Monday, January 21, 2019

Mushrooms that don't look like Mushrooms

Not all mushrooms look like Toadstools - a rounded cap atop a short stem.

The ones that do not are exceptionally varied - from fractal fantasies to migrating blobs that actually wander around before settling in to make spores to other forms to varied to trivially describe.

My son and I have been dealing with the almost total absence of Boletes this year (not a single Butter Bolete or edulis this year!). Fortunately, other species are doing well - and some of them are quite amazing.

"Higher Fungi", the subkingdom Dikarya of the kingdom of Fungi, contains two large divisions, depending on how spores are made: Ascomycota with spores on a microscopic structure called an ascus (these are sort of like a bunch of spores in a straw, or peas in a pod, sort of arrangement), and Basidiomycota with spores on a microscopic basidium structure (generally a group of spores at the tip of a club-shaped structure, or spores arranged like fingers are arranged on a hand). Of commonly seen mushrooms in supermarkets, only Morels are in the Ascomycota.

Coral Fungi
These look like fractal forests and other fantastical forms. The spores are borne on the outside of the branches, not on gills under a rain shield (cap) as on the more commonly seen sorts of mushrooms. Even with that distinction, these are kin to the supermarket button mushroom, as the spores are borne on a structure called a basidium, making Coral Fungi members of the division Basidiomycota.

The Clavulina cristata shown above is common in our yard this time of year, usually with multiple flushes. Some local Coral Fungi are brightly colored, occasionally growing in clumps the size of cabbages. Generally similar looking species are in the genera Ramaria and Clavaria among others.

Cup Fungi
These are in the group Ascomycota, which bear their spores on a structure called an ascus. They are distant relatives of Morels, and often useful (in our yard at least) in indicating where we may wish to watch for Morels appearing later in the year (late Winter or early Spring, typically).

This showed up in our orchard compost pile, an erratically attended affair that has been idle for half a year. It appears to be a Peziza species, perhaps P. repanda, the Spreading Brown Cup Fungus.

A good resource for starting to explore the fungal diversity of California can be found here on MykoWeb.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Blueberries Too Tall to Pick - Pacific Madrone

The beautiful trees with the peeling bark are members of the Ericaceae, the Blueberry Family of plants. In fact, though not widely used, the berries are edible, even good. Why not go out and get some today? Well, the problem is that these are the high, high, highbush blueberries. The berries are often more than twenty feet above the ground, potentially as far as sixty feet up.

How do we get these, then?

Wait for a windy day. Stay inside. The day after the windy day, go for a walk among the madrones with a bag and no sense of urgency. The berries, often in entire clusters, often litter the forest floor.

There are few lookalikes, so make certain you know what you have gathered. Ilex plants are not native to California, but the Holly bushes are often planted as landscape and occasionally pop up even in undisturbed forest, and have red poisonous berries. Less problematic is the Toyon, a native member of the Rose family - nicknamed the Christmas Berry, which is just not as tasty.

To be certain, make certain all these traits are present:

  1. The berries have nubbly surfaces, sort of like the surface of a basketball - these are not smooth berries.
  2. The Madrone tree has evergreen leaves with smooth edges, and smooth reddish bark on younger branches and trunks.
  3. The berries are a quarter inch in diameter or smaller.

The first time collecting berries, it is best to go along with someone local who has experience gathering these. Foraging is best learned as an in-person and in-the-field sort of affair.

Once you have collected the berries, pick off stems, throw out the mushy or off-looking ones, and proceed to make jam or any number of things, or wash and just eat.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Winter Apples: Cripps Pink, Braeburn, and Yellow Newton Pippin

We have had frost, gale force winds, and some solid Winter storms. These events tell me why these three apples are almost never commercially picked at their prime  - to do so might risk loss of part of the crop. As a result, I never had these apple varieties in their full glory until growing them here.

Braeburn (above) has now lost some of its tartness while becoming a richer, more aromatic, and much sweeter apple than it was in October. It is now a crunchy, juicy, sweet-tart joy to pluck from the cool evening air and bite into. In October it was a good apple. Today it is in its prime and is a great apple. This is my spouse's favorite among our Winter apples. Braeburn holds well on the tree.

Yellow Newton Pippin is now a rich yellow green with a deep glow in the low Winter sun. This is a crunchy, juicy, sweet-tart gem that now has a balance and a depth of aroma and flavor that was not fully developed earlier in the season. This is my favorite apple of the season; I am eating a few a day at this point and using very few for the juicer (note - in October, these produced a green juice that was slow, meaning 15 minutes, to brown; while now these produce a juice that is yellow-brown to start and much sweeter than the juice they made in October). My son also, narrowly, favors this apple.

Cripps Pink, a.k.a. Pink Lady, is a wonderful apple. They are normally more intensely colored than this one - this was put in a paper bag (as were many others) to keep critters from pecking them, the downside is that they do not color as strongly as the apples left in the sun. These are now "kid candy", very popular with our few young visitors and I've even caught our older kids eating these... They are crisp with a nice "snap" when bitten into, sweeter than the other two varieties above, with fewer aromatics than Braeburn or Yellow Newton Pippin, and a mild yet delightful flavor. These also juice very well.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Now it is the New Year's Comet - Comet Wirtanen, Orbital Motion, and Diatomic Carbon Gas

Last night I got to try taking pictures of Comet Wirtanen again, with assistance from my son, who mostly wanted to run the "driver's seat" controls on the telescope mounting. When I processed the photos (stacking about a dozen) he noticed the comet was not uniformly green:

I asked my son (a kindergarten student) what he thought of the comet, and he said "two carbon atoms, they stickeded together, then got excited and glowed green, while on the bottom sunlight is just reflecting off the dust atmosphere [tail and coma]. Thank you for visiting my blog entry."

Put another way, the comet doesn't really show a tail in this photo, but the visible coma of the comet is not all made of the same stuff. Diatomic carbon molecules fluoresce green and are largely in the upper half of the comet's atmosphere in this photo.  In the bottom half, there is sunlight being reflected from dust particles (and in fact the nucleus itself) which is much whiter. This dust makes up one of the two tails a typical comet has, the dust tail that drags out behind the comet along the path of the orbit. The gas tail isn't really visible in this photo, but tends to point more or less directly away from the sun and is green in the case of Comet Wirtanen. For a better photo, look at SpaceWeather's comet photo gallery.

While the comet was approaching Earth, the tail seems to have been hiding behind the head of the comet, more or less. Now the geometry has changed rapidly as it sped past Earth, and the dust tail is coming out of hiding. This is a tiny comet that just came close enough to be a relatively easy thing to see - which leads to one of the reasons my stars are short lines instead of points - the comet is what I was tracking, and it is moving, even in the short span of time I needed to take these photos. is run by a public school teacher out of Bishop, California - the site maintains a collection of photos of interesting things in the sky submitted by folks around the world. This link goes to a movie of the comet moving among the background stars over roughly the same time I was taking my pictures. Comet Movie. This shows another object orbiting the sun moving against the starts as it moves away from Earth.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas Comet - Comet Wirtanen

This was the 46th "periodic" comet discovered. In other words, it is in a stable orbit around the sun. This year it made a remarkably close - meaning several times the distance to the Moon - pass by the Earth. It is a little comet, yet even a little comet can be pretty and bright enough to see when it comes close.

This picture is a stack of 12 photos taken literally by putting my camera on its back on the ground and taking 12 exposures of 5 seconds each, then stacking them. No fancy gear needed, in other words. The comet is circled in the upper left, it is the faint fuzzy blob. Lots of folks have taken vastly better photos - this just happens to be mine. The Pleiades are in the lower center of the photo, and the Andromeda Galaxy in the upper right.

The neat thing about these sort of close-pass comets is that you can watch them move. Not quickly enough for the naked eye, but the comet had moved significantly between sunset and the time I took this picture, near eleven pm, at least it had moved its own diameter against the stars.

When planetary distances are considered, there are relatively few chances we have to watch things other than the moon move this fast.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Preparing Acorn Flour from Acorns

It's that time of year! We've collected a lot of acorns, mostly from the Tanbark Oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), time to make flour!

If these were their close relatives, chestnuts, the process would be simple: shell, dry, grind. These acorns are full of tannins (the stuff that makes tea brown usually), so a few additional steps are involved.

Key things to keep in mind:

1. Dry the acorns as quickly as easily possible without heating them - we spread them in layers an inch or two deep on screens where there is good dry air circulation for a month or two. Acorns are susceptible to mold if stored moist for very long.

2. Do not heat acorns until you are completely finished with preparation of the edible flour and are preparing the final food item - heating these nuts or their flour early ruins the texture and prevents their "gluten-like" materials from showing their amazing properties.

Here are the steps we follow, in order:

Step 1 - Start with shelling the acorns. I have built power machines for doing this, which are messy and I am still unconvinced they saved any time, net. What I do these days for small batches is simply sit at the table while chatting, watching programs, or sitting by the fireplace, and simply shell them by hand using a basic nut cracker. There are several approaches, cracking at the cap end (the white oval is at this end) seems to work best for me, though others have good success putting the nut longwise into the nut cracker. Experiment and find what works for you. Discard any nuts that are moldy, darkened, contain bugs, or otherwise look "off". The shells and discarded nuts we use as mulch in the garden, they do compost given a bit of time.

Shelled acorns for Tanoak acorns look like this, note that not all acorns will have the papery husks.

Step 2 - Remove the husks. Not all acorns have these, so if you have exposed nut meats right after shelling, skip this part. This step is optional - it doesn't seem to be too much of a problem (or even frankly detectable) if the husks are ground with the nuts, I just do this because if the nuts are dry the husks generally fall off easily and it makes examination of the nuts to see if there are hidden bad spots much easier. If the nuts are dry, the husks are just going to fall off by rubbing handfulls of acorns between your hands. The chaff can then be blown off gently or the nuts picked out of the chaff. Discard any acorns with unusual coloration.

Step 3 - Grind the acorns. We put them in a kitchen blender and cover them with tap water until they are covered. Using a medium speed at first, and a high speed later, we grind the acorns into something with the consistency of a "smoothie".

Step 4 - Leach the acorns. We lay out a set of old towels on a screen (lots of ways to do this), with a relatively smooth and fine weave kitchen towel as the top layer. By using some rolling of the edges of the towels a raised rim can be made that helps keep the acorn paste in the center of the towel. Use a spatula to spread the paste out so it is fairly uniformly thick. This is the acorn cake you will leach. Acorn meal exposed to air will darken slightly, which is not a problem. Shown below is an improvised leaching stack on a plastic garden chair. Note - the towels will be permanently stained by this process.
While there are several ways of leaching acorns, this is our preferred one when we have cold weather and a suitable protected outside place to do the leaching. We put a Dramm Fogg-It seedling nozzle on the end of a hose and aim it from a distance at the cake, so that the mist falls evenly over the entire surface of the acorn cake and slowly flows through. We like this method because it can produce great results overnight, most other methods we have tried take several days in the refrigerator.
Every few hours taste the water dripping out of the bottom of the cloth. If it has no bitterness, the leaching may be done. Taste the wet acorn cake to be sure - it should not be bitter. When this stage is reached the leaching is complete and it is time to dry the acorn cake.

Step 5 - Dry the acorn cake. We allow the wet cake to drip for half an hour, then carefully fold the towel corners over the cake. We take this and compress it between layers of dry, clean, rag towels. You can put a cinder block atop the stack or other weight that doesn't care about getting moist. Let it dewater for an hour or so. If you can still squeeze water out by pinching some between your fingers, it needs another pressing with dry rag towels.

Once this initial dewatering is done, we place it on a warm, dry (not hot!) place and set up a slow fan near it. Leave it on the towel - it will continue to wick water out of the cake and help the drying. When the surface of the cake is dry, fold the towel ontop of it and crush the cake into lumps. The middle should be moist still. Allow the lumps (break into half inch or smaller clumps) to dry to the touch, then crumble them up and repeat until the crumbles are dry. Continue the drying for another few hours just to be certain.

Step 6 - Make "flour". In our case, we just put the dry acorn meal back into the blender and pulse it a few times to make a flour-like powder. This is now ready for use. Store in an airtight container in the freezer until ready to use.

Asking my son what he would like people to know about the process, he replied "when do we get to make acorn chocolate chip cookies?".

Up soon, Acorn Chocolate Chip Cookies!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

December Apples: Braeburn, Cripp's Pink, Yellow Newtown Pippin, and McIntosh

In early December the figs and finger limes are finished, the oranges and mandarinquats just starting,  and the apples are in their glory! We are down to four apples still on the trees - and these are the late gems. Yellow Newtown Pippin still hasn't reached it's prime, which usually happens after first frost.

From front right clockwise: McIntosh, Braeburn, Cripp's Pink, Yellow Newtown Pippin.

These are radically distinct apples. Getting them fresh off the tree is a profoundly different experience than getting unknown age apples off a typical store shelf. You certainly can get great apples at the store - I just don't know how to do it reliably. Going over them in that order:

McIntosh - this is our son's favorite. When I give him a choice of these four, he takes the McIntosh and tells me "you can have one of these [meaning any except the McIntosh he by now has bitten]". At this time of year these are tender (not mealy!) apples with amazing aromatics - these are richly fragrant, sweet apples, with deep flavor. This is the National Apple of Canada. For us, this is the fourth heaviest bearing apple tree in the yard. This month is the end of the harvest, they don't always last into December.

Braeburn - this is my favorite of the four. It is a firm apple with a sweet-tart apple flavor. This is the apple tree I planted outside the house back door (alongside Montmorency cherry), so I can have a snack without having to battle the autumn storms! It bears fairly heavily, our third heaviest and a very reliable one. These can hold on tree to the end of the month, generally, though gather them once frost falls.

Cripps Pink - this is in the market as "Pink Lady", though I prefer the older name. The apples are just now coming into their full flavor and sweetness - these are good. The tree bears heavily and the apples have been tasty since late August.

Yellow Newton Pippin - these are astounding! Unlike most US market apples, these have a light russett - the skin is rough in patches. These are firm, sweet-tart, flavorful, and the last apples on our trees generally - we've picked these at their prime still as late as  January (if we haven't eaten them all first...). This is our heaviest bearing and most reliably bearing tree.