Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s yard part 2: Guava flowers

It’s guava flower season!  If you’re in California or the South, there’s a very good chance that someone who lives next to you is using pineapple guavas (Acca sellowiana) for their hedges or shrubbery.  These Argentinian natives (also called feijoas) don’t always set fruit, but their flowers are a great snack all on their own.

Pineapple guava flowers peeking out from the Berkeley shrubbery.

Look for bright red clusters of stamens on tall shrubs with grey-green leaves.  Then make sure that the cluster of stamens is surrounded by 4 petals: light pink on the outside, and pink-purple on the inside.  On the best ones, the petals will be a little bit spongy.  Pluck off the petals and try them (the stamens are edible too, but don’t taste like much).

On the best guava flowers, the petals have curled so that you mostly see the light pink spongy exteriors.

Delicious, right?  Soft, juicy, sweet, with a kinda spicy tropical tang.  If you’ve ever had guava Kern’s nectar, you recognize the flavor, because it’s the same plant.

Pineapple guavas need 50 hours of cold to set fruit, don’t set well in high temps (90 degrees or higher), and many cultivars also need a pollinator, so if you’re in a very warm climate your new snack may never mature into fruit.  Still, it’s best to be optimistic and leave the stamens and pistil attached to the shrub–if you’re lucky in a few months there will be egg-sized leathery looking green fruits to eat as well.

Pineapple guava fruit. Photo by HortResearch via wikimedia.

I will confess to often liberating guava petals from their owners without asking permission, but it’s probably better to tell your neighbor that you’d like to eat their shrubbery.  Ideally, they’ll not only be happy to let you have at it, but gratified to learn about the tasty treat in their yard.

Special thanks to my college adviser Dr. Daniel Martinez, an Argentinian native himself, who introduced these to me back in the day.  And a tip for fellow folks at the Stanford med school: the bushes next to the patio at LKSC should be full of these any day now.

I’m also told they’re a popular cultivated fruit in New Zealand.  Can anyone confirm?

Lemon anise seed cookies

While out running near Cesar Chavez park the last few weekends, I’ve been noticing that the seed heads of the fennel plants are ripe for gathering. (Well…ok.  I’ve been a bit slow to get this posted, so now it’s only the ones protected from the wind that are good for harvesting.  Like along the bike path near Golden Gate fields where the soccer fields are, or at the more inland parts of Point Isabelle).  A couple weekends back I stopped to gather a quarter cupful or so of seeds (NOTE: there are some ginormous gopher snakes out there these days too, especially when it’s very sunny and not crowded, so watch your step!  They’re not poisonous but look enough like rattlesnakes to be kinda terrifying when a 5-footer suddenly appears under your feet).

There were a handful of fennel seed cookie recipes I’d been eying, including these delicious-looking 17th-century anise seed cookies from Baking with Sibella, but I didn’t have enough egg yolks for that one so I went with a variation of these Italian fennel seed cookies, which ended up soft and cake-like, a bit like Madeleines.  I tweaked the recipe to include a citrus flavor, and left off the icing:

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon anise/fennel seeds, slightly crushed (washed well and picked over for bugs and twigs)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (may need up to 3 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 -3 tablespoons orange juice

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream together butter and sugar for 2 minutes, then add eggs one at a time, stirring well after each.

Add anise seeds and lemon zest, stir.

Stir together flour and baking powder.  Add in thirds, alternating with tablespoons of orange juice.  The dough/batter will be pretty wet and sticky–more like brownie batter than cookie dough.

Spray cookie sheet with nonstick spray or line with parchment paper.  Drop large spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheet.  Bake at 350F 11-13 minutes, until slightly browned.

Lemon anise seed cookies. Somewhere between a cookie and a scone, and pretty darn tasty!

I really liked them; the soft texture, delicate lemon flavor and kinda-cookie but kinda-scone-y-biscuit-y quality was nice.  If you’re not a fan of anise/licorice flavored things in general though, the seeds may be too strongly flavored.

There were still some seeds leftover, which my husband used to flavor the beef stock he was making, and that stuff came out delicious.

Of wild carrots and the death of Socrates

There is a plant I keep encountering, both on foraging trips and while out running, and for a long time I had been entertaining the hope that it was wild carrot (Daucus carota), while secretly suspecting that it was actually poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).  These two members of the Apiaceae/Umbelliferae family look very similar as young plants (and both are sometimes called Queen Anne’s lace), but armed with Samuel Thayer’s “Nature’s Garden” on our recent Redwood Park foraging trip, I was able to pin down once and for all that…dammit, yes: it’s hemlock.

Poison hemlock, Conium maculatum. Not the wild carrot I was hoping for. Photo courtesy of Jen at willblogforfood.

The Apiaceae are a fickle lot of plants: some are friendly foodstuffs (carrot, fennel, celery, parsley, caraway), some are vicious poisons (poison hemlock, water hemlock, fool’s parsley), and some are something in between (like cow parsnip, which is edible but whose sap can be a strong irritant).  Several of them look similar as young plants, too, with rosettes of feathery leaves and umbels of delicate white flowers.

Caraway, Carum carvi. If I hadn’t read the title, I might have thought it was fennel, because all these darn Apiaceae look similar. From Koehler’s Medizinal Pflanzen.

Over the centuries, many people have been poisoned by mixing them up.  A handful of case studies from the last decade of folks who ate a variety of toxic Apiaceae can be found  here, here, here, and here.  For those who forage, wild wood survival offers a sturdy guide to telling tasty wild carrot from its toxic doppleganger.  (Quick and dirty version: hemlock has smooth stems, sometimes speckled purple or with a chalky residue.  It doesn’t smell very good, and its flowers are loosely packed in umbels, like caraway, above.  Wild carrot has fuzzy stems, smells strongly of carrot, and has tightly-packed umbels of flowers with one dark purple flower in the middle.  And if you’re in doubt, don’t eat it!)

Wild carrot, Daucus carota. Similar enough to C. maculatum to give you pause, and make you wish you’d brought some store-bought carrot leaves along for comparison. Photo from Gunther Blaich’s website.

And then, of course, there are the more sinister, deliberate poisonings. Continue reading

Compare and contrast: oak moth infestation vs. zombie apocalypse

To paraphrase Dave Barry, I don’t wish to toot my own horn, but I definitely deserve to win several Nobel prizes for my recent journalistic foresight regarding the oak moth infestation that is now in full swing on Stanford’s campus.  That one little chrysalis turned out to be quite the harbinger of doom.  Looking with fascination and mild horror at the rampaging hordes of caterpillars swarming the bases of the poor denuded oak trees, I am reminded of certain scenes from Shaun of the Dead, Evil Dead and Zombieland (because I am a coward about horror movies, the only zombie movies I know are the funny ones).

All those little brown/black lines are caterpillars swarming along the curb under an oak tree. Braiiiinnss....braaAAIIIiinnss...Oh I mean...oooaaak....ooOOAAKK...

Let’s take a moment to consider their similarities and differences, shall we?

  Zombies P. californica caterpillars Assessment
Grouping Rampaging hordes Rampaging hordes Identical
Hunger level Insatiably ravenous Insatiably ravenous Identical
Transition type  Innocuous human to Terrifying cannibal Terrifying predator to Innocuous moth Eerily similar
Aesthetics Oozy, decomposing (as zombie) Oozy, decomposing (during metamorphosis) Eerily similar
Target food group Humans (cannibalistic) Oak trees (herbivorous) Different
Reality Currently fictitious So very, very real Different

As you can see, the similarities are disconcertingly numerous. I would suggest we all head for the hills, except for there’s just more oak trees up there.

Oak moth caterpillar (Phryganidia californica), head pointed downwards. Dime included for scale. The greenish pellets are caterpillar droppings.

On a more serious note, it has really been a bummer to watch the oak trees lose their leaves and move from green to brown.  Last fall, Stanford responded with a multi-pronged approach to pest control that included insecticides, power-washing the trees, and introducing predators (detailed in this article).  If you have oak trees that are impacted by oak moth infestation, there are also commercial pest control companies that target oak moths (although caveat emptor: I don’t know much about the relative merits and weaknesses of the options out there).

Pre-infestation live oak tree.

Oak moth infested live oak trees.

I welcome any suggested additions to the zombie vs. caterpillar table!

I also welcome any suggested links or information from people who know more about oak moth infestation or management.