Spring in the Orchard Nursery

Today, I finished grafting my 50 apple trees for the spring. Last year, I grafted two. Both died. This year, I changed things up a bit: a good left-handed grafting knife and M7 root stock that looked extraordinarily robust. Of course a lot more practice may help.

So what’s going in the nursery? Fresh eating apples (Malus domestica): Ashmead’s Kernel – Atlas – Black Gilliflower – Calville Blanc d’Hiver – Cox’s Orange Pippin – Delistein – Golden Nugget – Golden Precoce – Griffith – Grimes Golden – Hidden Rose – Late Strawberry – Livadiyskoye – Lodi – Northern Spy – Rome Beauty Law – Wealthy – Winter Sweet Paradise – Viking.  Two wild card scions from a friend: a Thomas Jefferson and an Etzel. The first is problematic because Jefferson grew a lot of different varieties of apple trees that are still in existence (and at least one that isn’t). The second is problematic because it isn’t listed anywhere. Odds are good it is a known variety, I just don’t know enough to ID it.

Nothing provides good cross-pollination better than a crab apple (Malus angustafolia). I grafted some Virginia Hewes Crab, a good cider apple which also traces its lineage to Jefferson’s estate, and Young American, which produces large fruits perfect for making jelly.

My absolute favorite variety this year is Kaz 96 08 15, a Malus sieversii. Why? Because it is the apple, a scion wood from one of the apples that started it all in Kazakhstan. I don’t care what it tastes like, though I am quite curious. All Malus domestica – the apples we eat every day, buy from the grocery store, and grow in our orchards – are descendants of the wild Malus sieversii.

Hunting Red in October

Every fall, two things happen that mark the shift from summer into the fall. The first is when someone calls to ask when to stop feeding the hummingbirds. The answer is whenever the hummingbirds stop eating the sugar water. They know when they need to fly south, and no amount of enticement on our part will convince them to stick around for winter.

The second is when someone brings me a beautiful red leaf to identify.

This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of oil. Off of its vine, there are no "leaves of three." The characteristic "mitten tips" curl under almost immeidately making it a tough one to identify.
This is poison ivy. Stunning, and still full of toxic oil. Off of its vine, there are no “leaves of three.” The characteristic “mitten tips” curl under almost immediately making it a tough one to identify.

There is, of course, plenty of non-hazardous beauty out there.

Oak leaves after a rainstorm.
White oak leaves after a rainstorm.
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Sugar maple leaves. Both the oaks and the maples produce golden leaves as well this time of year.
Sumac leaves only turn red before falling off.
Sumac leaves, on the other hand, only turn red before falling off.
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The red I was most excited about discovering on my last walk was a lovely patch of rose hips. Not only are the hips edible, I was able to cut them in half and save the seeds for future plantings, while drying the rose hips for turning into tea.

On the Wild Menu

As part of the wild foods foraging program today at Indian Creek Nature Center, we were able to bring together a  very local, very fresh, gourmet menu.

Appetizer: serviceberries

Salad: purslane leaves, lambsquarter leaves, dandelion leaves, yarrow leaves, red clover blossoms

Salad dressing: orange champagne vinegar and basil infused olive oil

Main course: milkweed blossoms sauteed in butter with catnip and mulberries on the side

Common milkweed buds are edible when cooked. If you arent sure about what youre picking, develop a relationship withyour local nature center or other outdoor enthusiasts so you dont eat something poisonous
Common milkweed buds are edible when cooked. If you aren’t sure about what you’re picking, develop a relationship with your local nature center or other outdoor enthusiasts so you don’t accidentally eat something poisonous.

Drink: sumaconade (staghorn sumac drupes, honey, cinnamon stick)

Staghorn sumac drupes are edible and high in antioxidants. Posion sumac has white drupes, not red.
Staghorn sumac drupes are high in antioxidants.* Posion sumac has white drupes, not red.

Dessert: paw paws and aronia berries (frozen last year), and elderberry jelly and wild plum jelly (preserved last year)

After dinner tea: chamomile leaves and buds, stinging nettle leaves, red clover blossoms, wild ginger root, wild rose blossoms, mountain mint leaves

chamomile
Chamomile isn’t native, but it is also not a problem for restoration. It prefers dry, sandy soil and no competition.

* Sumaconade Recipe*

Gather 9-12 staghorn sumac drupes in late summer. Hang them and cover with a paper sack to keep them clean and dry-they will keep until the following summer.

Soak them in 1 gallon of cold water, 2-12 hours

Wring or muddle the drupes with your hands into the water.

Pour the mixture through  clean t-shirt material 3 times to filter it.

Add 1/2-1 cup honey (may be mixed with a bit of warm water to dissolve)

Add 1 stick of cinnamon

Chill before serving

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Crus-galli Grove

Forests in the not-too distant-past once provided primary sustenance for people, not just the other mammals and the birds. Today, agriculture and urbanization have made that relationship more challenging. The felling of many trees has reduced both the size and species composition of the woods. Forests are increasingly unhealthy, and lack many of the sustenance-providing species they once held. Among the foods we do eat regularly, it is a crop’s harvestability and transportability that have become valued over many other traits. Foods are increasingly single-sourced, and bear little resemblance-including nutritional value-to the myriad of plants on which we once depended.

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This spring, we planted six cockspur hawthorn¹ (Crataegus crus-galli) trees at Indian Creek Nature Center, as part of a woodland restoration project. For restoration purposes, the hawthorns are native trees that only grow about 25 feet tall, easy to overlook when we discuss the grandeur of the mighty oaks and hickories. Yet they provide a lot of ecological benefits, with their thicket-like tendencies that protect young nestlings, blossoms for pollinators, and edible berries for wildlife.

For human guests, the hawthorns² are the latest addition to the native edible forest at the Nature Center. Both the blossoms and berries are good to eat. The trees were planted in a wide circle, forming a grove around one of the maturing oaks. In the not-too-distant future, guests will be able to come, spread a picnic blanket in the semiprivate shade of the grove, listen to the birds all around them, and harvest a handful of berries³ for tea later that evening.

A few notes:

1. The hawthorns serve as a host plant for Cedar Apple Rust, which is hard on apple trees.

2. To find out if a species is native to your state, visit www.plants.usda.gov

3. Consuming hawthorns can help lower blood pressure. To learn more about the medicinal benefits, check out an herbal book, such as the Woman’s Book of Healing Herbs. If you’re under the care of a doctor for a blood pressure condition, talk to your doctor first.

Mushroom Trees

For National Arbor Day, I decided to plant some “mushroom trees.” I have healthy, mature oaks. I have young northern pecans, Kentucky coffeetrees, and Ohio buckeyes. I also have, typical of Iowa’s woodlands, forest areas so overgrown that trees need to be removed, not planted. And, while I continue to work on improving the diversity of the woodlands, planting a typical tree for National Arbor Day seemed counter-productive this year.
Shiitake “plug spawn”. Dowels inoculated with mycelium

Dying trees are critical for the health of a forest. They provide habitat for cavity nesting birds, screech owls, bluebirds, and wood ducks. They serve as roosts for bats and feeding stations for insect-eating birds. A dead snag hosts a tremendous variety of decomposers, from fungi to ants, which gradually break down the hard wood into soft, rich organic matter in which new life can grow.

Mycelium rapidly expanding around the dowel
I thought deliberately turning a dead log into a mushroom tree would be a fun way to celebrate the spirit of National Arbor Day, without adding a tree where it shouldn’t belong. It will celebrate that the value of a tree extends far beyond the life span of the tree. As a benefit, I will
1) expand my knowledge of mushrooms, and give me a close up, regular look at the decomposition process
2) provide me with something healthy and tasty to eat
3) provide organic material, when the tree is completely broken down.
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Drilling the holes in the oak limb, a casualty of a recent wind storm

In the past, I’ve grown portabella mushrooms in a box in the house, and thought this would not be too much more difficult. And then, when I got my shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms from Fungi Perfecti…I realized that it may not be more difficult, but it is certainly a bit more specific and detailed.

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Tapping the plug snugly into the tree.

I’ll be sharing pictures as the mushrooms grow!  Have you ever grown your own mushrooms?

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Sealing the plug into the tree with a bit of melted beeswax. There are definitely more efficient means of melting beeswax than a torch (the directions recommend melting the wax in a pot, and painting it on the plug). Now, we wait!

Earth Day Adventures: forage

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Pick nettles that are approximately 8″ tall, taking the top 6″.

By mid summer, moist woodlands are thick with stinging nettles. Long pants and long sleeve cotton t-shirts are a must, to keep waist-high plants from assaulting skin with trichomes. But right now, the stinging nettles are just beginning to emerge. Celebrate Earth Day by enjoying hunting for, gathering, and eating this delicious plant.

 

The leaves are tender and full of iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. The tiny hairs are just beginning to produce trichomes, so they aren’t nearly as painful if you break them off into your skin. Grasp the plant gently at the base and break the stem cleanly off. It won’t hurt the plant. If you can’t seem to get the knack of it without getting stung, wear a pair of gardening gloves or use a pair of clippers. As the nettles are a ubiquitous invader throughout the woods, stick a paper sack in your pocket to collect them in.

Once home, rinse them off and boil them for about five minutes. The boiling breaks down the toxins, making them safe to eat. Treat the leaves like spinach, adding a little bit of butter, salt, or lemon juice before serving. IMG_20150409_154827535

 

 

 

Dry the rest. The trichomes also break down as the plant dries. Add a teaspoon of dried nettle leaf to the teapot whenever you make a cup of tea, to take advantage of the nutrients in the plant long after the plants leaves are large and tough, and the trichomes are vigorous about defending it.

This book is older than I am, but the information in it is still a great foundation for foraging  for food in nature.
This book is older than I am, but the information in it is still a great foundation for foraging for food in nature.