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The Milkweed — Dogbane Dilemma

‘Herb Teacher Poisons Students,’ I can see the headlines now,” she said with exasperation in her voice, as she gestured at the newly sprouted green plants in front of us. ” You tell me one of these plants here is poisonous and the other is edible and nutritious. Here they are growing right beside each other. I’m an herbalist and I can’t tell them apart! How am I supposed to teach my students if I can’t even figure them out? “

It was mid-May at an herb conference in Massachusetts. A group of us were on an herb walk and we were exploring an open field where we found young shoots of dogbane, Apocynum cannabinum, growing intermixed with common milkweed, Aesclepias syriaca.

The two thinner stalks on the left are poisonous dogbane and the one on the right is milkweed.

Milkweed shoots at this time of the year are edible and delicious as a cooked green vegetable or pot herb. They can be cooked by dropping the fresh picked shoots in a pot of boiling water and simmer them for 20-30 minutes, until tender. I’ve eaten many a “mess” of these tender milkweed greens and I find them delicious and well received by anyone I serve them to.

Dogbane, however, is highly toxic. It contains the cardiac glycoside, apocynamarine, which can cause cardiac arrest. As little as half an ounce of the dried leaves mixed in hay can kill a large farm animal. (Dogbane is also known as Indian hemp because the mature stalks yield a fine hemp-like cordage or textile fiber.)

When these plants are mature they are easy to tell apart by their distinctive flowers and seeds. The milkweed stem becomes thick and hairy while the dogbane stem is more slender and takes on a reddish hue. But these plants we were looking at here were hardly a foot tall. Both species have opposite, oval leaves and both plants exude a white, milky latex when the leaves are broken. At this time of the year they were almost identical.

These herb enthusiasts wandered around the field getting very confused and discouraged. I could tell the difference between the two species, but I have been studying these plants for a number of years. I kept trying to point out the subtle differences, like the more robust structure of the milkweed, but it was almost impossible to convey the differences especially when we could find a delicate, young milkweed shoot with a slender stem next to a large, older, thick-stemmed dogbane. Many of these folks were experienced with plants and it was disheartening to think that a group like this could not positively differentiate between a common edible wild plant and its highly poisonous look-alike.

Finally someone piped up, “Did anyone taste them? We need to let our whole body speak. What do they taste like?” We started tasting and within a few minutes we all could agree the milkweed leaves were mild and chalky tasting while the dogbane leaves were powerfully bitter and acrid. The difference was clear as could be. Using our taste buds there was no mistaking the poisonous plant. It was also comforting to realize that in this instance the toxic plant was much too bitter to eat.

We all learned an important lesson that day. Identifying plants is not a dry intellectual exercise using only our brains, our eyes and our field guides. To identify plants effectively we must use our other senses as well–touch, taste and smell. Identifying plants at its best is a whole body, holistic experience that can deepen our connection with the plants and the world in general in many ways.

Is it dangerous to put poisonous plants in our mouths? Most experts agree that a small amount of any wild plant (and even deadly mushrooms) can be tasted and spit out with no adverse effects. (The exceptions might be dermatitis causing plants like poison ivy and nettles.) This does not mean that all poisonous plants taste bad. Some deadly mushrooms and poisonous members of the carrot family, like the highly toxic water hemlock, are mild and pleasant tasting. So as you explore wild plants, use your senses but also use your head and your good common sense as well as your reference materials. Enjoy the taste, touch, smell, the visual beauty, as well as the intellectual stimulation that this rich, complex, miraculous, green world that surrounds us provides.

Speaking of edible wild plants, Sam Thayer has done it! He has produced the most comprehensive field guide to the edible wild plants of eastern North America ever written. He covers 700 edible species. If you’re interested in edible wild plants anywhere east of the Rockies, this is the book for you. Truly a masterwork!

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Rat Bait

My latest and probably my last CD recording, “Ginseng, Golden Apples and the Rainbow Fish” recently received special recognition. Of my 10 recordings, it is special in many ways. It was a live concert recorded at the National Storytelling Festival where it got a standing ovation. My fiddler son Todd and our guitarist friend Keith Ward accompanied me musically. The story I tell is a fun, wide-ranging true tale that covers everything from ginseng hunting, possum sex, and the fungal web of life to an Appalachian Jack tale, ancient Greek myths, as well as a personal mythic journey where I meet three strangers on the road and catch a trout by hand. This has been a fairly popular CD but it just received a new appreciation from an individual whose proper name is Neotoma floridana.

It all started in our cluttered shop, a portion of which I call my “fulfillment center.” This is where I store and ship out my various books and recordings. One evening I thought I heard some rat-like scurrying sounds.

Occasionally woodrats will come down off the mountain and move into one of our sheds or buildings. The woodrat is a native animal. Unlike the invasive, gray, scaly-tailed Norway rat, woodrats are rather attractive creatures — colored like deer with brown fur on the back and sides, pure white belly fur, and delicate pink toes. The tail is bi-colored with brown fur on the top and white underneath. Woodrats are also known as pack rats because of their propensity to build large nests where they assemble heaps of leaves, sticks, and pieces of bark. They also like to decorate their nests with interesting treasures such as bones, feathers, mushrooms, and shiny things such as bullet shells, bottle caps, and pieces of metal or plastic. Neotoma floridana is the eastern woodrat’s scientific name.

I baited a live-trap with peanut butter and walnuts, but had no luck after two nights. So, we investigated a little further and climbed up into the loft. There we found the classic big pile of debris: a few sticks and leaves, but mostly cardboard, paper, rags, plastic fixtures, pencils, etc. foraged from around the shop.

There, tucked in with all the other junk were two of my CDs! The woodrat had stolen them out of the carton and hauled them up to decorate its nest. It didn’t open the CDs. (It turns out woodrats are not technically advanced enough to operate a CD player.)

Eastern wood rat nest in loft
Eastern woodrat nest in my loft

Good taste in recordings or not, we had to get rid of this pack rat. The trap with peanut butter and walnuts had not worked so this time I baited the trap with one of the CDs. Sure enough, next morning there was the culprit, wistfully leering out of the cage, holding on to my CD! After a brief photo session, I took the little rascal down the road a few miles and released it near an old abandoned house.

Doug Elliott with eastern woodrat in a live trap

So, you too can have one of these special CDs. They’re on sale here this month. Not only are these recordings entertaining, inspiring, and educational, but they’re also good for rat bait!

Doug Elliott visits Appalachian storyteller Ray Hicks, who is famous for his tales about the mythical folk hero Jack. Along with Jack’s exploits, Ray tells a few of his own hair-raising adventures, like when he was followed by a panther. He also recounts colorful folklore about the love life of ‘possums, bloodsucking owls, and tips for successful ‘seng hunting.

Driving home with his head full of wild tales, Elliott embarks on a true modern-day mythic journey where he catches a trout by hand; harvests wild apples, ginseng, and mushrooms; ponders Greek myths, Biblical verses, and the fungal web of life; meets three strangers; and finds himself living out his own folktale.

You’ll hear a poem by William Butler Yeats, quotes from the Roman poet Ovid, and a risqué herbal ballad by the great botanist Jim Duke. You’ll find out what happens when Artemis (aka Diana) gets caught skinny dipping and when Atalanta loses a foot race, as well as what happens when Jack leaves home to sell a cow and comes back with a rock. In this live recording of a standing ovation performance at the National Storytelling Festival, Elliott is accompanied by guitarist Keith Ward and his son Todd Elliott on fiddle.

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Taste of Coon

“Will you come tell our senior citizens group some stories?” It was our neighbor Polly calling. “We have fellowship every day at the Shingle Hollow clubhouse around 11 and we have lunch around noon. We’d love for you to come tell us some stories during the fellowship hour.

“Now the only thing is, Doug, we can’t invite you to lunch because it’s a government subsidized lunch for senior citizens and you have to be over 65 to qualify. I hate that, Doug, but we gotta follow the rules.”

I assured her that was fine with me and I’d be glad to come tell stories and not to worry at all about lunch. So, we arranged a date. I went, told stories and everyone seemed to enjoy it. After I was finished, they all lined up for lunch. Polly said, “Come on out to the truck. I have something for you.” She handed me an aluminum pie pan covered with foil.

“It’s coon,” she said, “We cooked it on the heater all last night and I fried it in batter this morning. It’s still a little bit warm.”

I thanked her profusely.

This was some years ago when there were a number of raccoon hunters in the area. Many coon hunters were in it for the adventure of roaming the woods at night listening to the baying of the hounds, but they didn’t really want the coon after they killed it. So, they’d bring the coon to Polly and her husband. They were very earthy country folks who wouldn’t want to see good meat wasted. They were always willing to take a fresh-killed raccoon.

Polly knew how to expertly prepare wild meat. To ensure tenderness she parboiled it, letting it simmer for hours, using spicebush twigs in the water to moderate any gameyness. Then she rolled each piece in a spicy batter and fried it. The final product was tender, succulent, rich-flavored meat that was coated with a golden-brown crispy crust. It was delicious!

In those days we didn’t have a lot of meat. We kept a few chickens and we occasionally made soup or stew from a rooster or an old hen who stopped laying. As good as they were in soups and stews, these birds were too tough to make fried chicken.

Well, Polly’s southern fried coon rocked our world! We had a little boy around the house at the time. Our son Todd was about 3 years old. He loved that southern fried coon. He would toddle over to the refrigerator–he could barely reach the door handle–and say, “Coon?”

We called Polly and told her how much we appreciated her gift. Over the next few years, every now and then, we’d get a phone call, “Doug, meet us up by your mailbox. We’re going to be driving by your place in a few minutes. We got a plate of coon for you.”

One time I remember, as she handed me a plate, she said, “Doug, this ain’t the whole coon. We ate some of it and Johnny Robinson wanted some of it, but there’s still a lot left for you. I realized right then that we had become part of a sacred circle honoring this noble wild creature who even after its death nourished and connected the community.

Fast forward a decade or so. We were at a community supper. Todd was a teenager. He filled his plate with a selection of home-cooked dishes. The first thing he tasted was a piece of fried chicken. He took one bite and said, “Yum, that tastes like coon!”

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Raccoon Discipline

Once I had to discipline a coon.

I was a licensed New York State backcountry guide. A group of us had hiked into the Catskill wilderness and had made a camp near the headwaters of the Beaverkill River. We had a central cooking fire. At night we suspended our group food between two trees to keep it out of reach of animal scavengers. Because there was some hunting and trapping in the area, I didn’t anticipate trouble from the camp-raiding four-leggeds that are so common in parks where they’re protected and therefore used to raiding campsites. Yet I felt that this was an important procedure for new campers to learn so I recommended everyone do the same with their personal food supplies as well.

Most of them put their food in a nylon stuff bag and hung them in trees near their tents which were pitched here and there in the surrounding woods. I did not check to see how each person had hung his or her bag because I didn’t really expect any animal visitors. Well, sometimes you get what you don’t expect. It’s true in the woods and it’s true in life. That first night, not long after everyone had settled down, I was startled out of my first few minutes of dozing by the unmistakable clatter of pots, pans, bowls and sierra cups. I bolted upright, and clicked on my flashlight in the direction of the noise. My flashlight beam was met by the bright shining eyes and black mask of a handsome young raccoon. It was busily exploring the kitchen area, upsetting, overturning, and walking around in all our carefully cleaned pots, stacked dishes and utensils.

I stormed out of the tent and shooed the coon out of the camp, chasing it into the bushes until it disappeared into the darkness. I checked the kitchen area to be sure we really had cleaned up all the food. We had; the cooking area was neat and clean except for the now scattered pots and pans.

The coon did not come back that night, but the next night it was back, as hopeful as ever, rummaging through all the dishes again. I charged out of the tent like I had the night before. And the coon scrambled off into the bushes like it had the night before; but half an hour later it was back. We had been hiking and exploring most of the day and we had stayed up late singing and telling tales around the campfire. It had been a busy day and I was not looking forward to working third shift as the camp coon chaser so I gave up, pulled the covers over my head and tried to ignore the racket.

Soon the coon realized that as good as it smelled, there was indeed no food here. It wandered off into the night and all was quiet–till later on, that is when a new noise–a strident ripping sound–tore me from my peaceful slumber. It was coming from a new direction. So once again I crawled out of my bag to investigate. I followed the sound to one of the nearby tent sites. There was the coon up in the tree tearing into somebody’s improperly hung food bag while the owner snored away. At my approach the coon beat a hasty retreat scampering away with a granola bar in its mouth looking like a large flat cigar.

I untied the tattered bag and took it back to my tent for safekeeping and went back to sleep, only to be awakened shortly thereafter by what was now becoming a familiar wilderness sound– the sound of coon teeth ripping through the nylon of another person’s food bag. To make a long story, medium, I should tell you that I had to rescue three more bags that night. I put them all in my bag which was hung behind my tent.

By the time I returned from my last rescue mission and got the food hung, the first rosy fingers of dawn were brightening the eastern edge of the forest. I was trying once more to get back to sleep when I heard the sound of coon claws on tree bark right behind my tent. I looked out the rear window and there was that ring-tailed rascal climbing up after yet another food bag. This was my food bag. It was hung by a rope and dangled several feet down from a high limb away from the trunk of the tree. I watched that coon attempt to reach down from above, then climb halfway down the trunk and try unsuccessfully to reach out from the trunk to grab the bag and finally stood on its hind legs under the bag trying to reach up, unable to reach my bag. 

About that time I realized that I had had about enough coon for one night. It was daylight and that coon would not be able to slip off into the darkness like it had the night before. I was going to give that coon a run for its money (or its granola bars)! This coon needed discipline. I quickly slipped on my sneakers and leapt out of the tent with a heartfelt furious roar.

The coon and I started a mad dash through the woods, over rocks and through underbrush. I was keeping up quite well when the coon shinnied up a tall hemlock tree. It climbed out on a branch about twenty feet above my head and gazed back down at me with nothing but complacent smugness in its beady little black eyes. I shook my fist up at that coon. “This ain’t no old hobbled-up coon dog you’re messing with this time you ring-tailed fuzzball. I’m going to learn you a few things,” I hollered. I cut a hickory switch and started up that tree.

That coon’s eyeballs about popped out of his head when it realized that I was coming up that tree after it. Slowly I climbed, growling ominously, the hickory switch between my teeth. That coon turned tail and moved higher up the tree. I kept right on climbing, growling and showing my teeth at the coon. (Of course it’s hard not to show your teeth when you’re using them to carry a stick.) I wanted to make an impression on that coon, for the good of our food supplies as well as for its own future. I wanted that coon to know humans as we really are.

To that raccoon we had seemed like harmless, noisy, bumbling creatures whose sole purpose on Earth was to bring delicious food into the woods to feed bright, young, opportunistic raccoons. I wanted to teach that coon the truth about humans: that we really are the most dangerous creatures on the face of the Earth, that we really are insatiable and that we destroy a large part of the natural world every day, and that includes coons. And like my forefathers I believed that in certain instances truth and discipline can be most effectively conveyed with the sting of a hickory switch.

Soon the coon was near the top of the tree nervously climbing back and forth in the upper branches. I just kept climbing and growling. The coon knew it was trapped–and I was closing in fast. So it climbed out on the longest branch that it could find, but because we were almost to the top of the tree that limb was only about five feet long. By the time I got there the coon was desperately hanging on to the flexible outer branches at the very end of the limb. Looking out from that tree top into the fear-filled eyes of that pitiful coon as it cowered there frantically clutching the green boughs with its delicately fingered front feet was enough to melt my heart.

All I wanted to do was comfort the little rascal, and stroke its lush, lovely fur. But I knew that the best thing I could do for this beautiful, wild, free-spirited animal was to teach it to associate humans with fear, pain and danger. So I drew forth my hickory cane and switched the dickens out of that critter. The coon turned and took a flying leap. It grabbed a few branches on the way down to slow its descent, then for a 25 foot freefall it fell spread-eagle with its feet and tail stretched out so that it looked like a giant flying squirrel or a miniature bear rug. A few seconds later it hit the ground running, and as far as I know that coon is still running…running wild and running free.

It never came back to our camp that week. I’ve been to that campsite several times since and have never had any more trouble with raccoons. Occasionally I think of that treetop session disciplining that coon. That coon might still be traveling along the creek that runs by that campsite and if it gets a whiff of human scent I hope that it understands the dangerous unpredictability of the human species. Some are harmless campers, but others are hunters and trappers, and yet other rare humans might be like that deranged, snarling beast with the stinging hickory switch.

I hope that memory has kept it out of trouble, running wild and running free.

Hi folks, I hope you enjoyed this story and I hope you also are running wild and  free. Your comments are welcome. That story was excerpted from my book, Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural WorldThe book has more raccoon-ology as well as lots of other interesting natural history, stories, and lore. You might want to check it out. It’s on sale this month

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Solstice In The Bible Belt

It was the 3rd week of December some 20 years ago. Our son Todd, who was about nine at the time, was riding in the back seat of the car next to his friend Katie, a charming and bright young girl. She was one of the kids in his homeschooling group. He was telling her how much he liked decorating the Christmas tree. She turned and said to him, “Do you know what Christmas ornaments are? They are representatives of the Pagan God–that’s what they are!” She said it with amazing disgust and revulsion in her voice.

“I didn’t know what to say to that,” Todd was telling me later.  

We got to thinking about it and figured if there’s only one God anyway, the pagan God has to be the same as her God. “You could have told her that,” I proposed.

“Yeah, Dad, but I just didn’t want to get into it with her.”

But I sure wanted to get into it. This was some interesting theology. So next time I caught up with Katie’s dad, I had to ask him about it. Katie’s dad is a self-styled fundamentalist who sees the Bible as the only source of ultimate truth.

He’s also thoughtful and fun to talk to. So I mentioned to him about what I heard his daughter had been saying and wondered who might be telling her things like that.

“It’s amazing what the kids will come up with,” he said. (I agreed.)

“However,” he said, “it does seem like people are, in some ways, worshiping their Christmas trees. They put all these gifts under them. It’s like they are teaching their children to adore all those material things like Christmas trees and presents and candy and all that junk. It seems like idol worship to me. You ought to check out what it says about Christmas trees in the Bible.”

“In the Bible?” I asked. “Christmas trees in the Bible?”

“Yeah, it’s in Jeremiah.”

Well, before long, there I was, turning back to the Bible.

And I found it! There it was–Jeremiah, chapter 10, verses 2 thru 8. “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Learn not the way of the heathen… For the customs of the people are vain…they cutteth a tree out of the forest…with the ax. They deck it with silver and with gold… this is altogether brutish and foolish. It is a doctrine of vanities.”

That’s right out of the King James version of the holy Bible! That’s why many Christian fundamentalists won’t have anything to do with Christmas trees and a lot of them won’t celebrate Christmas either.

I guess we were off the hook that year. We didn’t “cutteth our tree out of the forest with an ax.” We got a “road-kill” Christmas tree. The road crew had been trimming the road banks and they left a pile of little scrub pines lying there by the side of the road. I wired three of the little scrawny things together and made a plump bushy “tree”.

Todd found a whole string of tiny white lights in the dumpster. He plugged it in and all the bulbs worked. He was thrilled. He couldn’t believe someone would throw out perfectly good lights. We had a road-kill tree with dumpster lights that year!

I told Katie’s dad that I thought the lights on our Christmas tree represent the light of hope, peace and love shining forth from darkness. They are like the solstice bonfires that have brightened the darkness since ancient times. They are like the Kwanza lights and Hanukkah candles celebrating light shining in the darkness. (Hanukkah comes on a different date every year because it’s celebrated at the darkest time of the year, which is not always winter solstice. The winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night, but the longest night is not necessarily the darkest night because there could be a full moon on the solstice. Hanukkah is a lunar celebration during the dark of the moon nearest the solstice, that’s truly the darkest time of the year. That’s when we crave that reminder that the light is still there.

And our scrawny little Christmas tree, propped up there against the wall with its little trunk(s) in a bucket of water and rocks–that’s the Tree of Life, I was telling him. Our tree represents the miracle of creation. People are often looking for miracles in their lives. You want miracles? Look at a tree. A tree is a God-given miracle. Think about what trees eat. They eat light and suck dirt! They reach up and absorb the light through their leaves and while they’re reaching up, they are also sending roots down into the Earth Mother, probing her depths, absorbing nutrients and forming the very fabric of the earth. They grow and they give us fruit, flowers, lumber, shade and shelter. When they exhale they give us oxygen to breathe.

So whether we go out (like the heathens) and cutteth our tree in the forest with an axe, or buy our tree organically grown, or farmed with chemicals, or have an artificial tree that we use every year, or maybe we leave our tree standing in the forest, a tree is surely not a false idol. It’s a reminder of the great miracle of creation we are all a part of.

“Poems (and stories) are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.”
~ Joyce Kilmer