Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s yard part 1: Loquats

If you live anywhere in California below about 2000 feet of elevation, somewhere in your neighborhood there is a loquat tree.  Your job this May/June is to find it and forage it (you’re allowed to ask the neighbor first.  In fact that might be a good idea).  I love these things so much, and every time I see an under-appreciated tree with its fruit littering the ground in early July it breaks my heart.  You guys have to help me out.

The lovely, luscious, little-loved loquat is Eriobotrya japonica, a Chinese native (confusingly), and member of the Rosaceae family, just like apples, pears, and all those Prunus species I was celebrating back in February.  It’s a moderate-to-large evergreen tree that’s often used for shade, because its large glossy leaves are great at blocking the daylight.

A shade-casting loquat tree in one of the east-side courtyards of Stanford's main quad. Small clusters of unripe green fruit are visible among the leaves.

In December/January, it produces nondescript sweetly-scented yellowish flowers, that very very slowly give rise to clusters of fruit.  In May, these reach their full size (a little smaller than a golf ball, and either round or slightly oval), and ripen to a peachy orange color.  The fruit at the tops of the trees ripens first.  Some of my fondest memories from college are of my friends and I foraging these off the tree-tops in Claremont, trying to reach the uppermost fruit without getting totally covered in tree bits and spiderwebs.

The fruit (and the leaves) are covered in a downy fuzz, and this coupled with the color always makes me think of peaches…so much so in fact that I have trouble deciding what they actually taste like, because it’s hard to get peaches out of my mind.  I think they may taste a little like raspberries with a radically different texture.  A heaping pile of miner’s lettuce to anyone who can help me pin down the flavor.

A loquat leaf and full-size unripe fruit, with quarter for scale.

The fruit is best when its fully ripe, and it’s easiest to tell if this is the case by looking where the fruit meets the stem: it should be orange-yellow, and not at all green.  The fruit should also pop easily off the stem.  When they’re a little under-ripe, they’re a bit tart but still very good, and when they’re fully ripe they’re heavenly: very sweet and fragrant.  I like them best with the skin peeled off (a word to the wise though–peeling the skin will stain your fingernails brownish if you don’t wash your hands), but you can eat the skin too if you rub off the fuzz.  Inside, there are several large glossy dark-brown seeds.

The same loquat leaf and fruit split open to show the shiny brown seeds. There can be anywhere from 1-8 seeds, usually depending on how large the fruit is.

One final thing: they don’t store well (only a day or two in the fridge, max), so as you go out and find your local neighborhood loquat tree, don’t hesitate to enjoy them on the spot.  Spread the word!

April showers bring fruitful foraging!

It’s been a while since I had a foraging-themed post, but a lovely trip through Redwood Regional Park in Oakland with JYL and TC two weekends ago yielded some good material.  JYL has a fantastic foodie blog (willblogforfood), and she’s posted a nice slideshow of all our various wild food sightings that you should check out, with some great pics from her macro lens.

To recap some highlights, we saw berry plants in abundance (thimbleberries, red-flowered currants, blackberries, and wild strawberries), but while the strawberries, blackberries and currants were in flower, nothing was yet in fruit.  So stay tuned for a follow-up post when we make a return foraging trip to collect those guys in June.

Bay trees were everywhere, some in flower.  We saw lots of mustard, and gathered some greens from that, and quite a few young fiddlehead ferns.  A few things that I was certain we would see, some of the guarantees of California wild food, were surprisingly absent: namely fennel, wild radishes, and oxalis/sorrel (even though we went to Redwood park specifically because I was sure we’d see redwood sorrel! We found it in a random yard instead).  Since I’ve posted about all those things before, no harm done.

The highlight of the foraging was probably miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata, also sometimes called winter purslane), which was rampant along the side of the trail.

Miner's lettuce, Calytonia perfoliata. The large, round, single leaves (bracts) with small white flowers in the center are unmistakeable. Photo courtesy of Jen Lee at willblogforfood.

I grew up eating its distinctive, spinach-like leaves (actually bracts, to the botanists) as a kid, but in San Diego and Riverside counties they were usually the size of a quarter.  After the bouts of late rain we’ve had this spring, the bracts at Redwood park (and also all around Stanford), are nearly the size of my palm.  They also have great texture–delicate and juicy just like young spinach, but with a milder flavor.  I gathered a large ziploc full of the stuff, and brought it home to try out on my husband, who turned out to be a big fan.

Miner's lettuce washed and ready to eat!

Miner’s lettuce is easy to recognize as a plant: the round, cuplike bracts emerge singly from the basal rosette on long stems up to 10″ long, and centered on the top of each bract is a small stem bearing a little cluster of white flowers (the true leaves are thin and triangular, and hide out in the basal rosette at the bottom of the plant).  The whole plant is edible, but under rare conditions they can accumulate toxic oxalates, so as with any wild plant, after positive identification you should eat small amounts first until you know how it will make you feel.  I’ve eaten lots of this stuff from several counties across California, and find it to be one of the most palatable and reliable raw wild greens.  It’s high in vitamin C–the gold rush miners for whom it’s named ate it to prevent scurvy.  Miner’s lettuce favors damp places with high to intermediate shade and poorly drained soil.  Roadsides in shady areas are a good bet, or in moist back yards.

We separated the bracts from the stems and washed them thoroughly, and used them in place of lettuce in a couple salads and also in chicken tacos.  There’s still a huge amount of miner’s lettuce growing around campus right now, so I plan to bring home more while it lasts.

Chicken tacos with cheese, homemade pico de gallo and miner's lettuce. Delicious!

Bon apetit!

Sudden Oak Moth (or, the benefits of staring at tree trunks)

After being re-inspired to take a close and studious look at the trees around me by revisiting the Bark book, I was peering carefully at a live oak trunk a couple days ago and found this little guy:

Chrysalis of a California oak moth, Phryganidia californica, found on a live oak tree near lab.

I’m not sure if this is a new chrysalis or one from last fall that managed to hang on to the tree all winter, but either way it’s from a California oak moth (Phryganidia californica, aka oakworm).  Last fall there were so many of these dotted all over the oak trunks and some of the nearby buildings that it looked like a plague of incontinent pigeons had been through.  And the ravenous caterpillars that produced them had eaten so much live oak foliage that the trees were no longer recognizable as evergreens.  By late October there were virtual clouds of moths flitting around the tree tops when I headed home in the evenings.  Recently, I’ve been seeing a few young caterpillars dangling from the upper branches by their silk threads, so this could be from an early bloomer.

Mature oak moths. Photo by Jack Kelly Clark, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Happily, with a heaping pile of March rain, the oaks have made a full leafy comeback, and are prepared to handle another onslaught of caterpillar consumption.

Last fall this live oak tree had been heavily defoliated by oak moth caterpillars, but with the late rains this spring it's back to being full of bright green leaves.

I have mixed feelings about the California oak moths.  On the one hand, it’s still a bit of a thrill to find chrysalises out in the wild, and there were so many of these that it was easy to bring home a handful of twigs to give to my neighborlings (SM, now 6, and HM, 5) to watch hatch, which was fun.  I also have a soft spot for things that are delicately pretty but not showy, and the black-and-tan chrysalises and softly, silvery brown-grey moths appeal, since they’re so easily overlooked in favor of bigger brighter monarchs and swallowtails.

But they’re insatiable little buggers, and the caterpillars can do in a poor oak tree in an infestation year (the moths themselves don’t eat, just mate).  Oak trees that have been damaged by draught, other pests, or illnesses like sudden oak death (caused by the single-celled eukaryotic Phytophthora ramorum, which is related to inoffensive brown algae and diatoms) are very vulnerable to oakworms’ voraciousness.  Santa Clara county, where Stanford’s located, has had bouts of sudden oak death, and it’s been a dry year, so I was happy to see that the trees had made such a robust recovery.  Since the weather has been quite different this year than last (60-80% of average rainfall this year vs. 150-175% last year), I’m not sure how the oak moths will respond.  I may do another post about them this fall if they reach near-apocalyptic proportions again.

Book Review: Bark, by Cédric Pollet

Bark is not sexy.  It’s not even a very aesthetically pleasing word.  But under the care of a dedicated photographer with an impressive breadth of botanical and geographical knowledge, it turns out it’s amazingly beautiful.

Cover for "Bark: an intimate look at the world's trees," by Cédric Pollet. Prepare to spend unintentional hours marveling at how intricate the bark on the tree in your front yard is. Seriously.

My husband (who knows me awfully well) came back with this book last year after a visit to a rare book store, and after flipping through it I was seriously considering cutting out every full-page photograph and using them to decorate our home.

Betula utilis var. Wouldn't this look nice framed in the living room? Photo by Cédric Pollet.

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