“P” is for poinsettia, pyracantha, and paucity of poisonousness

Happy New Year, everyone!

As you may have noticed, 2012 got a little bogged down toward the end, and poor Mendel was woefully neglected.  But, while I abhor resolutions, I have come into 2013 with new enthusiasm, and have been reminded that I’m actually quite fond of my little blog.  So, in the spirit of things that deserve another chance, here are two seasonal favorites you may have been judging unfairly for as long as you’ve known them.

1.  Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

I certainly was raised in the firm belief that poinsettias were basically a festive holiday deathtrap.  Which even as a child I found a bit baffling–“Here kids!  Eat all these holiday cookies and brightly colored candies and look at these gorgeous, enticing bright red flowers that we’ve put all over the house but OMG DON’T TOUCH THEM THEY’LL KILL YOU!”

Looks...so...tasty...must...not...eat...Oh!  Not poisonous after all you say?  Just nauseating and irritant?  Fantastic!

Looks…so…tasty…must…not…eat…Oh! Not poisonous after all you say? Just nauseating and mildly irritant? Fantastic! (Photo by Scott Bauer, via Wikimedia)

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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

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.

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!

A collection of sham-shamrocks

I spent a lot of my weekend looking at clusters of three heart-shaped leaves.  You may have done the same, possibly (just possibly) in the company of a Guiness or something similar.  And in the course of all that shamrock-ogling, I became slightly vexed that the shamrock’s  officially recognized botanical representative is Trifolium dubium, the common suckling clover.  Dubium, indeed.  Its leaves are dinky, and they’re not even consistently heart-shaped.  So for your consideration, I hereby nominate the various species of Oxalis (wood sorrel) that are overtaking my yard as shamrock alternatives.

White Oxalis purpurea (this guy was planted, the rest are wild). The leaves are perfect hearts, but kinda small.

Oxalis pes-capre, or Bermuda buttercup. You might remember these from "Roadside edibles on my run." They're really more notable for their fluorescent-yellow flowers.

Oxalis stricta, yellow-flowered oxalis, sometimes sports reddish leaves like these, bringing a little variety to all that green.


And finally, Oxalis oregana, redwood sorrel, whose leaves are the size of a silver dollar. Go ahead and tell me this isn't more like what comes to mind when you think "shamrock" than some dopey little clover.

Why “Natural” isn’t always better: almond extract and cyanide

Right now the various species of Prunus are in flower all over northern California; the ornamental plums that are so popular as sidewalk decor are shedding petals everywhere, apricot blossoms are peeking out from yards, and the almond trees that crop up as renegades from the big orchards near Davis and in the central valley are covered in popcorn-y pinkish white flowers.  With constant reminders of stone fruit everywhere but none actually in season to eat, I’ve been doing a lot of baking with almonds and almond extract.

A sprinkling of wild plum blossoms (Prunus americana) on my way to lab.

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