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

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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.

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.

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.