In Central Pennsylvania our last frost-free day is typically the 15th of May and we’ll expect all the Spring happenings to be in full swing by then.
Violets are blooming in earnest now. We have the Northern Downy Violet, Arrow-leaved Violet and the Common Blue Violet popping up in the yards and driveway. They don’t seem to mind the rocks and clay that we have for “soil” up here on the mountain.
Early spring flowers of the familiar bulbs that herald Spring are already faded or dried up and blown away. The greenery of the crocus, daffodil, hyacinth and tulip are still growing strong and collecting energy for reproductive purposes. After the leaves yellow the bulbs can be dug up and replanted to allow them to spread out.
A native plant with a large bulb for its size is the dainty little Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica. Early Americans are said to have eaten the bulbs or tubers as a potato substitute. They’re edible, but small. It would take quite a number of plants to make a meal. Spring beauty tubers are up to a half inch in diameter. Perhaps a nice thing to know if you’re leaning toward survivalism, but not worth digging really. Let’s just enjoy their beauty, shall we?
We grow the usual garden plants, including a few varieties of tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, ground cherries, peas, beans, cucumbers, garlic, lettuces, radishes, carrots and many herbs. This year we added into the mix the tomatillo. If it weren’t for the Tomato Family, we would have a garden half as big. The tomatoes, peppers, ground cherries and tomatillos are all members of this family.
We plant seedlings or seeds for many of the vegetables that we want to grow. In addition to planting known veggies, we allow certain ones that re-seed themselves to come up again. Lettuces, cherry tomatoes, and ground cherries are the common re-seeders. The only problem with this method is that the garden can quickly become overgrown if the volunteers are not thinned out vigorously. We learned that last year.
This year a new problem cropped up. A weedy plant was left to grow in the vegetable garden presumably because of its mistaken identity. We’re pretty good at pulling weeds and mulching to keep the weeds from overtaking the garden, but somehow this one weed was left to grow too big.
It turns out that the leaves of this alien plant look a lot like the leaves of the ground cherry. It was hiding under a cherry tomato, and when that was staked up the odd plant was finally noticed. Once detected, it was left to grow a while just for observation. It was pulled out before the fruit was dropped, so hopefully next year we won’t have a garden full.
The alien plant in question was the deadly Common Nightshade, Solanum nigrum. It’s a member of the Tomato family or the Nightshade family, Solanaceae. Other family members include plants that give edible fruits, such as the tomato, potato, ground cherry, bell pepper, chili pepper and eggplant. Tobacco is another useful family member.
Being in the tomato family suggests some similarity between these plants. Common Solanum characteristics include the flower shape with five petals that are often reflexed backwards, yellow stamens that form a beak around the central pistil, and somewhat triangular-shaped leaves.
Tomatoes, ground cherries and tomatillos are similar to the common nightshade. It seemed a little odd that the nightshade leaves were full of holes whereas the others were not. Of course they all had insect damage, but the small roundish holes in the nightshade leaves weren’t seen as much in the other tomato relatives.
Common places to find this nightshade are disturbed areas, waste ground and cultivated grounds, such as found in the vegetable garden. We probably have birds to thank for dropping seeds wherever they go.
DO NOT INGEST NIGHTSHADE BERRIES OR ANY PLANT PART! A chemical called solanine is found in all parts of the plant and it is toxic. See comments below.
An Amish man shared a new vegetable with us a few years ago. We were at a farmer’s market appreciating the colorful selection of peppers and tomatoes when we came across something we had never seen.
(Photos taken 31 August 2011. Click on any picture to see a larger image.)
This new fruit was like a small Chinese paper lantern with a very small yellow tomato inside. The little round fruit is like a tomato about the size of a large pea. Just pull back the edges of the papery shell and eat the fruit or pluck it off the stem. Put the paper sheath and stem in your compost bin.
Ground cherry is the right name for these little fruits because the taste is surprisingly sweet. They’re sweet enough that the little yellow fruits are often used to make jams, jellies and pies.
Ground Cherries are also called Husk-Tomatoes. We bought a couple of plants a few years ago for the garden. They’ve dropped seeds every year since and come back to produce an abundance of fruit. It’s important to have more than one plant for fruit production, so make sure that you grow two or more plants. The individual plants don’t self-fertilize so with only one plant there is little hope of fruiting.
Our variety is an Amish heirloom type that was simply labeled as ground cherry (husk tomato). There are over a dozen species of Physalis native to Northeast USA, so it’s hard to say exactly which species we have. It may be the Strawberry-Tomato, Physalis pruinosa, judging by the leaf shape with scalloped edges and a heart-shaped base, and mature fruit that is yellow. Other varieties include ones that have more or less downy or hairy stems and fruit that may be reddish or purple in color in addition to the yellow that ours gives. Take caution: the green unripe fruit is poisonous.
The plant will often drop fruit before it’s ripe, but the fruit will ripen on the ground inside its protective husk. The paper husk turns from green to yellow to tan as the fruit ripens. Sometimes you’ll see the paper of the husk getting thin, but the fruit will have been protected for many days and most likely still fine to eat. If left too long, the insects will find it or the seeds will re-emerge as next season’s plants.
In central Pennsylvania we get to enjoy the harvest of husk tomatoes from August through September and part of October until the frost comes.
If anyone wants some husk tomato seeds or ground cherry seeds, we have some to exchange or via paypal. Contact wilde at wildeherb dot com.
Our type of Christmas in July is making jelly or jam that we give out as gifts to friends and neighbors. This year we made Wine Raspberry Jam for the first time and it is delicious. Another new jam for us this year is the Hot Pepper Jam we made with Jalapeño peppers from our garden.
If you’ve never had hot pepper jelly or jam, you might think it strange. Try it sometime if you like your food a little spicy. The first time I had it was on a wedge of cornbread and it was out of this world good!
For making jams and jellies prepare the jars and lids first. That way everything will be ready when it’s needed. We put 8 jelly jars in the dishwasher on a light “china” cycle and kept them in the washer so the glass jars would stay warm. The lids and bands were put together in a second large pot and two kettles of boiling water were poured on to cover them. A lid went on this pot to keep the lids hot and sterile. Photos taken 31 July 2011.
Paper towels for wiping the edges of the jars, tongs for pulling out a lid and bad pair from the hot water, a ladle and funnel for putting jam into the jars neatly, and a glass for resting the funnel in between uses were laid out in preparation for jar filling.
The recipe for hot pepper jam calls for only four ingredients:
4 c. finely diced peppers
1 c. apple cider vinegar
5 c. sugar
1 box pectin
We used two large red bell peppers, one medium-sized green bell pepper and six or seven jalapeño peppers to make the four cups of chopped peppers.
Latex gloves were worn during the seeding and cutting of the hot peppers. Jalapeños were cut in half and the stem removed. A spoon was used to scrape out the seeds and the meat was then finely diced. The peppers were chopped up so that a cup at a time was measured into a large cooking pot.
Five cups of sugar were measured into a separate bowl so the sugar could be added all at once.
One cup of apple cider vinegar was poured onto the diced peppers. A box of pectin was stirred gradually into the vinegar-pepper mixture.
The mixture was stirred constantly over high heat until it boiled rapidly. Then, the sugar was added all at one time and stirred in. The mixture was returned to a boil and then it looked quite foamy. After one minute of a full rolling boil, the cooking pot was taken off the heat. The foam subsided once the heat was off.
One jar was filled to within a quarter-inch of the top using the funnel and ladle. Damp paper towels were used to wipe around the top and threads of the jar top. Tongs were used to remove a lid and band pair from the hot water. Lids were tamped on a paper towel to remove excess water. A lid and band were screwed on and the jar inverted for at least one minute. After all jars were filled, one at a time, they were then placed upright and not disturbed for 24 hours. As the jars cooled you could hear them seal with a “pop”.
The next day the jars were checked for a proper seal by pushing down on the lids with a finger. None popped as all six 8 oz. jelly jars sealed. Jars were labeled with ‘Hot Pepper Jam’ and put in the pantry for safe keeping.
We made some elderberry jelly this year and this time we used a slightly different recipe. We’ll have a taste-test or two on the upcoming weekends, so we’ll comment back when the consensus is in. From the initial sampling, we can say that both recipes are delicious.
The elderberries ripen around the middle of August here in central Pennsylvania. Clusters were cut from four plants with scissors and dropped into a 5 gallon bucket. Other folks have commented that the hot weather hit some of the berries really hard this summer or that the birds beat them to the elderberries. We are lucky to know of a spot where the elders grow next to a small stream. Evidently, they weren’t bothered by the extremely hot summer weather.
The elderberries were twisted off their clusters into large bowl. A cup at a time was measured into metal bowl with a flat bottom and then crushed with a potato masher. To keep track of how many cups were processed so far, a single berry was placed on the counter in one spot each time a cup of berries was transferred to the mashing pot.
It was more of a curiosity to know how many cups of elderberries were processed. If we were a little shy of the quantity of juice needed for the recipe, we could make up the difference with whatever fruit juice was in the refrigerator at the time. It’s worked just fine in the past by using up to 1/2 cup apple-raspberry juice to get the total juice volume with no effect on taste, as far as we could tell. We had 12 cups of elderberries.
The mashed berries were poured into large cooking pot. The heat was turned on to bring it to a boil and then simmered for 10 minutes, covered.
The warm mash was taken off the heat and spooned onto dampened cheesecloth, three layers thick that had been laid cross-wise across the bottom of a large bowl. The ends of the cheesecloth were pulled up to retain the seeds and pulp and to allow juice to drip out into the large bowl. The ends were tied together and hung from the cupboard with a clothes hanger, rubber-band and clip. The juice was allowed to drip from the cheesecloth for a couple of hours, although most of the dripping was done in the first hour.
The elderberry seeds and pulp that were retained by the cheesecloth were spread in an area where it would be nice to have elders grow.
Elderberry juice was measured into a large cooking pot, 3 1/2 cups, and 1/4 cup lemon juice was added. The package of pectin was gradually stirred in and the mixture heated to a rapid boil. The measured sugar was added and brought back to a rapid boil for one minute. The jelly was taken off the heat and ladled into hot jelly jars using a funnel. We made six 8 oz. jelly jars full.
A couple of things were different this time compared to other years when we’ve made elderberry jelly. We hadn’t heated the mashed berries before straining out the seeds when making this jelly before. This extra step probably isn’t necessary, but we wanted to try it out. When the elderberry juice and pectin are cooked, and when the sugar is added and the mixture is continuing to cook, that is probably enough cooking to bring out the elderberry flavor.
The old elderberry jelly recipe used 3 3/4 c. unheated juice, a box of pectin, and 4 1/2 c sugar. Without pre-cooking the mash, 8 cups of berries made 3 cups of juice. For the last 1/2 to 3/4 cup the cheesecloth bag was pressed to expel the last bit of juice.
The new recipe used 3 1/2 c simmered juice, 1/4 c. lemon juice, a box of pectin, and 4 1/2 c sugar. So, simmering the mash before straining the seeds and adding lemon juice were the changes from the old recipe. Our 12 cups of berries made 3 3/4 cup juice and no pressing of the cheesecloth was necessary.
We’ll have to have a taste-test with the elderberry jelly we’ve made before. Good thing we made two batches last year – there’s still a few jars in the pantry.
Will the lemon juice make a difference? The acid of the lemon juice is supposed to help the gelling process. Each time we’ve made it, we’ve used a package of commercial pectin and had no problems with the jelly setting. Indeed, the elderberry jelly we’ve made has always turned out a little stiff compared to other jellies.
What effect will simmering the berry mash before the juice collection have? With the old recipe we mashed the elderberries and right away hung up the mash to collect the juice. The juice from this batch of jelly was cooked a lot more and may be stronger tasting because some water evaporated when the mash was still warm from simmering.
So far, we’re not sure if the new recipe or the old recipe will win the contest, but we’re looking forward to your input. Does everyone use lemon juice and pre-cook the elderberry mash?
Making jams and jellies is a summertime activity for us here in Pennsylvania. Actually, we’ll start in spring with our canning activities by making strawberry freezer jam or blueberry jam. By the time summer rolls around the raspberries ripen up for their turn under the potato masher. This year we made a new jam for the first time, Wine Raspberry Jam.
Wineberries are a delicious and slightly sour kind of red raspberry. They originated from Asia, but are now established in the eastern United States. They are also known as wine raspberries.
Since we ate berries all day and still came home with almost four quarts on the day we picked them in early July, we decided to make some jam. Like most berries these are probably the best when eaten fresh, but their fruiting season doesn’t last too long. Making jam is the best way to enjoy them all year long.
Wine Raspberry Jam Recipe
To make homemade jam, it’s pretty easy. This recipe should work for any berry. Consult the information sheet that comes with a box of pectin for ratios of fruit to sugar for the different fruits. Some are more watery than others, so adjustments to a generic recipe might be warranted. What follows worked great for our wine raspberries.
Wash a dozen jelly jars. We used the dishwasher on a light cycle just before making the jam. That way, the jars were hot just prior to filling with the cooked jam. Take out one jar at a time and let the others remain hot in the washer. Heated jars will seal better than cold ones.
Put lids and bands together and place in bottom of large pot. Cover with boiling water to sterilize the lids.
Measure out 7 cups of sugar into a large bowl.
Wash and pick through berries to remove any foreign material
Use a potato masher to smash about a cup of berries at one time.
Measure out five cups of crushed wineberries into a large (6 qt.) saucepan.
Gradually stir in one box of fruit pectin, any brand.
Heat over high heat – stirring constantly – to a full, rolling boil.
Add the sugar all at once. That’s why you measure it out in advance.
Heat the fruit and sugar mixture, while stirring, to a full boil. Boil for one minute.
Remove from heat. Use a ladle and funnel to fill one jar at a time. Leave a quarter-inch of headspace.
Wipe any drips from the rim or threads of the jar with a damp paper towel. This step might not be necessary when you can use a funnel to fill the jars. Rest the funnel in a glass in between filling jars.
Use tongs to remove a lid and band from the large pot and shake off excess water.
Screw top firmly on jar and invert jar onto its lid.
Ladle jam into the remaining jars and add lids. Fill one jar at a time. Makes eight or nine 8 oz. jars.
Turn all jars upright and leave undisturbed for 24 hours.
For quality assurance purposes eat some toast with jam from the cooking pot.
Listen for the ‘pop’ of the lids as the jam cools and the jars seal. Test the seal by pressing down on the lid with a finger. If the lid moves, it didn’t seal. Refrigerate any jars that did not seal.
Label the jars with “Wineberry Jam”.
Smile. It’s all good!
Wine raspberry jam is a new addition to our pantry. These jars will sit next to the blueberry jam, blackberry jelly and elderberry jelly until handed out as gifts or enjoyed on bread or toast.
We went over to a friend’s farm to pick red raspberries. The day was predicted to be a scorcher, so we arrived in mid-morning. By then the heat was on and the dew was off the brambles. Even though we knew we’d be sweating we wore boots, jeans and hats for protection from thorns and poison ivy.
Without clompers a lot of berries would only be bird or bear food as the canes really do form “impenetrable thickets”.
It turns out the kind of berries we were picking are called Wine Raspberries or Wineberries, Rubus phoenicolasius, an alien species originally from Asia. It was introduced in America for use in breeding raspberries and subsequently escaped cultivation. Wineberry has adapted so well here that it’s considered an invasive weed in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
The hillsides in Pennsylvania where we were picking berries also had blackberries and blackcap raspberries, but there were more canes of the wineberries. The blackcaps were just finishing their fruiting and a single big berry was ripe enough to pick from each blackberry cluster.
The wineberry clusters were moving into the middle of their fruiting season. Canes in less sunny spots help to spread out the harvest as their berries ripen a little later.
Most clusters had that first berry already picked off and the ones getting the most sun were ready to fall off the vine, so to speak. We held our containers underneath a cluster with one hand while gently encouraging the bright red berries to drop into it with the other.
Wineberry plants are a little different from the cultivated red raspberry. The most noticeable difference is the great amount of purple-red hairs and thorns on the wineberry canes and fruit clusters. It’s not surprising to see these projections on the canes, but it was unexpected to see such bristly capsules from which the fruit appears.
Fruits are enclosed by a calyx that is covered in fine reddish hairs that exude a sticky liquid. When the berry is nearing ripeness, the calyx opens to reveal a pale yellow fruit that changes color to bright red, and when fully ripe and most flavorful, to a burgundy or wine color.
When a berry is plucked from the cluster an orange cone is left behind. The cone left behind a blackcap raspberry is cream-colored.
Leaves are in threes with one being larger than the other two. They are fatter leaves, or broader than, the leaves of a blackcap raspberry or blackberry shrub. The underside of the leaves appears white.
Although wineberry is an introduced plant, it’s here to stay so why not benefit from it? We sure did as we picked as many as we could reach and ate a lot of them along the way. Instead of bringing home a cane or two to plant on our ridge top, we’ll leave them where they are and go back to pick more next year.
Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, is also called Checkerberry or Teaberry. You might be familiar with Teaberry Gum or Teaberry Ice Cream – well, the flavor comes from wintergreen. It’s a low-growing plant that can be found in woodlands, especially in northern areas of the eastern US and Canada, and in the mountains toward the south. It’s a member of the Heath family, Ericaceae.
The evergreen leaves of wintergreen are thick and leathery, shiny ovals. New growth appears in a light green and the older growth that has overwintered may have shades of purple. Damage to the slightly toothed leaves can be seen on many plants, but they still seem to function ok.
Wintergreen is a perennial woodland plant. The plants are found in colonies. Stems rise up from underground runners that creep along, so several “plants” found together are really several branches from a common underground stem.
Wintergreen flowers are small, drooping egg shapes before they open into bells that are reminiscent of huckleberry or blueberry blossoms. Each flower hangs from a leaf axil, usually one per leaf. The blooming period is late June through July.
The white and pink dangling wintergreen flowers are lightly fragrant, as are the leaves and fruit. The leaves taste of wintergreen and have been used in making tea.
Red, round wintergreen fruits will develop in the fall, some of which will overwinter and still be seen in the springtime.