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

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

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.

Continue reading

Bitter but beneficial: salicylic acid and willow bark

After the last half-marathon I ran two weeks ago my longer runs have been hampered a bit by a nagging inflammation in my right lower hip muscle (piriformis strain: it’s a pain in the butt).  I was reflecting on this mild misfortune this weekend as I was reaching the home stretch of a very pretty 12-miler near the water, which went right past a clump of willows in early flower.  (Salix lasiolepsis…I think.  Salix laevigata is also native here, but the loose open buds looked more like lasiolepsis).  This provided an ample reminder of the general awesomeness of willow bark’s key pharmaceutical component, salicylic acid, and its more famous derivative, acetylsalicylic acid.

Willows by the water: a stand of flowering Salix.

Willow flowers just past the fuzzy pussy-willow stage. These look right for S. lasiolepsis; S. laevigata flowers stay more compact and fuzzy.

Good for a whole range of what ails you:

One of the more well-publicized botanical myths is that aspirin comes from willow bark.  This is only a short hop from the truth.  The actual anti-inflammatory produced metabolically by willow is salicylic acid–depending on the species and time of year, willow bark contains between 0.08 – 12.6% salicin, the metabolic precursor of salicylic acid.  Salicylic acid (historically purified in large quantities by boiling the bark of white willow, Salix alba) is readily acetylated into acetylsalicylic acid, trademarked as Aspirin.  You might have made acetylsalicylic acid back in chemistry class, or you leave aspirin tablets somewhere damp, you might notice a vinegary smell as they hydrolyze back to salicylic acid and acetic acid. Curiously, while Bayer still holds the trademark on “Aspirin”, “aspirin” is generic.  A/aspirin (hmm…not sure what the trademark rule is on capitalization at the start of a sentence) is part of the NSAID group of anti-inflammatory drugs–useful at reducing fever and throbbing pain.   Aspirin also exerts a potent anticoagulant effect by inhibiting the platelet aggregant thromboxane, so many people take it to reduce the risk of stroke or blood clots following surgery.

Salicin and salicylic acid, found in willow bark, and acetylsalicylic acid, better known as aspirin.

Salicyclic acid is also anti-inflammatory but is probably more recognized for its antibiotic effects; it’s one of the most common topical treatments for the bacteria that cause acne.  This handy dermatological property is of course just a human co-option of the plant’s own defense system: salicylic acid is produced by plants in response to stress, and reduce their vulnerability to bacterial infection.

It’s not all good news though…

The reason we don’t take salicylic acid orally as a pain killer is partly because the pharmacokinetics are a little different from aspirin, but mostly because salicylic acid is very rough on the stomach.  Acetylsalicylic acid is less irritating (for reasons I have been hard-pressed to discern–it’s a weaker acid, but at stomach acid pH that shouldn’t make a difference), but it can still cause ulcers and stomach bleeding if taken in too high an amount or with other NSAIDs.  What’s more, the conjugate base of salicylic acid, salicylate, is damaging to the hair cells of the inner ear in some people (salicylate sensitivity).  Chronic aspirin consumption can cause tinnitus when the acetylsalicylic acid hydrolyzes back to salicylic acid in the bloodstream.

Extra nitty gritty: this bitter pill to swallow has a pleasant aftertaste

So. Pretty versatile, right?  A quick hunt through the scientific literature for salicylic acid entries yields a complex mixture of rheumatology, dermatology, cardiology, botany, auditory and gustatory references.

Wait, gustatory…?  Yes.  Because as you know if you’ve ever had the misfortune of having to down an aspirin without a glass of water, salicylic acid and acetylsalicylic acid taste just awful–they’re the very definition of bitter.  This was, in fact, a significant hitch in marketing acetylsalicylic acid early in its commercial development, and pharmacologists tried out a range of less effective and even toxic variants to try to make it more palatable before resigning themselves to just mixing it into a sugary syrup or coating the pills.

Curiously, the bitterness of salicylic acid and its derivatives has become an independent asset to science, because they’re the perfect compounds to study the physiology and chemistry underlying bitter taste detection.  Salicin (basically salicylic acid with a glucose ether instead of a carboxylic acid) was recently used to study the crystal structure of the “bitterness” taste receptor hTAS2R16.

Why aspirin tastes so bad: two proposed models for the interaction of salicin (blue) with key amino acids (green) in the bitterness taste receptor hTAS2R16. From Sakurai et al., J. Biol Chem 2010.

So if you find yourself near fresh water in the next couple weeks, enjoy the budding willows, but don’t take a bite out of the bark.