Monday, September 29, 2014

Butternut Harvesting

Butternut tree in late September.  The nuts
have been falling for about 2 weeks
We are fortunate to have a mature Butternut, Juglans cinerea, growing close to our house.  It casts a pleasant amount of shade, not too dense.  Like its close relative the black walnut, Juglans nigra, it does produce juglone, a substance that inhibits the growth of many plants.  Growing alone in a lawn, this has not been a problem with ours.  Our tree does have a moderate case of Butternut Canker or Butternut Decline.  We had the affected branches removed this past spring and this year it looks a lot better.  Long term I expect the disease to continue.

Despite this ailment, out tree does produce quite a few nuts.  This is supported by the large number of seedlings within a hundred feet of the parent.  Normally there are just a few nuts on the ground, but this year there are hundreds of them.  I had been told that the squirrels would swoop in and carry them away, but so far I haven't seen many of them.  Rather than just tripping over these nuts on the lawn I decided to give harvesting them a shot.

Butternuts fresh off the tree are covered with a bright green, sticky husk.  As they age the husk shrinks and becomes darker. The best nuts for harvesting those that have fallen recently.  One site recommended only using nuts freshly shaken off the tree.  My tree is pretty firm and its limbed up quite high, so I just opted for the greenest ones off the ground.

Butternuts are oblong, kind of like a football or rugby ball.  Walnuts are nearly round.

This butternut has been on the ground for a few days.
The husk is stuck more tightly to the shell.

I didn't harvest any of these dark nuts.  There is a greater probability that they may be starting to rot and they are definitely harder to peel. You can check nut quality ahead of time by putting them in a bucket of water.  Those that sink are good, but floaters have voids in them and should be discarded.

Here a relatively fresh, green nut ready for peeling/dehusking.
I found that the serrated edge on my favorite soil knife was very effective at dehusking the butternuts.  Before getting started I put on older clothes and a sturdy pair of gloves.  The husks contain substances that leave dark brown to black stains.  After being exposed to air they get darker.  I didn't want to get any of the juice on me or any of my pavement.

Here's the first cut through the husk.
The green husk is about 3/16" thick and juicy.
The first thing I did was make four cuts lengthwise through the husk with the serrated blade of the knife.

The freshly exposed shell is light brown,
but it darkens quickly when exposed.
Next, I put the blade in one of the slices and twisted the blade causing a chunk of the husk to pop off.  With this opening, I could press the edge of the blade against the cut edge of the husk and the rest of that section of husk peeled off.
Here's a freshly peeled nut with all the pieces of the green husk.

I repeated that for the remaining four segments.  After the first dozen, I could dehusk a nut in less than a minute.  Still, this is not how I would like to spend an afternoon.  A corn sheller can make the job easier.

After 3 minutes the moist interior of the husks had turned black.
This stain can be difficult to remove from surfaces and clothing.

Once peeled the husked nuts get washed with a jet of water then air dried.  Currently I am air curing the nuts in their shells for for about two weeks.  It is recommended to store them in the dark at about 60 F and 70% humidity.  This curing step is supposed to develop a better flavor.

The next step will to take the nuts out of their shells.  One site says to soak them in warm water for a day before cracking the shells.  I did a quick deshelling test with my 3# steel mallet.  A few taps broke the shell nicely.  The nut meat had a greenish cast and tasted a little raw, but there was a richness to it that I hope will dominate when the curing process is complete.

Once shelled the nutmeats can be stored in the refrigerator for a few few months, or longer in the freezer.  I'm not sure how best to use the nuts: raw, boiled or roasted, all three?  I should have a verdict on this process in a couple of weeks.  Being a newbee at this I would really appreciate any comments from more experienced gatherers out there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Visit to Coastal Maine Botanic Garden

My first visit in to the Coastal Maine Botanic Gardens was in 2008, one year after opening.  There was lots of construction going on then.  Even so the gardens were very enjoyable to see.  Now that major construction is done and the plants are more established, I would say that the gardens are spectacular!  

This view over the Learner Garden of the Five Senses captures the care
that is taken in both the design and maintenance practices at the CMBG.

This bed of late-flowering Sneezeweed looked just like in the catalogs.

While the gardens do not consist entirely of native or indigenous species, these species do make up a major component of the plantings.  One of the goals of this garden is to show the people of this area what they can grow successfully in this northern climate.  

Considering this latest visit was in the second week of September, I was pleased to see so many of the plants were in full bloom, proving that Maine does not shut down after Labor Day.  Also while walking around the gardens I saw several staff members hard at work caring for the plants.  The results were clearly seen in how clean the beds were and how healthy the plantings looked.
These red and yellow flowers of  Blood Flower, a South American species of milkweed, really pop.
The North American butterflyweed (A. tuberosa) has similar form but is all orange.
One of the first plants I saw at the garden was Asclepias curassavica, Blood Flower, a South American native perennial, but grown as an annual in the US.  There is a Monarch Butterfly Waystation at the garden, so there are a preponderance of milkweeds, as well as other pollinator friendly plants.  An area for collecting and protecting Monarch chrysalis' is located in the Children's Garden.
Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed at CMBG.
Tussock Moth caterpillar on a Swamp Milkweed, A. incarnata, in Maryland.
I'll admit I was jealous.  Back home in Maryland we've seen only one Monarch Butterfly so far this year.  And the only caterpillars on my milkweeds have been for the native Tussock Moth.  

The Children's garden contains many fun plants, bright colors and activities for kids.  Adults can also appreciate the playful nature of the planting themes in this area.

I've been looking at some classic labyrinths, but this pattern looks a lot more fun!
Not everything in the Children's Garden is a plant.
This is a play on a bedding planting.
One of the intensely designed gardens there is the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, which was completed in 2009.  It has areas with plants that appeal to each of the five senses:  Taste (mostly culinary species), Scent, Touch (textured plants and hardscape), Sight and Sound (water features, croaking frogs and air movement through the plants). The design allows for maximum accessibility for disabled.  A detailed description of this garden has been posted on-line by Gregory Harris

These planted walls in the 'Taste' section make the plants more accessible for visitors to reach.
Cardinal Flower and Joe Pye Weed were two of the dominant species in the garden.

The Kitchen Garden was one of the first designed areas completed.  It demonstrates creative ways to grow edible plants.  Particularly using natural materials for trellising and mixing flowers for pollinators with food plants to get both an improved visual experience and better results with beneficial insects.

Zinnias and Purpletop Vervain are two of the flowering components of this edible garden.
The Greek Columnar Basil in the middle of this bed adds a strong structural feature.

While I have not explored many of the natural trails at CMBG, I did make it down to the water to get some beautiful views of Back River that abuts the property.

There are many beautiful, less intensely managed areas.  This view of Back River is from the Vayo Meditation Garden.   
If you are visiting Downeast Maine/Booth Bay, I recommend you spend a few hours at these gardens and you will see just how much and how well plants can be grown in northern New England.