Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Let's Drink to Apples!

My husband and I have taken many, many evening walks down our road over the years. As far as country roads go in these parts, this one provides some interesting scenery. There are the neighbors that have an assortment of animals, a cemetery that has many familiar names, and we cross two creeks lined with wildflowers.

Many years ago, we also noticed a mature apple tree growing in the deeper ditch on the west side of the road about three-quarters of a mile south of our house. I've always been curious as to how it got there, knowing that there are random apple trees planted by Johnny Appleseed in our general area.

Logic tells me that while it's fun to fantasize, that tree more than likely grew from an apple that got tossed out the car window after someone long ago enjoyed it as a snack. And if that was the case, then it's highly unlikely that Johnny Appleseed had anything to do with planting it.

John Chapman planted several apple orchards as he traveled these parts, but the trees he planted didn't produce eating apples. Apples eaten for their fruit didn't become popular until the last century. Until that time, apples were almost exclusively used for cider.

This is because apples don't come true to seed and though they grow readily this way, the resulting fruit is almost always very, very sour. Henry David Thoreau described the taste of apple fruit as sour enough "to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream." So how do we get those deliciously sweet varieties such as 'Honeycrisp', 'Gala' and 'Jazz'?

Just like other new cultivars are created by crossing two varieties with the desired traits, so it is with apples, but because of their extreme variability, once a favorable result has been found, propagation is done by budding or grafting.

I personally learned about apple genetics by reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan as well as watching the PBS series by the same name. It never occurred to me that the apple wasn't commonly eaten until our not-so-distant past.

Like so many heirlooms, the apple varieties have dwindled to just a fraction of what used to be grown years ago. Back when they were open-pollinated, there were no less than 7500 different varieties of apples. Cultivated varieties for commercial use have basically created a relative monoculture, but apple enthusiasts are growing some of the older heirlooms in greater numbers.

The U.S. is number two in the world's apple production (China is number one), but apples aren't native to our country. They originated in what is now Kazakhstan and were brought to the U.S. by the Puritans. 'Red Delicious' currently leads all varieties in production.

I've not tasted the apples growing on the tree in that nearby ditch, mainly because there's a huge swath of poison ivy in the way of being able to reach the tree. But my curiosity may get the better of me and I might just have to figure out a way to pick that apple. I feel a bit like Eve...

Previously published as "Let's Drink to Apples!" by Kylee Baumle in the Paulding Progress newspaper in October 2013.  Reprinted and modified here with permission.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: You Might Be a Gardener If ...

...this happens.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Foraging For Fungus

If ever there was a good year for mushroom hunting, this is it. We've had plenty of rain all summer long into fall, and I've never seen so much fungus growing here, there, and everywhere as I have this year. Fairy rings abound.

I've always been overly cautious about wild mushrooms because I have a great fear of eating the wrong kind. I just don't know enough about them to say for certain what's edible and what isn't. But I *think* we've got plenty of the good kind just a few yards from our back door.

First, it was the puffballs (Calvatia sp.)...

A couple of weeks ago, we were cleaning up the garden over in the neighbor's yard where we grow our sweet corn and noticed a nice round fungus growing that was about the size of a softball. There was a golf ball sized one next to it.

I broke it from its base and was amazed at the heft it had for something of its size. 

I then broke it apart and saw that it was white and very dense all the way through. Puffball came to mind because of its shape so I googled it, and I'm 99% sure that's what it was. But that 1% kept me from frying it up.

Then today, we noticed that the "brains" that grow every fall at the base of one of our large oak trees were growing again this year. There were two and the largest one was the biggest we've ever seen, measuring about 15" across. The smaller one was the size we usually see. There's a third one starting on the other side of the tree too.

"Hen of the woods," with chickweed growing around it on the right! Ha!

Until now, I'd never bothered to search for information on this particular fungus. I was surprised to learn that it's Grifola frondosa, otherwise known as "hen of the woods." And guess what? This one's edible too. The Japanese call it maitake and it's supposed to have the texture and taste of chicken breast, my favorite part of the chicken. 

Grifola frondosa

I think it's starting to dry out in this section.

Maitake is normally found growing at the base of oak trees, and is a parasitic fungus that feeds on the roots of the tree. It's a beneficial parasite, wanting its host to live so that it can continue to glean nutrients for its own benefit. The fungus can usually be found year after year for as many as 10 years, but in most cases the tree eventually dies, perhaps due to a combination of the prolonged parasitic action and environmental stresses such as drought or high winds. 

Grifola frondosa

Our tree where this is found has so far been just fine, although it has been damaged over the years from lightning strikes. Many years ago it took a particularly hard hit and the evidence can be seen on the southeast side of the tree in the form of a large longitudinal ridge running all the way up the side of the tree from the ground up. It's a very large tree, estimated to be close to 200 years old.

For the first time in a long time, there is no "chicken of the woods" (Laetiporus sulphureus) growing on the large oak tree on the other side of the yard this fall. We always anticipate its appearance each year, if for no other reason than to marvel at its otherworldly mustard yellow color. It always reminds me of that foam insulation that comes in an aerosol can.  It too is edible, but no, we've never tried it.

"Chicken of the woods" (Laetiporus sulphureus), growing about six feet up,
on the trunk of one of our large oak trees.

What all this means is that we've apparently got some really good eating going to waste in our yard. If I was absolutely, positively, undeniably positive that these wouldn't poison me, I'd be frying them up in a heartbeat. I love mushrooms and so does Romie, even though he's been advised not to eat them because of his various environmental allergies.

What do you think? Are we letting a good thing go to waste or are we being wise in our caution?

blogger templates | Make Money Online