Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fruits of the Vine

Nature Watch
By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

With field guides in hand, I stepped onto the dew-laden ground of the Forest Lodge Nature Trail. The sun was shining and the temperature of the late-summer day was warming up nicely. The late summer buzz of the cicadas greeted my ears. It was time to research plants on the trail in preparation of a Fruits of the Vine hike. I was greeted by a heavy-burdened cherry tree, and out the field guides came.

After some moments, I identified, for probably the second or third time (funny how the brain’s retrieval system doesn’t work as well as we age,) this plant as a cherry tree. I observed its alternate, oblong, lance-shaped leaves, and the ripening dark, purple fruit. I took a bite of a ripened berry, and puckered my lips at the bitter, sweet taste. Black cherry is not as highly valued as other cherries because of its taste, but historically has been made as tea made from the inner bark to help cure a variety of health problems. As I was standing near the tree, I noticed the yellow jacket, a wasp that during this time of year is commonly seen around our pop cans or sweet foods as it becomes more eager for food as our summer ends. Several other wasp species also appeared to be sampling the sugar-rich foods.

Chokecherries are another species I identified along the trail. This plant should not be ignored just because it has “choke” in its name. It has a sweeter taste than black cherries, is best harvested when it is ripe, and is eaten mostly as jelly. If you find a chokecherry, be aware that the less ripe fruits with a red tint have an astringent taste. The impact of this astringency causes a dry, puckering feel in your mouth that is caused by tannins. The tannins change the structure of our salivary proteins, causing a sandpaper feeling in our mouths. Astringency tastes unpleasant to many mammals, but birds do not have a “sense of astringency” and so eagerly eat these fruit. Raccoons, chipmunks and deer mice feast either on the fruit, or extract the round seed pit inside. Black bears will often pull chokecherry branches to the ground to strip the cherries right off the plants, damaging the tree in the process. This wild fruit makes a tasty juice, jam, jelly, or syrup for humans.

Other tasty treats to look for right now while out on the Trail or near your house include juneberries, raspberries or blackberries. Try eating American or beaked hazelnuts, or experience a milkweed pod that is about two-thirds grown, known to have a nice vegetable flavor. Be aware, though, that you are competing with squirrels, foxes, deer, ruffed grouse, turkey, woodpeckers, mice, insects, and deer for those delectable wild foods!

For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about exhibits and programs.

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