Monthly Archives: April 2016

Trees I Enjoy

by Elsa Johnson

The trees I especially enjoy this time of year are serviceberry, Canadian red chokeberry, yellow flowered magnolia, and American larch.

serviceberryAmalanchiers – our native serviceberries – are usually among the earliest trees to bloom; its fragile flowers are almost as ephemeral as our native ephemeral wildflowers, the Spring-beauty, and Cutleaf Toothwort (the latter the host plant to the West Virginia White Butterfly), both of which bloom at about the same time as serviceberries. The delicate filigree blossoms develop in pale shades of grey, pink, and green, but unfold and open white, resembling clusters of particularly light and airy snow. Alas, they do not last long if the days are warm, while cool weather prolongs their stay, and soon the tiny white petals drift down like a particularly gentle snow. I love serviceberry, especially in its multi-trunk or clump form, which, judiciously internally opened up, makes a very nice semi-transparent screening tree. This also allows one to appreciate its silvery ‘skin’.   

IMG_4775Our native Canadian red chokeberry, Prunus virginiana, is often mistaken for its cousin, prunus cistena, a lesser creature, which also bears small pale pink flowers in spring and has red-purple leaves. Canadian red chokeberry can also be found as a multi-trunked tree, and, opened up the same way, also makes for a pleasant screening tree. The delicate pale pink blossoms flower just before and as the red-purple leaves emerge. The berries, edible, juicy but tart, should be cooked into a jelly, for example, and not eaten raw. The roots and bark, although toxic, have medicinal uses.

Magnolia-Butterflies-PP-lg-1The yellow flowered magnolias are another of my springtime favorite small trees because they are late bloomers that usually escape being destroyed by those flower-devastating late freezes (like the one we recently experienced).  There is something about their buttery yellow strappy flowers opening that is just so cheerful and fresh! – ( and not as lurid as the late blooming magenta magnolias). These magnolias also tend to be densely branched and multi-trunked, with smooth grey bark in their youth.

larix-laricina-le-dkausenFinally, there is American Larch, a deciduous evergreen one does not often see. My family had one in our ‘yard’ (40 acres) and every year in the fall, when it turned strong yellow and the needles fell, my grandmother would say “That tree’s dying – we’d better cut it down”. But in the spring time when the new bright green needle buds began to open – oh! how fresh and soft they were. I liked to run my hands down them. They felt so alive. This tree did very well for us and eventually got quite large. I often wonder why is not used more.

Not a Parody

by Elsa Johnson

We can’t live any other way           we think               when we think of the plastic

bags from the grocery store                               how else will we get these twenty

cans of cat food home ?              The vet says :     they are not designed for grain

carbohydrates          must eat meat :               tuna and mackerel     minced                

grilled chicken       savory roast beef dinner              best not to dwell too long

on which parts are inside these cans    

                                                                    They are carnivores             these soft cat

creatures              that like to settle their fluff around our faces                  nestle

into a shoulder for a good night’s sleep            They have no say in their nature          

and so they kill whatever moves    in innocence :    bird on the wing      squirrel

on the run         stalking to standoff the groundhog                  (so well named)

the one that sleeps under the neighbors’ porch                and slimes the lettuce


& trade offs :              the terrible lowing of all the unseen beasts as they move

toward slaughter                the amputated chicken legs still wavering the air      

though no longer connected    to brain :            all the unacknowledged animal

martyrs               so that neighborhood birds live free          of furred marauders   

But I digress :            I was saying        we think we cannot live any other way


When the autopsy was finished                 their stomachs were found to be full        

of thoroughly indigestible            un-ejectable           but enduring plastic trash :    

these two    huge   sperm whales                       leviathans of the deep vast             

lying dead on an impossible to pronounce        pristine       Icelandic        beach

What We Are Eating Now: Nettles for Breakfast (and Lunch, and Dinner!)

Ann McCulloh is a contributing editor, whose motto is “Eat Your Yard”


The fresh young shoots of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) are one of my favorite spring greens to sauté and eat with eggs. This delicious, mild, nutty-flavored wild vegetable has more nutrition than spinach, and pretty much grows itself, unlike fussier garden greens.


I like to chop and sauté’ the leaves (for about 8 minutes) with mushrooms and garlic, or combine them with dandelion greens and garlic mustard as a side dish, a soup base, quiche or savory pastry filling. The stems can be tough, so I use mostly the leaves.


About the “stinging” part! The sharp, hollow hairs on the leaves and stem contain formic acid which causes a rather brief but intense sting when touched. Cooking or thorough crushing destroys this stinging capability, drying the leaves does not! So nettles are not traditionally eaten raw. I harvest and clean them with gloves on, and recommend you do the same. 


One of the earliest greens to harvest, nettles satisfy my longing for fresh fare at a time when most garden plants are awaiting balmier weather. Their delicate flavor is accompanied by a whole alphabet’s worth of nutrients. According to the website, nettles are particularly rich in protein, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Silica, Vitamins A &K, beta-Carotene, Lutein, as well as significant amounts of other vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. Rather than buying powdered green “superfoods” for super bucks, I prefer to pick my own in the form of this humble and prolific backyard perennial “weed.”

I started with just one plant a couple of years ago, and it has spread to an 8’ x 8’ patch. That suits me fine. I also harvest and dry big bunches of the leafy stems to have for tea and add to soups throughout the year.

Nettles5hanging (1)

Experts advise picking it before it starts to flower in midsummer, although herbalists also collect nettle seeds for medicinal uses. The plant will take off and spread like mint if planted in damp, rich soil in partial shade. Control it by sinking it in a pot in the ground or just harvest it vigorously and often, like I do!

Garlic Mustard: If You Can’t Beat It, Eat it!

by Sarah Cech


Garlic mustard is a plant that grows in woodlands throughout the east and it pops up in back yards and parking lots. It is related to mustard, not garlic. It has kidney-shaped leaves with scalloped edges that grow in a low mound. These basal leaves die back in the late spring and the plant sends up a stalk with pointier leaves and clusters of small white flowers at the top. The easiest way to identify it is by picking a leaf and crushing it. You will smell a strong garlicky odor. It is believed that garlic mustard was brought from Europe as a food plant in the 1800s. Leaves are high in vitamin A and C and were boiled in soups and eaten in salads. How can this be bad?

Things went sour for garlic mustard when it escaped from the garden and started growing in the forest. Since this European plant has no natural predators in the US, it was able to thrive and out-compete native plants. It has displaced a native mustard called toothwort. Toothwort is important to the survival of the West Virginia white butterfly. It is the only host plant for this butterfly. If West Virginia whites lay their eggs on garlic mustard, the caterpillars typically die before reaching maturity because of the chemicals in garlic mustard. Garlic mustard plants spread easily because each tiny flower produces hundreds of seeds. If you find this plant in your backyard, you should pull it up to help protect the forest and West Virginia whites (and maybe make pesto).

In 2006, the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes realized that we had a big garlic mustard problem. The Natural Resources Specialist at the time realized how tasty garlic mustard can be as a pesto, and the first Pestival was born! This first event was a spaghetti dinner with pasta, bread, and wine at tables with checkered cloths. The Nature Center staff did all the cooking and prep work.

The following year, we invited area chefs to create a dish using the garlic mustard and the event morphed into a cocktail-style reception. Volunteers pull the garlic mustard and clean it; then we send it to the restaurants. In the Nature Center’s 50th Anniversary year, the Pestival is a sell-out event that features 9 area restaurants. Each year the chefs create a new dish. We have had cheesecake with garlic mustard relish from Coquette Patisserie, garlic mustard sliders from EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, and a perennial favorite, garlic mustard and pistachio ice cream from Mitchell’s Homemade IceCream. Don’t knock it till you try it!

So next time you pull garlic mustard out of your yard, remember, it makes a delicious pesto.

How to Eat Garlic Mustard

Interestingly, all parts of the plant are edible, including the root, which, grated and mixed with white vinegar tastes horseradishy and can be used the same way.

Try the leaves sprinkled on white pizza along with mushrooms and perhaps carmelized onions

Subsitute garlic mustard leaves for spinach in vegetarian lasagna

Chop the leaves finely and add to taboule salad in place of parsley

Make pesto substituting garlic mustard for basil in whole or part

Cheesy Frittata

Grated potatoes fresh or frozen (enough to cover bottom of a large skillet one inch deep)

Shallots – sliced thinly

5 eggs beaten, mixed with 1 large spoonful of nonfat yogurt seasoned generously with pepper

½ cup crumbled feta cheese, stirred into eggs

4 to 5 handfuls of garlic mustard leaves

1 cup mozzarella or other shredded cheese of choice

1/3 cup of parmesan or romano cheese 

On medium high heat, brown shallots in avocado or olive oil, and then add potatoes. Cook, brown and turn potatoes several times. When potatoes are cooked add the beaten egg and feta cheese mix. Turn heat down to low medium. Cover and cook until eggs begin to set. Add shredded cheese of choice and top with the garlic mustard. Cover the skillet until the greens have gone limp. Sprinkle parmesan or romano on top. Serves 4 to 5

    Garlic Mustard Pesto

3 cups Garlic Mustard Leaves

1/2 cup Parmesan Cheese

1/4 cup Olive Oil

1/4 cup Pine Nuts

1 clove Garlic

Salt to tast

Blend ingredients in a food processor until smooth.

Optional: Add spinach, basil or parsley for added flavor

Note: use first year garlic mustard leaves.

Sarah Cech

Natural Resources Manager

Nature Center at Shaker Lakes

First Light on the Lake (found poem)

by Elsa Johnson

I went to my watching spot

…found a small heron      intent

fishing the first light : 

                                                 the neck     

uncurled    the strike    quick

as a snake                           

the woods felt deep

after             …the morning