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.

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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?

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!

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.

Steel magnolias: using magnolol to combat arthritis

The gorgeous display of magnolia flowers around campus has been capturing my attention over the last few weeks, but it turns out they’re just as noteworthy for their therapeutic potential as for their aesthetics. A new article in press for PLoS One (open access for everyone!) describes a novel activity for the Magnolia officinalis derivative magnolol in repressing inflammation, which is a pretty tantalizing topic for a runner like me who’s always a little bit neurotic about the health of her joints.

Flowers of Magnolia x soulangiana, a cross between M. lilliflora and M. deundata.

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