At ECOS, our environmental school, I barely get to tantalize the 4th graders with the highlight to their trip in my introduction to the day. Some kid always brings it up first. “Can we go to the bubble gum tree?”
I wasn’t ready for this question when I first started teaching in the program. I didn’t know what tree they were talking about. My first thought was the spruce. Woodsmen used to pinch off nubs of sap from the bark and chew it like gum. But how could this be it? The stuff tastes awful. The kids can’t possibly be all hyped up about such nasty tasting tree gum.
My only other thought was the black birch, Betula lenta. Now that smells great and was used to flavor candies, gelatin and of course, bubble gum. Kids could get psyched about that. My colleagues later confirmed that this is the tree they touted as the “Bubble Gum Tree”.
Kids don’t seem to be disappointed that they can’t pluck off pieces of bubble gum like they envisioned. The flavor can be detected in the twigs. Just under the bark one can smell oil of wintergreen. They light up when they find their own bubble gum tree using the scratch and sniff method. Scratched twigs smell so deliciously cool, fresh and minty. I let them collect a 6-inch section and then share how I make birch bark tea. Here’s how:
It’s the twigs that you’ll need, so tall adult trees with branches out of reach will not do. Saplings or seedlings will need to supply twigs within reach. My backyard is full of B. lenta trees, so I frugally trim a few branches here, a few there, or when I have to get rid of a wayward seedling, I at least use it for tea.
Strip the leaves off. Break up the twigs to be 2-4 inches long, or however short they need to be to fit into a pan. In doing so, expose the cambium, where the oil of wintergreen can be detected in the sap. I strip the bark on a couple sides of the twig. Fat twigs don’t contribute much, so stick to flexible twigs less than 1/8 inch thick I’d say. Just keep sniffing as you go to stick with those end twigs that have the most odor.
Cover your collection of twigs with water. Simmer – don’t boil. You want to extract the oil of wintergreen flavoring from the twigs but you don’t want to boil the flavoring away or make it taste harsh. Your kitchen will smell great during this process!
On this hot summer day, I’m thinking about making birch tea using the sun tea method. I imagine, putting the twigs in a clear container out in the sun for a while might extract the flavor as well. I haven’t tried it yet, but maybe you can give it a go and let me know.
Once the water is nicely brownish, I call it finished. You want to separate the water from the twigs and other stuff you don’t want to swallow. I often use cheesecloth, but a paper towel serves the same purpose as a filter. I just put it in the mouth of my container and pour my tea right through it.
At this time of year, I stick my tea in the fridge to drink cold. In the winter, I prefer it warm. I have a sweet tooth and sugar usually goes in other teas, but black birch tea tastes just fine as-is.
At the end of our day, among the many frameworks-oriented lessons they’ve learned, my kids go home with lots of super skills. They’ve gained some plant identification skills, learned to look closely at nature and used their senses. Lastly, they realize there is specialness in plants. Well, at least one plant in particular. That’s my particular passion that I hope they pick up on – the unique world of plants.
Garden fare is not just limited to your vegetable garden. Do you have day lilies blooming in your yard now? They are quite edibly delicious. If you are familiar with Asian cuisine, you may be familiar with eating lilies. Blossoms are sometimes stuffed. I like to eat the buds. Here’s how:
It is called “day lily” because each day, one flower in the cluster blooms. They take turns. Tomorrow’s is fine, but the next day’s bud and the following day is the best. Any further than that, and they are kind of small.
Here are buds of just the right size.
Just the right amount for a nice side dish for two.
Be conservative in your picking so that the beautiful orange blossoms can continue to decorate your landscape.
Prepare the buds just like you would green beans. I like to steam my green beans. They won’t take as long to cook though. They’re just tender little things.
Then, I season with butter and a a bit of salt, but do whatever you like.
I’ve tried the buds raw and don’t care for them as they leave a nose-scrunching aftertaste.
Enjoy your new found flower garden side dish.
What a banner year for acorns. My red oak has been pelting my house and deck for a good couple of months now. Little bombs catapulting downward point-first made it dangerous to be underneath that towering red oak. As of today, most acorns have been dropped. They are covering my lawn and stuck in between the decking planks. There are so many I am tempted to do something with them.
Squirrels, deer, bears, chipmunks, turkeys, weevils and other animals will do well this year. High in fat and carbohydrate, acorns are important if not vital sources of nutrition for many animals. The number of cubs a female black bear gives birth to this spring is in direct relation to how much fat she has put on in the fall eating acorns. (Black Bears of the Southeast NaturePod)
As for us humans, acorns certainly have their attributes and many foods have been made from them. Acorns are high in vitamin B and protein, but because acorns – particular those from the red oak group – are high in tannic acid, preparation is key. Tannin can cause anemia and impede growth when too much is consumed, plus, it just plain tastes bad.
Soaking shelled acorns in several changes of hot water can leach tannin out. Alternatively, soaking for at least 12 hours in a solution of baking soda has also proven successful. Historically, grinding shelled acorns and pouring hot water over them was the technique used by Native Americans in California. Soaking in brine or lye as pickles and olives are, can also serve to flush out the bitter tasting tannic acid from acorns. Once the tannin problem is solved, several options are available.
*Flour: With the tannin removed, one can use the pounded acorns for flour in baking just as wheat flour is used. Let the pulverized acorns dry thoroughly and then use it in cakes, muffins, pancakes, breads or as a supplement.
*Salad toppings: Acorn chunks can be eaten as salad toppings or in baking as chickpeas or peanuts might be used.
*Oil: Because of their high fat content, some acorns have been pressed to produce oil. Some species of acorns yield up to 30% fat content. The resulting oil is equivalent to olive oil and can be used in baking and cooking.
*Coffee: Dried and roasted meats of acorns can indeed make a brewed coffee, but due to the bitter taste, it is not really worth the effort. As for wild coffees, chicory, a common roadside plant with blue flowers makes a much better tasting brew.
*Indirectly: Reaping the benefits of acorns further along the food chain is another option. Early American settlers let their pigs wander the woods fattening up on acorns and chestnuts just before butchering time. Turkey and deer also will bulk up well this year, and those who hunt will unknowingly be eating acorns once removed.
I’ll probably see about making flour out of my abundance. Check out later posts.
“Have you nothing better to do with your time?” my friend, a botany professor remarked. I had told him I was setting out to make flour from my myriad of acorns in the yard. I know about many plant uses, but my first hand experience doesn’t cover this endeavor. I blogged about acorn uses previously, so I decided to take that beautiful bowl of acorns and pulverize them into flour. So, I’ll share the process, which can be done in bits and pieces in between a busy schedule. (more…)
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