Friday, November 16, 2018

There is Ilmenite in them thar hills!

And magnetite! Actually, quite a few heavy minerals. None of which appear to be gold...
This afternoon I and my son tried our hands at panning for gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California just east of Sacramento. After a while, we began to understand that there might be some art to this whole "panning for gold" thing.

To start with, pick a stream that actually contains gold.

However, we really weren't looking for gold. We were looking for magnetic sands - my son is intensely interested in magnetism (and mushrooms, and lizards, and many more things). The dark, heavy sands that, in many nearby streams, often indicates you are in the right general area to find gold, in this case indicate that you are in the right general area to find dark, heavy sands.

To many folks, these sands are not interesting.

We are not those folks.

With a small Rare Earth magnet (any decent magnet will work), a plastic bag (magnets rust if they get wet), and a gold pan, we successfully collected many grams of real, genuine, magnetic sand.

First, it is fun to play with with a magnet and is a clean material for field visualization.
Second, it is a neat organic additive to soils low in iron to add that critical mineral as well as potentially other trace minerals to our soils.

Next up: what is the mineralogy of this sand? We'll explore that using some simple tools next.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Stubborn Honey Mushrooms

Our area (the Santa Cruz Mountains) often has rain before the end of October, though not this year. We haven't had real precipitation in six months or more now. What we have had is a tiny amount of fog drip. These are not good conditions for mushroom hunting.

Even so, Armillaria mellea is a determined species. The Honey Mushroom connects to oak trees (admittedly it seems to be a pathogen more often than a symbiont), and is ubiquitous in Western Oak forests this time of year. This connection seems to give it access to water that other local mushrooms cannot access. Here they are fruiting in our yard a few days ago!
Notice that the caps are drying out even as they begin spore production. The cap on the right has cracked from desiccation in the unusually dry Fall air, but these still successfully fruited, pushing through the bark of a fallen tanoak log.

The dry caps were bug-free, even though the stems had some insect damage. I rarely see mature Honey Mushrooms without damage to the caps from bugs.

We're looking forward to the start of the main season with the rains, which may not begin until the start of December!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Maximum Acorn is here!

Stand in the tanoak woods on a warm Autumn evening for the visceral definition of the season's shorter name, "Fall". All around is a percussive symphony of acorns falling through leaf and limb, finally collecting in patches and pockets and piles on the forest floor.

What most people think of as decorations of the season we think of quite differently: food.


Because when properly prepared, these make a flour as tasty as Chestnut flour. The trick is twofold: dry the acorns without overheating them, then use a slow cold water process to leach out the tannins. More on that in a later post. For now, gather them and spread them in thin layers in dappled sun at most, with good air circulation, for several weeks until the nuts are dry and hard.

We shell them when dried and discard any with problems. The good nuts get dried more in a warm (not hot) air fan. We gather in October and November with drying done by late December most years.

The  abundance of bedrock acorn mortars in our area was my first unsubtle hint that these might be worth the effort. After several false starts, we seem to have this down to a stable process.

In addition to Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), the Canyon, Valley, and Blue Oaks have excellent acorns - they all get the same treatment.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Brunsvigia pollination time!

Brunsvigia littoralis is an endangered bulb related to Amaryllis from the Cape Province of South Africa. Ours came from the U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden fall plant sale years ago (more than a decade...). While habitat destruction is an important cause of this plant's endangerment, it has another problem: it is pollinated only by the longer-billed Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa). These birds perch on the flower stems and reach into the flowers for nectar, providing effective pollination. Malachite Sunbirds do not like disturbed habitats and areas altered by people, and are not known from California regardless. What is a plant to do?

Enter the local stand-in for Malachite Sunbirds: our son.
He has been pollinating these since he was two and saw me doing it. He is also the hand pollinator for pretty much everything he can reach this time of year - we grow several Haemanthus species as well as some other South African bulbs far from their native pollinators. He is great at it. Without hand pollination, we typically get one or two seeds per flowerhead. With hand pollination, we get thirty or more.

In his words: "I'm not going to tell you". OK, perhaps he is protective of his methods. However, the basic game is getting the pollen from the anthers (where the yellow powder of pollen is made) to the stigma when it is able to accept pollen (the tip gets fuzzy and white). If the pollen gets where it needs to be at the right time, each flower can produce two to six seeds.

These are not plants for impatient folks. From seed to flowering can easily be more than a decade. The bulbs are larger than footballs (American type) when ready to flower. They are worth the wait! In California they tend to flower in September, before the leaves emerge from the dry late summer soil for their fall and winter growth period.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Fall Apples Begin: Greensleeves

This year we are beginning to harvest the Fall fruit - Apples figure large in that process. We have the first fruiting of three trees this year - White Pearmain, Honeycrisp, and Greensleeves.

When buying apples at the store, they barely resemble their homegrown kin. I very much enjoy these apples - nevermore than when picked in fully ripe perfection straight off the tree. Honeycrisp was startlingly sweet, crunchy, and phenomonal. Perhaps it was even more so because I regularly eat this one bought from the supermarket, which sets a certain basis for comparison.

An apple I had no basis for comparison with is Greensleeves. Indeed, after reading it's description, I had to simply find and buy a grafted tree, plant it, and wait. This is the tenth year of that process... and it was worth the wait.

Greensleeves is a firm, smooth, sweet and tart apple with a great flavor. It is a yellowish apple of medium size.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Crop of Death

The Fall rains have arrived after years of drought. With them come the wild mushrooms.

I pick end enjoy wild mushrooms, but only after years of foraging with experienced local experts. In fact, the most reliable method of determining if a wild mushroom is not only edible, but worth the effort, is to have someone who has been picking and eating the local mushrooms respond to being shown a find - and getting a response like "I will tell you what it is, but you first must give me half and tell me where you found it/them". Mind you, even this method is far from perfect, as PhD students and researchers can be studying inedible or deadly ones.

In fact, that happened to me recently - but the mushroom in question has the accurate and appropriate name "Death Cap". Eat it and you will die, slowly and painfully, of liver failure. Death Caps are to be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, they can be the most common mushrooms in many places and times. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, they are locally abundant right now. They are not food. Most local poisonings from wild mushrooms are from these.

If you want to learn about local wild mushrooms, books are not enough. You must join and participate in your local Mycological Society. In the Bay Area, The Mycological Society of San Francisco is a good one, find them at

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Medlars Ripening - Forgotten Fruit of Fall

The last apples were picked off our trees (19 of them) last week - the season should be over, but it is not! Even though we have not had a frost yet, the Medlars are softening on the trees and their leaves are turning brilliant golds and yellows to celebrate the turning of the season.


This is another fruit in the Rose family (apples, cherries, plums, etc... are all in the Rose Family), producing roughly ball shaped fruits often the size of a golf ball or a bit larger. Shakespeare mentions them several times, and they were widely grown across Europe and the UK since Roman times, at least.

Unlike apples, that are picked when ready to eat, and despite my son's fondness of raw Medlars, this is a fruit that need to ripen after being picked, much like the soft types of Persimmon. The process is called "Bletting", but in a pinch fresh fruits can be peeled and boiled for about half an hour in water.

Today we picked our first Medlars of this season, and immediately processed them into a simple but very tasty jam - a little like apples, a hint of ginger, a hint of cinnamon, but really quite it's own unique and wonderful flavor.

To make the jam, here is our recipe and procedure:

LittleGrove Medlar Jam

1. Using a sharp knife, cut each medlar in half from the stem end through the center of the flower scar. Throw out ones that have rotted or appear questionable - they should be firm to slightly soft. These have big seeds embedded in the flesh, so be careful when slicing in half.

2. Peel the skin off each half-medlar. Put the peeled medlars immediately into a pot of water, warm or cold, to prevent browning.

3. When about 3 cups of medlars are in the pot, cover it and bring it to a gentle boil.

4. Turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minute to an hour. Do not let them dry out!

5. Turn off the heat and allow to cool to around 100F or so - whatever temperature that leaves your hands comfortable handling them for the next step.

6. Place the medlars in a blender and cover with liquid they were boiled in. If not enough remains to cover them completely, add more water.

7. Grind at a VERY low speed until a paste has been made. The reason to use a low speed is to not tear tough chunks out of the seeds.

8. Pour the blended medlars through a coarse metal colander - the coarsest that will keep the seeds and pass the pulp. Press extra pulp from the mash by pressing with a spatula or spoon.

9. Collect the pulp. It should be around two cups if you measure it.

10. Put the strained pulp back into the simmering pot (if there are no seedy parts left in it, or use a fresh pot).

11. Add two cups of sucrose (cane sugar). Do not use a sugar substitute, or any other kind of sugar or the results can be a syrup instead of a jam.

12. Get a clip-on-the-edge-of-the-pot metal candy thermometer.

13. Bring the medlar-sugar mix to a boil at high heat, uncovered. Stir constantly from here on.

14. Boil until the temperature of the jam reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit. The mixture will change transparency around 210 Fahrenheit, becoming more transparent. If you stop at 210, it is likely you have a tasty syrup. If you go to 220, you most likely will have a successful jam.

15. Remove from heat and cool, uncovered, until it sets.

16. Turn out into a bowl and serve with meat dishes that would normally take Cranberry sauce. Alternatively, you can jar the jam - look up normal procedures for fruit jam, like strawberry, and follow those procedures.

17. Enjoy! This needs no additional pectin to set well, at least in our experience.