Nature’s Corner – Persimmons – Jam On A Tree

Nature’s Corner
Persimmons – Jam on a Tree
by
Jessie Wilder

Fall is my favorite time of year. The trees look all gussied up, the smell of wood smoke is in the air, nights are cool enough to throw on an extra blanket and the forest holds a special treat if you know where to look. I’m talking about wild persimmons.

Picking persimmons is not advisable. These astringent fruits have so much pucker power when unripe that my Granddaddy used to say, “They’ll turn your face inside out.” That’s why the fruits have to be so ripe that they fall from the tree or fall with a gentle shaking. This usually happens around the time of the first frost. My grandparents would put old quilts under the trees to collect the fallen fruit. Native persimmons are much smaller than the cultivated varieties you find in the grocery store. About 5 of 1”-2” fruits fit in my palm. Ripe fruit are extremely soft, barely holding together inside the thin skins. Animals enjoy these fall delights as well, giving rise to common names of the persimmon tree like possum wood or deer candy. They have a spicy, rich apricot flavor and hold flat, dark seeds. The seeds were used as buttons during the Civil War.

Native persimmons are in the ebony family, can grow to about 60 feet and have dark, scaly bark and yellow fall leaf color. It takes about 100 years for the heartwood to turn dark and become the hard ebony wood that is popular in woodturning. They grow in bottomland or in well-drained forest openings. Male and female trees are needed to produce fruit. For those who enjoy foraging for wild food, this is the time of year to start keeping an eye on the trees as the small, sunset-colored fruit begins to ripen.

The ripe fruit may be eaten raw, cooked or dried and is high in Vitamin C. Native Americans make bread using the fruit pulp which can also be fermented into beer. A tea can be made from the leaves and the roasted seed is used as a coffee substitute. The pulp has also been used as a glaze for pork or possum. Persimmon pudding was one of my grandmamma’s favorite desserts to make. She would serve it for Thanksgiving and it had about the same texture as bread pudding. The pulp is extracted using a food mill or a potato ricer, separating out the pulp from the seeds and skins. The pulp will keep for 6 months in the freezer.

Perusing the Internet for recipes I found this one dating back to the 1930’s from Cleo Isenhour Barrett who lived in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Aunt Cleo’s Persimmon Pudding

Combine 1 stick of melted butter with 2 cups persimmon pulp, 1.5 cups of sugar, 1.5 cups of milk and 3 beaten eggs. To this mixture add 2 cups of flour, one medium, grated sweet potato, 1 tsp. baking soda, 1 tsp. allspice, 1 tsp. cloves and 1 tsp. vanilla extract. Bake in a greased 13×9 inch pan at 300 for about an hour or until done. Serve with hard sauce or whipped cream.

If you are lucky enough to find persimmon pudding on your Thanksgiving table this year, give thanks for goodness that comes from the forest.

Nature’s Corner – Wild Turkeys

Article courtesy of Jessie Wilder

I was racking my brain to come up with a topic for this column and was distracted by a loud gobbling outside. I got up to close the window and looked down into the face of a wild turkey. He asked me to write about him and I said okay. Walking the roads and trails of Haw Creek I often hear the gobble of wild turkeys echoing through the trees. Small flocks of these beautiful birds can be seen scratching in the soil during the day or flying up into the trees to roost at night. Like most American kids, I first identified turkeys by seeing my Mom prepare this bird for Thanksgiving supper and tracing my hand to draw a turkey for Thanksgiving cards.

Fossil evidence of turkeys in the United States and Mexico dates back more than 5 million years and indicates the Aztecs domesticated turkeys long before Europeans arrived in North America.  The turkey was so important to the Aztecs as a source of food that they regarded the bird as a god. There were two religious festivals a year in the turkey’s honor. According to the Cornell Lab, in the early 1500s, European explorers brought home wild turkeys from Mexico. Turkeys became popular on European menus thanks to their large size and rich taste from their diet of wild nuts. When English colonists settled on the Atlantic Coast, they brought domesticated turkeys with them and they spread into the wild. Over the years they were over-hunted and their numbers severely declined. Conservation efforts in the 1940’s worked to restore this bird to healthy populations in all states. In 1970, there were only 2,000 wild turkeys in North Carolina but that number increased to more than 150,000 by 2009.

In WNC turkeys live in mature oak-hickory forests that also contain beech, cherry, and white ash trees with under-stories of sourwood, blueberry, mountain laurel, greenbrier and wild rose. They eat tree nuts, berries, seeds, and plants they scratch up from the ground. Occasionally they supplement their plant diet with salamanders, snails, ground beetles, and other insects.

In early spring, males (toms) gather to perform courtship displays. They puff up their body feathers, flare their tails into a big fan, and strut around while giving a gobbling call and chump sounds. Toms mate with multiple females (hens). When the hen is ready to nest she scratches out a shallow place in the soil about 1 inch deep and about the size of a dinner plate under a tree or in the middle of a field. She lays between 4-17 tan eggs with reddish brown spots. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, gray foxes, woodchucks, rat snakes, other birds, and rodents will eat the eggs if they find them. The incubation period is about a month and the chicks only stay in the nest one day. Their mother feeds them for a few days until they learn to find their own food. The toms give no care to the chicks. As the chicks grow, they band into groups composed of several hens and their broods.  Turkeys are one of our largest birds with some mature birds weighing in over 20 lbs.

Turkeys get around mostly by walking. Hens will fly when they feel threatened and toms will run. One little known fact about wild turkeys is that they can swim if they need to. They tuck their wings in tight; spread their tails and kick. At sunset both hens and toms fly up to roost in trees for the night where it is safer than on the ground. In our area coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, great horned owls, and people hunt wild turkeys. Some people like to attract turkeys in the yard by putting out corn but beware that this practice also attracts rodents.

I had heard that Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national symbol but found this to be inaccurate. I’ll leave you with this quote to straighten out that matter. “After independence, an early Congress debated the matter of a fitting symbol for its new country, settling on the bald eagle. Franklin was the United States’ ambassador to France and received a newly minted seal of office reflecting the choice. It drew sniggers because the eagle, it was said, looked more like a turkey. Franklin wrote: I am on this account, not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turk’y. For in Truth the Turk’y is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America…. He is, (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that,) a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards, who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.” (From A Short History of the Turkey, by Andrew G. Gardner, Colonial Williamsburg)

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Natures’ Corner – Groundhogs, Our Only True Hibernators

Article courtesy of Jeanie Martin

We know them by a few different names – groundhogs, gophers, woodchucks and whistlepigs. I often see them beside the roads here in Haw Creek standing up on their back legs and chewing wild greens. They also eat acorns, fruit, snails, insects and any garden plants they can steal. The groundhog prefers open country and the edges of woodland. With development and clearing of forests, habitat for these critters has expanded and the groundhog population is probably higher now than it was before the arrival of European settlers in North America.

Groundhogs are the largest member of the squirrel family and have been a source of food, clothing, medicine, and music for generations of Appalachian folk. When I worked as a home health nurse in Henderson County, a few of my elderly patients sung the praises of groundhog meat. The fat would be rendered out before cooking and was used for medicine. People rubbed it on their bodies and claimed it was good for achy joints and for chapped skin in the winter. I was gifted a small jar of groundhog grease one year. I infused some medicinal herbs into it and that salve was one of the best I ever made. Stinky too. Groundhog skins have been made into banjo heads and my friend Doug Elliott has shoe-laces made from the tanned hide of a groundhog. What a useful creature for mountain people.

The groundhog’s burrow is cleverly excavated. The main entrance is usually under a stump, a big rock or sometimes your house. The main tunnel can go six feet underground and be up to 40 feet long with a sleeping chamber, toilet chamber and several escape exits. The burrow is used for sleeping, rearing young and hibernating.

During the fall the groundhog is putting on the last bit of fat it will need before retiring to its burrow to hibernate for the winter. Several individuals may live in one burrow. They are the only true hibernators in these parts and around first frost a groundhog will begin a long winter’s sleep. It lowers its heart rate to 4 beats per minute and it lowers its body temperature down to 38 degrees. Living on its fat stores, it will lose up to half of its body weight by the time it wakes up in late winter or early spring. The breeding season is from early March through mid-April. One month later 2-6 kits are born blind and hairless. They are weaned and ready to build their own burrows by 6 weeks of age.

In the wild, groundhogs can live up to six years with two or three being the average. Coyotes, fox, hawk, bobcats and dogs are their predators and cars hit many as they graze beside the road. At this time of the year in Haw Creek groundhogs should be in a deep sleep dreaming of spring sunshine and dandelions greens. Have a peaceful and restful winter yourselves dear neighbors.

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Nature’s Corner – What Makes a Good Fall Color Year?

Article courtesy of Jeanie Martin

In the next few weeks the trees in the Southern Appalachians will get all gussied up in their fall finery. Ever wonder why some year’s fall color is more spectacular than others? The answer starts with knowing what’s going on in the trees’ leaves.

During the spring and summer the trees make chlorophyll in the leaves, a chemical that allows them to “eat” sunlight and turn it into food. Chlorophyll reflects the color green and our eyes see the reflected color. There are other pigments in the leaves that are masked by the green. Chlorophyll breaks down easily in cold and in sunlight, so the tree makes other pigments to protect the chlorophyll from light and to capture the energy the chlorophyll misses.

These other plant chemicals are powerful antioxidants, the same ones that we are encouraged to get in our food to keep us healthy. One group is anthocyanins and they reflect red or purple. Another group is the carotenoids, which reflect yellow and orange.

As the length of day shortens in the fall, the trees decrease the production of chlorophyll, the green fades and the other color pigments begin to show through. A cold snap will enhance the fall colors as cold breaks down the chlorophyll even quicker.

Conditions for the best fall color would include a warm, wet summer so the trees would have made lots of leaves and pigments. Then a fall that is dry, sunny and cool at night intensifies the color. A cold snap starts the show.   Because we have lots of microclimates in our region, different areas get different weather causing pockets of varied color patterns. Soil pH also plays a part in the red leaves. The more acid the soil, the more bright red we see such as with red maples. The less acid, the leaves turn more purple, like in the sourwoods.   With over 100 species of trees in the Southern Appalachians, the diversity alone ensures us that at least some of the tree species will be having a good year. Enjoy the show this fall Haw Creek!

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