Having spent years roaming these woods, there are some plants I can identify, a lot more plants I recognize but can’t identify, and every once in a while, there is the sheer, delightful beauty of stumbling across a plant I’ve never even seen before.
I took a picture (there was only one, so I wasn’t about to pick the plant). And, in this heat, frequently a “real” specimen is a droopy, crumpled mess by the time I get it home, whereas digital photos can be easily shared, magnified and examined. The flower shape and size looked a bit like the non-native lily of the valley, but the leaves and growth patterns were all wrong. There is a false/wild lily of the valley, but that was definitely not it either.
I shared the picture around the office. Sharing is typically, in my opinion, way more fun than keying plants out (which is always Plan B, and a good skill to have!). A day later, a colleague at Indian Creek Nature Center told me what it was-the shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica). She had seen it before backpacking up north, where it is far more common. Like orchids, the shinleaf has strong micorrhizal associations, making it difficult to transplant or spread. So this little beauty has been hanging on in the woods here for a long time, and hopefully, as we continue to remove invasive species, it will spread on its own.
The shin leaf takes its name from its traditional medicinal value. Historically it was used as a poultice for bruised shins and other small skin problems, or gargled for sore throats. But, as it is rare here, its value is far greater as a keystone species for the woodlands.
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.
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
Drink: sumaconade (staghorn sumac drupes, honey, cinnamon stick)
Dessert: paw paws and aronia berries (frozen last year), and elderberry jelly and wild plum jelly (preserved last year)
* 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
Forest on the Fringe author Bill Haywood has been working in Indian Creek Nature Center’s woodlands recently.
In some areas, there are massive elms still standing and butternut trees still producing nuts-everything you could possibly want in a healthy Iowa woodland. But in other areas, invasive black locust and mulberry dominate the landscape. Bringing those sections back to health would involve massive ecosystem destruction, followed by expensive reconstruction. Bill has a better way. Through the woods, he has been dropping small, 3”-9” diameter trees.
This allows the mature-canopy trees, regardless of species, to continue stabilizing the existing ecology. Young desirable trees, including white oaks, butternuts, and shagbark hickories will be able to grow up in the pockets of sunlight he has created. Periodic fire will be used to keep the undesirable trees from reclaiming the sunlight. This long-term approach prevents erosion, relies on the intact components of the forest, and creates a healthy range of different age trees and amounts of sunlight throughout the woodlands.
Then the storms of last week hit, and overlaid on Bill’s careful work was the awesome path of wreckage left by a strong wind pattern. “Trail Destructo,” as my colleague Andrea Blaha calls it.
One of the butternuts was cracked in half and trails were covered by broken and twisted trees.
At first I felt devastated. But then, I remembered the notes from the 1842 survey of this area. A significant windfall band that swept across the township was noted, not unlike what happened in Monday’s storms. While the damage to some of the existing trees is extensive, these wind events create pockets of open sunlight, allowing new growth and different species to develop in the woods. Downed trees are also great for fungus and replenishing the soil.