Monday, July 29, 2013

Let's Eat Tearthumb!

Since Kew Gardens has based this year's summer festival on edible plants, aptly named IncrEDIBLES, and because I love edible botany, I've been thinking some more about which plants we could eat. Although most of the time ecologists want to protect plants and increase biodiversity, there is one particular time when most ecologists will agree, the plants must be destroyed, eradicated, extirpated from an area. I know this sounds harsh, but I'm talking about invasive exotic species. These are pest species which have come from other habitats, often other countries, and they love their new habitat so much that they out-compete local native plants. Such invasive species can eliminate local endemic species, reduce the number of once common plants, disrupt the ecosystem and all the ecosystem services that it once provided, and be a real headache for habitat managers and gardeners alike.

Today, I came across a new book that has just been published in my home area of Maryland called A Quick Guide to Wild Edible Plants: Easy to Pick, Easy to Prepare. One of the wild edibles mentioned in the book is tearthumb or mile-a-minute weed (Polygonum perfoliatum), a nasty invasive plant that plagues our home in Maryland by climbing over plants, smothering my mother's wonderful garden, and becoming larger and more problematic every year. So I am delighted to find out that it's berries are edible!!

According to the US Forest Service, Mile-a-Minute weed is edible by humans and has a high potassium content. Does this mean we could skip imported tropical bananas and eat seeds from the garden instead!? And, based on the following excerpt from a journal article written about Mile-a-Minute weed, it is not only edible, but it is also use in Asia as an herbal medicine and could even be used as an anticancer agent! I wonder, if we started eating the seeds if it would cause even a small dent in the speed this invasive is taking over?
In its native eastern Asia, mile-a-minute is considered beneficial and has been used as an herbal medicine for over 300 yr (He et al. 1984; Hoque et al. 1989; Sook and Myung 1992; Yang and Kim 1993; Zhu 1989), or as an edible wild fruit (Bajracharya 1980). The plant also serves as a suitable food source for a diverse group of mammals, birds, and insects. Two protein kinase C inhibitors (PKC), vanicosides A and B; five diferuloyl esters of sucrose; and feruloylsucroses have been isolated from mile-a-minute plants (Sun 1999; Sun et al. 2000). PKC are involved in cell signal transduction and cell proliferation and are believed to be tumor promoters; thus PKC inhibitors could be used as potential anticancer agents (Sun 1999). Two well-known natural products, quercetin and beta-sitosterol, have also been isolated from mile-a-minute (Sun 1999). Beta-sitosterol is also reported to have anticarcinogenic properties (Park et al. 2003). The bioflavonoid quercetin has antioxidant (Boadi et al. 2003; Kumar et al. 2003; Pietruck et al. 2003), antiproliferative, and anti-inflammatory properties (Pietruck et al. 2003).
Kumar, V., & Ditommaso, A . (2005). Mile-a-Minute (Polygonum perfoliatum): an increasingly problematic invasive species. Weed Technology 19(4), 1071-1077.

Scientists and others have been eating strange things for centuries!

Photograph of the 'hen and chickens' pineapple, sent to Kew in a letter from Leonard Wray Jr., from Malaysia 1892 [archive ref: DC 165/275]
Look guys, it's not just me that has this strange fascination with discovering edible plants. A special group at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens is working to digitize (scan/photograph and summarize) letters sent to and from the Director at Kew all the way back to the 1840s. Because Kew Gardens have long been considered one of the leading research and collections hubs for plants and other things of botanical interest, scientists and botanists have been sending their findings, interesting anecdotes, and even samples or specimens to the gardens ever since the first official director, Sir William Jackson Hooker, was appointed in 1841.

Come see this Kew blog posting about edible plants that have been referred to in the Director's Correspondence.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Eating Wild Foods while Hiking

If you know me, you know that I like to eat things that I found out in nature. I find it a really fun way to interact with nature and the flavors you find in the wild are often evoke your taste buds in a very unfamiliar and delightful way. This "habit" of mine has led me into trouble - like the time I ate a Prickly Pear cactus fruit with my bare hands, or the time I gulped down a leaf of water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) before our guide in Palo Verde National Park in Costa Rica warned me of the tiny calcium oxalate needle-like crystals that cover it's leaves and burned my throat for hours, or the time I most recently ate a fresh cherry off a tree just to be reminded that it was growing on a polluted brown field. But despite all of my misguided tastings, there have been quite a few really amazing dishes that have come out of my wild foraging tendencies. I've foraged for over 5 kilos of wild mushrooms in the forests of Davos, Switzerland (I was not on the linked excursion, rather, I was hobby foraging with some friends). I have discovered snacks while passing barberry bushes in Switzerland, sea grapes in Florida, bilberries in the Swiss Alps, wineberries back home in Maryland, and many more things as I've roamed through natural areas.

Outside Magazine recently published an article on the top 8 Hikes You Can Eat. I love this idea! I would definitely travel simply to hike and eat things from the wild along the way! It's kind of like a survival-foodie trip. Would you do it?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Coastal dunes and coastal ecosystems can save your home

Surely, after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, we all know the risks of building a home on the coast. But still, people want to live near water and coastal developments are booming. NOAA calculated that 39% of the US population lives on or near the shoreline. No wonder the Midwest is so sparsely populated! So how can we protect people's homes that live right on the shoreline when they have obviously built in an area subject to high risk? There is a natural solution. It has long been recognized that when a natural buffer is left between the home and the water sources, the home is less likely to be damaged heavily. That means, at the beach, we should leave natural, vegetated dune systems, trees, wide beaches, wetlands, and back-bays in a natural state. When a storm does come ashore, these natural systems can absorb the damage caused by wind, water, and energy much better than your home can. Plus, these ecosystems are typically naturally resistant or resilient to damage.