A Datura Adventure—Colonial Style

DaturaMontage

I’m often intrigued by the eerie, almost sinister looking, half-closed flowers over at the edge of the yard. Sometimes in the mornings there will be an industrious bumble bee forcing its way into the wilting floral tube. This almost luminescent, ghostly white flower opens in the twilight and perfumes the night with a strangely alluring aroma that lasts until morning.

Datura stramonium is its scientific name. The name comes from the Hindu word for the plant, Dhatura . Most of us know it as jimsonweed or thorn-apple. I was surprised to learn that it is native to Asia, though it’s now considered “cosmopolitan” and can be found growing in most temperate parts of the world.

It must have come to America with the Jamestown colonists because it was growing there around 1676 when those hungry soldiers arrived to quell Bacon’s Rebellion. They gathered, cooked, and ate some tender young greens they found growing at the edge of the village. These greens turned out to be Datura, and the soldiers responded to it rather dramatically–as reported by Robert Beverly in his 1705 History and Present State of Virginia:

This being an early Plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d Salad, by some of the soldiers…and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow’d in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembring any thing that had pass’d.

This was the first account of Europeans having a psychedelic experience in North America. (An 11 day trip, no less!) After that event, the plant became known as “Jamestown weed.” Over the last couple of centuries the name has become corrupted, so we now know it as “jimsonweed.” Those soldiers were very lucky. There have been many human interactions with the plant since, and most of them have not ended so happily. Jimsonweed is loaded with powerful alkaloids, and ingestion of even small amounts can cause permanent mental damage; many fatalities have been recorded. If you are interested in ingesting mind-altering plants or wild greens, Daturas are best left alone.

Datura2Late one overcast summer afternoon I passed this clump of jimsonweed blossoms. They were opening early. It’s rare to see them open in the daylight so I snapped a couple of photos. I was gratified that Jim Duke and Steven Foster chose this photo as an illustration in the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs. I have spent thousands of hours with that series of field guides, and I have learned much of what I know about the natural world from them. It was an honor to actually be able to contribute to one.

SEASONAL SALE
www.dougelliott.com/products.html
Now thru New Year’s Day

Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World
196 page, lavishly illustrated hardcover book —
There’s lots more about interesting plants such as ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpits, locust trees, tulip poplars and many other miracles of nature, including beavers, buzzards, snakes, trees, bats, bees, skunks, and more.
Normally $23–NOW $8 off–only $15

An Evening with Doug Elliott  DVDStories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Normally $20 — NOW only $10

Looking for America: A 20th Century Hero’s Journey Double CD
We are all heroes and we are all on a mythic journey. Travel with master storyteller, Doug Elliott, on a journey of discovery. These true cross-country hitchhiking and freight hopping tales, delivered in his own outrageous storytelling style, explore not only this amazing nation, culture and era we are a part of, but also the universal Hero’s Journey we all embarked upon at birth. You’ll be transported from congested northern freeways to sunny southern swamps and from the bowels of throbbing factories and big-city railroad yards to vast deserts and the high Rocky Mountains. You’ll meet astounding characters and hear rousing narratives and music ranging from gospel to 60’s rock, country and contemporary songs, including tunes by Leon Russell, Hank Snow, Jimmy Rogers and Country Joe and the Fish. It’s all textured with regional dialects, lively harmonica riffs, guitar, fiddle and soulful yodels. You’ll return from this rollicking journey of discovery with new insights, unusual perspectives and more than a few belly laughs. Elliott has done some traveling. As a young man, he hopped freight trains and hitchhiked across the continent from Maine to California and from Canada to Guatemala. For most of a decade he was an itinerant herbalist traveling around the country with a van full of herbs, teas and old time remedies, and for a short time he was a migratory beekeeper hauling a trailer full of honeybees between North Carolina and Florida.
Normally $20 – NOW only $10

Thanks to Todd Elliott for the use of two of his photos.
To see more check out his website. toddelliott.weebly.com

Tracker’s Dilemma—The Mysterious Scrapes

There were strange scrape marks on the ground in the woods behind the house. They seemed too deep to be typical turkey scratching. These digs went through the leaf litter, an inch or two into the soil. What critter made these diggings I wondered? MG7631C-ToddElliottThen I noticed a slender green stem topped by three leaflets lying beside each of the holes. I recognized the plant, and when I noticed at the base of the stem the root was missing, it all came clear. I remembered the first time I saw this phenomenon.

It was many years ago when I was out “‘sengin’” with my two older mountaineer buddies, Theron and Lee. All three of us were traversing a steep, forested mountain slope. We had been slowly walking along scanning the thick growth of understory plants searching for the telltale red berries or yellowish leaves of a coveted ginseng plant. We had spaced ourselves about 20 or 30 yards apart as we walked across the slope. Theron was up the highest on the slope. I was the lowest, and Lee was between us.

We had not been finding much ginseng when I came upon a large fallen log that had been broken apart. All around it there were rocks that had been overturned. There was a distinct trail leading off that was marked by beaten down plants, overturned rocks and recently disturbed dirt. This was the fresh trail of a foraging bear.

I forgot about ginseng. I wanted to see what that bear had been doing. I saw some fresh dirt where it had dug a hole. I looked in the hole and saw the remains of the papery walls of a yellowjackets’ nest. The bear had dug up and eaten an entire colony of yellowjackets. I was glad the bear had gotten there first. If I had stumbled into the nest, those yellowjackets might have devoured me!

I could see places where the bear had been digging roots. As near as I could tell, the trail seemed fresh. I hollered up the mountain to my companions. I told them that I had found fresh bear sign and that they ought to come down and look. They were hunting ginseng. They were quite a ways up the slope and didn’t want to come all the way down to look at bear sign. So I followed along further.

botanicals0133Because of the thick growth of herbaceous plants that had been trampled, the bear’s trail was quite clear and easy to follow. The bear had been feeding; turning over rocks in search of insects and digging up roots as it traveled. I looked more carefully at the holes where it had been rooting and found the tops of botanicals0063Jack-in-the-pulpit lying beside the hole with the bulbous corm (the root) bitten off. Could it be that this bear was eating Jack-in-the Pulpit? I followed on. Yes, there were more holes with more tops with the roots bitten off. This was amazing. Jack-in-the-pulpit, sometimes known as “Indian turnip”, has an incredibly fiery, irritating taste. In fact it is a favorite trick of mean-spirited country pranksters to try to get some naive person to taste it. Like many other members of the arum family the plant contains calcium oxalate crystals. When you first put it in your mouth it tastes mild and pleasant – until the calcium oxalate crystals imbed in your mucous membranes and act as an irritant not only chemically, but mechanically as well. To me, the sensation is like slivers of hot broken glass in the throat – not a fun prank at all.

Apparently this bear was not bothered by the calcium oxalate because it had eaten one Jack-in-the-pulpit root after another. Jack-in-the-pulpit root was its major plant food that day. (Since that time I have seen several other instances were a bear had been eating Jack-in-the-pulpit in upstate New York. On another occasion in early July in central West Virginia I witnessed a bear feeding on the fruits of skunk cabbage, another calcium oxalate containing member of the Arum family)

The bear’s trail turned up hill and I followed. Soon I met Lee and Theron. I was excited. I was finally going to be able to show them what this bear had been doing. I pointed out the trail and showed them the top of a Jack-in-the-pulpit with the root chewed off. They both studied it. Finally Lee said, “That ain’t no bear been through here digging them Indian turnips. H’it was somebody.”

“It was a bear,” I protested. “People don’t dig Indian turnip roots.”

“Yeah, they sell them.”

“Naw, it was a bear,” I protested. “I saw where he busted up a log down there.”

“Maybe down there,” Lee said. “But up here, this is where somebody’s been digging roots. That’s probably why we ain’t finding any ginseng.”

“Let’s just follow along here for a while,” I suggested, “Maybe we can figure this out.”

The three of us followed the trail and found more uprooted Jack-in-the-pulpits. Then right beside one of the uprooted Jacks was a large ginseng plant with red berries.

“Now there ain’t nobody who’s digging Indian turnip to sell that’s gonna pass up a ginseng with red berries.” I said triumphantly.

“Well, what about that,” Lee said.

We followed that bear’s trail around the ridge. On the other side, we found a place where it had dug up several Jacks. The tops lay there on the ground; the leaves were not even wilted, a number of the roots had been bitten off. There was one that had been started and but it had been dropped, unfinished. From that point the trail seemed to dwindle and disappear.

It wasn’t till later that we realized that the bear had been prowling the slope hunting roots just like we were. It was just ahead of us and when it heard us arguing, it dropped the root it was eating and slipped away.

After that day in the woods, I wood-burned a drawing of a woodland scene on a shelf mushroom. I drew a bear and a Jack-in-the-pulpit and three tiny human figures up on the ridge in the background. I gave it to Theron for a Christmas present.

He looked at the scene I drew and said, “Well that’s about the way it was, wasn’t it. That ole bear was around the ridge thar, eatin’ them Indian turnips and just a listenin’ to us argue about whether it was a bear or not.”

mushroombear

Okay, you plant geeks; did you notice those two young ginseng plants in the top photo? (They’re above the fallen Jack-in-the-pulpit-leaf.)

Late Summer Sale at www.dougelliott.com/products.html

Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World
196 page, lavishly illustrated hardcover book
There’s lots more about ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpits, locust trees and many other miracles of nature, including beavers, buzzards, snakes, tulip poplar trees, bats, bees, skunks, and more.
Normally $23–NOW $8 off–only $15

An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Half-price sale Normally $20 — NOW only $10

Doug & Todd on NatGeo’s Forage Wars

For all you predawn TV watchers:

Doug and Todd Elliott are featured on the National Geographic reality TV show, Forage Wars, Thursday, June 19.  It should be hilarious, especially if you are a forager.  And they gave us a prime-time slot:  5 AM ET !

There are a couple of trailers to the show on this link:
http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/episodes/forage-wars/

National Geographic Channel - Forage Wars Pilot

Happy foraging.   Doug

The Great Tulip Poplar SlurpFest

Coming soon to a tulip tree near you!

When I tell northerners that I built my house almost entirely of poplar, including the framing, rafters, interior paneling and exterior siding, they seem confused. When I go on to say that there are a lot of old log cabins in the southern Appalachian Mountains built from poplar logs, they look at me like I’m crazy.

I soon found out that to a northerner the word “poplar” refers to aspens and other related trees whose wood is light, soft and virtually useless for house construction. After a bit more discussion, we would finally get our terminology straightened out and I’d get the response, “Oh, you mean ‘tulip tree.’”

poplar-flower-and-leaf

Yes, this magnificent tree has many names and even more uses. It is not a true poplar but was so named because its leaves are attached to its branches by long petioles, or leafstems, that allow the leaves to flutter in the breeze in a manner not unlike that of a quaking aspen.

Tulip poplar is actually in the Magnolia family. Its scientific name, Liriodendron tulipifera, translates as something like, “tulip-bearing lily tree.” This is a great name for the tree because its flowers look like a combination of a tulip and a lily. They are a light greenish yellow and each of the six petals has a blaze of orange at its base.

IMG_2967A large tulip poplar lit up with hundreds of large cup-like blooms in spring is a magnificent sight indeed. The flowering of these trees is very important to beekeepers. It is one of the most dependable sources of nectar in the Southeast. The yield of nectar per bloom is possibly the highest of any plant on the continent and has been calculated at an average of 1.64 grams per flower (that’s about one third of a teaspoon). During a favorable season, the nectar is secreted so abundantly that honey bees and other insects cannot carry it away as fast as it appears. Sometimes you can stand under a blooming tulip tree in a light breeze and feel the nectar dripping down like a gentle, sticky rain. poplar-nectar(People who park their shiny new cars under tulip trees often complain about this.) Because the bloom comes early in the season, many honey bee colonies are not strong enough to fully utilize the abundance. For strong hives, however, harvests of 100 pounds of honey per hive have been recorded during just the three-week poplar bloom. The honey is dark in color and is sometimes called “black poplar honey”. When held up to the light, however, it can be seen that it is actually a deep amber-red in color. Though it is not as light as locust honey or as sought after as sourwood honey, it has a rich full-bodied flavor that can be used to sweeten fruit salads, yogurt, tea and other beverages. It goes great on pancakes, waffles, cereal, biscuits, cornbread, and other baked goods. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t eat some.

If you want the ultimate tulip poplar nectar tasting experience, you can sip it straight from the flower like the bees do. To do this, you need to find a freshly opened blossom within reach. Pick or lower the blossom carefully without jostling it. Then lick the droplets on the inside of the petals, and taste that ambrosia! Sometimes the nectar collects in a puddle on one of the lower sepals. If the air has been warm and dry, the nectar will often be thick like syrup. After one taste, you will know you have imbibed the nectar of the gods!

Many wild critters take advantage of the tulip poplar nectar. Along with the multitudes of insects, I have seen hummingbirds and orioles sipping the nectar. A friend was on a cliff in West Virginia in late May looking out over the canopy of the forest when he noticed movements in the crown of a distant tulip tree. It was a bear up in the tree bending in the flowering branches and slurping the nectar. Often you will see hundreds of cut up petals on the ground under flowering tulip trees. These are the remains of the squirrels’ treetop slurp fest. They’ve been up there partying–sipping nectar, chomping flowers, and running around on a sugar high!

It’s a good season for all of us to get outside and run around. Join the squirrels, the bears, the bugs, the birds, the bees and me on the Great Tulip Poplar Slurp Fest! Coming soon to a tulip tree near you.

IMG_2985How ‘bout them flower slurpers; ain’t they a panic,
Slurping them flowers and acting romantic,
If you wanna be a flower slurper, you don’t need to burp it,
Just find yourself a flower and haul off and slurp it!

 

 

Head Over to DougElliott.com for The Spring Sale–Still Going On–More Items:

Woodslore
Stories, Lore, and Truth Stranger Than Fiction about the Natural World
A 75 page whimsical, homemade, soft-cover book
Along with detailed instructions about how to make a tulip poplar basket, Elliott “covers a variety of topics including ‘possums, old-timey apples, ramps, orchids, bears, ginseng, millipedes roadkills and more…There’s little rhyme or reason to this book. Its topics are as varied and as far flung as Elliott’s wandering mind. But Doug has a unique and deep perspective on the world, and seeing it through his eyes is always educational and fun. This book is wonderful collection, full of woods sense, common sense and more.” –David Wheeler
Half-price sale (slightly water rumpled copies) Normally $12 — NOW only $6

Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World
196 page, lavishly illustrated hardcover book —
There’s lots more about locust trees, tulip poplar trees, and many other miracles of nature, including beavers, buzzards, snakes, ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpits, bats, bees, skunks, and more.
Normally $23–NOW $8 off–only $15

An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World
Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Half-price Sale Normally $20 — NOW only $10

Thanks to Todd Elliott for the use of two of his photos. To see more check out his website. toddelliott.weebly.com

You might also enjoy checking out my 8-minute NC-TV video celebrating the tulip poplar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7WdKjeNx0w

Locust Blossom Celebration

Locust-2943

Locust-2925Locust trees will be blooming soon! Flowering time is usually in April or May. The fragrant dangling clusters of white pea-like flowers often cover the tree. Sam Thayer calls them the “Queen of Blossoming Sweetness” (foragersharvest.com/books)

Some years they produce copious amounts of nectar during the brief two-week bloom. Occasionally this provides nearby beekeepers with a bumper crop of heavy-bodied, water-white, elegantly flavored honey. In some parts of the Appalachians, locust honey is often called “the beekeepers’ honey” because the locust bloom is very unpredictable, and on the few occasions when beekeepers harvest a crop of this special honey, it rarely makes it to the market because the beekeepers usually squirrel it away for their own use.

Locust blossoms are prime for only a week or so, and you best catch them at the beginning of the bloom. If the edges of the petals are dried and wrinkly, you are too late. They are best gathered in the morning, before the bees and butterflies have sipped away their nectar.

Locust-2938Locust-2949

The flowers can be nibbled right off the tree, used as an addition to salads, or dipped into thin pancake batter and fried to make locust blossom fritters.

The most elegant use I know for the flowers is locust blossom cordial. To make it, use freshly opened locust blossoms. Loosely fill a container (ideally a glass pitcher) with the flowers and then cover with cool spring water and stir gently. Set the pitcher in a refrigerator or other cool place for about an hour and then serve in wine glasses. Allow a few flowers to spill into each glass as you pour. The drink has a delicate bouquet and the nectar imparts a subtle, distinctive sweetness. One of the benefits of this beverage is that you can drink glass after glass of this cordial and still drive home safely!

Locust-3414

Spring Sale at dougelliott.com/products

Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World
196 page, lavishly illustrated hardcover book —
There’s lots more about locust trees and many other miracles of nature, including beavers, buzzards, snakes, tulip poplar trees, ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpits, bats, bees, skunks, and more.
Normally $23–NOW $8 off–only $15

An Evening with Doug Elliott DVD
Stories, Songs, and Lore Celebrating the Natural World

Elliott performs a lively concert of tales, tunes, traditional lore, wild stories, and fact stranger than fiction–flavored with regional dialects, harmonica riffs, and belly laughs. One moment he is singing about catfish, the next he’s extolling the virtues of dandelions, or bursting forth with crow calls. He also demonstrates basketry, ponders the “nature” in human nature, tells wild snake tales, and jams and jives with his fiddler son, Todd.
Half-price sale Normally $20 — NOW only $10

To see more of Todd Elliott’s photo work, visit: http://toddelliott.weebly.com/

Sapsucker Cuisine – Illegal Spirit Food

5120-C-Todd-Elliott“Do you want this dead bird?”  It was my neighbor calling. “It hit my window,” he said, and it looks like some kind of woodpecker. Do you want it?”

Of course I had to answer the call. When he handed me the limp body and I saw the flash of red feathers on its head, I knew this was a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Sapsuckers are amazing critters. They drill parallel rows of small holes in the trunks of trees. These are sap wells. The birds return regularly to these wells to drink the sap and consume the insects that are attracted to the oozing sap. The sapsucker’s tongue has hair-like fringes that function like a brush to facilitate its sap slurping activities.

Sapsuckers only visit our area during the winter months. This was the day of the winter solstice and now I had the mortal remains of this beautiful bird in my hand.

In this dark time of the year, its yellowish breast feathers remind us of the light that will be returning. We marveled at how this mellow member of the woodpecker family lives by tapping hidden streams of life, the life blood of seemingly dormant trees. Its fiery red, iridescent crown and throat patch remind us that even in the frigid depths of the winter forest, the fire of life is still burning. How could we honor its death on this shortest day of the year?

That unlucky bird became our guest of honor, as well as our “spirit food” at our solstice celebration that year. We plucked and cleaned its tiny body, slid it into the oven, basted it with maple syrup (to acknowledge its sap drinking habits), and using a tea saucer as a platter, we served it on a bed of wild rice. It looked like a miniature two-inch turkey in a tiny dish. How we enjoyed the tiny slices of breast meat and the miniature legs, wings, and thighs. A true taste of the winter woods.

We found out later that while we may not have done anything morally wrong, what I just described was totally illegal. A sapsucker, like almost every native songbird is protected, and it is illegal to possess a part of any protected bird (without a permit). It’s technically illegal to pick up a songbird feather in the woods. The intent of this law, of course, is to protect the birds.  If you have the feathers, how can you prove you didn’t kill the bird?  You are not likely to get busted for owning a few feathers, but occasionally wildlife officers will go through flea markets arresting folks who sell crafts (like dream catchers, etc.) that use native bird feathers. Commerce in protected bird parts is a real no-no (Remember the days of the plume hunters!)  I like to wear feathers in my hat, but I always make sure they are legal feathers from crows, pheasants, turkeys and other game birds or from parrots or domestic birds.  If you are allowed to shoot them or keep them as pets or livestock you can own the feathers.

2136-C-Todd-Elliott7430-C-Todd-Elliott

The brilliant flash of a woodpecker’s crimson crest in the drab browns and grays of the winter woods is like a lone glowing ember in a bed of ashes. The flash of red comes at us like a beacon of light and hope. It reminds us that even in the frigid depths of a dormant forest, the fire of life is still burning.

5296-C-Todd-Elliott

The photo above showing a sapsucker feeding on persimmons reminds me that it is not too late to find ripe persimmons still hanging on, waiting to be harvested.

If you are interested learning more about harvesting and preparing persimmons check out Shake Them ‘Simmons Down!

Wintery Green Blessings to you all,
Doug

Special seasonal offers till New Year’s Day 2014 :
Any of my recordings — CDs or DVD — Two for $25. Regular price is $15 each.
Wildwoods Wisdom, the illustrated hardback book, has more “woodpeckerology” and lots more natural history, woodsy stories, and lore. This season (till the New Year) is reduced from $23 to $15.

Soul Food in a Southern Swamp

I recently was a part of the Stories Connect Us All Online Storytelling Festival. This was a free Facebook event at www.facebook.com/storiesconnectusall. The festival’s videos feature multicultural storytellers sharing stories of their unique cultural backgrounds, challenges and triumphs. You can hear and watch over 60 professional storytellers tell their stories! You’ll have to scroll quite a bit to find me, so here’s the story: After fishermen in the Okefenokee Swamp give me two fierce looking mudfish, I find myself on a hilarious cross cultural journey learning how to cook the fish, and later meet a number of challenges learning how to tell the tale.

That story about “fish bumming” is one of seventeen stories and songs on my award winning double CD entitled Everybody’s Fishin’– A Cross-Cultural Fishing Extravaganza.  Why a double CD, you ask?  Because when I started telling fish stories I couldn’t quit till I had two CD’s (98minutes) filled up! Read more at www.dougelliott.com/products.html

mudfish

Here is picture of a mudfish in its natural environment. I did this drawing to illustrate one of the chapters in my book, Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life. You can see my wise fisherwoman mentor on the left.  What about that couple slipping under the fence with the police up above? That’s another story. It’s in the book at http://www.dougelliott.com/products.html.

Special Offer:

Till the end of November the book Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life will be on sale for $15 AND the double CD Everybody’s Fishin’– A Cross-Cultural Fishing Extravaganza will be on sale for $15.