Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel


Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.


Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.


Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

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Free Biodynamic Composting Seminar in LA on November 16th

Image: Plan for Opportunity in Flickr.

Image: Jennifer Cowley in Flickr.

“Get perfect results without turning, fussing or worrying in 6 months!”

A Root Simple reader has turned us on to an excellent opportunity to learn about composting from a master of the art–for free!  We’ll be there.

And here’s the details:

Learn the Secrets of BioDynamic Composting from Jack McAndrews    

Recognized as one of America’s leading experts on biodynamic organic agriculture, Jack’s biodynamic composts have been the secret behind some of the most beautiful and healthiest gardens in Hollywood and on the Westside. And now you can learn how to create this black gold in your own backyard.

Maria C. Linder, Professor of Biochemistry at CalState Fullerton says, “There are very few people in the country with [Jack’s] experience and expertise… Bio-dynamic composting is more scientifically based than most and is by far the most impressive method I have encountered. Jack has studied the process for many years, and with the best Masters in the business.” (Excerpts from:

Biodynamic compost is made with precise specifications and is a fundamental component of the biodynamic method of growing food. It recycles animal manures and organic wastes, stabilizes nitrogen, and builds soil humus to enhance soil health.

“This is recognized as the finest recipe for growing crops in the world,” claims Jack. “You don’t need any other fertilizer or pesticides. This form of agriculture is ahead of its time. It grows the best quality food known today.”

Come and be amazed at what you can grow!

The seminar will be 2 to 3 hours long, but feel free to come and stay however long you can

Grubs in your acorns? Meet Curcuio, or the Acorn Weevil

I’m pretty fascinated with acorn weevils these days, since I’m seeing a lot of them while processing my acorns. I finally looked them up, and it turns out they have a fascinating life cycle.

There are two types of acorn weevils (beetles), long snouted and short snouted, Curculio and Conotrachelus, respectively. They both plant their eggs in acorns, but the short snouted one seems to do this in cracked acorns once they are on the ground. The long snouted variety is the one that you’re going to run into acorn processing, because unless you’re drinking your bathwater for breakfast, you’re not going to be picking up cracked acorns.

The female weevil, whose snout is as long as her body (about 3/8″), digs a hole in a green, developing acorn with tiny appendenges on the end of her snout. She sucks the oily nutritious juice out of the acorn, and thus fortified, lays her eggs in the hole, and plugs the hole with her own poo. The grubs hatch in the continuous buffet which is the acorn, and snuggled up in there, snacking, until the acorn falls from the tree. By this time (as Nature is smart) they are ready to leave the acorn, and they take the fall to the ground (which must be quite a shock) as a signal to start chewing their way out of the acorn. How fast this happens depends on how thick the acorn’s shell is — anywhere from a few hours to three days.

The grubs always chew a perfectly round, 1/8″ hole. It’s just big enough for their head, and they have to squeeze and wiggle their fat, shiny acorn-stuffed body through the hole to escape. Once they fall to the forest floor, they hurry to bury themselves in the soil before something comes along and eats them. If they make it, they take a multiyear nap underground (I’ve read anywhere from 1-5 years). They don’t eat, but they somehow metamorphose into their adult beetle form. When they wake one fine summer day, they crawl out of the soil, mate soon after, and start the process all over again.

There’s some points to be taken here for the forager. The first is that just because there’s no hole in the acorn doesn’t mean that there’s not a grub in it. A hole means a grub has already emerged. It may have siblings which will also be emerging soon. Or not. Or if the acorn has been on the ground for a while, another insect may have moved in. No hole means nothing.

However, if you’re collecting fresh acorns, you’re going to know that you’ve got about a 3 day window in which you may see larvae emerge from your stash, leaving their distinctive holes behind. (You may even see individual acorns in your stash wiggling, like giant jumping beans!) This is not a problem, just something to know, for the sake of storage, or squeamish loved ones.

The acorn they emerge from may or may not be useable. You can open it and check it out–or opt not to. It will be likely to be at least 50% spoiled, in any case. It may also have more fresh grubs in it, trying to make their way out. You may well chop them in half with your knife, and feel oddly bad about the whole thing.

Gourmet Foraging and Advanced Acorn Processing


It’s acorn season in Southern California. I’ve long been interested in acorns, knowing that they were the staple food of the native people who lived here, and I’ve gathered and processed them before. However, once I have the acorn meal, I’ve never known exactly what to do with it. It’s highly nutritious, but I thought (wrongly!) that it was somewhat bland, and all I could do was incorporate acorn meal into baked goods. This weekend, however, I’ve had my eyes opened to the possibilities, thanks to Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich.

pascal and mia at a picnic table

Pascal and Mia putting out a spread: acorn sliders, acorn and tapioca pudding, red cabbage and red onion slaw with wild juniper berries, chocolate truffles infused with white sage and dusted with dehydrated raspberry powder, plum membrillo and beer hopped with yarrow. We were there to learn about acorns, but they fed us well!

Pascal and Mia are high caliber foragers and foodies.  Check out their sites, Urban Outdoor Skills and Transitional Gastronomy, and if you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ll definitely want to experience their forages and food workshops. Their Meetup groups are The Los Angeles Wild Food and Self-Reliance Group and Foraging Foodies LA.

It’s rare to find folks who combine deep food know-how with a love of wild foods. Too often wild foods are considered mere survival foods. Pascal and Mia are using them to develop a uniquely Californian cuisine. Just check out this gallery on Transitional Gastronomy to get a quick picture of what I’m talking about.

On Sunday, Erik and I attended their acorn processing workshop, where we learned some valuable tips regarding acorn processing, and were privileged to eat the finest vegetarian burgers we’ve ever tasted — sliders made with acorns.

acorn sliders

I’ve downed a lot of veggie burgers in my time, and I’ve come to think of them mostly as excuse to eat bread and condiments. I’ve never had a veggie burger good enough to eat on its own. The acorn burgers they treated us to were not just “good for veggie” but some of the tastiest food I’ve ever encountered.

It turns out that acorns have umami qualities, that savoriness that characterizes meat and mushrooms, along with a delicate sweetness. You just need to know how to bring it out.

Mia did say that acorns have unique qualities in how they hold and absorb moisture, so she’s been learning how to handle them. Like any new food, it takes a while to learn the ways of acorns, but it’s worth it.

Here’s a recipe from Mia’s Transitional Gastronomy site for acorn timbales. If you serve these on a bun, instead of in a pool of (amazing looking!) nettle veloute sauce, you will have the acorn burger I experienced this weekend.  Do be sure to note the part where she asks you to refrigerate the mix before cooking. She told us that if the mix doesn’t have time to set up, the patties will fall apart. The recipe doesn’t specify how long to chill, but I believe she said overnight. (You could also make a log of the mix and freeze it for later, like cookies.)

I’m going to forage some acorns of my own this week and see if I can replicate those sliders. In the meanwhile, after the jump  I’m going to share some processing tips that I picked up.

Let us know if any of you process acorns,  and if you have any tips or recipes!

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Book Review: The Urban Bestiary


Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human

The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.

This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.