“Going Into The Woods Is Going Home.” -John Muir
By Farmer Richard
I have always enjoyed being in nature, walking in the woods, observing the sounds, trees, plants and animals around me. For many years I have wanted to create walking trails through our woods and have slowly been working on doing so over the last few years. Last fall we had time to really make some progress and were able to make trails to access parts of our woods that were previously inaccessible. All the time we were working in the woods, I kept thinking about how much I’d like for our CSA members to be able to enjoy our little corner of the world and all of the beauty and treasures within our woods. In our 2016 survey, we asked our members what farm events they would enjoy participating in and woods walks was at the top of the list! So for the past two weekends, I was able to get out into our woods with some of our CSA members and a few expert friends to help us all learn more about what is actually living and growing in the woods. On Saturday, May 13, we hosted a woods walk with a bird-watching emphasis. Kyle Lindemer was our bird expert who helped us on this walk. This past Saturday we invited Little John to join us. John Holzwart (aka Little John) is from the Sheboygan area and is very knowledgeable about foraging from the woods, identifying plants and knowing which ones are edible, medicinal, or both! We had a great time on both walks and I wanted to share a little bit about our experiences.
Lets start with our bird walk two weeks ago. The timing for our walk was perfect as it was a prime time to see birds migrating through our area. It also happened to be "Global Big Day," a day sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that helps to connect a network of people across the world working to understand and conserve birds needed for the health of our planet. On this day, all around the world, individuals and groups submitted bird counts about the birds they observed in their areas. We were thankful to have a beautiful day for the walk and set out around 9:30 am to see what we could find. We walked the woods road to the south end of the farm. We saw many, many birds flitting amongst the new leaves, but just a glimpse and always a song. Kyle, the master of bird song identification, would call out, “That was an eastern towhee,” and the list went on. Many times I would think, “Oh yes, I know that sound!” We went down the hill to the Spring Creek and, because it was a quite warm day, the bird action was great. Just when a flash of yellow made me think “that’s a gold finch,” Kyle’s ear confirmed “yellow warbler.”
After lunch we decided to go down to our Hammel Lane farm to check out the bird activity along the banks of the Bad Axe River. OK, so what about those swallow-like birds circling overhead, doing all sorts of flying tricks but ignoring us? We were looking at a huge complex of cliff swallow houses under the bridge, but not a one would acknowledge their house by going there while we are observing! Smart birds! Self-preservation! Our river excursion offered up herons, kingfishers and an eagle fishing to feed its new babies in the nest downstream. Kyle submitted our observations for the day which included 53 different types of birds! We had hoped to spot a few morel mushrooms along the way as well, but only found two….oh well, maybe on the next walk.
Last Saturday was not exactly the sunny, warm day we had the previous week. We took a quick tour of the greenhouses as we waited for everyone to arrive. A light rain was falling, but everyone had rain coats so we headed out. We walked the road between the field and woods, stopping frequently to identify and eat plants. We ate young basswood tree leaves, quite good and reminiscent of a green bean! The peeled new shoots of sumac were juicy with a lemon flavor. Creeping Charlie left a mild mint flavor and we learned that the inner bark of the Siberian elm is good for soothing a sore throat. These are just a few of the many plants we saw! As we walked the woods road we also spotted different types of mushrooms. Small, brightly colored mushrooms arranged like shelves ranging from blue to dark magenta, too small to think about eating but beautiful to see on the moist, mossy tree bark. But then some sharp eyes spotted a snow white group of polyporus mushrooms (oyster mushrooms) on a fallen log. Identified as edible, they were soon photographed, cut and bagged. We kept our eyes open for morel mushrooms as well, but weren’t able to find any….I think the season ended early. Moving on, Little John was a non-stop source of information about edible and medicinal use of the plants we saw…..and the rain continued.
Spruce tree tips were young and prime. I knew they made a tasty beer, but they are good right off the tree! Then we reached our destination, a series of springs that are the “head waters” for the creek that runs through our farm. John called it a “Fen,” but everyone agreed it was a magical place full of watercress and delicious Angelica shoots and strange plants like “skunk cabbage” and “Jack in the pulpit!”
Still raining, but spirits high, we headed back for lunch. Cold and wet, we opted to eat lunch inside. Scott built a fire in the office stove and Andrea brought dry towels and put wet clothes in the dryer while we ate our lunch. We enjoyed the fresh oyster mushrooms fried in butter and we warmed up with a very tasty roasted acorn coffee that Little John brewed. We were entertained by a variety of different birds visiting the bird feeder while we ate.
Warm and mostly dried, we decided to take another walk…still raining! We headed into the woods to see the effigy mounds. We snacked on more plants, found some unique ones we could not identify and pondered the question of “What did the native people who built these mounds eat?” As we left the woods, the rain finally stopped! Three –quarters of an inch of rain had fallen while we were on our journey, but this dedicated group had no complaints! They all agreed that the best treat of the day was the abundant and very delicious columbine blossoms. We all had a taste and plenty remained for the humming birds, moths and butterflies that depend on them. Several of the group members commented, “Now that we know the farm and where to go, can we come any time?” Yes, you can! This was just the introduction! Maybe we should do this again!
Hon Tsai Tai
Hon tsai tai holds an important place in our spring vegetable line-up. It matures more quickly than other spring-planted greens and is very tasty when grown in cool spring weather. It is in a group of plants referred to as “flowering brassicas.” While it is related to such vegetables as mustard greens and bok choi, what sets it apart is that it has beautiful purple stems that produce a sweet, delicate, edible yellow flower. The sweetness of the buds and flowers is the part we love the most! While other vegetables in the brassica family also produce flowers, they do so towards the end of their life cycle and at that point there are often undesirable flavor changes in the edible portion of the plant. Hon tsai tai is unique in that it produces the flower early in its life when all the parts of the plant still taste good.
Hon tsai tai has a mild mustard flavor. The entire plant is edible and may be eaten raw or cooked. The thin purple stems are more tender when the plant is young. While still flavorful, they may become more coarse as the plant matures, so should be cut very finely at this stage. Hon tsai tai is delicious in stir-fries or lightly steamed, but also makes a stunning and flavorful addition to raw salads. A common preparation in Chinese cuisine is to quickly stir-fry hon tsai tai with garlic, onions, and ginger, then add oyster sauce. Store hon tsai tai loosely wrapped in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator until ready for use.