Plants have many ways of catching our attention. Some have strong scents, others have bright and showy flowers, and then there are those who quite literally grab us. For instance, take Common Burdock (Arctium minus). The seed heads of this biennial are composed of hundreds of bracts tipped with sharp hooks, which cling tenaciously to animal fur and many types of human clothing and thereby help the plant's seeds disperse across the landscape. This strategy, along with the fact that many people enjoy eating Burdock's taproots and peeled stalks, has helped this European/Asian plant to become widely established throughout the United States. In addition to being a food source, Common Burdock is a widely used medicinal.
From a distance, today's plant has a definite resemblance to that of Smooth Sumac, who I profiled back in August, when I lived in Massachusetts. Here in Maine, I more frequently encounter the fuzzy stemmed Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta). As I've described previously, the red fruit clusters of either species can be used to make a pleasant drink.
What I didn't share before is that both shrubs (or small trees) have known medicinal uses (including using branchlets as mouth-cleaning chew sticks), and both have wood that can be used to make friction fire sets. For more on these uses and others, check out Ancestral Plants by Arthur Haines (2010).
I enjoy looking closely at details to nail down a positive species-level identification (see my Aster ID post), but sometimes specificity is best left to professional botanists. According to GoBotany, the Hawthorns (genus Crataegus) comprise "the second largest number of species of any genus of vascular plants in New England" with nearly 50 difficult-to-differentiate kinds. Luckily, sorting them out to the species level is not required to forage them responsibly -- according to Arthur Haines, "their uses are similar (though some species have larger flowers and fruits than others)."*
Prior to this fall, I hadn't encountered many fruit-filled hawthorns, but I happened to notice this planted tree outside the library where I work. The young leaves, along with the flowers and fruit, are said to be edible and high in antioxidants. Hawthorns are also well-known heart tonics. The only way I've tried this plant, aside from a few raw fruits, is as an alcohol extraction of purchased dried fruit. Herbalist Deb Soule of Avena Botanicals shares more about the gifts of Hawthorn in the video below.
*Ancestral Plants (2010), page 70.
With alternate, divided leaves and clusters of irregularly shaped flowers, using Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, we shouldn't be surprised to find this plant on the same page where we found White Clover two weeks ago. Of the three other Trifoliums listed on page 60, we find the plant that matches: Red Clover (T. pratense) – a plant with flower clusters that appear stalkless and leaves which often show prominent white chevrons.
Red Clover blossoms (or entire tops as pictured above) make an excellent wild tea. Herbalist-author Gregory Tilford says Red Clover is “an herb that helps free the blood of toxins and systematic waste while providing an assortment of nutrients critical to healthy blood” (From Earth to Herbalist, p. 174). In short, he describes the plant as a “medicinal food”. Only fresh or properly dried material should be used, as wilted Red Clover can mold and contain harmful toxins. Of course, it is critical to do your own research and come to your own confident conclusion regarding identification, proper preparation and personal health considerations prior to consuming any wild plant.
This spring, I've been monitoring a stand of Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) near my home, and when I checked the trees on mid-day Tuesday, I found nearly all the pollen cones at the perfect stage for gathering -- almost open. A couple days later and much of the pollen would have literally blown away.
As with the cones I gathered last year*, I've tinctured some and frozen the rest to add to meals in the coming months. If you've never tasted a pine pollen cone, now just might be your chance. Look for them on the light-green, growing branch tips, and be sure to sample cones before they open, release their pollen, and dry up.
*Those were from Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). The pollen cones of Pitch Pine are larger and therefore quicker to gather in quantity, and (at least this year) P. rigida cones are ready earlier than P. strobus.