A Taste of the Wild: Watercress

A Taste of the Wild: Watercress

By: Steve Roark

If you want to experience the taste of a wild fresh vegetable in the dead of winter, give watercress a try.  Picked at the right time, it makes a good addition to a salad or as a cooked green.

Look for watercress growing in cold streams and especially spring openings, often growing in dense mats of green floating on the water.  The leaves grow off the main stem in multiples of 3 to 9 small, oval leaflets.  The entire plant is succulent and has a pungent mustard greens smell.  Please note that with any wild plant, be sure to correctly identify it, and eat only a small portion the first time in case of food allergies.  Pick watercress from waters you know are not polluted.  I only gather it from springs near their underground source.

Watercress photo.jpg

Watercress is best in the dead of winter, picking the younger leaves and stems.   It becomes more bitter when it blooms in springtime (tiny white flower with 4 petals growing on a stalk out of the water). Treat watercress as you would any cooked green.  Wash them thoroughly and cook by steaming or boiling.  If they are too bitter for your taste, try boiling them in two changes of water. Cook until leaves are tender.

For salads, pick the tender young terminal leaves, wash, and refrigerate until used.  Add to a lettuce salad and enjoy the peppery taste and healthy vitamin content. Watercress is high in vitamins A, C, and iodine.  It has been used in the past as a diuretic, blood purifier, used to treat lethargy, rheumatism, heart trouble, bronchitis, scurvy, and goiter.  In India a leaf extract is used to correct vitamin deficiency.  A good book on wild edible plants is A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, by Lee Peterson.

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A Weird Twist on Snow

A Weird Twist on Snow

By Steve Roark

A lot of folks had their first taste of snow recently, and since snow is more welcome during the Christmas season, I decided to use it as this week’s topic.  Trouble is I’ve written several articles about snow in the past, so I had to dig harder to find something fresh to write about. I did find something surprising, that I’d have to classify as weird science.  It involves something called heavy water, so prepare to go sub-atomic.

Heavy water is heavier than water-water because instead of having the normal two hydrogen atoms, it has a version of hydrogen atom that has an extra neutron in it, called deuterium (also called heavy hydrogen). So instead of H2O, heavy water is D2O, or deuterium oxide.  It still has all the properties of regular water, but slightly heavier. Planet wide, around one water molecule out of 6000 is a heavy water molecule.snowflake2.jpg

It turns out that snow contains around 40% less heavy water than normal water. And some research in Siberia suggests that plants watered with melted snow grow twice as fast as those watered with normal water.  This would be a definite plus for plants growing in the far north that have a short growing season but lots of snow melt water to give them a boost.  The science guys have determined that D2O slows down some chemical and biological processes, and so when heavy water molecules are reduced, plants grow faster.

This brings us to the final question: why is there less heavy water in snow? To explain, let’s start with a humid air mass that’s traveling from a warm climate to a cold one. As the humid air cools, some of the water molecules will condense and fall out as rain along the way. The heavier D2O molecules have a higher tendency to condense than normal H2O, and so the humid air mass will gradually loose a higher percentage of heavy water molecules as rain. By the time conditions are right for it to snow rather than rain, the water in snow has a reduced amount of heavy water.

Heavy water is nothing new, as deuterium was discovered in 1932.  It was important during World War II in the research and development of nuclear fission, something both Germany and the United States were racing to figure out for nuclear weapons use.

All this has got me wondering. Making snow cream is a family tradition that I still love because it tastes soooo good! Could it be that less heavy water means a better tasting snow? Just sayin.

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Lesser Known Christmas Traditions

Lesser Known Christmas Traditions

By: Steve Roark

The Christmas traditions we are all familiar with: Holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees, all were imported to the US from Europe, the United Kingdom in particular.  There are other traditions still celebrated in the United Kingdom that never caught on here, some of which go beyond Christmas Day.

Boxing Day:  December 26th is known as St. Stephen’s Day, also called Boxing Day in Britain. And started 800 years ago. It was the day when the alms box (a collection box for the poor) was opened in Parish Churches so that the contents could be distributed to people in need. A lot of Churches still carry on this tradition.  It was also the traditional day that servants got off to celebrate Christmas with their families. The St. Stephen celebrated on the 26th is the martyr Stephen in the Bible who was stoned for his belief.  Sporting events, especially soccer and horse racing, are commonly done on Boxing Day.

Wren Day:  This is an Irish custom also celebrated on December 26th and is also based on St. Stephen. Legend has it he was forced to hide in a bush from his enemies, but a chattering wren gave him away.  In the past a wren was killed to pay penance for his misdeed and hung on a stick along with a holly bush, and then paraded around the village. Nowadays only the holly bush is used with no wren.  This procession is called ‘Feeding the Wren’.

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Mumming: This is an ancient pagan custom that was an excuse to have a party.   It means ‘making diversion in disguise’. The tradition was that men and women dress up in odd clothes or costumes and go visiting their neighbors, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a silly plot.  In Medieval times it had turned into an excuse for people to go begging around people’s houses and committing crimes. It became so bad that Henry the 8th made it illegal. Early settlers from the U.K. took the custom of Mumming to Canada, where it is known as Murmuring. It’s banned in most places because it’s still used it as an excuse for begging.

Wassailing: A very ancient custom seldom done today. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’. To drink to each other’s health, a beverage called wassail was made using mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar, and was served from huge bowls, often made of silver or pewter.  A great deal of ceremony developed around the custom of drinking wassail. The bowl was carried into a room with great fanfare, a traditional carol about the drink was sung, and finally, the steaming hot beverage was served.  The song ‘Here we come a-wassailing’ refers to this celebration.

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Chestnuts Roasting

Chestnuts Roasting

By: Steve Roark

One of the more popular Christmas carols is “The Christmas Song”, sometimes called “Chestnuts Roasting”.  The first line goes (sing it with me): “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”.  It occurred to me that most folks sing it with only a vague idea of what it means, so allow me to illuminate.

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Chestnuts are of course the fruit of the Chestnut tree, and there are several varieties worldwide.  They have been a food source for centuries.   Our native American Chestnut produced an excellent nut and our eastern forests were so prolific with them that it was said that a squirrel could jump from Chestnut tree to Chestnut tree from New York to Georgia without ever touching the ground.  Native Americans used them extensively, and wildlife fed heavily on the nut crops, especially the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  The American chestnut fell prey to a foreign blight in the 1930s and was all but gone by the 1950s.  A sad tale, for it was an awesome tree to behold and its wood qualities were superb.

It was popular both in the old world and new to serve hot chestnuts to family and friends during wintertime and Christmas.  My mom told of placing chestnuts in the coals of a fireplace to roast and eat them.  She and her sister would pick up sack-fulls of the nuts and sell them to the local grocer, who in turn sold them to a distributor who shipped them to the big cities.  There they could be bought raw and cooked at home, or from street vendors selling hot roasted chestnuts.  Eating roasted Chestnuts was such a time-honored tradition around the holidays that it is easy to see its use in a song that generates such lovely and nostalgic mental images.

Beyond our border, the chestnut is considered the most revered tree-food crop in the world, feeding both rich and poor throughout history. From prehistoric times to the present, people have always looked forward to the chestnut harvest, a simple task that involved merely gathering them as they fall to the ground.

Chinese chestnut trees are fairly common in our area, and if you can get your hands on some nuts you might try roasting some.   Here is one method: Before roasting the chestnuts, make a cut in the round side of each to keep them from exploding. Make a chestnut-roasting pan by buying a cheap skillet and punching holes through it with a thick nail. Put the chestnuts in the pan, sprinkle them with water, cover them, and set the pan over a medium flame. Shake the pan frequently and continue roasting until the skins are blackened and have pulled back from the meat where you cut into them; this should take 5 to 10 minutes. If you want to go for roasting over an open fire, fix a long handle to the pan and hold it above a fireplace or wood stove flame, and remember to keep shaking.  Enjoy the holidays and watch out for the Jack Frost nose-nipping thing.



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Having More Squirrel

Having More Squirrel

By: Steve Roark

Squirrel hunting is a popular pastime in our area, second only to rabbits in the small game category.  For woodland owners that want to encourage high squirrel populations, the key is having the right habitat.

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The gray or fox squirrel’s diet consists mostly of nuts, seeds, and fruit (all three referred to as mast) of hardwood trees.  Agricultural grains, mushrooms, flowers, buds, and insects provide variety in their diet.  A single squirrel will consume an average of 1 to 1½ pounds of mast per week, and six to twelve mast-producing trees can usually supply this.  So one key to squirrel habitat is having mature mast trees (trees 60 to 100 years old) available.  Hard mast producing trees include oak, hickory, and beech. Soft mast trees include dogwood, black cherry, service berry, mulberry, and black gum. Squirrel have a liking for red maple seeds in the spring.

A second important habitat need for squirrels are den trees. These are used for nests, shelter, and escape purposes.  Dens are fashioned from almost any tree cavity large enough and has a good entrance.  A good den tree should be at least 15 inches in diameter and contains a small cavity 1 to 3 feet deep with an opening no larger than 4 inches.  The cavity should be at least 20 feet off the ground.   Three to four den trees per acre is a decent number to shoot for.

Some forests lack trees with natural cavities, and you can encourage den formation by partially girdling the trunks of a few soft maples, beech, elm, or black gum trees.  A more certain way of creating dens is to build and place nesting boxes throughout the woodlot.  Nesting box plans are easy to find on line from several state agencies.

Water is important for any wildlife species, and squirrels get it from various sources such as dew, succulent foods, rain, snow, frost, streams, hollow stumps, tree cavities, and ponds.  It’s good to have permanent standing water available during dry periods, and if water is not available they will migrate to areas that have it.  Only small but dependable water sources are needed.

Fence rows are valuable to squirrels that live in small woodlots in farming areas.  They provide avenues of travel between woodlots and provide cover that allows food gathering from adjoining agricultural grain crops.


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Indian Summer

Indian Summer

By: Steve Roark

Indian summer is a name that brings thoughts of balmy, hazy fall days and cool nights.  It is a description of weather conditions rather than an actual season, for no dates exist for it.  The closest time frame I could find was from Henry David Thoreau, who noted in his diary that Indian summer occurs from September 27 to December 13.

The hazy appearance of fall days is produced by frost. When water freezes inside tree leaves, it cracks the cells.  The hydrocarbon compounds inside the leaves evaporate and are released into the atmosphere, giving it a bluish haze.  It is especially noticeable when looking at the mountains from a distance and is probably where the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia got their name.  The Indians had a legend that the blue haze came from a mythical character named Nanahbozhoo, who always sleeps during the winter; but prior to his long sleep he fills his great pipe, and smokes for several days, causing the blue smokiness we see in the sky.  The poem Hiawatha refers to this legend: “From his pipe the smoke ascending, Filled the sky with haze and vapor…Touched the rugged hills with smoothness, Brought the tender Indian Summer”.

From early writings, early settlers believed cold weather and storms came around the autumn equinox, which occurs around September 23. These brief storms were referred to as “squaw winter” or “half winter”, and after they had passed, the true Indian summer began. The earliest mention of the phrase “Indian summer” is in a French letter dated 1778, and mentioned that sometimes after stormy weather, an interval of calm, warm weather occurs that is called the Indian summer. The letter describes it as a tranquil atmosphere with general smokiness and dates its arrival as around the middle of November.


There is one other possible source for the term Indian summer that has nothing to do with fall weather.  In the 1870s the British Parliament passed laws to prevent cargo ships from being overloaded, which involved putting load lines on the sides of the ships, which showed how much of the hull was below water so that the weight of the cargo could be gauged.  Several load lines were needed because a ships’ buoyancy varies.  Fresh water is lighter than salt water, so more cargo can be carried on the ocean.  Cold water is heavier than warm water, so more cargo can be carried in the winter months. Symbols beside the load lines identified which one to use. “S” stood for summer, “W” for winter, and “FW” meant fresh water.  The British East India Company had extensive trade and had ships marked with a load line “I.S.”, which stood for “Indian Summer”.  This actually meant the load limit for ships on the Indian Ocean during its summer, which begins around our fall.


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Deer Hunting Weather

Deer Hunting Weather

By: Steve Roark       

In order to survive, animals have instinctive reactions to the weather, migrating birds being just one example.  By knowing how game animals react in differing weather conditions can up a hunter’s chances of a successful kill.

Deer depend heavily on scent to protect themselves from predators.  They usually respond to a strange scent by bugging out before hunters get close.  Deer move into the wind to better pick up scents.  To take advantage of this, a hunter must move and stay downwind of his prey. This can be determined by the old wet finger trick.

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Deer are also good listeners and will react to either too much or too little noise.  Hunters who walk steadily through the woods will have no luck.  The Indians had a saying, “walk a little, look a lot.”  Deer certainly follow that plan, taking a few steps, looking around, and then continuing.  The best hunting time is often when there is a gentle rain or a little snow.  The leaves don’t crunch, and snow subdues noise.

Deer are used to bad weather, but dislike storms.  In a high wind they can’t hear warning sounds nor locate disturbing scents.  During storms, they choose a sheltered area such as cedar or pine woods, dense river brush, or the lee side of mountain ridges (the side opposite the direction the wind is coming from).  As wind blows over the ridge top it skips over the area just below the ridge, so winds are calm here.

Deer can sense that a storm is coming and will go out to feed in advance of it, because they might have to lay low and not eat for a few days.  After a storm passes, deer come out everywhere and feed.  The best times for hunting are just before a severe storm and during the clearing conditions that follow.  Deer lose some their normal caution at these times.

Knowing the weather habits of animals allowed Indians to hunt big game with a bow that rarely had more than 30 pounds of pull, requiring very close range.  They knew that the winds shift during the day, flowing uphill as the sun heats the slope, but drifting downhill in the cool of the evening.  They hunted into the wind.  By knowing where deer hang out during storms, they were able to surprise them.  Modern hunters can do the same, even those of us that hunt with a camera.

An excellent and entertaining weather reference book is The Weather Companion, by Gary Lockhart


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