“Free” Food

 

It’s late summer and my garden is in high gear with green beans and zucchinis multiplying at light speed. So too are the wild fruit-bearing plants on our 35-acre paradise. Last year I discovered that chokecherries, golden currants, and wax currants growing on our land here in northern Colorado. I’m the gatherer in my marriage, so I gathered loads of berries and made my first-ever jam (just not a jam person). It didn’t jell properly, but it was proclaimed delicious. Even I tried it on waffles and loved it.

SNOW!
Wax currant blossoms.
Golden currant blossoms.

This spring, I anxiously watched the buds swell on currant bushes and chokecherry trees. Then, in early May – disaster! A late, heavy snow crushed bushes, froze flowers, and kept bees in their hives, resulting in few flowers and fewer pollinated. However, nature is resilient and I discovered pockets of currants and chokecherries that survived the rigors of our spring and the drought of mid-summer to produce enough berries for a small batch of jam.

Chokecherry flowers.

I picked all the ripe and nearly-ripe berries I could find. Songbirds warbled around me protesting my thievery, but I ignored them. Don’t worry, I left them some, just seemed the right thing to do. I picked three different batches and refrigerated them until the weekend. When I’m picking berries, I imagine how it must have been to be a pioneer or a Native American gathering food and preserving it for the winter ahead. I wonder if children had contests to pick the most or the biggest berries. I sometimes wonder if Laura and Mary Ingalls raced to see who could fill their pails the fastest. Have to do something to occupy your time.

Wax currant berry.

I used the recipe I found last year and started the jam-making process.

http://highaltitudegardening.blogspot.com/2006/08/chokecherry-jam-recipe.html

Remember to stir, stir, stir. Cherries and sugar can get pretty sticky and may burn to the sides of your pot.

Golden currant fruit.
Chokecherries.

Add 1 cup of water to every four cups of cherries.

Simmer over low heat until fruit is very tender.

Use a large spoon to press the chokecherry pulp through a sieve. (Three cups of pulp make about 3 half pints of jam.)

Add an equal amount of sugar to match the amount of chokecherry pulp.

Put sugar/chokecherry mixture back on the stove and cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.

Cook to a temperature of 9° (F) higher than the boiling point of water. *According to Aunt Lillian, this temperature check will deliver a rich flavor and thick consistency.

Pour into hot, sterile jam jars to approximately 3/4 full.

Seal and process in a boiling water bath for about 15 minutes.

Give the jam 24 hours to slowly cool.

Simmered fruit pulp to be mashed through a colander.
Jam with pectin simmering in pan.

I gathered about 6 cups of chokecherries and currants combined. To this recipe, I added about a ½ of frozen store-bought slice peaches, because they were getting freezer burn and needed to be used. I also used classic pectin to help jell the jam, following the package directions.

After an afternoon of washing, simmering, smashing through a sieve, cooking with the pectin added, sterilizing 4-ounce jam jars, lids, and rings, filling the jars, adding lids and rings, and boiling for 15 minutes in a water bath to seal the jars, I was exhausted. I produced 9, 4-ounce jars of jam and an 8-ounce plastic container for my husband. The classic pectin worked perfectly and the jam is wonderful. It was also a boatload of work for a small amount of jam.

Nearly finished!

Gathering wild berries might seem like free food, but there is a high cost in time and energy. I don’t regret the afternoon spent reviving ancient food preservation skills and inhaling the aromas of wildness and sugar bubbling on the stove. Last Christmas, I handed out nearly two dozen tiny jars as gifts. This year, my family and friends will have to be very, very good to wrest these tiny gems from my rosy-stained fingers!

Cactus article accepted!

I just submitted a popular article to the Cactus and Succulent Journal and it’s been accepted for publication! Cacti Conundrums should be out in the September-October issue. I discuss my growing obsession with the small, round cactus species I’ve found on our property in northern Colorado.

Here’s an excerpt:

“When I took a break from unloading the U-Haul, I sat down on the grass along our gravel driveway. I glanced down and noticed a small, cylindrical cactus by my left hand. “Cool, columnar cactus,” I thought. “I wonder what kind they are?” I had no time then to figure out what it was, plus my plant keys were in a moving box and the computer wasn’t hooked up. I sighed and returned to lugging furniture from the U-Haul.”

Our home in the foothills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pincushion cactus (Escobaria vivipara)
Nylon hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus).
Mountain ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii).

 

 

 

 

 

Out and about without Scout 03/05/2017

Scout, my young American Brittany and walking companion, had better things to do today, so I walked the property alone. So sad, but look what I found! Half of a worn out, rusty horseshoe. Pretty cool. The horses were interested in what I was looking at and came over to inspect. They’re glad they don’t have to wear shoes.

Yazzie, my husband’s Rocky Mountain Horse mare.
Quincy, my paint gelding.

Out and about with Scout – 02/26/2017

Rabbit tracks in fresh snow

I have an 18-month-old American Brittany named, Scout. He’s a boy scout, not a girl scout. I take him for a run almost every morning around our 35-acre property and we see all sorts of things. Today it was the Rabbit Highway – why I worry about my wild cacti! http://nancyrileynovelist.com/?p=116

Possible bobcat tracks.

We also spotted these tracks. We think it could be a bobcat! We have observed a bobcat roaming across our land twice this winter. Pretty exciting stuff for wildlife biologists!

 

 

Rabbits eating cactus – continued …

Nylon hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus vridiflorus).

Last summer I marked the locations of over 250 nylon hedgehog cactus plants (Echinocereus viridiflorus). I planned to start a study of some kind on these plants. As time passed, I removed many of these flags and replaced them with roof nails with bright orange plastic collars. I could push these into the soil and the plastic collar was flush with the ground. Easy to mow around, when necessary for weed control, and would not hurt if one of our horses stepped on it.

Bare spot with white root stump of a nylon hedgehog cactus eaten by rabbits.

As noted in my previous post  http://nancyrileynovelist.com/?p=116, rabbits have taken a toll on these marked plants. In several spots, I found a depression where the plant had been – just the marker left to show a cactus had been there. Just a random observation of 12 markers showed only two plants remaining.

When I was surveying for the Colorado hookless cactus (Sclerocactus glaucus), botantists from the Bureau of Land Management told me that around 2008-2009 many individual cactus disappeared, probably eaten by rabbits. Most of the plants they were finding in current surveys were no more than approximately five years old. This is important information when working with a federally listed (Endangered Species Act) species. The goal with every listed species is to recover it to the point that it can be removed from the list. If rabbits are decimating a local cactus population, it would be beneficial to know methods to protect plants, deter rabbits, and propagate more cactus.

Later this spring, when the cacti are most visible, I will conduct a survey of my marked plants and estimate the amount of rabbit herbivory or predation. This will give me a starting point for studies on my property.

I have not been able to get close enough to video rabbits eating these cactus. The largest nylon hedgehog cactus on my property are about 1.5 inches in diameter and around 2 inches tall. Below is a video I found on YouTube video of a rabbit happily munching a much larger cactus to illustrate my point of how much damage one rabbit can inflict.

 

 

Do rabbits eat columnar cactus in Colorado?

Yes, rabbits eat columnar cactus in Colorado. Darn it!

Nylon hedgehog cactus in bloom.
Mountain ball cactus in bloom.
Spinystar or pincushion cactus in bloom.

 

 

 

 

 

When I moved to my current home north of Fort Collins, Colorado, in September 2015, I discovered three species of columnar or globose (round) cactus growing on our land. I found hundreds (really) of nylon hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus viridiflorus), a dozen or so mountain ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii), and three spinystar, pincushion, or

Colorado hookless cactus in bloom.

nipple cactus (Escobaria vivipara). I was very excited because I’d spent the previous two summers searching for another small columnar cactus, the federally threatened Colorado hookless cactus (Sclerocactus glaucus), over near Debeque, east of Grand Junction.

 

Last year, I located all these plants on my 35 acres. I flagged them, began to collect field information, I watched them grow buds and bloom. I practically named them! Then, the spring snows and rains ended and the summer heat arrived. Little moisture came with it. As summer turned to fall, my cacti began to disappear, gnawed by rabbits. One day a nibble, the next a bloody root stump left, often with a pile of droppings left as Peter Rabbit’s calling card.

Mountain ball cactus eaten by rabbit.
Same cactus two days later, looking like a bloody stump!
Colorado hookless cactus nibbled by rabbits.

 

 

 

 

 

Are there others who have suffered the same ravages to their cacti or garden plants?