November 15, 2015

Foraging the Minuteman Bike Path - Fall

Ah fall. The absolute best season in New England, and it is an especially nice time to be out on the Minuteman bikeway. The weather first moderates, then becomes crisp, and finally downright cold. The trees drop their colored leaves on the pavement. And there are plenty of good things to eat!

Apples - 5
Malus sieversii & Malus Domestica
Not all the numerous crabs, wild, and untended apple trees along the path are good to eat, but many are. Plenty have fruit about as big as a marble and hard to pick. But there are a few that are worth the trouble.

This handful of apples come from a tree group around where Bow St. crosses the path in Arlington Heights. Some of the apples are big so they could be from a cultivated variety, but it is in a clump with other crab-like apples which could be seedlings from the cultivated tree. Or maybe they are all seedlings.

Wild Grapes - 4
Vitis Labrusca
These smell heavenly in the woods, especially between Hartwell Ave. and Lexington Center. Indeed the odor can be a real help in locating the vines. If I get a whiff of the fruit, I start looking around for a plant with grape shaped leaves, usually climbing up a nearby tree or bush. Then look under the leaves for small bunches fruit.

I think they are good (for wild food), though when I brought them home my family thought they were sour, seedy, and with thick slipping skins. The grapes are not in great abundance on the vines either.

Autumn Olive - 5
Elaeagnus Angustifolia
I think of this as close to the best foraged food for the entire year. The berries are abundant, easy to harvest, and taste good. This is not a native plant; it was brought in during the early 20th century for erosion control, etc. This is one of the few non-legume families of plants which are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, and I'm sure this is in large part responsible for the plant's ability to quickly colonize barren soil at roadsides or freshly graded embankments. I have a goumi bush in my yard, which is also in the Elaeagnus family but less invasive and with bigger fruit. This is it's second season and it has shown no signs of wanting to fruit yet.

The autumn olive has a reputation as being invasive. I don't think that is true in this area though; while relatively prolific in certain areas and a not uncommon sight while driving around, it doesn't seem to completely take over an area like for instance japanese knotweed.

There are numerous bushes just off the path on Wiggins Ave. in Bedford, particularly near the entrance for the office park hosting Toxicon. There is also a big one near the park bench along the path near Trader Joe's in Arlington Heights, and another less good one on the path in back of Arlington High School.

There is wide variation in the fruit from bush to bush. Some are much bigger than others, some sweeter, some more tannic. Berry color and the density of the silver flecks on the skin also vary a lot.

I picked a bunch last year to take home and share with my family, and another tin for work. But most people don't seem to care for them. I think they are great, and I did find someone else who likes them; a colleague from work whom I often ride home from work with on the path. For weeks in September and October, we would stop at the bushes on Wiggins ave. to fuel ourselves up for the ride back towards Boston.

In fact I liked these so much I planted a bush in my yard this summer; a selected variety from Edible Landscaping.

They come off the bush easily when they are fully ripe. Before that even if they look very red; they will cling to the bush and won't taste as good.

Kousa Dogwood - 3
Cornus Kousa
A small tree/large bush popular for landscaping, and a relatively common sight on the path, especially in Lexington. The fruit looks similar to a lychee and can be abundant.

I've read that the fruit is variable from bush to bush, but I have not been that enamored of the samples I've had from maybe 5 different bushes. There are a group of them near the path onramp at the Maple street overpass in Lex., where these pics were taken.

I didn't eat the outside shell, which apparently is edible, but instead squished the insides out into my mouth. The result is a sweetish pulp, of not terribly exciting flavor. There is a big seed inside to avoid.

I wish I liked it better; it is easy to find and easy to harvest.

Jerusalem Artichoke - 3
Helianthus Tuberosus
I grew some of these in my yard this year, and they really kicked out a ton of tubers. Since I was looking at them in my front yard every day, I started noticing some clumps of plants along the path which looked the same. They look like small, multi-floral sunflowers with many stems coming up in the same place. 

One day I dug some up from around the Great Meadow in Arlington, and took them home. The tubers were nowhere near as plentiful as the ones in my yard and were shaped differently, but still not inconsiderable in volume. 

I roasted them with olive oil and salt in the toaster oven until soft; these ones really tasted like artichoke hearts... maybe that is where the name came from?

Daylilly Tubers - 3
Hemerocallis Fulva
I think daylilly has to take the prize for most useful plant overall. You can eat the tubers and shoots in spring, flowers and buds in summer, and tubers again in fall. Plus it looks great and is grows easily. The tubers this time were dug from the side of the path in Arlington Heights.

Roasted with olive oil and salt they were not bad. Not much flavor though.

Black Walnut - 3
Juglans Nigra
These are hard to miss when they start dropping their round green husked nuts on the path. They are somewhat bigger than a golf ball, and smooth on the outside. They have a strong black peppercorn like scent when fresh, which I had never noticed before. 

I stuffed my bag full from a tree not far from Lexington center, towards 128, and put them in a few bowls to ferment or rot or whatever they do when the husk goes from green to black and becomes brittle.

Unfortunately the ones on the bottom of the bowls got very moldy so I discarded them. The others were taken to the basement, where the kids broke husks off with hammers. 

Cracked the shells in the bench vise. Grandma helped us out.

Last, we picked nut meats out.

Black walnuts are difficult to crack, and difficult to extract from the shells after cracking. All in, we probably got about 1 cup of nut bits, which was still chewy so we dried it some more in the kitchen. The taste is good, but much stronger than persian walnut. I'll probably put them into some cookies or something.

The difficulty in processing the nuts is certainly a mark against them. But once you have them out they seem pretty useful. I kept the broken husk debris to try to use in fabric dye later on.

Cornelian Cherry - 2
Cornus Mas
A type of dogwood which makes cherry-like fruit. Used for landscaping, mainly for it's pretty and early yellow flowers. I have two of these planted in my yard, but have not had fruit from them yet. One day I discovered a couple of them growing behind the public library in Lexington, about a block off the path. 

They tasted bad, so I kept going past every couple days to keep sampling. They went from hard, sour, and tannic to less sour, soft, a little sweet, and kind of rotten tasting. The fruit was not too abundant either. That makes me a little worried about the space we gave to this species in the yard, but I am hoping the grafted selections from Fedco have better fruit than the ones behind the library.

Chokeberry - 3
As several foraging sources note, the name is unfortunate. Clearly not made up by someone with a marketing background. This berry is actually pretty tasty, though I usually chew them up to suck the juice and then spit out the pulp. I feel like there ought to be some around in the woods, but the ones I have located so far are just off the path on Lake st. in Arlington. They are on the corner of Brooks and Chandler, in a little native species garden planted in from of Hardy School.

No one seemed to be eating them, so I started taking a handful of berries to munch on as I rode past most days. 

The pic at the top of the post shows these berries too.

After reading about them, I had planted two Aronia ('Viking') in the yard. They are in a difficult spot under some maples, and got utterly crushed by snow & ice last winter, then trampled on by a tree crew, then dug up and moved by me. They did come back though and grow a bit this season, so this is a plant with some resilience.

The berries have a lot of flavor, but no sugar. So I think they would be great if eaten with some other fruit, or used in a context where sweetness is provided by another ingredient. When I was thinking about planting those bushes, I got a bag of unsweetened dried aronia berries from Amazon, which we enjoyed eating in pancakes.


Anonymous said...

The cornelian cherry has a very unique taste, sour and sweet with a hint of vanillia. They are ripe when falling off the tree by themselfs. don´t pick them, collect them from the ground. Here in middle europe the are ready in sebtember.
They make a gorgeous jam like wild grapes.
Easiest way for both fruits is too cook them as a whole and working them through a not too fine sieve. the skins and seeds stay in the sieve.
Another usage for the grapes is to press the very green and sour grapes in an early stage (July). this juice is called "verjus" and is fantastic for cooking and salads. It can be used everywhere where vinegar or lemon juice is used and gives a sour note without this stinging vinegar taste but with a bit more taste than lemon juice.

Anonymous said...

We used to put the green to black walnuts in the hull in the gravel driveway to be driven over until the hulls came off.....then crack in a vise. And they made one's fingers VERY stained, and it had to practically wear off, washing didn't help.

And after all that not a great taste.

Same with the cornelian cherries, I planted them for song birds but decided that they were mainly being eaten by rodents so pulled them up.....

BUT I'm enjoying your foraging second hand.