18 July 2011

Survival Tinder: Pitch and milkweed down

Survival Tinder: Pitch and milkweed down

Many of us carry petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls or cotton pads, or even commercial “wet fire” type waterproof tinders in our kits/bags.

Here is an alternative that can be produced in the wilderness out of easily procured materials if/when we run out of such conveniences, and carried as quick, waterproof tinder.

What you will need:

Milkweed down, gathered in the fall. Cattail down, thistle or dogbane down or a number of other similar materials will work

Spruce or pine pitch, collected from porcupine damaged or, in this case, rock-scarred trees:

Materials: Milkweed down, spruce pitch, deer leg bone for melting pitch

Melting the pitch over a fire. It works well to set the bone on a warm rock beside the fire and allow the pitch to soften. If you have a tin can or pot that you would like to use, take care not to allow the melting pitch to get too hot, as it can easily catch fire if you set the can directly on the stovetop. If you happen to have two cans/pots, a double boiler setup, with hot water in the bottom pot and the sap in the top one, is a great way to melt pitch.

Pouring liquefied pitch onto milkweed down. The split deer bone acts as a handy spout:

Rolling the pellet… The sap is hot, sticky and wants to stick to your hands and anything else it comes into contact with. Work quickly, getting the outside of the pellet covered with pitch and then rolling between your palms to cement everything together and smooth it out.

Finished “fire pellet.” Light, waterproof and, despite looking rather like an elk dropping….works quite well!

Broken open, ready for use…

Striking sparks…

Burning brightly…

I would be very interested in hearing your tinder ideas and tips! Thanks...

01 March 2010

Balm of Gilead Salve

An anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and pain relieving salve made from cottonwood or poplar buds

The buds of a number of varieties of cottonwood and poplar trees (Populus nigra, Populus balsamifera, Populus augustafolia and others) contain a sticky orange resin that has been used for centuries to make a soothing, healing salve commonly known as “Balm of Gilead.” This salve has anti-inflammatory, antibiotic/antiseptic and pain relieving qualities, and has been effectively used to treat abrasions, minor burns, frostbite and to ease the pain of sore muscles and joints. It is also (sometimes known as Black Salve) a traditional skin cancer remedy.

The months between December and March are, depending on your location, best for harvesting the buds.

The buds must be collected, of course, before the leaves emerge, and if you wait until too late in the spring, you may end up with more of the sticky orange sap on your fingers than not! Cold days are best for collecting the buds; anything below freezing will do. Best of all is to find a fallen branch or two, as they will be easier to reach and will not damage the tree, as taking too many buds from a living branch can do. If you cannot find a fallen branch, go ahead and harvest from the living branches you can reach, but take selectively, a few here, a few there, so as not to damage the tree by preventing entire branches from leafing out.

Once you have collected the buds, you can either use them right away, or they can be dried or frozen for later use. If you choose to dry them, make sure they are spread out in a single layer on a board or cookie sheet, as they will tend to mold pretty quickly if left in heaps and allowed to retain moisture. Freezing really is the best way to preserve them, if you’re not ready to make your salve right away.

There are several ways to extract the resin from the buds for making Balm of Gilead salve. One is done by slowly simmering the buds in hot oil to release their resin, and the second, which takes longer but yields a slightly more potent finished product, involves placing the buds in a crock or jar, and covering them with oil, leaving them to “steep” for a period of several weeks to a year. The resin can also be extracted by soaking the buds in alcohol for several weeks, the results combined with oil and simmered to drive off the alcohol, but I have found the oil itself to be sufficient for extraction.

Simmering method:

Cover buds with oil--olive is perhaps the best, but coconut and others can be used--and simmer gently (do not boil!) to release the sticky orange resin. Cool and strain.

Gently simmering cottonwood buds in olive oil for several hours. You can see the yellow-orange resin beginning to ooze out of the buds as the oil heats.

Steeping method:

Fill a mason jar or crock halfway with buds, cover with olive oil and set aside. A sunny windowsill or warm spot in the kitchen speeds up the process. Leave in place for at least two weeks, but there is really no such thing as leaving it too long.

Making the salve:

Ingredients: Bee's wax, grapefruit seed extract, cottonwood bud oil

I find that a ratio of 1/1 by volume of oil and wax shavings generally works well.

Equal measures (approximately) of wax shavings and oil, by volume

Heat the oil just to lukewarm, and add the wax. Do not boil. Stir with a wooden stick or, if you must use metal, with stainless steel.

Set out your containers. Almost anything will work, from "jelly" sized mason jars to Altoids tins to these salvaged air gun pellet containers I'm using (on left.)

Before pouring into the containers, put a bit of the salve on a spoon and refrigerate it for a few minutes (or just set it out on the counter, if your house is as cool as mine…this sample hardened shortly after contacting the spoon) to make sure that the finished texture will be alright. It is much easier to add either wax or oil to the mix now, than it will be to later dig the salve out of containers and modify it.

I added two drops of grapefruit seed extract to this batch, a preservative and to increase the antiseptic/antibacterial value of the salve. This step is optional.

Pouring into the tins...

Freshly poured...a wonderful yellow-orange color:

Checking the texture again...just right!

Solidifying takes only minutes in a cool house, longer if the weather is warmer:

All done and ready to use. A very versatile salve that can be used in place of antibiotic ointment on minor cuts, abrasions and burn, helps treat frostbite (have tried that...) and works wonders on dry, chapped hands and cracked fingers and toes.

This is the simplest version. Some possible additions could include lanolin, vitamin E oil or coconut oil, all of which slightly change the properties and texture of the salve. Experiment with small batches, and learn what works best for you!

10 October 2009

Milkweed down for insulation and tinder

Milkweed down for insulation and tinder

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca and related species) is a very versatile plant, its leaves acting as food for the caterpillar of the monarch butterfly, its shoots and young pods edible by humans, and its dried stalks providing excellent fibers for wilderness cordage. Down from the milkweed plant has many uses as well, and this is, depending on your area of the country, the time of year to collect it.

Historically the fine, silky hairs of milkweed down have been used for everything from tinder for spark-based fire-starting, insulation for cold weather moccasins, lifejacket stuffing, clothing and bedding insulation, mattress filler, has been spun (usually in combination with something that has longer fibers) and woven into a fine, silky cloth, today being used to stuff pillows and comforters for people suffering from allergies.

Each fiber--created to be incredibly light and buoyant in order to carry the milkweed seed to its new growing destination--is hollow and waterproof, able to regain a good deal of its loft after being crushed or compressed, and drying quickly when soaked, unlike similarly-insulation goose down. It has, in fact, been found in recent studies to be twenty percent warmer when used as jacket insulation than a similar weight of goose down. The ability to shed water and remain buoyant when wet led to milkweed down being used to stuff lifejackets during World War II, with schoolchildren being sent out to collect the pods as a way to help the war effort.

The best time to collect the pods for harvesting down is shortly after they have reached their full size, but before the plants begin turning yellow and the pods opening up to let the down--and seeds--fly. The pods can actually be eaten when they are young and small, boiled in two changes of water to remove the bitter white sap; a treat which somewhat resembles okra in both taste and texture:

Now, back to the down harvest. To test the pods for readiness, open one up and inspect the seeds inside. They should be fully formed but white instead of brown, and the inside of the pod should be damp, the down tightly clinging to the core in the center.

Once collected (leave behind a pod or two per plant, to ensure that seeds exist to spread next year’s crop) the pods can be kept for a few days in a plastic grocery bag or other semi-airtight container if need be, before separating the seeds from the down, but care needs to be taken that they do not dry out so much that the pods begin to split and open (at which point your job will become much harder!) or remain wet and closed up long enough that they begin to mold.

Remove each of the down bundles from its pod by pulling the pod apart at the center and gently freeing the contents, either scraping the seeds off with your finger or thumbnail right then, or laying them aside and freeing the seeds after you have all of the bundles out of the pods. Seeds should be collected and saved, either for sprouting (to eat) or, if you don't want to try this, simply thrown back out in the general areas from which you collected the pods, in order to ensure a plentiful wild crop for the following year!

The down, once freed of its seeds, will be damp and appear rather wilted, and needs to be aired out and given time to dry before it is either used or packaged up for later use.

I like using loosely woven willow baskets for the drying, but a cardboard box with a number of small holes punched in it to let the air flow through will work, as well.

If you wait until the seeds have turned brown to separate them from the down, they will come loose somewhat easier (and probably have a better chance of sprouting, if you plan to use them for that) but the task will be more difficult overall, as the down will have begun drying and will try very hard to fly away on you as you work!

If you choose to wait until the seeds brown, it is very helpful to tightly grasp each down bundle at its top when removing from the pod, not releasing this grasp until all of the seeds have been scraped loose. Otherwise, the down will tend to separate from the core and go flying about as you try to work; very frustrating… Try it both ways; you will quickly discover which you prefer.

The down will expand greatly as it dries, and needs to be handled with care after it is done, to prevent it blowing all over your camp or sticking in your carpet as you handle it! You are now ready to use the silk to fill a down vest, stuff between two layers of wool socks for additional warmth, or even fill a quilt or comforter, if you have enough of it!

In addition to being a great insulator, milkweed down also makes the best natural tinder I have found for catching a spark from a spark-based firestarter such as a ferro rod. It will, in my experience, catch a spark even easier than cotton, flare right up and burn long enough to light your kindling. A good combination that I like to use is milkweed down to catch the sparks, surrounded by juniper (or any type of cedar) bark to hold them a bit longer. I'm using a magnesium fire block here, but am not shaving off any of the metal, just using the attached ferro rod for sparks:

Milkweed takes on the first strike

Then the juniper goes! Instant fire... I always carry a little bag of milkweed down in my fire kit, and have never found anything better for catching a spark, the first time every time. Also, I have come up with a "wilderness alternative" to the petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls that so many of us carry, by melting pine or spruce pitch and pouring it over little wads of milkweed down, leaving a bit of down sticking out to catch the sparks. But that is a subject for another post, if anyone is interested!

These are just a few uses I have discovered for milkweed down. I would be very interested to hear how some of you have used it!

19 September 2009

Wild foood: Cattail roots

Every part of the cattail plant (Typha latifolia or angustifolia) has its use, depending on the season, but today we will talk about the roots.

I use the roots in a couple of ways--boiling and scraping for “mashed potatoes,” and soaking to dissolve the starch for use as flour.

September is perhaps not the ideal time to collect these roots, as they will be starchier and fuller later in the fall and into the winter with stored energy that the new plants will use to begin growing in the spring. But, too much later and the cattail swamps up here will not only be frozen, but covered in several feet of snow! The roots provide enough starch to be worthwhile, year-round, and in many areas of the country can be harvested throughout the winter.

Cattail roots grow horizontally beneath the water and mud in areas of slowly flowing or still water, and can be found by digging down with your hand or with a sharp stick near the plants. Once you find a root, most of them no deeper than six inches beneath the mud, begin loosening and pulling it until you feel it coming free. Often you can free one to two foot sections, sometimes longer. Despite being a messy, muddy project, the root harvest is not especially difficult or labor intensive, especially if you have found cattail patch with a good amount of standing water in it, as this will keep the muddy soil much looser and easier to free the roots from.

Even at this time of year, you will find a few tender white buds sprouting from the roots, and they make for a great snack while you work. No fibers in these, and they taste wonderful, like a very mild, starchy celery!

The roots will look mucky and black on the outside, but will be clean and starchy, once you cut or break them open.

Washed roots, being kept fresh in the water as I work

The roots between small, newly emerged shoots are often the plumpest and easiest to pull, but all are good. You will often find, by feel, one root crisscrossing atop another, and it always pays to feel around in the mud beneath each root you pull, to see if there is another.

All done for the day! Approximately fifteen pounds of roots, collected in just under an hour of pulling.

Wear old clothes and boots that you don’t mind getting muddy when pulling cattail roots, as you will often end up submerged in thick black muck up past your ankles, and with mud splashed up to your elbows. Great fun, though slightly less so when temperatures start getting down near freezing!