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!

Wild food: Cattail roots, part two

Cattail shoots can be eaten raw, as can slices out of younger, less fibrous roots, though the root starch becomes more fully digestible after cooking.

Roots and shoots

Roots, all white and starchy and ready to boil

Boiled and split root, fibers scraped to remove the starch for eating. This starch has a taste and consistency very much like mashed potatoes, only “smoother,” and is equally filling!

It is impossible to salvage all of the starch by scraping like this, so I will save the scraped roots to process for making flour.

In part two, we will look at one way to make cattail flour, which contains gluten and can be used for baking, from the root starch.

Cattails grow in almost all areas of the country, from the sub alpine wilderness to the lowland suburbs, and can provide large quantities of food and other useful materials.

How have you used cattail roots or other parts?

Do you have any favorite methods of harvesting and/or preparing them?

Tell us about it!

Cattail roots & eggs

Now for some cattail root cooking. The fresh, sliced roots are very good when you fry them like potatoes! They get brown and crispy on the outsides just like potatoes when pan fried, and taste very similar, too. Just a slightly fibrous version of fried potatoes! A fine breakfast.

16 September 2009

Spring bounty in the high country

This past May, with the the snow disappearing quickly from the high country, I spent some time harvesting two plants that provided a major supplement to the largely meat diets of some of the tribes that lived in the Central and Northern Rockies.

Spring beauty and avalanche lily are two starchy-rooted plants that were collected in great quantities in the past.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a relative of the also-edible purslane, and is widely distributed throughout the continental US, appearing in the mountains of Colorado, on Oklahoma prairies, and in various places along the East Coast, to name a few areas of its range. All parts of the plant are edible and tasty, the succulent leaves and stems providing a tasty snack when hiking, but the most valuable food source coming from their enlarged, starchy corms that resemble new potatoes in appearance, flavor and nutrition. They can be eaten raw, but are best boiled first for a few minutes.

The roots are best dug in the spring shortly after the plants have emerged, as at lower elevations they sprout, bloom and die back before the heat of summer really sets in, leaving them difficult to locate later in the year. Up high, the leaves sometimes persist through the summer.

Several of the mountain tribes would make annual expeditions to high meadows where the women and children would spend a week or more digging and drying these roots, each ending up with a good twenty or thirty pounds of the roots! (Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples, Harriet V. Kuhnlein, p. 227)

Avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) have large, starchy roots that were harvested in great quantity by the Blackfoot, Flathead and other tribes, and slowly roasted in pits to convert their poorly digestible sugars (mostly inulin) to fructose, before drying for the winter. These dried roots, often eaten cooked up into a soup with dried serviceberries, deer fat and spring beauty corms, were an important winter food source, as well as a valuable trade item. Very often, these two plants grow side by side in the alpine meadows around here.

This spring I went up to an area of high meadows and open aspen forests from which the snow had melted off only a week or two prior, and found the ground carpeted with the yellow blooms of the lilies and dotted with spring beauty blooms, acre after acre! I spent some time digging the roots of both plants.

Lily roots, stems, leaves and blossom
An old elk rib, found on site, turned out to be a nearly ideal digging tool.

Spring beauty corms--just like potatoes…

Spring bounty, part two

In the same area where I dug the spring beauty and avalanche lily corms, I found quite a bit of waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum) which while not as abundant as the other two, also has an edible, starchy easily harvested root. Crunchy and juicy and not at all unpleasant raw, the roots are more easily digested when cooked, so should be boiled if possible.

(waterleaf roots with lily blooms in background)

The result of a few minutes of digging!

All three species, growing together

14 September 2009

"Smokeless" fire: Dakota fire hole for efficient cooking and minimal smoke signature

I put "smokeless" in quotes because all wood fires produce some smoke. You can, however, greatly minimize and even very nearly eliminate your fire's smoke signature, with some effort.

One good way to do this is by using a Dakota fire hole. There are many variations on this method, but I'll demonstrate here the one I like best. You will need to dig a hole that is just over a foot deep, and no wider than that in diameter. The pit can be widened at the bottom to allow for longer pieces of wood. Then dig a small tunnel beginning a foot or so from the main pit and angling down to the bottom of it. This will allow additional air to be drawn through and help the fire to burn hotter and more efficiently, producing less smoke.

If you can, put the air tunnel on the side of the pit from which the prevailing winds in the area come, as this will help to fan the fire. Even this is not possible because of terrain limitations (as it was not for this demonstration) the setup should work quite well.

For your fire, start with very dry wood, preferably long-dead branches, still attached to the tree, which have been protected from moisture by the boughs above them. Remove all bark, as most barks do not burn completely and tend to smoke, and split your kindling very finely. I put three rocks down in the pit to build the fire on top of, so they can heat for later use (cooking or keeping in pockets, etc, for warmth) after fire is out.

All set up and ready to strike. This is split aspen wood from a standing dead tree, along with a small amount of juniper. I added a bit of milkweed down, surrounded by a wad of shredded juniper bark, to catch the spark. It is difficult to see in this photo, but there is a shallow trench in the bottom of the firepit (that the rocks are in) which lines up with the air tunnel. This both helps to draw air through, and allows you to place wood flat on the bottom of the pit, while still allowing air under it.

The hole is approximately twelve inches in diameter, widened out around the bottom to accept larger pieces of wood. By keeping it small at the top, you maximize efficiency and also make it easier to quickly cover the hole with a flat rock, if you have a sudden need to eliminate the fire and reduce your heat signature...

Fire took on the first strike, using a firesteel and length of old dulled hacksaw blade. This is the most smoke it ever produced, and that only for a moment, until it began drawing air through the tunnel.

Looking in through air tunnel:

13 September 2009

Dakota fire hole, part two

Firehole and tunnel. I dug the hole with that deer shoulder bone and a sharpened juniper stick, for the tunnel.

Starting the water heating. The firehole is a very efficient and quick way to bring water to a boil for purification, and makes a great cooking "stove," also! By angling firewood so part of it ends up in the tunnel, you can use longer pieces than you would otherwise be able, in this small 12 inch diameter hole.

Slide the rock partway over the pit to help keep the heat in and boil your water more quickly. Also provides a cooking/heating surface, if you need it. Just after this, I added some spring beauty and waterleaf roots that I had recently dug in a nearby alpine meadow.

Boiling away! I boiled my little "potatoes" for about ten minutes.

Improvised juniper-bark pot lifter...

All done, and still no smoke!

Fire is intentionally kept very small at all times. This should help minimize the amount of light that escapes, at night.

Ready to eat! Just after this I slid the large rock over the hole, and a smaller one over the tunnel opening, to cut off the air and let the fire die out with minimal smoke. If you get a tight seal between the ground/rock, no smoke escapes. If you have not been able to find a rock of just the right size, keep a little pile of dirt and small rocks handy to quickly toss over and close the gaps, sealing in the smoke of the dying fire.

Spring beauty corms--just like mashed potatoes, in both taste and texture. I eat skins and all. Very good! The waterleaf roots are not bad, either--nearly tasteless, but starchy and filling.

You can of course keep the fire going while you eat if it's cold weather, but if the idea is to quickly cook up a hot meal or purify some water with minimal smoke and heat signature, you'll want to put it out as soon as possible. In that case, keeping your pot on the rock while you eat helps keep your food warm, and you can always sit on the rock afterwards (check to make sure it's not too hot!) for warmth.

And don't forget those three rocks that are down in the bottom under the ashes, very hot by now. They can be fished out and used to help keep you warm, or even used for additional cooking (dropped into water to heat it,) maximizing the use you get out of this one small, quick fire.