Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Snow Day among Redwoods!

It snowed overnight! Not enough to sled (that hasn't happened since 2004 at our home), but enough to make snowballs, crunch around in, and add a rare artistic touch to this fog forest! The view towards the ocean from our front deck was priceless:

Now, I admit to being biased - however, the San Francisco Chronicle ran it on their homepage for a while today...

I don't think any photo of mine has had such a great venue before!

Ah, but to important questions: What to do with snow?

For starters, eat it! Find clean snow that is not the layer directly in contact with whatever it has collected on. Collect clean snow away from sources of contamination, such as chimneys, trees, and roadways. My son has this to say about the uses of snow: "We made it into snow cones that had Lingon and Blaubeeren in it and we ate it. Then we made more. And, then, the snow melted that we had brought in but not yet eaten. I hope you have a good day. Some day when it snows a lot I want to invite friends over to collect and eat snow. Be happy and have fun!"

Also explore, climb your favorite tree, make snowballs, throw snowballs, and generally enjoy!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Candycaps Arrive - the Mushroom that tastes like Maple Syrup

Lactarius fragilis, Lactarius camphoratus, and Lactarius rubidus are all commonly called "Candycap" mushrooms. These are the only mushrooms I've ever used to flavor cookies. They grow under oak trees in coastal California during the cooler months - at the coast they can occasionally be found year-round.

One of the trails through our farm is named for them - the Candycap Trail.

Last night, these tiny sources of joy made their seasonal appearance in our yard for the first time since the rains started three months ago!

Definitely not a mushroom to start with - there are several toxic ones that look similar. Go on a local foray led by a mycological society to get a proper introduction. David Arora's masterwork, Mushrooms Demystified, would be an excellent book to start with to get a sense of these tiny orange joys.

If you pan fry fresh ones in hot oil until a bit crispy, they have a vaguely bacon-like flavor that works well in many dishes where bacon would be appreciated. If you dry them, the flavor and fragrance intensify. If you eat them, you will smell faintly of them for a few days - don't be surprised!

We air dry them slowly (not in a dehydrator) to preserve the aroma, then powder them just before cooking. You can add the powder to any shortbread cookie recipe to impart a flavor that is very close to Maple Syrup.

My son says "Come see Candycaps and find them with us. If you find some, we can come down and see what kind of candycaps you have found. Candycap trail is a good place to look. If you happen to find a puffball, we have to keep that. If you find a Butter Bolete they are good too. Thank you for reading our blog."

Our property (less than 10 acres) often produces ten or twenty pounds of these over the course of the season, making them in some years our most abundant edible. If you live in the Bay Area, there are lots to be found and collected legally at Point Reyes Seashore (the trails leading away from the visitor's center are often good, though finding them depends on how many other folks went looking before you and whether they are even coming up).

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.

SpaceWeather.com 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.