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!

life, Plants and Herbs

Strawbin’.

Okay! Hear me out.

We… went strawberry picking.

If you’ve been following this blog, I know what you’re probably going to say.

“J. You already accidentally bought 47 strawberry starts. You were concerned about what you’d do with up to 140 pounds of basically-almost-free strawberries. Why did you go pay to pick strawberries somewhere else?”

You’re right. This was part of a meetup with one of my Druidry groups, and, to be honest, I wanted to go hang out. Besides, my own strawberry plants aren’t pumping fruit out just yet, so I figure this’d give me some tasty fruits for the meanwhile.

We went to Larriland Farm about an hour after the fields opened. You pay for your container in the beginning, take it to a designated area in the field, and fill it up as much as you can. Since you’re not paying by weight, the more you can fit, the better. My partner was initially going to get us two of those little blue molded fiber baskets, but we soon decided a larger flat box was a better idea.

J. crouched in a strawberry field, filling a flat cardboard tray with fruit.
To think, I thought the box was getting full here.
J.'s partner standing in a strawberry field, holding a flat box filled with berries.
To his credit, he did.

A little less than an hour later, we had pounds upon pounds upon pounds of juicy, very ripe berries. I kept warning him that the box was full, but he was determined to heap them as high as possible. “Nah,” he said, “I can totally Tetris more in.”

All of us paused for meditation (and to eat a few berries) before leaving. Then, after tucking the box of strawberries in the back seat like it was a newborn baby, we carefully trucked them home.

At home, I pureed a bunch of the fruit with spinach, then poured it into an ice cube tray to freeze. Once frozen, it’ll be an easy, space-saving way to keep smoothie ingredients. Some of the fruit will be for salads, frozen for later use, used to flavor water kefir, or macerated in sugar for waffles and shortcake. I sliced a whole bunch, layered it with caramel and pastry, and made a tarte Tatin. Even with all of that in mind, there are still so many strawberries.

A very gooey strawberry tart, with vanilla ice cream.
I hadn’t counted on how juicy the berries would be, so I ended up with a bit too much liquid. Neither of us complained, though!

It’s kind of funny. The blue paper pulp boxes wouldn’t’ve been nearly enough. The next size up, I feel like I’m drowning in berries. It is a problem I enjoy.

I also discovered that it’s possible to break out in a rash from touching strawberry plants, even if you’re not at all allergic to the fruit. Strawberry leaves have trichomes, which are possibly best known as the little hairs on cannabis plants. Strawberry trichomes come in two types: glandular and non-glandular. The non-glandular ones are just little poky hairs that are kind of physically irritating, and help keep bugs at bay. The glandular ones, on the other hand, are attached to glands. These trichomes can inject tiny amounts of defensive compounds.

Imagine if, to protect yourself from bears and muggers, you never left the house without putting on a special anti-bear-and-bandit coat covered in hypodermic needles filled with acid.

The end result was one mother of a rash from the back of my hands to my elbows. This probably isn’t a true allergy, and more a product of spending like an hour accidentally injecting myself with tiny amounts of liquid “fuck off” in strawberry language. I even tested this idea by taking a fresh berry, eating a tiny bit, and rubbing the bitten portion on the inside of my elbow. Aside from a red stain, there was no rash, no itching, no welts, nada. So I’m pretty much free to gorge myself on as many strawberries as I desire.

Here until the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry,
j.