along the slender branches.  I suppose they have always done this. But suddenly I am noticing it.

I walked in the nearby park with the Frenchman, recently. He was hunting migrating hummingbirds with a new camera lens (we found them). But before we did - in a patch of jewelweed - we visited Lookout Hill, where in late summer a small, fenced-in meadow is filled with the season's rough flowers: Joe Pye-Weed, a giant persicaria, golden rod, and daisies. I see this hill several times a week, because I run up it to counteract sedentary evils. But no matter how familiar I think it has become it always shows me something new.

The tall flowers were bobbing and bending with seed-eating songbirds.

On our walk home the baseball fields were filled with masked children and parents, warming up for complicated pandemic schooling.

The park is all things to all people.  Now, more than ever. And that can get complicated. But most people are trying.

Our New York City city parks require New York City funding, and the local government has never been generous. And now the parks' budgets have been slashed. They rely on private funding.

The parks feed our souls. 

And what is that worth?


Sunday, September 6, 2020



Late summer on Staten Island. 

Mt Loretto Unique Area includes one of the rare grasslands within the city of New York. Despite being heavily invaded by mugwort, it is holding its own. In this picture, white-flowered Eupatorium perfoliatum (common boneset) was host to  monarch butterflies. Above us bald eagles soared on a thermal, and along the edges of the meadow sleek groundhogs chewed delicious greens.



Friday, September 4, 2020

Sipping vinegar - fragrant snowbell

Fragrant snowbell vinegar, a dash of maple syrup, and seltzer. With some candied baby pine cones and a slice of lemon. Sipped on the terrace just before the commemorative and heart stopping 9/11 lights beamed into the September sky.

This evening drink was a longer version of one I served earlier in the humid day for a forage-picnic-for-one, after a private plant walk in the nearby park (for a delightful refugee from Colorado's high country). I liked it so much at 1pm that I sipped it again at 7pm while I cooked a rack of lamb over the coals.

Vinegar is an interesting thing. I collected the perfumed fragrant snowbell (Styrax obassia) flowers early last summer, mixed them with sugar and water, and left them in a large jar to ferment, per my usual method for making cordials (see the elderflower and common milkweed chapters in Forage, Harvest, Feast). When the liquid was effervescent I strained it, returned it to the jar (loosely covered) and waited, fingers crossed. Good things happened. Meaning, local acetobacter moved in, ate the sugar, converted it to acetic acid, and...vinegar. All you have to do then is bottle it. Which I did. 

It is rich, honeyed, fruity, and tart. A real sipping vinegar. And an outstanding thirst quencher - so complex you don't mind that there is zero alcohol in it.

The candied pine cones are another story. But a good one.


Other Drinks