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.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Between Storms

We live on a ridge between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, a mountaintop island of Fog Forest.  Normally, when we look towards the ocean, we look towards a carpet of fog, or more, into a white fuzzy wall. All this summer, we looked at the ocean.

This summer was not very foggy, in fact rather alarmingly so.

The Fog has returned.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Repairing Birthday Damage

It seems to be a cliche that husbands are all thumbs around their wives when it comes time for the baby to be born, but this is the Third Millenium and I consider myself an involved, educated, supportive father. Certainly I would be able to support my wife without mishap?

Instead, I seem to have set fire to our home while my wife was in labor. Here is our son assisting in repairing the damage I did to our deck on the day he was born, three years ago:

 That is why there are separate words for "Theory" and "Practice".

Our son was born at home in Spring of 2013. We planned it, practiced it, and did it, with the excellent help and support of a Doula and a Midwife. We walked through everything repeatedly and practiced so when the day came it would run as smoothly as possible.

So much for plans.

The day before the birth, we decided to clean out the birthing tub and change the water. A great idea, but ill timed. By dinnertime my wife told me to cancel an international meeting the next day and activate the plan.

Now, the problem was simple - we had cold water in the birthing tub and that would not work. So, the problem was to heat the water quickly. How hard can this be? I dragged out a cauldron we bought for boiling straw (mushroom cultivation, another topic), filled it with water, put it on our deck with a heat shield and misting hose keeping the deck wet around and under the burner, and turned on the giant propane burner underneath it.

Everything looked good, and the Doula thought it looked good and sent me back to my wife's side.

Some person at the house, never identified, thought the spraying water needed to be shut off, probably since it was making the area around the birthing tub cold and wet.

About half an hour after I went back to my wife's side, the Doula enters the room with a peaceful look on her face, puts her hand on my shoulder, and makes the most amazing bug-eyed face at me and just me. I get the idea something is amiss. She trades places with me and I head down the hallway to see what is going on.

Straight down the hallway, through the doors and out on the deck, is a giant fireball.

I grab the hose, end now melted off, turn on pressure and start spraying. We are in a very remote location, so doing what can be done right now seems prudent - and the deck is made of very fire resistant wood (courtesy of a lot of zinc napthenate treatments over the years).

I get the wood fire out and manage to cool off the propane tank, the hose to the giant burner melted through and it is the last big flaming thing to deal with. I manage to shut off the gas and all the flame is out. I drench everything, remove the wrecked burner, put the hot water in the tub, and grab a sheet of plywood to cover over the burned area on the deck. Perhaps not all better, but the tub is serviceable and the deck is sound with the plywood sheet in place....

Our son was born later that evening, at home, without additional excitement (other than the fire, which my wife didn't find out about until the next day or so...).

Three years later, one of my neighbors had a suitable tree fall on their lands, and were kind enough to give me the logs. Last weekend we milled new deck boards (we have a sawmill) and the much delayed repair job is finally done.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Aggressive Herbivore Defense - Halt All Cell Division at Metaphase

Fall approaches, and with it comes the Meadow Saffron flowers.

The first thing you notice about the flowers, is that they exist long enough to be seen. That may sound odd, but we live in a wilderness of sorts, the northern Santa Cruz Mountains. Long ago I came to understand that despite my urges towards farming, all my efforts ammounted to was feeding the wildlife.

Then the Colchicum autumnale flowered. And, the flowers stayed.

The reason is simple: these plants are full of a deadly alkaloid, Colchicine.

Colchicine is an amazing alkaloid, in that it has a very specific mode of action: it prevents chromosome pairs from separating during mitotic cell division. It sounds odd, but this mode of action has proven invaluable to genetics.

Before sequencing, people looked at and counted chromosomes as a way to study organisms. Karyotyping is dependant on Colchicine.  This is the plant that is the source of Colchicine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

xBrunsdonna Flowering Underway

These are our own selections - we crossed an atypical white-flowered Brunsvigia littoralis with a deep red Amaryllis belladonna, and of the hundred or so seedlings that resulted over three years, six have pristine white flowers or at most yellow highlights. It has taken a decade to find this out - the last seeds in this cross were planted in Fall of 2004. If this seems a long time, at least they flowered faster than the Brunsvigia parent (which took 28 years from seed).
Our young helper enjoys the fragrance and especially the picking of the flowers (with occasional bouts of dubiously-advised swordplay and derring-do, flowers abused such never make it out of the yard....). Some of them do leave the yard, those are available only at one florist, in Half Moon Bay, California: Alena Jean carries our flowers when in season.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Madrone Bark Tea - Warm Tea for Foggy Mornings!

In high season now, the bark actually began to fall in August and will run into October! This bark makes my favorite tea made from local trees, and my favorite year-round locally foraged tea.

Most trees have bark that come off in granules or big chunks, but the bark of the Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) curls and peels in thin layers, falling to the ground when the mornings are foggy and the afternoons are sunny in the late summer and early fall. Just clear an area under a Madrone tree on a foggy morning, and then pick up bark curls in the late afternoon when the air is warm and dry. The barks curls and uncurls as the humidity changes, often fast enough that it can be watched dancing in realtime.

To make tea, I crush a handful of bark curls into a cup (or grind them), add boiling water, and let steep for 5 minutes, then decant or filter off the bark. This makes a lovely tea with very little bitterness or astringency and a mild flavor vaguely in the range of Raspberry Leaf or Cranberry - you will have to taste it yourself to form a proper opinion. Sweetening the tea a bit strengthens the flavor. Stronger tea can be made by boiling the bark - the flavor gets stronger, but does not seem to change other than that.

Some important notes: (1) there are many species of Madrone, some common in landscaping. I recommend being very careful to identify the tree that you are getting bark from, and be certain it is Arbutus menziesii. While other Arbutus may make tea, I've not tried it - and getting the tree identification wrong could lead to serious problems. (2) Pick bark from trees away from roadsides and landscaping - often these are sprayed for bugs or by who-knows-what. We maintain a few acres of wild trees for this among other purposes.

If you need help identifying a tree, contact us and we can attempt to assist, or contact your local agricultural extension office. Enjoy!