news from the waterfront by Tim Matson


That was some winter, thankfully now fading in the rear view mirror. Patches of snow hung on in shadowy places hereabouts until mid May. I'll be working half way through summer to pay off winter's fuel and wood bills. Ah, but I do feel winter amnesia setting in, which makes it easier to relax and put off buying next year's wood for another month. Winter amnesia requires a mix of heat, lengthening days, song birds, peepers, and the transit from boney gray trees to mountainous quilts of green. You can't see the trees for the leaves. Or next winter coming.

My favorite hallmark of spring is the emergence of
wild edible plants. I begin watching for the first signs of dandelion greens before the snow melts, and once the leaves emerge I go on a dandelion craze until the leaves get too bitter, usually about a month later. I've learned where the early dandelions sprout, and then I gradually move into the shadowy forest edges where the last plants emerge. Fresh in salads or cooked a variety of ways, dandelions restore body and soul after the long north country winter.

There's another plant I look forward to in spring:
watercress. Considered by many nutritionists and
wild foragers to be a "superfood," watercress is indeed full of vitamins and minerals, not surprising since it's part of the brassica family (kale, broccoli, etc). It's peppery flavor makes it a favorite salad green, notably in the United Kingdom where the wild greens were especially popular during World War II when cropped food was scarce and rationed.

The roots of these watercress plants naturally filter runoff from nearby trout rearing pools.

Back then it was sold in paper wraps from street vendors and eaten on the hoof like ice cream cones. Watercress is also eaten in sandwiches by itself or with brie, and it's a popular garnish for trout. I look for it where cold springs and streams encourage its growth. It's important to keep in mind that if the water supporting watercress is polluted, the greens can be contaminated with liver flukes. Unless you're sure the wild watercress you pick is from pure spring water, be sure to cook it before eating.

The connection to trout is a natural one because watercress thrives in cold clear spring water, which is often adjacent to the streams and ponds where trout live. And in growing upstream from trout waters, watercress may be doing more than providing a tasty green. The watercress roots are known to act as a filtration mechanism to help uptake pollutants and nutrients that would otherwise contaminate downstream water. In fact, watercress is sometimes grown in water treatment facilities as a natural filter. Similar to other aquatic plants
like cattails and rushes, watercress takes up
nutrients and pollutants that might otherwise
feed algae and unwanted bacteria.

Watercress can be grown in trout rearing pools,
for its nutrient uptake capabilities. There it will clean up nutrients flowing into the growing pools, take up nutrients in pool discharges, or both. In fact where watercress is grown to help filter trout raceway water, the roots can support a population of zooplankton which adds natural
pink coloration to the fish.

Fingerling trout in a rearing tank at Peak Pond Farm in Randolph, Vermont

My go-to trout supplier is Louis Warlick in Randolph, Vermont. His Peak Pond Farm is a supplier of trout in three varieties: rainbow, brook, and brown. He manages a combination of multiple growing pools and ponds so he can offer a spectrum of fish sizes, from fingerings to 8-12 inch. He uses a pool of watercress for water filtration, and credits the zooplankton in the plant roots for the natural pink coloration of his brook trout.

Louis Warlick checking brook trout reserved
for a customer

There's more than dandelions and watercress for the enterprising forager. I see wild strawberry flowers getting ready to fruit. And the mushroom season is underway with the first morels.

Of course, there's always more to learn. I recently dicovered a book that told me more than I ever knew about dandelions, and a number of other wild edibles to forage for, thirteen altogether in fact.

The book is The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival, by Katrina Blair (Chelsea Green), a compendium of plant history, uses, and recipes for thirteen wild growing plants you can forgage in all regions of the US. The book is over three hundred pages chockablock full of information about Amaranth, Chickweed, Clover, Dandelion, Dock, Grass, Knotweed, Lambsquarter, Mallow, Mustard, Plantain, Purslane, and Thistle.

Blair's chapter on dandelions actually renewed my enthusiasm for the plant, which is saying something considering that I'm a long time dandelion picker and digger. As with all featured plants, she starts with a general description, and moves on to plant history, edible and medicinal uses, and recipes. Among the many news things I learned about dandelions, for instance, are the plant's ability to aerate the soil, which benefits adjacent trees and gardens. It also fertilizes the soil by pulling minerals up into leaves and flowers, which then decompose into a soil dressing at the end of the season. No wonder my lawn is so green! In addition to leaves and roots that can be transformed into numerous fresh and cooked foods foods and medicines, the sap can help with a variety of skin problems, including sun spots and warts. Dandelion root tea can even help with diabetes by balancing blood sugar.

This is the best new book on foraging wild plants I've seen in years. Whether you want a garnish for a salad, natural medicinal tea recipes, a whole lot of wild plant knowledge, or a survival guide to living off the land, this is the book to, well, pick.

June 1, 2015

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