Sassafras Leaves Give Flavor to Soups as Filé Spice

Ever hear of Gumbo? If you’ve not been to Louisiana, maybe you’ve never tried it or even heard of it. Gumbo is an African word for ‘okra’, which is a green vegetable that is mainly raised and consumed in the Southeastern U.S.

Personally, I’m not very fond of okra. Ok, I can’t stand that slimy stuff, and that’s always been my experience with okra, unless it’s been in a “gumbo”, or thick soup. Okra thickens the gumbo which also has some type of meat, chicken and sausage usually, in a seafood broth made from cooked shrimp heads or shells, and a few veggies, like tomatoes, peppers, celery, onions and garlic.

It turns out that Creole folk adopted a custom from the Native American Choctaw tribes, who added crushed sassafras leaves to soups as a flavoring and thickening agent. Today, the spice from ground sassafras leaves is called Filé, pronounced fee-lay. When Filé powder or filé spice is used in gumbo-style soup, it may be called Filé Gumbo.

I think we must have used a Yankee version of filé this summer when we made ketchup. We hung sassafras leaves along with some pickling spice in a cheesecloth bag in the pot as we cooked down tomatoes, peppers and onions into ketchup – which is another story, Making Homemade Ketchup.

Filé spice consists of crushed, dried Sassafras leaves. It’s not hard to make it at home, provided that you can find some Sassafras. Go to any state forest in the Eastern U.S. and ask a ranger where you can see some Sassafras trees. Chances are great that you’ll find Sassafras at the edge of the woods. Sassafras leaves are unmistakable, so never fear!

If you’re not into going into the woods or if you have no desire to make your own filé, of course you can order Gumbo Filé online.

Harvest the young, green leaves on the August full moon for the best flavor. Seeing that it’s October as I’m writing this and the fall colors are well upon us, it’s not a good time to harvest Sassafras leaves for making Filé spice. I don’t think I’ll find too many green leaves, and certainly not young leaves, but I’ll give it a try and report back later on how it goes.

Once you harvest the Sassafras leaves, they are to be dried out of the sun for at least a week. Longer is fine. Once the leaves are harvested the making of the filé can happen at a much later time.

Crush the leaves with your hands and remove all the bits of stems. Grind leaves into powder using a coffee grinder or a spice mill or get busy crushing with a mortar and pestle. The crushed dried sassafras leaves should be a green color, not brown as you will find in some stores.

If you are going to buy filé in a store, check the label first. Some other spices or ground dried herbs are passed off as filé, hence a light brown color.

Store the powdered filé in an air-tight container. A spice jar works great so it can be passed around the table and sprinkled on soup to each one’s taste.

Can’t add filé during cooking because it makes the soup stringy and that’s downright undesirable. When soup is taken off the heat you can add filé or offer it in a shaker bottle at the table so that way everyone can add as much as they like. Just don’t add filé to the pot if the pot is going to be re-heated on the second day!

Gotta go check for some green Sassafras leaves!

Orange Fruiting Lily-of-the-Valley

Saw something the other day that I had never seen before…a fruiting Lily of the Valley! We’ve had Lily-of-the-Valley growing at the edge of the lane for a couple of years now. A neighbor gave away a large clump of it when they were changing their landscaping.

I was happy to see that the Lily-of-the-Valley grew well enough in our poor soil to multiply. It fills me with excitement and joy to see the Lily-of-the-Valley growing in such poor soil. We have clay and rocks for soil here up on the mountain ridge. Any planting we do is prefaced with amending the soil with spagnum moss, compost or any other soil I can get my hands on.

When planting the Lily-of-the-Valley the first year I split the large plant into two clumps. The second year the clumps were larger and had more of the linear foliage. This year new plants popped up about 2-3 feet from the original plants, probably by runners as the new plants appeared in the direction that the original plant was spreading.

Lily-of-the-Valley spreads by runners.

Lily-of-the-Valley spreading out by runners from the original plant. Photo taken 16OCT08.

Leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley have parallel veins, which is a characteristic showing that is it a monocot, kind of like very large blades of grass. Each plant has two leaves and next to those two leaves arises a singular flower stalk.

The flowers dangle from the arching flower stalk. If you can get close enough to the flowers breathe deeply – their sweet scent is delicious. Expect it to flower from early to late May, at least that’s when Lily of the Valley blooms here in Central Pennsylvania.

Lily of the Valley in bloom.

Arching stems of white sweet flowers of Lily-of-the-Valley. Photo taken 6MAY06.

The blossoms last for a long week, perhaps two weeks or more until the flowers fade to brown and fall off the stem. A few stems are always clipped off and placed in a small glass of water so we can enjoy the sweet scent indoors.

A couple of weeks ago I noted that a single flower had been fertilized and produced a mature fruit. The fruit looked like a miniature pumpkin, fairly round and bright orange.

Orange fruit of Lily of the Valley.

Orange fruit of Lily-of-the-Valley on the arching flower stalk. Photo taken 16OCT08.

Perhaps the plant had fruited before and I never noticed. I presumed it multiplied mostly by runners as I had seen evidence of that already. I never looked for fruit on it before, but you know I will again next year.

Have you seen Lily-of-the-Valley producing miniature pumpkin fruit like this?

Two White Asters Along a Sunny Lane in Pennsylvania

Small daisies polka-dot the area where the farmer lane crosses the gravel road. These pretty little flowers seem to enjoy the sunshine because that’s where they’re growing and blooming in all their glory. Until I stopped to really take a look at these asters, I didn’t realize two different kinds were growing side-by-side.

One aster was taller than the other and it had larger blooms, too.

The tall “roadside weed” is called Panicled Aster, Aster simplex, and reaches 6 feet tall. The sturdy stems grow straight up through the growing season, but at some point they arch over to nearly touch the ground.

Panicled aster arches of blooms.

Panicles of white aster blooms.

While blooming the Panicled Aster looks like broad arches of white blooms. Side stems have blooms in panicle fashion. Photos taken 6OCT08.

Close up view of panicled aster.

Panicled Aster blooms measure an inch or more across.

One identifying characteristic of this aster is the way the leaves clasp the stems. Side branches that arise from the leaf axils are totally enveloped by the clasping leaf.

Leaves of aster, panicled.

Panicled Aster leaves are narrowly lance-shaped and clasp the stem.

Flower arrangement of Panicled Aster.

Flower arrangement of Panicled Aster.

The second aster had smaller blossoms less than one half-inch across and overall it appeared to be a smaller plant. Leaves were shorter, ray flowers were shorter and the plant stood only two feet tall. “Petals” or ray flowers numbered about 20, instead of 30 as in the Panicled Aster.

Small white aster flowers.

Small white aster flower arrangement.

Didn’t get a decent photo to illustrate, but the small aster flower bracts have short threads that are noticeably green and flare out from the flower base. Fuzzy stems were also noted on the small-flowered aster, while the Panicled Aster stems were smooth.

Unfortunately, my field guides describe only a handful of asters. Audubon’s Wildflower Guide notes that the Panicled Aster has several varieties that differ “in color, size of the ray flowers, leaf form, and serration.” So, perhaps the small flowered aster is not a separate species, but a variety of Panicled Aster.

I would think that having smaller blooms, fewer and smaller ray flowers, shorter stature and a hairy stem are too many characteristics that are not shared with the larger Panicled Aster for the small-flowered aster to be a variety of it.

Peterson and McKenny note that there are many small white asters and that they intergrade. They conclude, and I agree, that distinguishing the different Aster species should be left up to the experts.

For now, we’ll call it the Small-flowered White Aster, Aster vimineus, as it has small flowers, fewer ray flowers and green tipped bracts beneath the flower heads.

Neither of these asters have any edible or medicinal qualities, but I still enjoy seeing them smiling at me from across the lane.

If you’d like to read more about identifying wild herbs and wildflowers, you’ll need to pick a field guide or two. Start with Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide and see the side panel for my other recommendations.

New England Asters Bloom in Purple and Gold

A couple weeks ago we had quite a bit of rain and that brought down a lot of the maple leaves. Squirrels have been busy burying the fallen acorns all over the place.

Another sign that we’re now into Autumn are the blooming purple asters that can be seen along the county roads.

Purple asters in PA.

Perennially beautiful asters beside a Pennsylvania road. Photos taken 24SEP08.

Blooms of the New England Aster, Aster novae-angliae, are deeper purple than most asters. I look forward to seeing this three-feet tall bunch of asters each Fall as they are a very rich, dark purple. The photos don’t do the actual color any justice, but that’s what I get for taking pictures in bright sunshine.

Some of these roadside asters are light purple, almost to a white, while the flowers of New England Aster are a deep purple.

Light purple PA asters.

Light purple asters with sunny yellow disk flowers.

The golden yellow centers of these beautiful flowers contrast nicely with the colorful ray flowers. There may be 50 to 100 rays in one flower head – other aster species have fewer ray flowers. Once the flower has been open for a time and after the pollen-collectors have visited, the disk flowers change from a yellow to a reddish-brown color.

Bee collecting pollen from an aster flower.

Bees were happily collecting pollen from the aster blooms.

Blooming of the asters takes place over a couple weeks so you’ll see some golden and some brown disk flowers, some blossoms drying up, and still others that are getting ready to open.

Blooms of New England Aster.

Purple asters in various stages of blooming.

Foliage of the New England Aster consists of short, lance-shaped, toothless, clasping leaves that alternate up the hairy stem. The leaves are placed on the tall stems rather thickly. Lower leaves dry out and turn brown while the aster is still blooming. Other aster species can be differentiated from the New England Aster by the shape and placement of their leaves.

Crowded leaves of New England Aster.

Lance-shaped leaves of the New England Aster.

Blooms of New England Aster.

Sunny aster bouquet. Have a lovely day and stop to see the posies!

Wingstem is a Late Summer Moppy Sunflower

When I saw these yellow sunflower-like flowers blooming at the end of our long drive, I first thought they were at the end of their blooming season. It turns out that this plant, called Wingstem, Actinomeris alternifolia, only has a few petals on each flower, so it normally looks like it’s lost a few petals.

Drooping flowers of wingstem.

Wingstem looks like a sunflower with drooping petals. Photos taken 4Sep08.

Wingstem is a very tall, yellow-flowering composite somewhat like a sunflower. Petals droop and expose the spikey disc flowers. Unlike your standard bird-seed sunflower that has a flat disc of disc flowers surrounded by many ray flowers, Wingstem’s disc flowers arch upwards in the middle and the ray flowers are few.

Several wingstem flowers appear to cluster together at the end of the side stems.

Wingstem yellow bouquets.

Wingstem flowers gather into dome-shaped, natural bouquets at the ends of branches.

Long, lance-shaped leaves alternate up the stem. Some upper stems have a characteristic “wing”, thus the name Wingstem. Wingstem is found growing along culverts and roadsides in Central Pennsylvania.

Wingstem apparently has no medicinal or edible qualities, but we’ll still appreciate its end-of-summer wildflower bouquet.

Dark Purple New York Iron Weed Beautifies the Roadside

Once you see the deep, dark purple of New York Ironweed flowers, you’ll be on the lookout for them at Summer’s end each year.

About the middle of August we start seeing the 3-4 feet tall “weeds” along the county roads near the places where goldenrods and asters show off their colors, especially in wetter areas near culverts and along river bottoms.

New York Ironweed along a Pennsylvania road.

Standing 3-4 feet tall, NY Ironweed is typically found in old pastures and waste places. Photos taken 14 August 2008.

Lance-shaped leaves of NY Ironweed.

Looking down on the long, pointed lance-shaped leaves of New York Ironweed.

Deep purple violet flowers of New York Ironweed.

The flowers of New York Ironweed are a much deeper violet color than what this photo shows.

New York Ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, gets its common name from the toughness of the stem – it’s like iron. Just try and break off a stem to take a piece with you!

New York Ironweed differs from Tall Ironweed, V. altissima, by having long threadlike bracts on the flower head base and 30-50 flowers in each head. Tall Ironweed has short-pointed bracts and fewer flowers in the flower head, approximately 13-30 flowers. Both are rayless members of the Composite family.

Cows won't eat NY Ironweed.

New York Ironweed stands tall in this cow pasture. Apparently the cows won’t eat it.

Native Americans made use of an ironweed root tea for the treatment of irregular menses, bleeding, and stomach upset.

Viburnum Berries and Showy Purple Foliage

Another beautiful day in the neighborhood! The weather has been absolutely gorgeous the past couple days, and unseasonably warm for October. We’re hitting our peak color up here on the ridge as the maple trees are really putting on a show.

Rusty orange and scarlet red maple leaves are set off by the bright yellow leaves of the birch trees. Hickory trees are starting to turn their golden, yellow brown, but the oak leaves are still green.

Maple-leaved viburnum, Viburnum acerifolium, a shrub that reaches three to six feet tall, is one of the showiest in our woods. Sporting purple-red leaves and purple-black berries it catches one’s eye.

Maple-leaved viburnum fall foliage.

Maple-leaved viburnum showing off its pretty fall foliage and berries. Photos taken 10Oct08.

Maple-leaved viburnum berries.

Close-up of maple-leaved viburnum.

This particular Viburnum species does not apparently have medicinal or culinary value for us humans, so we’ll leave the berries to the turkeys and other critters in the forest. Related Viburnums do have edible qualities, most notably the Highbush Cranberry, V. trilobum, and Wild-Raisins, V. nudum and V. cassinoides.

Catnip Harvest: Strong-Scented Fun for Kitty and Tea for You

Catnip is probably one of the first herbs that people learn about that has a purpose other than food for humans. We all adore our pets and provide them much love and affection, not to mention toys and treats.

Felines love their catnip and we’re only too happy to oblige them their desire. After all, we don’t have mice. We have cats.

We see to it each year that wild, native catnip, Nepeta cataria, seeds are spread about in offering to the little mousers everywhere. Cats rub against the plants and chew on a leaf now and then. One of the big boys holds down a fresh leaf that I’ve given him with one paw and licks the leaf to shreds until he’s down to the stem.

Flowering catnip, pre-harvest.

Flowering catnip, pre-harvest. Photos taken 16Sep08.

For fun during the cold season, when catnip will only be growing in a planter at our latitude, we harvest a few plants and dry them.

Harvesting the catnip is as easy as pulling up the entire plant, or cutting the stems off near the ground, and laying the stems on a clean surface for a few days. Don’t pile a lot of stems together so that the leaves can dry out and turn the stems everyday so all parts of the plant can dry. I covered a bench with a large black plastic bag to be able to collect the seeds that might otherwise roll away.

Cut off the flowering tops and carefully strip the leaves from the stems so that they’re not crushed. Careful handing will help to retain the aromatic compounds that attract the kitties.

Drying catnip.

Catnip, dried on a clean surface.

Not only do cats enjoy catnip, but people can enjoy it, too. Use the dried leaf in making tea – it’s especially nice blended with any of the mints.

Once your catnip is completely dry save it in a glass container.

If you’re looking for a little catnip or just the seeds, check out my ebay auctions of catnip this weekend.