Monday, February 20, 2023

Rattlesnake Master


One of the most unique, or dare I say, unusual plants growing in Missouri tallgrass prairies is rattlesnake master. This native herb is found throughout the Central and Eastern United States. Their scientific name Eryngium yuccifolium comes from the Greek reference to their spiky appearance and their yucca-like leaves. This plant looks like it belongs in a desert setting, rather than a tallgrass prairie. To me however­­ they resemble the spiky musk thistles we are all familiar with. They are not related to either of these plant families, but rather the carrot/parsley family. If you crush or break open a leaf-- the smell of carrot or parsley will waft its way to your nose giving away the plant’s heritage.

These plants are made for Missouri’s ever-changing weather, and the hot drought conditions of summer. They have massive root systems that store water when rain is in low supply. They grow in most any soil condition but do better in well drained soils that get full sun. Lack of sunlight and too much water will make weak plants that topple over. They reach heights of four feet; however taller plants have been recorded. Each multi-branched stem may produce ten to forty spiky heads. Each head may contain 106 individual small greenish white flowers. A single plant can produce up to 4,240 individual flowers! The leaves are long, spiny, and sword-like, much like the yucca plant it is named after. They bloom from May through the first of July, but some plants continue to bloom well into September.

This perennial also goes by the names button eryngo, button snake root, corn snake root and sea holly. These common names hint at their importance to Native tribes, such as the Mesquakies, for their ceremonial and medicinal uses. John Adair (January 9, 1757 – May 19, 1840) an American pioneer, soldier, and politician, documented that Native Americans would chew the root of the rattlesnake master, and spit it into their hands. Thus, preventing rattlesnakes from biting them during ceremonial handling of rattlesnakes. Incidentally, Adair County in Missouri is named in his honor. The dried seed heads were also used to create ceremonial rattles.

The sap and roots were used to make a bitter tea to treat fevers, spasms, urinary issues, whooping cough and breathing problems. Chewing the root reportedly increased your appetite and could increase saliva production. A poultice could be made from the root to treat rattlesnake bites, and to help aid the healing of the umbilical cord of newborn babies aiding in it falling off. Probably one of the most historically valuable uses for this plant was in making textiles. As far back as 7,500 years ago Indigenous people used the fiber of this plant to make shoes, clothing, and purses. This was especially true for tribes in the Midsouth (Ozark regions) and the Southeast. Many of these fibrous creations have been found partially intact today.

The Cherokees name for this plant translates to “a little base of mother corn that encompasses all” and describes the leaves of the plant which resemble the leaves of corn and surround the base of the plant.

This perennial takes roughly two to three years to produce the unique seed head and is spread by seeds dropping to the ground. It can spread readily in the right conditions and makes an interesting addition to any flower garden. Numerous butterflies, bees, wasps, and other pollinators love the heavily fragrant flowers and are frequent visitors. Goldfinches, quail, and pheasants eat the seeds during the winter, making this an important food source. Voles, and other rodents eat the crowns of the flower heads effectively destroying the ability of the plant to drop seeds for next years crop. In areas where rodent populations are large this can have devastating effects.

Rumor has it that if you have a fear of snakes, planting this wildflower near your front door will effectively keep snakes away.

Will this plant treat rattlesnake bites? Probably not, always best to seek professional help in a situation like that, rather than relying on finding a nearby plant and taking the time to create a poultice that may or may not work. Will it prevent a rattlesnake bite in the first place? Definitely not! Native American peoples, as well as early settlers had knowledge of the plant life around them and utilized it the best way they could to help in often devastating circumstances with limited results. It is interesting however to learn about how plants and animals got their name and for what they were traditionally used.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Elf Ear Mushrooms


Mushrooms are a favored food of foragers, me included. The benefits of mushrooms has long been known and in recent decades individuals are beginning to once again recognize and revive the art of collecting, preserving and consuming mushrooms in the name of culinary variety and health. Reasons for collecting mushrooms are many, they are delicious and add an interesting flavor and texture to your recipes. They are rich in minerals and amino acids thus providing many benefits to your health. Another benefit to collecting mushroom is the environment where they are found. Is there anything more relaxing, or rejuvenating than a walk in the woods? Spending time outdoors in nature has its own health benefits, but when coupled with the activity of mushroom hunting the benefits are twofold. Researching edible mushrooms and heading into the woods to find what you researched is a fun family adventure that feels very much like an Easter egg hunt. How exciting it is when you spot that elusive morel, or other edible mushroom you’ve always wanted to try.

 For many of us the morel mushroom is as adventurous as we get when it comes to mushroom consumption. The reasons are many, but generally it is because we just aren’t sure what else is safe to eat. We have all heard the old adage “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” The risk is real and many mushroom varieties can and do make people ill or may even cause death in some instances. If you do not feel confident in your identification abilities, it is certainly not worth risking your health. However, there are many great guides available for identifying mushrooms and there is a whole community of mushroom hunters that are happy to share their knowledge and help you navigate the sometimes complicated world of mushroom ID. This community of mushroom hunters, and enthusiasts is another reason to give mushroom hunting, beyond the morel, a chance. These are often amazing people and can become new friends in short order.

One mushroom I plan to try in the future is called the elf ear mushroom. These fungi look like the missing part of a Van Gogh self-portrait, and are found growing in temperate forests. Occuring predominantly on elder trees, but may be found on dead or live sycamore, ash and beech trees as well. They go by many names including wood ear, cloud ear, rat ear, tripe fungus, black fungus, and Judas ear. The name Judas ear comes from folklore. The scientific name of this mushroom is Auricularia auricula judae, which eludes to it being named after Judas. It is believed by many that Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve apostles, who was known to have betrayed Jesus, hanged himself on an elder tree. After learning of Jesus’ fate following his betrayal he could not live with the guilt of what his actions caused, and he took his own life. To this day the elder tree sprouts “ears” as a sign of the torment of Juda’s spirit as it remains trapped in the tree for eternity. The common name of elf ear comes from their resemblance to human ears, or pointy little elf ears. These mushrooms appear different from the typical umbrella-like mushrooms we are all more familiar with. Lacking a visible stem, these mushrooms grow directly from the bark of a host tree. Elf ear mushrooms function as a decomposer on dying trees and speed up the decaying process by feeding on the remaining sugars the tree is producing, thus breaking down the organic matter in a more efficient manner.

 Elf ears are a type of jelly fungus, and while described as flavorless, are considered a choice edible by many, meaning they are highly valued. Jelly fungus get their common name from the gelatinous, jelly-like texture of their fruiting bodies. They can feel rather slimy to the touch, and this may be off-putting to some people. If you can get past the texture, the benefits of these mushrooms make it worth adding to your foray into mushroom eating. These mushrooms contain iron, protein, fiber, and vitamins B1 and B2. In Asian culture they are  considered delicious as well as medicinal and are added to dishes to help improve breathing, circulation, sore throats, and overall well-being, and to help reduce colds and fevers. If you suffer from clotting issues, an acidic component within the mushroom has been found to have some effect on reducing blood coagulation. The ongoing research of mushrooms in medicine is vitally important to humans. Much remains to be learned, but many drugs derived from mushrooms are currently in use and have either improved or saved lives. Ongoing research is promising for additional medications to be developed utilizing mushrooms of all kinds.

 Elf ears can be dehydrated and later hydrated by soaking in water for an hour. These mushrooms can be added to salads, casseroles, soups, and other recipes. Their cooked texture is described as chewy and toothsome, and said to pair well with Asian dishes and are often added to hot and sour soup. While stir frying is an acceptable way to prepare these mushrooms, it is recommended to not fry them like you would a morel, as they explode! Some people indicate these mushrooms can be eaten raw right off the tree, I personally wouldn’t recommend eating them this way. It is much safer to always cook mushrooms.


 When it comes to mushroom hunting the benefits are many. Not only are many mushrooms a delicious addition to recipes and add variety to your diet, in many cases they also provide medicinal and health benefits. Connecting to nature by exploring the woodlands and using your observation skills to locate mushrooms is a fun and exciting family adventure. Or maybe you prefer a solitary foray into the woodlands, allowing for peace and comfort in the rejuvenating properties of the forest. Either way, finding mushrooms is sure to bring a smile to your face and satisfy your desire to sample new foods you have foraged yourself. Happy mushroom hunting but remember always know what your picking.