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Saturday, September 29, 2012


Persimmons seem to be an underused asset.  Yesterday I found an American persimmon loaded with fruit.  There was a little bit of fruit drop beneath it and these fruits appeared to be ripe.  I had never had a fully ripe persimmon before, and I was blown away.  Luscious is the best word I can think of to describe the taste.  The juice burst through the skin at the first bite and had the flavor of a less acidic mandarin orange with subtle cinnamon and nutmeg flavors.  How has this fruit not become more popular?
Since that first bite I have been trying to think of great uses for this fruit.  Persimmon bread is one of the things I came up with.  The flavors would be sweeter than pumpkin bread, and I am convinced that the fruit would yield a wonderful moist crumb.  Or persimmon fruit leather.  The spiced flavors would lend themselves very well to fruit leather, that I think would be similar to eating pumpkin pie in candy form. 
Now there are some downsides to this fruit as well.  This was an American persimmon and so the fruits were tiny, about the size of golf balls.  However, the tree was loaded with them, with a couple fruits every few inches of branch.  In addition the fruits were very seedy, with more fruit being seed than flesh.  This is a little disappointing when you are eating them fresh, but if you put them in a jelly bag and squeezed for juice, or a mesh bag for fruit pulp it wouldn't be much of a problem at all.  I know that if the fruit is not ripe, it will cause your mouth to pucker so hard that it hurts. 
All of these things combined probably have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for the American persimmon.  But then I look at the oriental persimmon and the Sharon fruit and I realize what selective breeding could do.  These fruits are much larger, and have much less seed.  There are even a few varieties that do not have the astringency that American persimmons have when unripe.  These exotic persimmons are not as hardy as the American, nor do I think they are as drought resistant. 
Surely with a little more plant breeding, American persimmons could be a wonderful cash crop.  They may not be as great of a fruit for eating out of hand, but for cooking with, or juicing they would make a wonderful addition to our farmers markets.  People need to be exposed to thinks in order to accept them, and I can think of few things that would be received as enthusiastically as a beautiful orange fruit, with a magnificent taste.

Live a hands-on life

Monday, September 24, 2012

The oppurtunity of drought

I did not truly realize how bad the drought had gotten until I went to my little fishing hole.  My fishing hole with a place where 2 creeks enter the arm of a reservoir.  I went to hunt paw paws, but what I found amazed me.  The entire arm and both creeks were dry.  Not simply drying up, muddy, no, dry enough that I could walk across and not sink one bit.  Burdock and sedge were growing almost in a green carpet across the places where water was, but if you looked closely, you could see dry clay, with huge cracks in it. 
At first I was appalled by the fact that there was so little water.  But the more I walked the more I realized that drought can provide opportunities.  For years people have complained that the reservoir was being silted in by runoff from the farms.  Here was an opportunity to return some of the farm soil.  No expensive and destructive dredger would be needed.  Thousands of tons of topsoil that had drained off of land from poor use was ready to be reused.  The complete lack of structure at the lake was evident.  Rock piles, brush piles and fish attractors could all be easily built and placed precisely waiting for the water to return.  Small dams and holes could be created so that the fish that were stranded this time and left to die would have a shot at surviving the next drought.  Bank cover could be planted to help transform the muddy lake into one that could be excellent. 
Too often we see natural cycles of abundant rain and drought as a problem.  We think of too much rain causing floods and too little rain causing drought, but we do not stop and look at these things as cycles.  But we will never have a time when the weather completely cooperates and does exactly what we wish when we wish it.  And if we did have such weather, we would never have the opportunities to easily do what needs to be done.  Many farm ponds need repairs done to their dams, and why go through the trouble of draining the pond if a drought has made it possible to repair anyway. Earthworks that would help to catch flood waters and retain them are built when it isn't flooding. 
Every time we react by judging things only by the negative, we stop ourselves from doing anything but cursing at circumstances.  There are hundreds of things that can be done in any circumstance if we simply have the forethought and will to do them.  We can make improvements to any land, at any time.  We can find ways to mitigate drought and flooding, but we also can find ways to use droughts and floods.  Nothing is static, and we can either fight the changes around us, or use the changes around us.  It is our choice. 

Live a hands on life

Friday, September 14, 2012

Kudzu, the miracle plant that ate the South

If you are like me you have heard horror stories and seen disturbing pictures of kudzu.  Huge swaths of forest decimated by this one plant, street signs overran by climbing vines.  Even cars surrounded by the clinging tendrils of this green monster.  It has become the poster child for the dangers of invasive species.  That is why the book of Kudzu surprised me so much.  It taught me that there is much more to this plant than simply an ornamental that got out of control.
Kudzu is originally from Asia and is used there for the starch in its roots.  Here the starch is often sold as arrowroot.  It is a pure white powder, similar to cornstarch, and with many of the same properties.  It can be used to cook with, and especially can be used as a thickening agent.  Kudzu starch likely has the same industrial applications as corn or potato starch do.  But Kudzu is a legume, and improves the soil that it grows on, unlike either corn or potatoes. 
Kudzu is also a source of forage.  I was always under the impression that it was an ornamental that escaped into the wild and took over.  It wasn't.  Kudzu was used for erosion control throughout the south, often on steep embankments that nothing else would live on.  However, it was originally championed by farmers for its leaves, providing large amounts of forage in very little time, even on marginal land.  The original promoters of Kudzu saw it as a way to use corn, wheat, and soybeans for human use, while improving land and providing forage through the use of kudzu. 
In the South, there were a number of factors for why Kudzu erupted like it did.  One is that Kudzu has a phenomenal growth rate.  One joke says that when you plant kudzu, you should drop the seed and run so you don't get caught by it.  Another factor is that there are few if any natural controls of Kudzu. In its native land, there are numerous insects and animals that have evolved around kudzu, and thus limit its growth.  Another factor is that in Asia where kudzu is native, the climate is relatively cool and wet.  The warm wet seasons provide a boost to kudzu growth.  And lastly, in its native region, kudzu is harvested and used.  In the Southern U.S. there is little use of kudzu, so the vines have no checks to their growth.
Kudzu could be a major crop however.  In addition to the starch content of the roots, and the forage value of the leaves, the stems could be useful as well.  Kudzu stems are woody and are not palatable to farm animals.  However, they could be used for things like baskets, and could likely be a cheap source of cellulose for paper production.  In addition, the stems are fibrous, and like hemp or flax, can be used to produce cloth given the right conditions.  Granted it takes nearly 50 pounds of stems to produce 1 lb of cloth, but rampant growth of kudzu makes 50 lbs of stems relatively easy to collect. 
One of the main advantages of Kudzu is that it is a legume.  Legumes fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and help to improved the soil as they grow on it.  Few legumes offer the multitude of uses that Kudzu does, and few grow as well in a variety of conditions.  There was one case of Kudzu being used as a green manure, where 10 years after the kudzu was grown there was still a difference in yield between the test plot and the control.  If it could provide that much of a help with little or no input, Kudzu would be a boon to organic farmers.
Now I am not advocating that Kudzu be used in areas where it could take over like it did in much of the South.  However, there are conditions that would limit kudzu's growth and make it easier to control.  First would be relatively dry conditions.  Because of its large taproot, kudzu can easily withstand long periods of drought.  It does however need around 20 inches of rain per year or it would have to be irrigated.  It grows best in conditions of up to 40 inches of rain per year, and so the semi-dry areas of the country would be more likely to grow it in controlled situations.  In addition, Kudzu likes warm summers and mild winters.  Places with harsh dry winters have a much easier time to control the kudzu as it is dormant for longer periods.  Through the Midwest it seems kudzu could be used with less of a chance of it dominating the landscape as it does in portions of the South.
Overall, it seems that kudzu mostly has a bad reputation because people were unused to it and didn't know how to use it.  Perhaps if it was grown in areas where it would be limited, kudzu could become a beneficial crop.  And before you start to make the case that kudzu is a non-native species, remember that most of our farm animals and farm crops are also non-natives. 

The Book of Kudzu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi can be found here to read online.

Live a Hands-on life

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What to do with rosehip syrup.

A few weeks ago I posted an article on making rosehip syrup.  I mentioned that it was a good source of vitamin C and of pectin.  But one of the hardest things about having a new food is to find ways to use that food.  For years potatoes were utilized because the farmers were not used to eating them, and didn't see the value of this new food.  So how do we look at new foods, especially when we know that they are good for us. Are new foods a novelty or do they become part of the norm. 
I have been looking at different ways of using rose hip syrup and have found a few that I think are really good.  The first is to use rosehip syrup rather than sugar in tea.  The slight fruitiness of my syrup blends wonderfully with tea, and I am sure that it provides a bit of a pick me up vitamin wise.  I usually drink tea rather than coffee when I am starting to feel sick or when I am not feeling 100% so a boost of vitamins is probably another great thing for those days.
I made a form of cough syrup from rosehip syrup.  I took my normal rosehip syrup, and infused some candied ginger in it.  The ginger is supposed to help with sore throats and upset stomachs, and I find the taste delicious with just a bit of the spiciness of ginger in it.  I may try adding a little horehound (a very little goes a long long way) to suppress coughs, but this may make it too bitter.  I will update you on the future of rosehip cough syrup.
I found I can make a fairly pleasant shrub with it.  A shrub is a vinegar based drink, mostly popular before refined soft drinks became the norm.  It takes a fairly concentrated rosehip syrup to make shrub that has any kind of rosehip flavor.  Basically you mix the rosehip syrup with vinegar in a 1-1 ratio.  Allow a few days for the vinegar to mellow a bit.  You then use the new syrup mixed with soda water or lemon-lime soda to make a fruity sour beverage.  The sourness helps the drink to quench your thirst and is a lot like lemonade on a hot day. For some reason sour beverages just seem to refresh you more than sweet ones do. 
The last use I found for the syrup is rosehip rice pudding.  Using the syrup as a substitute for sugar in rice pudding gives a faint fruity taste that can blend well with the cinnamon that is usually in the pudding.  I find that it tastes like Christmas with fruit and spice flavors blending remarkably well.  While it is not remotely an every day dish, the substitution of the syrup for sugar can be used in a variety of desserts and would help to provide more vitamins than sugar alone does. 
Perhaps by using things like rosehip shrub, we will wean our taste buds off of the intense sweetness of sugar and learn more appreciation for the other flavors of life.  Either way, rosehip syrup makes a great addition to the pantry, and one you can make yourself.

Live a hands on life