July 29, 2017

Weeds that are Actually Medicine, Elderberries Part One

This is the time of year when the lyrics "Feelin fine on elderberry wine", from Elton John's song "Elderberry Wine", come to mind... It is elderberry season! I saw that the berries were ripe as I drove out to do errands the other day and a friend and I spent some lovely time this morning foraging for those ripe blacky purple berries.  This was no spur of the moment thing though; I made mental note in early May of where the best flower clusters were and have been checking back periodically to take photos for this post and to see how they are doing. Elderberries in our area usually ripen around the 1st of August. The harvest will go on for a few weeks, the top clusters ripening first and the rest of the bush ripening a little later on. The top berries are always the most beautiful berries, plump and juicy since they receive the best sun exposure. I call these "bird berries", since at 10 feet up there is no way I can reach them, so these berries are for the birds and for the continuation of the species... 

Elderberry wine, might make you feel fine, but if you really want to feel fine, use elderberries for their immune boosting and healing capabilities. Beyond the fact that elderberries are a great antioxidant, and very high in vitamin C, elderberries can help you stay healthy during cold and flu season and if you are unfortunate enough to get a cold or the flu taking elderberry can reduce the length of a cold or the flu by an average of 4 days. They can ease allergy symptoms and reduce the inflammation of a sinus infection. Elderberry can lower blood sugar levels and has been proven to be an anti-carcinogenic, so they can help to prevent cancer.  Elderberries taste good so getting a children to take it is a breeze!

I love to forage, I always feel so close to God when I am out in nature gathering food and medicine from the wild. It is provision for sustenance and healing that comes straight from creation! When foraging for elderberries, as with any plant taken from the wild,  it is important to be able to make a correct identification and to harvest responsibly.  I am careful to leave more than I harvest when foraging for anything in the wild, so that there is plenty of seed to fall to the ground to grow new plants and to keep the birds well fed. But more importantly I make sure that I am well educated on the identifying characteristics of the plants I forage. As with many edible or medicinal plants in the wild, elderberry has some unfriendly "look-a likes", so it is important to know what you are picking.

 There are actually several plants that resemble elderberry, particularly when in bloom. Commonly known as Queen Anne's Lace, the wild carrot has umbrella shaped flower clusters similar to elderberry, but then so does water hemlock, the most poisonous plant found growing wild in North America. And then there is Hercules Club, also sometimes called the toothache tree, which has blooms and berries that are very similar to elderberry. It was used to treat tooth-aches by Native Americans, but is generally considered toxic. I tell you all this not to scare you off from foraging, but to show you how to forage with safety and confidence. 


Elderberry, Sambucus nigra,  is native to temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. It is a woody shrub that can reach 10-12 feet in height. The trunk and branches are covered in bark, the leaves are pinnate, (have leaflets arranged on either side of the stem, usually opposite each other),  the leaves are serrated, with the veins running to the tips of the serrations or fading away before reaching the serrations.  There are umbrella- like clusters of cream to white, 5 petaled flowers in late spring.  It bears deep purple to black berries in late July to early September, depending on what temperature zone it is growing in.  The berries have medicinal properties as well as being useful for making wines, syrups, and  jellies. The juice of the berries is edible, but it is prudent to strain out the seeds as they are not edible and in quantity can be toxic, (much like apples, eat the fruit but not the seeds). 

 Elderberry flowers are a light cream to white in color with 5 petals and stamens that are arranged between petals. They appear on the scene in late Spring. They have a delicate scent and are useful in making teas, syrups and cordials. I prefer to pass on picking the flowers so that there will be lots of berries for use in making tonics and cough syrup later in the season. They are medicinal and can be used in tea or syrup form to treat sinus and allergy issues.

In late may the flowers have set fruit and the berries are getting bigger.
Berries are ripe and ready for picking a little early this year in the Piedmont of NC,
 start checking for ripe berries in late July, just to be safe, but most years they are ripe
in early August.

Elderberry leaves have fine veins that meander across the leaf fading away or
in some cases terminating at the tips.



Queen Anne's Lace, Daucus carota, is a native of Europe and Southeast  Asia, but has been naturalized in North America. It is a member of the carrot family and when young and tender is edible, but in my opinion not worth the trouble to forage and prepare, and due to its similarity to the fatally poisonous water hemlock, unless you are a seasoned forager, I recommend you skip foraging wild carrot. The plants stand in meadows and waste places and along the edges of plowed fields. It has umbrella shaped clusters of white flowers with a tiny burgundy "heart" set in the middle of the cluster. The plant has ferny leaves and stands up to 3 feet tall. 


Although the flowers of Queen Anne's Lace are similar to elderberry flowers, only in the deep south will they ever be blooming at the same time as elderberry. The height of the plant and it's ferny leaves are a dead give away that they are not elder flowers. Even if you mistook them for elder flowers, you are safe, since they aren't toxic.

Water Hemlock,  Cicuta douglasii, the most poisonous plant in the North America, has flowers alarmingly similar to elderberry and Queen Anne's lace. Where it would not hurt you to mistake Queen Anne's Lace for elderberry, water hemlock would most likely prove fatal if you made a tea or syrup from its flowers. Water Hemlock blooms at the same time as elderberry and the flowers are similar. Fortunately, there are some details that will help you not to make a fatal mistake. Hemlock does not produce berries, so there is less likelihood of mistaking hemlock for elderberry if you wait for berries to be evident. Water hemlock has an herbaceous stem, hollow, smooth and green, sometimes with pale burgundy spots  or stripes on the stems. Elderberry trunk and branches are covered with silvery grey bark so if it has a woody bark it is not water hemlock. Although elderberry can be found in wet areas, it is far more likely to be water hemlock if you find it growing in marshes or in a water course. Checking the stem is a good way to tell them apart.  Like elderberry, hemlock had pinnate, serrated leaves, but where elderberry leaves have fine veins that terminate at the tips, hemlock has pronounced veins that go across the leaves and terminate in the notches of the serrated leaf edge. Hemlock flowers are in loosely formed clusters of tiny white flowers that do not set fruit.

Hemlock leaves have deep veins that run straight to the notches, not to the tips of the serrated leaves.

Hemlock has loosely formed clusters of tiny white flowers with fuzzy yellowish green centers.

Hercules Club, Zanothoxylum clava- hurculis,  is grows in the deep south and in the coastal areas of North and South Carolina. The leaves like elderberry are pinnate, but unlike elderberries the  leathery leaves are smooth, not serrated and are held on branches that can be 3 feet in length. The clusters of flowers are large and creamy yellow, the berries look similar to elderberries, but are larger and the flower/fruit clusters are born high and above the leaves. The most defining feature of the Hercules Club is the trunk. Like the elderberry, the trunk and branches of  Hercules Club are covered in bark,  but they are also  covered with thorns.


Ouch!


Sometimes it is helpful to me to see things side by side so I can compare and contrast their characteristics. So here is a side by side photo for comparison.
This is a side by side comparison of the flowers of all four plants, the top two are  non poisonous, the bottom two range from toxic to deadly.
Oh, and there is one other area that there might be confusion...

Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is common throughout the United States. It grows to 8 feet with smooth purplish stems growing from a central crown. The leaves are long and grow alternately along the stems .Pokeweed's berries look similar to elderberry in color but are larger and are not in loose hanging clusters like elderberries, but hang on elongated clusters called racemes.  Poke weed is toxic so do not eat leaf , berry, stem or root. It is said that the young leaves are edible if boiled in three changes of water before trying to eat them. But in my opinion, if I have to boil something in three changes of water before it is safe to eat, it isn't edible... just sayin's all...

Poke berries are great for drawing birds but although they look tasty, they are very toxic
even when they are green. 
So now that you know what to look for and what not to pick, why don't you cast about and see if you can find some clusters of elderberries in your area? In my next post on this subject I will give you a recipe for a simple elderberry syrup to use as an immune booster  in the colder months ahead.  Happy foraging!

Oh and just so everyone knows... this post is for educational purposes and is not meant to be used to treat or diagnose illness.  Your judgement and personal research are the best tools you have when foraging. In other words, don't just take my word for it...  :) Go outside and explore, there is a lot to discover in this big ol' world!

May 17, 2017

Wash Day, Part One


A little hummer helps me with the laundry.
Some of my favorite memories are connected to Wash Day... as a military brat we lived in base housing for a short time in New Jersey. There was a huge courtyard surrounded by four apartment buildings. Most days the courtyard was a gathering place for moms and a playground for kids, but on Wash Day the courtyard was transformed into a sea of multicolored laundry flapping in the breeze. There were no bikes allowed on wash day and the kids were supposed to find other places to occupy their time, but of course, the best place in the world for a tea party is under a canopy of freshly washed sheets! In the Zona Maya, Yucatan I hung laundry in the sultry heat with a friend as we caught up on news, on a breezy hilltop between Waxhaw and Monroe, I hung laundry with my dearest  friend, silently shaking and pinning, careful not to break the enchantment of  birdsong, breeze, sun and wet clothes... then there was learning to do laundry in the rain forest of Costa Rica where Wash Day is an all day occupation. There clothes are hung under cover, not out in the sun, since it rains even when the sun is shining. A strong breeze blew on our mountain all day long, but there was so much moisture in the air that getting clothes dry is a real challenge. So I would spend all day going down the line of clothes, testing for "dry enough"to take off the line, then immediately fold it and put it in a snap top tote to keep it dry.

These days Wash Day is at our house in Waxhaw, where I am hanging laundry off the back deck on a line that stretches from the back corner of the house to a spot way up in a tree out in our woods. It is not as exotic as Wash Day in foreign lands or as dreamlike as hanging clothes with my bestie, but it has it's own kind of magic. The birds sing and the trees whisper to me as the breeze ruffles their leaves. An anole male scurries along the railing, pausing to show off his bubble gum pink dewlap before he reaches the rose trellis, where he can watch me without worrying about Skittles, our cat. Yep, I love Wash Day...

As a prepper it is important to understand how difficult washing clothes can be without modern conveniences. You will need to have thought it through and made plans before you get caught with a load of soaking wet clothes in the washer and no way to get it dry... Having lived in places where the wash was done in the river, beating clothes clean on the rocks, wringing out the water by hand and spreading clothes on bushes and other vegetation to dry, or in a place where there is so much moisture in the air that clothes always smell musty, no matter how hard you try to get them dry,  I have learned a thing or two about doing the wash in rustic conditions.
In Costa Rica, "The Bodega" as we called it served many purposes. It was our laundry area, potting shed and outdoor eating area when it was raining.
Doing laundry by hand is hard work. Often it will take all day just to get one load of clothes done to dry and folded. Secondly, there are some clothes that are just too much trouble to launder, like blue jeans... you can work yourself to death trying to get a pair of jeans washed and dried. When we moved to Costa Rica we brought jeans with us thinking working in the jungle it would be safer and they would be more durable. It wasn't long before we regretted that decision. We remedied the jeans problem by requesting a shopping trip for people coming down to visit us... Choosing clothing for a grid down scenario is counterintuitive, one would think tough and durable, when actually clothing should be lightweight, breathable and quick drying. Cotton is a no-no, it takes forever to dry and in inclimate weather can actually be dangerous, since it gets cold and stays cold, sapping your body heat and paving the way hypothermia or illness. It is also heavy when wet and will chafe and get musty leading to skin irritation and fungus. If it is cold, choose silk long johns and wear multiple layers, but stay away from heavy fabrics. The first time you have to try and wash and dry a pair of blue jeans by hand will cure you from choosing heavy clothes; your knuckles will be raw, the jeans won't be clean and they will take two days to dry if wrung out by hand. You may end up wearing them wet and dirty; believe me it is miserable to do heavy labor or a lot of walking in wet, smelly, dirty pants.

Then there is the problem of getting clothes clean at all. In Costa Rica, it took me awhile to successfully get the clothes clean and dry in the same day. In the meantime we were having to wear damp, mostly dirty clothes... I felt like a homemaking failure, but before long I learned from my mistakes and we were cleaner and drier. A grid down situation may require it to be somebody's full time job at least one day a week, to keep the clothes clean. It could actually take two people for some parts of the tasks, like wringing out a pair of pants to get enough water out that they will dry in one day. It will be frustrating and time consuming, a task that nobody really wants to own, but if someone doesn't know how to do laundry "the hard way", everyone will be sorry. I would suggest that you start practicing now so that it isn't a total shock if it becomes a necessity. Much like any other aspect of "rustic" living, figuring it out before hand will reduce stress and save time, energy and drama later.

When water, time and other resources are thin in the ground, everyone will have to resign themselves to wear the same clothes for as long as possible. While in Costa Rica we had work clothes that we wore long past the time they failed the sniff test, (for these clothes it was time to wash them when they were so dirty they stood alone...). We would just come off the farm and hang these clothes under cover next to the knee high rubber boots, to air out in the breeze.The next morning we just shook them out and put them back on before going back out on the farm. Our "around the house" clothes we changed into after washing up. These clothes stayed cleaner since they weren't worked in and were washed when they failed the sniff test. We usually changed under things daily and wore everything else for a week before washing.

Here are some things I have learned about washing clothes without the aid of modern conveniences:

Put the soiled clothes on to soak the night before Wash Day, this will give the fibers a chance to release the soil and will save a lot effort when scrubbing. Soap can actually do more harm to laundry than good. Soap is used as a surfactant, to help soil release from the clothing, but can also, if not rinsed very well, irritate the skin and cause the clothes to get dirty faster. I shave a very small amount of Fels Naptha soap bar into a cup of water and let it melt then I pretreat really soiled areas. When I put the clothes onto soak I swish the treated clothes around in the water first and that will put enough soap in the water to help float out the oils and dirt but not add so much soap that it won't rinse clear.

Since water conservation may be an imperative, rinsing clothes may be a luxury you can't afford, so you may have to forego soap altogether. In this case, soaking and scrubbing is the best thing you can do to make sure your clothes get clean. It is possible to make lye soap, but soap making is tricky even with a lye calculator, and making lye from wood ashes is risky business and will not give you a consistent result. If you are thinking about making lye soap, you should practice your soap making skill now, there is a lot to learn.

 Skip the handy dandy plunger washer thingamabob... they don't work very well or last very long. Instead find a real live washboard. It will save your knuckles and you will have some chance of getting your clothes clean. Check out the Lehmans catalog, and if money allows invest in a good wash board and a hand clothes wringer. Purchase good heavy peg pins and and some spring pins, but the spring pins are really a luxury since they break so easily. Peg pins will last a lifetime. Lay in a supply of clothes line. It stretches and get soiled over time. If you can find the galvanized wash tubs they are worth their weight in gold on Wash Day and can work the rest of the week doing other chores.

If you can afford to waste water on rinsing the clothes, then adding 1/4 cup of white vinegar to the rinse water will help to soften clothes that will be line dried. If the smell of freshly line dried clothes isn't enough for you and you want to scent your clothes, spray them lightly just before they dry with a few drops of your favorite essential oil in a small bottle of water. I pick lavender and other herbs from my garden and layer them with my clothes in the drawers and linen closet. It will impart a lovely scent and help deter cloth eating critters.

To get your whites white, soak whites in boiling water, then wash with just the tiniest amount of soap, (or none at all). When it is time to dry them, spread them out on the grass or bushes. The chlorophyll in the plants will interact with the sun naturally whitening your whites. It is really pretty amazing how white this will get your whites!

Part Two of this Wash Day post will cover drying clothes. There are several things that can be done to make line dried clothes your favorite way to dry clothes. Line drying will save costs on electricity, be healthier and make your clothing last longer. So until next time, enjoy a day outside and try your hand at doing laundry by hand!




January 28, 2017

Preparedness Foods, Thinking Outside the Box


Prepping has so many facets and seriously, there are so many things to consider... It can really be overwhelming trying to think it all through and plan for what may happen. Food preps are particularly a challenge, since it takes time to build up a supply of food, so I have made it a habit to think about both normal shelf stocking and prepping for long term when when I do my shopping plan for the week. Today as I was making out my grocery list, I also made a list of items for the three month pantry and any Long Term Storage, (called LTS from now on), supplies that I needed to purchase. I do this every week. For us prepping isn't a buy it, store it, forget it, kind of deal. We plan, acquire, store and use all of our preps on a rotating basis. Eating the foods we store and rotating our supplies regularly is part of our overall preparation plan.

One thing that I learned early on in the area of food preps is that most of the prepared, "Ready to Eat" storage foods, freeze dried or dehydrated, that are on the market really aren't very good for you.  Fat, salt and sugar are often predominant ingredients, followed by starch ....  I couldn't in good conscience store foods that were high in calories, but had very little nutrition to go along with the calories. So in order to find storable foods that meet the nutritional needs of my family, I have had to look outside the box.I needed to find foods that were nutritional powerhouses, but were also flexible, easy to prepare and portable. In many cases I have found those foods in ethnic food markets. The area where we live has many ethnic grocers, Indian, Greek, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern as well as Eastern European, Ethiopian and Nepali foods are available for some prepping perusal. On this particular shopping trip I was going to an Asian supermarket that has foods from many Asian cultures under one roof. So I thought it would be fun to show you what I got while shopping and talk about what they are good for and how to use them!




I'll start with one of my favorites... seaweed. I know that not everyone is familiar with how to use seaweed beyond being a wrapper for sushi, but seaweed is invaluable item in a Prepper's pantry. For starters, seaweed is a virtual treasure trove of essential vitamins and minerals. Particularly, it is full of iodine and has an ample supply of sodium that can provide the body's daily requirement for both, which can save your life if you can't meet your daily sodium needs because you can get salt, (not to mention if you are on the move adding enough salt to your supplies to meet your family's daily salt requirement can be kind of heavy...) It is also easy to prepare and is lightweight, so it is a perfect for the BOB. I use it frequently in our meal preparations, in soups, in fermentation, in stir fry and more. It goes camping with us, travels when we do and is in both our 3 month and LTS  supplies.


Next, on my grocery list was Tree Ears. This tree fungus is high in protein, iron and vitamin B2, all of which are necessary for staying on your feet in high stress situations. Like seaweed it is light and easy to prepare and they have a nice chewy texture. Since it has very little flavor of its own tree ears can be added to practically dish to boost the nutritive value. They are good in omelets, stir fry, soups, salads and more. They have a long shelf life and can easily be stored long term.


I often purchase dried mushrooms, I love the smoky, rich flavor of the dried shitaki. I use them as part of a mushroom stock I make and freeze or can for future use. It is always helpful to have a few soup bases on the shelf for quick meals when I am busy! For long term storage, dried mushrooms are great. They will last as very long time if put in a dry, oxygen free environment. Mushrooms are a good source of protein, are high in niacin, potassium, copper, phosphorous and difficult to acquire, selenium. The mineral selenium is not present in fruits and vegetables, but can be found in mushrooms. It is important for cognitive function, a healthy immune system,  prevents inflammation, plays a role in liver enzyme function and helps to detox some cancer causing agents and reduces tumor growth, and is necessary for both male and female fertility. Mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D as well. Due to the fibrous makeup of mushrooms, they must be cooked in order to release the nutrients trapped inside. Since the dehydrated mushrooms I buy are vacuum sealed, I don't remove the packaging when I put them in LTS. I just pack several complimentary items, like seaweed, pho noodles, dehydrated veggies and seasonings together in a 2 gallon bucket, put a large oxygen absorber in and knock the lid on.





Speaking of Pho noodles... Fat Pad Thai type rice noodles, Pho noodles, thin noodles made of mung bean, spring roll wrappers, these are standard items in our vegan pantry, but also play an important role in the Prepping pantry. These kind of noodles do not have to be cooked, just soak in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes and they are ready to be used. In an emergency situation when fuel for cooking might be limited, or time to cobble a meal together is thin on the ground, these items could save the day. And for those avoiding wheat, they are gluten free.



Millet is not just for the birds! This tiny seed is jam packed with nutrition, protein and dietary fiber. It is a good source of magnesium, a macromineral that the human body needs in large amounts, (Only 25% of the population actually gets the MDR of magnesium), as well as calcium and B vitamins, particularly Niacin, (B3). It is best to purchase the unhulled, organic variety, and to soak all seeds and grains, not just millet, before consuming them to make them easier to digest. Most digestive issues with grains spring from the digestive inhibitors found in the seed coat of the grains, soaking or fermenting the grains before use will make them much more digestible. Millet can be added to bread, cooked as a hot cereal, or made into a casserole mixed with other grains and vegetables. It is a quick cooking, versatile, gluten free grain, worth considering for day to day use and long term storage.



I also picked up fresh goodies, some that I will use for making meals, some that will be going into the dehydrator for preservation. Mushrooms dehydrate very well so I routinely snag a variety of the organic mushrooms at my favorite Asian market and pop them in the dehydrator to dry for use down the road.

I hope that sharing some of my outside of the box food preps will inspire you to consider what kind of storage foods might be sitting on the shelves of  your local ethnic grocer and maybe add some nutritional and culinary diversity to your Prepping pantry! Until next time!

Please feel free to post a comment or ask a question. I would love to hear from you!
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