Pokeweed etymologies and red-colored dyes


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When we saw a pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) specimen yesterday on our way to the Mauer Park, we were surprised and excited at the same time. For us, pokeweed evokes the warm weather and charms of the American South where the plant has a long history of medicinal and culinary use. We certainly did not expect to see it in Prenzlauer Berg! Unfortunately we missed it at the peak of its fruit production but at least we were able to get some pictures of the last few berries clinging to their stems…

The culinary use of pokeweed remains controversial at best, although poke salad made from the boiled young shoots of the plant is considered a delicacy in some parts of the southern U.S. (and at one point could even be bought canned in grocery stores!). Still, there is little doubt that pokeweed contains powerful toxins which can cause severe poisoning when the plant is eaten raw. The berries grow in clusters and – with a little stretch of the imagination – might be said to resemble grapes (see the recent story of an elderly woman who thought this was the case). All in all, pokeweed can reward the experienced forager, yet is rather unforgiving to the unexperienced as ethnobotanist Peter Geil writes in his post about the plant.

Pokeweed is native to the US but also grows in Europe, and in Germany it is known as “Kermesbeere” (Kermes berry). The German Wikipedia entry simply states that the name Kermes is derived from the Persian word for red. But why would the Germans rely on the Persian word for red when they could simply call it “Rotbeere”? The article fails to mention an important link: namely, the Kermes scale insects which were used as the source of crimson red dyes for millenia (until cochineal from the New World replaced as a main source for the color red). Since pokeberries were often used to make red dyes in the past, the German name most likely refers to the Kermes insects which were used for the same purpose.

The American name of pokeweed is derived from the Native American word “pocan” (alternately spelled “pokan”) which means red dye or blood red. Apparently, the Declaration of Independence was written with fermented pokeweed and it was so often used to write letters that it is also known as inkberry or inkweed. If you’d like to make your own purple-colored ink, take a look at this article!


Lingering Summer: the yellow flowers of Greater Celandine


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In our wish to extend the warmth of summer a little longer, we’ve decided to feature a herbaceous plant whose little yellow flowers dotted the city throughout the summer. If you look around carefully, you can still find a few late bloomers along the sidewalks and railroad tracks! The first frost is just around the corner so this is your last chance to see the pretty little flower before the winter sets in.

Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) has an illustrious history that reaches back to antiquity, and it never fails to impress any hands-on observers who quickly discover that a broken stem excretes an incredibly bright orange latex. This latex is loaded with useful toxins and, in alternative medicine, is used to get rid of warts (much like fig latex). In European herbalism, celandine also has a long history of use against liver and gallbladder ailments.

In recent years, celandine has become better known in connection with its possible cancer-fighting properties. In fact, the drug Ukrain reportedly uses compounds from celandine to fight several types of cancer including lung, kidney, breast, pancreatic, and skin cancer. Still, the drug remains controversial and is not approved for use in the US or in most European countries (although celandine is on the Commission E – Germany’s regulatory agency for herbs – list of approved herbs).

Sorbus species in the Scandinavian Neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg


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Bornholmer Strasse runs through our neighborhood as it heads west to the famous Bösebrücke (the first border crossing that opened when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989). Like other street names in the area, it is distinctively Scandinavian. The Danish island of Bornholm – among other places around the Baltic sea – is home to the Swedish Whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia), a medium-sized tree that is frequently featured in landscape architechture. Swedish Whitebeam and the two other Sorbus species mentioned below line both sides of Paul-Robeson-Strasse just west of Arminplatz (see our Berlin Plants map). The bright red Sorbus berries announce their presence in mid-summer and last well into November. When harvested at the correct time and properly cooked, all Sorbus fruits on Paul-Robeson-Strasse are edible, although their sometimes bitter or mealy taste is best tempered in jams.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), sometimes called Mountain Ash, has a distinguished history as a tree with magical and medicinal properties, in addition to having fruits that were traditionally used in jellies to accompany game meats. They are best harvested after the first frost (see bletting) and used for making spirits or jams. The mashed and sieved fruit can be used to flavor bread dough and the dried fruit can provide a sour snack or flavoring for tea. The fresh fruit eaten in large quantities can upset the stomach, although it is hard to imagine anyone enjoying the bitterness of the fresh fruit for more than a few berries! Rowan fruit contains vitamin C and is the source of sorbic acid, a preservative you may have noticed on food labels.

Common Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) is known as “Mehlbeere” (flour berry) in Germany, a name best understood when eating the dry, mealy berries of the tree. Like Rowan, whitebeam fruits are generally harvested after the first frost and their preparation and use is very similar to Rowan fruits, although their taste is quite different. Tea made from the fresh berries has been used as a general stomach regulator: used for both loose bowels and constipation. The bitter seeds contain low levels of cyanogenic glycosides similar to what is found in apples, cherries and other fruit seeds, hence they are best avoided.

The Sorbus genus comprises a large variety of species; for more information and interesting trivia, take a look at this blog which is devoted entirely to Sorbus trees!

whitebeam berries

Sorbus intermedia tree

Sorbus aucuparia

Sorbus aria

A Report from the Provence


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This past week we have been visiting our favourite aunt in Southern France, and have decided to report on some of the beautiful plants, which we’ve been observing during our frequent walks through the Provence. We hope that our readers will tolerate this geographical detour in our blog and trust that you will find something of interest here – otherwise you are welcome to leave us angry comments 😉

Although the Provence is often associated with lavender, any wanderer who ventures into the uncultivated countryside will likely first cross paths with thyme (Thymus vulgaris). The small, herbaceous plant is visually unassuming but very dominant in the olfactory landscape of the Mediterranean maquis. Thyme is fundamental to much of the cuisine of Southern Europe, but it also has a long history of medicinal use – among other things – as an antiseptic and antifungal remedy.Thymus vulgaris

Blue Stonecrop (Sedum reflexum) is another common plant which thrives in the dry climate and poor, rocky soil of Southern France. Like most other Sedum plants, in addition to being visually captivating, Blue Stonecrop is also edible. The leaves can be eaten raw in salads and sandwiches or cooked in soups and have a pleasant, but slightly astringent taste. Sedum plants are also used as sturdy, drought-resistant plants in ornamental landscaping as well as in green roof architecture (for example in New York).Sedum

Wild asparagus (Asparagus acutifolius) is a native plant of the Mediterranean Basin. Unlike the wild asparagus of Euell Gibbons, this plant needs no stalking as it grows bountifully just about everywhere in the Provence. In the spring, the young shoots of the plant are considered a delicacy worthy only of serious gourmands since the taste is considered particularly intense. In Italy, the parboiled young shoots are sautéed with onions to make delicious frittata or used as a main ingredient in mouth-watering risotto.

Terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus) is a small tree typical of the gentle slopes of the Provence and the Mediterranean region. The resin from the tree has been used since antiquity as a source of turpentine, hence its other common name, turpentine tree. Throughout the southeastern Mediterranean, terebinth fruits and young shoots have been used as flavouring in bread making, brandy and other culinary adventures (see for example this article on the use of terebinth in Crete). Unfortunately, all of the terebinth trees that we saw during our explorations of the Provence were diseased: a gall-inducing aphid preys on this particular species of Pistacia tree throughout the Mediterranean.Pistacia terebinthus

Yew: the life-giving “Tree of Death”


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Unless confronted with more elaborate topiary forms, the urbanite is only passively aware of the importance of hedges in landscape architecture.  Yet, the usual simplicity of hedge rows serves as a clear visual reference for the boundary between wild and cultivated, or public and private spaces. In short, hedges serve as green borders whether functional (see the Great Hedge of India) or aesthetic. In Berlin, the European Yew (Taxus baccata) is commonly employed as a hedge, although this particular use of the yew grossly understates its historical and medicinal significance.

The yew is one of the most ancient trees of Europe and a number of living specimens are thought to be thousands of years old (for example, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland). The earliest known wooden artifact is a yew spear, and the flexibility and durability of the yew tree have made it a preferred material for weapon-making throughout the centuries. The yew achieved notoriety in military history as the source of the renowned English longbow, the long range and deadly force of which helped win many battles for the English.

In the 1960s, compounds from the bark of the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia) were discovered to have anti-cancer properties. Today, Taxol (or paclitaxel) is considered an effective drug in the fight against ovarian cancer. However, before the active compound was successfully synthesized, the bark of four grown yew trees was only enough to treat a single cancer patient, so it is no surprise that the Pacific Yew quickly became an endangered species.

All parts of the yew (also known as “Tree of Death”) are extremely toxic, and concoctions made from the leaves and seeds have been used to commit suicide since ancient times. Yet, as any fearless forager knows, the flesh of the red berries (called arils) is edible and deliciously sweet. Care must be taken to eat only the berry and to completely avoid the seed in the middle! In Germany, the yew has been named “Giftpflanze des Jahres 2011” (poisonous plant of the year, 2011) in order to create awareness of its toxicity and possible fatalities due to its ingestion.

Taxus baccataTaxus baccatayew berries and seeds

Nightshade series #3: Jimson weed


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The nightshade family is a prolific provider of natural poisons, a byproduct of the plants’ alkaloid arsenal in their fight for survival against insects and would-be predators. Despite our intimate relationship at the dinner table with many members of this family, some nighshades have earned a fearsome reputation as porters of mad dreams, and in some cases even death.

Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is an annual shrub that is widespread in warm and temperate climates around the world. In Berlin, it often grows in wastelands, although it can easily be encountered along sidewalks or in parks. During late summer and fall, jimson weed is particularly easy to identify because of its unusual spike-covered fruit and its elongated, attractive white flowers.

All cultures that have come in contact with Datura spp. have quickly become aware of the effects of its consumption. In smaller doses, the plant has the effect of causing sleep and stupor; yet upon further use hallucinations and delirium set in. Historically Datura spp. has been used, among other things, in shamanistic rituals and initiation rites, but the possibility for recreational use and abuse has always been present. Recently, art historian David Bellingham has argued that Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” depicts the gods in the throes of Datura induced delirium. However not everyone is convinced, since the painting was likely completed before Columbus sailed for the New World and a number of botanists believe that Datura stramonium is native to the Americas.

In Haiti, Jimson weed has the nefarious reputation of being used in zombification, which is considered a crime under the Haitian Penal Code. As far-fetched as it sounds, Datura stramonium is thought to be used to revive corpses and induce the psychological stupor characteristic of slow-moving zombies (see this article for more). Hence Jimson weed’s local Haitian name: “zombie cucumber.”

urban jimson weedDatura stramonium

Nightshade series #2: Apple of Peru


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A native of South America as its common name suggests, the Apple of Peru (Nicandra physaloides) is an annual that is incredibly resilient and well-adapted to vastly different environments, from the tall mountains of Peru to the metropolis of Germany. In some Midwestern states, such as Ohio, it is an aggressive, invasive species that often colonizes soybean fields. Its other common name is Shoo-fly plant, which conveys the plant’s chemical prowess in keeping bugs away. To this end, people familiar with the properties of the plant will rub some crushed leaves on their skin as an impromptu, organic insect repellent. Still, being part of the nightshade family comes with a lot of misunderstandings. Depending on the source, the Apple of Peru is generally classified as either poisonous or mildly poisonous, but there seem to be no scientific reports regarding the actual toxicity of the plant and its effects on humans. In contrast to the friendly name it has been given in English-speaking countries, in Germany, the Apple of Peru is somberly called “Giftbeere” (poison berry). Yet, in parts of Tanzania, the young leaves of the plant are eaten regularly and even considered a delicacy (according to a recent Finnish study on wild plants used by the Sambaa). It is possible that certain methods of preparation are used which lower the level of alkaloids, thus making it more agreeable to the digestive system. As for the “apple” or “berry” of the plant, it is a dry and rather colorless fruit encapsulated by a bladder-shaped, papery husk. Perhaps the reason we know so little about whether or not this fruit is poisonous is due to the fact that it looks entirely unappetizing (especially in contrast to the tasty-looking berries of the Chinese lanterns discussed in our last post!). Leslie Kuo, a fellow forager and plant enthusiast (at Urban Plant Research), has described us as “adventurous foragers” but we are – admittedly – not adventurous enough to try this strange fruit! So we will simply content ourselves with admiring its beautiful lavender flowers…

Nicandra physaloidesGiftbeereNicandra physaloides

Nightshade series #1: Chinese lantern


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People watching is a widespread practice among urbanites all over the world and although Berlin may not have the popular squares of Rome, it does have its share of sidewalks lined with cafés. When the weather permits, neighborhood cafés and bars appear to spontaneously expand onto the sidewalks. This allows for better people watching, but it also gives us the opportunity to enjoy the little sidewalk gardens that are springing up more and more frequently around the city. A number of business owners have taken it upon themselves to beautify their sidewalks by planting flowers in the small rectangular spaces of concrete-free earth that used to (and sometimes still do) house ornamental trees. On the other hand, some of these gardens have been created by guerilla gardeners who actively reclaim these abandoned spaces and turn them into beautiful, green oases. Lastly, a third type of sidewalk “garden” exists: these are the accidental gardens, which plants have inhabited all of their own accord. It is in this last space where we have recently come across a number of fascinating plants, several of which are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and which have inspired us to do a series of posts on a few nightshade species that grow in Berlin.

Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkakengi), otherwise known as Bladder cherry, Winter cherry, Cape Gooseberry, or even “Love in a Cage,” makes a stunning contribution to the autumn colors that Berlin is beginning to display. However, its bright orange, bladder-shaped husk (calyx) is not purely ornamental; it also hides a perfectly round and equally colorful fruit in its center. This little “winter cherry” is edible when ripe and is filled with twice as much Vitamin C as lemons, but the unripe berry, along with all other parts of the plant, is poisonous (due to the same solanine found in tomato leaves and raw potatoes) so care must be taken when harvesting these fruits! The plant has a long history of herbal uses including anti-inflammatory, fever-reducing, and cough-suppressing treatments.

After coming across one of the above-mentioned “accidental gardens” which could barely contain all of the Chinese lanterns that had made their home there, we were instantly intrigued. The brightly-colored lanterns look similar to the Physalis fruits which can be bought in grocery stores throughout the city, so we decided to investigate further. Once we learned that the fruit was indeed edible, we immediately tasted them and decided they would be a great ingredient for homemade salsa. In fact, the sweet and slightly acidic undertones were complemented perfectly by the tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. See our recipe and photos on our Foraging Recipes page. Now we just need to figure out where we can buy some decent tortilla chips in Berlin!

winter cherryPhysalis alkakengiPhysalis alkakengiPhysalis alkakengi

Where the wild hop grows (among the remnants of the Berlin Wall)


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A quick look at our plant map betrays our precise geographical preferences for urban foraging and nature observation. The still largely undeveloped no man’s land along the former Berlin wall provides a sanctuary for many wild plants that would otherwise be regimented to more formal landscape practices. These abandoned spaces serve an important function because their lack of landscape architecture helps disrupt the plant blindness often found in city dwellers. The familiar patterns of trees lining a street one after the other, neatly trimmed bushes and meticulously mulched flower beds are non-existent in these spaces; here, plants can no longer be confined to our peripheral vision as mere ornaments but, rather, take on a central role of their own.

It is in one such space, known as the “Nasses Dreieck,” where we found – next to a pile of concrete remnants of the former Berlin wall – a plant whose history is firmly intertwined with what the English speaking world regards as a quintessential German product, namely beer. You may have already heard of the “Reinheitsgebot” or German Beer Purity Law. The law came into effect in the early 16th century and it dictated the only permissible recipe for beer: the holy trinity of barley, water and hops.

The rise of Common hop (Humulus lupulus) from botanical obscurity coincides with the success of the plant’s female flower cluster in keeping beer from spoiling. Using tea made from hops was thought to have sedative powers since ancient times, but otherwise the plant seems to have had relatively little medicinal value compared with other plants. Before the introduction of hops in the beer brewing process, an herbal concoction known as grut (or gruit) was responsible for preserving the precious liquid. The Common hop’s fate as a species was sealed when it began being cultivated in Germany for brewing beer in the 11th century. After it became popular in the use of beer brewing, the plant was eagerly examined for other possible uses and health benefits, and continues to be researched even today; for more about the medicinal value of hops, see this recent article from the American Botanical Council.

The unusual configuration of hops twisting around a birch tree next to the railroad tracks, the large remnants of the Berlin Wall stacked into a haphazard pile, and the old, half-way destroyed sofa sitting next to them, all disrupt our automatic mode of urban vision that traditionally assigns plants a passive, ornamental role…. Here, we can actively reflect on the role of urban nature and the history of botanical species. The only thing missing from this experience is a nice pint of beer!

The beauty and power of Turkey Tail mushrooms (a detour into the Fungi Kingdom)


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As you may have noticed, temperatures have lowered and humidity has increased due to the frequent rain we’ve been receiving lately. In Berlin this marks the onset of mushroom season, a time when cockeyed hordes of mycophiles descend in the woods around Brandenburg looking for tasty treats. However, this does not mean that the city itself is fungus-free: a common and strikingly beautiful dweller of Northern woodlands is also frequently found in Berlin.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) often colonizes decomposing pieces of wood and can be found (among other places) on large tree stumps in the city’s sidewalks. True to its Latin name, the mushroom comes in many colors, which, coupled with its undulating shape, makes for a mesmerizing spectacle. However, there is much more to this mushroom than meets the eye!

Turkey Tail has a long and esteemed history in traditional Chinese medicine and it is also one of the most medically researched mushrooms in the world. A compound isolated from the mushroom is used to boost the immune system in conjunction with regular cancer treatment. In particular, the mushroom has shown great promise in the treatment of breast and lung cancer. The mushroom is also edible although it is rather chewy and does not have much flavor. In alternative medicine, it is often prescribed in tea form for various illnesses. Finally, the versatile mushroom can also be used to dye fabrics or, alternately, fade their colors. Compounds from the mushroom are industrially used as an environmentally-conscious bleach to give jeans their “faded” look.

Although this mushroom is common, it is often mistaken for False Turkey Tail (Stereum ostria). To tell the two apart, it suffices to observe their undersides. False Turkey Tail completely lacks the pore surface of its lookalike. For a complete identification key, see hereTrametes versicolorTrametes versicolor