The  Camphor Tree

The Camphor Tree

Camphor constituent: essential oils

Parts used: essential oil, waxy crystalline flammable substance

Medicinal actions:

Used in ‘cold creams’ as an anti-aging ingredient. Stimulates the production of collagen and elastin.

Anti-inflammatory – applied to sore, inflamed skin (not on broken skin)

Pain relief for arthritic, or rheumatic pain

Antifungal – can be applied to toenail fungus. (Needs persistence. It can take up to 48 weeks  before positive impact is noticed).

Decongestant and cough suppressant – evaporate in oil diffuser during the night

Antispasmodic – can be used to relieve muscle aches and pains, cramps, sprains

Anti-viral – used to treat infectious fevers such as typhoid, influenza, and pneumonia.

Medicinal Action and Uses—Camphor has a strong, penetrating, fragrant odour, a bitter, pungent taste, and is slightly cold to the touch like menthol leaves; locally it is an irritant, numbs the peripheral sensory nerves, and is slightly antiseptic; it is not readily absorbed by the mucous membrane, but is easily absorbed by the subcutaneous tissue- it combines in the body with glucuronic acid, and in this condition is voided by the urine. Experiments on frogs show a depressant action to the spinal column, no motor disturbance, but a slow increasing paralysis; in mankind it causes convulsions, from the effect it has on the motor tract of the brain; it stimulates the intellectual centres and prevents narcotic drugs taking effect, but in cases of nervous excitement it has a soothing and quieting result. Authorities vary as to its effect on blood pressure; some think it raises it, others take an opposite view; but it has been proved valuable as an excitant in cases of heart failure, whether due to diseases or as a result of infectious fevers, such as typhoid and pneumonia, not only in the latter case as a stimulant to circulation, but as preventing the growth of pneumococci. Camphor is used in medicine internally for its calming influence in hysteria, nervousness and neuralgia, and for serious diarrhoea, and externally as a counter-irritant in rheumatisms, sprains bronchitis, and in inflammatory conditions, and sometimes in conjunction with menthol and phenol for heart failure; “

Mrs. Grieves, A Modern Herbal

Camphor Tree – The Dragon’s Brain

The characteristic scent of Camphor is familiar to anyone who has had a close encounter with VapoRub, but few have ever seen the pure, white crystalline substance from which the scent derives. Still, fewer are aware that this mysterious substance is entirely natural and comes from a tree that is native to southern China, southern Japan, and Taiwan. The Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is closely related to the Cinnamon Tree, (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), with which it is sometimes confused. However, the unmistakable scent of the leaves immediately reveals its true identity.

In China, Camphor is known as ‘long nao xiang’, ‘the dragon’s brain’, but it is unclear whether the name makes reference to its powerful brain-fog blasting effect, or whether the use of Camphor may originally have been the privilege of the emperor, who is often referred to as the (imperial) ‘dragon’.

Camphor trees can become very old – up to several hundred years, in fact. Such tree veterans are a majestic sight to behold. They can reach up to 40m in height and develop a truly massive base. One tree, recorded in the prefecture of Nagasaki, was recorded to measure a staggering 16 m of girth. Hardly surprising then, that the evergreen tree is seen as an icon of vitality and longevity.

In China, Japan and India Camphor trees are sacred. They are planted for protection near dwellings, temples, and monasteries, and Camphor is burnt as incense in purification rituals or in pujas. Its pure, bright and smokeless flame is seen as a representation of Shiva.

During the 13th century, while traveling through China, Marco Polo reported seeing ‘great forests where the trees are found that give camphor’. At that time, Camphor had already been introduced to Europe, along with other exotic spices such as Cinnamon, Pepper, Cardamom, and Wood-Aloes. But the Camphor tree itself was virtually unknown. The precious substances reached Europe via the Spice Route and first found its way to the spice markets north of the Alps during the 10th century.

However, it took several centuries more, until the latter half of the 17th century, for the first trees to be introduced to Europe. But then they took the eminent Botanical Gardens of Europe by storm: They were planted at the Botanical Gardens of Padua, Leiden, Dresden, and the Chelsea Physic Gardens. Many of them are still standing now. Their import to Europe has had no ill effect on the local environment, but in more favourable climatic conditions, Camphor trees have been known to spread prolifically. In some parts of Australia and the southern United States, they are now considered an invasive pest.

Camphor Tree

In the Orient, Camphor is highly valued and has a long tradition of medicinal and culinary use. It is mentioned in various Arab and Indian cookery books, and in India, it is an ingredient of the Betel quid, a popular chewing stimulant.

In the West Camphor is better known for its medicinal properties. It is valued for its antiseptic and cooling properties and its ability to relieve pain and swelling associated with inflammatory skin conditions, chilblains, burns, and anal fissures. It is also used as a counter-irritant and applied topically to painful arthritic or rheumatic joints.

Added to a steam inhalation Camphor can clear congestion of the lungs, bronchi and nasal passages. In the past, it was used internally as an antiseptic digestive aid. Thanks to Samuel Hahnemann, the ‘father of Homeopathic medicine’ it became a lifesaver during the outbreaks of Asiatic cholera in 1831/32 and 1848/49. Having received first-hand reports from Russian colleagues, he treated victims at frequent intervals with a homeopathic tincture of Camphor – apparently with great success. Even allopathic doctors admitted that it was about the only thing capable of halting the progress of this lethal disease when administered during the early stages.

Camphor is an antidote to Opium and recipes found in ancient Arab manuscripts often combine both substances to alleviate some of Opium’s negative effects. During the Victorian era, camphor became popular among members of the upper classes, particularly in the UK, the US and in Slovakia. It was combined with milk, alcohol or consumed in pill form as a stimulating recreational drug. The effective dose is very small and said to produce a warm, tingling skin sensation, a sense of mental clarity, or ‘a rush of thoughts chasing each other’, sometimes accompanied by euphoria.

However, the bad news is, that larger doses can produce quite unpleasant effects: confusion, giddiness, accelerated heart rate, headaches, and even death. Thus, many countries have regulated Camphor. Today, most commercially available Camphor is synthetically produced and not fit for internal use at all. It is regrettable that a beneficial and medicinally useful substance such as Camphor should be disgraced and forgotten, despite the eons of safe use, just because some people have overindulged in it – to their own detriment.

Caution: Only Camphor that is clearly labeled as edible may be taken internally, and then only in tiny doses. Quantities of more than 2g can be fatal to adults. The lethal dose for children and youths is significantly lower.

During pregnancy and lactation, it is advised to avoid camphor products altogether. Due to its toxicity at a low dose, it should also be kept away from children. Some people have reported contact dermatitis from handling Camphor.

Apple Tree

Apple Tree

Description:

The Apple Tree is one of the most anciently cultivated fruits of Eurasia. It is believed to have developed in central Asia, where the greatest genetic variation occurs in the wild. In cultivation, trees are usually trained and do not reach more than approx 5m in height to facilitate easy harvesting. When grown under natural conditions they can reach up to 12m.

The tree belongs to the Rose family. It has typical, highly conspicuous 5-petaled flowers growing in cymes and simple, ovate, alternate leaves, dark green on top and lightly downy underneath. The leaf margins are serrate.

A mature apple tree looks like a grandmother tree: small in stature, writhing limbs and with grey, crinkly bark. It does not exactly impress with its habitus, yet we learn to love it from an early age. Children not only love its wonderful fruits but also the inviting limbs that make it ideal for climbing and just about every child will sooner or later become intimately acquainted with it. In spring it is particularly noticeable and fetching. Before any leaves are beginning to show it is clad in a glorious dress of pinkish-white flowers and buzzing with delirious bees. Once the flowers have faded we pass it by without paying much attention, but come September, when it is laden with shining, red or golden apples, it is impossible to resist. Even crab apples, whose fruit are much smaller (and tarter), look tempting.

It is estimated that there may be as many as 20000 cultivated varieties, each with their own distinct flavour, shape, smell, crunchiness, and succulence, though nobody knows the exact number. Sadly, most of them are endangered heirloom species, confined to just a few gardens. The average supermarket only carries about 5 standard varieties.

Ecology:

Apple trees are an important source of food: they provide nectar for bees, and their apples are a welcome source of nutrition for many species of wildlife.

Distribution:

Apple trees are so widespread that it is almost impossible to pin down their origin. Charred remains of prehistoric crab apples found at archaeological sites throughout Europe are a testimony to the fact that wild apples had spread throughout much of  Eurasia by Neolithic times. The first cultivated varieties probably reached northern parts of Europe with the Romans. Today apples are grown in all temperate regions of the globe.

History & Mythology

The apple tree is perhaps the most mythical of all trees – is it not supposed to have been the demise of all mankind, way back at the beginning of time? Well, so the story goes, but it is actually highly unlikely that the forbidden fruit, which gave us knowledge of good and evil, would have been an apple since apples were unknown in Egypt and Palestine at the time when the earliest biblical accounts were written down. In these accounts, the story merely refers to ‘a fruit’. However, long before Christianity was ever conceived of, the apple tree was already a widely adored symbol of immortality. Its fruit was regarded as the sacred heart of the Goddess of Eternal Life. In Celtic tradition the paradise on the western horizon, where the souls of the Blessed go, was known as Avalon, the Isle of Apples, which was guarded by Morgan, Queen of the Dead.

While the Neolithic Lake-villagers of north-central Switzerland are known to have feasted on Crab apples, cultivated varieties reached central and northern Europe with the Romans. They too, associated eternity with the apple. Alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the two poles that encompass existence, were represented by an egg, symbolic of the source of life (alpha), and an apple, the symbol of the immortality of the soul and its resurrection (omega). Thus, each of their feasts would start with an egg and finish with an apple. Wild boars (pigs and boars are sacred totems of the Great Goddess,) were roasted with an apple in their snout to represent eternal life and rebirth.

The apple is a fruit of Venus/Aphrodite and it bears her signature, the five-pointed star. Among gypsies, it is traditional to cut the apple horizontally to reveal this mystical insignia of the Goddess. Greek mythology involves the apple in a more tragic and fateful story, the story of Paris, who was assigned the impossible task to settle a dispute between three Goddesses and decide who was the fairest of them all. How was he ever to make such a choice? The youth was doomed and he knew it. But decide he must, there was no way around it. The chosen one was to receive a golden apple, inscribed with the words ‘to the most deserving’. In the end, it was Aphrodite who won him over by bribing him. She promised him the love of Helen, the most beautiful mortal woman alive on earth at the time. Alas. his choice turned out to be short-sighted and not very wise, as that beautiful young woman was already married to another. Nevertheless, Paris ran away with her, which inadvertently started the chain of events that eventually lead to the Trojan War.

In China, by contrast, the pictogram for ‘apple’ also means ‘peace’. Thus to present someone with an apple is a gesture of goodwill and peace.

In western tradition, apples became associated with erotic love and sin – thanks to the misinterpretation of the church fathers. For centuries it was thus used metaphorically in ecclesiastic art. However, as Christianity became ever more fanatical, focusing on the evils of the flesh and condemning women as witches, the apple came to symbolize temptation and evil; a symbol of sinful, carnal love and even the devil himself. Which is how they became known as ‘malus’, (=bad), and the tree was reinterpreted as a ‘witches’ tree.’

Apple trees are also the most common host species of Mistletoe, one of the most sacred plants of the Druids. However, they favoured Oak as a host-plant for Mistletoe, which is far rarer.

Once upon a time, when Halloween was more than a spooky fun day for kids, it marked the pagan New Year,  a time when the life-force retreats into the womb of the earth, where it would regenerate and restore its powers, ready to be reborn the following spring. Apples are the sacred fruit of the season symbolic of eternal life and resurrection. Apple bopping games and other customs are remnants of such ancient pagan traditions, which allude to the eternal life of the soul.

apple harvest

During the time of the apple harvest farmers traditionally engaged in the custom of ‘wassailing’, a kind of tree blessing that was meant to invoke their innate fertility, chase off evil spirits that might make off with their fruits and to give thanks for the harvest – an occasion that was celebrated with good quantities of cider, apple cake as well as with fireworks or gunfire.

Apples have also sometimes been used as a form of divination. Young hopefuls believed they could tell their prospects in their pursuit of love and happiness. The procedure required the person to cut the apple horizontally. The fortunes were revealed by interpreting the numbers of seeds and whether, or how many of them were cut or damaged in the process.

Cider, hot spiced apple wine, and baked apples or apple crumble all featured strongly among seasonal favourites at this time of year. But not all apple traditions are as old as ‘ye old heathen times’. The most famous ‘apple hero’ of all times was born in the American legendary figure of Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed is said to have spent his life planting apple trees across the land, pursuing his vision of a country filled with these glorious trees. He is also said to have talked to animals and never carried arms, even when walking alone in unknown territory. He was accepted by the Indians and respected by settlers, mediating various conflicts between these two sides. He certainly lived an eccentric life, but in the end, his dream was fulfilled.

Apples are very healthy fruits and the English adage ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ still carries a lot of merits. But more about that below.

 

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Flowers, Fruit, Peel

Harvest: Flowers in spring, when they are fully open and free of dew,

fruit in September/October, when they are ripe.

Traditionally, farmers will harvest apples in the last quarter of the moon to extend their shelf-life.

This old farmer’s wisdom makes sense, since water levels within organisms are highest at the full moon and lowest at the new moon, thus making it less likely that the fruit will rot.

Uses:

Apples are a wonderful ‘health food’, easy to digest and capable of correcting over-acidity of the stomach. They are particularly rich in pectin, a soluble fibre that forms a jelly-like substance, as any jam-maker will know: purified Pectin is used to help ‘set’ marmalades and jams. Not so well known is the fact that it helps to regulate digestion, forms a protective coating in the intestines and soothes inflamed tissues. Thus, apples can be used to treat both diarrhea and constipation. Apples are also said to balance blood sugar levels, as they can prevent dangerous spikes and lows. They are regarded as cooling and anti-inflammatory, which can be wonderfully refreshing and thirst quenching during convalescence, or when suffering from feverish conditions, coughs and colds. Apple tea, usually prepared by infusing minced fruit or peels (organic, please!) in hot water, is not only a delicious drink but also increases the elimination of uric acid and is helpful as a supportive remedy in the treatment of arthritic and rheumatic conditions as well as in rheumatoid kidney and liver disease. An apple diet is recommended for gout, constipation, hemorrhoids, bladder and kidney disease. Eaten at bedtime it improves the quality of sleep and helps to control night sweat.

The petals can be infused as a tisane to treat feverish conditions, especially those affecting the upper respiratory tract. Apple blossom tea also soothes and calms the nerves.

Apple cider vinegar is also excellent, and not just in salad dressings. It is very rich in calcium and can help to improve calcium deficiency related problems such as loss of concentration and memory, weak muscle tone, poor circulation, badly healing wounds, general itchiness, aching joints and lack of appetite. Apple cider vinegar cleanses the system by supporting the eliminative function of the kidneys. Thus, it is a supportive measure for arthritis, gout, rheumatism and various skin conditions. It is also said to be beneficial in cases of sinusitis, high blood pressure, migraine, chronic exhaustion, and night sweats. To make use of this healthful elixir, dilute one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in 6-8 oz of water. This may be sweetened with honey.

Recipes

There are dozens of delicious recipes that turn apples into countless sweat or savoury dishes or drinks. But even plain, straight from the tree – apples are simply delicious.

Baked Apples:

A simple way to enjoy a quick apple treat is to bake them whole. Take out the core and fill it with muesli. Sprinkle a little Cinnamon on top and dribble some honey on top. Place on a baking sheet and bake until the apple is soft enough to spoon. Serve with plain yogurt.

Grated Apple

A wonderful side salad: grate an apple and a couple of carrots. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice over it and add some currents to the mix. Simply divine.

Spiced Crab Apples

  • 3lb good crab apples
  • 2lb sugar
  • 1-pint vinegar
  • 1 root ginger, grated or bruised
  • Pared rind of half a lemon (organic)
  • 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 1 tablespoon pimento (allspice) berries, whole

Wash the crab apples well. Place the vinegar and sugar into a saucepan. Heat the liquid while stirring continuously, taking care not to burn the sugar. Add the fruit. Put the spices into a muslin bag and tie well; add to the fruit. Cover the saucepan and cook on low heat until just tender. Remove the fruit with a siphoning spoon and pack into sterilized jars, leaving a little space at the top. Remove the muslin bag from the vinegar and strain the liquid. Return the liquid to the heat and continue to simmer, uncovered, until it has the consistency of syrup. Pour over the fruit in the jars while still hot so it covers them by ½ inch. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark place for 6 weeks before use.

Ginger and Apple Chutney

  • 2 dozen large tart apples such as Bramleys or Boscopp
  • 1lb sultanas or raisins
  • 2 lb brown sugar
  • 3oz mustard seed
  • 1 fresh chili, seeded
  • 1 level dessertspoon turmeric pdr.
  • 1½ oz ground ginger
  • 1lb Spanish onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
  • 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed with a little salt
  • 1½ pints vinegar

Peel, core and slice the apples and slice the chili. Put all ingredients into a saucepan and simmer on low heat for 11/2- 2 hours until cooked to a pulp. Allow setting overnight.

Other uses: Applewood is valued for its strength and fine grain. It is a dense and heavy wood and makes superior smoke wood. Bees love the nectar-rich apple blossom.

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Description:

Annatto, or Achiote, as it is commonly called in Latin American countries, is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 20 meters high. The pinkish-white flowers develop into a bright red, heart-shaped and exceedingly bristly fruit, which is inedible. When ripe the fruit capsule breaks open and reveals an abundance of seeds embedded in an orange-red pulp. Achiote produces a prolific amount of fruits: a single tree can yield up to 270kg.

Distribution:

Annatto is widespread throughout tropical regions of Central and South America, where it is native. It has also become naturalized in other tropical regions, such as the Philippines.

History and Mythology

The Latin name ‘Bixa orellana’ does not give much of a clue regarding its properties. Some believe that the genus name is derived from the Portuguese ‘biche’, meaning ‘beak’, which may allude to the beak-shaped seedpods. Others believe it is a phonetic rendering of a Carib word for the colour red, which makes more sense. The species name is far more straightforward – it is given in honour of Francisco de Orellano, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who accidentally ‘discovered’ the Amazon.

The tree has a wide range of surprising uses that are mostly of local significance. Although Annatto fruits are inedible, the fruit pulp yields a bright red dye, which has a long history of use, both as body paint and as a dye for textiles or food. The ancient Mayas and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus held it sacred. It was also used to make ink. Virtually all ancient Mayan scriptures were penned in annatto juice. Indigenous people still use the pulp for ‘cosmetic purposes’, as hair dye or lipstick, hence the English common name ‘Lipstick tree’. The pulp is also said to repel insects and to protect against sunburn due to the UV-filtering properties of the carotenoid pigment known as Bixin.

Annato seed pods

Rigues [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Its use as a food dye is just as ancient and persists even today. In fact, it is probably one of the most ubiquitous of all food dyes used by the food industry. It lends its reddish tint to cheeses, butter, and spreads, candy, and custards. It is also still used as a traditional food dye for meats. (The bright red colour of Chinese poultry, however, is due to treatment with a caramelised malt solution.) This use is most prevalent in the Philippines and in Central America and Mexico. The Aztecs were known to add Annatto to their sacred xocolatl brew and other foods.

To process the fruits, the seed pods are washed in order to separate the pulp from the seeds, which are used separately as a mild spice. A spice paste, known as ‘Achiote Recado,’ is a popular flavouring in Yucatecan cuisine (southern Mexico). Meats are marinated in the paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Fish, chicken and especially pork, or suckling pig can be treated this way.

Annatto is one of the most widely used food colouring substances of the food industry, which is somewhat problematic as many people appear to be highly allergic to. There are campaigns to get it banned, but the FDA considers it exempt from regulation. The way in which commercial annatto is processed as a dye involves hexane extraction, which just may possibly have something to do with these reported allergic reactions. Furthermore, the colouring agent, known as Bixin can now be produced by bio-engineering. Scientists have figured out the biochemical pathway and manipulated E.coli bacteria to produce Bixin. It might be interesting to conduct a comparative study of a) completely naturally processed annatto (see recado recipe below), bio-engineered bixin or commercially extracted annatto dye.

Annatto dye is also used in hair-oils, shoe polish, floor polish, nail-gloss, furniture, brass-lacquer, soap, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical ointments as well as for textiles, wool, leather, and calico.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots

Although commercially only the seed and seed paste are available, in tropical regions where Annatto is grown, other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. Particularly the leaves have a wide range of applications. The shoots and young leaves are used for feverish infections including gonorrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis. They are believed to protect the liver and reduce cholesterol. The leaves and seeds are also used to soothe irritable indigestion caused by excessively spicy food. An infusion of the flowers is said to be a useful expectorant for newborn babies. In some parts of the Amazon Annatto is used as a treatment for snakebites. Internally it is given as an anti-parasitic that can reduce pain associated with intestinal parasites. Externally the seed extract is applied as an insect repellent and to protect the skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is also used as a general skin tonic and to heal skin conditions.

The leaves have a marked effect on the urinary system. They increase the volume of urine in cases of renal insufficiency or cystitis. They are also said to reduce benign prostate hyperplasia and are thought to have anti-tumor activity. These are believed to be due to the high antioxidant activity of the carotenoid compounds Bixin and Norbixin, which are also the source of the red pigment Annatto is known for. These carotenoids have also been found to lower blood sugar levels and are used in the treatment of diabetes in traditional medicine systems of the tropics.

Recipes:

To obtain an orange-yellow food dye simply heat some cooking oil and stir in some annatto seeds. Remove the seeds from the oil before adding other foods for stir-frying. While the seeds would not spoil the taste, they would not add much flavour either. For flavouring, they are best when processed as a recado paste – see below:

Achiote Recado

‘Achiote recado’ is a typical spice paste of southern Mexico that is used to marinade meats, poultry, and fish. This recipe is based on a traditional recado recipe that utilizes the juice of bitter oranges (Seville oranges). As these are difficult to get this version is an improvisation.  A ready-made product is available at most Mexican stores. Making it from scratch takes time and effort, but, one can taste the difference

  • 2 tablespoons annatto seeds
  • ½ cup of water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup ancho chile powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and ground dried Mexican oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole, pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
  • ½ medium-sized white onion, thickly sliced, pan-roasted until brown and soft
  • ¼ cup pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 1½ cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Makes about 2½ cups

In a small saucepan combine the annatto seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to steep for 2 more hours or until soft. Discard excess water, place in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Whizz until smooth. Use immediately or cover tightly. It will keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

To dye textiles

For best results use oxalic acid or tartaric acid to get golden yellow, with alum mordant, yellow, ochre with copper mordant, brown, with iron mordant, orange, with tin mordant. Best on cotton, linen, and other cellulose fiber. Fair light-fastness. Also known as Achiote, or Lipstick Tree. [Mexico] (SW: 4 oz)

Acorns

Acorns

I don’t know why I have been ignoring acorns all this time. But this year, out of nowhere, it suddenly struck me that I should give them a try. Oaks are quite plentiful in my region and thus acorns are not in short supply. And so, I unexpectedly found myself filling my pockets with acorns a couple of weeks ago. Acorns actually make for easy foraging – they are plentiful, not prickly and big enough to fill bags without too much effort.

But before you start picking, it may be worth your while to acquaint yourself with the different species that grow in your area. Different species are often found in the same habitat. Oaks (and acorns) come in many different varieties, shapes, and sizes but not all are terribly tasty, (in fact, some taste terrible).

Acorns are rich in tannins, a bitter, acrid substance that was once used for tanning animal hides. Tannins are very astringent and in large amounts, they are toxic to the kidneys, liver, and the entire digestive tract. They also interfere with iron absorption. This is why foragers prefer to search out varieties that are a bit sweeter and lack high levels of tannin. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe, the species that has the lowest tannin concentration is also one of the most common. In the US there is a wide variety of species and all of them, even the bitterest have been used for food.

In the eastern United States, Quercus alba, or common white oak, was generally considered the preferred species to gather, since it is naturally quite sweet. In the Southwest, gamble oak was used, although the acorns are not big. But, just about every kind of acorn has been utilized for food – bitter or not. To make the bitter varieties more palatable, the tannins must be removed. Native people have been very innovative in finding ways to accomplish this task. They used many different methods to render acorns more palatable and to preserve them for later use.

Some indigenous peoples stored the nuts in underground vaults that they would dig near a river. Stored in such vaults the nuts turned completely black but could be kept fresh for years (unless the squirrels should find them). But a more common method is to thoroughly dry or roast the nuts and to store them in jars for later use.

The dried nuts can then be ground into flour as needed. The flour is placed into a finely woven cloth and carefully rinsed to remove the tannins until the water runs clear. Any flour that is not used immediately must be thoroughly dried (e.g. at low temperature in the oven) to prevent it from getting moldy. The flour will ‘cake up’ and must be ground again before use.

Alternatively, you can boil the acorns in several changes of water and then dry them. Gentle roasting will dry them completely. Once thoroughly dry, they can be ground.

acorn biscuits

Acorn biscuits 

Acorns are very nutritious. They contain not only fat and carbohydrates but are also rich in proteins and B vitamins.

 

There are a surprising number of recipes out there for making acorn goodies – acorn grits, cakes, bread, and soup. Coarsely ground acorns (grits) can be used to replace nuts in many recipes, although they may add rather a lot of crunch. Acorn flour can be used to replace a portion of regular flour in just about any recipe. Mix flours in a ratio of 1:1 or 1:3, depending on how nutty a flavour you want to achieve. Experiment to create your own favourite recipes.

My experiment was based on a savoury biscuit recipe that normally calls for cashews. These crackers came out great, except that I should have ground the flour much finer. I used grits, but they turned quite crunchy in the oven. Still, on the whole, they were quite tasty.

Savoury Acorn Biscuits:

Ingredients:

  • 150g Acorn flour
  • 150g wholemeal flour
  • 100g cold butter
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbs. creme fraiche
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 – 3 tbs ground parmesan cheese

Place the flours into a bowl. Add the cold butter, in small chunks, and add the curry powder and salt. Add 1 egg yolk and the creme fraiche. Blend all ingredients to create a smooth shortcrust dough. Cover and put into the fridge for 1 hour.

Line a cookie sheet with baking paper and preheat the oven to 200°C (392°F).

Divide dough into two parts and roll out thinly (to approx 3 millimetres) between two layers of cling film.

Cut 4cm cookies (e.g. with a water glass) and transfer to cookie sheet.

Mix second egg yolk with 2 spoons of water and glaze each cookie

Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese

Bake on the middle rack for 15 min until golden brown.

 

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Description:

A slender, graceful palm of the Arecaceae family, Açai is native to the seasonally inundated lowland forests of eastern South America, especially Brazil. Several stems sprout from its base and it can grow to about 15-25m high. It takes 4-5 years to mature. The roots are perfectly adapted to the seasonally inundated and waterlogged conditions of its habitat, by developing special root structures known as pneumatophores, better known as aerial roots, although some prefer to call them aerating roots. These vertically erect, pencil-like shoots grow from the submerged horizontal roots that are below the soil. They not only help to stabilize the plant and protect the soil from erosion, but also help the roots to obtain oxygen as they will be exposed to the ground above the mud or flooded ground.

 

The leaves of the Açai palm are typical, pinnate palm fronds that arise from a reddish crown. In the course of a year, it produces 4-8 bunches of fruit, with yields being heaviest during the dry season, and most flowering mostly occurring during the wet season. The fruits form bunches of small, purple-black drupes, each with a large stone in its center and a minimal covering of purple-red pulp. Bunches can weigh up to 6kg each. The fruits are an important food source for rodents and birds, thus helping to spread the seeds. Thanks to its general usefulness this palm is often planted near human habitations.

 

History

Açai juice and smoothies are all the rave among health-conscious consumers in the US. But in the Amazon it has long been a staple – it is so ubiquitous and consumed in such large quantities, especially among the indigenous people and ribereños, the river communities of the lowland rainforest, that it is often referred to as ‘poor man’s food’.

 

Recently its superfood properties have been hailed, and successfully marketed to the young fitness crowd. Amazing qualities are ascribed to it – like most superfoods it is said to improve everything from the tone of your skin to your sex drive and have anti-cancer properties, too. No wonder it sells like hotcakes. If you google Açai you will instantly get a return of 5 million (!) pages – mostly advertising some novel product based on the magic berry. There is no end to the hype. But is it really true? Searching for solid evidence that is based on actual studies, one is baffled to find – precious little. There has been almost no research on this fruit at all. The hype appears to mostly be marketing froth. A new food fad is born.

 

Not that the fruit is bad for you, far from it. It does indeed have quite an impressive amount of anthocyanin, the antioxidant substance that gives it its colour – the same compound that achieves this effect in Bilberries. The actual amount of this substance is said to be twice as high in Açai than in blueberries, which does seem impressive. However, it comes in a very unstable form, which rapidly deteriorates after picking. The berries also contain protein, calcium, Vitamin B1, A, and E, as well as a good amount of calories – but despite the superlative claims its overall profile is not that remarkable. In the Amazon, although widely popular as a food/drink stuff, the berry has never been used medicinally.

 One of the most common ways to consume it is as a kind of porridge. The berries are soaked in water in order to soften the outer skin so that the pulp can easily be separated from the seed. The resulting mash is a deep purple, shiny thick mass, which may be mixed with the pulp of manioc, a starchy vegetable, to make a filling porridge. The mash is also frequently eaten with granola and other fruits as an energizing ‘health food’. Or, it is diluted with water or other fruit juices to make the famous energy drink that has recently become so popular among urbanites throughout the Americas.

 

The rapid nutrient deterioration is not of great concern in the Amazon, where it is eaten pretty much right from the tree. But to preserve any of its potential benefits for consumers on the other side of the planet, it is necessary to preserve the fruit pulp for export. The usual method is to pasteurize it, which, however, is not terribly gentle and destroys some of the more fragile compounds. It is then frozen or freeze-dried, which further reduces any potential benefits. Thus, it seems like Brazilians are reaping most of the benefit, providing the juice is made in clean condition with clean water and equipment, compared to the processed derivatives found in juice bars or on supermarket shelves thousands of miles from the Amazon.

 But business is booming. Dietary crazes have a way of catching on that defies any rationality. In Belem, the main market town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon has an area solely dedicated to the sale of Açai berries, known as ‘Feira do Açai’, where more than 100 vendors sell 200,000kg of berries PER DAY during the dry season. And there is talk of substantially increasing business by planting more Açai trees. (One project plans to plant 5 billion Açai trees over the next 10 years!)

Açai is also economically important for other reasons. It is currently the main source of palm hearts, locally known as ‘palmito‘, which is part of the traditional Amazonian diet, although not significant from a nutritional point of view. Palm hearts also have a sizeable export market, mostly in France. Originally Açai’s cousin ‘Euterpe edulis‘ was harvested to obtain the hearts, but since it only grows one stem and the tree has to be cut and killed in order to obtain the precious ‘heart’ harvest from this species proved highly unsustainable. Euterpe oleracea, on the other hand, produces several stems and cutting one or two encourages the growth of new shoots. Thus, Euterpe oleracea has now largely replaced E. edulis as a source of palm hearts.

 The species is also important as a source of palm fronds, which are used for thatching roofs. A secondary product derived from Açai that plays an even greater role is unlikely to ever become a hit abroad – even though it is deemed a delicacy in the Amazon: the grubs of the palm beetle (Rhynchophorus palm beetle), which although highly nutritious and rich in protein is unlikely to win much favour in any of the superfood markets abroad. To encourage the beetle the cut-down stumps of Açai are urinated on, which apparently creates an ideal environment for the beetle to lay its eggs. A few weeks later 3-4 pounds of nice, fat beetle grub larvae are harvested and consumed with relish.

 Some environmentalists welcome the growing popularity of Açai, as they see it as a sustainable non-timber forest product that can be successfully marketed to bring much needed economic benefits to poor forest and river-dwelling communities without threatening the forest. However, whether the production will, in fact, be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. The habitat of this palm is limited to riverine locations and although it occurs naturally and prolifically, forming extensive groves, it is not clear where plantations will be established. Will established forest have to be cleared in order to grow this superfood for export, or will existing soy fields be converted to Açai? Also, as yet there is little evidence that sustainable management and harvesting methods actually much employed. Instead, palm heart harvesting is still often done by clear-cutting large areas instead of just taking out individual trunks. There is some hope that Açai berries will eventually far outweigh the market for palm hearts, in terms of their economic importance, but it looks as though there will always be a market for them, both locally and abroad.

 As for the current Açai craze – it is doubtful that it will last. Marketing buffs are very good at creating a buzz – preferably by throwing some sex into the marketing spin. The technique is not a new one. Even tobacco was once hyped and marketed along the very same lines. That particular craze had a long-lasting effect, mainly thanks to the addictive nature of tobacco, but exotic fruit crazes come and go – noni, mangosteen, kiwi – they all were once perceived as nutritional miracle bombs. No doubt they have their virtues, but are they really worth the money that millions of consumers are prepared to pay for the promise of ‘youth in a bottle’? Personally, I would prefer the local heroes – wild blueberries for example, fresh from the bush, no processing required and all nutritional benefits intact.

 

Medicinal uses:

 Constituents:

 1-4% protein, 7-11% fats, 25% sugar, 0.05% calcium, 0.033% phosphorous, and 0.0009% iron. It also has some sulphur, traces of vitamin B1 and some vitamin A and E. It also delivers 88 to 265 calories per 100 grams, depending on the preparation method. In addition to the standard vitamins and minerals found in most fruits, the main plant chemicals in Açai fruit include epicatechin, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, gallic acid, (+)-catechin, protocatechuic acid, ellagic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, cyanidin, and pelaronidin 3-glucoside. (source: rain-tree database)

Medicinal uses:

In Brazil the oil of the fruit is obtained and used to treat diarrhea; a decoction of the roots is considered beneficial in cases of jaundice and boosts blood production. The grated fruit rind is infused to make a wash for skin ulcers, and the seeds are crushed and prepared as an infusion for treating fevers. In the Peruvian Amazon, an infusion of the crushed, toasted seeds is used to ally fevers, and a decoction of the root is used for malaria, diabetes, hepatitis and jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, liver and kidney diseases, menstrual pain, and muscle pain. (source: rain-tree)

 

 References:

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A7a%C3%AD_palm

Rain-Tree database https://www.rain-tree.com

 Total oxidant scavenging capacities of Euterpe oleracea Mart. fruits, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, Volume 56, Issue 1 February 2005 , pages 53 – 64

 Farbatlas Tropenpflanzen, Andreas Bärtels, Eugen Ulmer Verlag 1996