Vegetables from the Sea

My first taste of seaweed -- which are large, edible marine algae -- came many years ago when I tried vegetable sushi wrapped in Nori. The salty flavor was initially strange but gradually grew on me. It wasn't until years later that I began to explore other sea vegetable options, like toasted Dulse on salads and hearty Kombu and Kelp in broths and soups. Now, seaweed is a valued part of my diet, as it was and still is for indigenous peoples all over the world.

Photo of Kelp
Washed up Atlantic Kelp (Saccharina longicruris) posing on the sand

Throughout their lifetime of immersion in mineral-rich ocean water, seaweeds also accumulate rich stores of micro-nutrients. While these algae are highly valued for the feeding of garden soil (as compost and garden fertilizer), the direct food value of seaweeds appears to have largely faded from the consciousness of modern Americans. Aside from processed Nori wraps, how many people are aware of seaweed's vast culinary uses?

Seaweeds are adapted to living in conditions of constant movement. Influenced by the endless ebb and flow of ocean waters, they must remain flexible yet firmly attached to their anchor points. Humans, too, can thrive in these shifting times by remaining rooted in the present moment, and I suggest that seaweeds are therefore not just sources of nutrition but living beings with life lessons to share. Buy taking in seaweeds, we incorporate their wise spirits into our lives.

Photo of Atlantic Kombu
Atlantic Kombu (Laminaria digitata) has many "fingers"

If you are interested in adding some wild algae to your diet, I recommend finding a local source of hand-harvested, air-dried sea vegetables. Ironbound Island Seaweed (a small company based in Winter Harbor, Maine) sells several kinds of seaweed, which they describe in detail on their site.  They offer seaweed by the pound, as well as 2.5 pound Ocean Harvest Bushel for those who want to experiment with all their east-coast offerings.

Of course, you can also harvest seaweed yourself.  But be aware, that while gathering piles of rotting seaweed from a coastal beach may work for garden mulch, edible seaweeds need to be gathered while they are still alive. If you are up for the challenge and don't mind getting wet, I recommend contacting an experienced seaweed harvester to inquire about apprenticing.

Subshrub ID: Spotted Prince’s-pine

Photo of Spotted Prince's-pine fruit

This plant is Chimaphila maculata, referred to as Spotted Prince's-pine by my trusty (if somewhat technical) plant manual*, but labeled Striped Pipsissewa by many other books. This subshrub has waxy, blue-green leaves, with whitened veins and toothed margins. Drooping summer flowers later ripen and stand erect as brown capsules (see above). While the leaves of Noble Prince's Pine look different from those of this species, the similarity of their flower and subsequent fruit structures suggest their close relationship.

Photo of Spotted Prince's-pine

*Flora Novae Angliae by Arthur Haines (2011)

Coastal Crossbills

Crossbills are finches with specialized offset bills that excel at harvesting the seeds of various conifers.  While not common in New England most years, White-winged and Red Crossbills have been seen in decent numbers locally over the past few months.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to encounter both species in Westport, MA. The first flock I saw were White-winged Crossbills hanging out in short pine trees near the gate to the causeway of Gooseberry Neck. Here are a few photos I was able to take:




While watching the White-winged Crossbills, I overheard another group of birders who mentioned seeing Red Crossbills just down the road at the Horseneck Beach State Reservation Campground. Within minutes, the group I was with drove to the campground and parked outside the entrance gate.  After walking into the summer parking area, I picked up on some finchy sounds coming from nearby pines. Circling around them (to get the sun to my back), I was able to identify the chatty flock as Red Crossbills. They hung around long enough for me to take some close-up photos and to record some audio.



It turns out that Red Crossbills can be separated into numerous types (see eBird article: Red Crossbill Types), but identification to type in the field can be tricky. Using a short audio sample that I recorded at the campground, Matt Young at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology was able to conclude that both type 3 and type 10 birds were present. Both types typically breed on the west coast, but are known to wander widely during irruptive years (which certainly includes 2012).  Some or all of the types may be split into separate species someday, but that remains to be seen.

Here's the audio clip and accompanying spectrogram (which is a sort of visual representation of the sounds) of Red Crossbill call notes (Type 10 followed by Type 3):



It may be off-season for New England campers and beach-goers, but it is certainly in-season for Crossbills visiting from afar.  I hope you get to see some this winter -- there is no telling how many years will pass before they visit the region again.

Winter Shrub ID: Speckled Alder

Catkins are tubular flower clusters that lack showy petals and often rely on the wind for pollination.  Many shrubs have catkins, but here in eastern Massachusetts only two (both in the genus Alnus) have both male and female catkins present in winter.

Photo of Speckled Alder catkins
Tiny female (top center) and conspicuous male catkins

The above photo shows clusters of small female catkins and conspicuous male catkins of Speckled Alder (Alnus incana). In closely related Smooth Alder (Alnus serrulata), the male catkins hang similarly, but the female catkins are oriented upward (rather than pendent).

After flowering, female catkins of both species develop into brown cone-like structures containing seeds. One of the cones in the following photo has some scraggly growth which sticks out and, according to Donald Stokes' The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines (1981), is a distortion caused by a fungus.

Photo of Specked Alder cones
Note distorted lower cone

Alders grow quickly and can form dense stands that help prevent erosion in vulnerable wet areas.  They are favored by Beavers for both food (inner bark) and building materials (wood), and finches – including American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, and Common Redpolls – are known to consume the seeds of these native shrubs.