Friday, March 22, 2024

Bambara Nut Planting

Meet another Ground Nut, the Bambara Nut. Bambara are related to peanuts, and are cultivated all over Southern Africa.
These nuts are actually beans with a remarkable pattern of growth, very like peanuts. They grow up as plants and flower in the open air. Once the flower in pollinated, it starts to extend the flower stem (the pedicel) down towards the ground - and then right on into the ground. The seed pod generally contains one seed, and it develops underground connected to the plant above via the pedicel running down from the branching plant above. It takes about four months for the seeds to ripen. There are more than food values to them - they are part of Traditional Medicine in some locations, though the details are a separate topic. We are growing them to eat.

Harest involves pulling the entire plant out of the ground (after it turns yellow at the end of the growing season), doing so very carefully - all those Banyan-tree like structures running down from the plant stems are not roots, each is a pedicel and leads to a subterranean seed pod. Pull the pods off gently and allow them to dry in an airy, shaded location. Seed storage is normally in the pods to protect them from weevils and other bugs. Shelling them just before preparation is normal.

Getting them started is a matter of soaking them overnight, then rinsing them well and planting them in a suitable soil. We are starting our first crop with seeds purchased online as food, and starting them in 3" square and 9" deep tree pots. We fill them with soil and plant the soaked seeds four to a pot and about 1" deep, covering with more soil. A cactus mix might work well instead. It has taken them two weeks to sprout, and they are sprouting at a good rate.

We are growing them in mounds of a pearlite-sand-coir-bark mixture that we use as an all-purpose soil for growing seasonally dormant bulbs, but that is fancier than needed - these are specialists in poor soils that fix their own nitrogen from the air. Sandy and not waterlogged are very useful traits for the growing soil, basically you need to be able to pull the seed pods out of the ground when the plant is ready without breaking the somewhat fragile stem leading to the pod. We will post again when we harvest!

Usually, these are grown for consumption in the same household where they are grown. The nuts are a complete food all by themselves. In the latin naming system, these are Vigna subterranea. There are many common names used for these nuts, each of which tends to be localized to a specific region. A decent list of regional names can be found here.These names are encountered in South Africa:

  • Jugoboon
  • Ditloo-marapo
  • Izindlubu
  • Indlubu
  • Jugo bean
  • Nduhu
  • Phonda
  • Ndlowu
  • Njugo
  • Tindlubu
  • Inhlowa

The South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has produced a solid introductory document about Bambara Nuts, which is a good place to start further reading: A much more detailed view is available from the 2022 book Bambara groundnut: Utilization and Future Prospects by Jideani and Jideani.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Late Winter Mushroom Foraging and the Black Chanterelles

It has been a wonderfully wet Winter in California this year - that means mushrooms! A gem that we never get enough of is flourishing this year, the Black Chanterelle.
These unexpected looking mushrooms are Craterellus cornucopioides, variously described as "black petunias" sitting in the duff, or "holes in spacetime that you cook Risotto with" (ok, that one is mine). We usually have a few each year, however, this year we have enough to cook with!

There are very few mushrooms these can be confused with, though the list isn't empty! If you want to pick and eat your own mushrooms, always start by joining your local mycological society and going on some of their forrays. We are long time members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco (at and it is an eclectic and fun group. Local knowledge is essential, and your local mycological society will have experts on the local ones that are safe to start with, and the ones best left for photography rather than culinary purposes. You can die from eating the wrong mushroom, plant, or animal - if you are going to forage, then "apprentice" to local folks doing the same to learn how to do it safely. My first finding of a tasty edible was about a quarter century ago, and when I brought it to the gentleman doing the identification, he joked "I'll tell you what it is if you give me half and tell me where you found them"... coming from a chef, I sort of had my answer... he even helped me confirm the identity of the mushrooms without actually asking for any.

Rocket Fuel and Mushroom overlap! Helvella dryophila makes rocket fuel as a toxin to prevent its being eaten! The Oak-loving Elfin Saddle has a much longer season than the Black Chanterelle while being an even more improbable looking beastie:

This is a distant relative of the famous Morel mushroom, and others in this group have amazing properties - while some folks consider this "edible, but not worth the trouble" since it must be cooked thoroughly, the very thing that is being driven off is rocket fuel. Yes, this is a mushroom that makes toxic rocket fuel to prevent its being eaten. The material in question in monomethyl hydrazine. Really. I tend to cook these thoroughly (see hydrazine - not food) and put them into my eggs (cook before putting in the eggs!) before scrambling them. Eat entirely at your own risk - I strongly suggest going to some mycological society forrays and talking about the different perspectives on Gyromitrin and some of the other toxins in this group, how to mitigate and remove them, and whether it is worth the effort at all. Wikipedia has a short article on this mushroom's kin:

How about some tea on a cold evening? Probably not the tea made from this mushroom, yet it is an important element of several First Nations traditional medical practice, as well as being commercially available in several forms, generally from Traditional Chinese medical practicioners, though I've even seen tea containing it show up in some local specialty shops. Meet Trametes versicolor, a common mushroom on fallen oak and tanoak logs. Locally it is called Turkey Tail and several other names. Once again, join your local mycological society for experienced guidance on how, when, and where to collect and use this if you are inclined to try, or just go with the farmed commercial material. This is however able to be found almost year-round in our local mountains, most frequently in the deep, moist woods and on fallen hardwoods. It is a delightful and beautiful sight, stumbling across a log or stump covered with these.

Read more about Trametes here:

Here are a few others from recent walks. These two are different types of Waxy Caps (not food):

Below is a member of the Club Fungi, I think Ramariopsis but am not certain (not food):
For a few years during the recent drought, mushrooms became rarer encounters. It feels great to have all these old friends popping up when I explore the forest again! Get out into the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Open Space preserves and such this month and you may well meet amazing mushrooms and fungi - if you are wanting to collect some, try Point Reyes National Seashore and follow the rules.