Understanding Scientific Names…for beginners.

Lets begin by making sure it is understood that to enjoy Nature and make use of her bounty, it is not crucial to know Scientific Names. I for instance have been hunting game in Michigan since I was a young boy. I have eaten plenty squirrels, rabbits, deer and various other critters without having a clue what its Scientific Name was. I’ve also settled in on other vittles like Morel Mushrooms, wild plants and berries without knowing the Scientific Names of those either. I did however know what I was eating….every time.

As my main area of interest is Flora, I will head us in that direction. Botanist and other scientist need to be able to narrow down plants to the exact point that when they study one specimen, they know that its DNA, chemical compounds and other characteristics mirror, as close as possible, a specimen collected some distance away. That way, all the medical or nutritional knowledge gained of the plant they are studying can be duplicated in the same species elsewhere, so the benefits are naturally being duplicated.

The problem with common names is that they aren’t accurate. The same name is used for different plants from region to region. Heck, even next door neighbors know plants by different common names. But scientific names (Latin) are known and fairly constant for a plant or mushroom, world wide.

The 3 classifications that you should be concerned with is Family, Genus and Species.

Family tells you whether a plant is related to a Rose (Rosaceae) or a Carrot (Apiaceae).  Genus further separates the Family. For instance, Solanum and Capsicum, both Nightshades, but the first being plants that have tomato like or fleshy fruits. The Latter being plants that contain Capsaicin to some degree, with the exception of Bell Peppers, but it has other qualities that puts it in the same Genus. Then there is Species which specifically tells you what you have, ie, tomato vs potato. 

For example, “Pigweed” is a common name given to many plants. Most commonly to different Amaranths. But I have heard people call Lambs Quarters, Pigweed. Which makes some sense in that it is in the same family as Amaranth (Amaranthaceae) but not the same genus Amaranthus. The genus for Lambs Quarters is Chenopodium. So basically all plants in the Amaranthaceae family stand a chance being locally called “Pigweed”. FYI, they are called Pigweed because farmers loved giving it to their pigs and the pigs loved receiving it. Another FYI, they are typically also very healthy for you, especially the seeds. Many species are used as a grain (sort of-they aren’t grasses). Spinach and Beets are members that you are more familiar with. 

With all this said, Amaranthus retroflexus is exactly what it is to scientist in Michigan or Wisconsin and is not the same plant as Amaranthus palmeri to either of those scientist. 

Scientific names are important to Naturalist for much the same reason. 100% identification is important if you are living off the land or even just studying flora as a hobby.

Typically for most of us, we really start looking at Flora at the Family classification. Its where we start clumping plants and mushrooms together with descriptions that make say, plants of the Nightshade family…a Nightshade.

Solanaceae (Nightshade) is a fairly large family of plants. One of the most economically important plant families there is. Not a lot of people have gone without eating Nightshade of some sort, but you certainly don’t want to eat every Nightshade you run across. Actually, you don’t want to eat every part of very many Nightshades at all. All that I’m aware of are poisonous. Some, however, have edible fruit., seeds or tubers.

Here are a couple Genus within the Solanaceae Family: Solanum and Capsicum.

The genus Solanum contains some common plants that I’m sure you have eaten, but despite their similarities are quite different. Tomato, Potato and Eggplant. The genus Capsicum include all the Peppers, like Jalapeno, Bell and Wax.

Look at the flowers of all these plants and you will see that they are all very similar to any of the non edible Nightshades. Below left is a Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) the right is a tomato blossom (Solanum lycopersicum).  Both drooping, five petals with prominent Stamen.

 

 

The other thing that is common to the other Nightshades is that most of the Nightshade fruits and vegetables  you eat come from poisonous plants. The Potato fruit is in fact poisonous. Only the potato itself is edible.

Now, to break down the Solanum even more, you then look at the species. Solanum tuberosum- the Potato, Solanum lycopersicum-Tomato and Solanum melongena-Eggplant. All VERY closely related, but not interchangeable. 

The point to Scientific names to sum it up…is to be able to confidently talk about or study a very specific plant and know exactly what is being talked about or studied whether the specimen is from Michigan or France or the Scientist is from Brazil or China.

Hopefully this is  a little clearer than mud. If you have any questions or comments, please ask.

 

 

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Take a Kid out into Nature

How many hours in a day does a kid spend in front of some sort of screen. I-Pads, TV, Lap Tops, Cell Phones, X-Box and the list goes on. How much fun are they really having? What are they learning? Are electronics an addiction or just a habit? Probably a bad habit.

How many kids have never actually been off a trail or even on a trail?  Way too many! Most states have hundreds of thousands of acres of nature available to enjoy. I understand the hesitation of wandering out into the wilderness if you aren’t experienced yourself, but there are many opportunities to enjoy Nature Centers and improved trails. Here in the West MI area we have Blandford Nature Center, Indian Trails, Hoffmaster State Park and Howard Christensen Nature Center and several others. Here is a list of the Nature Centers in Michigan:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nature_centers_in_Michigan

Here are some fun pictures:

 

A bunch more!

Or the other option……

computer screen

Which option looks better to you?

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Shoots

The issue with harvesting young shoots for food or medicine is that mistakes are more likely than when identifying mature plants in bloom. Both of these plants have long fuzzy leaves and are similar in appearance. Especially from above looking down. This is when it is important to know what the identifiers are. 20180515_162705.jpg
The plant leaves on the left are more rounded on the base and apex and I would consider them to be oblong. The leaves on the right are more elliptical. Both are fuzzy, but the hairs on the left are are much shorter. Both have white latex as a sap. Also notice the veins are more horizontal from the mid rib on the left plant. The plant on the left, I know to be Common Milkweed. An edible (learn to process it) and very useful plant. I’ll have to wait till the plant on the right matures a bit to positively Identify it. It’s not Dogbane though for sure as it is hairy. The point? Don’t be nonchalant when identifying a plant, especially if you are going to eat it. Know 100% what you have.
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Poison Hemlock

Conium maculatum-Is a HIGHLY POISONOUS herbaceous plant in the carrot family. This is a plant that makes foraging for members of the carrot family extremely dangerous for beginners. By poisonous, I mean drop you dead poison. One mouth full will be the end of you.

Coniine is the compound that is responsible for your demise. It works on the Central Nervous system which in turns prohibits the muscles that allows you to breath from functioning. You will die from respiratory distress.  The only chance you have is to be put on a respirator until the effects wear off, which is about 48-72 hrs. The problem is, the poison works as quickly as 30 minutes after ingestion. The poison also effects your Kidneys and can cause Renal failure. If you think you may have ingested some, seek medical attention immediately. Poison Hemlock

What to look for: A carrot looking leaf pattern. Purple spots or blotches on the hairless stem. The stem is hollow, which unfortunately has resulted in kids using the plant as a straw, leading to death. One of the most common mistakes is to misidentify the plant as Wild Parsley.
Poison Hemlock 3Notice the carrot like leaf pattern. Look closely and you can see the purple blotches on the stem. Look at the hallow stem. I thoroughly washed my hands after handling the plant.
Poison Hemlock2I was also very careful not to put my hands in my mouth or in my eyes until after I washed them….twice. Yes, it’s that poisonous. Poison Hemlock1

If you have Poison Hemlock on your property and want to get rid of it, I recommend seeking professional help.

 

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Michigan Flora Facebook Group

If you are looking for a place to show off, get an identification or information about a plant or mushroom, join Michigan Flora. You don’t have to live in Michigan to join. Most of the plants found in Michigan can typically be found in the entire Great Lakes region and North East United States.

Trout Lilly rises above Spring Beauties

Trout Lily among Spring Beauties.

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Being a Safe Forager

OK Michigan. Enough is enough and get nice already! Well, it is crappy and so far this Spring has been nothing to brag about. I’m sure it is lovely somewhere but here on April 14, 2018, it is about 35 degrees and pouring rain. It’s supposed to turn to ice later.

Believe it or not, Foraging weather is coming. It is time to shed off the Cold Weather Blues and get back to Nature. It is time that we begin to partake in her bounty. That means it is also time to think about Foraging safety.

You think that doesn’t pertain to you? Maybe not. Do you hunt Morels? Do you go Blueberry picking or Blackberry picking? Maybe you are a bit more involved and have a few other favorites. Could be you are like me and dive in head first to all that Mother Nature provides. If you fit anywhere in there, you are a Forager.

Mushroom7

Not sure what this Mushroom is? When it comes to Foraging, that’s all you need to know for the minute. DO NOT EAT IT. Study it. Have it positively identified. Learn its nuances, habitat, etc.. Make it an exception by knowing it 100%. Then enjoy it for what it is.

So with that in mind, the key to enjoy Foraging is being able to make use of your bounty without tossing your cookies and wishing you were dead…or actually becoming dead.

What is then, the most important thing to know when it comes to Foraging Safety? Simple…knowing that you don’t know all that much, but what you do know…know it very well. That is the key to safe foraging.

Here is the truth about wild plants and mushrooms. There are crap loads of them. In Michigan alone, there are about 1800 native species and 800 non-native species of plants. No one really has a clue how many fun guys are running around. That’s fungi for you serious folks. There are some guesstimates that there are over 5 million different species world wide. I don’t have a clue how many are in Michigan. No one else does either.

So what is the point? When it comes to plants and especially mushrooms, being an expert is relative. Doctors in Botany and Mycology are smart enough to know they have a lot to learn. So folks like me, who would be considered an expert to many, know that relatively speaking, I am not very knowledgeable about  plants or mushrooms. So if you are just beginning, no offence, but you have a heck of a lot to learn if you are serious about making use of what Nature provides.

You will be way ahead of the game if you just know, what you don’t know. Which is pretty much everything. What your goal needs to be, is to begin to make exceptions in your lack of knowledge. For instance. You don’t know much, but, by golly, you know a Dandelion when you see one. OK…that is great, because if you can Identify a Dandelion 100% of the time, then you have a fantastic free and healthy natural resource.

Milkweed

Delicious or deadly? Useful or useless? If you don’t know, the best thing for you to do is to take a picture and enjoy its beauty. Study it and make it an exception. You will be glad you did.

You have the Dandelion down pat. Awesome. How about Morels? Can you Identify the Morel 100% of the time or do you throw in a False Morel, the Gyromitra esculenta, better known in this neck of the woods as the Beefsteak Mushroom?  If you make that mistake, you might not regret it until you do. When that fateful day comes that you succumb to the toxins present, you will pretty much wish you were dead. There has been some cases in which the unlucky souls wish came true. So, is the Morel an exception to your lack of knowledge? If it is, awesome! You will enjoy some great eats.

If you realize what you don’t know and take that lack of knowledge with humility, you will be just fine. Take each plant or mushroom one at a time. Make each one an exception to your lack of knowledge. Maybe you aren’t an expert Botanist or Mycologist, but when it comes to your exceptions, you are an expert. That makes you a pretty safe Forager.

 

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YouTube Videos Caution!

“Can’t say that I agree with comments on eating snow at the end. Maybe if you are working and actually need to cool down a small amount is OK , but it can still result in dehydration, not hydration. This is straight from the US Army (I served 8 years in the Cavalry) Cold Weather Survival Guide. But anyone who is lost or in a survival situation trying to stay warm, should definitely not eat snow. In order for your body to create heat, it needs to be able to metabolize. Your body requires water to metabolize. Cooling your core temperature by introducing snow or ice can cause your body to use more water to metabolize and create heat than the amount of water you took in eating the snow. Also, snow, especially fresh snow, has very little mineral content. Demineralized water can create headaches, stomach aches and other nasty things. I liked the bow drill and good save on the ember, but be careful giving blanket advice. Overheating and sweating isn’t good, but taking a rest and loosening your clothes a minute is a far better solution than eating snow.”

Read more

YouTube Video Poster Comment:
(NOTE: This is the video that the YouTuber used as his source)
My Comment:
“Cool Video. As a guy born and raised in Michigan and not the Arctic with Eskimos, my tolerance for anything concerning the cold is not going to match an Eskimos (as someone from Florida won’t match mine). The vast majority of people who attempt to take the exact path the Eskimos do, but on their own, would likely be found by Eskimos frozen to death and dehydrated. Lol. When you look at the example of the Gent who survived 45 days, I think he said, the man was a medical student who obviously understood the issues with eating Ice and Snow. Notice he didn’t just start eating (melting it in his mouth and swallowing the water), but rather he rationed out very specific amounts and consumed it as he took in specific amounts of calories, from some sort of food source. Knowing the specifics and secrets, along with a body that has adapted over thousands of years definitely gives Eskimos a huge advantage, as well as does understanding the science. The Med student more proves my point than dispels it. The vast majority of viewers are neither Eskimo nor Scientist. They are normal, average people. Most people remember very basic information. In this case…eat snow. The issue still remains that way more people will do more harm to themselves, then help themselves by lowering their core temp. Most people who find themselves in a situation are more likely to succumb from hypothermia than anything else. Dehydration exacerbates hypothermia. More people eating snow and Ice will cause dehydration rather than prevent it (except Eskimos and Medical Students..Lol) I’ll still teach them to pass on eating the snow and Ice. Most people who die from hypothermia did so because they got lost while hiking or hunting and unfortunately didn’t find their way out before dark. I wonder if they ate snow? What are they doing out in Nature having not told people what area they were going nor without a minimal survival pack with fire making tools? Fun topic.”

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YouTube Video Poster Comment:
“Well we can’t fix stupid! If I make a long video explaining the whole thing, only the smart people will watch anyway…LOL Too boring for the guy who will end up needing the information to begin with.”
Well, that last response spoke volumes. What is his main concern? Not
teaching. Not helping, but I would say rather, how many views he can get.
Getting a ton of views is awesome. Especially considering people are making
a living by monetizing their videos. I don’t begrudge them of that and I wish
them good luck.
But, that does not mean that their product, which is the video content, should
not be held to a high standard by the viewers. Especially when the information
is of a nature that can cause harm.
The point is, many YouTubers (Probably most) are not experts in their
content. I don’t believe you need a degree to be an expert. You can self study
and surpass those who went to University. It depends on your desire and
dedication. But the YouTubers study just enough to know more than the
average person watching the videos. They appear so intelligent and experienced
that viewers take the content as gospel.
I assure you, much of it is not gospel. Be very very very careful watching
survival, plant, bush-crafting, etc. videos and do not take the information
verbatim. Question the content and do further study. It is your responsibility to
know the difference between videos with accurate information and “view mining” videos.
CLICK BAITING is a whole other topic!
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Winter Survival

In light of the record cold temperatures, and my laziness, I am reposting information that I previously published. You can read more survival tips on the Surviving Nature page. You can find credits and resources for this info on that page as well.

Surviving cold winter temperatures and conditions can bring its own special challenges.  Even though the basics remain the same, Water, Food, Shelter and Heat, achieving those basics can be much tougher in cold winter months.

Water-It is tempting in the winter to grab handfuls of snow and cram your mouth full of the white stuff.  Though, of course, melting snow or ice in your mouth does put water in your body, it can cause more problems than it solves. It’s not going to hurt you or your child (unless the snow is contaminated) to eat a bit of snow in a non-survival situation.  But, when survival is at stake, don’t do it.

The cold snow or ice will lower your body’s core temperature. Your body then has to work harder to maintain its heat. Your body uses more water, to metabolize to create heat, than what you are getting from the snow or ice. This will lead to both hypothermia and dehydration.

Rather than eating snow or ice, find a way to liquefy it. Eating snow or ice (or extremely cold water) actually dehydrates you. Heat it first. Melt it with fire or find a running source of water such as a stream. Heating the stream water is still important to both kill bacteria and to warm your core. Also, make sure your snow or ice is from as clean a source as you can before using it.

Food-can be real tough in the winter. There are some sources that are available if you know where to look. One of the easiest to find are pine needles. A tea from pine needles provides both comfort and Vitamin C. Another possibility is sumac berries.

CAM00036

A very nice and Vitamin C rich tea can be made by boiling the red berries of sumac.

Believe it or not, there are some green plants that survive quite well under the snow.  A few of them are Winter Green, Violet and Mallow.

CAM00049

Move the snow aside in areas that these plants likely live. Just keep in mind. The same rules apply in winter as in summer. 100% identification is a must. This is not a time to experiment.

The Goldenrod Gall Fly Larvae can be found on many Goldenrod plants.  Check out the photos.  I can’t find any evidence that this grub is harmful to humans and few that briefly state they can be eaten in survival situations. I post them as important to know because they do make great fish bait. You should have small hooks in your pack. Recover the grub as shown. They actually stay on a small hook very well. Small fish like trout, panfish, chubs and shiners love them. I grew up using these grubs because they are readily available and wax worms or mealworms just weren’t easy for me to get to. I caught a lot of bluegills on these grubs through the ice as a kid.

There are few other sources of food that you may find as you work towards rescue.

Rose Hips are a good source of Vitamin C.  Keep an eye out for the little red hips. You will recognize them when you find the thorny wild rose plant.

Don’t overlook animals as a source of food during the winter. Your sling shot or snare can take small animals such as squirrels, rabbits and birds.

Also, and this might sound gross, but you can find good meat on dead animals that you find.  Just make sure you are able to cook the meat thoroughly to avoid any possible bacteria.

Remember, this is survival during a tough time for all animals to find food. You can’t be choosy.

Shelter and Heat-If the snow is deep enough, you can dig a snow cave.  Be careful not to dig too deep down. Make sure only a couple feet of snow is over you. If it were to cave in on you, you don’t want six feet of snow on you. Snow is a great insulator. Making a tee-pee or lean-to packed with snow makes a very good shelter.

Don’t build your fire inside your shelter unless you have adequate ventilation. The only thing different about building a fire in the winter vs the summer is that finding dry tinder might be tougher. Make sure you have dry tinder and fire starting material in your survival pack. Also, wood that is cold is harder to ignite than warmer wood. You might need to make sure your fire is better established at each stage. Don’t slight it. Get each stage good and hot before moving to the next.

A few more notes to wrap it all up:

Remember that dehydration is a major issue in the cold. You might not think you are dehydrated, but you very well may be. Simply put-drink water.

Don’t get caught in a situation without your survival pack. Preparation is the first step of survival.

Remember, it takes a lot to starve to death. Finding food is tough in the winter. Keep a constant vigil for tidbits you can munch on.

Make sure you limit sweat. Sweat leads to major body heat loss when you stop work. When you are building your shelter or hiking out, don’t over dress. Keep your extra clothes dry so that you have them when its time to rest.

Do not forget to sit down and relax if you find yourself in a survival situation. Pray for guidance and calm. God has your back, lean on him.

Cold Weather Injuries

Cold weather injuries can be painful, debilitating and life threatening. Make sure you study and understand the sign of these injuries. Please research these conditions prior to embarking on a cold weather adventure.

Hypothermia-A condition with abnormally low body Temperature. Life threatening. Immediate attention required to prevent death.

Frostbite-The freezing of living tissue. Possible loss of extremities. Loss of skin and muscle tissue. Very serious. Immediately seek medical treatment.

Chilblains-Usually extremities such as fingers, toes and nose. Above freezing temps with higher humidity. Rash, burning, tingling, numbness. Usually not life threatening and can go away unassisted. Recommend medical attention.

Immersion/Trench Foot-prolonged exposure to cold moisture.  Loss of skin tissue. Can be debilitating. Immediate medical attention required.

Dehydration-Loss of body water to the point of reduced body function. Can lead to Hypothermia. Increase water intake. Possible medical attention required.

Constipation-Usually brought on by improper diet but also dehydration. Cold weather can increase chances of constipation. Seek medical attention if severe. OTC remedies. Proper diet/water intake.

Sunburn-Usually on face in cold weather. Reflection of sun off snow and ice can increase the suns ability to burn. Use sunscreen in the winter.

Snow Blindness-Due to increased ultra violet rays to the cornea from sun reflection off of snow and ice. Swelling of cornea.  Very painful, feeling of grit in eyes. Cover eyes with dark material. Wear good sun glasses. Seek medical attention immediately.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning-poisoning due to combustion of carbon based material. In nature it is usually due to a fire built inside of a shelter with inadequate ventilation.  Life threatening. Get medical attention immediately.  

Cold weather injuries are almost always avoidable. Make sure that you are properly clothed, nourished,  hydrated and dry. Use sunscreens and sun glasses. The better your overall health and condition, the better your body can resist cold injury.

The video that this link takes you to is an excellent source of information on cold weather injuries. It was put out by the US Army. You should take a minute to watch it.

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Eating Wild In-Edibles

I watch a lot of videos on wild edibles. I read a bit as well. Something that gets my goat is when video “producers” try to reflect themselves as more professional or educated than they actually are.

Sounding very confident in the their presentations and information, they proudly expel their content to eager viewers ready to soak said expelled knowledge. I’ve made a few videos as well. Hopefully I’m not guilty as those I’m irritated with. Also, there are many excellent videos out there.

Let’s get to the issue. Many people watching these videos are novice Foragers. There are 1800 native species of plants in Michigan and 800 non-native species of plants. Pretty much, we are all lacking much of the knowledge available. It’s really a matter of being less ignorant than the next person or  more ignorant as the case may be.. Even someone who is brilliant in the subject of plants has much to learn.

When it comes to the dangers of Foraging, humility is a great trait. Even if you are completely wise about a plant, it’s a great idea to encourage your viewer to study further any plant they intend to use.  I always tell people to be 100% sure the plant you are about to make use of is safe and what to use it for.  I know it sounds like a disclaimer and to some extent it is, but the real intent is to portray the importance of knowing what you are doing when the potential side effects of making an error is death.

The straw that spurred this little rant of mine is a video that I watched this morning. The person was quite informed on the 36 edible and medicinal plants that he educated his audience on, in a sonic boom speed of 15 minutes. His information was accurate…sort of, but extremely inadequate.

Again, the title was concerning edible and medicinal wild plants. In the video he quickly listed Jack in the Pulpit as an edible. No explanation or elaboration. No warnings. Just “here is another wild edible, Jack in the Pulpit”.  Nothing was said about the roots being deadly poisonous or the leaves containing silicate crystalline structures that will leave micro cuts in your mouth or throat.  Nope, just confidently and knowledgeable sounding, stated, it’s an edible.

Most foragers would not spend time harvesting Jack in the Pulpit for use.

Jack-in the-Pulpit

Jack in the Pulpit

It’s a plant that serves us well being left in the moist creek bottoms where they like to grow.  They typically pop in the Spring just after the spring floods recede.  Besides, they aren’t the most common plants. Not really enough to be a sustainable source of food.

Then the person showed the audience a Poison Ivy vine. Handling the 3 leaf cluster with bare hands, he stated that he isn’t allergic and therefore isn’t concerned. I’m pretty sure he was just showing his audience what Poison Ivy looks like, but never did he say it wasn’t edible or medicinally useful to your average Forager. Nor did he say handling Poison Ivy, allergic or not, is not advised.

So some of the information is just plain inaccurate. Some of the information, which really confuses people, especially novice foragers, is spurred on by plants that are typically inedible, but can be made to be edible.

There are two basic types of poisons in plants. Water soluble and alcohol or oil soluble. That means the poison is broken down by water or alcohol. Some plants, such as the Jack in the Pulpit, have Crystal structures and aren’t necessarily chemically poisonous in the tradition sense.

Some of those Crystal containing plants would be the Skunk Cabbage, Marsh Marigold and the aforementioned Jack in the Pulpit.

Marsh Marigold

Marsh Marigold

These plants were traditionally consumed by Native Americans as they were amongst the first greens to pop in the Spring. I don’t know who the poor sap was that tried the plant raw, but I bet he or she didn’t get much sleep that night.

Somewhere along the line though, the Native Americans learned to boil the greens. Boiling breaks down the crystal structures which renders the greens edible. Boiling is not a step you want to leave out when educating people.

The plants that contain poison that can be consumed are those that have water soluble poisons in them. Typically these plants are boiled in 2-3 changes of water washing out the poisons.

milkweed in bloom

Common Milkweed

Note that not all plants that have water soluble poisons can be made safe. Some of the poisons are too potent to risk.  Some plants that can be made edible are Pokeweed and Milkweed.

There are some plants that have edible parts and non-edible parts. This must also be explained. Plants such as Ground Cherries have parts that are only safe in particular stages of development. Ground Cherries are a species of Nightshade. Very closely related to Tomatillo, the Ground Cherry plant is poisonous. So is the cherry, except when it turns Yellow and is ripe. At this point, the berry or cherry is safe and delicious.

A domestic example of poison parts and safe parts is Rhubarb. The stalk is good to go as we all know. The leaf on the other hand will make you go. Abruptly and without delay, if you get my drift. Not to mention a myriad of other less than desirable effects.

The fact is, making use of wild plants is not always straightforward.  Consuming the wrong plant or not processing it correctly can result in a nasty illness. Some can conclude in a permanent nap.  I encourage people to make videos, write blogs and generally attempt to inform people on plants. Just do everyone a favor and make sure the information you supply is accurate and as complete as you can.  At least warn people your information is not complete and that they need to do further study prior to making use of the plant.

If you are watching videos and run across one that claims 36 plants in 15 minutes, use common sense and know that less than 30 seconds per plant doesn’t supply enough information to bet your health or life on.

 

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Un-Common Milkweed

Most of us grew up with the knowledge that Common Milkweed is poisonous. We were taught that one of the only creatures that can eat Milkweed is the Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar.  By eating the leaves, the Monarch ingest the poison becoming toxic itself. This self-defence mechanism makes the grubby bugger unappetizing to predators making its demise less likely.

Monarch catipillar

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

The knowledge that we grew up with was dead on accurate…but…it was only part of the story.  There is a lot more to Milkweed than being a nursery for butterflies. Milkweed might be one of the most useful plants we have.

First let’s get past the poison white sap.  Though it is true that the sap is not for human consumption, that doesn’t mean the whole plant can’t be turned into fine dining. There are actually 3 stages that the milkweed goes through where we can make use of its nutrition.

First- When the young shoots first appear in Spring:  Make sure it is Common Milkweed (other varieties are less palatable and not recommended) and not Dogbane for instance. Always know 100% what you have and that you know how to use it.  The young shoots can be harvested before they leaf out. Use them like you would asparagus. (see note below)

Second- The flower heads, when budded or opened, make an amazing broccoli substitute. The taste is similar, but the Milkweed has a bit of a floral taste. Very good!

Note: Here is the deal with preparing Milkweed shoots and flowers. Many poisons in plants have compounds that are soluble in alcohol or oils. Others have compounds that are soluble in water. When the compounds dissolve, they leach from the plant tissue and create a solution containing the poison compound. Some plants of course have various poisonous compounds in which some are alcohol based and others are water based. Those plants would have to be processed in water and then an alcohol to leach all of their poisons.

milkweed in bloom

Milkweed in full bloom.

There are also some plants, such as Poison Hemlock, that are so toxic, that there is no rendering them edible. That is not the case with Milkweed which contains several glucosidic substances called cardenolides. Common milkweed is slightly toxic to humans, but only if eaten in large amounts, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University. If you eat large amounts of improperly prepared milkweed of any species, you may experience bloating, fever, difficulty breathing, dilated pupils and muscle spasms, and the result can be fatal.

The key there is “large amounts of improperly prepared Milkweed”.  Meaning you can consume a pretty large amount (way more than you could eat without being gluttonous) so long as you cook it properly. Cooking it properly is easy.  The toxins in Milkweed are water-soluble. Simply boil the shoots or flower heads in clean water for a minute or so. You will notice that the water turns very dark green. Drain that water and dispose. Boil the Milkweed again for a minute. The water will still be green, but not as dark. Again, strain and discard the water. Boil a third time and drain. Again, discard the water. This time, the water should have a tint of green but that’s about it. Add some butter, salt, pepper and I like a dash of vinegar…Yum.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t. Use two pots. Put the Milkweed in one and cover with water. Turn stove on high. While that is heating and cooking, get another pot on with enough water to cover as well. When the Milkweed has boiled a minute or so, strain and dump into already boiling second pot. Meanwhile, refill the first pot with hot water and have it ready for the third boil. I like having a tea kettle on with water that boiled so it’s ready for the third boil. Really, the whole process is 10 minutes or less.

Now, the Third: The young pods. I know that kids love to have pod fights. I did growing up and even though it’s a waste of a great resource, every kid should get beamed in the noggin at least once by a Milkweed pod. It’s a part of growing up. But, there is a better use for the young pods…eat the contents. When 2″ long and less, the contents of the Milkweed pod can be quite delicious. Make sure the “feathers are tightly packed and not starting to fluff out. They should also be snow-white from top to bottom. If they start turning brown, they are too old.

Milkweed with pods

Milkweed with pods

I have eaten the real small ones raw. They are sorta bland, but otherwise pleasant. But they shine when soaked in a little milk, rolled in your favorite fish coating and deep-fried. They remind me of deep-fried mozzarella sticks. Oh yeah, that good.

I’m not finished. I am with eating the plant, but there are other uses. Here is a list of traditional medicinal uses from http://medicinalherbinfo.org :

Milkweed is useful for kidney problems, dropsy, scrofula, conditions of the bladder, water retention, asthma, stomach ailments, and gallstones, female disorders, arthritis, bronchitis. Causes increase in perspiration, thus reducing fever. Some Native Americans rubbed the (latex) juice on warts, moles, ringworms; others drank an infusion of the rootstock to produce temporary sterility or as a laxative. A folk cancer remedy.

Make sure you completely study medicinal uses before attempting them. It’s also a good idea to talk with a herbalist about how to use Milkweed.

Bet you think that’s it for this amazing plant. You would be wrong! The fibers were a favorite of Native Americans for making rope and netting.

Milkweed Cordage

Milkweed Cordage twisted by the author

The tall stems lose the milky latex as they dry out. You can strip the outer layer off in long strips and twist the fibers into strong cordage.

 

The Milkweed strips from the stem easily, It also rolls very easily making for pretty quick results. It is one of my favorite fibers to work with.

Another use is that the sap can be used as a simple glue. Much like Elmer, the sap dries fairly quickly. It isn’t going to make a strong bond, but it can help to lay down cordage fibers, or seal papers and plastics together.

Now to wrap it up. Milkweed has saved American lives! During WWII, children were encouraged to pick the maturing fluffy feather from the pods. That fluff is much more buoyant than cork. The Navy was running out of the stuffing they used in life preservers and depended on the Milkweed fibers to keep their sailors afloat. Not bad for a poisonous plant.

The next time you are out and about, have another look at the Milkweed plant. There is much more to it than saving the life of caterpillar.  Do yourself one more favor. When the Milkweed flower is in full bloom, take a close look at the flower itself. God had one more surprise for you. It is a fabulously complex structure that only He could have designed.

milkweed flowers magnified

Close up of the Common Milkweed Blossom

 

http://homeguides.sfgate.com/poisonous-milkweed-humans. All photos are the property of Nature’s Access and Jeffrey Yenior

 

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