Saturday, January 30, 2010

Old Butternut Video

This is a video that I recorded in August of 2009 and got lost in my large, unorganized heap of computer documents. I would really enjoy making more videos like this, and hopefully I shall remember to do so! ENJOY!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fir Tea

In the chilly depths of winter, one of the best escapes is the warm, calming embrace of some quality teas. My favorite tea is made from the leaves of the Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea). This trees is one of the most common Christmas tree species around, and this tree is found in the wild in the boreal forests that run across Northern and Central Ontario. Although not nearly as abundant in the Carolinian region, Balsam Fir is still found occasionally.

The needles of this tree, as with all Fir trees, contain a strong resin which remains in a liquid state in temperatures down to a bone-chilling -40 degrees celcius! This resin is not only used as a natural antifreeze for the tree, but as a sticky, instant band-aid. FACTOID: Balsam Fir trees have characteristic resin blisters on their bark, which when easily punctured (even by your finger nail) release a powerfully fragrant and sticky ooze. This resin drips over wounds in the trunk and seals them from pests, diseases and the elements. This resin can also be consumed raw, or collected and boiled into a thick broth. It is FULL of vitamin C, which is in short supply during the cold months from a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.

However, it is not just the resin in the blisters that contain all of these perks. The resin found in the needles does as well! The needles are believed to contain 4 times as much vitamin C when compared to oranges, measured in equal weight. That is incredible! A wonderful tea can be made by simmering the needles in boiling water for 10 minutes. My recipe is 1 teaspoon of needles per cup of water. Balsam Fir trees are easy to identify, are very common in the north, and produce an incredibly robust, hearty and flavourful beverage! ANOTHER FACTOID: The needles and resin of Balsam Fir have been used traditionally for hundreds of years by the Native Americans for medicinal qualities as well. Balsam Fir tea has been said to improve and help defend against sore throats, chest and nose congestion, head aches and help to induce sleep. TRY IT YOURSELF!!!

Tips: If you are collecting from wild trees, make sure to exercise moderation! All of the needles in the photos above were collected from old Christmas trees that were going to be discarded anyways! It is also best to dry the needles for at least a week before using them. Chopping up the needles (easier once they are dried) also exposes more surface area and will leach more flavour from the needles once you steep them!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Hickory Milk

If you ask anyone who knows me, they would tell you that I love nuts. Although the latter is often treated now days with a raunchy interpretation, I none the less do not sugar coat the fact that I am fascinated with nuts, tree nuts that is. I have taken this fascination to great levels, more so then any one else that I have known. But then again, I am the only person I know with such an extraordinary interest in nuts, so I cannot say for sure that I take things too seriously!

However, one of my favourite nut varieties are Hickory nuts, which come from Hickory trees (Carya) which are related to Walnuts (Juglans) and are bound together taxonomically in the Walnut family (Juglandaceae). Living in the deciduous forests of southern Ontario, Hickory trees are abundant if you know where to look. The most abundant is the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) which yields an incredibly bounty of sweet, delicious nuts every 3 years are so. Because there are so many individual trees around, there are always some that are producing so I never have to encounter a 'dry' year where they are still plenty of nuts for me, and the local wildlife who share my love for this humble seed.

Although the Shagbark Hickory is relatively easy to identify, with it's long, shaggy grey skin and large compound leaves, the nuts are truly a tough nut to crack! Although smaller than a golf ball but larger than a grape, their shell is nearly impenetrable. To solve this problem, I have purchased an industrial strength stainless steel vice nutcracker which easily opens Hickory nuts, Black Walnuts, and probably any other nut in existence! At 90 dollars and only available from certain retailers, this is not an option for everyone. Do not be discouraged, for even if you do not have a powerful nut cracker, the wonderful taste and flavour of these nuts are not sealed away!

I recently acquired a recipe for what is known as Hickory Milk. This hearty, alluring beverage with it's sweet, syrupy aroma and coffee-like consistency is incredibly easy to create and stole my heart right after the first sip. Most folks eat Hickory nuts whole, on their own or add them to muffins, cookies, chocolates and breads. This required completely freeing them from the shell, but Hickory Milk does not require this! So even if you don't have a tough nut cracker, collect some Hickory nuts and try out this incredible treat!

Interested? Well here is how to make Hickory Milk!!

1. Cracking

Once you have collected some Hickory nuts, it is time to get cracking. Using a hammer, brick or steel vice, crack the hickory nuts. Without a strong nutcracker, this can be messy and next to impossible to get the nut meat out. However, getting every kernel piece free from the shell is not necessary. In order to make Hickory Milk, you need to boil the shell as well! Both the oily and nutty texture of the kernel, mixed together with the smoky qualities of the nut shells creates the perfect flavour and texture. So, all that you need to do is break the shells! However, the smaller you get the shells and kernels, the better. Grinding them up also helps.

2. Boiling

The only formula that you need to know for boiling the nuts and shells is this: 1 part hickory nuts / shells to 3 parts water. For example, if you have 1 cup of both crushed hickory nuts and kernels, then you add 3 cups of water. This is important, for if you add to much water the taste will be watery and if you do not have enough will be too syrupy and viscous to drink properly. So, grab a pot and simmer the mixture of hickory nut kernels / shells with the water for 30 minutes. This simmering is part of the whole experience. The fragrance that comes off of the nuts is FEMOMINAL! I actually drooled a little bit while watching it cook, no joke!

After 30 minutes, open the pot. Now this is where things get even more interesting. You will notice that the bits of kernels, during the boiling process have become separated from the shells, and have floated to the surface. The shells, heavier, sink to the bottom. While still simmering, grab a spoon and collect all of the kernels from the surface of the water. These kernels can still be used in other ways! Place them on a towel or hard surface in the sun and allow them to dry. These kernels, although drained of most of their flavour, can be ground up into flour and used to thicken soup, sausages, gravy and sauces! Never let the boiled kernels go to waste!

3. Straining

Once you have removed all the kernel pieces, you can remove the pot from the heat. Now, pour the Hickory Milk from the pot through a strainer into another pot or bowl. This strainer will catch all the shells and prevent them from floating around in someone's drink! These shells can then be composted. Your Hickory Milk, still hot and steaming, is ready to be consumed! Sugar and cream, can also be added to enhance the flavour. This brew can be stored in the fridge for several days if there are left overs. I prefer to drink this warm, but it can also be enjoyed cold, with ice cubes. Even a splash of baileys or kahlua for the adventurous is incredible!

This wondrous tonic has been described as "ambrosial - fragrantly nutty, delightfully heavy on the tongue, unlike anything I had encountered before" and will certainly be enjoyed by anyone! Try this unique and incredible beverage, and in the process you will discover the versatility of these nuts, and how nature is here to sustain us! ENJOY!!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Willow Bark Tea

Willow trees are one of the most commonly used landscape trees, and are also common in the wild environment too. Willows are members of the Poplar family (Salicaceae) which is composed of poplars, cottonwoods, aspens and willows. The genus of willows, called Salix, is very broad and is one of the largest families of trees in the world. Most willows are shrubs, but some grow into trees.

In southern Ontario, we have many different native species, only two of which commonly reach tree size. Those are the Black Willow (Salix nigra) and the Peachleaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides) All the other willows are shrubs, and are netoriously difficult to identify. Few scientists can accuratelty identiffy willows, mainly because they are very similar to each other, highly variable and form hybrids all the time.

However, willows of all types all share some general characteristics. Mainly the slender, lance shaped leaves with finely serated edges and their generally favored aquatic habitats. Willows also have an incredible practical use, few people of which know what it is. If you keep on reading, you will be one of the few that does know!

The thin layer bark that is found on year old willow twigs has long been used traditionally by the Native Americans as a pain killer. In the bark, there is a chemical called salicin, and this compound is also known as acetylsalicylic acid. Incredibly, acetylsalicylic acid is very similar to asprin, which is commonly used as a pain reliever. Willow bark, when steeped into a warm tea, can be used in the same way! When brewed properly, willow bark tea can be effective means of treating headaches and pain (particuarily lower back pain, osteoarthritis and various inflamintory conditions. These uses have been tested by science, and proven to be even more effective then commercial aspirin!

Willow bark is also believed to have positive effets towards relieving menstrual cramps, lowering high fevers and helping manage flu like symptoms. However, the usefulness of willow bark tea towards these conditions is unceratin and has varying effects on different individuals. Still worth a shot though! Although different willow trees or shrubs have different levels of salicin in them, all species of willows can be used for this same purose. As long as you have willow bark, this tea will be effective!

So, I suppose that now you want to actually brew some of this tea? Well hold your horses, you need to get the twigs first! As most people know, willows favor sunny, wet environments in swamps, floodplains, lakesides and river edges. They often grow in dense colonial patches, which makes harvesting easy. Once you have identified some willow trees or shrubs, just look for the healthy, flexible slender twigs on the ends of branches. Make sure the twigs are alive when you harvest them, for only live ones will work! If the insides of the twigs are green and wet, and the twigs are bendy and do not snap easily when you bend them slightly, you are good to go. As with harvesting all wild edibles and medicinals, use discretion! Please do not over harvest! A loose handful of twigs will be enough for several cups.

Once you harvest the twigs, you have two choices. You can leave the twigs in a dry, sunny location for the thin bark to dry on them, or you can peal the bark off right away. I recommend pealing the bark off the twigs within 24 hours of harvesting them, so the bark is still stretchy and more flexible. This allows you to remove the bark from the twigs easier, for they to not break when they are fleshy and still have water in them.

In order to remove the bark, you must remove it by hand and this can be a bit tedious. A vegetable skin pealer works wonderfully. Just strip the bark (the buds sometimes come off with the bark, but these can be left on) from the twig, trying to avoid taking too much of the pith and woody part of the twig off with the thin bark. If you get too much of the pith in with your mixture of willow bark, it can make the tea bitter and distasteful.

Once you have scraped all of the willow bark from the twigs, it is now time to cut them in small peices and let them dry. You may have noticed that getting the bark off the smallest parts of the twigs was difficult. You can just cut up the ends of the twigs (including the pith) into small chunks instead of trying to peal the bark off, it is all good. Once you have removed all of the bark from the twigs, they can be thrown in your composer or your garden to decompose. Using scissors or kitchen shears, chop up the collection of bark strips that you have now collected as fine as you can get it. Do not turn it into a powder like consistancy, but the smaller the pieces of bark you end up with, the faster they will dry and the more flavour will steep out of them.

To let the bark bits dry, place them on a plate or a bowl and set them by a windowsill where they will be dry and get lots of sun. Leave them there to dry for at least 2 or 3 days before you use them. After they are dry, they should crack but not split when you crush them between your fingertips. The strong fibers in the bark prevent them from splitting even after they are dead and dry. When dry enough, the bark will last for months in good condition, as long as they are kept in a dark, cool environment, like a cubby or drawer.

In order to be well, you must steep the tea well! Here is the best recipe that I have tred with willow bark, and I have had great success with this combination:

1. Place 1 or 2 teaspoons of willow bark bits per cup of water in a pot.
2. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, being careful not to boil it, but gently simmer it.
3. Remove the brew from the heat, and let it sit and steep for half an hour.

If you are drinking the tea in order to help with pain, generally 3 or 4 cups daily will be suffficient. Each person reacts different for certain levels of salicin in their body, so with practice you will learn how much you need! It is best not to exceed 4 cups a day, for this can be harmful. The tea has an exceptionally pleasant earthy flavour and aroma, but is unique in its own ways as well. It may be slightly bitter depending on the species of willow and the condition of the bark used, but this can easily be solved by adding some sugar or honey to counteract it with sweetness. I personally love to mix willow bark with Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) needles, Eastern White Cedar (thuja occidentalis)needles, or Wild Raspberry (Rubus strigosus) leaves to the steeping tea to enhance the flavour!

Some individuals experience side effects from drinking willow bark tea, but these are very mild and are often felt due to over consumption or improper brewing methods. The most common side effect is stomach upset, but this rarely leads to complications such as ulcers and stomach bleeding. Effects from having too much willow bark tea include skin rash, stomach inflammation or irritation, nausea, vomiting, kidney inflammation, and tinnitus (which is a ringing sound inside your ears)

The flavour and comfort of willow bark tea has been used for thousands of years, and there is no reason to let this grand and noble tea fall victim to history! The continued use of willow bark tea as a medicinal or recreational tea is an honorable deed in its own, connecting us with the world that we continue to drift so far from as we as human beings become more and more modern. Never ever forget your roots, and exploring the world of wild edibles and medicinals offered by my environment is one of the ways I connect with the natural world, not just physically but also spiritually. I hope you find as much pleasure in consuming this incredible tea as I do. Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

No Winter Blues!

In the dark, cold months of winter, many people stay curled up in the warmth of their homes to escape the dreary conditons which present themselves during this time of year. However, for Plant Geeks, this is still an ideal time for explore the world of trees in ways that most people do not see! Exploring the forests during the winter provides a whole knew emotional experience and atmosphere to even places that you frequently visit during the spring, summer and autumn.

I emplore you to get out to your local parks and wild spaces at least a couple of times during this time of year! Not only do the forests take on a whole new character, you can see much farther into the woods than with the thick cover of foliage during the other seasons. Seef farther, see better, and see more than you can during the summer! Just like taking off a sweater, the forets shed a layer of their own expose a part of their wonder that many ignore and stay concealed from in their homes. So dress up real warm, and breath in the never ending beauty of our environment!