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Donovan Wentworth

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since Apr 14, 2012
Michigan - Zone 6a-5b
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Recent posts by Donovan Wentworth

Personally, I've never considered my direct personal health to be what's important about supporting more responsible agriculture. There are billions of people who eat pesticide-laden, non-organically grown food every day and go on to lead reasonably long, healthy lives. The real issues at stake, in my opinion, are the effect on our environment (e.g. saving the bees, topsoil, etc.) and the sustainability of our lifestyles. Industrial ag is still a poison pill, even if eating its produce won't kill you.
7 years ago
Maybe it's balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)? The leaves look similar, balsam poplar does have reddish twigs, and the bark could be similar to what you're describing. I think more information is needed to be able to make an I.D. (such as where you're located, the size and habit of the tree, possibly more photos, etc.)
7 years ago
Well when life gives you autumn olive, make jam (or wine)

I do want to warn against letting the good aspects of this plant overshadow the threat it poses to wild ecosystems and biodiversity, though. Without human intervention, grasslands and prairies as we know them in North America would probably eventually be converted to autumn olive monocultures. Not even wildfires can kill off this plant. I'm hoping ecologists will eventually discover a biological control to keep autumn olive in check, but in the meantime it's up to us to control it. I really don't recommend going out of your way to grow autumn olive, and it would be best to gradually replace any autumn olive on your property with native (or at least non-invasive) alternatives.

There are lots of native plants that can be used as an alternative, by the way. My first recommendation would be the silver buffalo berry, which is a native relative of autumn olive. It has some thorns and the berries are more tart than autumn olive, but it is a good nitrogen fixer and people say the berries make an excellent jam. Elaeagnus x ebbingei is another autumn olive relative to look into.
7 years ago
Since we pretty much know that third one is M. officinalis/albus, here's an interesting compilation of the ways Native Americans used that plant. Besides forage, it's reportedly an effective bed bug repellant and cold remedy, and it smells nice to boot
7 years ago
I'm pretty sure Deb is right that #3 is sweet clover. Sometimes white sweet clover is lumped in with M. officinalis, other times it's considered separate and called M. albus or M. alba. Here are some good pictures of M. albus if it helps you make a positive ID. The University of Michigan Herbarium says that it's an Old World species that is widely cultivated as a forage plant. It is attractive to bees and is "characteristic of recently disturbed places in dry, open, often calcareous ground, such as sand dunes, prairies, and roadsides, as well as fields, railroads, and shores".

MSU lists it as an invasive species in Michigan.

I think that #4 looks a lot like Lespedeza of some sort, actually. If you look up L. procumbens or L. repens (trailing lespedeza and creeping bush clover), you'll see how the leaves are really similar. Lespedeza species seem to hybridize a lot too, so that plant might not fit neatly into one species or another. Is that plant creeping on the ground? I can't really tell from the picture but it kind of looks like it is.

I don't really know about #2. I think I've seen it here in Michigan before, but it doesn't look like any of the Lespedeza species that the University of Michigan lists as being present in the state except maybe L. cuneata. #1 has me totally stumped.

EDIT: The more I look at it, the more I think #2 is L. cuneata (Chinese bushclover).
7 years ago
Plants for a Future has a profile for it, and it cites The History and Folklore of North American Wild Flowers by T. Coffee as saying the fruit are edible and good tasting. It cites Coffee as well as S. Facciola's Cornucopia - A Source Book of Edible Plants as saying that the berries can be made into jelly.

But someone made this comment at the bottom of the page:
'I would be cautious about the edibility of A. racemosa berries. I have checked several other sources, and none list the berries as edible. Indeed, several specifically state that the berries are "inedible." One authoritative source I've checked is Lee Allen Peterson's EDIBLE WILD PLANTS, Eastern/Central North America (the "Peterson Field Guide" to the subject). He is not one of those who specifies the berries as "inedible," but he does not list them as one of the edible components of A. racemosa.'

It seems that if Peterson excluded something as obvious as the berries from his list of edible parts, he must have considered them inedible. Also, there is no record that I've found of Native Americans eating the berries as food. So it seems that the jury is still out.
7 years ago
The University of Michigan's Native American Ethnobotany Database lists many, many uses for this plant but only a couple examples of it being eaten in any way.

"An aboriginal Menomini dish was spikenard root, wild onion, wild gooseberry and sugar," and "Young tips were relished in soups [by the Potawatomi]" are the only examples of it as a food source.

There are only six examples of the berries being used in any way, and all are in combination with the root for medicinal purposes. The Cherokee used berry and root infusions of the plant as "diaphoretics" (herbs that induce/encourage perspiration), antiseptics, and tonics. The Choctaw used the berries and root as expectorants (drugs used to expel phlegm from the lungs), stimulants, and pediatric aids "for many children's complaints". Many other cultures used the roots for just about every medicinal purpose imaginable, ranging from settling upset tummies to inducing abortions.

This database is a great resource, but unfortunately it doesn't go into enough detail about how the Natives prepared and used these plants for all these different things.

So that doesn't necessarily answer your question about whether the berries are edible, but it seems that the Natives didn't really eat them. Perhaps they are edible but the Natives just valued them more for medicinal purposes, or perhaps they didn't consider the berries very good to eat. I don't have any personal experience with the plant myself.
7 years ago
If you're interested in genetic diversity, you won't be encouraging the growth of Russian olive in North America. Russian olive has a tendency to form monocultural thickets and push out more diverse plant life. It isn't simply a non-native plant, it's an invasive one.

The factsheet I posted has a large variety of other plants that can fill the role of Russian olive, so there's really no need to cultivate it if you have access to those other plants.

EDIT: Mollison's comment that all plants are "native to the Earth" makes a nice soundbite, but it ignores a lot of what biologists and ecologists know about the nature of evolution and ecosystem integrity.
7 years ago
@Laura Jean Wilde: There are lots of native alternatives to Russian olive! It mostly depends on what purpose you want to plant Russian olive for, though.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service of North Dakota has made a useful factsheet for finding alternatives. Not all of those plants are native to Ontario, but many of them are. Several of them are food producing plants that I imagine would be perfect for a permaculture garden such as golden currant (Ribes aureum), American plum (Prunus americana. I'm sure its close relative Canadian plum, or Prunus nigra, would work just as well), highbush "cranberry" (Viburnum trilobum), hawthorn (there are hundreds of species, but I know at least the black hawthorn, Crataegus douglasii, is edible. Just don't eat the seeds as they're poisonous!), and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago, apparently edible but maybe not the greatest fruit ever). All of those that I listed are native to Ontario, and probably many others are as well.
7 years ago