Poison Ivy :(

My challenge in loving nature  isn’t usually the “getting outside” part, its avoiding the poison ivy that thrives in the woods. Poison ivy is beautiful, especially in the spring and fall, but the oil causes my skin to break out in open, weeping, ever-expanding, never-healing sores, which causes me to go to the doctor for prednisone, which wreaks havoc on my immune system. Last summer, I  avoided the doctor/prednisone, and I am going to do my best again this summer.

Step 1. Identify.

I nearly walked into this poison ivy branch, hanging face-high from a tree.
The fine hairs on the main vine gave it away.
The fine hairs on the main vine gave it away.

Step 2. Avoid.

The young leaves in the spring are a deep red.
The young leaves in the spring are a deep red.
Step 3. Wash thoroughly, assuming avoidance wasn’t good enough. Always a good idea after playing outside, because it provides an opportunity for a thorough tick check.
If I was in the general vicinity of poison ivy, I just use soap and water. If Im fairly sure I actually contacted the plant, I use Goop first, which binds with the oil.
If I was in the general vicinity of poison ivy, I just use soap and water. If I’m fairly sure I actually contacted the plant, I use Goop first, which binds with the oil.
Step 4. At the first sign of breakout, start drinking copious amounts of tea made from reishi mushrooms, stinging nettle leaves, and budding goldenrod flowers. The challenge is on-we’ll see how this season goes!
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The stinging nettle leaves that emerged mid-April are getting too big too harvest, but there are young plants still coming up around the edges of the nettle patches.

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: rainbows and wildflowers

This is a magical season in the forest, as the spring ephemerals are just beginning to bloom. When we think of forest, our minds immediately go to the trees. Right now, with the trees in various stages of budding out, there is not a leaf to be seen. But there is a whole rainbow of color to be found.

Cottonwood tree inflorescence, brought down in a windstorm (Red).
OK, I havent seen any orange butterflies yet, but these fun chairs are sitting outside ICNCs Butterfly Hoop House, beckoning a visit. If you want to see flying orange, try setting out a half an orange on a tray feeder or deck railing to attract Baltimore Orioles.
OK, I haven’t seen any orange butterflies yet, but these fun chairs are sitting outside Indian Creek Nature Center’s Butterfly Hoop House, beckoning a visit. Or…
...set 1/2 an orange out on a tray feeder or deck railing to attract the Baltimore Oriole. This one, created by artist Brenna OHara, is a permanent resident along ICNCs woodland trail orange).
…set 1/2 an orange out on a tray feeder or deck railing to attract the Baltimore Oriole. This one, painted by artist Brenna O’Hara, is a permanent resident along ICNC’s woodland trail (Orange).

Lots of life is beginning to emerge from the ground.  Wildflowers of Iowa Woodlands by Sylvan Runkel and Alvin Bull is a great resource to put in your backpack before setting out. If that’s too big, try the laminated Woodland in Your Pocket pamphlet. Finding flowers is fun: knowing what you’re looking at is thrilling.

Bloodroots are one of the first spring ephemerals to explode in the spring (Yellow).

Delicate, small forbs take advantage of all of that sunlight streaming through the bare branches to send up their own leaves, flower, and reproduce.

Wild Ginger is just beginning to peek out, with soft folded leaves (Green). Open your copy of Hunting Red to preview the ginger in bloom.
A blue jay was here. As the feathers of most birds are protected, take pictures, not the feathers (Blue).

To help identify feathers you find, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s free online Feather Atlas.

These bluebells have not fully opened, but show some of the great diversity of color the species has Indigo)
These bluebell flowers have not fully opened, but show some of the great diversity of color within the species (Indigo).
The petals of the wild violet are edible, and are a beautiful edition to any salad Violet).
The petals of the wild violet are edible, and are a beautiful edition to any salad (Violet).

Spend Earth Day outside, exploring what is happening with the earth as spring surrounds us in a rainbow of color. What colors will you find?

 

 

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.

On the cusp of Spring

A great way to be in nature this time of year is maple syruping.

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Annie taps a silver maple tree. Silver maples usually grow along creeks and river bottoms.

When winter is still firmly entrenched but the change in the birdsong indicates spring must be playing hide and seek just under the snow, we take our power drills, our 7/16″ drillbits, our sapsacks and spiles, and head into the sugarbush.

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All maples have branches that come out directly opposite each other, in pairs. Look for young twigs to see the branching pattern, as older branches may be broken.

All maple trees, including the sugar maple and the box elder, have opposite branches. Its one good indicator that the tree is a maple tree–the only other large tree in this area that has opposite branches is the ash tree.

Jeff hammers in the spile, which spills the sap out of the tree, and hangs the bag to collect the sap.
Jeff hammers in the spile, which spills the sap out of the tree, and hangs the bag to collect the sap.

If you don’t have a maple tree, plant one! Maples grow quickly, which will allow you–or someone who comes after you–to enjoy harvesting the sap, boiling it into syrup, and living directly off the land.

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Hole tapped by a pileated woodpecker, hunting for insects. Unless a dead tree is threatening a path or building, they create rich habitat if left standing.

Being in the Sugarbush is a great way to see who else is spending time in the woods and what they are eating. As soon as it warms up a bit and the sap starts running, we’ll be back every warm day over the next five weeks to gather it. The repeated trips to the forest over the next five weeks will give us opportunities to explore the gradual shift into spring, as well as collect gallons of sweet sap. Visit www.indiancreeknaturecenter.org to learn more about syruping.

Pileated woodpecker by Gabrielle Anderson, from Hunting Red.
Pileated woodpecker by Gabrielle Anderson, from Hunting Red.

Snowshoeing to See the Woods

The eleven inches of fresh falling snow transformed Bena Brook, creating a magical, monochromatic wonderland

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From the exquisite sunlight filtering through the canopy

heaven

To the delicately wrought arched lairs formed by trees bending under the weight of the snow

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I had thought that my snowshoes would be the only red to be seen (snowshoeing is a great way to stay warm in the winter), but five red-headed woodpeckers came crashing through the woods in a very vocal territorial dispute

red, unsmudged

Both Two Point Dugout Lodge and the Leaf Tipi remained snug, providing dry cozy places to rest out of the wind and drink tea.

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 To visit Bena Brook, rent snowshoes, or find Two Point Dugout Lodge, visit www.indiancreeknaturecenter.org