Plantains – Plantago sp.

Plantains – Plantago sp.

Introduction

Most of us are familiar with the broad-leaved plantain, a common weed that seems to grow just about anywhere. Or, perhaps you also know the Ribwort Plantain, with its long, slender leaves. But did you know that this genus of humble weeds comprises some 200 species that occur all over the world? 

 

As masters of adaptation, Plantains are ubiquitous. They have managed to eke out a living in almost every conceivable kind of habitat. Gardeners curse them as intruders when they cannot abolish them from their neat lawns and paths. But they are oblivious to this humble plant’s remarkable healing properties!

 

Name

Linnaeus named the genus, ‘Plantago’ which derives from the Latin word ‘plantar’ meaning ‘foot’. He intended to convey that these plants go wherever they want – or rather, wherever we go and spread their seeds, via the bottoms of our boots. This property was not lost on the Native Americans either. They called it ‘white man’s footprint’ as they watched it spread across their land.

 

History

In neolithic times, the broad-leaved Plantain (Plantago major) was held sacred for it grew nowhere better than on the old straight track, the ceremonial causeway. They were always kept clean and free of weeds, but the plantain proved unconquerable. Hence it was called ‘Wegerich’ or, ‘King of the road’.

The Anglo-Saxons included it in their ‘Nine Herbs Charm’, calling it ‘Waybread’. This name refers to its use as a sacrament. Sacrificial victims were given a gruel of Plantain seeds as a kind of ‘Last Supper’.

 

Its amazing resilience and determination to return eternally, no matter how often it was cut or removed, were a sure sign of its supernatural powers. Thus, Plantain roots were used as a talisman to protect the traveller and its leaves put into shoes was supposed to keep the feet happy and untiring.

Ribwort Plantain
Image credit: Kathy Büscher from Pixabay

Medicinal use

 

Constituents: mucilage, glycoside (Aucubin – an antimicrobial and liver protective agent), ursolic acid, tannins, silicon, vitamin C, K, citric acid, potassium, and zinc

 

Action: bitter, astringent, anti-hepatotoxic, laxative (bulking agent), antispasmodic, antibiotic, expectorant, cooling, soothing drying

 

Plantain has an amazing range of healing properties. The leaf contains an antibacterial glycoside that is effective against many types of bacteria. 

External use

The fresh leaves make a very effective and readily available anti-bacterial band-aid that can be used on all kinds of scrapes, small wounds and insect or even spider bites. Just take a leaf, rub it between your fingers so that the juice comes out and apply it directly to the sting or wound. The roots are said to be similarly effective on scorpion stings and snake bites.

A paste made from the boiled seeds of broad-leaved plantain draws out splinters and thorns.

 

An infusion of the leaves combined with oak bark makes a good mouth-wash for gingivitis or stomatitis or for cleansing wounds (even festering ones. )or to treat varicose veins, haemorrhoids, ulcers. The leaves contain silicon which strengthens and tightens connective tissues.

 

Internal use:

For internal use, it makes an excellent tea or syrup for treating diseases of the respiratory system. The leaves of the Ribwort plantain are particularly effective as they are anti-inflammatory and expectorant. The antibiotic properties of the fresh juice can even be used for the treatment of tuberculosis. But upon drying the antibiotic effect diminishes.

 

The fresh juice also makes a good blood cleansing remedy and can also be used as an anti-inflammatory agent for treating swollen glands.

 

Plantain can support other organ systems as well. Its antimicrobial properties can improve intestinal health (fresh juice) and its anti-hepatotoxic effect protects the liver better than milk-thistle seeds. 

 

An infusion of the leaves helps to control diarrhoea, while the seeds are a great aid for the elimination of waste products and for weigh-loss. As they are water-soluble (especially those of Plantago psyllium), they bulk up the stomach content and absorb and eliminate toxins. This also makes them useful as a safe and effective remedy for constipation. But drink PLENTY of water to facilitate excretion.

 

Recent research has shown the seeds of the broad-leaved plantain to have potent anti-cancer properties.

 

Foraging

Plantains are edible. The young leaves can be added to salads or used as a potherb when combined with other herbs. (Older leaves tend to be rather tough and stringy.) The leaves make a great addition to green smoothies, while the roasted seeds can be mixed into the porridge or muesli, and the birds love them too!

Natural Dyes – The Colours of Nature

Natural Dyes – The Colours of Nature

The art of natural dyeing comprises a huge body of knowledge. Sadly, it has been fading ever since the discovery of tar-based pigments at the beginning of the 19th-Century. Natural dyeing methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

Unlike birds with their flamboyant feathery attire, human beings are not born with a naturally colourful outfit. The birthday suit varies in tone, but no matter what, it is pretty plain. We have to draw on our own ingenuity and creativity when it comes to designing our apparel.

A true game-changer in our human quest to stand out has been the discovery of how to use the colours of nature to our own advantage. The search for natural dyes is as ancient as it is universal. No matter which culture we examine, all have experimented and explored every conceivable source of pigments in their environment. Everything from shellfish to lichen, not to mention roots, barks, leaves, berries, fungi, and even flower stamens have been explored for their potential as a dye.

Body-paint

Even societies that traditionally pay little attention to clothing still use pigments to paint their bodies. Such body paints are typically obtained from ochre, chalk, and charcoal and usually used on special occasions such as rituals, healing ceremonies, or initiations.

A slightly more elaborate (and more permanent) type of body ornamentation is seen in the art of tattooing. But permanence is not necessarily always desirable. Being able to change design from time to time would certainly be nice. Certain vegetable dyes are used in this way. They last for a few days, at least, but not forever. before long they will wash off, thus leaving the ‘canvas’ clean for new designs. The best-known vegetable dye for temporary designs is Henna (Lawsonia inermis). Body painting with Henna is still widely practised in the Middle East and in Asia. It is an integral part of traditional wedding preparations.

In the West, Henna is mostly used as a popular hair dye, and nowadays also for temporary tattoos. In South America, indigenous people use Achiote (Bixa orellana), and Huito (Genipa americana), as body paint or dye.

Henna tattoo

Colour as code

But colours express more than just artful fancy. Practically all cultures associate certain colours with specific meanings. Colour is an essential key to the mysteries, which can unlock the significance of a whole complex of symbols. For example, the four directions are universally colour-coded, although different from one culture to the next. The colour encodes a whole network of associations – e.g. the East is the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, of birth etc. and its colour is often yellow, or white. The relevance to the topic of dyes is that the plants and materials which yield dyes have also become part of the symbol complex.

‘Show your true colours’

We still use colour in this way today, although usually in a secular context and more often than not, we are not even aware of it. We paint political parties red or blue, speak of ‘the grey (indistinguishable) masses’, or label things ‘green’, if they are eco-friendly. Different social groups still follow an unspoken dress-code – business people prefer greys, whites, beige, or dark blue, while Goths wear black. In the West, white is associated with purity, while in India, it is the colour of the dead and of ghosts.

Likewise, traditional costumes also convey much more than meets the uninitiated eye. Every piece of clothing signals a specific message informing those in the know as to the social and marital status of the wearer. This message was woven as pictographic symbols right into the fabric, or colour-coded into the design. Other items of clothing, worn only at certain times, e.g. during a hunting expedition, or for certain rituals, were covered in colour-coded protective symbols to act as spells.

Colour as a status symbol

Some natural colours are exceedingly precious due to the rarity of the substance that yields them. Royal purple is derived from molluscs, and not easy to come by. For a long time, it was a prerogative reserved for royalty to wear this colour.

Nor could an ordinary mortal afford it, given the extraordinary price tag. In Roman times (400AD) a pound of cloth dyed in royal purple costs the equivalent of $20.000! The mollusc was already endangered and very rare. And, as is often the case, the symbolic value drove up demand which in turn catapulted the price into an intergalactic orbit. As a result, the status association was reinforced.

Other colours, such as those obtained from walnut shells, or onion skins, or lichen were more easily available and widely used – despite the time-consuming process. Large amounts of plant materials had to be gathered; the linens and skeins of wool had to be prepared with a mordant to render them more absorbent and a fixative added in to fix the colour so it does not fade too quickly in subsequent washes.

The art of natural dyeing comprises a huge body of knowledge. Sadly, it has been fading ever since the discovery of tar-based pigments at the beginning of the 19th-Century. Natural dyeing methods and the intricate arts of natural textile design are fast becoming another relic of times gone by.

How to dye wool with natural materials

How to dye wool, using natural materials

Preparing the wool:

In order to prepare the yarn, it has to be gathered up into skeins and tied loosely but securely with a piece of yarn of the same material. The first step is to thoroughly wash the skeins. If you want to experiment at home, use natural wool as this is the easiest material to prepare.

All the natural oils in the wool have to be removed, so use a mild flaked natural soap, so that it will dissolve easily in hot water. Rinse the wool with several rinses of hot water to wash out all the soap.

Mordants

The washed yarn is now ready for the mordant bath. Depending on the mordant different shades of colour can be achieved using the same plant material. Commonly used mordants are alum, copper sulphate, iron sulphate, tin or chrome, which are toxic! (Keep out of reach of children!)

Due to this toxicity, some people prefer to do without. But without the mordant or the fixative the dyes are not colour-fast. They will run very easily in the next wash.

To produce a stronger colour one can ‘over-dye’ the skeins, i.e. submit them to several treatments in the dye bath. Only do this with yarn, not with finished pieces of textiles, or knitted jumpers since they will shrink in the hot dye bath.

The most commonly used mordant is Alum, which is another way of saying ‘potassium aluminium sulphate’. Sometimes the wool is subjected to several different mordants to achieve a different shade of colour.

Equipment

Dyeing does not require a whole lot of equipment, but as the mordants are toxic, it should always be done outside.

Tools:

  • large pot
  • stick, or large spoon.
  • Gloves

Set them aside as dedicated utensils for this purpose only.

Never use them for cooking after you have used them for dyeing.

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz aluminium sulphate
  • 1 oz cream of tartar
  • 1 lb wool
  • Water

Method:

To mordant the wool follow this procedure:

Place the aluminium sulphate and the cream of tartar in large pot of cold water. Stir well to dissolve the powders. Once the powders are fully dissolved place the wool into pot and slowly bring the mordant bath to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for 1 hour. If the wool is very fine and soft, less mordant and a shorter boiling time is sufficient.

After 1 hour, take the pot off the heat, drain and gently squeeze out the liquid. (Wear gloves!) The wool can be dyed right away, or it may be dried and stored for later use.

For the dye bath, it is usually best to use fresh plant materials, but make sure you either pick them from your own garden, or from a place where the plants are in plentiful supply.

Use about 1 lb of plant material per 1 lb of wool skeins.

Place the plant materials into a muslin bag and tie securely.

Place the dye pot on the stove, ¾ full of water.

Add the muslin bag of dye material and submerge it well.

Place the skeins of wool into the pot and slowly bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for about one hour.

Stir occasionally.

After an hour, turn off the heat, but leave the skeins in the water until it is cold, or when you deem the colour to be just right. Lift out the skeins (a pair of metal tongues will help), and rinse in water of the same temperature.

When the water runs clear, you can hang the skeins up to dry. (A suspended rod will do fine)

Fix a light weight to the bottom of each skein to prevent crinkling.

CAUTION: Mordants are mineral based substances that are highly toxic. Such substances must be handled with due care. Wastes must be discarded properly. Wear protective clothing (especially gloves) and avoid inhaling the fumes. Dyeing should preferably take place outside.

The information given here is for educational purposes only.

Some common dye plants:

Plant

Part

Colour

Mordant

Madder (Rubia tinctorum)

roots

deep red

alum

Woad (Isatis tinctoria)

leaves

blue,

Somewhat complicated process involving a real chemical cocktail. Woad (Indigo) dyes by oxidation, the trick is to get the dye bath right. Indigo is a fast dye that fades very little in sunlight or in washing.

Weld (Reseda luteola)

whole plant

lemon yellow,

alum

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

berries

shades of blue and purple,

alum

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

berries, leaves

purple and violets green

alum

Blackberries (Rubus fructicosus)

shoots berries

black/grey blue//grey

iron alum

Bracken (Pteris aquiline)

young shoots roots

yellow/greens orange/yellow

alum

Heather (Calluna vulgaris)

shoots

olive/yellow

alum

Fig (Ficus carica)

leaves

lemon yellow

alum

Birch (Betula alba)

leaves

yellow

alum

Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium)

leaves

yellow

alum

Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea)

whole plant

yellow

alum

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)

flowers

yellow

alum

Canadian Golden Rod (Solidago Canadensis)

flowers

golden yellow

chrome

Pine (Pinus sp.)

cones

orange/yellow browns

alum iron

Onion (Allium cepa)

skins

golden brown

alum

Walnut (Juglans regia)

shells

pinkish browns

no mordant

Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

rhizome

yellow

no mordant

Foraging Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria)

Foraging Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria)

Goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria L.)

Synonyms: Bishop’s Weed, Ground Elder, Jack Jumpabout

For foragers, this early part of the year, when Mother Earth is just awakening, is a delight. The first tender bits of greenery are poking their leaves through the earth crust, turning the ground green once more. This time of the year is particularly wonderful for foraging young and tender greens. One of the earliest wild edibles that you can always count on is goutweed. Although many gardeners hate it and consider it an absolute bane, I actually love it. There are few wild edibles that are so widely available, and so tasty!

A  gardener’s nightmare?

I am probably the only person ever to have said this! Ok, it is quite invasive. Trying to confine it to a particular spot in the garden is quite hopeless as it spreads via its roots. And when you try to weed it out you are sure to break them. But before you know it – hey presto! -it magically regenerates even from tiny bits of root that are left in the soil. It is truly resilient.

…Or a blessing? 

This resilience makes Goutweed one of the most abundant herbs.  In mild climates, it pops up as early as February and it is incredibly versatile. s. and can be used with just about anything. I have made soups and salads as well as fillings for things like empanadas, cannelloni and lasagna. Of course, you can just serve it as a green vegetable, or make a pesto with it. It is also one of the best candidates for the ‘greens jar’.

What is a ‘greens jar’

A greens jar is where all the surplus herbs end up when you have picked more than what’s needed for the next meal. I dry them, crumble them up and put them into the jar. I love this concept of an ever changing herb-mixture ready to use in soups and what not when those herbs are no longer in season.

What is Goutweed?

Goutweed is a member of the ‘Apiaceae’, also known as ‘Umbillifer’ or Parsley family. As such, it has many cousins that are commonly used in the kitchen, whether as a vegetable or as a herb or spice, such as Carrot, Fennel, Coriander, Parsley and Dill, to name but a few. However, do not let that deceive you into thinking that all herbs of this family are safe for human consumption.

A positive ID is key

Some members are extremely poisonous – such as, for example, the deadly water hemlock, the herb that killed Socrates. So if you intend to pick ANY of these umbellifers for food, make sure you are absolutely certain that you have ID’d them correctly – a mistake could be fatal and they are not the easiest family to ID.

However, you will be pleased to know that Goutweed does not look much like Water Hemlock, so the chances of mistaking it are quite remote. US-based foragers are more at risk of mistaking it for poison ivy. The leaves of both of these plants sprout in threes and are of a similar size and shape. One distinguishing feature is that Goutweed will NEVER grow like a vine. But poison ivy does not always grow as a vine either.

Distinguishing features

Once the flowers are out they are easier to distinguish. Goutweed has a typical umbel shaped flower while poison ivy has trailing flower clusters. Goutweed never develops any woody parts and older leaves are not glossy. Prior to unfurling, the very young leaves are shiny and bright green. Goutweed does not look hairy. It usually occurs ‘en masse’ and individual plants grow to about 50-60 cm tall.

Distribution

Goutweed is common throughout the temperate zone of western Eurasia and has been introduced to Britain and Ireland, to the US and Canada as well as to Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and Japan.

History

While it is most common as a ubiquitous garden weed, it can also sometimes be found in the wild. These wild plants are garden escapes. Originally, the Romans spread it throughout northern Europe. In medieval times, it was commonly grown in monastery gardens. For a while, it was even sold at the market. But due to its invasive nature, it eventually lost favour with gardeners and was banned from their plots. And so, it escaped into the wild where it now mingles with nettles and graces damp ditches and partly shaded lanes.

Nutritional benefits and uses

As the name suggests, Goutweed has been used to alleviate the pain of gout. But this use has largely gone out of fashion with modern herbalists. Nevertheless, it is a useful cleansing herb, stimulating the processes of elimination. It is a diuretic, but it also gently stimulates digestive functions and metabolism. Nutritionally, it is a good source of vitamin C and A, and minerals such as iron, manganese, and copper as well as trace minerals such as boron and titanium.

Cooking with Goutweed

Goutweed is very aromatic and has a flavor that is similar to Parsley and Celery. It is very versatile and can be used like spinach. The young, still folded leaves are best. Older ones are tougher and develop a more pungent flavour. The nice thing is, even once it is harvested it will soon grow back 🙂

Recipes

 

Goutweed Soup

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 medium-sized potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • Handful of mushrooms
  • 2 large handfuls of young goutweed, washed well and chopped
  • Vegetable stock

Sautee the onions till soft. Add mushrooms and garlic. Add the potatoes and sautee for 3 minutes or so. Add Vegetable stock (about 1 litre) and cook the soup until the potatoes are soft. Add the goutweed and simmer for about 5 minutes. Puree, dilute to desired consistency and add salt, pepper, chilies or other herbs to taste.

Empanada filling

  • Onion, cut fine
  • Mushrooms, cut small
  • Tofu, crumbled
  • Garlic, minced
  • Goutweed, chopped

Make your empanada pastry (many people just use a basic shortcrust recipe, but feel free to make the dough as fancy as you like.) Chill in the fridge for at least an hour. Roll it out in 6″ diameter rounds.

For the filling, crumble the tofu and fry in a little bit of soy sauce until crispy. Set aside.

Sauteé onions, mushrooms, and garlic add seasoning

Add the tofu bits.

And finally, stir in the chopped goutweed and sauté until wilted. You should now have a pan full of delicious filling for your empanadas. Cool the filling for an hour or so.

If the mixture is wet, add some bread crumbs to absorb the moisture.

Preheat the oven to 350°F = 176°C

Line a cookie sheet with baking paper

Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of your empanada round and fold it over to make a parcel. Press together the edges, with a little water if necessary to make them stick. Glaze with egg-wash (egg yolk mixed with a little water). and arrange the empanadas on it. Bake for about 30 min.

No doubt you’ll come up with dozens more delicious recipes – that is the wonderful thing about things like Goutweed, which just provide you with a tasty, healthy green to add to just about anything.

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple – A Sweet Miracle

Sugar Maple is an iconic tree of the northeastern parts of the US. In the fall, when its foliage turns bright orange and red, thousands of people come from far away just to dee this fabulous color display. But that is just one facet of this beautiful tree with its rich and varied history.

Botany

Sugar Maple is a stately tree of the Acer family. It can reach a height of up to 130 feet. Its growth rate is relatively slow, however. A mature tree can reach an age of about 200 years. In the southern range of its distribution, it associates with Oaks, while in northern and northeastern regions, it grows among birch and beech woods.

Habitat and Distribution

The Maple Tree family is widely distributed throughout the world. Altogether, there are almost 200 different species and about half of them occur in the northern hemisphere. Most of them are indigenous to central and eastern parts of Asia but some are indigenous to Europe and the Mediterranean. About 13 species, including the Sugar Maple, are indigenous to North America.

Its distribution ranges from southern Canada down to Arkansas, Tennessee, and the southern Appalachian Mountains. Sugar Maple is the dominant and most conspicuous tree of the eastern forests famous for its showy display of brilliant red, orange, and yellow autumn foliage.

Ecology

In the woodland ecology of the northeastern forests, Sugar Maple plays a key role. It provides nourishment for various species including the white-tailed deer and plays host to a number of insects.

Environmental factors are the main threat to the Maple population. The growth of mature trees is decreasing and ‘infant mortality’ among saplings is increasing, due to acid rain. Because of their shallow but extensive root systems Maple trees are especially susceptible to surface soil pollution. Global warming also poses a threat.

Pigmentation

The striking coloration is due to the breakdown and dispersal of chlorophyll, which reveals other pigments such as carotenes, tannins, and anthocyanin, which react differently depending on the pH level of the soil.

colourful maple leaves

History

Sugar Maple’s distinctive palmate leaf has gained world fame as the national emblem of the Canadian flag. It has served as the state tree of four US states (New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).

Economically, Sugar Maple is one of the most valuable hardwood trees of the northeastern forests of the US. Its wood has a fine grain and is lighter, yet stronger than that of White Oak, making it useful for the manufacture of many household items such as rolling pins, cutting boards, ladles, and spoons. Carpenters, woodturners, and instrument makers value its beautiful close grain. As a durable hardwood, it has also been used for floor boarding and skirting-boards, etc.

But Sugar Maple is one of the few trees whose most important economical role is not the value of its timber, but the yield of its sweet-tasting sap.

Maple Sugar and Maple Syrup

European settlers first learned about this sap and the technique for tapping it from First Nation Natives, who had been using it as one of their most important food sources for as long as anybody could remember.

Yield

When the snow starts to thaw and life returns to the woodlands, the tree sap begins to rise. Sugar Maple produces copious amounts of sap, which contains about 3% of sugar (on average). To produce 1 gallon of strong-flavored maple syrup requires 30 -4 0 gallons of sap. The sap is boiled down to evaporate the water and thus concentrate the sugar content. The ideal density of 66. 5%. sugar. At higher concentrations, the syrup begins to crystallize while at lower concentrations it can easily spoil.

An average tree yields about 12 gallons of sap per season, which can be turned into 3 pounds of sugar. Large trees (at least 25 – 30 inches in diameter) can sustain 2 or 3 taps. Younger trees with a diameter of 10-12 inches (at about 65 years of age) only sustain one tap.

Maple sugar is now produced on a commercial scale.  Enormous amounts of sap are tapped for local as well as for international consumption. Vermont is the largest producer in the US today, followed by New York and Maine. However, Canada is the largest producer worldwide, covering about 75% of the international demand. Other species of Maple also contain sweet sap and can be used to obtain syrup, although Sugar Maple is by far the most productive.

Traditional sugar camps

Maple Sap TapNative Americans set up semi-permanent sugar camps in the forests to which they traveled for the annual ‘sugaring season’ (from about mid-February to early April). The camps usually consisted of two structures: a small birch-bark-covered lodge where the utensils were stored and the sugaring lodge, which also served as a temporary living space.

Every year, before sugaring could commence, the sugar-making lodge had to be freshly restored and repaired. The lodge consisted of one or two platforms set up along the inside walls, while the middle was kept as the cooking space.

Each camp harvested between 900 – 1500 taps. To set up a tap requires a diagonal 4″ incision to be cut into the tree at about 3 ft above the ground. Perpendicular to the cut the bark was removed for another 4 inches and a 6×2” wooden spout, usually made of Slippery Elm was inserted below. Beneath the spout, a birch-bark vessel was positioned to collect the sap.

Sugaring-off

The taps had to be checked regularly. Once the container was full, their contents were transferred to a larger pot which was placed near the edge of the fire and slowly heated. This process, known as ‘sugaring off’ was a delicate affair requiring great care. It was done at low heat so as to avoid excessive frothing and bubbling.

Birch bark containerBefore there were kettles, pots, and pans made of metal, the Native Americans used birch bark containers and vats made from moose skins. To heat the syrup, they would place red hot stones into these containers filled with the syrup. These were then cooled in the snow. Once the water had frozen into a sheet of ice, it was simply discarded.

The fire was kept going all night and people took turns to watch over it and to attend to the sap, cooling it and reheating the syrup, all the while stirring it with ladles made of maple wood.

When the syrup reached the right consistency, it was strained through a basswood mat, or through a well-worn linen cloth. For the final sugaring-off, all the equipment was carefully cleaned and scoured. The syrup was reheated once more and some bear grease or deer tallow was added to render the sugar softer and less brittle. Gradually, the the mass thickened and stirring it with the maple wood paddle was getting harder. As soon as it reached just the right consistency, it had to be crushed quickly so as to pulverize it. If cooled beyond a certain point the sugar solidifies crushing it becomes much harder.

The settlers soon learned the technique and adapted it to their equipment. Although the tools have changed, the process is essentially the same except for some small modifications that have simplified the procedure.

For Native Americans and for some of the small family producers ‘sugaring off’ was not just a commercial endeavor. It was a cultural event, an integral and important part of the annual cycle, and a joyous, festive time that heralds the coming of spring.

maple sugar sweets

Other Maple delicacies

Some of the thick syrup was used to make special delicacies. It was poured into fancy shapes which solidified as they cooled down. Another special treat was known as ‘gum sugar, which nowadays is known as maple taffy. To make this sticky stuff, the syrup was poured onto the snow, where it quickly hardened. It was then scooped up and portioned into small packets wrapped in birchbark.

Sometimes it is poured onto vanilla ice cream. Once it hardens, it can be picked up with a spoon or stick to be eaten like a lollipop. The settlers added their own variations to the range of Maple products. Among them, is a thick spread known as maple butter, maple vinegar (which by all accounts appears not to have been too tasty, but is said to improve with the addition of whiskey), maple beer, and maple punch.

Maple SyrupComposition of Pure Maple Syrup:

The flavor, abundance, and exact composition of sap depend on environmental factors such as the weather and the pH level of the soil. Little snow and deep frost during the early part of winter, followed by heavy snow, were said to produce the best harvest. Rain changes the flavor of the sugar and thunderstorms are thought to ruin it.

In contrast to white sugar, maple syrup and maple sugar are highly nutritious.

Carbohydrates (%):

  • Sucrose 62.65
  • Hexose (glucose, fructose) 0.5 – 3
  • Other trace sugars

Organic acids (%)

  • Malic 0.090
  • Citric 0.009
  • Succinic 0.007
  • Fumaric 0.004
  • Amino acids (%):
  • Phenols 300-960
  • Amino nitrogens 30-190

Minerals (PPM)

  • Potassium 1500-2200
  • Calcium 400-1000
  • Magnesium 100-300
  • Phosphorus 50-125
  • Manganese 5-80
  • Zinc 5-50
  • Sodium 1-25
  • Iron 1-15
  • Tin 0-25
  • Copper 0-2

Vitamins (micrograms/liter)

  • Niacin (PP) 276
  • Pantothenic Acid (B5) 600
  • Riboflavin (B2) 60
  • Folic Acid Traces
  • Pyridoxine Traces
  • Biotin Traces
  • Vitamin A Traces

 

Ethnobotanical uses

Native Americans also used Sugar Maple medicinally. Particularly the Iroquois medical tradition made ample use of it. It is included in compound medicines to purify the blood, while a compound infusion of the bark was used as eye drops to treat blindness. They also used the leaves to prepare a decoction that was used as a wash to treat the affected parts of a skin condition known as the “Italian itch”.

Forest runners would take an infusion of the bark together with another plant for shortness of breath, while the inner bark was used as cough medicine. The dried and ground inner bark was sometimes used as flour substitute. A purple dye was obtained from the rotten wood but it was rare, as the wood is quite rot-resistant.

Maple autumn foliage

Potash

The white settlers soon found it more profitable and less bothersome to turn their stands of Maple trees to ash which could be turned into economically valuable potash. Maple wood yields a relatively large amount of ash (4% compared to only 1% of Douglas Fir). During the 18th and 19th centuries, potash was a valued raw material destined for export to England. It was destined for the British textile industry, where it served as a vital ingredient in the processes of making soap, glass, and gunpowder.

In 1751, Britain even passed an act in Parliament ‘to encourage the making of Pott Ashes and Pearl Ashes in the British Plantations in America’. An acre of woodland could be reduced to 2 tons of potash – with a tidy profit for the farmers. Sometimes, however, it was their only significant source of income: in 1800 a ton of potash demanded a price of $200 – $300. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson stopped all exports of any goods including Potash as a reprisal against the search and seizure of American ships by France and Britain – with the result that illegal export (i.e. smuggling) became even more lucrative.

Recipes

 

Maple Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 2- cups flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1½ teaspoons powdered ginger
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 4 tablespoons melted butter

Method

Sift together flour, soda, ginger, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg vigorously, and then stir in the maple syrup, sour cream, and butter. Mix cream and butter. Combine the flour with the other dry ingredients and then stir into the egg mixture. Pour into a greased flat pan and bake for 30 minutes at 350°F, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Maple frosting is a tasty option.

Maple Wine

From “Valuable Secrets”, 1809

“Boil 4, 5, or 6 gallons of sap according to its strength into one and add yeast according to the quantity you make. After it is fermented, set it aside in a cool place well stopped. If kept for two years, it will become a pleasant and round wine.”

Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day

It’s Valentine’s day! Time to spread some loving!

One of the nicest things about February is not just the fact that March is around the corner and therefore spring is on its way, but that the inner tide is turning, too. Just as the sap is rising in trees, the love juices are also flowing within. It is a time to indulge in courtship and romance, to lavish buckets of romantic gooeyness on your significant other, rekindle an old flame, or perhaps to make an impression on someone that only recently caught your eye.

Who is St. Valentine?

February 14th is Valentine’s Day, a somewhat questionable Saints Day, which has its origin in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a festival of licentiousness. At first, denounced as a lewd pagan rite, it proved too popular to be suppressed. Thus, the old festival of love was dressed in a thin cloak of Christian piety and became the saint’s day of St. Valentine.

This Valentine was a fictitious figure who was said to have been executed just as his beloved received his ‘billet of love’ (a kind of little love letter, which has its modern-day equivalent in the custom of sending Valentine’s cards). This custom was also associated with the Roman festival of Lupercalia.

February – the month of Juno Februata

Incidentally, the word ‘February’ is derived from the name of the Goddess ‘Juno Februata’, to whom this month is dedicated. Her name contains the word ‘febris’ – meaning ‘fever’, which does not refer to a kind of divine flu, but to her fiery passion – the fever of love.

To this day, Valentine’s Day is celebrated as ‘lover’s day’. Here is a look at some of those age-old customs and their underlying significance and some suggestions as to how to stoke the fire of love.

say it with flowers

Say it with flowers

Flowers are still THE most popular Valentine’s gift, but which ones should you choose? Maybe draw some inspiration from the Victorian flower language, a secret lovers’ code that could be used to express very specific kinds of messages, so long as both parties were ‘in’ on the symbolism. If they were not, the message would either be lost or interpreted entirely the wrong way. Seen in this light, even Roses are not a safe bet. It all depends on the specific variety and color you choose. Thus, instead of conveying a message of love, it could mean something like ‘you are a pretty ditz’, or ‘you might be charming, but proud’, and ‘your beauty will not last’. To learn more, see this long list of flowers and their specific meanings, before risking a disastrous mistake!

Chocolate – always desirable

chocolate loveIt might be safer to ‘say it with chocolates’ instead. Chocolate is the other most popular Valentine’s gift. Although perhaps a little less romantic, it might be more enticing and less ambiguous. After all, Cocoa’s reputation as an aphrodisiac dates back to the ancient Aztecs.

Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor, was a veritable cocoa fiend! He regularly downed his golden goblet full of foaming ‘xocoatl’ (=chocolate) brew, to invigorate himself before entering his harem.

Few of us today would find his recipe very tempting as it has little resemblance with our modern idea of what chocolate should taste like. But, it seems to have worked for him.

Incidentally, modern research confirms the ancient claim. Apparently, Cocoa contains a substance that has appropriately been called ‘Anandamide’ – alluding to the Sanskrit word ‘ananda’, which means ‘bliss’. Anandamide has anti-depressant properties that induce a sense of well-being and contentment. Cocoa is also rich in Phenylethylamine, which neurochemistry links to the feeling of euphoria so characteristic of the mental state of ‘being in love’. No wonder everybody LOVES chocolate!

A loving spoonful?

Peter's Chili‘Love goes through the stomach’, so they say. Those who find chocolates and flowers too ordinary might instead seek to impress their loved one with a particularly sexy dish, prepared with love, of course.

On scouring the literature one cannot help but be in awe at the amount of foodstuff deemed to have aphrodisiacs properties. Some of these appear to have gained that reputation on account of their appearance (who says placebos don’t work?), while others have a rather more direct, physiological effect.

In the category of visual aids are things like carrots, parsnips, asparagus, and bananas.

Things like piñon nuts, lady’s fingers, truffle mushrooms, oysters, and pufferfish, on the other hand, would hardly qualify if optics was the only criteria. Various spices, as well as certain herbs, have also long held on to their aphrodisiac reputation. Their volatile oil components are highly stimulating. Among these herbs are lovage, cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon. Garlic and chilies are in a category of their own. While not exactly seductive, they undoubtedly pack a punch. None fits both categories better than the gloriously endowed ‘Peter Chili’ – I mean, really, Mother Nature – was that meant to be a subtle hint?

Drinks

ChampaignContrary to popular belief, alcohol is not a suitable aphrodisiac. In fact, it is probably the worst thing you could drink if love is on your mind. While a little alcohol undoubtedly reduces inhibitions, too much of it has a desensitizing effect and is most likely to put you to sleep.

A non-alcoholic cocktail is a great, nutritious alternative that provides an energy boost and is very tasty, too.

Or, try a chai tea. This exquisite, richly flavored blend combines a whole range of warming aphrodisiac spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, and black pepper with black tea, milk, and honey.

Foraging Wintercress – Barbarea vulgaris

Foraging Wintercress – Barbarea vulgaris

Winter is a tough time for foragers stuck in a northern climate zone. Leaves have fallen and are buried underneath the snow (or, in the mud, at any rate). Berries, if there are any left on the bushes, tend to look wrinkled, blemished, and listless. Nuts have long been gathered and stored for later use.  Those that have been left on the ground are now riddled with worms. So, what is a poor northern hemisphere forager to do?

Well, she might make a beeline for the pantry, where hopefully, she will find jars filled with delicious preserves. Jams, pickles, and chutneys will bring back happy memories of happy foraging days spent roaming through the countryside. Picking the gifts of the Earth for drearier times to come – like these drab old winter days.

Each mouthful of these treasures will lead you down a dreamy trail, not just reminiscing about the summer past, but also of the one to come. Winter Solstice has passed. Although it does not seem like it, spring is nearer than we thought. Three months down the road we’ll be off again, picking the first salad herbs and enjoying the first gifts of spring.

Those who do not live in the permafrost zone may be lucky enough to find a few green things hardy enough to withstand the winter. Cresses, for example, have no problem surviving a mild winter.

Take Wintercress, Barbarea vulgaris – a typical cress, easily recognizable by its typical rocket-type leaves and flowers. This tough little plant can be collected throughout the winter. It can even stay green beneath the snow.

Wintercress is rich in vitamin C and A and was valued as an ‘anti-scurvy’ plant until vitamin C became readily available throughout the year, even in northern climate zones. If you have trouble spotting its large-leaved, deeply lobed rosette during the winter months, you will probably notice it as one of the first herbs that pop up in the earliest spring days.

The leaves are best while they are young and tender, before the plant starts to flower. Young leaves can be added to salads much like rocket (arugula), which has a similarly tangy flavor. As they age the leaves turn tougher, rougher, and rather bitter. If need be, they can be used as a potherb, although it would not be the most palatable one. Boiling the herb in several changes of water may reduce the bitterness, but it would also destroy its texture and diminish its nutrient value. Better just to use it sparingly and in combination with other, less flavourful herbs.

The cress family includes quite a number of herbs that are of interest to the forager. They all start to sprout early in the season. Here is a good page to help with watercress identification: Barbarea vulgaris ID 

Recipes

 

 

Sandwich spread

  • 1 egg (hard-boiled)
  • ½ onion finely minced
  • 30g mayonnaise
  • 100g wintercress finely chopped
  • salt, pepper to taste

Blend the egg and the mayonnaise to make a paste, add the onion, wintercress, salt, and pepper. If you don’t like mayonnaise try crème fraiche, instead.

Wintercress ‘Spinach’

  • 250g wintercress
  • Knob of butter
  • 1 onion
  • 20g sugar or honey
  • Salt, pepper, coriander, bay laurel, cloves

Wash and chop the wintercress. Sauté with the minced onion and spices with just a little butter. Add a small amount of bullion if need be.

Wintercress Salad

  • 150g Wintercress
  • 1 mozzarella cheese (200g)
  • 1 tomato
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Vinaigrette
  • Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper

Chop up the wintercress, slice tomatoes, mince the onion and garlic and cut the mozzarella into cubes. Mix well and serve with a simple vinaigrette.

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