Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s backyard part 3: Dogwood berries

Titles I abandoned:

-Dogwood Berries (surprisingly evocative of “dingleberries” as a standalone title, no? Maybe it still is as part of a longer title. Ah well.)

-Things you can eat on trees in Seattle (this would be a weak lead for such a series. Dogwoods grow plentifully elsewhere. Also, wouldn’t such a list obviously start with apples, followed by Rainier cherries?)

So anyway, hi, everybody! A year ago we moved to Seattle, and I started a lab in the Biochem department at UW. It’s been…honestly, pretty great. And I’m sure you will be shocked to learn that in an area that is famous for being damp and green, there are many green edible things that grow. So many berries, you guys. But all the native berries will have to wait their turn. The one that finally got me to take pictures for a post was this goofy looking thing I discovered in our back yard this afternoon:

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Which had fallen out of our dogwood tree. When I looked up at it I saw more:

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I have done frankly minimal research into what variety of dogwood is growing in our yard, and I haven’t yet seen it flower, which makes identification a little harder. But a quick perusal of the internet yielded consensus that, edibility-wise, dogwood berries range from “non poisonous” to “a sought-after delicacy,” and so I was sufficiently emboldened to give it a try.

Various users described the fruit as lychee-like, and to be sure the outside resembles a lychee both in its color and the dry, pebbly texture of the skin. There is no taxonomical affinity though: dogwoods come from the order Cornales, and are more closely related to hydrandgeas, lilacs, and olives than to lychees, which belong to the order Sapindales along with citrus, mangoes, and cashews. After cutting into the fruit, the inside is much softer than lychee, verging on mushy. Others described it as melon-like, which I think is much closer. Not only is the internal color a peachy orange rather like cantaloupe, but the flavor reminded me of a very ripe, soft honeydew. The skin itself is bitter, so I peeled it off and ate the just the soft inside portion. In my opinion, our home-grown dogwood berries are something I would very enthusiastically eat if I was hungry in the wilderness, and will happily eat when I find them in my own yard, but not something I’ll likely seek out in large numbers. They’re a bit too squashy and the outsides too much trouble to eat by the dozen. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of others; after all, ours might not be the “sought-after delicacy” subtype, and there might be more compellingly delicious dogwoods out there.

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Caveats:

-there is a single, rock-hard seed in each berry. Don’t break your teeth!

-Apparently contact with dogwood leaves can cause skin irritation in some. Proceed with reasonable caution.

Falling behind

See: because it’s fall.  And because I haven’t posted in a season.

As a lifelong California resident with many friends and loved ones that have moved here from points east, I’ve heard a broad range of disparaging comments about the inferiority of our fall colors.  And I’m totally willing to concede that we don’t offer the hundreds of square miles of lurid orangeness that folks in NC or DC (or wherever–no favoritism here, those are just two East Coast places I’ve actually been to in the fall) enjoy this time of year.  Showoffs.  It’s gaudy, if you ask me.  Here we get our fall colors in trim little accents, like this one, which I pass by about 15 times a day:

A particularly pretty Chinase pistache (Pistacia chinensis) tree at the corner of Roth and Campus Drive.

This is one of maaaaany Chinese pistache (or Chinese pistachio) trees distributed around campus in an effort to keep all our homesick transplanted students and faculty from fleeing back to their states of origin this time of year.  Or possibly just to sprinkle a little extra red around the place.  As you’ve probably already suspected, Pistacia chinensis is a close relative of the pistachio of culinary fame, Pistacia vera P. vera is a Mediterranean native, and it’s in Mediterranean desserts that I like pistachio nuts the best: baklava, biscotti (recipe below), and the like.  The Chinese pistachio fruits are not edible (except to birds–the bluebirds go nuts for them here), but they look like a plausible smaller relative, and unlike commercial pistachio nuts, Chinese pistachio fruits are naturally red.

Fruits of the Chinese pistachio tree. They’re doused in very sticky sap, which left my fingers tacky for the rest of the day after this pic.

P. chinensis is common all over the Bay Area, so if you live nearby there’s a good chance a few of these are brightening up your neighborhood, too.

Pistachio and anise biscotti recipe:

(Since P. chinensis is not edible, this is a bit of a stretch as a foraging recipe, but I did pick the anise flowers myself last week.  Currently anise/fennel is in flower, and I really like their delicate flavor, but you could substitute seeds at other times of year)

1/3 cup butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

4 tsp chopped fresh anise/fennel flowers

1 cup pistachio nuts

1. Preheat oven to 375 F; spray 1 cookie sheet with cooking spray, keep another ungreased cookie sheet on hand. Cream together butter and sugar, beat in baking powder, salt, vanilla and eggs.  Stir in flour, fennel flowers, and pistachios.

2.  Divide dough into 3 portions. Shape each third into a roll 8-9″ long.  Place rolls several inches apart on sprayed cookie sheet, and flatten so each roll is about 2.5-3 inches wide.

3. Bake at 375 F (190 C) for 20-25 minutes.  The “loaves” should be golden brown around the edges and cracked on top.  Cool 30 minutes.

4.  Use a sharp serrated knife to cut each roll on a diagonal into slices, about 1/2″ thick and 4″ long.  Lay slices cut sides down on ungreased cookie sheet.  Lower oven temp and bake at 325 F (163 C) for 8 minutes, then flip cookies and bake on the other side another 8 minutes until dry and crisp.

Toxic and toothsome: a tale of two wild Asteraceae

Toxic Interloper:

Not long ago, I planted a bunch of coriander/cilantro seeds in my back yard.  When the seedlings emerged, I found not only cilantro, but also this:

Not cilantro as it should have been, but common groundsel. Don’t try to fool me with your toothed leaves–I can totally see you’re sending up flower buds already.

Senecio vulgaris, known as common groundsel to me, but also as Old-man-of-the-spring. It’s just about everywhere right now–I’m seeing it along roadsides, in gardens, at the park and clawing its way through sidewalk tiles.  It starts off with lobed leaves and an emerging crown of flower buds that’s visible really early, and ends up with nearly-closed yellow flowers, and fuzzy gray seed heads like tiny dandelions (whence the “Old man” name–it looks a bit like a tousled gray head of hair). Continue reading

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.

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!