Exploring my little piece of the planet

Posts tagged “edible plants

Alpine Speedwell

Veronica alpina or Veronica wormskjoldii  - (I cannot confirm…see Pan-Arctic Flora for more confusion)
Also called American Alpine Speedwell and Alpine Veronica

Poking through tangled grasses and horsetails in the marshy ravine bottom, the tiny blue flowers catch the eye as they gather the blue of the sky to their four-parted corollas. The little cluster sits on the end of the stem like the coloured bead on the head of some of my dressmakers pins that have been bent and warped by my inept use on denim alterations. The delicate flower cluster seems out of proportion to the lanky and hairy stem with its well-spaced lance-shaped pairs of leaves.

Alpine Speedwell is not listed in my favourite plant book and I’ve had a hard time confirming the species. Superficially similar to another Veronica, American Brooklime, it distinguishes itself by its terminal flower cluster and stem-clasping leaves.

I have exhausted sources trying to specify this little plant’s exact identity but am leaning towards Veronica alpina subsp. pumila because of this qualifier:

“The differences between subsp. pumila and subsp. alpina are small but constant in stem usually flexuous vs. straight, upper internodes densely hairy with long (multicellular) hairs vs. sparsely hairy with minute hairs…” (source)

Online sources vary greatly in the species’ range and even its habitat. As well, apart from the comparison above, I have not found good botanical descriptions. As always, I welcome the input of any reader that can help me with this mystery.

Please see the post on a cousin, American Brooklime for details on the edibility and medicinal qualities of the this genus.

Other Selected Sources:
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Centre

DemsterCountry Flora
USDA Plant Profile


American Brooklime

Veronica americana (alsoVeronica beccabunga ssp. americana)
Also called American Speedwell, Water Pimpernel

Gently semi-reclining in the shade at the marshy edge of the forest, like a delicate multi-headed princess posing in her mud-bath, American Brooklime soaks languid legs with such lassitude that they begin to take root at the supine nodes, anchoring the languid beauty even more firmly into the soggy soil. Displaying her paired stamens like alabaster eyelashes and drawing her colours from the ground, she paints her pretty four-lobed faces blue or violet, lilac or white, securing her prominence among the transition zone grasses and horsetails.

Looking closely at any plant’s many names and parts of names can reveal clues to its history, mythology, morphology and habitat. Veronicas are named for a Christian saint. ‘Americana’ denotes this plant’s status as a North American native. But most interestingly, I learned about a practice called ‘birdliming‘ as apparently ‘Brooklime’ came from this plant’s muddy habitat, which has been known to catch birds who are unfortunate enough to become mired in it. (You, on the other hand, might know about birdlime if you studied Othello: “I am about it, but indeed my invention/Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze…”.)

Botanary gives two possible origins of this perennial species’ peppy alternate name, beccabunga, which appears to refer to the European variety.

“Apparently derived from the German Bachbunge (brook+bunch), Another possible derivation is from the Flemish beckpunge (mouth smart), referring to the pungent leaves.”

All Veronicas are edible and high in vitamin C so were recognized early as a treatment for Scurvy. They have also been used for tea and tonics.  Young plants can be added to salads, like watercress, but like many greens they become bitter as they age and should be cooked. Somewhat conflictingly,  Brooklime was reportedly used by the Navajo Indians as an emetic (source) so I suspect that as in most things, moderation is the key. Gatherers must also be aware that the succulent stems contain the water that they grow in, so care must be taken to ensure that that water is safe.

American Brooklime is one of two Veronicas I have found in the Swan Hills area. The other is Alpine Speedwell.

Other Selected Sources:
Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases
Native American Ethnobotany


Velvet Leaved Blueberry

or Common Blueberry, Huckleberry
Vaccinium myrtilloides


According to Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977), there are, “About five very similar, low, healthy shrubs found in Alberta [that] go by the common name of Blueberry, Huckleberry or Bilberry. In fact, they are all so much alike that it is necessary to consult a flora or botanical key to tell them apart.”

So it is very possible that my specific identification for this plant is inaccurate and I would only be too grateful to anyone who could confirm or contradict it.

This delicious berry can distinguished from the dwarf blueberry (V. caespitosum) by its slightly taller and more open form, elliptic, smooth-edged leaves and prominent star-shaped calyx. It is also somewhat easier to pick for pies or jams (or eating on the spot, which is more my habit) since the berries are a wee bit larger and more visible among the leaves.

The blossom end of each berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star; the elders of the tribe would tell of how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to relieve the children’s hunger during a famine. (source)

As a child, I lived for two years in Newfoundland. One of my fondest memories is going out in a “Four-by-Four” with several families to pick blueberries. We were under instructions to make sure most of the berries went into our tins but that was extremely difficult. Large and juicy, these were temptations far too difficult to resist.

These are not those. Whether it is a matter of a differing species or ecosystems, the blueberries around Swan Hills are much more minute. It is rare to find such dense and burdened shrubs as I remember from Newfoundland; berry-picking is a labour of love.

Often after an acreage of forest has been clear-cut and before the application of devastating herbicides, an abundance of shrubs will spring up, among them several Vaccinium species. With an ear always to the sounds around, one forages a patch with caution. This is also the time of year when bears diligently gorge themselves to put in the necessary stores for the long winter ahead. It is not only humans and bears who appreciate this delectable berry. It is also important to birds, rodents and many insects. Deer will browse on the leaves and twigs. The critters return the favour by dropping the miniscule seeds.

They are pollinated by bees and other insects possibly including the infamous boreal black fly. The plant is host to the larva of the spring azure butterfly. (source)

But pick you must. Beyond the ambrosial flavour, blueberries and other members of the huge Vaccinium family are stong in antioxidants, Vitamin C, manganese and fiber along with many other nutrients. It was one of the most important fruits for boreal dwelling native people, who used the plant in many ways. The berries were preserved with a wide variety of methods for winter food. Berries, stems, leaves and roots were all employed medicinally from cancer treatments to “women’s medicine”. The berry juice was and still can be used as a natural dye.

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You might also enjoy my photographic narrative  How to Pick Blueberries in Northern Woods at On and Over the Hills.

 

Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977

USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (University of Texas)

Native Plant Database


Twinflower

or Linnaea, Deer Vine, Ground Vine, Twin Sisters
Linnaea borealis

Delicate and diminutive, this distinctive member of the honeysuckle family grows with the moss among lingonberry and bunchberry. It spreads along the forest floor on lacy vines, sending up clonal shoots at intervals.The Dena’ina name for this sweetly fragrant plant is “k’ela tl’lia” or “mouse’s rope”,  a fitting description of the meandering vines depicted well on this page.

This charming plant is circumpolar, but is distinguished by continent. It is interesting and perhaps a warning for other varieties that the subspecies borealis growing in Scotland is threatened by its increasing inability to reproduce due to the fragmentation of its ecosystem. (Read more here.) It is listed as threatened, endangered or extirpated through much of the United States. (link)

Twinflower was the favourite plant of Carlolus Linnaeus, who established the two-name (binomial) system of classification for plants. It was his teacher who officially named the genus, (whose only species member is the twinflower), after Linnaeus and when the latter scientist adopted it as his personal emblem, he said of it, “Linnaea was named by the celebrated Gronovius and is a plant of Lapland, lowly, insignificant, disregarded, flowering but for a brief time—from Linnaeus, who resembles it” (Wikipedia)

Blooming in the early to mid-summer, the elegant twinflower was used by First Nations people for a calming and healing tea. It likes partly shaded areas where the moss is moist and the shed evergreen needles acidify the humus somewhat.

He saw beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight Linnaea hang its twin-born heads,
And blessed the monument of the man of flowers,
Which breathes his sweet fame through the northern bowers.

from Woodnotes I, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Other resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies
by George & Hälle Flygare. Hurtig, Alberta 1986

Alberta Plant Watch
Native Plant Database


One-Flowered Wintergreen

or Single Delight, Woodnymph, Shy Maiden, St. Olaf’s Candlestick, Waxflower
Moneses uniflora
(previously called Pyrola uniflora)

Until I began to research this sweet jewel, I did not know that one of its common names is ‘woodnymph’. How fitting, as like tiny waxen lanterns under the evergreens, the one-flowered wintergreen shine with soft luminescence. It is not difficult to imagine them dancing capriciously through the deep mosses when not observed by lesser mortals.

Another of its common names speaks to its habit of keeping its head bowed until mature. The shy maiden hides its beautiful face, providing shelter for visiting bees whose wings collect and deposit pollen in a process known as buzz-pollination.

After fertilization, the scapose (leafless) stem straightens, the petals fall off and the crowned fruit begins to form.

Like many native species, the one-flowered wintergreen depends on particular fungus occurring in the moist, humus-rich forest floor just as the pine and spruce provide required shade. Although it is globally abundant throughout boreal habitats, collection and forest harvest have caused its decline in some regions. It is reputed to be edible, high in Vitamin C and effective in the treatment of some skin problems. In recent years it was discovered to contain a new antibiotic.

Although the one-flowered wintergreen was originally grouped with others in the wintergreen family, it was distinguished in 1843 by Thomas Nutall to Moneses, a monotypic species. “Asa Gray gave it its present name in 1848.  “Moneses” is a combination of the Greek “monos” (“one”) and “hesis” (“delight”).” (1) “Uniflora” refers to its lone blossom.

And delightful it is. Recline on the mossy bed. Lay your head next to this shy maiden to gaze into the surprisingly compelling face of intricate beauty. Then close your eyes and inhale the delicate perfume. You too may become enchanted.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004

CYSIP (Central Yukon Species Inventory Project)
U.S. Forest Service
The Plant Network
Colorado Native Plant Society


Cow Parsnip

or Common Hogweed
Heracleum lanatum (
also H. maximum, H. sphondylium)


According to Botanary, this genus of the carrot family was named for Hercules, who was supposed to have used it first for medicine.

This odoriferous species is indeed a plant of muscle:  important and commanding as probably the largest perennial in our forest.

It grows in rich moist soil in broad and small forest clearings, rising up to almost two metres by July.

Its huge, 30 cm. compound hairy (lanatus) leaves and equally large flower heads provide landing plantforms and important sustinence for a wide range of insects and birds.

In contradiction to its name and in spite its nutritious foliage, Cow Parsnip is often shunned by cattle and can apparently have a souring effect on their milk when they do eat it. Bears have apparently been known to browse on the flower heads in the spring and in the fall the winged, sunflower-like seeds are popular with birds. After the frost, deer, elk, bears and marmots will eat the stems and leaves.

Roots, young leaf stalks and marrow from the hollow stem were used as food, for rituals, as a yellow dye and medicinally by the North American First Nations and early Europeans although care was  taken as sensitive skin can be affected a phototoxin contained in the roots and outer skin.

If you are going to handle Cow Parsnip for any reason it is important that you do not confuse it with other plants of the carrot family that are quite poisonous. Gavan P.L. Watson from Ontario has a good description of the differences here.

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Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977
Common Plants of the Western Rangelands: Volume 3 – Forbs
by Kathy Tannas. Olds College, Alberta 2004
All News in One
Montana Plant Life
Wild Food Girl


Strawberryleaf Raspberry

Rubus pedatus
~ also called Strawberry Bramble, 5-Leaved Bramble and Creeping Raspberry

I’m the kind of person that can have an engaging conversation with you and not be able to tell somebody later what you were wearing, so it was especially exciting for me when I noticed this little plant in a small deep-moss  clearing. It’s not so much that I’d never seen it before, it’s that I’d never really seen it!

Perhaps I had never seen it in bloom and may have mistaken its foliage for that of one of its cousins, the Dwarf Raspberry. In bloom I might have assumed that it was another relative, the Wild Strawberry. It’s very tiny.

A closer look reveals that this flower is quite different from a strawberry’s. The petals are more elongated and the centre was different. It had three very distinct superior ovaries with styles that turn pink along with the base of the petals and sepals as the flower matures.

The sepals are drooping at first, as you can see in the top picture and then in more mature blooms raised level below the petals. As the petals fall off it seems they continue to rise to enclose the fruit.

Single leaf and flower stalk emerge separately from the moss, about 5-7 centimetres high.

The leaves were different as well. At first I thought it had five leaflets on its palmately divided leaf, but the side leaflets are just so deeply cleft that there are actually only three.

Apparently the number of ovaries can vary as the fruit can have from 1-6 drupelets.

I had a really hard time identifying this plant. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, or through Internet searching so I posted it to a couple of groups on Flickr that help with this kind of thing. The following day I was very grateful to receive a positive ID from Tiggrx. I later found it in Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977) as a note within the description for the Dewberry.

There are literally hundreds of plants in the Rubus genus, which it is believed has survived for some 36,000 years and exists on all continents except Antarctica. This little treasure is just another little sibling in the family and I don’t know how long I’ve been rudely ignoring it. It is a beauty. It fully deserves the risk of getting a little damp as you lay down in the soft deep moss to spend some time getting to know it better.

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Resources:

Turner Photographics
E-Flora BC
USDA Plants Database

Many thanks to Tiggrx for identifying this plant for me.


Lingonberry

Vaccinium vitas-idaea also called Bog-Cranberry and Lowbush Cranberry

Tiny and delightful treasures on the forest floor

Lingonberries, especially when not in bloom, can easily be confused with the Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), historically known as Kinnikinnik. Around here, the lingonberries are a denser plant, while the bearberry seems to grow more openly, but I am never sure of my identification until the flowers bloom. A magnifying glass helps, as the lingonberry has bristle-like glands on the lower side of the leaf.

Lingonberry flowers stand out in the sunshine against a shaded forest ravine

Once in bloom, the flowers are, although similar, are distinguishable on close inspection. The bell of the bearberry’s flowers is ‘tucked-in’ or more urn-shaped.

Lingonberries growing among bunchberries in a little forest glade

Vaccinium have been used traditionally in North America for the cranberry sauces commonly served with turkey dinners at Christmas and Thanksgiving, although this northern species is only lately being tried as a commercial plant.

In early June the dark pink buds of Lingonberry are conspicuous above the forest floor mosses

Northern native people, however, have always known of and used lingonberries as food. In fact it was one of the most important berries for them and used almost exclusively in pemmican. The plant was also used medicinally, for jewelry, as a dye for porcupine quills and a tobacco-stretcher. (Source)

Lingonberry leaves are evergreen, helping to melt the snow above them in spring

In this Mi’kmaw legend, the cranberry (presumably lingonberry or a close relative) warded off bad magic. And who knows what cranberry sauce had to do with strawberries.


Low Bush-Cranberry

Also called Squashberry & Mooseberry (Viburnum edule). Confusingly they are also referred to in some parts as High Bush-Cranberry, which in my area is the common name for Viburnum Opulus

How about some more confusion: is this the Christmas fruit? No. Bush-Cranberries are not related to the cranberries associated with turkey dinners. Viburnum is a member of the Honeysuckle family while the berries grown for cranberry sauce (Vaccinium) are much more low-growing and have leathery leaves as do most plants in the Heath family.

However, bush-cranberries are edible although a little tart when fresh for most palates. They do make excellent jams and jellies though and are very healthy, being very high in Vitamin C. All parts of the plant have been used historically by the native people in North America  for centuries for not only food, but medicinally. (Source)

They were so prolific here on the Freeman River – mid August – I’ll have to go back next spring and take some pictures of the little white flower bunches that turn into these rich, juicy berries. I was surprised that they did not seem to have yet been significantly browsed by the forest critters.


Dwarf Raspberry

Dwarf or Stemless Raspberry / Dwarf Nagoonberry ( Rubus acaulis)

 

Though small, you’re not likely to miss this little treasure in the woods. The flower is brilliant pink and stands proudly above the shiny, textured leaves.

The delicious berries, however are a little more difficult to find, possibly because critters found them before you but also because they’re quite tiny – about 1cm. Indeed, they’re so good that I usually forget to take a picture before I eat them. :)


Prickly Rose

Prickly rose, Rosa acicularis is the provincial flower of Alberta. Confusingly, it is often confused with the more or less abundant (depending on the source) common wild or wood rose (R. woodsii), which has fewer thorns.

Most of the plant is edible and the hips are extremely high in Vitamin C as well as several other vitamins, however moderation is advised as over indulgance can cause diarrhea. The hairy seeds within the hip can irritate the digestive track and cause discomfort on elimination.

Various parts of this beautiful, and beautifully scented shrub was used by native people for food, drinks, medicines, jewelry, toys, and to smoke.

A rose hip just beginning to hint at the brilliant red it soon will be.

The popular rose scent is expensive for a reason: according to my favourite plant resource, sited here, “It takes 60,000 roses to produce 28 ml of pure essential oil”. That’s a lot of flowers!

This species is nearly circumpolar. According to Monstropedia a dead person could be prevented from turning into a vampire by “placing a thorny branch of wild rose in the grave”.


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