Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

hemlock

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.

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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.

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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: http://bio-dynamic.info/).

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.

The Africanized Bee Myth

Beekeeping is on the way to being legalized in Los Angeles. But there’s one issue that keeps coming up: Africanized bees.

African honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) were introduced to the Americas in Brazil in 1957. Over the years, on their journey north, they have hybridized with European honeybees (Apis mellifera). African and hybrid “Africanized” honeybees can’t tolerate cold temperatures so there is a northern boundary to their territory.

Visually, Africanized honeybees are indistinguishable from purebred European varieties. The only way you can tell the difference is through DNA testing. They are just a hybridized subspecies of honeybee.

The hysteria over African honeybees is just that, hysteria. I have helped move many hives here from walls, trees and kitchen vents to people who have wanted to have bees. Most likely, all of the hives I have moved have been Africanized. I have yet to encounter a feral hive that I would consider aggressive. Africanized bees should not be used as an excuse to ban beekeeping in Los Angeles or anywhere else that has Africanized bee populations.

The people fanning the Africanized bee hysteria all have agendas (and, I’ll point out, they have never actually worked with Africanized bees–only killed them). Exterminators want your money. Government bureaucrats need an enemy to justify their jobs and pensions (government vector control “experts” the TSA, NSA and DEA have a lot in common including a bumbling incompetence). Conventional beekeepers are so blinded by honey production and pollination service income that they fail to see the long term evolutionary advantages of African bee genetics, specifically disease resistance. And I can’t help but think there’s a subconscious racism here of the sort that you find at the extreme end of the anti-invasive species movement (see Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn for more on that subject).

Africanized colonies have been living for years in walls, trees and utility boxes of the warmer parts of North America without any human intervention. They have, through the process of natural selection, survived all the problems that have decimated the hives of commercial beekeepers: varroa mite, American Foul Brood, nosema, etc. and I have no doubt they will figure out how to deal with the small hive beetle. Instead of demonizing Africanized colonies, we should see a possible answer to colony collapse disorder. As permaculturalists like to say, in the problem is a solution.