Thursday, April 30, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Mayapple

There is no mistaking those big, round leaves propped up all along the forest floor like beach umbrellas.

Mayapples may be better known for their leaves and fruit than their flowers, but this time of year you can find the white, waxy, fragrant blooms if you lean down a little.

These plants can be found all throughout the Eastern US, preferring moist woods that are a little more open.

Their leaves can be seen pushing their way to the surface as early as March.

They slowly unfurl like a big cape, finally stretching out to their full breadth within a week or two.

The amazing leaves, besides providing a good umbrella for a small child, are very effective at controlling their space. They cast a wide shadow, helping to prevent other plants from taking over their patch of soil.

When you are observing at a stand of Mayapples, you are essentially viewing one plant connected by a single root system.

Its Latin name is highly descriptive of its appearance: Podophyllum peltatum.

Podophlyllum means "foot leaf," perhaps likening its appearance to a webbed  bird's foot.

Peltatum means "shield-shaped."

The common name is also pretty descriptive. Their "apples" or fruit, typically appear on the plants by May.

Only the individuals receiving sufficient sunshine will flower and set fruit. Out of these plants, only those with two leaves will reproduce.

The  blooms are pollinated by bumblebees, and the fertilized flowers transform into the plant's signature "apple."

Don't be tempted to eat it at this stage, however. In fact, all parts of the plant are toxic, save for the ripe fruit.

It becomes ripe once it falls from the plant and turns yellow. This usually coincides with the leaves dying back. The fruit then has a lovely, sweet, lemony fragrance and flavor.

Mayapple Fruit
If you manage to beat the wild animals to it, you can try the fruit in a variety of ways. Some folks like to cut it up and turn it into jam or jelly. Others transform it into a unique beverage like lemonade. Cookbooks from the 16th and 17th centuries suggested slicing and stewing the sweetened, whole fruits with ginger and cloves.
I will strongly reiterate that all other parts of the plant are highly toxic, usually inducing a strong emetic reaction. The plant contains a powerful alkaloid known as podophyllin. This chemical actually prevents cells from growing. The roots are especially high in this toxin, causing extreme inflammation in the stomach and intestines which can be fatal.

Despite its powerful ability to do damage to the body, Native Americans did use it for medicine.

May Apple plant
The Cherokee would use the boiled root as a purgative, only they emphasized using just the sections between the root joints. A drop of fresh juice in the ear was used to heal deafness. The root soaked in whiskey was administered to treat arthritis and eaten to treat constipation.

Dried roots harvested in the fall were mashed into a paste that corn seeds were soaked in before planting to deter pests.

Another name for Mayapple is Mandrake.

It is completely unrelated to the true Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) found in Europe. In its native homeland, Mandrake has been a significant plant in European folklore for centuries. Occasionally the root would divide into 5 parts and resemble a human being. Because of this it was associated with fertility and used in rituals.

Similarly, it was believed by Native Americans that a woman who dug up our native Mayapple would soon find herself pregnant.

However, even contact with the roots can cause severe dermatitis in some individuals, occasionally resulting in skin lesions.

As is the case with many toxic plants, strong poison can also mean powerful medicine.

Remember how the chemical in Mayapple, podophyllin stops cells from growing? This chemical has been successfully used to treat skin cancers and venereal warts. Other compounds present in this plant are under study for the treatment of testicular and bronchial cancers, and still others have been approved by the FDA for treating lung cancer.

While most of us are aware of the pharmaceutical powerhouse under threat in our disappearing rainforests, there is a wealth of potential medicine that is equally important right at our back door in need of preserving. The Mayapple is just one example of the healing power of our native plants.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Wild Hyacinth

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places - "Wildman" Steve Brill

All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley

Cherokee Plants & Their Uses - a 400 Year History - Paul B. Hamel & Mary U. Chiltoskey

Friday, April 24, 2015

House Update 4.24.15

We were able to put in two good work days this week!

Bit by bit we are chipping away the old to make way for the new.

We finally have somebody lined up for drywall, even though he won't be able to start until around June. There should be plenty to keep us busy in the meantime, however.

Most of  the interior walls are torn down, and we managed to get the kitchen completely gutted.

Mark's dad came to help both days, so we were really able to make some progress.

Taking down the cabinets

Ripping up linoleum

By the end of the second day, the kitchen was cleared. Some of the cabinets we will keep to hang in the garage/workshop. Most everything else wasn't in good enough shape to be of use.

Oops, did I break something?
Meanwhile, I was taking down the remaining walls in the guest bath. The mirrors were glued to the wallboard, so there was no saving them.

We spent a greater part of today working outside, mainly clearing away three small fenced areas. It seemed like a pretty straightforward task - until we started, that is. These little fences have evidently been there for several years, with trees growing all in them - some of which with the fence embedded in them. 

It was a major pain in the ass (and hands, and wrists, etc.), but after a couple of hours it was all cleared out and ready to be mowed.

Ready for the dump

... yet again. At least the riding mower was working today.

This is a view from the east end of the property, looking at the chicken coops and a decrepit outbuilding I can't decide is worth keeping.

This is a huge patch of wild black raspberries growing on the hillside. It's still fairly easy to get to, so we should have plenty to gather here in a month or two.

 Unfortunately the pasture is just going to have to get away from us for now, as it's gotten too tall for the mower to handle.

I walked through it (with mom and dad's dog Fen) and was really pleased with how nice it is. Full of grasses and legumes, perfect for fattening beef calves and sheep.

I wish we had something eating it this year, but we're just going to have to be patient. 

It feels pretty good that we have accomplished this much, even though there is still SO MUCH left to do.

I know I always finish with the same view, but it is such a lovely one.

It's off to bed for me - this girl is quite tired and sore. Until next time.....

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Wild Hyacinth

I look forward to the bloom of this flower more than any other.

Once they make their appearance, somehow it seems that Spring's arrival is finally complete.

When you see those ethereal blooms waving like fairy wands in the breeze, dappled with filtered sunlight, you may agree that Heaven can indeed be on Earth, if only for a couple of weeks.

Wild Hyacinths are just that - the wild version of those big, waxy and deeply fragrant bulbs we plant in our flower beds or give as gifts on Mothers Day.

They only come in one color, however: a pale, pale lavender blue.

In the forests that they call home, they reign supreme during their bloom. Sometimes they have spread in massive colonies, with grassy foliage and tall blooms as far as the eye can see.

There is one colony here stretching for at least a mile, that can be found on the lake shore beside one of our park's trails. It is worth the long hike.

Wild Hyacinths are members of the lily family that prefer calcareous or basic soils, like those found in the Caney Fork river valley. They aren't terribly common, but usually occur in large colonies, especially on moist wooded slopes.

Their blooms can reach up to 36 inches high, and are referred to as terminal - blooming from bottom to top.

Around here, their bloom usually coincides with the emergence of another special creature: the Eastern Zebra Swallowtail.

Our Tennessee state butterfly seems to really enjoy nectaring on the fragrant blooms, and can sometimes be seen competing for space with one another. Their graceful presence undulating through the blossoms adds an even more heavenly quality to the scene.

The Latin name for Wild Hyacinth is Camassia scilloides. Camassia comes from the Chinook word quamash or camas. The eastern variety isn't the only species to be found in North America; up to five others exist, and those that grow out West were especially treasured by their local tribes because of their significant food value.

Among these was the Blue Camas, and Native Americans would tend their patches of quamash by weeding and burning. These sites became very sacred to them.

The bulbs are high in sugar, and have been such a prized staple throughout history that wars were fought over them. One Native American war, the Bannock War of 1878, was waged in Idaho because the settlers' pigs were uprooting the Indians' precious quamash plants. The Nez Perce War flared when European settlers began plowing camas lands.

The quamash bulb crop was vital for winter survival.

Another species of Hyacinth (C. quamash) native to the Pacific Northwest, is reported to have saved Lewis and Clark from starvation on their expedition. Although they learned the hard way that camas must be fully cooked, otherwise it produces a substantial amount of intestinal gas. Or to quote Captain Lewis:  “...when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by the strength of the wind.”

Quamash was cooked in just about every possible way: baked, dried, powdered and used as flour and thickener. 

It took a substantial amount of labor to gather camas, and a woman's value as a wife was often measured by her ability to dig the bulbs. If she was really good, she could harvest up to two tons per year.

While our eastern variety is also considered edible, it should only be harvested in areas where it is abundant (and of course, where you have permission to do so). It is considered rare in some states, so harvest responsibly. 

If you choose to dig some quamash bulbs to accompany your dinner, be aware that there is a VERY toxic look alike, known as Death Camas (Zigadenus spp.).

They are sometimes confused with edible wild onions too, because of their similar looking bulb. Death Camas is so toxic, one plant can kill a full-sized cow, and even bees have reportedly died from visiting the flowers. Their blooms are usually white to yellow, and they aren't too common in Tennessee. Just make sure you never eat any wild plant unless you have an expert identify it for you. Many people tend to underestimate the dangers of poisonous plants.

When Native Americans were tending their quamash patches, they would make sure and weed while both quamash and Death Camas were flowering so they could remove the toxic plants. Once the flowers died back (the ideal time to harvest the quamash), the bulbs were almost impossible to distinguish.

While the hyacinth has been used extensively and in a variety of ways as a food source, there is no mention of medicinal uses in historical texts. Its value has always been purely nutritional.

The Eastern tribes didn't seem to value camas as much as the Western ones, but some local patches are so massive, it makes you wonder if there wasn't somebody tending them a few centuries ago.

Wild Hyacinths can also make a nice landscaping plant just like their cousins, and can be ordered from select nurseries. Here is one that carries them: Prairie Moon Nursery.

The sacred camas is in full bloom right now, and even if you never taste it, you can feast your eyes on its ethereal beauty while it lasts.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Jack-in-the-pulpit

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart

All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley

Friday, April 17, 2015

An Interesting Week

Sorry for being so absent on here, of late. I didn't mean for my blog to become completely reduced to wildflower posts, but life has been a little busier.

Last Saturday was the annual spring festival at the park, and I got to slip into my old Naturalist role....

.... the poor, neglected snakes also got some fresh air and sunshine.This is where their work year begins, as from now until the end of summer it will be a constant round of schools, libraries and park programs. These animals put up with a lot of traveling and handling, and have yet to ever act aggressive. I think they deserve a post all their own, one of these days.

After a brief taste of my working days, it was back to chasing this...

... and retrieving this...

... and standing by while this destroyed the one blooming iris in the whole park. Not to worry, it was the Ranger who took the picture. The state can bill me - destroying that iris kept him in one place for more than 30 seconds.

I also had the pleasure of teaching a course on herps (reptiles and amphibians) this past week for the TN Naturalist Program. This was a paying gig, so all the better! Didn't get any pictures of that experience, but it was a great day.

Ian had his first taste of poison ivy this week, too.

His face swelled up a lot worse than this the following day, but he is much better, now. He had rashes ALL OVER his little body, bless his heart. I watch him really closely when he's outside to make sure he avoids poison ivy, so I'm thinking it rubbed off his good friend, Mika.

She has pretty much become his dog. She follows him around everywhere, and is extremely tolerant of his abuse  antics. For that I can forgive her long list of faults (chewing up everything, peeing on the carpet, eating my rabbits, wiggling out of the fence and nearly causing accidents on the road). We seriously need to fix the fence so we can keep her contained. It's a miracle she hasn't been hit yet - the dog has zero road sense.

Speaking of roadway incidents, we did lose a chicken to the road this week.

One of the younger black sex-links bit the dust (or pavement, as it were). We weren't there when it happened, but whoever it was had the "decency" to toss the flat chicken into our driveway before leaving the scene. A "sorry about your chicken" note with a $5 bill would have been nice, but such is the world.

So that's going to leave us with 4 eggs a day, since the older black chicken hasn't been laying. That's alright. Chickens are easy to come by, and I'm sure we'll get more soon enough.

All the buns are doing well. The litters are coming up on 4 weeks, now and still enjoying their daily helping of greens.

I'm pretty sure Acer has already weaned hers, as they are really attacking the pellets and everything else I throw in there. I'm sure she's ready to retire to her own cage at this point.

Babette is due the 28th. 

Speaking of whom, right in the middle of writing this post, Mark called me outside to tell me she was running around the yard. In one of my many distracted moments (ahem - Ian) I left her cage door open. It's a pretty good drop to the ground, so hopefully she and all of her babies are okay. She was easy enough to catch, as she pretty well just stretched out on the ground panting from all the excitement.

I am so paranoid something will happen to this doe before I ever get a chance to build up my breeding stock.

I think I will re-breed Cardamom once more before the heat sets in.

In other news, the garlic I planted last fall is doing fantastic.

It should be ready to harvest by June or July. I kind of wish I had gone ahead and planted some early spring veggies, but oh well.

My posts may not be quite as numerous now that we've entered the busy season. I'll be volunteering my time whenever possible to help with the butterfly garden and park programming. Not to mention of course working on the house at every available opportunity.

I will certainly keep up with my weekly wildflower posts, so don't despair. :)

To conclude, as always, pictures...                     .....just in case you haven't had enough.

Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) in bloom. A rather toxic plant also known as Doll's Eyes.

The distinctive corms of Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis). Aptly named, no?

Midges gather on False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum)

Bent Trillium (Trillium flexipes). (Mark is holding it because otherwise you would have to lie on your back to get a good picture of the bloom.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched in our blooming Chestnut Oak.

The exotic blooms of the Paw Paw tree (Asomina triloba).

Prairie Trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

Unfurling oak  leaves

Looking up at the Chestnut Oak that towers next to our house.

Dwarf Larkspur blooming on the trail.