Monthly Archives: February 2014

Eclectic Ephedra

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Ephedra is a lovely landscape shrub, but not one for you if you want a plant that can be sheared into an abnormal ball shape. Photo courtesy Mountain States Nursery.

 

For an unusual herb in your landscape, why not try a unique desert-adapted shrub that was around before dinosaurs roamed the earth — Ephedra.  In fact, there is some evidence that dinosaurs fed on this unusual herb, and it has lived on while the dinosaurs are gone.  You gotta respect a history like that.  Human history with this herb is also extensive, well over 5000 years.  As with many long used herbs, the common name and scientific name are the same, Ephedra.  In the Southwest, ephedra is also known as Mormon tea or joint fir.

 

Ephedra_trifurca_by_Derrick Coetzee

Ephedra trifurca is the species most common in the Tucson area. Photo by D. Coetzee

 

The ephedra around Tucson, Ephedra trifurca, is ideal for the full sun landscape featuring native plants.  Its leafless olive green branches reach skyward with a dichotomous branching pattern that is a joy to trace with your eye.  Ephedra is a low-water plant, and does best in a well-drained soil.

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Ephedra is a “dinosaur plant.” Rather than flowers, it produces cone-like structures that protect the tiny plant embryos. Timing has to be just right to get them to germinate. Or they can be toasted and eaten, as native peoples did.

 

Ephedra is very easy to grow, but tough to get started.  If you find some in a nursery, be very careful to transplant it with the root ball intact.  You can try it from cuttings, and I have had the best success with young wood cuttings taken after the first monsoon rain has soaked the plant.  You can also grow it from “seed” (technically cone-like structures, not true seeds).  As soon as the tiny hairs exerted from the cone have dried up, harvest these cones and plant them in a blend of three parts sand to one part potting soil.  Keep evenly moist for three months and you should see results.

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Dried ephedra, and all your dried herbs, should be used within the year, before their phytochemicals degrade.

 

If you wish to avoid coffee or Chinese tea because of the very “ungreen” way these products are grown, harvested, and shipped, ephedra tea can serve as a morning beverage.  Steep a tea using one heaping teaspoon of finely broken dried branches per cup of water.  This makes a brew similar to green tea in intensity of flavor.   Harvest and dry your own ephedra in early spring.  Just remember that moderation is key.  Another use is to finely grind ephedra twigs and use in an exfoliating skin wash.  The plant is relatively high in silica, a compound used to make glass.

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Plants like ephedra protect themselves from being eaten by creating phytochemicals that can be useful in moderation. Photo by J. A. Soule

 

The active compounds in ephedra include ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine.  These compounds are used today in clinical settings, including in local anesthetics and surgical vasoconstrictors.  A number of drugs contain pseudoephedrine, including flu, allergy and cold remedies.  You have to sign for these drugs now because pseudoephedrine can be converted into methamphetamine.  In the last days of World War II, many of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were given injections of a highly refined and potent ephedra extract just prior to their final flights.  The excessive dose mimicked the effects of methamphetamine, including, in some cases, death by stroke or heart attack.

Known locally as Mormon tea, ephedra has long been used as a morning “pick me up” by Mormons and gentiles alike who wish to avoid caffeine.  In The Consumer’s Guide to Herbal Medicine (1999), Steven B. Karch, M.D., evaluates Ephedra along with 67 other medicinal herbs.  He mentions that ephedra is used to treat asthma, bronchospasm, and colds.  “. . . [ephedra affects] . . . the heart and lungs, causing bronchial dilation, and the blood vessels in the nose to shrink.  [It] also exerts influence on the central nervous system.  In very large doses, five to ten times the amounts found in most food supplements, ephedrine produces effects very much like methamphetamine.  Ephedrine, like methamphetamine, [can affect] the heart and blood vessels, leading to stroke and heart attacks.”

Ephedra-nevadensis-cones_by_ Joe Decruyenaere

The cones of ephedra have historically been used as food by peoples around the globe where ephedra occurs.

Note: the information in this article is for your reference, and is not intended to be used as a substitute for qualified medical attention.

Jacqueline Soule has a number of lectures on native herbs this spring at various Pima County Public Library locations.  Ask at your local library or check the events listing on the library website (http://www.library.pima.gov/calendar/).  As well as writing and speaking about plants, Jacqueline works as a garden coach – making house calls to help you with your plants or landscape design. More information at http://www.gardeningwithsoule.com/

Post Script. (P.S.):  for the stamp-lovers out there, here is ephedra celebrated on a stamp from Moldavia.  ephedra_Stamp_of_Moldova

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Wondrous Weeds!

Tia Marta here to share ideas about our new neighbors—the weedy greens popping up all around us.  With those fall rains we had here in the low desert, there is a bloomin’ haze of green on the desert floor– not what you’d call a florid show—but wait—what is happening where November’s mud-puddles were collecting?  That may be real food lurking in your own backyard!  Now is prime time to take advantage of spontaneous tender mercies and phytonutrients.  Interesting tastes await us, to spice up our salads and bedeck our burritos.

"Wild arugula” or London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) provides zesty greens, flower garnish, and later, mustard seeds when mature. (MABurgess photo)

“Wild arugula” or London rocket (Sisymbrium irio) provides zesty greens, flower garnish, and later, mustard seeds when mature. (MABurgess photo)

London rocket (read “wild arugula”) is everywhere, its greenery literally growing before our eyes in every low swale, rocky hillside, every ditch where water has run.  Sisymbrium irio is an introduced weed which we can enjoy with impunity—the more we eat of them the more we are removing competition for our beloved native plants.  So harvest away!  (A good rule of thumb is to collect at least 50’ from a road.  No need to ingest road dust and pollutants when there is so much to be found in friendly yards or out in the des.)

Prepare for a picante treat, sometimes a picante bite, from these wild mustards.  Toss a few wild arugula leaves with baby greens, or in a BLT to liven it up.  Try them steamed with your favorite garden greens or added to stir-fry.

Hot February weather is telling our wild mustards, “Summer’s coming.  Better go ahead and bloom fast!”  Already we see tiny 4-petaled yellow flowers rising from the rosettes of deeply lobed leaves.  Small erect spikelets of seedpods (called siliques) stand out from the central stem.  Whole flower heads with seedpods are edible, and zingingly picante.  Sooner than we think, seedheads will mature and you can harvest their tiny mustard seeds for dressings or salad sprinkles.

This year, if you spy Lesquerella gordoni (bladderpod), it will stand out like little yellow stars on the bare ground. (MABurgess photo)

This year, if you spy Lesquerella gordoni (bladderpod), it will stand out like little yellow stars on the bare ground. (MABurgess photo)

In some wet winters, a different native mustard known as bladderpod has made carpets of lemon-yellow flowers on the desert floor.  No such show this year.  Should you find a patch of blooming bladderpod, try a taste of its petals.  Their nice nip will add vivid color, nutrition, and excitement to any salad, garni, or burrito topping.

Better known as tumbleweed, Russian thistle (Salsola kali) is best harvested in this tender stage—and every rancher will thank you for your service! (MABurgess photo)

Better known as tumbleweed, Russian thistle (Salsola kali) is best harvested in this tender stage—and every rancher will thank you for your service! (MABurgess photo)

The most ubiquitous of weeds is the introduced Russian thistle which no one seems to notice until it dries, dislodges, tumbles across the road on a crosswind, and stacks up next to a fence or obstacle.  So now, while it is in its infancy, go out to that windbreak and find its progeny!  Have no compunction about snipping it at ground level while it is only inches high, young, and tender—before sharp stems develop making it unpalatable to humanoids.  You will be amazed at what it adds, snipped in short pieces fresh in a salad, steamed with butter and pepper, or stir-fried with other veggies.

Our many species of saltbush (Atriplex spp.) are tender and ready for picking in late winter into spring. (MABurgess photo)

Our many species of saltbush (Atriplex spp.) are tender and ready for picking in late winter into spring. (MABurgess photo)

Find saltbush's gray greenery along the Santa Cruz floodplain--or plant it in your yard for wildlife habitat. (MABurgess photo)

Find saltbush’s gray greenery along the Santa Cruz floodplain–or plant it in your yard for wildlife habitat. (MABurgess photo)

Now is saltbush’s time to shine—in landscaping and in cuisine.  Here in Baja Arizona there are many species of Atriplex, and all are edible.  These tough shrubs are desert survivors for sure.  They tend to grow in “waste places” where hardly any other plants can make it.  The name saltbush indicates its habitat, where soil is salty,heavy, or full of caliche.  Quail and other creatures find refuge and forage in the dense shrubs.  If you want to attract birds into your yard, go to Desert Survivors Nursery, Tucson, and buy any saltbush to plant—then stand back.  We humans can join in the saltbush foraging guiltlessly, as saltbush is plentiful and our harvesting may even stimulate re- growth.

Nearly every Native nation in the Southwest has a tradition of using saltbush in multiple ways.   When its stiff salty leaves are youthful they can be picked for cooking with other greens, the style of traditional Akimel O’odham, the River Pima.  My Tohono O’odham teacher Juanita would steam saltbush with cholla buds, and told me how “the old people would roast their cholla buds in layered beds of ontk i:wagi [salt spinach].”  Hopi cooks make a kind of baking powder out of pulverized saltbush foliage.

Try young saltbush leaves cooked with heirloom cannelini beans or cranberry beans—for a flavorful variation on beans-and-greens.  You’ll find that the salts which the plants have sequestered from the soil will add a delicious desert flavoring.  Move over, Hawaiian sea-salt!  (After saltbushes have flowered, we will “talk seeds”—stay tuned….)

NativeSeeds/SEARCH (www.nativeseeds.org) and Mission Garden (www.tucsonsbirthplace.org) carry seed of a domestic relative of saltbush called “orache” which provides a purple-leafed “green” for a winter veggie garden.

Did you ever contemplate cheeseweed thru the day? (Are you kidding?) Its palmate leaf is a sun-tracker!  I discovered these young Malva neglecta in late afternoon with each leaf bent westerly, cupped, facing the setting sun.(MABurgess photo)

Did you ever contemplate cheeseweed thru the day? (Are you kidding?) Its palmate leaf is a sun-tracker! I discovered these young Malva neglecta in late afternoon with each leaf bent westerly, cupped, facing the setting sun.(MABurgess photo)

Ah, cheeseweed—the “scourge” of gardeners, when it gets established.  Malva or cheeseweed, so called for its cheese-wheel shaped seed pod, is another one of those introduced weeds which tend to follow humans.  Only harvestable when young– get it while you can.  You’ll find it in disturbed flat areas where stock or off-roaders have churned up the natural soil, along fencelines or untended sidewalk margins.  Beware, cheeseweed seems to be sought-after by wandering dogs as a “marker plant” so wash your harvest well.

New Malva foliage can make a nutritious addition to steamed collards, kale, acelgas, or turnip tops; or stir-fried with peppers, onion, and slices of winter squash.  If you want to explore Malva’s medicinal qualities, try the foliage steeped as a tea for soothing tender digestive tract tissue or urinary tract.  It makes a healing topical poultice as well.

Life-giving weeds are all around us, especially now with their ju-ju rising.  Really no one need be hungry here.  We’d all be healthier if we were eating more of these spontaneous gifts brought by Nature and human mobility.  My respect for weeds and knowledge of their goodness outweighs my frustration as I pull them from my garden.  Here’s wishing you happy weed harvesting, a new way of enjoying the pulses of life in the desert!

If you are lucky enough to locate Carolyn Niethammer’s book Tumbleweed Gourmet, Univ. of AZ Press, 1987, grab it!  Find more info about traditional uses of saltbush in Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert by Wendy Hodgson, Univ. of AZ Press, 2001.  Find medicinal uses of Malva neglecta in Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Mus. of NewMexico Press, 1989.  Mission Garden is open on Saturday afternoons for guided tours, and NativeSeeds/SEARCH store at 3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, is open daily 10am-5pm.

Visit me, Tia Marta, for more weedy ideas and heirloom beans galore at the Flor de Mayo booth, St Phillips Farmers Market on Sundays 9am-1pm. (www.flordemayoarts.com).

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Cracks and Creation: “How the Light Gets In” Tea Eggs

Cracks and Creation: “How the Light Gets In Tea Eggs”

Tia Linda:   Spring seems to be arriving early in the desert, again, this year and egg laying is increasing significantly among my birds.  It is less a function of temperature than it is the increase in light to the pituitary glad that increases egg laying. And my hens are broody,  feeling strongly the impulse to sit upon and incubate eggs.  Broodiness is a trait to be cherished in your birds. This is a great time of year (here in the Southwest) for the poultry aficionado to begin preparing for a new batch of chicks. In fact, it is not too early to have a eggs under a hen or in your incubator already.

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For me, eggs have properties that go beyond being beautiful and nutritious.  I feel more whole when I am collecting eggs; more in touch with Cycles.  Aesthetically, they arrive in surprising varieties of oval shapes, sizes and colors. Nutritionally, they are chock full of minerals, are good for eyesight, and are a great source of (affordable) protein.  In Michael Pollan’s book COOKED, he cites research from 2011, that states “ninety percent of a cooked egg is digested, where as only 65 percent of a raw egg” (Page 61n).   Whether or not you are raising chicks, today’s recipe is a fun way to cook your eggs to get the most nutrition – and beauty-  out of them.

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But, before we get to the recipe.

Many cultures across time and space celebrate the egg.  A few (painfully truncated) myths that include the egg show this.

*** The Universe began as an egg and a god (Pangu) born inside the egg broke the egg in two halves – the upper becoming the sky while the lower half became the earth. (Chinese).    ***The concept of the universe as an Egg-shaped Cosmos, arose in Vedic thought. And so in Sanskrit, the term for it is Brahmanda.  “Brahm” meaning ‘Cosmos’ or ‘expanding’ and “Anda” meaning EGG.  In one version, the Golden Womb/Golden Fetus of the universe floated around in emptiness for a time, and them broke in two halves, forming heaven and earth. (Vedic). *** Another myth from Europe reveals the world being created from fragments of an egg laid by a diving duck perched on the knee of Ilmatar, a goddess of the air. (Finnish)

I sense a theme arising here.  Cracks.  And Creation.     They seem to have something to do with one another.

Whether or not your believe myths to be literal or metaphorical, an explanation of mystery or a reflection of the human psyche, is yours to decide. Regardless, we can act as creators within our own pots and kitchens, and enjoy where the cracks take us.  In our lives, “the cracks” are often involuntary and unasked for.  Often, it is only later that we realize that it is these very cracks that allow some needed shift or change to occur.

With this recipe we can actively crack some shells.  Let in some flavor.  Some color. Create some beauty, all while being nourished.

The Recipe:

Put 8-10 eggs in a pot and begin to hard boil them.

While you are doing this, begin making a tea/spice bath for the eggs to go into after boiling. I use a handful of whatever tea I particularly like at the moment (or 3-4 teabags if you prefer). Lately I have been using black tea, but have also experimented with oolong and green teas. Experimentation is the key, and you, being the creator, can shift and change your recipe as you like. To the tea, I add about three tablespoons of Chinese Five Spice.  This is the basic recipe.

To this basic recipe you can add, fresh ginger (chopped) and/or some chile (I use chiltepin).  Whatever spices that want to play on our tongue are the ones to use. Remember you are the creator, and the choice of spices and how you use, is completely up to you.

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When the eggs are just boiled, cool them enough to handle them, and crack the shells.      (above)

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The tea and spice mixture, dry.

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Place the tea and spice mixture in another pot, and add enough water to just cover the cracked eggs.

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Simmer the eggs in the spice bath, for a good half an hour. Then turn off the heat, and let them sit for at least another hour. Do not rush this; steeping-time is needed to really absorb the flavor and color. Check the eggs while still in the bath; the membrane right under the shell will have a deeper color than that on the egg itself. (above)

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Peel and enjoy both their beauty and flavor.  I included this photo to inspire you, as well as to show that if you peel off chunks of the shell you can create darker patterns (and deeper flavor), as in the egg top left.

These also make a great egg salad, as they impart a great flavor.

If you do not eat them all right away, store the eggs in a glass jar, in the tea bath water (strain out the spices/tea), in the refrigerator.

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