Tree Tobacco as a Stinging Nettle Cure

Tree tobacco or Nicotiana glauca. Image from Wikipedia.

Yesterday’s Solanum nigrum (Black Nightshade) post reminded me of a fascinating tidbit about another plant from the nightshade family that I learned from foraging expert Pascal Baudar: the leaves of tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) ease stinging nettle rash. We were out gathering nettles with Pascal, so the lesson was much appreciated–and field tested. All you have to do is rub a Solanum nigrum leaf on the sting–make sure some of the leaf juice gets on there– and the sting goes away. So if you plan to harvest nettles, I’d recommend you keep a tree tobacco leaf in your pocket.

The classic herbal antidote to nettle stings is Jewelweed, but I don’t believe it grows in the southwest–at least I’ve never seen it. Tree tobacco is a good substitute for folks in our region

Native Americans smoked Nicotiana glauca and used it as a topical medicine. It is poisonous if taken internally.

A late note from Kelly, who is out of town and so didn’t get to consult on this post before it went up: 

As Erik says here, Nicotiana glauca totally works for nettle stings–I highly recommend it– but I have some contradicting information regarding Native American usage.

I took a herbology class with the late Cecilia Garcia, who was a Chumash medicine woman, and she told us that Indians used this plant as an appetite suppressant during hard times. The adults would drink tea made of its leaves so they could give what food they had to the children. This sad story always gives me chills when I think of it.

That said, I would never drink it myself! There are safer appetite suppressants out there. The toxicology report Erik links to seems to indicate that the fatalities occurred in people who mistook it for an edible green and ate a lot of it.

As always…toxicity is related to dosage!

Also, I wouldn’t smoke it. If you want to smoke natural tobacco, it would be safer and probably better tasting to grow an interesting old strain of heirloom smoking tobacco. Native American smoking blends tend to be mixes of many plants, so I’d be wary of a 100% glauca cigarette. Again…dosage!

Clicker Training Chickens

Our new pullets aren’t as used to being handled as were our last flock of hens. And because they don’t come when called, they can’t leave the chicken run to wander the yard.

So I’m working on training them. I know I could do more, but for now all I’m doing is taking special treats to them once a day and feeding them while making my chicken call (cheeck-cheeck-cheeck). They’re beginning to associate me and the call with treats. This doesn’t mean they trust me yet, but at least they have started making greeting noises when they see me. I hunker down in the run with the treats and hold very still. I put the treats close to me and make them come near to get them. The boldest one will sometimes take a treat from my hand.

This may work eventually. Or I could step up my game. Do you know that chickens can be clicker trained? My dog trainer friend tells me that in dog training seminars, trainers are often taught clicker training (a form of positive reinforcement) with chickens instead of dogs. This is because chickens are 100% food motivated and learn fast. Also, using hens takes away the potential mind games that occur between dog and trainer. Free of that distraction, the trainer learns the correct rhythm for training. It’s pure stimulus-response–reward.

Here’s a video of a chick learning the basics. You can find others of this sort on Youtube:

You might be able to find a chicken training seminar in your area, probably under the banner of dog training. With the rise of urban chicken-pets I think there is opportunity to be had in offering classes for would be chicken trainers. Googling around, I found this one in Lake Oswego, Oregon which is booked months in advance.

Have you trained your chickens to do anything?

Scrambled Eggs, Tomatoes and Bulgar

I believe we’ve mentioned Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East by Arto Der Haroutunian here before. Given our obsession with our local Armenian supermarket it’s a must-have reference in our house. Lately we’re overwhelmed by eggs. I went to this book looking for something new to do with eggs and whatever basic ingredients I had in the pantry. I tried this recipe and liked it very much. It’s not pretty. It’s quick and tasty comfort food. I think it will be going on regular rotation.

The description says it was served in taverns throughout Turkey and Armenia early this century. I like to imagine sitting in a shadowy cool tavern eating this with fresh flat bread and drinking a cool beer.

It’s basically a simple scramble made substantial with bulgar wheat (aka burghul). See notes below for more on this ingredient.

Havgtov Tzavar (burghul with eggs)

1 onion, finely chopped
About 1 pound of tomatoes, either canned or fresh ones which have been blanched, peeled and chopped
4 ounces of fine bulgar wheat (the package may read #1/fine) (aka burghul)*
6 eggs
Spring/green onions for garnish, chopped
oil and/or butter for frying
salt, pepper, chili pepper

Two frying pans, one with a lid

***

Start by frying the onion in oil until soft. Then add the tomatoes and salt to taste. Simmer for about ten minutes, stirring occassionally, until the mixture thickens some.

Meanwhile put the bulgar in a bowl and rinse it with water until the water runs clear.  When the tomatoes and onions have had their 10 minutes in the pan, add the bulgar and stir it in well. Then put  a lid on the pan and set it aside for 10 minutes or so. (This is all the cooking the bulgar needs.)

Go to your other pan and scramble the eggs– be sure to add salt, pepper and a little chili pepper or powder for heat, if you want.

Cook the eggs until they’re just set, then dump them into the pan with the the tomato mix and toss.

Transfer to the serving dish immediately, garnishing with the green onions. Enjoy

*Regarding bulgar wheat aka burghul: This is whole wheat which has been parboiled, dried and ground. You may be most familiar with bulgar as the grain found in tabbouleh salad. Look for it in health food stores and Middle Eastern grocery stores or in the specialty aisles of some supermarkets. In the U.S. (and maybe elsewhere) it is sold in 4 different grinds, #1 being the finest and #4 the coarsest. These numbers are on the packaging. This recipe calls for the fine grind, which almost looks like Cream of Wheat, but is not quite that fine.

**Regarding substitutions:  I know there will be substitution questions, because there always are. Fine bulgar is really fine and creates a very specific texture, so I don’t know of any direct substitution. Couscous is the closest, but not quite the same. So while I’d say you can’t recreate this recipe exact to spirit without fine bulgar, I will also say that scrambled eggs tossed with pre-cooked grains of different sorts can be quite good–even if they are not Havgtov Tzavar. Try using cooked leftover rice, for instance, and see what happens. I also like the old Italian trick of scrambling eggs with leftover pasta (and leftover sauce if you’ve got it), which is something different altogether, but quite good.

News from the Kat Kingdom at Root Simple

Meet Buck.

Warning: Shameless, meandering cat narrative ahead. If you don’t like cats, all you can do at this point is turn away and sigh.

The big news here is that we’ve been suckered into taking another kitten–but there will be no more! We will not turn into crazy cat collectors. As it is, keeping three cats in this tiny house is ridiculous. They’re always everywhere, always staring at you, or tripping you, or sitting where you want to sit. We’d sworn only to have two cats, but two factors intervened. One is our neighbor Anne. The other is the shadow of the Grim Reaper.

Factor 1: Anne is a dangerous neighbor because she almost always has a kitten (or other needful creature) on hand, and can be quite ruthless in her drive to find them homes. The story behind this particular kitten is that a neighbor girl came to Anne and led her to a tiny kitten laying cold and dehydrated in a driveway, somehow separated from its litter. Anne said he was so far gone as to be stiff, and she thought he was a goner, but given some milk and warmth he rose up like Lazarus himself. (Or as Lazarus would be, had Lazarus been blessed with four white paws a perky little tail.) I saw him that same day and fed him a bottle. Anne is very good at tricking one into getting emotionally involved with the foundlings–this is how she got us to take the other two.  And to cut a long story short, that is how she got us to take this one.

Factor 1-B: I should mention that the kitten was a dead ringer for Trout at that age. I think they share genetics, as they come from the same street. It was very hard to reject a mini-Trout.

Factor 2: Phoebe seems happy and well enough right now (I don’t think you’d guess she was sick if you saw her), but medically speaking she is in decline. She has officially commenced heart failure, which means her lifespan is now measured in months. In fact, at a recent visit to the vet we found out she has not one but two distinct heart diseases, and the newly identified one is very rare in young cats. The vet is fascinated by her case. But it doesn’t change her outcome much, just makes it all the more inevitable.

Obviously she doesn’t have a lot of energy, but Trout does. The resulting dynamic between the two of them had become slightly worrisome. She could play with him for a bit, but then needed to rest. Trout didn’t understand that and would regularly disturb her naps by pouncing on her. She is pretty good about holding boundaries, and Trout is not too much of a jerk, but nonetheless when this kitten offer came around we realized a kitten would be an excellent distraction for Trout.

So yes, we basically we adopted this kitten as a toy for Trout– a toy that looks just like him. For some reason this reminds me of little girls with their American Girl dolls, dressed in identical outfits, playing in a solipsistic world. But anyway, it’s worked out well.

Of course we were worried about the “what ifs”  -  What if Trout and the kitten didn’t get along? What if the kitten beat up on Phoebe? But we trusted what we knew about all of them to believe it would all be fine.

The transition went like this: We threw them all together, but watched them. Trout was thrilled and stalked the kitten for the first day. The kitten was less than thrilled and bristled and yowled at Trout, and Trout would back off.  On the second day, someone threw a magic switch and all of a sudden the kitten and Trout were chasing, then they were wrestling, then they were spitting on their paws and promising to be blood brothers for ever and ever.

Phoebe, on the other hand, was horrified by the new arrival. She clutched her pearls and hissed and wouldn’t be in the same room as the kitten. But she would avidly watch him around corners. And after two days of sputtering indignation she got bored and came out to observe the kitten from high spots. After four days she and the kitten were playing chase games. At the end of the week all three cats were sleeping on our bed. We decided we would definitely keep him.

We named the kitten Buck. He’s bold and affectionate and eats like an alligator and though he is currently Trout’s toy, will likely rule the house very soon.

The two boys play and snuggle together as Phoebe and Trout never have. Phoebe is dignified and standoffish, whereas Trout is a goofball. In Buck he’s met his match. As a pair they generate cuteness levels that can actually make you lightheaded. They play all day, every day, and then sleep together in adorable postures. We spend far too much time watching those cats with glazed, stupid looks on our faces. Household productivity is way, way down.

Meanwhile, like us, Phoebe seems genuinely entertained by watching the boys. If Buck is Trout’s toy, the two of them together are Phoebe’s television set. She gets to sleep unmolested, and when it suits her, she plays with both of them. So all is well.

Phoebe kindly attends to our filing, to make up for lost household productivity

A Mason Jar Camping Lantern

Okay, so this isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity (or craftsmanship!) but its easy and it works. I use this little jar and ones like it when we car camp. Barring high winds or rain, the tea light never goes out. The handle allows you to carry it around or hang it. Headlamps are all very convenient, but little candles make a campsite feel like home. And yep, it works well in the backyard too.

 There’s nothing to it, but just in case the picture makes it look more complicated than it is, all I do is wrap a piece of scrap wire around the mouth of the jar, twisting it closed. The ridges at the top of the jar hold it in place. Then I make a handle by twisting a second piece of wire around the first.

Healing the yard with a huge compost pile

The new compost pile is covered with a tarp to keep moisture in. Eventually it will fill this whole space. In the background you can see our leftover adobe bricks.



So–our regular readers will know that we have high levels of lead in our back yard soil. We’re dealing with this by filling most of our yard with mulch and perennial natives to lock down the soil (lead laden dust is bad) and to diversify the local ecosystem.

Meanwhile, our vegetables must be grown in raised beds from now out. We used to have two main vegetable beds in the center of our back yard–they were our workhorses. Since the lead scare we’ve pulled up those beds. They were semi-sunken beds, the soil in them a mix of native soil, compost and imported soil.

When you have contaminated soil yet want to grow food, the easiest solution is to build extra deep raised beds and fill them with imported soil (soil which has, hopefully, been tested for lead!). Some people put plastic sheeting or rock barriers between the imported soil or native soil, which in effect makes the beds into giant containers.

We did something a little different–and a lot harder. We dug out a huge pit where our beds used to be. When I say “we,” I mean Erik dug a huge pit. (Somehow I weaseled out of this project.) This excavation had two purposes: 1) to remove the topsoil, where most of the lead (lead being an airborne pollutant) is located and 2) to harvest the clay beneath to use in our earth oven. Between the clay harvested for making the adobe bricks and cob, and the supplemental clay that we’ve put aside for future repairs and maintenance on the oven, the pit has grown to be about 12 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

This pit is going to be our new planting area, but obviously it needs to be filled in. Instead of buying imported soil, we’re going to grow soil by composting on a grand scale. We’re going to compost right in the pit and fill it up bit by bit. When it’s done, we’ll have a big round area where it will probably be safe enough to plant food crops. Might the plants suck some lead up from the deep clay layer? Maybe. We could test the deep clay. Might some lead leach in from the sides of the pit? Possibly. But this solution is good enough for us.

What drives us to this decision is our intuitive relationship with our yard. I know that sounds a little woo-woo, but I encourage you all to pay attention to what your gut tells you about your gardens. It won’t steer you wrong.

Our gut instincts told us to dig down rather than build up, and to make good use of excavated dirt in the oven. Now our instincts tell us to fill this giant hole with rich homemade compost rather than imported soil. It just seems more…holistic to grow out own soil. It will rise out of our meals, our labor, our intentions. It will belong to this place.

How long will this take? Probably about a year. Maybe more. We’re willing to wait for those future harvests because this feels right.

Don’t store your cucumbers in the fridge

Image courtesy of UC Davis. Photographer: Don Edwards

Just in time for cucumber season, some news that surprises me. Did you know that you should store cucumbers at room temperature?

Credit for my enlightenment goes to UC Davis. (May I just say bless UC Davis for all the good it does?) In this case I’m referencing their department of Post Harvest Technology. According to them, cukes should be stored at room temperature. If you do feel the need to put them in the fridge, they can tolerate up to 3 days of cold storage if they are used soon as they are removed from the refrigerator.

Seems that cucumbers are susceptible to cold injury if held more than 3 days at temperatures lower than 50F/10C. Signs of cold injury are wateriness, pitting on the outside and accelerated decay

Another factoid: Cucumbers are sensitive to ethylene gas, which is put off by some ripening fruits and vegetables. So for longest storage, don’t keep your cukes near melons, tomatoes or bananas.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are also damaged by cold, so keep these on your counter as well.  I’ve highlighted cucumbers in this post, because I think most people refrigerate them as a matter of course–I did, at least. Whereas its more common, I think, to leave tomatoes to ripen on the counter. If you want to read up on any particular fruit or veggie, see the fact sheets linked below.

UC Davis Fact Sheet on Cucumbers

Index of all their many fact sheets

“Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste” — a handy .pdf chart to print out and hang on your fridge.

Book Review: 1491

I’m way late to this party, because 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbuscame out in 2006 and was a best seller, so it’s probably not news to many of you that this is a fantastic book.

For those of you who haven’t read it, though, this is the type of book that you look up from every few minutes and say, “Listen to this!” or “Did you know…?” 

1491 is a depiction of the Americas just before and just after contact with the Europeans. The gist of it is that the peoples of the Americas were much more populous and their civilizations more advanced than we are taught in our school books.

The first part of the book deals with horrific impact of imported European diseases on the native populations. I always knew it was very bad–but I never understood the extent of the devastation. In part this is because I never understood extent of the civilizations destroyed. This section is depressing, but it’s well worth understanding.

The rest of the book covers so much ground that I don’t even know what to focus on. Warring archeologists struggling to define the past. The complex and fascinating debate over when and how the first people came to the Americas. (Nope, the old land-bridge theory doesn’t hold water anymore.) Grisly tales of the Conquistadors coupled with intriguing records made by Spanish scribes that offer us precious insights into the strange and magnificent technologies and theologies of the Inka, Maya and Aztecs. The mystery of the development of corn and it’s impact on the world. The true history of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon–it’s not what you were taught. The wonders just pile up. 

What I think back on most, though, is what is revealed through these stories about the relationship between nature and culture in pre-contact Americas. As with Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, which we’ve reviewed here before, a picture rises of very active human management of natural resources. All across the Americas there is compelling evidence of intense landscape management practices which in most cases (but not all) managed to provide for the needs of burgeoning human population without destroying the land. This is permaculture. The real deal.

There are so many lessons to be learned from these ignored histories. And what’s most interesting is that it seems we are only able to understand the skill and knowledge these lost people now, because we are only just becoming able to conceptualize more subtle relationships to nature. For instance, until we began to understand food forestry as a legitimate agricultural practice, we had no hope of recognizing an ancient Amazonian food forest when we saw one.

Lots to think about.


You can hear 1491 author Charles Mann deliver an interesting lecture, “Living in the Homogenocene: The First 500 Years” on the Long Now Foundation’s podcast.

Homemade Cat Toys

Top to bottom: Trout, palm frond, twine, acorn, plastic strip

This is advice for new cat owners coming from relatively new cat owners: don’t waste your money on cat toys. Cats are fickle, ungrateful little creatures. Novelty is more important to them than just about anything else. And I don’t mean genuine novelty–they don’t need newer and stranger toys all the time. Rather, individual toys seem to get stale for them. A fresh paper bag is thrilling, but by the end of the day it’s old news. However, if you put another paper bag down, even the exact same kind of bag, the thrills will start all over again. If you try to fulfill their whims by buying them new toys all the time, soon your pockets will be empty and you’ll be up to your neck in ignored cat toys.

The only exception to the above is a laser pointer. If you’re going to buy one toy, let it be that, though be warned that the laser is addictive for cats. Small cloth mice, especially those stuffed with catnip, have some staying power as well. Or at least they are occassionally resurrected, as nothing else is. In our experience, everything else gets totally and utterly abandoned after about 15 minutes.

These are our cats’ favorite toys. Several of which are in the photo above.

  • Cardboard boxes and paper bags. This seems hardly worth mentioning because it is universal.
  • Ditto goes for unfortunate insects.
  • Sticks or branches of (nonpoisonous) foliage I bring in from outside, e.g. palm fronds. This is very exciting for indoor cats.
  • Trout’s favorite playthings, by far, are the plastic strips that you tear off when you open zip-lock packaging. He demands they be replaced regularly, and will greet a new one with an hour or two of ecstatic solo play. When he gets tired of that, he insists that we play fetch with him by tossing these strips around. Most mornings we wake up with strips dropped upon us.
  • Meanwhile, Phoebe is quite fond of bottle caps. But one cap is good for about a half hour, then it is ignored. However, a new cap is always a thrill.
  • Acorns on hardwood floors also make for enthusiastic but loud play. But of course “fresh” acorns must be substituted for “stale” acorns on a regular basis.
  • Unauthorized objects are always their favorites. One favorite unauthorized toy for our cats is our big ball of gardening twine. Yes, yes, string is bad, they’ll choke & etc. We don’t let them play with it unsupervised, but if they get a chance, they love to tackle this ball. My yoga mat, unfortunately, is another big favorite in the unauthorized category. It looks like it’s gone through a cheese grater. Trout will also gleefully shred anything wrapped in plastic. He’s destroyed packs of toilet paper, opened bags of people food and most recently shredded a mailer holding a book.
  • Sweaty bacbpacks and messenger bags, especially those of visitors, provide hours of fascination and somewhat creepy sensual rubbing. Encourage your friends to wear their bags over in the summer. Consider opening a hostel for through-hikers.

What do your cats play with?

Three Front Yard Vegetable Gardens

I spotted some nice front yard gardens while I was out for a walk the other day. Check out these finds:

Above, these gardeners have used some scrap lumber as retaining walls to allow them some extra soil depth for planting. In this small front yard bed they’re growing beautiful kohlrabi (my new favorite vegetable), some climbing beans and a few different kinds of squash. Keeping a veggie garden doesn’t have to be either complicated or expensive. Neighborhood gardens like this are really what inspired us when we started out. They taught us to plant boldly, to plant casually, and to plant anywhere we wanted.

This yard above delighted me. It seems they’ve given up on their lawn and instead have planted an army of caged veggie seedlings in orderly rows across their front yard. Not pictured is a little strip of  established food garden at the front of the yard. It looks like they wanted more room and said, “To heck with the lawn!” I’m going to keep checking progress on this one.

In this front yard, the lawn has been replaced with drought tolerant perennial shrubs and grasses arranged around gravel paths. It’s very pretty. I like that the landscaper included some artichoke plants in the mix, proving that gardens can be edible and stylish. Many people don’t know that artichokes open into huge, striking purple flowers if you don’t harvest them for food–so it’s win/win either way.  And bees adore artichoke flowers. They roll around in the thick pollen like gangsters in cash.