Field Pennycress With Peppery Seeds

Weeds crop up in many places, especially where the soil has been disturbed. Any gardener can attest to that. Among the weeds that appear along roads and in fields are several members of the mustard family, such as Field Pennycress and Field Peppergrass.

Field Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense, an alien to America, can be found in dry, cleared woods, in waste areas, at the roadside and in fields. Places where the soil has been disturbed are likely habitats for this foot and a half tall weed.

Mature plant of Field Pennycress showing many developing seed pods.
Mature plant of Field Pennycress showing many developing seed pods. Photo taken 13 May 2011.

These plants get started early enough that they can complete their life cycle before the end of Spring. Basal rosettes will overwinter from the previous autumn, which makes this plant a biennial. Seeds are developed as early as May, but individual plants can be found growing and producing seeds throughout the growing season.

Seed pods are flat, circular “pennies” with a definite notch at the top. This notch differentiates field pennycress from other similar seed-producing mustards.

Developing seed pods are still green.
Developing seed pods are still green. Note the definite notch at the top of each seed pod that identifies this plant as Field Pennycress. Photo taken 13 May 2011.
Leaves are toothed and clasp the stem in Field Pennycress.
Leaves are toothed and clasp the stem in Field Pennycress. Photo taken 13 May 2011.
Flowers of four small white petals.
Flowers of four small white petals are a hallmark character of a member of the Mustard family, Cruciferae, as in this field pennycress. Photo taken 9 June 2011.

As the seed pods dry out the seeds can be seen through the thinning pods, especially when held up to the light.

The small brown field pennycress seeds can be seen through the translucent seed pod.
The small brown field pennycress seeds can be seen through the translucent seed pod. Photo taken 9 June 2011.

This one small plant produced a half-teaspoon of seeds. As far as seed production goes, I’m not sure if that’s a lot from just one plant. Collecting the seeds from two plants would make a teaspoon of seeds, six plants for a tablespoon, and 18 plants for a quarter of a cup.

Field pennycress seed pods split down the middle to release their 2 mm long seeds.
Field pennycress seed pods split down the middle to release their 2 mm long seeds. Photo taken 9 June 2011.

The seeds taste like a sharp mustard or peppery flavor. If you could collect a quantity of them, they could be crushed to use in a spicy homemade mustard. Or the seeds could be used in a spice grinder as a poor gal’s pepper. Or even try cooking with it whole, say in potato salad, substituting field pennycress seeds for mustard seed, or dropping some seeds into a vegetable stir-fry to add a little spicy flavor.

Wild Anise Root Is A Native Cousin to Parsley

The Parsley family, Umbelliferae or Apiaceae, encompasses dozens of useful plants with similar features, like flowers with five petals in umbels or umbrella-like clusters near the top of the plant. Leaves are toothed and divided, sometimes very finely. Examples are herbs and roots we commonly use in the kitchen, like parsley, dill, cilantro, fennel, and carrots.

Two native Parsley family members that can be found in the woodlands of the eastern U.S. are Sweet Cicely, Osmorhiza claytonii, and Anise Root, O. longistylis, which are very similar in appearance. Either of these woodland plants would look nice in a herb garden. The foliage is leafy and fern-like and the flowers dainty.

The main character differences are that Sweet Cicely is a softly hairy plant, while Anise Root is nearly smooth. Also, anise root has slightly longer stamen tips, hence the specific epithet longistylis.

The anise root plant photographed here was growing along a country road. It was still flowering near the end of May in Pennsylvania.

Anise Root plant nearing the end of its blooming period.
Anise Root plant nearing the end of its blooming period. Note the seeds developing in the upper right and the last umbel of flowers on the left.

(Click on any photo to see a larger image.)

Take Caution: The leaves of Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum, are similar in appearance. Do not ingest any part of any plant without a positive identification.

Sweet Cicely and Anise Root leaves are less highly divided, and potentially much smaller than, the leaves of poison hemlock.

Compound leaves of anise root.
Compound leaves of anise root.

Poison hemlock leaves have a bad smell when crushed, unlike the Osmorhiza which smell of anise or licorice. The sense of smell may be a poor indicator for some folks, so do not rely on this feature alone to distinguish poison hemlock from anise root.

Anise root stems are purple and smooth, while the stems of poison hemlock are spotted with purple.

Purple stems of anise root.
Purple stems of anise root.

Poison hemlock umbels are full of tiny flowers that make them look like several white spheres that may be held several feet high. Overall, poison hemlock plants are more substantial and grow taller. The umbels in Sweet Cicely and Anise Root are much more sparse with flowers than those of poison hemlock and they rise only 1-2 feet off the ground.

A compound umbel of anise root flowers.
A compound umbel of anise root flowers. Note the size and sparse number of individual flowers in each small umbel that make up the larger compound umbel.

Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide tells us that the roots and green fruits smell of anise and that they can be used for flavoring. I’m curious, does anyone use this woodland herb?

Huckleberries On the Mountain Ridge Are Lowbush Blueberries

We made an interesting discovery this year in our wooded acres on the mountain ridge. A lot of undergrowth is present near the wood’s edge. That’s not too surprising because the deer population has a lot of choice of what to eat around here in the country. We see them crossing our property as they go into or out of the crop field next door, so to speak.

We did plant some goldenseal one year that didn’t flourish and I blamed their lack of growth and eventual disappearance on the local deer population. Perhaps so.

Anyway, I was surprised that we had these little low-growing shrubs flower this year. In overall appearance, these shrubs look similar to the deerberry that we’ve seen flower many times. This year was the most spectacular display of deerberry blooming so far!

I’m told by the local farmer that they call the plant “huckleberry”. It’s like a wild low-growing blueberry. Indeed, Newcomb’s description for the Early Low Blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium, fits it like a glove. Peterson’s Medicinal Plants Guide calls this species the Late Lowbush Blueberry with its blueberry fruit ripening in August or September. Our lowbush blueberry is probably the early variety as its fruit was already turning from light green to pink in late June before turning blue.

Pink lowbush blueberry fruits.
Pink lowbush blueberry fruits. Photo taken 26 Jun 2011.

Flowers dangle in clusters at the tips of stems. Urn-shaped with five flaring tips, blueberry blossoms are typically white with shades of pink. The flowers of huckleberries and blueberries are very similar.

Leaves of the blueberries, Vaccinium spp., are soft to the touch and no where as near as leathery as the leaves of the Box Huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera.

Lowbush blueberries are about a foot tall, with green stems that terminate in oval-shaped, pointy-tipped leaves. Flower clusters are borne on the green stems between leafy side branches.

Green stems support several flowers clusters in between the leafy stems.
Green stems support several flowers clusters in between the leafy stems. Photo taken 13 May 2011.
Flower cluster of lowbush blueberry showing blossoms of different ages. The petals of the early flowers have fallen away, while others are blooming or not yet opened.
Flower cluster of lowbush blueberry showing blossoms of different ages. The petals of the early flowers have fallen away, while others are blooming or not yet opened. Photo taken 13 May 2011.
Flowers of a Duke Blueberry, V. corymbosum, are quite similar to the lowbush blueberry, except that these highbush blueberry blossoms are pure white. The stems attain their woody character with age.
Flowers of a Duke Blueberry, V. corymbosum, are quite similar to the lowbush blueberry, except that these highbush blueberry blossoms are pure white. The stems attain their woody character with age. Photo taken 13 May 2011.

A week or more later, other huckleberries were seen blooming in the woods. Some of the flowers were more pink than white.

Pink cluster of lowbush blueberry flowers. Note that the flower clusters arise on the previous year's new growth, which has become woody.
Pink cluster of lowbush blueberry flowers. Note that the flower clusters arise on the previous year's new growth, which has become woody. Photo taken 23 May 2011.

Fruits are small and ripen into the familiar blue berries in early to mid July. One can just see the remnants of the flower blossom’s five tips on the bottom of the berry.

Huckleberries ripening from green to pink to blue.
Huckleberries ripening from green to pink to blue. Photo taken 2 July 2011.
Huckleberry or Lowbush Blueberry fruit gets bigger as it matures from pink to blue.
Huckleberry or Lowbush Blueberry fruit gets bigger as it matures from pink to blue. Photo taken 4 July 2011.

I tasted the lowbush blueberries, but I didn’t think they had much flavor, at least not compared to the highbush blueberries we planted a few years back. We’ll leave the small berries for the birds and chipmunks in hopes that they’ll leave us our delicious blueberries.

Yellow Oxalis Weed by the Millions

A weed that I’ve enjoyed seeing, until they had a population explosion in the vegetable garden recently, is the yellow oxalis or sour grass.

Yellow oxalis is also known as Yellow Wood Sorrel, which is the common name used for two closely related plants, Oxalis stricta and O. europaea. Both plants are native to the eastern United States. The outward difference between the two species is in the way the seed pods are held. The seed pods of O. stricta have a sharp angle in their stems, while those of O. europaea are not bent. Photos in this post are of O. stricta.

The leaves are like shamrocks, so sometimes we call it that. Each leaf is made up of three heart-shaped leaflets, joined at their bases.

By June the earliest flowering oxalis will set seed. Seeds develop in their candle-like spikes, which are the pieces to eat for a sour treat, although the foliage tastes sour too.

Yellow oxalis, Oxalis stricta, plant developing its candle-shaped seed pods.
Yellow oxalis plant developing its candle-shaped seed pods. Photo taken 9 June 2011.
Close up view of sour grass, Oxalis stricta, seed pods.
Close up view of sour grass seed pods. Photo taken 9 June 2011.

While pulling out weeds we often uncover toads. The little ones we find in the springtime are actually cute!

A garden visitor we like to see - they eats lots of insects - American Toad, Bufo americanus.
A garden visitor we like to see - they eats lots of insects - American Toad, Bufo americanus. Photo taken 9 May 2011.

Northern White Violets Bloom Next to a Stream

Hiking along the mountain ridge the other day we saw some ground covers in bloom like the chickweed in the fields. Spring wild flowers that were blooming included white violets, hepatica and rue anemone. These wild flowers were all growing in a rocky, wooded area. The white violets were found down in the holler near a spring-fed stream, whereas the hepatica and rue anemone were on the hillsides in the woods.

White violets were just beginning to bloom. More violets were observed with flower buds or no buds than had open flowers.

The Northern White Violet, Viola pallens, is identified by its leaf shape and flower shape. The leaves and flowers reside on separate stems, which is the first thing to determine when seeking to identify a violet. Some species share their leaf stems with the flowers, like the field pansy.

The basal leaves are small, round or blunted heart shapes with scalloped edges. The upper petals of the flower are not twisted as they would be in the Sweet White Violet, V. blanda, which also has heart-shaped leaves that are more pointed. Photos taken 21 April 2011.

The inch-long increments of my walking stick shows the Northern White Violet to be a small plant of about 4 inches across. This photo clearly shows the upper petals are smooth, not twisted.
The inch-long increments of my walking stick shows the Northern White Violet to be a small plant of about 4 inches across. This photo clearly shows the upper petals are smooth, not twisted.

(Click on photos to see larger images.)

Viola pallens, the Northern White Violet.
Viola pallens, the Northern White Violet.

The violets were adjacent to a spring-fed stream and probably within 20 feet of the flowing water. This is the same stream where we saw skunk cabbage.

The white violets don’t seem to have any medicinal qualities, but they are edible. We won’t be harvesting any violets so that we can go back and enjoy them next year. Leaves can be used in salads, as cooked greens or dried for use in tea. Flowers make pretty garnishes for salad plates.

Skunk Cabbage at the Spring-Fed Stream

The trees on our ridge-top are just starting to make their leaves so the hillsides still look bare. The spring-fed streams look more alive with the skunk cabbage developing their huge green leaves.

The skunk cabbage has already bloomed for the year and is one of the only noticeable green things out here. No doubt this creek was much higher after the deluge of rain the other day.

A sunfish scooted away as we approached the edge of a pool in this little stream.

Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge.
Skunk cabbage growing next to a spring-fed stream that trickles through the hollow between hills of the mountain ridge. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
A downstream look at the babbling brook.
A downstream look at the babbling brook. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar.
Skunk cabbage leaves are already bigger than a dinner plate and they'll get bigger yet. Note how the leaves start out curled up like a cigar. Photo taken 21 April 2011.

In this lowland area there were ferns beginning to roll out their fronds and other small plants growing green. Brambles and garlic mustard are some of the first plants to really get growing at this time of year.

Skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, is surprisingly edible. Crushing a leaf releases a skunky odor, so you wouldn’t think to eat this stuff. Eating a raw leaf will cause intense burning in the mouth because of the presence of calcium oxalate crystals. Drying the leaves or rootstock thoroughly will remove this property. Dried leaves can be reconstituted for use in soups or stews or used as a cooked green. According to¬†Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide, the rootstock can be dried and pounded to make a flour that is somewhat cocoa-like.

Old Corn Fields Covered with Chickweed

Walking past bare fields to get to the woodland trail, we couldn’t help but notice all the weeds growing in the place of corn or soybeans. On this walk we saw chickweed, purple dead nettle, speedwell and henbit among the ground covers flowering in the sunshine of the day. As you drive down the highway and see barren fields, the ones with a haze of purple on the ground are home to purple dead nettle.

Most of the green ground cover growing in this old corn field is chickweed.
Most of the green ground cover growing in this old corn field is chickweed. Photo taken 21 April 2011.
Chickweed grows low to the ground, a.k.a. groundcover.
Chickweed grows low to the ground, a.k.a. groundcover. Photo taken 14 April 2011.

Chickweed flowers have five narrow, white petals with a unique feature. Each petal is cleft or split down the middle. The Common Chickweed, Stellaria media, that is photographed here, appears to have ten petals because the cleft is so deep.

Common Chickweed flowers with five cleft white petals.
Common Chickweed flowers with five cleft white petals. Photo taken 14 April 2011.

There are over a dozen kinds of chickweed and they’re all edible. Gather up the tender stems and flowers for a salad or just add a few sprigs to a lettuce salad. Lettuce has been growing for about a month now out in the garden, so it’s time to enjoy it. Some chickweeds have fuzzy leaves and they’re better eaten after cooking. Boil the leaves for five minutes and serve as greens.

The fields around here will be planted just as soon as the tractors can get past all the rain and mud. According to the forecast it doesn’t look like much planting will done this week.

Coltsfoot Blooms and Dandelion Salad

Coltsfolt was in full bloom in the sun yesterday, yet hardly noticeable the previous few cloudy days. The first I saw it blooming this year was on 15 April.

Spring continues to bring out the posies. In the flower beds the crocus blooms are dying back and the anemones and hyacinths are taking their turns blooming. Tulips are still making leaves and starting to push up their flowers. Forsythia buds grew out last week to first blossom on 14 April.

Red-spotted newts were seen floating around in the pond, too!

Another plant showing the elevation effect on bloom time is a Star Magnolia on our ridge. It had half-opened three or four blossoms on 15 April, while another one down in the valley was in full bloom on the same day.

Now that we’re almost a third of the way into Spring, the dandelions are out. This past weekend the first dandelion flower was picked. Once the dandelions show their happy faces, it’s notable for kicking off the lawn care season. Some people can’t stand to see the bright yellow flowers “messing up” their yards. We don’t mind them and prefer to leave things in more of a natural state.

Grass is starting to get long enough to cut in some areas and the downed wood from winter and windy spring weather has to be picked up. Gardening activities can resume when the weather allows, but the early spring salads have already been enjoyed. Including dandelion!

Ham and dandelion dinners are common around these parts in the week or two just before Easter. The idea is to pick the leaves before the blossoms emerge because then they are too bitter to enjoy. A fellow who was involved with making ham-n-dandelion dinner for 300 people admitted that his group buys the dandelion commercially. I’m sure there are a lot of country people and Amish that pick their own dandelion leaves.

Dandelion salad is a leafy salad with a hot dressing. Hot bacon dressing gives a nice flavor and wilts the greens just enough to soften them a little…a real Spring time treat.