Environment, life, Neodruidry, Plants and Herbs

Persimmon Foraging Quest

Hello! If you’ve been reading here for a while now, you may have come across the Persimmon Quest.

This is an annual quest my partner and I go on every autumn. We call around or visit grocery stores in order to find out who actually has persimmons (preferably the astringent kind, but non-astringent will also do). Then, we purchase and eat massive quantities of persimmons.

The first time I had one was when I still lived in California. It was a Fuyu persimmon (Diospyros kaki), crunchy and sweet, and I was sold. When I had my first perfectly ripe Hachiya, like a water balloon filled with sweet, flavorful jelly, I was smitten. When I realized that one of the trees planted here by one of the former occupants was probably a persimmon, I was ecstatic.

A Druidry group I belong to recently offered a small foraging expedition. One of our members is a biologist, and he’s kind and generous enough with his time to lead seasonal foraging walks. Last spring, we hunted for ramps. Now that it’s persimmon season, we went to track down some trees.

And oh, did we ever.

Three bags of soft, bright orange American persimmons, along with a sprig of coralberry and some dried mountain mint.

Several of them were already bare, picked over by wildlife and wind. Some were still laden with fruit that fell at the slightest touch. We picked only the ripest, squishiest ones, leaving the rest to soften in the sun and feed other things.

My partner and I came away with several pounds, which I cleaned and froze for future use. They’re very different from Japanese persimmons — we snacked on a few as we foraged, and it was striking just how much the flavor seemed to vary from tree to tree. American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are most similar to Hachiya-type Japanese persimmons, in that they’re very astringent before they’re ripe. When they look like they’re nearly rotten, they’re at their best.

Most of the ones I tasted were almost floral when compared to a Hachiya. Still very sweet and soft (with a slight astringent bite in a few places), but floral like lavender lemonade is floral. The comparatively large seeds got in the way a bit, but I’ve read some interesting recipes for roasting and grinding them to make a coffee substitute. As someone who doesn’t drink coffee, I’m intrigued! If I can get a foraged equivalent for Dandy Blend that isn’t dandelion root, I’ll be excited.

I haven’t yet decided what to do with the persimmons themselves. I might separate the seeds and pulp, then freeze the pulp again in an ice cube tray. I figure, if I want to add them to smoothies, sauces, or desserts, I can just thaw out some cubes of prepared persimmon mush fairly quickly and easily. I could even pop a cube or two in a jar for making persimmon kefir. (One member of the group was considering doing fruit leather but based on my experiences trying to make strawberry leather in the oven, I don’t think I want to tackle that without a dehydrator.)

There was a lot more to see than just persimmons, too. Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) with its stringy bark (good for stripping and braiding into twine). Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) with its bright yellow, tomato-like, deceptively delicious-looking poisonous fruits. Fragrant tufts of mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), gray and brittle with age. The most striking were the coralberries (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), their tiny, bright magenta fruits standing in vibrant contrast to their bright green leaves.

I found these berries particularly intriguing. As it turns out, they’re a valuable native food plant for birds, grow in shade, can stabilize banks, don’t have any major pest or disease vulnerabilities, and thrive on neglect. I’m still looking for native/non-invasive plants to help feed the yard’s hard clay soil and reverse some of the damage from supporting a lawn, and coralberry fills a very important niche here. From what I have read, coralberries aren’t of much value as food for humans. That’s okay, though. Not everything in the yard has to — or should — be for me to eat.

Plus they are so pretty.

I’m considering growing some mountain mint, too. Like other mints, they can take over a yard. Since they’re a native plant, I think it’ll be easier to keep them at a reasonable level than, say, the old peppermint that’s slowly eating part of the back yard. Interestingly, it’s closer to bee balm (monarda) than it is to peppermint, and there’s a faint bee balm-ness to its scent that gives that away. Mountain mint also attracts an incredible variety of native pollinators and predatory wasps, and is both edible and medicinal. Medicinally, it’s treated almost as a panacea — it’s considered a digestive, carminative, emmenagogue, expectorant, and more, though I haven’t thoroughly researched the active constituents myself yet. If it can serve as a home-grown, native substitute for peppermint tea, I’ll be all for it. The flavor does lead me to think that it’d be great for seasoning poultry or wild game, and I’m eager to try.

That’s what I love about foraging trips. Not only do I come away with tasty food, but I also get a better idea of ways to try to heal the land I’m now responsible for. Seeing a wide variety of native plants shows me what this patch of grass could be and tells me how I can help it get there. I’m excited!

Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Foraging for Flowers and Ramps

The more I think about it, the less sure I am that alien invaders would be able to set up shop here for an appreciable amount of time. They’d probably get eaten. (Even the really weird-looking ones. Especially the weird-looking ones. Maybe in an etouffee, like crawfish.)

A garlic mustard plant.

I like to consider myself an invasivore. If it’s here, causing harm, and tasty, I will find a way to eat it. This is why I was very happy to learn how to identify garlic mustard on a recent foraging walk with some friends. (A lot of invasives are valuable as medicine or food — they wouldn’t’ve been brought here if someone didn’t think they were useful for something.)

Of course, not all tasty things are invasive, which is why it’s important to be conscientious. In general, it’s best to take as little of a plant as you can, and avoid taking the roots unless absolutely necessary. One of the nice things about eating invasive plants is that you don’t need to be particularly careful about damaging their population, but this isn’t true for native species. Like ramps, for example.

A cluster of wild leeks at the base of a tree.

Ramps are wild leeks, and sadly trendy in the culinary world. In some areas, they’re delicacies that have been harvested to endangerment. They’re a spring vegetable very similar to a leek you’d get from the grocery store, which means they’ve got an onion-like bulb topped by flat leaves. The whole plant is edible, but it’s not uncommon for a nice patch of ramps (which can take years just for the seeds to germinate, then another seven years for the plants to mature) to get harvested to oblivion for the bulbs.

Fortunately, since the leaves are also delicious, this isn’t necessary. You can enjoy ramps and still leave the live plants behind. All it takes is harvesting one leaf and moving on, rather than digging up the entire plant. (I’m planning to chiffonade the leaves for potato soup. I’ve got some new potatoes from the farmers’ market, creamline milk, and a whole bunch of home made vegetable broth!)

A cone-shaped inflorescence of bear corn.

One of the neatest things I saw recently wasn’t something I was looking for — in fact, I’d never encountered it in my life, and had no idea it existed. Conopholis americana, also called cancer root, bear corn, or bumeh, is a profoundly odd-looking parasitic plant that lives near oak and beech trees. At first resembling an upright corn cob or the cap of a fungus, closer inspection revealed cream-colored flowers.

Despite the name cancer root, it doesn’t appear to actually fight cancer. However, it does have some pretty powerful astringents that help with wound clotting. This plant was also used to help induce and progress labor (which gave rise to another, more offensive name that has largely fallen into disuse). It’s also a diuretic and laxative, which is what gave it the name “bear corn.” After months of hibernation, bears need to “unplug,” as it were. They’re attracted to the springtime blooms of bear corn, and eating it seems to help get things moving.
This idea is plausible enough, though I have chosen not to test it myself.

We also spotted a black squirrel, though nearly missed it. He skittered quickly along a fallen tree, and was far out of sight by the time I managed to try to get a picture. Still, even without photo evidence, it was pretty neat to spot two very rare things. (Melanistic squirrels only occur in about 1 out of every 10,000 eastern gray squirrels!)

Here ’til the day breaks and night falls,
J.