Monday, September 26, 2011

Plants of Pleasure, Plants of Pain

Perhaps in honor of the Folsom Street Fair, the PQ led this walk on the wild side yesterday as part of the Headlands Center for the Arts' Desire Trails program, a series of 9 different nature walks led by Bay Area artists and scholars. Our purpose? To explore the literary, mythical, culinary, and nefarious possibilities of the Headlands’ edible and dangerous plants.

The thirteen of us (plus 2 dogs) walked along a section of the Coastal Trail starting at the parking lot of the Visitors’ Center, down to Rodeo Beach and back, traversing coastal scrub, salt-marsh wetlands, and ocean beach.

Our first plant, growing right by the trailhead, was immediately recognizable by its licorice scent, feathery fronds, and umbrella-shaped clusters of chrome-yellow flowers. It often stands 6’ tall or higher, and you probably think of it as nothing more than a stringy weed that grows happily in trash-strewn vacant lots. To the ancient Greeks, however, this plant, wild fennel, was sacred, revered as the fire-bearer. Wrote the playwright Aeschylus of his protagonist in Prometheus Bound, “For I am he who hunted at the source of fire, and stole it, packed in pith of a dry fennel stalk.”

Prometheus was known in Greek myth as the Titan who snatched a live coal from the sun’s burning chariot and brought it back to earth in defiance of Zeus, who had decreed that only the gods could possess fire. (For this rebellion, he was chained to a mountain rock in the Caucasus with an eagle perpetually eating his liver. Bummer.) A walker on the tour had a more prosaic (but equally important) reason to revere fennel: it was, she said, a good remedy for flatulence, surely a concern for the people of the Mediterranean, whose often austere diet relied on dried beans and pulses as an important source of protein.

Right now, our wild fennel is blooming and producing a lot of edible yellow pollen with an herbal/licorice scent. This same pollen, imported from Italy, is sold for high prices in fancy gourmet shops back East, and is used as a finishing sprinkle over salads, pastas, and fish dishes. How lucky we are, living where it’s free for the shaking! Soon, these flowers will be producing small, flat, greenish-brown seeds with the same distinctive scent and flavor. As Patience Grey tells us in her excellent, scholarly Mediterranean memoir/cookbook, Honey from a Weed, the seeds are used in Naples to flavor taralli, hard, ring-shaped biscuits served with wine, as well as in a famous Tuscan salame, la finocchiona. The fronds and sheaths (stems) are used in soups, as a bed for fish dishes, and with snails, pork and wild boar throughout Greece, Italy, and Catalonia.

The bulbous, fleshy vegetable that we buy as fennel at the farmers’ market or grocery store is in the same family, but bred specifically for its edible bulb. It is deliberately “blanched” during the growing process (covered with soil or mulch) to keep it white and tender, much like celery and endive.

It’s hard to walk anywhere in the Headlands without running into poison oak, a most pernicious native plant. It’s not related to the oak (it gets its name from the oak-like shape of its leaves), and it’s not, technically, poisonous. About 85% of people are allergic to urushiol, a compound produced in the leaves (also found in the leaves and fruit skins of the mango, and in the leaves and fruit of the cashew plant). It’s the body’s own allergic reaction to contact with this oil that produces the painful, oozing skin rash unhappily familiar to many hikers. Animals are generally not allergic, but if they roll around in it, they can rub the oils off on you or your clothing. Euell Gibbons, the father of foraging, once wrote that he’d heard of a fellow nature-lover taking a homeopathic approach to poison oak, eating a minute quantity of the plant every day until he was desensitized. As you might expect, PQ wouldn’t recommend this approach.

What’s this 5’ tall plant, lurking in the shadow of a gloomy cypress tree? It looks like a giant Queen Anne’s lace or a carrot gone wild, with white umbrella-shaped flower clusters, ferny leaves, and a smooth, hollow stalk speckled with red. Rub the leaves (which look a lot like carrot tops) and you’ll smell an unpleasantly musty, “mousy” odor. It’s in the same plant family, Apicaea, as our friend fennel, sharing botanical similarities with carrot, parsley, dill, cilantro, and celery. But beware, one of these things is not like the others! The blood-red spots on the stalk are the giveaway: this is poison hemlock, and every part (root, stem, leaves, flowers, seeds) of the plant is poisonous.

Wrote Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense/As though of hemlock I had drunk,” which is a pretty good description of this plant’s effect. Unlike many other vegetable alkaloids, whose effects can generally be summed up by “dizziness, confusion, vomiting, convulsions, and death,” hemlock produces just such a drowsy numbness as Keats described. Weakness and heaviness move from the legs upward, and if the dose is great enough, death follows from respiratory paralysis. It has a similar effect as nicotine, stimulating then depressing the nervous system.

Socrates, of course, was hemlock’s most famous victim, forced to drink a fatal decoction in 399 B.C. for the crime of “corrupting the youth of Athens” (including his student Plato) with his philosophical teachings.

Nearby, winding among the poison oak and blackberry vines is another killer, deadly nightshade, also known as devil’s cherry or belladonna. Just like hemlock, it shares a plant family, Solanaceae, with many well-loved edibles native to the Americas, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. (Tobacco, whose active ingredient, nicotine, is one of the most toxic plant substances known, also belongs to this family.) It has small, hanging purple or white flowers and shiny green fruits that ripen to eggplant-black in autumn. Birds enjoy them, but the effects on people can range from rapid heartbeat, seizures, hallucinations, and convulsions to death if the dose is large enough.

The active ingredient is atropine, named after Atropos, the last of the 3 Fates, envisioned by the Greeks as the death-bringer who snipped the thread of life. (Atropine does have its medicinal uses as an antidote to other poisons.) One of its effects is a drastic dilation of the pupils; supposedly, it was used as an eyedrop by women in both Ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy to give a mysterious, dark-eyed look, hence the name “belladonna,” Italian for “beautiful woman.”

Time for a tea break! Emerging from the shade of the cypress and eucalyptus trees (planted as windbreaks around this once-treeless area), we found ourselves climbing up a drier, windswept hillside. The plants here are tougher, often with thick leaves and woody stems, built to withstand both drying winds and the fog-born dampness that can encourage fungus and mildew.

But tough can still be pretty. One of the loveliest of coastal plants is found here, Rosa californica, our wild rose. Five flat bright-pink petals surround a golden center with a sweet, characteristic rose scent. In Britain, the wild rose is known by its French-derived name, eglantine, familiar from the description of Titania’s flower-strewn bower in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Says the sprite Puck to his master Oberon,“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where ox-lips and the nodding violet grows, quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk-roses and with eglantine/There sleeps Titania sometimes of the night, lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.

Keats, too, praised the beauty of the “pastoral eglantine.” For culinary purposes, however, we want not the flower but its plump, shiny, seed-bearing fruit, the rose hip. Dry, seedy, and tart, rosehips are not the most tasty of fruits, but they are powerhouses of nutrition, higher in Vitamin C, iron, and phosphorus than oranges. It dries well and could be pounded together with dried deer meat and fat to make pemmican, a staple travelling food for many native peoples. Now, it’s most commonly used in tea, often in combination with the tropical hibiscus flower, which has a similar bright-red color and tart, fruity taste. Rose hips can also be used to make jelly. Out of the bag of treats came teacups and a teapot, and we enjoyed some hot rosehip/hibiscus tea with an ocean view.

As we walked over the hay-strewn path (why hay? Only the Park Service knows), the tang in the air went from the characteristic coastal-scrub scent of fennel, sage and sweet Annie to the cool brine of kelp and ocean waves. Descending along the path down to Rodeo Beach, we were suddenly surrounded by acres of iceplant, a South African native (also known as sea fig) that was brought in to reduce erosion along the railroads and is now a pernicious invasive. It is edible, although not very palatable raw, as a few of the braver among us discovered. In “How to Cook a Wolf,” California food writer M.F.K. Fisher described how a beach-dwelling friend with no money but a love of feeding her friends supplied her larder by flitting along the cliffs, coming back to serve up odd but alluring salads of iceplant and crumbled seaweeds. Perhaps Fisher’s friend had a secret recipe; maybe pickling might help, or peeling. But as an out-of-hand snack, astringent iceplant would be low on anyone’s list.

Still, it would be worth it to study the many seaweeds that wash up in the cove here. Rich in minerals, these sea plants were once an important part of native diets. (The roots and tuber-like rhizomes of the cattails in the nearby lagoon are also a rich food source; crushed and soaked in water, their starch precipitates out and can be used as a paste or dried into flour.) Seaweed can simmered in broth, dried as a crunchy snack, or used in salads

Walking back, we hoped to find some late-ripening blackberries. We discovered only a few (birds and hikers having taken the rest) but enjoyed a snack of tiny homemade blackberry tarts instead, with a honey-and-sour-cream filling under the juicy fruit. Appetites whetted, we made it back just in time for a Mess Hall brunch of fresh-squeezed orange juice; Morell’s bread and butter; Sonoma goat cheese; La Quercia prosciutto; Castelvetrano green olives marinated in lemon, rosemary, savory, and thyme; Spanish-style baked eggs with potatoes, spring onions, dry Jack cheese, and heirloom tomatoes; green salad with figs; and apple-walnut spice cake.

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