American Beautyberry

(Callicarpa americana L.)

These beautiful berries are growing all around the 40 Acre Woods. They taste a bit bland to me but I still can’t help but eat a handful while taking a walk. The stunning magenta colors of these berries must be full of antioxidants and vitamins, at least that is what I tell myself while munching on a few mealy tasteless berries. I plan to make some of the American Beautyberry jelly this year.

The USDA tell us that the roots, leaves and branches of the American Beautyberry were used by the Alabama, Choctaw, Creek, Koasati, Seminole and other Native American tribes for various medicinal purposes. The roots, leaves and branches were made into a decoction that was used in sweat baths to treat both malarial fevers and rheumatism. The boiled plant parts were poured into a big pan that was placed near the patient inside a sweathouse. A similar decoction of the roots was used to treat dizziness and stomachaches. The American Beautyberry roots were boiled with roots from Blackberries to make an infusion to treat dysentery. The roots and berries were boiled and drunk to treat colic. The bark from the stems and roots was used to treat itchy skin. A tea from the root bark was taken to treat urine retention or “urine stopped-up sickness.”

The fruits of American beautyberry are an important food source for many species of birds including bobwhite quails, mockingbirds, robins, towhees, and brown thrashers. Animals that eat the fruit include armadillo, raccoon, squirrel, fox, opossum, and white-tailed deer. The long-lasting fruits provide food for birds and animals well into the winter months.

Most discussion on the American Beautyberry eventually leads to the wonderful jelly made from the berries. The following jelly recipe is from “Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles” by Richard Deuerling and Peggy Lantz.

Beautyberry Jelly

1 ½ qts. of Beautyberries, washed and clean of green stems and leaves. Cover with 2 qts. water.Boil 20 minutes and strain to make infusion. Use 3 cups of the infusion, bring to boil, add 1 envelope Sure-Jell and 4 ½ cups sugar. Bring to second boiland boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand until foam forms. Skim off foam, pour into sterilized jars, cap.

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Narrowleaf Pawpaw

Narrowleaf Pawpaw
(Asimina angustifolia)

We all knew the “Pawpaw Patch” song when we were kids.  I remember singing it while running through the woods and fields of Kentucky.  There was a “patch” of the Pawpaw Trees on my Grandpa’s farm.  The trees were about 10 to 15 feet tall and had large green leaves.  It was a rare treat to find a Pawpaw on the ground around one of those trees, the animals always seemed to get there before me and eat all the fruit.

I have always looked for these Pawpaw trees in Florida while hiking and hunting.  To my suprise I noticed a odd shaped fruit hanging on a small bush at the 40 Acre Woods.  The narrow green leaves on the knee high bush had never crossed my mind as a Pawpaw tree, yet there they were.

With a little research I found that Florida had many varieties of Pawpaw growing in the wild.  Most of these are small bushes like the variety I found at the 40 Acre Woods.

The Narrow Leaf Pawpaw grows wild in North Florida. The small 3 to 4 inch fruit of these Pawpaws ripen in July to September.  When ripe the fruit goes from hard green to a lighter green with brown spots and you can feel the fruit start to soften.  They have a banana, mango like flavor, yellow flesh and many large black seeds.

Unfortunately, the Narrowleaf Pawpaw is mostly seeds with very little flesh, not the tasty treat that you get from the larger Paw Paw trees.  And just like my early experiences, the animals will get them before you do.  I recommend pulling a few fat ones while they are not quite ripe and set them out on the counter at home.  They will ripen just fine.

Once I identified the bush, I found I had Pawpaws growing all around the 40 acre woods.  I will be taking care of these great bushes in the coming years and look forward to the pretty blooms and occasional snack.  I have seeds for the much larger and better fruit producing variety of Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) sprouting in pots to be planted later.

Way down yonder in the Pawpaw patch, at the 40 Acre Woods.

 

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Wild Vines in June

There is an interesting collection of vines growing on the chain link fence behind my house in Lakeland.  On a walk in early June, I found a collection of three wild vines fighting for space.  One is deadly toxic, one has medicinal value and one produces an edible fruit.

I always have my iPhone camera with me to take pictures of interesting plants I find.  A little research on the internet and an occasional email to the local County Extension Agent helps me get a better understanding of the diversity of plants in Florida.  Learning about the beneficial plants that grow wild around us helps in the design of better gardening systems that naturally take care of themselves.

 

Rosary pea, Crab’s eye
(Abrus precatorius)

Rosary pea is a small, high climbing vine with alternately compound leaves, 2-5 inches long, with 5 to 15 pairs of oblong leaflets. A key characteristic in identifying rosary pea is the lack of a terminal leaflet on the compound leaves. The flowers are small, pale, and violet to pink, clustered in leaf axils. The fruit is characteristic of a legume. The pod is oblong, flat and truncate shaped, roughly 1½ – 2 inches long. This seedpod curls back when it opens, revealing the seeds. The seeds are small, brilliant red with a black spot.

These characteristics give the plant another common name of crab’s eyes.

One of the most deadly plant toxins, abrin, is produced by rosary pea (Abrus precatorius). Studies have shown that as little as 0.00015% of toxin per body weight will cause fatality in humans (a single seed). Interestingly, birds appear to be unaffected by the deadly toxin as they have been shown to readily disperse rosary pea seed.        DEADLY TOXIN / DO NOT EAT

 

 

Virginia Creeper
(Parthenocissus quinquefolia)

Virginia creeper is a native, fast-growing, perennial, woody vine that may climb or trail along the ground. The leaves are compound, containing five leaflets. Leaflets range in size from 2-6 inches and have toothed margins. The leaflets are red when they first emerge but turn green as they mature. In the fall, leaves turn a bright red to maroon color. The inconspicuous green color flowers are borne in small clusters during the spring and followed by small clusters of fruit in early summer.

This fruit is a 4 to 6 mm diameter bluish-black berry that usually contains two to three seeds.

The vines adhere to surfaces by means of five to eight branched tendrils ending in cup-like adhesive tips. New stems are brownish-green and finely hairy but gradually acquire pale, raised dots and turn purplish-brown with age.

I have not tried any of these medicinal uses for Virginia creeper, but this is found on many sources when researching it:  The bark has been has been used in domestic medicine as a tonic, expectorant, and remedy. The berries have been found serviceable in rheumatic complaints and are found to help cure dropsy. The roots are used for diarrhea and the bark and twigs are made into cough syrup.

 

Latexplant, Milkweed vine, Strangler vine
(Morrenia odorata)

Native to S. America this perennial, twining, climbing vine has greenish white flowers and produces large pods that split open at maturity, releasing hundreds of seeds with tiny silken hairs that aid in dispersal by the wind. Leaves are heart-shaped to spear-shaped, new growth and stems are grey-green in color and with soft, short and erect hairs. This vine is a pest in orange groves, in fact it was first found in a Florida orange grove in 1957, though how it got there remains a mystery.

 

I have eaten the young green fruit of the milkweed vine.  It can be used as a vegetable and has a similarity to zuccinni when cooked.  I prefer to pick the young fruit when they are about the size of a large hen egg for best tatse.

I hope the Virginia Creeper and the Milkweed vine overtake the Rosary pea on the fence this summer. I may give nature a helping hand with my clippers.

Always learning at the 40 acre woods.

 

 

 

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Building a Raised Garden Bed

Feeding your family with fresh vegetables grown at home is a satisfying way to stay healthy and save money.  Designing your bed with the right materials will give you years of vigorous vegetable growth without additional inputs.  I was able to build this great raised bed for under $100 dollars.  Hopefully this will give you some ideas on how to create a garden for your house.

Step 1: The Placement

I chose a site on the west side of my house for this garden.  Positioning the garden running East to West will get me good solar exposure across the length of the bed.  A large Oak tree North of the bed will give it some shade during the heat of the Summer.  I will get direct sunshine in the late morning and late afternoon in the Summer.  I will get sun all day in the spring and fall during my peak gardening seasons.

Step 2: The Walls

I chose to purchase landscape timbers from a local box store primarily due to price.  These timbers were less than $2 per 8′ section.  I would prefer to use wood that is not chemically treated or stone, but I did not have that readily available for this project.

4 landscape timbers were cut in half to create the ends.  The overall size is 4′ x 16′.  I used 20 landscape timbers to create this bed.  To fasten the landscape timbers together I used 6″ galvanized nails.  Each hole was pre drilled and the nails were hammered into place interlocking the timbers for strength.

Step 3: The Liner

I stapled some heavy black plastic from heavy duty contractor garbage bags I had available to the inside of the bed to protect the Landscape timbers from constant moisture and to protect my food from any chemicals leaching from the treated wood.

Step 4: The Bottom Layer

To kill the grass growing on the bottom of the bed, I cleared out my paper recycle bin and covered the bottom of the bed with a layer of newspaper, cardboard and junk mail.  I carefully reviewed all the material and made sure I only used paper products in the base layer.  It was a bit satisfying to see the junk mail actually getting used for something productive.

Then I went for a drive around the neighborhood on Sunday afternoon.  All my neighbors had been busy working in their yards over the weekend and placed bags of grass clippings, hedge clippings and raked leaves out at the side of the road to be picked up.  So I did, and took about a dozen bags home to put on the bottom layer of my garden bed.

As I was emptying the bags into my garden bed, I tried to evenly mix the green grass clippings and the brown leaves and twigs as evenly as possible so they would break down at the same rate.

Step 5: The Wood Layer

Large pieces of wood will keep my garden watered and fed in the coming years.  Wood is like a big sponge that takes up moisture and slowly releases it as the plants need it.  As these logs break down they will add organic matter and continue to feed the plants.

I was able to collect a few nice pieces from the roadside, but got most of it from a co-worker that had a tree cut a year ago and was happy to have me haul away the pile of wood in her yard.  Wood that has been cut and dried out, even if it is starting to decay is the best wood for these projects.  If green wood is used, the bed will start out slower to allow the wood time to start the decay process and get a good colony of soil microbes growing on it.

Step 6: More Organic Matter

On my way home from work I was able to pick up another dozen bags of leaves and grass clippings on the side of the road.  I mixed these and worked them all around the wood to fill the bed evenly.  I was also mixing in shovel loads of topsoil into the mixture and tamping everything down to make sure I did not have any large air pockets.

I soaked all the materials with lots of water.  Added more topsoil and washed it in again to make sure I had a solid base or organic material and soil for the worms and soil microbes to live in.

Step 7: The Topsoil

I picked up a yard of topsoil from a local landscape supply vendor.  This was enough to give me a good layer over the organic base materials to plant in. I mounded it up higher in the middle to keep from having any soil wash out of the bed and to account for some expected shrink as the organic material breaks down over the next few months.

A final soaking an it is ready to plant and mulch.  I will be sharing the progress of this garden in the coming months.

The Estimated Cost

  • $40 – Landscape Timbers
  • $20 – Galvanized 6″ nails
  • $30 – One Yard of Topsoil
  • Free – Organic Materials
  • Priceless – Fresh Vegetables
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Oxalis, a tart and tasty weed

You would have to be in the Artic to get away from Oxalis, there are over 850 varieties growing all around the world.  Oxalis is the largest genus in the wood-sorrel family.  Commonly called Oxalis, Sorrel or Sourgrass here in the south.

Oxalis is commonly mistaken for clover. They have 3 heart shaped leaves and they grow in bunches that are about 6 inches high.  In Florida they can have pink flowers or yellow flowers like the ones pictured here growing in my flower bed. Oxalis flowers have 5 petals.  The seed pods remind me of tiny okra.

I first learned about these as a boy in Kentucky.  My friends and I would commonly eat Oxalis when we found them growing around the farm.  We called them “sweeties” because of the sweet & sour taste.

In Dr. James Duke’s “Handbook of Edible Weeds,” he notes that the Kiowa Indian tribe chewed wood sorrel to alleviate thirst on long trips, that the Potawatomi Indians cooked it with sugar to make a dessert, the Algonquin Indians considered it an aphrodisiac, the Cherokee ate wood sorrel to alleviate mouth sores and a sore throat, and the Iroquois ate wood sorrel to help with cramps, fever and nausea.

The whole plant is edible: roots, stems, leaves, flowers and seeds. They can be used in a salad, used as a spice for fish and chicken or you can blend some up with water and honey for a cool summer tea.

I find that most gardeners think Oxalis is a nasty weed they hate to find in the garden or lawn. Once established, it is hard to get rid of.  When I find Oxalis in my garden or lawn, I am happy to pull some of this great plant for a tasty treat.

Oxalis is a great plant to have growing at the 40 acre woods.

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Sassafras Tea, the Original Hillbilly Tonic

In the Virginia Colony of the 17th century, Sassafras was one of the major exported commodities to England.  The wood was prized for it’s beauty and durability and the roots had many medicinal uses.  Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to export it in 1602 and it was almost as popular as American tobacco well into the 1700s.

Sassafras grows primarily in the Eastern United States, from Canada to Florida.  As a boy in Kentucky I was never walking in the woods without a Sassafras twig in my mouth to chew on.  The unique aromatic flavor of root beer in a tooth pick.  I could quickly identify the large green leaves and green stem of the plentiful Sassafras trees that grew along roadsides and trails.

Sassafras is unique in having 4 distinct leaf patterns on the same tree.  I have always referred to them as a standard oval leaf, right mitten, left mitten and double mittens.  In the picture on the left you can see the variation on leaves.  Sassafras trees can grow very large, but you will normally only see trees in the 4 to 15 foot range in the woods.  They seem to sprout up at the edges, along fences, trails and roads.

The small growing stems can be identified by the green color, even in winter when the leaves are gone.  A quick snap of one of these green stems and the smell of the root beer will quickly assure you that you have a sassafras tree.

As a boy I helped my Grandma dig up small Sassafras trees for the roots.  She would quickly brew up a batch of tea when someone came down with a cold or flu on the farm.  I do not remember if it helped me with the illness, but I loved the aromatic hot tea on a cold Kentucky day.

I have lots of Sassafras trees in the 40 acre woods, and I still enjoy a hot cup of Sassafras tea.  I usually pick out a small tree around 3 or 4 feet tall to dig up for the root.  Dig deep, the Sassafras has a long fat tap root that you want to get.

Let the root dry out and give it a good scrubbing with water to get off the dirt. The exterior of the root has the most oils and flavor, so try not to strip it clean.

I usually cut it into manageable chunks and let it dry.  Do not put it in an air tight container or plastic bag until you are sure it is completely dry.  Mold will quickly ruin your root if it is still wet.

To make the tea, I put a few chunks in a small pan and bring to a boil, then I let it simmer for another 30 minutes.  Serve hot with a little honey for sweetener.

Sassafras extract was the main flavoring for root beer and sarsaparilla before being replaced by artificial flavors.  The wood and leaves are prized for fire starting because of its natural oils. The leaves can be ground into a spice called filé powder, an ingredient used as a thickener in some types of gumbo.  Sassafras is an amazing tree.

The sassafras wood has been used in the manufacture of  furniture, barrels, kitchen cabinets and it is a preferred wood used in boat building and fence posts.  It is also my preferred twig to chew on.

At the 40 acre woods, the deer browse on the tasty leaves. Quail and turkeys love the small blue-black berry shaped fruit.  The birds spread Sassafras seeds along with a fertilizer deposit all around the 40 acre woods to make sure I never run out of trees.

You can find me at the campfire, with a hot cup of Sassafras tea.  Thats how it’s done at the 40 acre woods.

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Wild Grape Variety

Wild grapes come in many varieties at the 40 acre woods.  In late April the wild grapevines seem to be growing on everything.  Many are still blooming like the one pictured below growing on a fence.

Soon after the first settlers stepped off their boat with some grapevines from their homelands, the European cultivars quickly escaped into the wild and hybridized with the native muscadine grapes.  Today we can enjoy a variety of taste from the grapes we encounter in the woods of Florida.  The grapevines pictures below have distinctly different leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is amazing to find this much variety on a short walk around the 40 acre woods.

I can identify the native muscadines by the tendrils at the end of a growing vine.  double tendrils indicate that the vine is an escaped cultivar with some European grape mixed in.  Single tendrils indicate that the grape is a native muscadine.

 

The vine pictured on the left is an escaped cultivar.

I hope to taste some of these grape varieties later this summer in the 40 acre woods, if I can get to them before the animals.  Wild grapes are usually eaten quickly by the deer, turkeys, birds, raccoons, possums, squirrels, rats and skunks that forage on this abundant fruit.

The fruit is the main thing that comes to mind when you think of grapes, but there are other uses for this abundant vine.  The young leaves of the grapevine can be boiled and eaten as greens.  Large grapevines can be cut into sections and large amounts of drinkable liquid can be extracted by sucking on the end like a straw.  This has been quite helpful on long hikes when I was running short on water.  Grapevines can also be woven into strong baskets.  Wild grapes are an exciting part of the 40 acre woods.

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