Few cold winter evening experiences are as pleasant as sitting before the woodstove soaking up the warmth of a fire. That heat is essentially solar energy captured by the tree through photosynthesis on past summer days and released by fire in the dead of winter.
There are plenty of good reasons to consider wood heat and lots of reasons to forget it. Heating with wood is a lifestyle that requires elbow grease to cut, move, split, and stack firewood. Wood needs to constantly be fed into the stove and ashes must be removed every couple of days. Although attractive and cozy, burning wood brings pieces of bark and dirt into the home. These can be downsides, but many people love to work with wood, and cutting and splitting are pleasures, not chores. Wood heat can also save heating money, especially if the fuel comes free.
We have two woodstoves at Winding Pathways. Years ago we ditched our romantic but inefficient fireplace and added a stove. They are much more efficient than fireplaces, meaning that more of the energy in a chunk of wood ends up making a room comfortable and less goes up the chimney.
Now is a great time to plan for wood heat for next winter. It takes time to buy a stove and have it installed. To lay in next winter’s wood supply nearly a year in advance is critical.
The wood of living trees contains water that must be removed before it will burn well. Cut and split firewood stacked in a dry breezy place takes six months to a year for evaporation to remove enough water to transform it into efficient fuel. Late winter is a great time to process wood for next winter. We like to have all of next winter’s wood ready by the end of this March.
Wood is solidified sunshine mixed with minerals. Not all wood is created equally. The energy contained in a chunk is directly proportional to its weight. Dry hickory, for example, is about twice as heavy as the same size hunk of cottonwood and contains double the energy. To learn the heat value of different tree species simply Google Sweep’s Library Firewood BTU Comparison Charts. This chart lists heat values of wood by both alphabet and heat (BTU) value.
Utah State University’s link includes heat value, ease of splitting, smoke emissions, how much a wood sparks and fragrance.
For example, a cord of Maple (Sugar) weighs 3740 pounds and contains 23.2 million BTUs. In contrast a cord of Cottonwood weighs 2040 pounds and contains 12.6 million BTUs of energy. This relationship shows a homeowner would need process and store about twice as much Cottonwood as Sugar Maple to yield the same amount of heat.
Wood is usually sold by the cord or 128 cubic feet. That’s a stack eight feet long, four feet high and four feet deep. Hickory, black locust, white oak and sugar maple are the heaviest common woods of eastern and central North America. Cottonwood, basswood, aspen and most pines and spruces are the lightest. Elm, cherry, silver maple, hackberry and ash fall in between. In a normal Iowa winter we burn about three cords of a blend of oak, black cherry and maple. We’ve burned our share of “poorer” woods like cottonwood and box elder because it was available and we were short of heavier species. Lighter wood generates wonderful heat. It just takes a lot more of it than if we had hickory or oak. Wood is our main, but not only, heat source. We have a natural gas furnace and installed a gas insert into the old fireplace. Both work well and keep the house warm when we go on winter trips and are not around to feed wood into the stoves.
Every fall zillions of acorns cascade down into lawns, tumble roll off roofs, and pile up in American driveways. Raking them up is a dreaded autumn chore. Anyone who collects and disposes of acorns is tossing away delicious food.
Too many people believe these big oak nuts are toxic, perhaps because they are bitter when eaten raw. For deer, woodchucks, squirrels blue jays and a host of other wild creatures, acorns are a bonanza of nutritious food so important that a heavy acorn crop means a winter of good health while a sparse one spells starvation.
Native Americans enthusiastically collected, processed, stored and ate acorns. And they are a common food in some European cultures. A great acorn benefit in the days before refrigeration was the ability to store them indefinitely, providing food if crops failed or game was scarce. Far too many modern people don’t realize that acorns are delicious if properly prepared.
Dozens of oak species live around the world. In North America much of the eastern hardwood forest is dominated by oaks with several scattered scrubby species in the southwest and many larger ones near the Pacific coast. Even on the Great Plains and in the Rocky Mountains, where native oaks either don’t occur naturally or are uncommon, they have been planted in nearly every town and city.
Although there are many oak species all fall within one of two categories:
White Oak Group: The leaves of these oaks have rounded lobes and generally the trees produce an abundant acorn crop irregularly. Often a few falls go by with a sparse crop nuts. Then during a banner year, millions of acorns carpet a forest floor. Almost every year there will be a tree or two here and there with a heavy crop while others nearby are barren. Common white oak group species are the bur, white, and chestnut oaks. Acorns in this group have the lowest tannin content, are usually large and require the least processing. If white oaks live in your area these are the acorns to gather.
Black (or Red) Oak Group: These trees have leaves with lobes that end in points. The acorns are usually smaller than those in the white oak group but normally trees in this group produce a more reliable crop. Typical species are pin, black and red oaks.
Nearly all oaks produce acorns that can be processed for food, but because those in the white oak group produce the largest nuts with lowest tannin content, we exclusively process acorns gleaned from under white and bur oak trees. We leave the black oak group acorns for the squirrels.
Tip: When you’ve found a prolific oak just starting to drop its nuts carefully slice an acorn or two in half with a paring or pocket knife and use the point of the knife to pry the kernel out of its husk. Taste it. If it’s only modestly bitter you’ve found great acorns. If it’s very bitter seek out another tree. Although white and bur oaks usually have the sweetest acorns the tannin content varies from tree to tree, so gathering the sweetest acorns reduces later work removing this bitter substance. A white or bur oak tree producing sweet acorns may be growing next to a tree of the same species with bitter kernels. Gather the sweet ones.
HOW TO PROCESS ACORNS INTO DELICIOUS FOOD
Making delicious acorn muffins with school children.
Here is how we convert acorns into delicious food:
• Collect acorns as soon as they fall from the tree. Normally oaks begin dropping nuts in late August. September is the prime gathering month. Usually the easiest way to gather a bunch of acorns is to find a prolific white or bur oak growing over a parking lot or driveway. It’s easier sweeping up a few gallons of acorns from pavement than picking them out of the forest floor or lawn. Various insects realize that acorns are good food and quickly bore into fallen nuts. So, beat the squirrels and bugs to the acorns, pick a few gallons and bring them home. Collect only perfect acorns lacking cracks, sprouts or holes.
• Put newly collected acorns in large zip lock bags and freeze them. Freezing kills insects that may be hiding in the acorns and prevents sprouting and mold. Processing acorns is fairly tedious and time consuming. We are usually busy during acorn season and have more processing time when winter hits. So, we store our acorns in the freezer until later. Processing acorns while sitting next to a cozy January woodstove and listening to music is a pleasant winter activity. But, if you want to immediately process acorns after collecting them freezing is optional.
• Put a few gallons of fresh or frozen acorns in a large pot, like a canning pot, nearly fill it with water, and boil for 15 or 20 minutes. Boiling does two things. It softens the husks, making for easier shelling and it removes some tannin. As tannin leaches out of the nuts the water will darken. Let the boiled acorns cool down and drain them. Collect your tools. You’ll need a sharp paring knife, a cutting board, two pots and a good light source.
• Remove the kernels by cutting each acorn in half lengthwise. It should be easy to cut through the water softened husk. Use the point of the knife to pop the kernels into one bowl and the husks in the other. We compost husks They also make good mulch.
• Pour the kernels into a large pot of boiling water and slowly boil them for about ten minutes. As tannins leach out of the nuts the water will darken. While the nuts are boiling bring another pot of water to a boil. Drain the nuts from the first pot and put the kernels into the second pot of clean boiling water. If your acorns were sweet only two or three boilings will remove the tannin. When boiling water darkens only slightly you know you’ve leached out most of the tannin and there will be little bitterness left. Red or pin oak acorns could take five or six boilings to remove tannin.
• Once the tannin is gone thoroughly drain the acorns in a large colander.
• Spread the drained water-softened acorn kernels on a cookie sheet one layer deep. Dry them in an oven on low heat, stirring occasionally. The object is to dry them, not cook them. This part takes a couple of hours. When dry, the kernels will be rock hard.
Once they are completely dry, hard and cooled the acorns can either be placed in airtight jars or other storage containers or immediately ground into flour. Dried acorns will keep for years and unground kernels can be added to stews much like you might add dried beans. This is how Native Americans commonly used them.
• Place the hard dry kernels in a heavy duty blender or hand or electric mill designed for grinding grain. Grind them to the texture of fine flour. Store in an airtight container. Sift the flour to separate out harder kernels. These you can store separately and add to soups where they soften and add a rich earthy flavor to the broth.
We use acorn kernels in soups and the flour in recipes such as Boston Steamed Brown Bread, cookies and muffins. Here are two of our favorite acorn recipes:
Acorn Cookies from the Kitchen of Yvonne Fellows
½ Cup cooking oil ½ tsp. almond extract
½ Cup honey ¼ Cup acorn flour
2 beaten eggs 1 ¾ Cup regular flour (if whole wheat increase the liquid)
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Blend oil and honey. Beat eggs into the mix. Add almond extract then the wheat and acorn flours. Batter should be cookie dough consistency so add more flour if needed. Drop by spoons full onto greased baking sheet. Bake 15 minutes at 375 degrees.
Acorn Muffins adapted from a recipe by Yvonne Fellows
One beaten egg ¼ Cup sugar
One Cup milk 1 ¾ Cups flour
(mix of whole wheat and white or pastry)
2 TBSP vegetable oil ¼ Cup Acorn sifted flour
½ Cup molasses or honey
(I use a combination) 2 tsp baking powder
1tsp vanilla ½ baking soda
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Grease muffin tins or use baking cups. Mix wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls. Blend wet and dry ingredients together until just moist. Some small lumps are OK. Fill muffin tins or baking cups 2/3 full. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 – 25 minutes. Tops of muffins should spring back when done. To prevent dryness, avoid over baking. Serve warm with honey and butter.
Before the invention of agriculture nearly all people were expert hunters and gatherers. Although our world still provides plenty of wild food, free for the taking, few modern people even realize that delicious food goes unharvested in nearly all unsprayed yards.
Knowing how to identify and prepare wild foods offers opportunity for new culinary experiences, reduces the grocery bill, and gives people who know how to forage the comfort of knowing that they can find food and will eat should there be a major disruption in modern food distribution.
Winding Pathways offers on its Website common free foods seasonably available across much of North America and beyond. Some of the best edible plants live in urban areas worldwide. They are likely in your back yard if you don’t apply herbicide. Often we simply call them “weeds”.
After years of foraging, preparing, and eating dozens of wild foods we categorize them as follows:
- The Best: These are common, hardy plants that are easy to identify, harvest and prepare, and are truly delicious.
- The Marginal: These are often also common but are either difficult to harvest or prepare and/or aren’t the tastiest foods. They are great to know in an emergency but few people will eat them routinely.
- The Hunger Foods: Many common plants are edible but are normally challenging to harvest and prepare. They have little taste or are not very appealing. They are worthy to know only because eating them would be better than starving!
Winding Pathways will prioritize information on the Best category and occasionally add information on the others.
But first a word of caution. Edible wild plants share the yard or nearby park with toxic cousins. Always follow these rules before eating any new wild plant:
- Be absolutely certain you have correctly identified the plant and confirmed its edibility. Consult three independent sources before eating. For example one source could be a guidebook, such as the Peterson Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Another could be gleaned from a reliable Internet source. A third might be provided by a local foraging expert. If there is a nature center in your area staff can probably give you contact information on local experts and may even sponsor a foraging program. A good way to start is by identifying a plant in a paper book and then simply Googling it to access electronic information.
- The first time you eat something new go easy. Eat only a small amount. Some people are allergic to even the most common foods. Eating small quantities tests the body to make sure it likes it.
- Make sure any harvested wild plant comes from a place that has not been chemically sprayed. Be sure to wash all gathered foods well.
Winding Pathways three favorite late summer edible plants – those that are common, easy to find and prepare, and taste great – are:
- PURSLANE, an old world weed widely cultivated in India. It’s fleshy stems and leaves hug the ground and are most common in hot, poor soil. Young leaves are delicious raw in salads. Stems and leaves can be steamed or pickled.
- WILD BEET OR AMARANTH is a weed in nearly all vegetable gardens. It makes a delicious steamed vegetable when cooked like spinach. Season with butter, salt and pepper as desired.
- LAMB’S QUARTERS. Few gardens lack lamb’s quarters growing between vegetable rows. Young plants are delicious when steamed like spinach and can also be eaten raw.
Coming soon: American Indians knew a good thing when they tasted it. Acorns were an important dietary staple for them. Check back for information on harvesting and processing acorns.
Dandelions by the millions pop up like magic in lawns, along roadsides, and just about anywhere else that sunlight reaches bare soil. They are probably the most recognized and widespread plants in the world.
A Eurasian native, dandelions reached North America as precious garden seeds brought across the ocean by our earliest immigrants. They began spreading across the continent before the Revolutionary War. For thousands of years people appreciated the dandelion’s culinary and medicinal properties. Its Latin name, Taraxacum officinale, means “official remedy for disorders.” Imagine living in Europe during the Dark Ages. Winters were cold and dark. Diets were monotonous and lacked vitamins. By late winter many people suffered severe vitamin deficiencies. They were weak, lethargic and vulnerable to fatal diseases. Then, with the first few warm days vitamin rich dandelions began growing. People ate them and vitamin deficiencies evaporated. This humble plant restored health. No wonder immigrants carried dandelion seeds across the ocean when they immigrated to the New World! How ironic that a plant that can do no harm to humans and once provided important food and medicine is today hated. If dandelions were finicky and needed special cultivation and care maybe homeowners would appreciate them! Children love bright yellow dandelion flowers and delight in blowing seeds off the puffy sphere that follows the bloom. Instead of persecuting dandelions perhaps we’d all be better off it we took a lesson from kids and just enjoyed them.
Why Dandelions Invade Lawns
In order to thrive in a lawn, dandelions need two conditions: a scrap of bare soil and sunshine. When meticulous homeowners attempt to create a monoculture lawn by mowing closely, removing lawn clippings, and aerating the soil they create perfect growing conditions for dandelions. Fluffy dandelion parachutes carry millions of dandelion seeds through the air which land nearly everywhere. If growing conditions are not good where the seed lands it won’t thrive. But if the seed has the good fortune to descend onto a closely cropped lawn, it will quickly sprout and flower to the consternation of the owner. They poison and dig out the dandies and mow the lawn to the nubbin, creating more perfect conditions for new seeds to sprout. Dandelions are probably the world’s best plant for the herbicide industry!
Reducing Dandelion Populations in an Ecological Lawn
A nonsprayed lawn is always likely to have a few dandelions, but the best to manage a lawn to reduce plant numbers is to keep the ground shady and avoid bare soil. Follow these easy steps:
- Avoid herbicides.
- Set the mower cutting depth high to allow grass to grow tall, shading the soil beneath. Mow as infrequently as possible. Leave clippings in place and never remove “thatch.”
- Avoid bare soil whenever possible.
- Eat them. Dandelions are good food!
- Let kids pick the flowers.
Timing is the secret to enjoying this nutritious plant. Most people know dandelions can be eaten. But, the few adventurous people who have tried them often are repelled by the plant’s bitterness. Dandelions, like most other edible greens, are best when the leaves are very young. Pick them in early spring just after they’ve started growing. Bitterness sets in as the leaves mature and the weather turns hot. The best dandelions were covered by leaves in the fall and are semi-blanched when picked in spring. Mix cleaned baby dandelion leaves into salads for a peppery zing or boil as a potherb. Young leaves are best and require the least amount of work. Steam them changing the water twice. Season with butter, salt and pepper as desired. Some folks toss the greens with chopped bacon. They are tasty. Older dandelion leaves can also be eaten but must be cooked in several changes of water to remove the bitterness. Gather mature leaves. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and put the washed leaves in. Boil for a few minutes while bringing another saucepan of water to a boil. Remove the leaves from the first pot, drain, and add them into the clean boiling water. It may take two or three water changes, but eventually the bitterness will disappear. Season as desired. Dandelion roots are also edible and can be made into a coffee-like substitute. Consult a wild foods book for details.