Not a banana – plantain herb

Spring is well and truly sprung and the perennial weeds are popping up everywhere, much to the disgust of proud gardeners and allotment owners. A lot of the weeds have medicinal and edible uses, but some are better than others, and frankly some of them are little more than wild salad “fillers”. However, there’s one particular genus/group of prevalent weeds with medicinal qualities, nutritional benefits and they actually have a taste worth looking for too. It’s the plantain herb (genus Plantago), also known as fleaworts.

As the title suggests, I often find myself saying “it’s not related to the banana-like vegetable which you see at the supermarket”.

Ribwort plantain flower stalks (Plantago lanceolata)

Species

At the last count there were about 200 species in the genus, but I tend to stick with wide-spread, UK-based varieties such as Broadleaf (Plantago major), Ribwort (Plantago laceolata) and occasionally Sea (Plantago maritima) and Buckshorn (Plantago coronopus); All of which have very similar properties and uses. They all have slightly different seasons, with Broadleaf tending to pop-up first, then Ribwort a little later, and Buckshorn and Sea Plantain from about mid-summer; As with all of these things, it depends upon your location, and the current weather conditions.

Identifying plantain

It’s easy to ignore and walk all over, because it is a very common weed, and without its flower heads it blends into the grassy background easily; But once you’ve learnt to recognise it, you’ll see it everywhere. Whilst the basic leaf shapes may vary (Broadleaf has wide, round leaves; Ribwort has long, strap-like leaves), there are some features that they all have in common:

  • Parallel leaf veins – The leaf veins run from base to tip and are usually easy to see. If you’re really careful, you can tear a leaf and the ribs can stay attached so you have two halves of a leaf attached by threads.
  • Flower spike – They all send up a long flower spike with tiny veins.

Eating plantain herb

General rules of foraging withstanding (look for potential contamination, condition, wash it, etc.), plantain leaves, stalks and flower heads can be eaten raw – and this is where the surprising taste comes through. At first, it’s a bit of a plain “green” taste, but give it a good chew, get your juices flowing and get it to the back of your mouth and… Mushrooms. If you’ve never tried Plantain before, you really have to give this a go; I promise you won’t be disappointed. The most intense flavour seems to come from the flower heads (they’ll be out in a few months’ time), but the leaves give the same flavour too.

Recipes

Crisps

A very quick and easy snack. Wash and dry your plantain leaves (I find that broadleaf works best for this) and put them into a shallow pan of hot oil. Don’t overcrowd the pan or they’ll just wilt and not crisp up. Give them up to 30 seconds, turning once if necessary, then drain and eat as a nice little snack. They can be salted while they’re cooling too, if you like.

Vodka

This was a mad idea I had one day of getting an earthy, mushroom flavour into cocktails. Leaves and seeds infused in vodka for 3 months, then strained. The earthy flavour counterbalances sweetness, but I find a little bitterness really lifts it. So mixed with nettle cordial for the sweetness, a few splashed of home-made bitters (or Angostura), and topped with tonic water works well.

Plaintain infused vodka bitters

Plantain herb and garlic mustard risotto

This is your full recipe for this issue. Apart from the fact that it makes a really good flavour, I’ve sold this idea to learner foragers who are scared of mushroom picking – It means that you can have a mushroom and garlic risotto with no mushrooms or garlic!

Plantain herb and garlic mustard risotto

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 large white onion
  • 4 large handfuls of plantain herb leaves, stalks and flower heads
  • 2 litres of water (to make 1 litre of stock)
  • 250g Risotto rice
  • 1 handful of garlic mustard leaves

Method

  1. Put 2 handfuls of leaves, stalks and flowers in a couple of pints of water, bring to the boil and simmer for at least 1 hour. Allow to cool and strain out the plants. Add the remaining fresh plants and simmer again for 1 hour, then strain.
  2. If the stock isn’t already reduced to 1 litre, simmer it again to reduce.
  3. Fry a chopped onion in a little oil until golden.
  4. Add the risotto rice and toss in the onion and oil.
  5. Add a little plantain stock and stir until it is soaked up.
  6. Repeat until the rice doesn’t soak up the stock any more, then put the rest of the stock in.
  7. Keep on a low heat until all the stock is gone and the rice is thick and sticky.
  8. Remove the risotto from the heat and stir your sliced garlic mustard leaves through.

NOTE: Garlic mustard leaves can have a very bitter after taste but cooking them can kill the gentle garlic flavour. We stir them through at the end like this, because a little heat tames the bitterness without destroying the garlic flavour.

Health benefits

Plantain has a long history of being used in traditional herbal medicine, and for very good reason. Modern investigations have shown most traditional uses are actually highly effective.

Plantain is “mucilaginous” which means that it has a soothing effect on both the skin and the mucous membranes, so it is an effective relief for burns, bites and stings, as well as on coughs, sore throats, and urinary tract infections. I’ve found that it is best used as a fresh, first-aid herb for burns, bites and stings – you can crush the leaves with a little water and apply directly; If it’s for me, I’ll chew them with a little spit and apply it. For internal injuries or issues, you can make a tea from either fresh or dried herb. Just pour hot water over the leaves and allow to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes. As well as mucilage and its soothing, anti-inflammatory ability, studies have found that Plantain contains allantoin, a substance proven to stimulate the regeneration of tissues for healing, and aucubin, with proven antibiotic actions.

Summary

To native Americans, this was known as “White man’s footprints” because it spread wherever the European settlers went. Apart from kids using it as an improvised gun, or the species Plantago psyllium used for improving digestive transit, this little weed gets largely ignored; I hope that after reading this, you’ll realise its amazing food and medicine benefits and make good use of it.

Originally published in The Bushcraft Journal Issue 25 - 2019

Lime or Linden Tree Flowers – Tilia x europea

As something I’ve been aware of for some time, and looking out for Linden tree (Lime) flowers in the local area; I was pleased to find a big, old Linden tree not far from where I live. And it was positively overloaded with flowers.

Just for clarification, with these trees the name “Lime tree” and “Linden tree” are interchangeable. They are not the tree which bears the lime fruit. Also, I’ve titled this Tilia x europia (common Lime) because that’s the tree I found. It’s equally applicable to Tilia platyphyllos (Large-leaved Lime) and Tilia cordata (Small-leaved, Lime).

The flowers are usually within reaching distance anyway (unless the lower branches have been trimmed), but as an added bonus, this tree was on a slope too, so a lot of branches were at waist height, for easy picking.

Tilia x europea – Common Lime (Linden)

Identification

  • Common Lime is a deciduous, broadleaf tree, native to the UK and quite common.
  • The bark is pale grey/brown and has irregular ridges.
  • It is quite common to find multiple shoots growing out from the base of the tree.
  • Twigs are hairy and brown, but can turn reddish when in the sun.
  • Leaf buds are red with two scales; one small and one large. The buds look a little like a boxing glove.
  • The leaves are dark green and heart shaped, usually six to ten centimetres. The base of the leaf is asymmetrical and the underside has tufts of small white hairs at vein axils.
  • The flowers are white-yellow, five petals, hang in clusters of two to five, hang from a bract, and have both male and female reproductive parts.

Uses

So why am I going on about these Linden tree flowers? Well, in the past, Linden Flowers have been used as a herbal remedy for all kinds of ailments, including high blood pressure, migraine, headaches, digestive complaints, colds, flu, insomnia, liver and gallbladder disease, itchy skin, joint pains and anxiety.

Apparently, during the war, Linden was used to make a soothing, relaxing tea. You can imagine why people might have wanted it then!

Personally, I have been known to suffer from mild anxiety, insomnia (of a kind) and joint pains, so I’ll be giving it a try (after doing my own research).

As I understand it, it also makes a nice drink, and as an occasional thing isn’t likely to do any harm

Warning

As always, you absolutely must do your own research before diving into believing the first thing you read online, and also check with your doctor too. Apparently some people have reported allergies to Linden, but apart from that Linden tea is pretty harmless stuff.

What to do with Linden tree flowers

Make sure that you pick the pale green bract that comes with the flowers – you’ll need it all. Also, pick responsibly. Whilst it’s unlikely that you could over-harvest a tree, if you need a lot, make sure you take small amounts from several trees.

linden tree flower

Next step – either dry it for future use (in the sun on a sheet, in your oven, or in your electric dehydrator), or make a tea from it immediately.

Tea

Put a few handfuls of flowers in a pan with one to two litres of water.

Bring to the boil, cover and remove from the heat, and leave it overnight.

Strain out the blossoms and keep the infusion in the fridge for up to three days. You can drink it cold, or reheat it. You can freeze the tea to keep it for longer, or make it into an elixir (thanks to the ladies at www.handmadeapothecary.co.uk for the idea) by adding 50% spiced rum to use as a cold remedy (take 50mls in hot water and go to bed to sweat it out).

Next steps

Coming soon – I plan to make my linden tree flower tea on video…

Judas’ Ear Mushroom (Auricularia auricula-judae)

The Judas’ Ear fungus is one that I was on the lookout for, and came across it by accident. It’s quite unique looking and has been used in food and medicine for a very long time.

Judas’ Ear on Elder

Other Names

The common, but now unacceptable name “Jew’s Ear” probably came about as a corruption of the original “Judas’ Ear”; Which in turn, was probably from the belief that Judas hung himself from an Elder tree. Nowadays, it is considered not politically correct, so it is often referred to as Jelly Ear or Wood Ear. Other names it has had include: Ear Fungus, Common Ear Fungus, Chinese Fungus, Pig’s Ear, Black Wood Ear, and Tree Ear.

Edibility

Judas’ Ear is safe to eat, and has a mild, even bland flavour. It has a soft, jelly-like texture, although older specimens can become quite chewy.

The fruit is used quite widely in Asian cooking, because although it doesn’t have a strong taste, it absorbs other strong flavours quite readily.

Identifying

In the UK, it is mostly found on Elder trees, but has also been found on Beech, Ash and Spindle Wood. It can grow both singly or in a group and it reacts to the weather; After rain, the fruit swell up and look their most ear-like; After a dry period, the fruit shrivel and are much harder to find.

Judas’ Ear Fungus

They can be pink, pale brown, often with a purplish hint when young, turning dark brown or even black when old. They’re between 3 and 8 cm, and ear shaped, sometimes cup shaped in young fruit. Often covered in downy hairs, sometimes the wrinkles resemble veins, making them even more ear-like.

They usually develop new growth in January, so late winter/early spring can be a good time to look for them; Especially after rain, as they tend to fill out a bit when wet.

Food use

Judas’ Ear has been recorded as having been used for food from ancient times in China, as well as other parts of Asia, Africa, and Poland. It is often cooked in soups and used dried to thicken stews.

Medicinal

This fungus has a much stronger background of folk medicine than as food. It has been used as a poultice to treat eye infections, and as a palliative to treat sore throats. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it would have been boiled in milk or steeped in beer to produce the throat medicine.

In China it was used as a soup to treat colds and fevers, and more recently, in Ghana as a blood tonic.

Some research has been done into the medicinal attributes of Judas’ Ear, the most noteworthy including: It was investigated for use as an anti-tumour, but the glucans extracted from it were ineffective1. However, a more recent study in the 1980s showed that they were effective2. A polysaccharide extracted from it has been shown to have a hypoglycaemic effect and could be used in treating diabetes. Other chemicals extracted from it have had anticoagulant abilities and have been shown to lower general cholesterol levels, particularly LDL cholesterol3.

Uses of Judas’ Ear

As a “trail food”, that is, something you can pick off a tree, clean and eat, it can be quite a good gum substitute, and the anti-cholesterol properties are not to be ignored.

Dried, it can be added to all sorts of stews and sauces to thicken them, as an un-processed alternative to flours, because of it’s absorbent abilities.

My favourite use, second to chewing on them raw, is as an ingredient in Hot and Sour soup. If I ever find enough of them in a place where I’m allowed to collect them, I’ll let you know how it goes…

References

http://www.wildmushroomsonline.co.uk/Identifying-Edible-Mushrooms-The-Jews-Ear/1.php

  1. Misaki, A.; Kakuta, M.; Sasaki, T.; Tanaka, M.; Miyaji, H. (1981). “Studies on interrelation of structure and antitumor effects of polysaccharides: antitumor action of periodate-modified, branched (1→3)-β-D-glucan of Auricularia auricula-judae, and other polysaccharides containing (1→3)-glycosidic linkages”. Carbohydrate Research. 92 (1): 115–29. doi:10.1016/S0008-6215(00)85986-8. PMID 7196285.
  2. Ikekawa, Tetsuro; Uehara, Nobuaki; Maeda, Yuko; Nakanishi, Miyako; Fukuoka, Fumiko (1968). “Antitumor activity of aqueous extracts of ediblemushrooms”. Cancer Research. 29 (3): 734–5. PMID 5813100.
  3. Yuan, Zuomin; He, Puming; Cui, Jianhui; Takeuchi, Hisanao (1998). “Hypoglycemic effect of water-soluble polysaccharide from Auricularia auricula-judae Quel. on genetically diabetic KK-Ay mice”. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry. 62 (10): 1898–1903. doi:10.1271/bbb.62.1898. PMID 9836425

Birch Polypore (Fomitopsis betulina – formerly Pitptoporus betulinus)

Large Birch Polypore

This polypore is quite an incredible fungus, well worth knowing how to identify it, and definitely worth harvesting for its health benefits (the usual rules of collection apply). The first time I was certain that this was what I was looking at, I was very excited and like most of these things, when you’ve positively identified it once, you see them all the time.

Other Names

Fomitopsis betulina – recategorised in 2016 as studies suggested that the species was more closely related to Fomitopsis than to Piptoporus.

Pitptoporus betulinus – Piptoporus comes from the latin meaning ‘pores cast down’ and betulinus from its host tree, the birch.
It is also known as birch conk, birch bracket, and razor strop fungus. The razor strop comes from the fact that it has been used as a tool to get that final extra sharp edge on your knife, and has been used by barbers for their cut-throat razors. The name polypore refers to its many pores, situated on the underside of the fruiting body from which the spores are released.

Edibility

It is edible, but it has quite a bitter aftertaste so it’s not the most desirable for food, but it is not poisonous.

Identifying

Birch tree with Birch Polypore
Dead Birch tree with Birch Polypore

Birch Polypore are brown on top, and white underneath with many spore holes. They grow on dead or dying Birch trees, and they erupt from the surface of the trunk. It has a rich, mushroomy smell, but opinions are divided on that – you’ll have to make up your own mind. I’ve also heard it said that infected trees smell strongly of green apples, but I have yet to experience that. The birch polypore grows from a single lateral attachment point on birch trees, being a small white ball at first, then expanding to a bracket measuring approximately 10-20 cm across. It is white to begin with, the cap changing to a beige/tan colour and then darkening or greying with age. The underside is white and contains many pores which release their spores into the air.

Birch Polypore Underside

Spores land on exposed areas of birch trees, where branches have broken for example, and  grow hyphae which spread to form the mycelial network through the tree. It is considered weakly parasitic on birch trees, a healthy tree will be able to contain the spreading hyphae; but in one that is aged or diseased the fungus will begin the gradual process of breaking it down. The fruiting bodies are annual, unlike some of our other common bracket fungi which may live for years, but they are often gnawed by insects before the end of this period so they are better picked young.

Background

Birch polypore grows freely in the temperate forests of Europe and also North America and its ethno-botanic uses have been wide and varied. From medicine to tinder, knife sharpener and sweat band, this fungi has been employed in many more ways than your average mushroom. Like the more famous tinder fungus, Fomes fomentarius, it is able to carry a spark from one campsite another, easing the task of firelighting, and in more recent times it was cut into strips and used to sharpen knives, especially by those who could not afford leather, giving it its common name, the razor strop fungus.

Otzi birch polypore

It became very well known after it was found on the body of Ötzi’, a 5300 year old mummy found preserved in the ice in the Italian Alps. Amongst his kit Ötzi’ carried two strips of hide onto which had been threaded pieces of birch polypore. As he was later found at autopsy to be infected with intestinal parasites against which the birch polypore is active, it has been theorised that he was carrying them as treatment and also as a possible anti-septic incase of minor injuries.

Medicinal Uses

As I’ve already said, medicinally, this is an amazing polypore. Its properties as an anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, anti-bacterial and styptic properties alone make it really good for making a immune tonic or tea to be taken once a week to boost your immune system. Birch polypore contains primary metabolites (polysaccharides) and secondary metabolites (such as triterpenes) that are beneficial for health. Research also backs up its traditional uses.

However, research has also shown that the natural compounds in this fungus can be effective in fighting HIV and Cancer! Yes, really.

It has been shown to be a useful support in the treatment of cancer in a number of ways. Alongside providing general support to the immune system, it also inhibits angiogenesis, the formation of new blood cells which occurs in tumour growth. In one study anti-cancer effects were “attributed to decreased tumor cell proliferation, motility and the induction of morphological changes. Of note is the fact that it produced no or low toxicity in tested normal cells.”

(1) Another in vitro study on colorectal cancer showed that “Studied extracts highly decreased the viability of cancer cells, slightly inhibiting proliferation and tumor cell adhesion in a time- and dose-dependent manner.” (2) It also found that the extracts studied had very low toxicity to normal cells making it a safe and effective treatment.

One facet of the birch polypore’s healing actions is the concentration of betulinic acid which it potentiates from it’s host tree. Betulinic acid has been shown in various studies to initiate apoptosis, or death of cancer cells. (3) In 2001, an extract of birch polypore containing betulinic acid showed useful antiviral action against HIV by blocking its reproduction. (4)

How to use Birch Polypore as an immune boosting tonic/tea

Storage

Mushrooms don’t keep for very long once you’ve picked them, so how you keep them is important. Drying is the best method to keep them for longer and have them still be useful. Once dried you can keep them in a paper bag, or a sealed jar in a dry place, out of direct sunlight.

Tonic/Tea

My favourite way of using Birch Polypores is in a tea, which can also be frozen so I’ll usually make up a load of it, and put some into ice cube trays to use in the future.
Being a fungus, and not tea leaves, it’s not enough to put some pieces on hot water. Therefore, you need to put your fungus into gently simmering water for an hour. You can make 1 cup of tea/tonic with 6 to 8 grams of mushroom; So weigh your polypore pieces and adjust accordingly to make a batch.
Sometimes, the taste can still be a little bitter, so why not freeze the extra into ice cubes. You can drop these into soups, stews, gravy etc. to disguise the taste but still get the health benefits.

Other uses

As well as a razor strop and sticking plaster, as mentioned earlier, apparently it has also been used for the fine polishing of metals, making ink blotters, and for mounting insect collections. One use that would have been important in ancient times, is that it takes a spark well, and can be used to carry fire over long distances. Therefore allowing people to move around without the hassle of fire-lighting from scratch.

References

http://www.wildfooduk.com/mushroom-guides/birch-polypore-mushroom/

  1. Lemieszek et al – Anticancer Effect of Fraction Isolated from Medicinal Birch Polypore Mushroom, Piptoporus betulinus – Int. Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms. 2009; 11(4): pages 351-364.
  2. Cyranka M et al –. Investigation of antiproliferative effect of ether and ethanol extracts of birch polypore medicinal mushroom, Piptoporus betulinus Int. Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms 2011;13(6): pages 525-33.
  3. Fulda S – Modulation of Apoptosis by Natural Products for Cancer Therapy -Planta Med 2010; 76(11): 1075-1079.
  4. Kanamoto T. et al –. Anti-human immunodeficiency virus activity of YI-FH 312 (a betulinic acid derivative), a novel compound blocking viral maturation –. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 2001; 45(4): pages 1225-1230.
  5. Kawagishi H. – Novel hydroquinone as a matrix metallo-proteinase inhibitor from the mushroom, Piptoporus betulinus – Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2002; 66(12): pages -2748-2750.
  6. Kemani Wangun et al. – Anti-inflammatory and Anti-hyaluronate Lyase Activities of Lanostanoids from Piptoporus betulinus – The Journal of Antibiotics. 2004; 57 (11): pages 755-758.
  7. Kamo T. et al – Anti-inflammatory lanostane-type triterpene acids from Piptoporus betulinus – Journal Nat Prod 2003 66 (8): pages 1104-1106.

Turkey Tail Fungus

On a recent trip to Epping Forest, I came across some bracket fungus growing on an old log pile. I didn’t know what it was at the time, so I took some pictures with the intention of identifying it later.

Turkey Tail Fungus
Turkey Tail Fungus on old logs

So here I am and it looks like it was Turkey Tail Fungus, one of the polypore mushrooms. It has many pores on the underside instead of gills to distribute its spores.

Can you eat it?

I’ve done a bit of research and I’ve found that whilst it’s not dangerous to eat, it is tough and tasteless, so not worth the effort.

So is it any use?

Well, according to many reputable sources, Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) is very useful as a medicinal. A simple internet search brings up many brands of Turkey Tail fungus extracts for multiple ailments all around the world.

Cancer fighting

The big news appears to be that Turkey Tail fungus could be useful alongside conventional therapies for fighting cancer (https://www.hindawi.com/journals/isrn/2012/251632/). Apparently it has good immune system boosting properties. However, due to the fact that it has been used widely for a long time, it is unlikely that it could be patented, therefore the pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t be able to make money out of it, so research is unlikely to continue to be funded.
Some websites claim that studies in Asia have found that it can double the life expectancy of cancer patients, but they don’t cite their sources so it’s hard to verify.
Huffington post has an extensive article if you want to know more – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stamets/mushrooms-cancer_b_1560691.html

How is it used?

Nowadays, you can buy extracts from organically grown Turkey Tails. Traditionally, it was either boiled into a soothing tea, or chewed like gum! I may well give the tea a try, but I won’t be using it as gum! Boiling will kill any contaminants (including bugs), soften the flesh and extract the soluble polysaccharides (which are the medicinal compounds).

Identification

This site has some well structured information for identification etc. but basically, it has the multi-colour, fan shaped upper side that you can see in the pictures above. It has a white underside, with barely visible pores (up to 3 per mm), and white flesh. If it doesn’t have the white underside, it could be Velvet-Toothed polypore (Trichaptum biformis) with a violet, toothy underside, or the False Turkey Tail ((Stereum ostria) but that is more petal-shaped, hairy, and has a brown underside.