Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Tilting the other way

October is upon us. 

We sip drinks now under a long, soft twilight. The terrace lights are twinkling at 6pm, no longer switched on when we sit down to eat, at a too-bright summertime 8pm. Dinner is dark.

In response to early fall, and to a summer of heavy rain, hen of the woods (maitake - Grifola frondosa) mushrooms are popping up at the rough feet of every oak tree in town. And perhaps every oak tree in the Northeast. The apartment is filled with their chestnut honey scent as they roast for recipes to come. Vivid chicken of the woods (Laetiporous species) are still around, and the season feels bountiful.

The windowboxes on the terrace now hold cool-weather brassicas and lettuce - the latter decimated by the local mossies (Afrikaans for sparrows). Every morning I put out a dish of chopped blueberries for One-Foot. We have lost count, and track, of the bold mockingbirds of summer, but One-Foot (perhaps one of them?) is a regular visitor whose left foot is hurt or malformed. S/he hops on the other foot and gobbles up the fruit. Recently, a great horned owl called in the night. if we pay attention, we hear the migrating cheeps of songbirds.

Soon, it will be Halloween, and batwings for breakfast.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Black nightshade vs deadly nightshade


Black nightshade

[Published in 2016, and updated 5 October 2021]

You won't learn the last word here on black nightshade because the word is evolving, and I am not a botanist. But:

Late, late summer, and the black nightshade is ripe, on cue. I tasted these and they had a good, sweetly earthy flavor. It can vary. Some are quite bland.

"But isn't it deadly?"

Noooooo. Deadly nightshade is another plant. And it looks different. 

The problem with common names versus botanical - or scientific - names is that occasionally you run into real confusion. So people hear "nightshade" and freak out. But the same people happily wolf potatoes and tomatoes and peppers and eggplant. All nightshades. Also, the Web is rife with misinformation on the differences between the two plants. Read carefully.

Our black nightshade friend, pictured above and below, is Solanum nigrum - or, as it turns out, several different species of Solanum. Eastern black nightshade is Solanum emulans. All black nightshades are edible. 

Deadly nightshade is Atropa belladonna. You don't want to eat it.

A fear of and prejudice against black nightshade as a food persists where people are not familiar with how plants are classified or with plant identification in general. Most people suffer from plant blindness. And that's to be expected. Fortunately, it's curable.

But both black and deadly nightshades belong to the tricky family Solanaceae. As mentioned, other edible members of the nightshade family include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and chiles. (When they first encountered them, Europeans were afraid of tomatoes. Green potatoes are toxic. But we don't tremble when we walk down the fresh produce aisle. Death and deliciousness are in the details.) 

In South Africa I grew up snacking on black nightshade, and there, and in other parts of the world, the cooked greens are eaten, too. Black nightshade is edible, and not to be feared.

Read on to learn to identify edible black nightshade versus toxic deadly nightshade. Luckily, the differences are quite obvious, once you start paying attention. 

Edible black nightshade

Edible black nightshade fruit occurs in clusters (above). And you almost always see clusters of ripe as well as green fruit on the plant at the same time. The fruits have a matt appearance - no shine. And here is the real tell: the calyces of black nightshade (the green bits like lapels or a collar between stem and fruit) are smaller than the fruit

Black nightshade flowers

Black nightshade has tiny, star-like white flowers with prominent yellow anthers. Sometimes the petals are furled back. Not always.

Black nightshade

The ripe black fruits of black nightshade range in flavor from insipid to delicious (like a sweetish tomato with dark undertones). 

The green, unripe fruit of black nightshade are considered toxic, so avoid those (the same way you would avoid a green potato). As Ben-Erik van Wyk writes in his encyclopedic Food Plants of the World, "Care should be taken to only pick ripe berries, because the unripe (green) fruits may contain toxic levels of alkaloids (6 - 8 berries may kill a child)."

Note that uses he word "may" twice. 

He goes on to write that "the dark purple to black berries are delicious to eat raw and make excellent jams. The juicy pulp may be used for pie fillings, jellies, and drinks. Young leaves are commonly used as pot-herb in rural parts of Africa and Asia." 

Black nightshade jam at the Daggaboer Farmstall in South Africa

My aunt calls black nightshade fruit soepsoepertjies (an Afrikaans word) and used to make jam from them, before her fingers became too sore. She is 93. Nightshade jam is sold at regional farmstalls in South Africa. 

Black nightshade with its tomato cousins, peaches, and burrata

I like more savory applications. A fermented black nightshade ketchup lasts indefinitely in the fridge, and I deploy the raw fruits in luscious salads.

Tomato and mugwort confit with sheep cheese, lambs quarter and black nightshade

And as beautiful garnishes for seasonal tartlets I carry on forage picnics.
 
In the US, garden huckleberry is the user-friendly and exceedingly confusing common name given to a black nightshade variety (Solanum nigrum var. melanocerasum) that is cultivated as a garden crop. Huckleberries belong to the genus Vaccinium, like blueberries, and this name is all about marketing, rather than botanical accuracy. Its fruits are somewhat larger than the feral versions of black nightshade. You can buy it online at Baker Creek and elsewhere. I was introduced to it by the lovely folks at Tyrant Farms, who sent me a package years ago.

But even seed sources muddy the identification Internet waters by saying inane things like, "Caution should be advised not to confuse the fruits with those of nighshade [sic] (a very close relative), as nightshade fruits are highly poisonous."

Um... It is a nightshade. They're all nightshades. 

Deadly nightshade. Photo: Stefancek

Let's move on:

What about deadly nightshade identification? Atropa belladonna fruit is borne singly, never in clusters. Deadly nightshade fruit is glossy. (Even though a reputable source like Illinois Wildflowers flips this distinction, and incorrectly states the opposite! Head explodes.)

The green calyces of deadly nightshade are very prominent, more Elizabethan ruffle than collar, extending beyond the fruit.  

Deadly nightshade flower by Bojana Matic

The flowers of deadly nightshade are tubular and bell-shaped, and range from purple to lilac, with green. They are distinctly ornamental, versus the hard-to-spot tiny white flowers of black nightshade.

Incidentally, deadly nightshade is not very widespread in the US - it occurs mostly on the West Coast, but that will inevitably change (since first publishing this post it has crept to the East Coast). 

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Monday, September 20, 2021

Yuzu season


The first green yuzu fruit are on the young, potted tree on our terrace. Citrus x juno is a cross between a wild citrus and a mandarin-type orange, hailing from either Korea or northern China around a millennium ago. Mine came a little more recently from Four Winds Growers in... Let's figure it out:

I-know-we-were-living-here-so-late-2018-aka-the-year-from-hell-but-was-it-then-no-probably-spring-2019-hang-on-a-second-NO-WAY!-it-was May-2020! (Thank goodness for emails.)

In other words: Pandemic Purchase. A good one.

The dilemma is: Do I harvest the green yuzu now, when they are unripe, microplane their intensely perfumed green zest from their hard round bodies, and make yuzu kosho (above), the powerful Japanese condiment that transforms everything it touches? (My earlier recipe is in the prickly ash chapter of Forage, Harvest, Feast - now, I tend to ferment it.)

Or do I wait for them to ripen, turn yellow, and then make the very-very delicious Korean-style yuja-tea - the ripe slices macerated in sugar (which is what I do to just about every fragrant thing I forage), the slices-plus-sugar forming a slow syrup while candying the yuzu. (That would be around December or January, when our tree will be back indoors, and I may be in Cape Town, universe and virus variants willing.)

The syrup is wonderful in hot black tea, very fragrant; and delicious in icy drinks, too. I eke out my jarful from last January, made from ripe yuzu bought at Eataly in Manhattan. I soaked the squeezed yuzu fruit - still very perfumed - in gin to make the most of them, too. It's some good gin.

If you'd like to try yuzu and don't grow your own, there are more and more sources, thanks to small growers beginning to expand their citrus flocks. It's illegal to import the fresh fruit from Japan, where most yuzu is grown (because of citrus pest and disease issues; nothing to do with Japan, and everything to do with protecting the local and major citrus economies from pathogens. That's also why you can't buy trees from US growers if you live in certain states - citrus lockdown).

Try the New Jersey-based Bhumi Growers. Or Suzuki Farms, Delaware.  And Californian Mud Creek Ranch sells via the distributor, Fruitstand.

It's hard to walk away once the citrus bug has bit.

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Walks

Monday, September 13, 2021

Into the Wild(s...: of Brooklyn)


In Green-Wood Cemetery there was a hornet's nest in a Turkish hazelnut tree. It is exquisite. If it was Art, people would line up and wait.

Under a young oak tree nearby there was a young raccoon, foraging for acorns. 


In Prospect Park a downy woodpecker stood silent for a minute. Was she listening or resting? Or dreaming woodpeckerish dreams?

In a patch of jewelweed where storm-fallen trees have created a slash of sunlight, hummingbirds feasted and fought among the flowers. Then they rested. Tiny as moths, fierce as fundamentalists.

They perched on the roots of tilted trees, preening and scratching, itching and plotting.


And at home, on the small terrace, a monarch found the milkweed, at last.

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Sunday, September 5, 2021

Hike up a hill, get biscuits!


You may have heard that it has rained a lot in New York.  Bad for people. Good for plants.

Come and meet some of those plants during a series of new botanical walks, beginning on Labor Day, with a Lookout Hill Hike in Prospect Park. Yep, Monday. Tomorrow! There will be a minimalist but delicious picnic of fresh biscuits with toppings of butter, pawpaw, and lilac honey. And iced spicebush coffee.


On Saturday, September 11th, we will commemorate the 20th anniversary of that terrible day in a very positive way: walking among the trees and flowers and diversity - human and botanical - of Central Park's North Woods. Our Woods and Water walk will be followed by a picnic on a hill.


Finally, I am very happy to be returning to the New York Botanical Garden's Adult Education fall program with two walks, on October 8th and 17th.

See you there!
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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

August's end

It seems sudden, the arrival of the night. But the evenings are evenings, again. This is 7.39pm on Monday. Supper not on the table, yet.  Raccoons not yet on the rooves. 

The chimney swifts are aloft earlier.  The cricket chorus adds new members, nightly. The trees vibrate with the zeal of cicadas. The tropical plants are all at their happiest, not realizing that in two months they may be indoors, again. 

In the dark, I can no longer see the dozens of tiny buds on the (hardy) tea plants. I don't know if they will bloom in autumn or early spring (they are Camellias, after all). And I have harvested my first, green tea, from new shoots.

I think I have seen night hawks, from the terrace. I hope they come back. At night, before I go to sleep, I learn the Latin and Greek names of birds. It's hard. These night hawks might be Chordeiles minor. I have to make up ways to remember. So I say, these night hawks strike a minor chord. Chord...eiles...minor. But it works. Some birds are easy. Blue jay is Cyanocitta cristata. The etymology is beautiful.

And here comes Labor Day. 

There is a walk, then, to say goodbye to summer, at Dead Horse Bay. If you're coming, booking is via the link below.

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Return to Dead Horse Bay


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

True cardamom, false cardamom, and the tropical garden

And sometimes the terrace is a mess. Because it all happens here, on the stone table. Potting, transplanting, and after it is all swept and wiped away, supper. 

I divided the galangal early in the year, planting the smaller version of itself in a temporary black nursery growpot. It has been thriving, so I decided to dignify it with a terra cotta home and there it is, bottom right on the table.

In the back is true cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), from Companion Plants, and now residing in a larger pot, too. "True" cardamom has a long backstory: a year-and-a-half ago I learned, thanks to a sniping but enlightening comment from an obsessed plant geek (who has never re-surfaced), and then a lot of rabbithole research, that most, if not all, the so-called cardamom plants being grown for sale in this country are not. Cardamom, that is. Instead, they are false cardamom (Alpinia nutans). And most growers themselves are unaware. So for years I grew the flourishing false, thinking it was the true. (How do you know which you have? In the words of Randy, the grower ar Randy's Tropical Plants, with whom I corresponded about telling true cardamom apart from false: "If the foliage is fragrant, then it is not Elettaria cardamomum.  It is almost certainly Alpinia nutans." So crush and sniff, and sorry. But the false cardamom is still a great, low-maintenance house plant!). 

In conversation with Peter Borchard, of Companion Plants (which is one of my favorite growers of esoterica, based in southeast Ohio) he promised me the real deal, when he learned that he, too, had unwittingly been growing the false. So as soon as their single, verified parent plant had babies - they are easy to propagate, like all rhizomatous members of the Zingiberaceae family - they kindly sent me one. (The first specimen was mistakenly shipped to our previous address, so perhaps our Horrible Neighbor benefited. Eeeh. Bad memories. The bike slasher and shouter. He was convinced we were stealing his parcels. It was fascinating, but not fun, like a car crash. The second shipment arrived here, safely.) 

So will I get cardamom pods? Maybe not. Randy said it is unusual for them to bloom unless conditions are perfect, and also said that they must be hand pollinated (like vanilla). 

In the blue pot (bought in desperation, since stores have run out of terra cotta, thanks to pandemic garden-mania) is the black pepper vine (Piper nigrum, and yes, the producer of green and black peppercorns; well, not yet). It came from Companion Plants, too. It settled in so well that it needed an upgrade in terms of size, and is now feeling better in blue. Even if I have my doubts about the color. It will come inside in winter, of course, to join the tropical flock of citrus, and various members of the ginger family. I have no idea how it will take to dry indoor conditions in winter, but I have learned that the more plants I have indoors, the higher the humidity levels. When the air is freezing out, there is film of moisture on the double-glazed windows. A liveable greenhouse.

Now, in late, tropical summer, a frigid winter seems impossible. Our outdoor humidity is at 73% while we shelter indoors, refreshed by central air (set to a reasonable 78'F - is that reasonable?). But winter will come, as it always does, and tropical forest will join us for the duration.

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66 Square Feet - The Book