Plant Walk at Sutter’s Landing Park 2/2

Mugwort in shade in Northern CAMugwort, leafy, in Northern CA

Mugwort. The herb used to brew one of the oldest known beers. It makes a very dark, heavy, bitter beer. It also makes a good component of a marinade.

Equisetum (shave grass) in Northern CA

Equicetum. Shave grass. Puzzle plant. Horse tail. It can be pulled apart (making popping sounds) at the knuckles and then reassembled.

It contains enough silica to be used as a scouring brush. As a tea, it is used to improve hair and nails.

Conyza. Mares tail. Used in WWI for a vanilla substitute, but Heather has tried it and tastes no such thing.

Box elder in Northern CA

Box elder can be tapped for sap, though it’s syrup will never be as rich or sweet as maple syrup. The name is a bit of a misnomer: it is a member of the maple family and is not an elder.

Has whirligig seeds. Young seeds can be steamed and eaten.

Purslane. (No photo.) Notice succulent, lobe-like leaves. Edible and nutritious. Examples we saw grew rather flat against the ground, not up right on stalks. There are no look-alikes of this plant in the area. Possesses tiny, yellow flowers.

Tribulus trebuleris. (No photo.) Puncture weed. Contains testosterone.

California poppy. This flower is recognizable to anyone who’s lived in California for long. Harvesting it invites fine of $500 because it is a state flower (and we live in a liberal democratic society). But it is said to make a relaxing tea, not strongly opiate.

Cotton wood. Oil from the buds of this tree makes one of the best sore muscle salves.

Oak in Northern CA

Oak. 24 oak species in California. All edible. All must be processed to remove tannins from acorns. The many varieties can be approximately categorized as white or red. White oak lacks spikes on its leaves and require less leeching to make its acorns palatable.

Black walnut in Northern CA

Black walnut.

Epizote in Northern CA

Epizote. Smells like turpentine. Add to beans to reduce promotion of flatulence.

Star thistle in Northern CA

Star thistle. It’s good only for bees. Will kill horses. Very prolific.

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Plant Walk at Sutter’s Landing Park 1/2

Taking a page from Matt Crook’s plans identifications in his blog, I thought I’d start sharing the notes and photos from my plant walks on my blog.

Northern California Wild Edible Plant Foraging Society

For a couple of years now, I’ve participated in the Northern California Wild Edible Plant Foraging Society, which consists in going out as a group and identifying both edible and dangerous (and sometimes both) plants in the area.

Heather Pier

The group is led by Heather Pier, an affable and inspiring naturalist rarely short of a story. Heather’s blog offers a wealth of recipes and instructions: She offers several classes each year. I have attended one on acorns and one on elder flowers. Her “sacred smoke” class is coming up soon.

The plants

Click the images to enlarge. It may be that I have misidentified specimens or erred in spellings. Corrections are welcome.


Mustard. Member of the brachia (as is broccoli). This is a crucifer, characterized by four petals and six stamens to the flower. All crucifers are edible. Observe the small, mustard-colored flowers. Yes, this is the plant whose seeds give us the condiment commonly known as mustard. Yes, it is this plant whose seed Jesus encourages us to have faith equal to. No, it’s doesn’t grow into a great tree in which birds can roost. (At this point, one supposes that Jesus meant even if your faith begins as small as a grain of mustard seed, you can develop it until it grows into a tree so large that birds would roost in it. Clearly, a strict interpretation of the mustard seed analogy is not well-placed, since the Mustardseed is far from being the smallest of seeds.) wild grape Wild grape. Makes a great jelly (Heather says). Wild grape is not uncommon in the area. I know of one on my street (in addition to several tame grapes in neighbours’ yards.) The one pictured here was growing in and around a great elder bush.

great elder bushripe and unripe elder berries

Elder. You can see that this one grows quite tall, surpassing twice the height of any person in our group. Most of these berries, it appears, are not ripe yet. Black, blue, and red varieties of elder exist. All parts are poisonous except for the berries and flowers. When harvesting the berries, collect them into a bag and freeze them right away. Once frozen, strike the bag against a hard surface, and the berries shall immediately come free of the stems for easy gathering. For red elderberries, remove the seeds before consuming; cooking alone won’t do the trick. Native Americans used the wood for flutes, clackers, and arrows. Chicory in Northern CA Chicory. Observe the beautiful purple flower. Dry the roots and grind, then combine with dandelion to make bitter coffee.

Heather is wont to point out that our diets include little of bitter. Bitter foods promote bile production, thus contributing to digestion.

Datura in Northern CA

Datura. We were told that you can crush the leaf to get a strong peanut butter smell, but we were unable to produce the smell in the sample that we found. Don’t smoke it. Heather reports that those who smoke it never get over the effects, end up in lunatic asylums (asyla?). Heather soaks her feet in it after a hike to ease pain.

Native blackberry in Northern CA

Native blackberry. This is the first time I can recall seeing the native variety of blackberry in the area! Blackberry is quite common where I live, but when I have identified it in the surrounding towns, it has always been the invasive and very prolific Himalayan blackberry. The two varieties are said to differ only in leaf count: the native variety has three leaves, and the Himalayan five.

Latuca in Northern CA

Lactuca. This is a bitter, edible green with a dandelion-like flower. Good in salad. Gives off milky sap.

Universal Edibility Test

Milky sap in plants is used by some as an indication that it is unsafe. In particular, it is used by the Universal Edibility Test, promoted by the U.S. military.

Heather comes from a military family and reports that she has been involved in some training of troops and has cultivated hey dislike for the Universal Edibility Test. It results in many false positives and many false negatives, some of which may not kill you in the next few days but will kill you several years in future. The Universal Edibility Test advocates testing an unknown plant by rubbing it on a patch of sensitive skin, waiting eight hours, nibbling a bit and spitting it out, waiting eight hours, eating just a little bit, waiting eight hours, etc. you can probably see a couple of flaws with the test.

What stands out to me is that most forage provides nutrition but little or no energy. It would be most remarkable to be able to subsist on forage alone without the cooperation of the village. So even if one man is to use the you eaten the two identify an abundance of edible plants, he hasn’t insured the food supply in the event of a long sojourn; therefore, I think he should have used his increments of eight hours to travel to the friendly side of the enemy line. Willow in Northern CA Willow. One can find willow on every river.

Everyone is familiar with the aspirin-like properties of willow. Boil some water, then steep the willow overnight, and you have an aspirin substitute to drink. It does not contain aspirin itself but rather the components of aspirin, which your body can combine and use. Willow water provides vitamin B12.

White willow is best, but any willow will do. To reliably distinguish between types of willow, use a key and identify them in wintertime.

Wild radish flowering in Northern CAWild radish pods in Northern CAWild radish flowering in Northern CA

Wild radish. Raphinus genus. The juvenile pods are edible and do in fact have a lovely radish-like flavour. The pods can be pickled but will smell awful. (I say this from personal experience.) Flowers are yellow, pink, or white.

Wild oats in Northern CA

Wild oats. Most of the year, most of Sacramento is brown. So to the wild oats, as seen in the photo. Earlier in the season, they are green and have a drop of milky sap in the top.

We had two herbalists on our walk this morning. One of them had this to say about wild oat: “It brings moisture back to dry areas, ladies. It will make you a better lover.” Soak the milky oat tops (when green), infuse, then drink. It relaxes. Add shave grass to oat infusion for calcium supplement.

Black locust

Black locust. Entirely poisonous except for flowers. Flowers make lovely pancake. See Heather’s blog for recipe (

Milk thistle desiccated in Northern CA

Milk thistle. Liver regenerator. Modern liver prescription is synthetic form of chemical from mil thistle. Chew a lot before swallowing in order to get benefit. The one you can see here is severely dry.

Every thistle is edible. I’ve had a few, and some are easier to eat than others. Heather peels the stalks to eat them and cuts spines from the leaves to eat them. I have actually using a number if this’ll leaves with the spines still on, and it is manageable, but the variety of thistle makes a difference. (I wouldn’t eat star thistle.)

HoarhoundHoarhound in Northern CA

Hoarhound. For hard candy in old days. Good for coughs and soothing throat. Fennel in Northern CAFennel flowering in Northern CAFennel in shade in Northern CA

Fennel. From these wild plants, you won’t get a bold like you would from the grocery store, but you should get the same, pleasant licorice taste. (You can eat the lacy leaves and the stalks.) observed the tiny yellow buds in the photo. These will flower later. (They might have floured already, I suppose, but for the drought. Some of the fennel we observed grew 6 feet tall. Be careful when foraging for this plant because it’s flowers and stalks greatly resemble hemlock.

Hemlock dessicated in Northern CAHemlock, water stressed, in Northern CA

Hemlock. The poisonous plant reputed to have carried out Socrates’ death sentence. Several plants in the area resemble hemlock, and it text very little to kill a person, so caution must be exercised when foraging.

Having read Plato’s account of Socrates’ death, I assert that the accepted story is not wholly true: either Socrates was killed by something else, or he did not suffer the peaceful, dignified death which Plato recounts. Hemlock results, rather, in a painful, convulsive death.


I’m afraid that the photo is quite poor and these samples are quite desiccated in consequence of the sun and drought, but you may descry a nearly identical stalk and flower with fennel. To contrast this plant with fennel, have a look at the leaves: fennel has lacy leaves, whereas Hemlock has more substantial but very dissected leaves.

I often see hemlock growing among two of my favorites, easy foraging plants: chickweed and miner’s lettuce. Typically, I find it close to the ground, but the samples in the photo are six feet tall.

Queen Anne’s lace. (no photo) Wild carrot. An edible plant which resembles hemlock. Heather reports that it was used by Native Americans for birth control but that studies have found it short of effective.

Dock dessicated in Northern CA

Dock. Rumex crispus. You probably envision the broad, green leaves characteristic of this plant, and although we see such samples during the wet season, the ones we saw were all rather burned up by this time, but it seems that the seeds could still be harvested for cooking. Heather recommends grinding the seeds and adding them to flower. A chemical in the root helps the body hold onto iron.

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Danu’s Lock | Magical Treasure Hunt 2013

When I say that the Box of Bog Bryg held an opera, I mean that it in fact held the entire 100-page score to an opera: Atalanta by George Frideric Handel.[1]

Naturally, we all understood — to varying degrees but all at once — that Remy’s last words pertained to this opera: Atalanta’s 15th aria, not Atlanta’s fifteenth area. We consulted the score’s index to find the 15th aria, and, as we should have expected, the vocal part belonged to the character of Irene. Unfortunately, Irene’s notes were written in C clef, but Jeanette actually made short work of them and played the melody without error on the pianoforte.

Not long into the aria, the lantern glowed pink, and we knew that we had found our key. We directed the lantern’s light onto the black jewel on the very large box and were rewarded with a loud thunk. The box opened, and inside we found another box! This box was locked fast and bore two keyholes in its face, separated by a medallion embedded in the surface of the wood. Of course we immediately tried the silver key in each of them, but it would not turn.

Inside the leathern pouch

The party was at a loss, and we reviewed the information we had collected so far for some clue to the opening of this box. Our attention returned to (among many other things), the pouch Brigit had sent on her homunculus’ penultimate call. More particularly, we re-read the excerpt from Le Morte d’Arthur.

It was discovered that the pouch and the letter (or perhaps the key?) which it contained were an analogy for the scabbard and sword in the text — or so we surmised from our supposition that Brigit’s intended message lay in Merlin’s assertion that the scabbard was of more value than the sword. The pouch in fact had something to teach us. Turning it inside out revealed that a message had been written on the inside of it:

The left lock will turn if I press my hand against the medallion until the lock clicks.

The solution

Honestly, our party pressed more than one palm against the medallion, and even after a very long time, the box made no response, and still the silver key would not turn.

The box in fact needed no hand at all, only something cold, as Brigit’s hand was. After chilling the medallion for a while, a thunk was heard from the box, and the silver key turned in the left keyhole. It would not turn in the right keyhole, however. Heating the medallion produced another thunk, and the key turned in the right keyhole. At last, the box opened, and inside was a clear crystal cut into the shape of an intricate snowflake.

The conclusion

After the success of our treasure hunt, the swamp began to recede, and before a week was out, the roads were passable once more. Dash and I legged it to Yvelines, where we obtained a carriage to collect the others.

You might think there would still be some fighting to do over the inheritance, but to the best of my knowledge, none of the claimants has pressed the matter even to this day. Being stranded as we were was an experience which I hardly wish to revisit even mentally. I am content to pretend the old estate never existed, and I suppose that the feeling is common to most of the party.

Building the dowry box

Dad and I actually built the two locks for the dowry box ourselves. It took me several designs before coming up with something reliable that was easy to construct. We cut the frame and bolt from some thick acrylic Dad had lying about, and the bolt’s stopping points were controlled by putting a large compression spring and ball bearing into a slot cut into the acrylic frame. The bolt had a couple of bumps along its length so that it would snap into position when moving past the ball catch.

In the back of each lock was a ward which blocked the keyway. The ward could be extracted via a pull solenoid controlled by the dowry box’s brain, an ATtiny85.

Alas, the temperature-sensitive lock did NOT work on game day. Luther and I worked on it to no end, and we had it mostly working a hundred different times in a hundred different ways, but we found that once any solenoid activated, it threw a wrench into the temperature sensor’s ability to deliver reliable readings. (We used a TMP36 for the sensor.) We tried attaching capacitors of various sizes immediately against the sensor, but it made no difference. The solenoids were each only about 1.5 or 2 inches away from the sensor, so perhaps there was nothing that could be done with the intense magnetic disruption that their activity caused.

You can find the code for the dowry box on my repo at github:

The opera

A nod goes to Matt Crook, whose brilliant puzzle concerning the tombs of Caesar Augustus in his Blood Faith installments served as inspiration for the Atlanta-Atalanta riddle. Seriously, go read Blood Faith if you haven’t done so. It’s probably shorter than 30,000 words in all.


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The Clock | Magical Treasure Hunt 2013

Shortly after opening the four boxes in the flour cupboard, we examined the clock and assembled it by attaching the hour and minute hand to it.

The pendulum was actually a stud which could be pressed like the switches on the box in which we had found the lantern.

It seemed reasonable to assume that the riddle from the page bearing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring was pertinent. I reproduce it here:

Both hands upon the keyboard place
Observe the figures which they chase
At midnight hands must rise to face
And indicated hours trace


Jeanette played Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on the pianoforte, and many of the search party were attentive to the figures which her hands traced, but we initially turned up nothing. We used the lantern to shine the light of joy on the clock, but it made no response. Jeanette tried playing other songs on the pianoforte, and we watched her hands. Still we had nothing.

Another thing that we considered was that the tiny bones from the telegraph’s bundle might be finger bones (for a hand 1/5 the size of a human’s) and that they must be placed upon the piano keys for some effect, but this proved fruitless.

After much frustration, Eldred mumbled almost absently that the four wooden blocks when assembled constructed a keyboard.

Much forehead thumping ensued.

We pulled the two hands from the clock and placed them on the keyboard. The two faint marks mentioned earlier (raindrop and flower) matched two of the designs cut into the clock hands. When placed against these marks, the point of the hour hand indicated a “6”, and the point of the minute hand indicated a “4.”

Understanding the meaning of the riddle at last, we reattached the hands to the clock face, starting at midnight, and then turned the minute hand until the clock read six and twenty. A press of the stud on the pendulum elicited a melody from the clock.

We reproduced this melody on the pianoforte, and the lantern glowed yellow.

Shining the light

It was clear now what “the light of time,” referenced in one of the telegraph riddles, meant.

We found the place of make believe in short order: the large house actually had a small theater in it, and with Remy’s eye and the light of time, we found yet another invisible beacon. Attached to it was the silver key.

The box from the attic

I should emphasize that the order in which I relate all these proceedings to you does not reflect the order in which our party went about our discoveries but only the order in which I think they make the most sense. If I were to tell you the disorganized facts of everything we tried and how many times we left a riddle to come back to it later, this account should be ten times as long.

At this point, I return to the box I mentioned in an earlier post, the one we discovered behind the door with no hinge. There were on this box, as I mentioned, seven tiny jewels and one larger, black jewel.

With the solution to the clock’s puzzle, we now could elicit five colors from the lantern, and we proceeded to shine each one on the box, with no result until our final color: blue. No sooner had the blue light hit the box but the leftmost of its seven white jewels blazed with blue light, brighter than I had thought possible from such a tiny thing.

Invigorated, we returned to the piano with more enthusiasm and repeated several colors from before. The box next responded to the orange light. With the first two jewels alight, glowing blue and orange, it didn’t take Dash long to call out the answer: blue, orange, green, blue, red, yellow, green.

The solution

We asked him how he had determined that sequence, and he explained that the initials of those colors spell “Bog Bryg.”

Box of bog bryg

Sure enough, this sequence lighted the white jewels in turn until we had a brilliant but disorganized rainbow, and when the final jewel was glowing, the box clicked audibly. We lifted the lid and discovered to our wonder an opera.

Another disappointment arose at this point. Some time prior to discovering the answer to the riddle but after plugging in the electrical leads on the clock, the clock went awry. Luther mentioned he smelled burning and pulled the electrical leads. I guess that they had been plugged in backward because in fact we found that the board had burned out. I had to rewire it and find a new power supply after the hour had been entered on the clock and the pendulum stud pressed to no avail.

Building the clock

The clock was powered by a wall wart, and the program ran on an ATtiny85. The code is available on my github repo. The clock was in fact an old mechanical pendulum clock, which Dad and I modified to close a circuit at 6:20. When the ATtiny detects a rising or falling edge on the I/O pin connected to the pendulum stud, it plays the song if the circuit formed by the clock is closed.

Building the box of Bog Bryg

The Box of Bog Bryg is essentially a conglomeration of the spirit beacons mentioned earlier and the other solenoid latch boxes mentioned earlier. It’s driven with an ATmega328. The code is available on my github repo.

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