On a windy cold Thanksgiving afternoon, we did something nutty. After tossing buckets and shovels into our pickup we drove north until we spotted greenish foliage popping through the road ditches dry grass.
There, we rescued six red cedar trees that are now at home in our yard.
A Hardy Tree
Few American trees have such a love-hate relationship with people as the red cedar, which is actually a Juniper. Perhaps it’s unpopular because of the plant’s amazing adaptability. Sure, it needs full sunlight but given that it thrives in heat, salty roadsides, and terrible soil it is one hardy plant! Even stiff grass competition that snuffs out other baby trees doesn’t seem to bother it.
Red cedars thrive from the Great Plains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. In many places they are small bushes, but sometimes the tree grows big enough to interest loggers. The aromatic wood is used to craft cedar chests, closet linings, and even pencils. Fence posts made of it last for decades.
Why Ranchers and Farmers Dislike Cedars
Ranchers curse cedars because they spread in pastures. Cattle don’t like dining on prickly cedar twigs, and within a decade or two cedars replace the grassy food that cows love with a green desert of scrubby trees.
What’s to Love About Red Cedars
But, a cedar grove isn’t really a desert. Birds, especially cedar waxwings, love eating their tiny blue berries, and dense stands of cedars protect many species of wildlife from howling wind, searing sun, and predators.
There’s more. We live in Cedar Rapids, a city named for the rugged trees that grow in rocky bluffs over the Red Cedar River. They’re small and twisted but some are over 400 years old.
We planted our cedars on the edge of our property where they will form a screen from the wind and passing car headlights. They also will give us privacy, and be a safe home for birds that visit our feeders.
In mid-December, we’ll return to the road ditch and cut a six-foot red cedar for our Christmas tree. Cedars are scraggly and unsymmetrical, but we don’t put our tree up in the house. It will grace the Holiday season on our back deck. Pouring a few cups of sunflower seeds in its foliage creates a living stream of ornaments as goldfinches, chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches come and go.
For information on red cedars and many other trees visit the website of the National Arbor Day Foundation.
We rescued seedlings to plant for screens in our yard.
We remember to protect the seedlings.
We take a walk every day, sometimes through urban and industrial areas. Other days find us on prairie or woodland trails. Everywhere we’re spotting an abundance of summer fruit being devoured by birds, woodchucks, chipmunks, and even deer.
Last August 10 a terrible derecho roared through our area, felling about 70% of mature trees. It seemed tragic but a year later vegetation has responded with enthusiasm in former shady places now sunlit. These include berries. Brambles: Newly sunny woods are filled with first-year black raspberry and blackberry canes. Next year there’ll be an abundance of berries. These are delicious food for people and wildlife. We like them fresh.
Here are few other species of berries. Some are human edibles. Others leave for the birds.
The sweet, but bland mulberries are children’s favorite.
Mulberries: These deliciously sweet, but bland, fruits have a long bearing season that’s mostly in June but lingers well into July. Robins just love them. So do many other birds……and children. Mulberries are a delicious underused human food. One of our favorite dishes is rhubarb mulberry pie.
Cherries: Many birds love domestic cherries. Our trees were almost ready to pick when a family of raccoons did the picking for us. No cherry pies this year. Wild black cherries are common. They’re edible to humans but are small, have a big pit, and are usually bitter. They’re hardly worth the effort to pick and process so we leave them for the birds to enjoy.
Leave These for the Wildlife
Chokecherries: They ripen in late June and into July. These pucker up any human trying to eat them, but birds love snacking on them.
Elderberries: These shrubs love trail and roadside sun and produce bunches of berries in late summer and into fall. Some people go to the trouble of making wine or jam from them but we leave them for the birds to enjoy.
Poison Ivy: Another berry to leave to the birds is poison ivy. This favorite of birds is how the plant spreads when the birds drop seeds. Leaves of three? Let them be!
Berry canes emerge in the sun.
We bring along a small bag to bring home berries.
Birds spread poison ivy by eating the berries and pooping the seeds out later.
Dogwoods: These berries aren’t human food but make delicious bird chow. They ripen late and stay on the shrub through winter. Want to find bluebirds or robins on a cold January day? Find a patch of dogwoods that still have frozen berries clinging to them.
Waxwings flock to winter berries.
Highbush Cranberries: Look from late July on as they ripen in mid to late summer. A wildlife favorite, birds and chipmunks forage happily in the shrubs. Some berries linger into winter and often wintering waxwings greedily forage on the berries. Deer come by and munch both the leaves and berries.
When we set off on a summer walk, we stuff a bag or two into our pockets. Then, if we discover a blackberry patch, we’ve got a way to carry a few handfuls home.
For years we’ve added wild foraged plants to our diet. They’re free, available, often delicious, and give us the satisfaction of knowing that we can find food close to home.
After years of foraging and trying many wild foods, we now place them into three categories:
- Common, easily gathered and prepared, and tasty.
- Tasty plants but tedious to gather and prepare. Often we just don’t have the patience and time to gather and cook them.
- Ones that are difficult and time-consuming to gather and prepare, and are not especially tasty. These would be worthy food in an emergency but not normally worth the time and effort to gather and prepare.
We concentrate on the first category and one of our favorites is lambsquarters. It’s common just about everywhere. We’ve spotted it beside urban sidewalks, on the edge of farm fields, and in nearly every garden. The plant springs up like magic between rows of vegetables, and too often the gardener rips or hoes them out as weeds. It used to have more respect here. People in some countries still honor and harvest lambsqurter.
Easy Peasy Lambsquarter
Lambsquarters are as delicious as any vegetable we plant in our garden. We don’t need to buy seeds and plant them. They just appear like magic and grow fast as soon as the weather warms. We begin eating them about bean and pumpkin planting time.
Lambsquarters are sometimes called pigweed, goosefoot, wild spinach, or wild beet. They are an amaranth and often grow in large clumps. An easy way to identify them is to examine the top of young plants and the bottom side of leaves. They look white, and drops of water readily slide off.
Like most garden and wild greens, lambsquarters are best harvested when the leaves are new and small. Big summer leaves become tough and bitter. To speed up gathering we sometimes use a big pair of garden scissors to snip them off. Then we thoroughly rinse them to wash off any grit.
Young lambsquarter leaves can be added to salads, but we usually steam them for a few minutes. They’re delicious with a touch of melted butter.
A prolific edible.
We use scissors to snip the tender lambsquarter leaves.
Beware: Before we eat any wild plant new to us we do the following:
- Positively Identify the plant from at least two sources. For example, we confirm identification from any combination of wild food books, credible Internet sites, or knowledge gained first hand from a wild food expert.
- Avoid collecting plants that may be contaminated by farm or lawn chemicals, car fumes, or animal feces or urine.
- Thoroughly wash the plants two or three times.
- Follow cooking or eating instructions found in foraging books or credible Internet sites.
- Eat sparingly the first time. A plant may be perfectly edible for most people but others could be allergic to it. Assuming there’s no digestive problem or adverse reaction after eating a small taste we then enjoy larger servings.
Lambsquarters are delicious, prolific, and are ready to pick all summer. We add them to our meals often. This addition of a nutritious food helps us be less dependent upon the grocery store for our dinner.
Our Yards Offer Nutrition
Every spring we look forward to eating delicious, free, wild greens that grow in our yard and just about every place people live. Having an ability to identify, pick, prepare, and eat wild foods gives us some comfort in this age of uncertainty.
We encourage everyone to boost their backyard food production through gardening, backyard chickens for those who can keep them, and foraging. Here are a few things to consider before picking and eating any wild plant.
- Make sure you’ve identified the plant correctly. Use two sources to confirm identification. These might be an expert forager and a book or Internet source or a combination.
- Make sure the plants have not been contaminated by pesticides, animal feces, or vehicle exhaust. It’s best to forage away from busy roads. Wash plants thoroughly before preparing.
- Eat just a small portion the first time. Although it might be fine food for most people there’s a chance you might be allergic to it.
Carefully pluck the top three leaves off.
The key to enjoying all wild greens is to harvest them when they are very young. Many edible wild plants are tender and delicious shortly after they sprout but soon get coarse and bitter as warm weather stimulates their growth.
Nettles, sometimes called stinging nettles, live in moist places near streams, ponds, and woods, where they seem to prefer light shade. We have a couple of patches in our yard. They green up early in the spring, and we pick them before they are ten inches tall. We carefully pick just the top three or four small leaves. Remember these are stinging nettles. Wear light gloves or carefully pinch the top growth off the plant between the thumb and index finger. About a hundred leaf clusters make a great dish for the two of us. Rinse the nettles and boil them for a few minutes. The stinging part is a protein that dissolves in boiling water. We put a dab of butter on the drained cooked nettles and drink the water as a delicious spring tea.
By mid-summer dandelion leaves are tough and bitter.
Because of herbicide companies’ promotions, just about everyone dislikes dandelions. Some have heard that dandelions are edible. It is true and, we need to thank our European ancestors for bringing dandelions to the New World. Otherwise, they might not have survived. They are high in vitamin A, folate, vitamin K, and vitamin C and a good source of calcium and potassium. Today, folks from Mediterranean countries grow and harvest dandelions as crops. They are a popular dish in Italian communities.
The few people who have tried eating them make the mistake of picking mature leaves in mid-summer. By that time, they are bitter and inedible. The best dandelion leaves are those picked in early spring and have been under a blanket of leaves. They’ll be partially blanched and delicious. It’s fine to pick small young leaves that can be added to salads if they are not too bitter. If they are bitter, boil two pots of water. Put the leaves in one pot and boil for a couple of minutes. Drain and put them in the second pot of boiling water and boil for another minute or so. The boiling removes the bitterness. Drain and enjoy with butter and salt and pepper.
This is a year of great anxiety and having some knowledge of how to find free food nearby can remove some of that concern.
A New World Thanksgiving
Almost every meal Americans enjoy comes from animals and plants that trace their origin to many continents.
Cattle, sheep, chickens, and pigs, for example, are all natives of the Old World brought to America soon after it was settled by Europeans. Wheat, rice, and many other plant foods are also newcomers that were unknown to Native Americans.
One annual feast mostly made from original American foods is Thanksgiving. This year why not create this traditional feast from entirely plants and animals that were found here before Columbus?
Turkey highlights the Thanksgiving dinner. See our previous blog on this amazing and tasty bird. Here are plants native to North and South America to complement roast turkey:
Fruits and Vegetables
Corn: Corn has been grown in Central America for thousands of years. It’s cultivation gradually spread north and east and became a staple food for Native Americans. When hungry Pilgrims landed in what became Massachusetts they found and stole caches of corn stored by local tribes, no doubt causing bad feelings.
Cranberries: Most commonly eaten fruits originated in Europe or Asia, but the cranberry is an American native.
Squash and Pumpkins: Dozens of varieties of winter squash come in many shapes, colors and sizes, and the pumpkin is actually a squash. Butternut, Hubbard, acorn, or any other squash is delicious on the Thanksgiving dinner table, and dessert of pumpkin pie rounds out a tasty meal.
Potatoes: Common potatoes also originated in South or Central America and have been an important food for thousands of years. Mashed or baked, they go well with turkey, squash, and cranberries.
Sweet Potatoes: Originally from South America, these are among the most nutritious of foods. Similar yams have an African origin, so for a local dinner stick with sweet potatoes.
The sweetness from the Maples
Maple Syrup: While honey is made by bees that came from the Old World, maple syrup is America’s sweetener. It’s delicious on squash or sweet potatoes.
Beans: Native American gardens usually featured three plants: beans, squash, and corn. Commonly called The Three Sisters combined they create a balanced diet.
A diet of many foods that originally came from the Americas makes a delicious an interesting Holiday meal. We tend to thank modern geneticists for creating abundant food, but beans, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, cranberries, and turkey were all domesticated and enjoyed by Native Americans long before Columbus set sail.
Cranberry Pie brightens any Thanksgiving table.
Cook Wild turkey differently than domesticated ones.
Maple syrup can sweeten many Thanksgiving meals.
Delicious, Erratic Acorns
Our back deck at Winding Pathways is an outstanding vantage point for watching butterflies, birds, and even our evening aerialist bats. The deck is perched over a deep, cool ravine with a stately black oak hovering above. That can be a problem.
In most autumns our black oak cascades acorns down to the ground and our deck. Removing them takes aggressive sweeping. Despite the hassle we love acorns.
Acorns are, of course, the seeds of oak trees. Hundreds of oak species live across much of the northern hemisphere. They can be a little tricky to identify since oaks sometimes hybridize and look like a blend of two or more species. Many people use leaf shape to identify trees, but oaks may throw a curve. Often leaves, called sun leaves, up on the top of an individual tree are smaller and may have a somewhat different shape than those down lower on the same tree. It can be confusing.
There are two general oak types, the white and red oak groups. White oak type trees include species commonly called white, swamp white bur (sometimes spelled burr), chinkapin also spelled chinquapin, and chestnut oaks. Their leaves have rounded lobes and they produce large acorns with low acid content. Red oak type trees include species commonly called red, black, and pin oaks. Their leaves have pointed lobes and their acorns are usually small and laden with bitter acid.
Acorns from the black Oak are small and bitter.
Oaks have different shaped leaves
Century Oak Tree
Oak leaves turn russet in autumn.
Acorns are nature’s gift to many wildlife species and people. Few seeds are as abundant, large, and nutritious as acorns. Squirrels, chipmunks, muskrats, woodchucks, deer, bears, blue jays, wild turkeys, and a host of other animals gorge on them. The calorie-rich nuts help wildlife put on fat that helps them survive the coming winter.
But, there’s a problem. Oaks are erratic acorn producers. As a general rule, the white oak types only create a heavy crop every few years. Red oak type trees are more reliable but still sometimes skip a year of seed production. Sometimes few oaks in a vast area will produce acorns while an individual tree here and there will be loaded. Find a heavy acorn bearer in a scare year and you’ll have the company of many animals feeding on the nutritious nuts. Part of the reason for erratic crops stems from pollination. Oaks are wind-pollinated and a long spell of rain when they bloom in the spring can dampen pollination and eliminate a crop that autumn.
Acorns set up in the spring
The white meat of an acorn.
Two kids check out the acorns on a branch
Iowa has many types of oaks
Acorns are a delicious human food that was relished by native people across the globe. To learn more about acorns and how to process them into food check out the Winding Pathways blog of August 2014 called Delicious Acorns.