Harvest time in Pontiacís backcountry

As farmers are hauling bales back for winter storage, while vegetables are ripening in our gardens, the wild plants offer their own delectable yield.

If you can get to them before the critters, you can find a tempting array of wild foods on your backwoods doorstep.

Two reminders

Before you head out, please consider these two points.

Never wander onto property thatís not your own. If youíre tempted to pick that apple tree thatís just inside a fenced pasture, donít do it without first seeking and obtaining permission. If you do get permission to enter a field, donít forget to close any gate you might open, and donít destroy fencing. Use the hikerís law: leave only your footsteps behind. That way, livestock donít get into trouble, fences arenít ruined, and you donít give wild gatherers a bad name.

Second caution is to know and beware of poison ivy and cow parsnip. The ditches and waysides are full of these troublesome plants. Poison ivy manifests itself in different guises: sometimes itís an innocent-looking plant of perhaps 5 cm in height; other times itís a lusty half metre in height. At this time of the year itís particularly beautiful, as its three glossy green leaves turn to scarlet. Unsure? Leaves of three, let them be.

On the other hand, cow parsnip resembles an immense, coarse-looking Queen Anneís Lace plant. Several years ago I wrote about this plant. The Pilon family had cleared some land of cow parsnip, only to have their skin erupt into large weeping blisters that were itchy and disfiguring. Iíve intended to write about this plant again, for a close friend recently did some clearing and came up with the same very disfiguring welts. Itís a nasty plant, so ensure you know it and, just like poison ivy, avoid coming into contact with it.

Now, on to the happier topic.

Beaked Hazelnuts

Do you know what a hazelnut (sometimes called filbert nut) tree looks like? If not, dig out your tree identification book. Look for a tall shrub whose leaves are 5 to 12.5 cm long and are double toothed.

The variety growing here is the beaked hazelnut; the name comes from the long ďbeakĒ or pointed end of the husk.

The nuts are delicious eaten raw. However, Peterson Field Guides Edible Wild Plants (by Lee Allen Peterson, ISBN 0-395-31870-X) suggests you can grind them into flour as well as make candy from them.

Mountain Ash (Rowan)

These mostly ornamental trees offer their vermilion coloured fruit for harvest in a week or so. Rich in pectin, the pretty fruit make a tasty jelly. Iíve tasted some and although not a personal favourite, it is worth the trouble of gathering and preserving this fruit.

Butternut (and Black Walnut)

A member of the walnut family, butternuts are oblong in shape rather than being the almost perfectly round shape of the black walnut.

Butternuts are delicious eaten raw, but just like the beaked hazelnut, keeners can grind them into flour, make candy, or even boil them to make oil. In spring, so the field guide says, both walnuts and butternuts can be tapped for their sap.

Butternut trees are reasonably common: in fact, if you see a tree that you think is a black walnut, take a second look, for walnuts are definitely less common in our woods. When you use your tree identification book to look up these related trees, youíll note how the leaves are very similar. The Butternut leaf is compound, with large narrow-toothed leaflets formed opposite one another on a slender stem. Butternuts usually have the end leaf, while walnuts generally are missing this leaf (but not alwaysÖ Mother Nature seems to have a sense of humour at timesÖ).

See if you can find some of these trees while you seek the edible wild produce. The nuts are ripe in October. Find your trees now, while the weatherís lovely, then go out and gather later on.

Brambles

Closer to the ground find the brambles, or blackberries. Ours have been ripe for about a week, and are greatly appreciating the light rainfall of the past few days.

Blackberries are delicious eaten raw on their own or over ice cream, in milkshakes, or on breakfast foods like pancakes or cereal. Jelly, jam, syrup are also delectable. Donít forget to gather some leaves, dry them and put them away for tea, also.

While re-reading the section in the field guide on brambles, I was reminded that young shoots are delicious in salads. Iíve not tried thisÖ But there you go, why not add them to your salad bowl?

Roses

Rose hips are the seedpods of the fragrant wild roses that are still blossoming in the roadside verges. The hips will ripen soon now, and are so full of vitamin C that they really ought to be part of our diet.

Rose hips make excellent jelly, as well as tea and candy. Like many teas, donít forget that in summer many of the wild tisanes are deeply refreshing as iced tea. Poured into a frosty glass over ice makes a pretty as well as vitamin-rich refreshing beverage.

Cherries

The wild cherries are definitely ready to be picked; in fact some of the choke cherries were ready a few weeks ago. Weíve already made a small batch of jelly, and are looking forward to heading out again. The blacker they are, the better, so donít pick berries that are scarlet: although you can sweeten them artificially with sugar, itís worthwhile waiting until the fruit are dark crimson to black, for their own natural sugars have matured.

However, a choke cherry shrub whose plump black berries were just perfect was almost bare last night, when we went out to pick. The deer had discovered it, lucky things!

Syrup and jelly can be made from the choke, pin or black cherry trees that grow so abundantly here in the Pontiac.

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Thereís lots to eat out thereÖ But my final and very real caution is this: please do not pick and eat anything before you know what it is. Itís your responsibility not to poison yourself or your family, so please be wise. If you donít know what a plant is, take a sample leaf, flower and/or fruit and take it home so someone can identify it. Donít fall prey to that silly notion that just because a plant is ďnaturalĒ or that youíve seen a wild animal or bird eat it, that itís okay for human beingsí consumption. Animals have entirely different enzymes and can cope with toxins that seriously damage or can even kill us.

Be wise. Know your plants. AndÖ have some delicious fun.

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Katharine Fletcher enjoys wild foods in the Pontiac. She telecommutes from her home north of Quyon, Quebec, and welcomes your comments to your Environment Forum.