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.


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.


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,

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 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


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

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.

Bears in the Beehives

beehivewreckBears in the beehives–what’ll I do?
Bears in the beehives, what’ll I do?
Bears in the beehives, what’ll I do?

The best defense — use common sense
It’s time to build a ‘lectric fence.

“The party’s over.” That’s what I told my wife, Yanna. We knew bears were in the neighborhood, but up until that warm night this summer they had left our bees alone. At first when I saw the toppled hive I thought I had stacked the supers too high. But there were two hives toppled and a couple of supers were broken and dragged into the woods. This was more than gravity. It was BEARS!

So I soon found myself at the hardware store buying parts for a solar-powered electric fence and acquiring fence installation training. Let’s hope its electrical jolt is more of a bear deterrent than those bee stings!

Bees require constant vigilance these days to deter the mites, diseases, and other pests. Up till now most of our pests have been tiny.

It’s getting more and more expensive to keep bees. Amazingly, the price of honey is only just starting to rise. One of our bee club members had his honey for sale for $15 a quart. A customer came up to him and she complained that his price seemed little high. Couldn’t he give her a better price?

He said, “Would you rather I sell it to you for what I have in it?”

“Yes,” she said, “how much would that be?”

“$37.50” he replied.



I’ve been keeping bees as well as writing, singing, and telling stories about bees (and lots of other things) for years. Each of these three items has some kind of bee adventure within and they are all on sale till the end of September. Go to my Products Page here.

Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World (hardcover) $18 ($5 off)
Sail On, Honeybee, Adventures in the Bee Yard (CD) $10 ($5 off)
Swarm Tree, Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (paperback) $15 ($3 off)


Honeybee Fly Around Song Todd at age 13 singing about honeybees and dancing around (and on) the bee hives.

Poplar Appeal - UNC-TV Celebrating the tulip poplar tree as a source of honey, baskets, and many other things.

Another Snaky Adventure

A loud, coarse hissing sound was coming out of the thicket. The buzz of a rattlesnake’s rattle, I wondered? Peering into the bushes I could see the keeled scales of a writhing, defensive serpent and hear, not rattling, but ominous hissing.

Yanna, Todd, and I were exploring Walnut Creek Preserve with a couple of friends, Bob Strickland and Rich Baird, when that strange, eerie sound stopped me in my tracks. As soon as I parted the overhanging bushes we could see it was a hog-nosed snake – one of the great actors of the reptile kingdom.


Not only did we have a great actor in our midst, we also had a great cameraman on duty that day. Todd whipped out his camera, snapped a few stills then started the video rolling (see below). What a show we had! Its head and neck flattened out sort of like a cobra, its body swelled and thickened as the snake filled its lungs and let out long ghastly hisses. When I poked at it with my fingers, it struck fiercely! But I wasn’t concerned about getting bitten. This snake was striking with its mouth closed! After a few minutes and a few dozen false strikes, it realized the ferocity act wasn’t working, so it changed strategies. It started writhing about like I had just given it poison. It opened its cloaca (the multi-purpose anal opening at the base of the tail) so it looked like an oozing wound, and excreted strong-smelling musk. Slowly the writhing stopped, the snake turned belly up and went limp with its mouth gaped open and its tongue hanging out! We could pick it up and it was as limp as a piece of rope.

It was perfect act – except for one thing. Something instinctual tells the snake that the only way it can appear dead is to be belly up. Even though snake was dead limp, every time we rolled it over with its back up and belly down it would roll itself back over, belly up. No matter how many times we flipped it over it insisted on belly up! Sometimes actors have their own ideas about how a role should be played. Maybe that’s why he never earned an Oscar. We finally departed leaving our overworked reptilian thespian belly up in its thicket, and we hoped it would recover before the buzzards arrived.



For more snake stories and a lot more natural history and plant and animal lore, check out my 196 page hard cover book, WildwoodsWisdom: Encounters with the Natural World. For the month of August I’m offering it for $18.00. That’s $5 off the $23 retail price.

Monsters Of The Mighty Pee Dee

Catfish Grabbling Adventure

Check out this story about a monster catfish grabbling adventure we got in on a while ago.  Most of this article was in Pinestraw magazine. The awesome photos are © by Laura Gingerich.

five against one

“How crazy is that?” Neal declared. “Five guys stuffed into a pickup truck, driving three hours to go fishing, and nobody has a fishin’ rod!”

This was exactly the situation. There were Neal Mills, his son, Brent, Mat Rees, the most adventurous MD in Rutherford County, myself, and my son, Todd. We had been invited to go “grabbling” by Richmond County residents Terry Sharpe and naturalist Lincoln Sadler. Grabbling is the fine art of reaching under submerged rocks and catching fish (especially catfish) by hand. Sharpe and Sadler are knowledgeable, well-rounded outdoorsmen who are versed in a variety of skills — everything from calling turkeys and managing game lands to identifying native grasses, trees, songbird calls, and edible wild plants. They also happen to be privy to the knowledge of a few special rocks in the middle of an undisclosed section of the Pee Dee River.

The more I lurk in the out-of-doors the more I learn that, like in the real estate business, the three most important considerations are location, location, location! If you are looking for a certain kind of plant or animal (or customer, for that matter) you’d best find a good location. On this warm, sunny summer morning these gentlemen certainly had some locations in mind — that is, certain submerged rocks. The rocks had names: Lost Rock, Blue Rock, Mills’ Rock, etc.

We met Terry at a trailhead. “Lincoln and his gang will be along shortly,” he said, and before long we heard the sound of laughter and excited voices coming down the trail. I had thought this was going to be sort of a rough, all-guy adventure, but what was approaching looked more like a jolly beach party — a dozen or more people, men and women of varying ages wearing bathing suits and floppy sun hats and carrying day packs, beach bags, and the foam flotation “noodles” so common in swimming pools.

We made our introductions and soon were on our way for the mile-long hike to the river. We had been told to bring a boat cushion or some sort of floatation device to help us cross deep spots in the river (hence the noodles). We were also told to bring wading shoes, gloves, snacks, and a stick (to give stability when wading among the submerged rocks and mud on the river bottom).

As soon as we got to the tree-lined riverbank, folks stashed their backpacks in the bushes and waded into the cool, murky waters. As a group, we moved downstream — some wading in the shallows, others in the deeper water, while others, more reluctant to make the plunge, bushwhacked along the bank.

Lincoln, who was out a distance from shore, kept looking toward the bank saying, “Lost Rock ought to be around here somewhere. I can tell by that sycamore tree.” When I looked at the bank I could see it was lined with sycamores. Which sycamore? I wondered.

“Yeah, I think this is it!” he suddenly hollered, and soon the group converged around him and his rock. Lost Rock was larger than a king-sized mattress. It was a couple of feet thick and it was about a foot or two under water.

There were several holes around the edge of the rock that led to a large cavity underneath. “Feel with your feet for the holes and block them with your feet so the fish can’t escape,” Lincoln said. The two largest holes were across from each other on opposite sides of the rock. Soon people were diving down around the rock feeling in the holes for a fish.

The technique is like this: You have to dive down and reach deep into the hole while the person next to you puts his foot on your back to help hold you down while you reach as deep as you can into the dark, watery cavity hoping you might feel a fish. If you feel the tail, and you can get a grip, they say you can squeeze the tail tight and this will temporarily paralyze the fish so you can haul it out. But more likely the fish will be facing you. And most likely it will bite you. When it bites, your job is to grab it by the lower jaw, hang on, and haul it out. Catfish do not have long sharp teeth like garfish or pickerel. Catfish jaws are lined with rows of short, but very sharp, rasp-like teeth that leave your skin looking like it was attacked by a belt-sander. (So that’s why gloves are recommended.)

“What about snakes?” someone asked.

“Snakes don’t hang out in the middle of the river under four feet of water.”

“What about snapping turtles?”

“They don’t usually, either. If there is a turtle, try to get it by the tail.”

“Thanks a lot!”

After a few of the experienced practitioners had been down and confirmed that indeed there was a fish in the hole, they offered us “newbies” a chance to try our luck.

“And I don’t want any of this ‘alligator arm’ business!” Lincoln admonished us good-naturedly while mimicking the folded-up front legs of an alligator. “You gotta reach your whole arm in there. That critter’s in there deep!”

Soon I too was experiencing full immersion with my neighbor’s foot in the small of my back, pushing me deeper as I felt my way down the side of the rock. I found the hole under the rock and reached in as far as I could. I felt all around in the hole but felt nothing, and the foot on my back yielded as soon as I made motions to come back up.

“Try again,” they said as soon as I got a breath.

This time my son Todd and I dove down on opposite sides of the rock at the same time and we both reached in.

Yes! It was unmistakable. My fingertips grazed the slippery flanks of a fish! Just out of reach. There was something down there, all right, but how could we get to it? The problem was the rock and the cavity under it were so large that two or three people reaching under at the same time could not get to the fish. That’s where the walking sticks came in. We took turns diving down and poking around in the holes with the sticks. Still nothing.

This went on for almost an hour, and I was starting to wonder why they didn’t give up and try another rock when Lincoln’s head popped up and he calmly announced, “I got it.” With both hands side by side in the lower jaw, he lifted up the front portion of a huge silent monster. The crowd gave out a collective gasp of astonishment and then a half dozen of them jumped onto the fish to keep it from struggling free while they put it on a rope. This was a huge flathead catfish, the likes of which I have never seen before — between 40 and 50 pounds, a mottled gray-brown brindle color, small expressionless eyes, and a huge mouth graced by whiskers almost six inches long.

They tied it with a rope through the gills and then tied the other end of the rope around the waist of a spritely teenager named Nicole Lindamood. She was a “newbie” and towing this huge fish would be her initiation. She was an amazingly good sport about it. She quickly named the fish “Pepe” and accepted her role gracefully, even when they recalled the time that one of their buddies got bitten on the calf by a big catfish he was towing. “Yeah, he sported a pink half moon- shaped abrasion from that catfish bite on his leg for about a week.” Could you call that a Pee Dee catfish tattoo?

Catfish in tow, we moved on down the river toward Blue Rock. Soon we were in our familiar circle again around this new rock. Grabblers started going down. Soon Brent surfaced, exclaiming, “Wow! That’s got to be a blue catfish. I can tell by the way it bit me. Look, it tore my glove!” Soon a huge blue catfish was being hauled out of its lair and wrestled onto the stringer. I was amazed that these guys could identify the species of the fish by the quality of its bite. “What did that bite feel like?” someone asked. “Here put your hand down on that rock,” Brent said, “And I’ll hit it with this stick!”

So with these two fish weighing collectively around eighty pounds, we decided this might be enough for a fish fry. They hauled the fish back up the trail and to the home of Lee Sadler, Lincoln’s brother, who is a locally famous catfish chef. Lee prepared the fish and invited everybody to a truly memorable feast. “That catfish belly meat is out of this world!” Lincoln reminisced dreamily.

flippin fish

two girls

strung over back


A number of my books, including Swarm Tree and Wildwoods Wisdom, have stories about fish and fishing.

For the month of July I’ll send you the double CD, Everybody’s Fishin’–A Cross-cultural Fishing Extravaganza (more than an hour and a half of stories, songs, and lore) for the single CD price of $15. That’s a $10 savings.

cover-fishinSunfish, herring, mudfish, trout,
Grab that catfish by the snout!

Join fisherman, storyteller and harmonica champ Doug Elliott, on a cross-cultural fishing extravaganza — a celebration of fish, fisherpersons and other wet, wonderful, watery critters. Journey from the frigid North Atlantic to the sunny Caribbean — from tumbling mountain streams to bayous, cypress swamps, and jungle rivers. You’ll hear fantastic fish lore, lively tunes, piscatorial poems, some mighty fishy philosophical probing and true stories of fishing adventures with people of different cultures and nationalities.

Hear about a battle with a sea serpent and about catching fish with all kinds of bait, from dry flies, lures, spinners and spoons to wooly boogers, rubber worms, zoom lizards, pork rinds and even green tomatoes; using cane poles, rods and reels, nets, weirs, purse seines, pistols and dynamite. Learn how to tickle a trout with your fingers and how to get a fine fresh fish dinner just by talking.

On this DOUBLE CD, Elliott flavors his tales with regional accents and he wails away on his trusty harmonica, playing and singing a half-dozen songs, accompanied by guitar, bass and percussion.

Creasy Alert! (and Creasy Season Sale)


They are out there now!  Beautiful green rosettes volunteering in a fallow section of our winter garden.  They might be  showing up in your neighborhood too!

Soft and easy, good and greasy! How I love them creasy greens!

I can remember hearing the famous urban wild plant forager Wildman Steve Brill (see note below) rhapsodizing about how he ate winter cress greens, not only as a nutritious steamed vegetable, but he also combined the greens with organic buckwheat flour and ran it through a pasta machine to make winter cress-buckwheat pasta.  He claimed that it was a perfect entree for a robust health food meal.

Another group of health food lovers, the Italians, are great appreciators of winter cress as well.  Euell Gibbons wrote that where he lived on the outskirts of Philadelphia, the first sign of spring was not the geese winging their way back north, nor the first robins on the lawn, but it was the Italians “swarming out from town to gather winter cress from fields and ditches.” They use the winter cress in salads, or cooked in soups, omelets, and other dishes. It is called “Barbarea” in Italian. “Barbarea” is also the Latin scientific name by which botanists refer to this group of land cresses. The winter cresses are so named because the greens in some areas are ready for the first picking on Saint Barbara’s Day which falls on the fourth day of December. There are three species of Barbarea commonly found in North America. Barbarea vulgaris, sometimes called yellow rocket. “Vulgaris,” here means “common” and it is the most abundant winter cress in northeastern North America.  Out west however, the native American winter cress, B. orthoceras, prevails. The third species, B. verna, grows wild in many parts of the southeastern U.S. and it is also cultivated in some areas. Sometimes it appears in markets as Dry Land or Belle Isle Cress.  Down South the plant is known universally as “creasy greens”.

Elliott gathering and “looking” creasy greens

Elliott gathering and “looking” creasy greens

I can remember gathering a “mess” of the greens with my Appalachian mountaineer mentor and foraging buddy, Theron Edwards.  He was telling me to be sure to “look” the greens as I picked them.  I told him that I was looking at ‘em.

“I didn’t say look at ‘em,” he jovially scolded, “I said look ’em.” (By this, he meant to pick over each bunch of cress, removing all adhering dirt, debris and damaged leaves before I put them in our gathering bag. (This is good advice for harvesting any wild greens.)  We usually chop the greens and sauté them with olive oil and steam them nowadays, or more traditionally, boil them in a pot of salted water with a chunk of fatback or ham for seasoning. The well-cooked greens can be topped with a sprinkling of chopped raw onions or garlic powder and a few squirts of pepper vinegar. Traditionally they might be served with soup beans and a hot cat-head biscuit or a chunk of cornbread slathered with fresh homemade butter and a generous dab of sourwood honey or sorghum molasses. The highly nutritious liquid the greens were cooked in, known as “pot liquor,” is often drunk along with the meal.  After a meal like that I can assure you the humble weedy winter cress will take on a new dimension.

Perhaps a meal like that inspired the immortal Pegleg Sam Jackson to sing about them. The tune was recorded as “Greasy Greens” (Trix CD 3302) but when I heard him perform it back in 1977, the summer before he died, I’m sure I heard him say creasy greens. It has been said that the lyrics are full of double entendre, but I’m sure this can’t be true because Mr. Jackson didn’t speak French. To hear a bit of a spoken-word recipe and my rendition of the tune, click on the arrow below:

Here are the lyrics:

Winter cress blooms in early spring with, four- petaled, yellow flowers typical of many mustard family plants.

Winter cress blooms in early spring with, four- petaled, yellow flowers typical of many mustard family plants.

Way down South where I was born,
They raise them creasy greens and corn,
Sweet potatoes, black eyed peas,
Green tomatoes, Momma, pecan trees.

Them creasy greens sure taste good,
I’d just eat them all if I could,
Soft and easy, good and greasy,
How I love them creasy greens

I’m a Mississippi Man from New Orleans.
Crazy ’bout them creasy greens,
If I don’t get ‘em three times a day,
I’ll get mad and I’ll just walk away.


Honey, you can cook lima beans,
You can cook things, Sugar, I never seen,
But when you fix up your table for me,
Don’t cook nothing but creasy greens.


Honey, there’s some greens up on your shelf,
You must be saving them for somebody else!
I hear some greens falling in that pot.
How much creasy greens have you got?


Honey, I don’t care what your Momma don’t allow,
I want some good greens anyhow,
I’ll just eat ‘em, Honey, and I’ll be gone,
She’ll never know we slipped them on!


Honey, that meat must’a been fat,
To make them greens so greasy like that!
Don’t cook nothing but naturally,
How I love them creasy greens.

More Cress Lore

Once after I was singing and talking about creasy greens, a ballad singer came up to me and said, “I know an old ballad about creasies.”  He informed me that the word “creasy” is a throwback to merry old England when the cress seller walked through the streets with a basket of cress shouting, “Creases! Creases!” as a street cry. Now in areas of the US that were originally settled by people from the British Isles, the name “creasies” has stuck and is still used today. Then he burst forth and sang this song:

I met a fair young damsel come skipping down the lane,
And her voice it was the clearest of any I did hear.
She had a bunch of early onions, some pickles and strong beer,
Small roses and a bunch of water creases.

I quickly step-ped up to her and unto her did say,
“I’m on my way to Cumberland. Can you direct my way?”
“Oh yes Sir, oh yes Sir,” quickly she did say.
“Take the turn at your left and go down the other way.”

We walked along together, together side by side,
And oft-times I wished she was my lawful wedded bride.
So I asked her this question, half in earnest, half in joke,
And these are the words that unto her I spoke,

“I’ve got cows, I’ve got sheep, I’ve got pigs and I’ve got geeses,
Likewise I’ve got a dairy full of buttermilk and cheeses.
If you’d consent to Mrs. now, fair lady of all leases,
We’ll spend our life in love, and water creases.”

“Since you have been so generous. I believe I may,
Prepare the matrimonials and then we’ll end the day.
I’ve a wedding dress to buy and some little bills to pay…”
I gave to her a sovereign, her debts for to defray.

T’was early the next morning, a letter I received,
“Kind sir, for disappointing you, I do apologize,
But when you pick a partner in a partnership for life,
Be sure you pick a maiden or a widow, not a wife!

I’ve a husband of my own and his name is William Grey,
And when I can well afford it, your sovereign back, I’ll pay,
To think that I would marry you upon the first of May,
You must have been greener than water creases!”

This hilarious old English ballad not only celebrates watercress, using the old English name “water creases”, but it also shows the dangers of getting carried away with your romantic fantasies. I wonder if that fellow ever got his sovereign back.  (A sovereign is a British gold coin worth one pound sterling.)

Lush bed of blooming watercress growing in a clear spring

Lush bed of blooming watercress growing in a clear spring

Watercress is an aquatic member of the mustard family with a sharp, lively taste.  It is quite nutritious and can be used raw in salads and sandwiches, stir- fried with other vegetables, or cooked in soups and stews.

Watercress is a European plant but it has become naturalized in springs and clear streams (particularly in limestone areas) all over North America.  I have picked it in Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Carolina, and California to name a few places.  One time I found so much watercress growing near the headwaters of a spring-fed river in Florida that I gathered a bushel of it and sold it to a health food store. Because watercress grows in springs with relatively constant temperatures it can be gathered when other fresh greens are not available. I can remember slogging through two feet of snow in a cold snap in northern Ohio when we came upon a spring full of lush green watercress. What a treat it was to nibble fresh wild greens on that snowy winter day.

Creasy Season Sale

Till the end of March I’ll sell the Crawdads, Doodlebugs, and Creasy Greens CD and the Bound for Carolina CD for only $10 each (That’s 1/3 off the normal $15 price). Both recordings have the Creasy Greens song and a whole lot more. And if you like, I’ll toss in the songbook (also entitled Crawdads, Doodlebugs, and Creasy Greens) with any order over $20. The songbook has even more Creasy lore! Check out my calendar. I’ll be doing a bunch of interesting programs around the country.

(Note) Brill is a wild plant enthusiast who does most of his foraging in New York City.  He received national attention in 1986 after he was arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park.  The press had a field day: “The Man Who Ate Manhattan,” the Daily News headline read. “Daisies Not on New York Diet,” the Chicago Sun-Times quipped.  “Parks Muzzle Weed Maven,” exclaimed another.  The story did have a happy ending however when Brill ended up being hired as a park naturalist by the same agency that had him arrested.  He has authored several books including, Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places.

Sphagnum Moss Diapers–Campers Pampers

Sphagnum moss sure is an amazing plant! I’ve been hanging out in some wetlands lately, and with our son Todd attaining his 20th birthday, and a bunch of my friends having babies, I couldn’t help but reminicse about this old rolling stone’s moss gathering activities a couple of decades ago. I hope you enjoy this piece. Lemmie know how your moss gathering goes.

Camper’s Pampers

I just couldn’t get it out of my head!

William Wasowich, one of the last South Jersey moss rakers hard at work in 1992 in a Pine Barrens sphagnum bog. Wasowich was one of the characters mentioned in John McPhee’s book, The Pine Barrens.

Ever since I had seen the article in that old National Geographic Magazine about the Cree Indians, I hadn’t been able to get that picture out of my head. It showed a young Cree mom diapering her baby with sphagnum moss.

Wow! What a concept! I knew sphagnum moss well. I had seen it many times in my wanderings in wetland areas in various parts of the country. I had marveled at its pale green color and its soft, absorbent, spongy texture. I had picked it up by the handful and marveled at how much water I could squeeze out of it. One time I did a test with a bunch of dry sphagnum and a sensitive scale. I found out that it would hold 12 times its own weight in water. Sphagnum’s remarkable ability to soak up water is why it is so important in nature. Because of its water retaining properties and its ability to create and maintain an acid habitat for itself and other plants, sphagnum plays a key role in the formation of bogs. Bog environments act like huge sponges that control erosion on mountain slopes and flooding in valleys. In fact the drainage of almost all the vast northern regions of our planet is controlled by sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss deposits also provide a medium for the seeding of trees and other plants that are important in the development of northern forests. The peat moss that we buy to mulch our shrubs and mix with potting soil is primarily ancient sphagnum moss that has been mined out of former bog areas.

William Wasowich, one of the last South Jersey moss rakers hard at work in 1992 in a Pine Barrens sphagnum bog.

I had spent time with traditional moss rakers in southern New Jersey. These backwoods folks, known as “pineys”, who live in the relatively undisturbed and ecologically unique area known as the Jersey Pine Barrens, rake fresh sphagnum moss out of bog areas, dry it and bale it for sale to nurseries and garden centers.

Sphagnum moss also has a long history of use as a wound dressing, reaching a peak in its use during World War I when it was used by both the Germans and the Allies. By the end of the war, the British production of sphagnum dressings was estimated to have been about one million pounds a month.

In the 1730′s the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, observed, “The Lapland matrons are well acquainted with [sphagnum] moss. They lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of bed, bolster, and every covering; and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkably clean, dry, and warm … and makes a most delicate nest for the new-born babe.”

Yes, what a perfect material, I thought — a completely organic, biodegradable, disposable diaper. What new parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a thing? As my friends began to have babies I would often go into a bog and collect and dry a batch of beautiful soft sphagnum moss and present it to them as a gift at baby showers. I was astounded that even some of my more earthy friends were simply not interested. They would often say, patronizingly, “Yeah right, Doug, go ahead use that moss on your baby.”

Well the time had come. My wife was pregnant and the nesting phase had begun. The nesting phase is that time during pregnancy when many women get seriously focused on “preparing their nest” for the arrival of the new baby. From knitting tiny garments and shopping for blankets and diapers, to preparing the cradle, crib, playpen and other neonatal accoutrements. The nesting phase is a busy, exciting time in an expectant mother’s life.

As an expectant dad, I found my own nesting instinct had kicked in powerfully and now this old rolling stone was scurrying around in bogs gathering every bit of moss he could find. By the time our little one was due, I had stored away several big bags of carefully dried sphagnum.

What marvelous material it is. I can’t say that it was the only diapers we used because we tried all kinds. But sphagnum was our favorite, not only because it is natural and biodegradable but because it was simply, the best. The moss seems to wick moisture away from the baby’s skin and the tiny dry particles of moss act almost like a talcum powder so that the baby’s skin stays smooth and dry. Feces is absorbed and enclosed in a wad of moss. Because of these properties, as well as the fact that the moss is slightly acidic and is reported to contain small amounts of iodine, sphagnum can be helpful to prevent and heal diaper rash.

And it was so convenient. When it was time for a diaper change, we would simply remove the moss, and if we were home, we would compost it under a fruit tree. If we were on the trail hiking, we would simply tuck the soiled moss into the topsoil and cover it with leaves or other forest duff. On car trips we would pull off the highway and bury it. (Once we even discretely slipped a wad of our nitrogen-enriched sphagnum deep into the mulch under landscape shrubbery outside a shopping mall.)

I realized that not only were we being gentle on the earth and giving our baby the best care available but we were also, in some ways, tapping into our ancient heritage because sphagnum moss was used by our northern European ancestors as well as native North Americans.

I asked a native-American friend, who is a speaker of Cree and other northern Algonquian dialects about sphagnum. He told me about how it is still used in the back- country. Mothers wrap their babes in a soft buckskin bag filled with dry sphagnum and change it as necessary His people use the word “otaow” (rhymes with cow) to refer to sphagnum moss. When I asked him about how the word translates, he said the root of the word, “ota,” is associated with the word for father.

“Is that because the fathers gather the moss?” I asked expectantly.

“Not necessarily,” he said. Men might collect moss sometimes but it is usually the women who gather it because they also use it in the moon lodge where the women spend their menstrual periods, singing, talking, praying and hanging out with each other while seated on pads of sphagnum. (Modern women tell me it is hard to use sphagnum if they remain active.)

This root word, “ota,” he went on to say, is a word that implies presence, meaning something like “right here” or “being there.” I thought about how fatherhood had imbued the words “presence” and “being there” with new meaning for me.

The word for sphagnum, “otaow,” he told me, would translate out to mean “protectively holds” or “embraces.”

“Is that because it’s used for diapers,” I asked.

“Not necessarily,” he replied (again), explaining that it is more because of the way the sphagnum covers the ground — like a carpet in some moist areas, growing over rocks and logs and everything — protectively holding the Earth Mother.

When I would protectively embrace and hold my young son in my arms, I would sometimes think about our responsibility to protectively hold all that we touch. When I think about that spongy wad of sphagnum moss in our son’s diaper, I marvel at the vast millions of acres of sphagnum moss that are currently embracing our planet, protectively holding, and ever so gently, softly, controlling the flow of the countless trillions of gallons of water that drain boreal land masses all around the globe.

That wad of sphagnum tucked in our child’s diaper, containing the fluids and mopping up our own baby’s nether regions seemed like a wonderful parallel – sort of a microcosm of what is happening on our planet every day.

How (and Where) to Gather Sphagnum Moss for Diapers

To gather sphagnum moss for baby diapers, it should be picked as clean as possible and promptly dried. When gathering moss I generally carry a tarp or large drop cloth, a pillowcase and /or a pack basket with me into a bog area. Late spring and early summer seem to be ideal times to gather because there is a lot of new tender growth. Boots, amphibious sandals or wading shoes are recommended. In the boggy areas where sphagnum is found, it usually grows as the first layer of vegetation, anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more in depth. It forms a moist, fluffy substrate with various other plants poking through. These might be tufted sedges, delicate flowering orchids, exotic looking pitcher plants, robust red cranberries, or low thickets of pink-flowering sheep laurel and wooly-leaved Labrador Tea. Sometimes sphagnum moss will completely cover a partially submerged fallen log or creep up the base of a tree trunk. The best places to gather the moss are the more open areas where it grows in thick clumps or beds. From areas like these you can pull one handful after another and still leave large amounts to regenerate. When gathering moss, (or any natural resource) it is important to diffuse your impact, taking a few handfuls from one clump then moving to another. Of course it is important not to gather in an area where the moss is not common. You will see, however, that in areas where moss is abundant, you can pick for a few hours in a relatively small area and there will still be so much moss left that it will be difficult to tell where you have harvested. Pick the moss as cleanly as possible, removing pine needles and other bits of debris when you find them. (There will be more opportunities to do this when you spread it out to dry later.) When I pull the moss, if the bottom of the clump is muddy where it was rooted in the bog, I cut or break this part off. I collect the moss in a gathering basket or a sack. When this container is full I carry it to the edge of the bog, ideally to a sunny area, and spread the moss out on a clean tarp or large cloth and go back for more. The moss dries amazingly fast if it is spread thinly. If tarp space is limited and the moss is piled rather thickly it will still dry in a day or two, especially if you turn it regularly and break apart the moist clumps. A few hours of gathering and a day or two of careful drying can yield several months’ worth of sphagnum. The use of a tarp is important to keep the moss clean and away from contact with the soil. This will virtually eliminate the risks of sporotrichosis, a fungal infection that sometimes affects greenhouse workers who work with sphagnum. Recent studies indicate that the offending fungus, Sporothrix schenckii, lives in the soil. It has not been found (and apparently will not grow) on living sphagnum moss. It can be a problem, however, in greenhouses where the dead moss is mixed with water and dirt and allowed to stand for extended periods in a heated environment.

(1) Footnote: (1), Mycopathologia 123: 87-94, 1993.

Diapering with Sphagnum Moss

In the 1730′s the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, observed, “The Lapland matrons are well acquainted with [sphagnum] moss. They lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of bed, bolster, and every covering; and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkably clean, dry, and warm … and makes a most delicate nest for the new-born babe.”

Though some of our friends lay the sphagnum moss on a cotton diaper, we find that a moss filled nylon diaper cover works best for us. To prepare for diapering, open the diaper cover and place it on a flat surface. Place a couple handfuls of the moss in the diaper cover and arrange it “strategically” (more in front for boys). Examine the moss carefully to be sure it is free of leaves, pine needles and other potentially uncomfortable debris. (I press the moss into place with the back of my hand to be sure it is soft and free of projections.) Sometimes we use different “grades” of moss. The softest moss is reserved for the inner layer and the rest is used as the “backfill”. Sometimes we place a few sheets of toilet paper on top to cover the moss.

Then we set the babe down onto the moss and fasten the diaper up as gracefully as possible. Since managing a squirmy baby on an easily scatterable pile of moss is not always easy, having an extra person helping usually makes it easier. (We call it “tag team diapering.”) Once the diaper is fastened we found that training pants or rubber pants help hold the whole assembly together. The moss seems to wick moisture away from the baby’s skin and the tiny dry particles of moss act almost like a talcum powder so that his skin stays smooth and dry. Feces is absorbed and enclosed in a wad of moss. Because of these properties as well as the fact that the moss is slightly acidic and is reported to contain small amounts of iodine, sphagnum can be helpful to prevent and heal diaper rash.

We used moss primarily as a travel diaper and it was amazingly simple. We could go for weeks with only a stuff bag full of moss and two or three nylon diaper covers. While one cover was on the babe, the other, after being rinsed was drying out. Our youngster, as fussy as he was about diapering in general, never did develop an aversion to the sphagnum. When he got to older toddlerhood, he would even help us tuck the loose pieces of moss into his diaper cover.

Of course using such an unusual method of diapering does leave you open to a few raised eyebrows as well as the occasional wisecrack. One friend watched us undo our son’s diaper. When he saw the huge wad of soggy moss he asked, “Don’t you think that boy has a little too much fiber in his diet?