Popcorn, Pink pearl


Show Some Respect

The problem with popcorn is that it, like Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.” Sure, it’s a fun food, nice to toss into your mouth while you watch a movie. But that’s been the case only since the 1930s.

Popcorn is a grain, a whole grain, as good a source of nourishment as wheat, rice, rye, or any other grain. It was among the foods brought by native Americans to the first Thanksgiving dinner.

For anyone who likes the idea of raising their own grain, popcorn is a good choice. It’s easy to grow, it’s easy to process, and it’s easy to save seed from one year to the next. I grow two varieties — Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter-flavored — and have saved seed from my plantings for over 25 years.

Pink Pearl popcorn

Pink Pearl popcorn

Popcorn is also fun to grow, especially with children around. Growing it yourself also lets you choose a variety you like. You might think popcorn is just popcorn; they all taste the same. Not so! Last year’s crop yield came up a little short (my fault, for not checking the drip irrigation) so, for the first time in many years, I just purchased some to tide us over until this season’s crop becomes ready to eat. The purchased popcorn burst into large, fluffy clouds, but to call the flavor bland would be an understatement. Nothing like the rich flavors of Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter-flavored. Read more


Bark Giveaway

Walking in the woods or an arboretum this time of year is a good time to play a game of tree identification. You say, “But trees are leafless!” No problem. Often, all you need is to look at the bark.
Paperbark birch bark
You might think a white-barked birch would be an easy identification. Not necessarily. A white-barked birch might be, instead, a European birch (Betula pendula). This one is distinguished from our native paper birch (B. papyrifera) by the dark, diamond shaped fissures on its bark. Or Himalayan birch (B. jacquemontii) or Asian white birch (B. platyphylla). Of course, these last three species aren’t likely to turn up in our woodlands.

I’m often snagged by cherry birch (B. lenta), whose bark isn’t white at all, but whose young bark resembles young cherry bark, then morphs with age into longitudinally elongated plates. The giveaway for cherry birch comes with breaking a small twig and smelling wintergreen.

Trees like red oak (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and ash (Fraxinus spp.) are easy to identify once you know their bark.

I can immediately identify hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) because its bark is one of my favorites, pure gray and punctuated by corky ridges.
Hackberry bark
On a clear, wintry day when the sun hangs low in the sky, the shadows create a pattern that recalls those crisp, achromatic photographs of lunar landscapes.

Another of my favorites is American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), whose bark looks like striated muscle. And juneberry (Amelanchier spp.), pale gray with charcoal gray striations. And paperbark maple (Acer griseum), with shiny, copper-red bark.

Paperbark maple bark

Paperbark maple bark

If tree bark offers no leads about a tree, a few dead leaves on the ground or clinging to stems can help out. Beech leaves make identification especially easy because beech is among the few trees that clings to almost all its dead leaves all winter. The lower leaves of some oaks also are reluctant to drop.

Bark, leaves, and aroma aren’t the only things that scream out a tree’s name. Everyone knows the distinctive weeping form and light-colored young bark of weeping willows. Less universally known is the very distinctive form of pin oaks (Quercus palustris): lower limbs sweep downward, mid-height limbs grow out horizontally, and upper limbs point skyward.
Pin oak tree form
On most trees, stems are alternate, that is, they don’t grow directly opposite each other. So if a tree — one that grows wild in the northeast, at least — has opposite stems, I can limit the choices to just a few trees: dogwoods, maples, ashes, or catalpa.

This tree game is more than fun; it’s also useful for identifying firewood. A couple of years ago, I bought some firewood that was billed as swamp oak, which is sometimes a name for pin oak. The firewood’s bark had distinctive, long, flat-topped ridges, which a friend finally identified as belonging to American linden (basswood, Tilia americana). It’s not very good for firewood.

(For a lot more about identifying trees by their bark, in the Northeast, at least, see the book Bark by Michael Wojtech.)

Chestnuts Roasting on an . . . Well, not Exactly

Moving indoors, to the fruits of my labor. Or, rather, the nuts of my labor.

A few years ago I came up with yet another way to roast chestnuts, one that makes the pellicle, that thin, brown skin clinging to the nutmeat, easy to remove. After giving each nut a slit perpendicular to its axis, I spread the nuts in a shallow layer in a covered pan set in a hot oven or on top of the wood stove for 45 minutes. During that time the nuts steam from their own moisture. Then off comes the lid for another 15 minutes of cooking to let the nuts roast and the shells and pellicles (the skin around each nut) turn crisp.
Chestnuts roasting
Massaging each nut without breaking up the nutmeat cracks the shell and the pellicle so that both come off easily — usually. The nuts have the mealy texture of a baked potato and a wonderfully sweet flavor.

Bark Futures

I’m planning to enjoy more fruits — or, rather, nuts — of my labor in years to come. Two Korean pine (Pinus koreansis) trees should eventually get me home-grown pine nuts. As should a lacebark pine (P. bungeana).

The lacebark pine, once it gets older, will also bring me attractive bark to admire as it naturally peels away in brown, rust, green, and cream-colored patches.

Other home-grown bark beauty here includes persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), whose bark is like alligator skin (but not scary), Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)

Bark of persimmon and sterwartia

Persimmon (left)                           Stewartia (right)

and my previously mentioned favorite, hackberry, a fast growing tree now almost 15 feet tall that I started from seed I pulled off an old tree. The hackberry’s bark is just starting to develop those attractive, corky ridges.
Young hackberry bark

Of Nuts & Mice

  How could I resist? Road crews that had been trimming trees along power lines were finishing up work almost right in front of my house with a whole truckload of wood chips. Spreading chips had not been on my “to do” list; now it was, right after the crew graciously dumped contents of the truck in a space between my chestnut trees.
Chestnuts are trees of the forest. Mine, like many of those deliberately planted, have grass at their feet. The wood chips, I reasoned, would make the ground more home-like for the trees. Forest soils are typically overlaid with a layer of organic (that is, living or once living) materials: fallen leaves, twigs, limbs. These organic materials rot, in the process releasing nutrients as well as putting nutrients already in the soil in forms more readily accessible to plants. The organic feast encourages fungi, bacteria, and other soil life, all of which generally keep insect pests and diseases at bay.
In addition to nutritional and biological goodness, any organic material also brings physical goodness. Rainwater more easily percolates into the ground and, once within, the water is retained by the spongy, decomposed organic matter. At the same time, soil aeration is improved. It’s the best of of both worlds: more moisture plus more air at root level. No wonder I couldn’t resist.
People sometimes ask if I care what kind of chips I am getting. The answer is “no.” People sometimes ask if I’m worried about termites in the chips. Again, “no.” Termites require intact wood for their tunnels. What about “nitrogen tie-up,” which temporarily starves plants for nitrogen when high-carbon materials, such as wood chips, are added to the soil and microorganisms, which are better at garnering soil nitrogen than are plants, go to work. Again, I’m not concerned. Nitrogen tie-up only occurs if chips are mixed INTO the soil, promoting rapid decomposition.
Some people believe in using gourmet chips, also known as ramial chips, which means , according to chip aficionadas, wood chips made from branches no larger than 2-3/4 inches in diameter, and preferably from deciduous trees. So before I had my load of chips dumped I had the road crew climb into their truck to separate out the good from the bad chips — just kidding! There’s not much, actually nothing at all, to support chip aficionadas’ claims. I’ll take and took any and all chips.
Come autumn, perhaps I’ll round out the soil diet with a load of leaves.
I am a big fan of black walnuts. Last autumn’s harvest has been cracked, shelled and squirreled away to enjoy in the months ahead. The latest buzz on black walnuts, though, is about their sap, which reputedly boils down into a tasty syrup, similar to maple syrup.
Almost all parts of walnut trees contain a compound, juglone, that is toxic or growth-stunting to many types of plants. This makes me wary about ingesting the sap, especially after it has been concentrated into a syrup.
Still, curiosity got the upper hand so I put a tap into a black walnut tree a few weeks ago, gathered sap, and then boiled it down into a syrup of similar consistency to maple syrup.
My report: Very good flavor, slightly different from maple sugar, perhaps with a hint of black walnut flavoring. (The latter could be my imagination.) And I’m still alive.
One of the last legacies of winter are the “bare ankles” at the bases of some trees and shrubs. Bare because they have no bark.
Those bare ankles are the handiwork of mice. Snuggled beneath the snow, warm and safe from aerial predators, mice could munch away to their heart’s content on bark. The problem is that the bark layer is where nutrients and water are conducted up from the roots and down from the leaves.
Stripped stems will likely die, which could mean death for the whole plant if it’s a tree, it’s young, and it was weak. Or if it’s a species that does not sprout readily when cut back. Otherwise, new sprouts will grow from below the stripped region. If the plant is a tree, the most vigorous of the new sprouts can be trained as a new trunk. If the plant is a shrub, new sprouts will fill in.
No need to sit back and bemoan the damage. Bridge grafting, whereby lengths of stem are grafted below and above the stripped area, will repair damage. And a good cat will avert it in the first place.