July 23, 2013

yamamomo (Myrica rubra)

‘Tis the season for yamamomo (Myrica rubra), variously known to the English-speaking world as Chinese or Japanese bayberry, red bayberry, yumberry, Asian bog myrtle, Chinese strawberry tree or waxberry. Of these last two names the former comes from a resemblance to the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) and the latter because the fruit of other myrica species is coated in wax (from which candles can be made) and therefore they are known as wax myrtles or wax berries. However, despite sometimes being referred to as waxberry, the fruit of M. rubra does not have a waxy coating. A friend who lives without electricity (and thus always interested in potential sources of candle wax) has been wholly unsuccessful, despite her best attempts, in extracting any wax from M. rubra.

The Japanese name, yamamomo (山桃), means ‘mountain (yama 山) peach (momo 桃)’ although there is nothing very peach-like about the fruits of yamamomo. But then neither is there much peach-like about the native plums which are called sumomo (which once meant vinegar, or sour, (su 酸) peach (momo 桃)[1], although in contemporary Japanese sumomo is usually written 李 which obfuscates this older meaning). As far as I can see the only thing these other momo’s have in common with peaches is that they are round, stone fruits and usually red-ish.

The fruits of yamamomo are about 1.5 – 2 cm’s in diameter (there are cultivated varieties that have larger fruits however, according to local growers, the fruit is easily damaged by inclement weather at harvest time). The fruits grow in clusters and are dark red to purple when ripe. The tree is evergreen with leathery leaves and grey bark, reaching heights of 15 metres. It grows on forested mountain slopes (100 – 1500 metres) throughout southern China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the Philippines…[2]

yamamomo ​(​Myrica rubra)

The fruits are refreshingly tart and may be eaten fresh though often they are served in a sweet syrup. They also make wonderful wine (and if you can make wine you can, of course, make vinegar too). In both China and Japan they are used to make a medicinal liquor (steeped  in báijiǔ in China and shōchū in Japan). See recipes below.

I have been told that, in the past, the seeds of yamamomo were also eaten in Japan. The seeds are “stones” like those of plums — although rather small they are very hard. I am yet to find out exactly how the seeds were rendered edible but I will surely update this post when I do.

The traditional medicinal uses of M. rubra by the peoples of east Asia include as an antidote for arsenic poisoning, a carminative, an anti-inflammatory, for the treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, dyspesia, nausea, excessive perspiration, psoriasis, and in the treatment of wounds, ulcers and sores.[3]

For the treatment of arsenic poisoning, wounds, sores and skin diseases a decoction of the stem bark is applied externally.[4]

The leaves have long been known to practitioners of Chinese medicine to be anti-inflammatory and recent studies have shown the juice of the fruits is also anti-inflammatory and effective in the treatment of ulcers.[5, 6]


Yamamomo in syrup

yamamomo in syrupThe few recipes for sweetened yamamomo that I have seen recommended cooking the fruit for 5 – 10 minutes in the syrup but I find this makes the fruit too mushy and it loses its wonderful tart edge. They also recommended an equal weight of sugar to that of the fruit – I say half that amount of sugar is plenty. I suspect these people don’t even like yamamomo!

  1. Soak yamamomo in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. This is to remove insects of which there are usually plenty.
  2. Bring sugar (half the weight of the fruit) to a boil in enough water to cover the fruit.
  3. Add the fruit and boil for just a couple of minutes.
  4. Put the fruit in jars and cover completely with the the syrup and screw on lids.

After about 24 hours they should be ready. Kept in a cool place they should keep for a month. If, once filled and capped, the jars are covered with hot water and boiled for 20 – 30 minutes the fruit should keep for up to a year. For more on processing for long term storage see here. I have attempted a batch with raw fruit — the yamamomo was not placed in the boiling syrup but directly in the jars and the hot syrup poured over the fruit — however, it started to ferment within a few days. Still tasted great though.

After finishing the fruit the syrup is used to make a very pleasant summer drink. Pour a little in the bottom of a glass and fill with cold water.


Yamamomo Wine

Yamamomo wineYamamomo fruits are coated in wild yeasts which, if treated right, will happily make alcohol for you. And they’re so easy to please! Place the fruit in sugary water and stir often. As simple as that. How much sugar you use will affect the vigour and length of fermentation and thus the strength (alcohol content) of your brew. For a strong wine, use more. For 2kg of yamamomo I use about 1.25 kg’s of sugar. To make a simple “country wine” to be consumed “green”: [7]

  1.  Do not wash the yamamomo. You want to keep all the wild yeast on the fruit. Yes, there probably will be many tiny insects in the fruit but these will be strained out later. Place the fruit in the bottom of a container – a food grade plastic bucket or large glass jar will do nicely.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in enough cold water to generously cover the fruit (5 to 10 cm’s is good). Pour this mixture over the fruit in the bucket.
  3. Stir. And stir often. The more you can stir your potion the better. I stir my concoctions anywhere from 6 to 10 times a day. At a minimum give it at least four good stirrings every day.Making yamamomo wine
  4. Between stirring keep your bucket covered with a lid, cloth or anything else that keeps flies and dust out.
  5. After a day or two you should see bubbles or froth forming on the top of the liquid. Keep up the daily stirrings until the froth begins to lessen – hopefully this will take a couple of weeks.
  6. When fermentation does begin to subside strain in to bottles and enjoy.


Yamamomo vinegar

Vinegar is essentially wine that has been overexposed to oxygen. Once the yeasts that converted the sugars to alcohol have begun to lose steam through lack of food acetobacter (acetic-acid-producing bacteria who were always present but until now held in check by the vigour of the yeasts) begin to dominate. It is acetobacter that will turn your wine in to vinegar.

So, to make vinegar follow the wine making steps listed above but rather than bottling the finished wine strain it into another wide mouthed container and keep covered with a cloth. Taste regularly and when it reaches the desired acidity (when it tastes like vinegar) bottle and cap. A vinegar ‘mother’ may have formed on top which you’ll need to remove before bottling. But don’t discard this. You can eat it, feed to it to your chickens or compost it.


Yamamomo Koubo

Given that yamamomo is abundantly covered in wild yeasts (kõbo) it can also be used as a yeast source for bread (and probably beer too). Place some fruit in a jar, cover with water and add some honey or sugar. Stir or shake the jar often (if shaking release pressure by opening the lid after shaking). When it begins to bubble vigorously it is ready to use. For bread, just add some of the liquid to your dough mix. A little experimentation may be needed to get the amount right.


Yamamomo shochu

yamamomo (Myrica rubra) ShochuSimply steep yamamomo in liquor for a month or more. Here in Japan shōchū is typically used, in China it is báijiǔ and in Korea soju. These are all white liquors usually ranging from around 35 – 60% alcohol by volume. Vodka would be an obvious substitute. If you’re concerned about little insects in your alcohol soak the fruit in a salt brine for 30 minutes then rinse. Place the fruit in a jar and cover with liquor of your choice.

If your focus is on extracting the medicinal qualities of yamamomo then what you are making is a tincture. Fill your jar with as much fruit as possible before adding the liquor. Let it sit for at least one month and keep it out of direct sunlight. Shaking it around a bit from time to time is not a bad idea either.

If, on the other hand, you just want to flavour some liquor for drinking then less fruit/more liquor can be used.



1. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/スモモ. Accessed 7/19/2013.

2. Flora of China Vol. 4. Available online at efloras.org. Accessed 7/20/2013.

3. Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Databases. Accessed 7/23/2013.

4. Plants for a Future, Myrica rubra. Accessed 7/23/2013.

5. Wang, S.J., et al., ‘Anti-inflammatory activity of myricetin isolated from Myrica rubra leaves.’ Planta Med 76(14), October 2010.

6. Alajmi et al., ‘Some pharmacological actions of Myrica rubra.’ African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology Vol. 7(9), 8 March, 2013. PDF from Academicjournals.org. Accessed 7/23/2013.

7. For more on making country wines (or any other fermentation technique for that matter) see Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green, 2012.


Let it Bleed II

March 22, 2013

Here is Asako’s latest Les chroniques purple contribution. Originally posted March 16, 2013.


We have two pairs of chabo — Japanese heritage breeds of chicken. They are much smaller than regular chickens and thus lay smaller eggs but we chose chabo instead of the typical hybridized egg-machine chickens. Be it creatures or plants, we prefer the strong, close-to-wild ones that can take care of themselves. Chickens that have been selectively bred for high productivity require special food to keep up with the nutrient, mineral and protein demands that come from pumping out so many eggs. Favoring particular genetic traits always comes at the expense of others and so these chickens are prone to illness and have usually lost the ability to efficiently forage their own food.

Our four chabo all hatched last summer, making this their first spring.

Their names are Bully, Obasan (Japanese for auntie), Chabosuke, and Chaboko. Chabo tend to pair bond and are ‘faithful’ to their partners. Because of this it is traditional in Japan to keep pairs of chabo – one rooster for every hen. Our two pairs are descended from different breeds, one of which produces roosters that are considerably larger. Due to this difference in body size, Bully was always bullying Chabosuke (hence his name). Recently Chabosuke began taking out his frustration on the girls and sometimes on me too! Then one day he decided enough was enough. It was time to confront the bully.

The challenge started with a high flying kick to Bully first thing in the morning. But mostly their fighting method is more like sumo wrestling. They stand off, puffing up their collars, staring at each other. One lunges at the other’s comb or wattle, pecking it with his beak and pulling on it to drag down his opponent’s body. This is the first time I have seen chickens fight. It was a frightening scene: blood on their faces, on their feet, and splattered all over the ground. They wouldn’t stop. I became worried that it might not end until one was seriously injured, crippled, or even killed.

After thirty minutes of carnage I stepped in, and put everybody into their separate houses to cool down (interestingly, the girls didn’t care about the boys’ fighting at all, and were busy with their usual scratching up the soil and munching away on things while right next to them the voltage was at maximum!).

Next morning I opened the doors of the two chook houses and, within seconds, witnessed the same scene as yesterday. After a short while I shunted everyone back inside their respective houses and closed the doors again.

Not knowing what to do, I called the guy who had given the chabo to us. He said, “I don’t know. I never know what they are thinking. We can only observe them. They will figure it out for themselves.” I asked if it was a good idea to move one of the houses away from the other. “No”, he replied. Of course, I don’t know what they are thinking either! I made up my mind to stop interfering and see what would happen, to let it go all the way even if the outcome was one I didn’t like.

Next morning it started again. This time I didn’t interrupt but just observed the fighting. It seemed like Bully was losing, trying to run away from Chabosuke. He looked confused, like he couldn’t comprehend what was happening. But Chabosuke wasn’t letting him escape. They ran beyond the perimeter of their normal playground. I patiently followed them wherever they went just to keep an eye on where they were. At one point Chabosuke knocked Bully down. He seemed completely off-switch, blood all over him. It looked like Chabosuke wasn’t going to stop attacking him. I reached in to the fray, grabbed Bully and held him tightly to my chest. After having a good look at the damage I put them into their houses again.

And I moved Bully’s house far away from Chabosuke’s.

I thought by now Bully would understand that he was no longer No.1. And here, in this new location, he could enjoy a new life with his partner, Obasan.

Next morning, they were having breakfast at their now widely separated locations. It seemed a quiet, gentle morning … until Chabosuke started crowing loudly. Sure enough Bully, hearing the crowing, rushed off in the direction of Chabosuke. At this point I just walked away. I went back to my daily tasks but I kept thinking about it.

I had lived in cities my whole life until recently when I moved to the mountains to live within nature. After two years, I thought I was getting better at it but this incident showed me that I am still far away from nature, trying to force other living things to fit my view of the world, domesticating them into cute house pets and ignoring their instinctual natures. To ‘protect’ them both I had tried to prohibit them from fighting. But then, are they the only ones to have been domesticated?

Recently I went to the city. Around the station there were many signs prohibiting people from doing all sorts of things: No parking! No smoking! No talking on mobile phones! Don’t litter! Don’t stand in front of this line!.…  Red and yellow is everywhere. The colors of security and safety, we are led to believe, are protecting people from one danger or another, some inappropriate behavior or filthy habit, but aren’t they actually preventing people from listening to their intuitions, to their instincts and senses, redirecting the very process of their thinking? Domesticated animals. And I am one of them.

The situation calmed down that day. Chabosuke lost both of his spurs and gave up the fight. Bully kept his dignity after all. They went back to their usual roles, but only until Chabosuke’s spurs re-grow, perhaps.

Let it Bleed

February 18, 2013

Originally posted on Les Chroniques Purple, February 16, 2013.

During a recent spell of particularly warm days a paper wasp appeared on the toilet wall. In subsequent days the temperature plummeted and (if she has moved at all) her movements have been barely perceptible. Coaxed from hibernation by the arrival of spring. Or, maybe not…

Although the sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day the nights remain crisp—cold clear skies and shimmering stars. This cold dark energy has dominated the past months. During this time many plants concentrate their vital energy, their ki, in root systems sunk deep in the relatively warm soil. There are also plants that have hugged the ground closely protecting themselves from the brutal wind that whips up the valley. Now, here and there, fukinoto, the small buds of the giant butterbur, have begun popping up from the ground. Fukinoto we deep fry or boil and mix with miso paste. It is a bitter tasting plant. The bitterness of many spring wild edible plants stimulates the digestive system and helps flush out the residue accumulated through the winter’s heavier fare. Fukinoto is a plant that reminds us of winters passing and the arising of spring.


It is a commonplace that farmers or those who “live close to the land” are more keenly attuned to the seasons. For us, living as foragers and gardeners in a forest, what we have become more aware of is the bleeding boundaries of the seasons across time and space. Spring, summer, autumn and winter as discrete seasons with “official” starting dates—be they astronomical or calendar-based—seem to have little to do with the dynamic flow of constant and gradual change that we experience. The drum roll of spring beginning somewhere in the depths of winter. The fall crescendo building momentum in the torrid days of summer.

During February—usually the coldest month—the morning ground glistens with a carpet of frost. The chickens struggle to drink water through the crust of ice that covers their bowl during the frigid nights. Winter scenes to be sure. However, late morning, as the sun crests over the mountains to the south, a warm glow fills the valley and a different scene is revealed. The tiny white flowers of chickweed peek out from the plants’ increasingly lush growth. Thousands of frog eggs become visible (how long have they been there?) on the bottom of a small pond. The first tentative blooms appear in the tree canopy.

Behind our house a path cuts across the slope of the hill. Above the path, where the sun hits early, where a bamboo grove shelters the land from strong winds, where the slope of the hillside encourages frost to move along without settling, daffodils have been glorying in days of spring for weeks already. It is here that the florets of nabana, a wild mustard, can be picked first. Below the path, in the depths of the valley, where the sun comes late, where the land is fully exposed to the gales and where frost settles thickly it is still the midst of winter. Here the nabana will arrive much later but will continue producing delicious florets for much longer.

For the forager attuning to the seasons, or “eating seasonally,” is a deep practice. It is an invitation to learn the lay of the land intimately; to learn the precise gradients in temperature caused by the differing angles of the sun as it touches a hillside; to develop a sense of the microclimates offered by a rocky outcrop, a tree, a body of water; to observe where the soil is most, or least, fertile. We overlay this information with what we have learned from the plants: preferences in soil fertility and warmth, preferences in amount of sunlight exposure relative to air temperature, how much rain in which temperature range will spur the fruiting of a particular fungi… Of course this is not to be studied in books then applied in the field but learned by doing, slowly. And anyway, it can hardly be said that it is consciously applied at all but rather, in a most subtle way, the feet, the eyes, the hands are guided.

– Asako Kitaori & Dion Workman

Occupy Japan!

January 24, 2013

This piece by Asako was originally posted on Les Chroniques Purple. It is the inaugural post of Walking on Boundaries, a series of monthly posts by Asako (or Asako & Dion) which, for the duration of 2013, will published on the 16th of each month by Les Chroniques Purple.

In Japan the first three days of the new year are days dedicated to the kami-sama—the deities that live in and around Japanese houses.

During December the house is cleaned and shimenawa (straw rope decorations) and kadomatsu (bamboo and pine decorations to be placed in front of the house) are made. Rice for mochi (rice cakes) is cooked and pounded. On the night of December 31st, in the fire-pit in the living space, or irori, a fire is set with a long log. This fire must be kept burning continuously for the first three days of the New Year. With all the preparations completed, the family sits down around the irori waiting for the new year to come. (It is said if you go to sleep too early on Dec. 31st, you age prematurely).

For the next three days (seven in some parts of Japan) the kami-sama occupy our world.

In the kitchen, there is Kamadogami. The kamado (a traditional earthen wood burning stove) is that very special place in the house where food is prepared daily to sustain the house’s occupants. Thus Kamadogami is the deity that protects the family and is also a symbol for the family’s prosperity. He/she has a rather rough temper but possesses strong miraculous powers. Treat this stubborn old one well for really nice favors or curses may be returned.

Ebisu-san hangs out in the living room, smiling. With six others Ebisu-san came by boat to Japan to bring happiness to the land. He is like a child’s favorite grandpa—the one who always gives them candies.

At the family altar there are ancestral spirits chitchatting and drinking sake. The gate to the house is guarded by Monshin, a bouncer type kami who prevents evil spirits from crashing the party. But Toshigami is an invited guest, coming from wherever he roams to join the party and eat mochi. When the party’s over Toshigami departs to continue on his travels.

Even in the toilet kami-sama dwell! This is where Auntie Kawayagami hangs out. The toilet is the sacred space where fertilizer is created to grow good vegetables, the space where death & birth meets (dead vegetables and animals digested and becoming the nourishment for new vegetables). Auntie Kawayagami can also help deliver healthy babies. But if you leave the toilet dirty she won’t be happy and will strike you with illness.

With the party finished all the new year’s decorations are burnt and the kami-sama ride the flames back to the other side. Some stay with the family in the house but they will live rather quietly until the new year rolls around again. And thanks to the kami-sama spring is now on the way.

– Asako Kitaori, January 2013

On the Road

January 3, 2013

Well look at that…The end of the world has come and gone (again) and we’re all still here! With the latest apocalypse/salvation distraction behind us we’re back to the reality of the slow catastrophe daily unfolding and the responsibility for doing something about it.

While the Japanese have just voted in a right-wing, pro-nuclear nationalist “strong leader” to end their woes (not that there was much of a choice – being a modern democracy an’ all) Asako and I have a different idea. In January we’re hitting the road (well, the tracks actually) to propagandize the people and hopefully inspire a little action.


During January 2013 we will be giving presenations in Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Tokyo about our life and work at Shikigami. Through photographs and stories we will discuss our approach to permaculture, deep ecology, forest gardening and gift economics.

Hamamatsu Wednesday January 9, 13:30. Payaka: 4-19-12 Kamoe, Naka Ward, Hamamatsu Permaculture Chubu, Hamamatsu

Nagoya Sunday January 13, 14:00. Tokurinji: Aioi-28-341 Tenpakucho Oaza Nonami, Tenpaku Ward, Nagoya Permaculture Chubu, Nagoya

Tokyo Friday January 18, 19:30. One Kitchen: 3-26 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo


1月9日(水) 13:30 Payaka(パヤカ) 静岡県浜松市中区鴨江4-19-12  詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月13日(日) 14:00 徳林寺(本堂裏のギャラリー・ハスタクティ1Fにて)  愛知県名古屋市天白区天白町大字野並相生28-341 詳細はパーマカルチャー中部

1月18日(金)19:30 One Kitchen  東京都新宿区 荒木町3−26 サウスウィング荒木町2F奥



November 20, 2012

The end of November is fast approaching and I have a post that I began back in September still in front of me. Sorry to those who have been following the ‘monthly’ report on the wild foods we are foraging. Better late than never, right? Unfortunately, attempting to document our wild diet has come at the expense of writing about anything else. And even then I am barely scratching the surface of our foraging adventures or doing justice to the particular plants of which there is so much more to say. So, following this post I think it will be time for a change in approach. Naturally I will continue to write about wild foods but I will put them back in to the larger context of life at Shikigami.

September saw us looking skyward. The first notes of the mountains autumnal song falling from wild cherry. A welcome fall in temperature too after the long, hot and humid summer. September skies also bring the manna, the kuri, the chestnuts! Like the first irregular raindrops of a coming downpour one or two chestnuts begin falling here and there. Day by day the frequency increases, the nuts get bigger, hitting the earth now with a deep thud and then…the heavens open.

kurinoki_japanese cestnut

Kuri (Castanea crenata), a native of the Japanese forests, in its true wild form is known as yamaguri or mountain chestnut. It was a staple food of the Jōmon (14,000 BCE to 300 BCE) and is still plentiful throughout Japan’s mountainous forests. Yamaguri wood was prized by charcoal makers who maintained extensive coppice woodlands in the mountains until the early 20th Century. In some areas charcoal production continued for much longer (on a very small scale until the present even)  and as yamaguri logs were also used for growing shiitake mushrooms many remnant coppices are still marginally maintained or only recently abandoned. Charcoal production was the primary occupation in the forests surrounding Shikigami hence, we have yamaguri in abundance.

But I get ahead of myself. The wild yamaguri offers up its sweet nourishing nuts last of all. Before the yamaguri we have close to two months of offerings from all the cultivated varieties that are grown in Japan. The sweet nuts of the earliest varieties begin falling around early September and for the remainder of the month and in to October we have the mid and late varieties. Two months of continuous chestnuts! These varieties have been cultivated not only to extend the harvest season but also to increase the size of individual nuts some of which are truly enormous. (The yamaguri nuts might be much smaller but they are exquisitely delicious.) Kuri have been widely planted across Japan and there are many abandoned groves waiting for the wandering forager or minimally maintained groves for the gleaner.

kuri_chestnutsWhat do we do with all these chestnuts? We give away a lot. The chestnut is still a highly regarded seasonal food in Japan and gifts of kuri are always welcome. We dry a lot. By sun drying the kuri we can preserve them for up to a year and they make a wonderful addition to winter soups. We also make shibukawani (chestnuts preserved in a sweet syrup that make for a delicious snack and also will keep for a year or longer) and marron glacé (mouth-watering chestnut sweets of French and northern Italian origin). And we eat generous amounts throughout the season either boiled, roasted or as kurigohan (chestnuts cooked with rice).


Drying Chestnuts

We dry our chestnuts with the tough outer skins on. Peeling dried chestnuts is not so different from peeling fresh ones – a slow process – so better to be peeling small quantities as the nuts are needed rather than devoting a whole day(s) to peeling. The nuts are also likely to keep a lot better wrapped in their thick outer skins.

Pick nice large plump chestnuts without any obvious damage or worm holes.

Place in a bucket and cover with water. Remove any that float. Add a few drops of vinegar and soak the chestnuts in this solution for a couple of days. This should take care of any larvae inside the nut. The first year we dried chestnuts half of them were soaked in the water/vinegar solution and the other half not. We had to throw away almost all of the latter group because of worm infestation while we got to eat all of the soaked chestnuts.

Drain and lay in the sun to dry. It takes time so it’s a good idea to do this when a good long spell of sunny days is likely. When done the chestnuts should be hard, shrunken and thus separated from the outer skin.


Inubiwa (Ficus erecta)

Don’t be mislead by the Japanese folk name for this fruit –  Inu (dog) biwa (loquat) – for it is a wild fig bearing no resemblance in look or taste to either the loquat tree or fruit. The tree itself doesn’t look much like the common edible figs either, at least not the leaves, but outwardly the fruits certainly resemble small figs and split one open and the resemblance is unmistakable. When the Japanese folk name for a plant refers to an animal it usually indicates the plant is not highly regarded as a human food source – food only fit for dogs – but these plants have been important food sources in Japan at one time or another and the Japanese are some of the fussiest eaters around!

Tasting a single fruit you might agree that this fruit does not have the characteristics humans usually enjoy in fruit – sweetness or strong flavour, for example – but taste another…and another. Have a whole handful. Inubiwa is a lucky dip. One in five might be rather bland – but that leaves four out of five which, sufficiently ripe are sweet and juicy with a definite fig flavour. (Sufficiently ripe: a deep purple plump fruit. In the picture below the fruit on the left looks about just right while the one on the right has a while to go yet).

Sitting under a streamside tree enjoying a bowlful of inubiwa with friends we speculated on the potential of the inubiwa as a dried fruit. The consensus was that it would probably make a fine dried fruit as the drying would likely concentrate the sugars and intensify the flavour and, small as they are, it would be well worth experimenting with. As would cooking lightly, mashing and making fruit leathers. As this conversation went on one or another of us would return to the inubiwa tree and refill our bowl. After our third bowl, concluding that indeed the inubiwa would likely make a fine dried fruit, there were no fruits left on the tree to harvest for our experiment! But we have been given a second chance for the inubiwa here seems to be fruiting in waves. There was a first flush beginning some three weeks ago [early September] and now the trees are covered in green immature fruits once again.

Kitsunenogoma (Justicia procumbens) is a very common plant in Japan. At Shikigami it is one of the dominant wild plants of the clearings from August through October. It will often be found in disturbed, fertile areas – carefully manicured gardens, for example.

Kitsunenogoma means fox’s sesame. Again the folk name tells us that this plant has been known as a food plant although not a highly prized one, or, at least, not as highly prized as sesame (by those who bestowed this name on the plant – I do find it curious that the common name for this plant does not reflect its long history of use in Japanese folk medicine). Indeed, the seeds of kitsunenogoma can be eaten but it would seem their traditional use has been a little different from that of sesame seeds for the seeds of kitsunenogoma, according to Tanaka’s Cyclopedia of Edible Plants of the World, are cooked and usually made into a flour. But September, is not the month for gathering and eating the fox’s sesame seeds – here they look to be some weeks away yet – nor is it the time to gather the leaves which can also be eaten – by this time the leaves are a little too tough. Young leaves gathered when the plant first begins emerging are preferable and can be boiled or steamed or eaten raw. However, now is the time to harvest the wonderful kitsunenogoma for its medicine.

kitsunenogoma (Justicia procumbens)

We take the medicine of kitsunenogoma in two ways: internally, we drink water infused with the herb and externally, we bath in water infused with the herb. The folk uses of the fox’s sesame include the treatment of muscle aches, lower back aches (lumbago), nerve aches, arthritis and rheumatism – hence, bathing in a hot steaming infusion. Also traditionally used in Japan for colds, coughs, fevers and sore throats – drinking a hot steaming infusion! In India Justicia procumbens is used in the treatment of opthalmia or, inflammation of the eyes. Here the juice of the leaves is applied directly to the afflicted eye. In China the plant has long been recognized as alterative, anodyne, carminative, expectorant, diaphoretic, diuretic and laxative. In addition to the traditional uses found in Japan and India, in Chinese medicine the herb is used in the treatment of asthma, boils, cankers, swelling, intestinal worms, wasting diseases (marasmus), and for stimulation of the qi and circulatory system. Kitsunenogoma is yet another plant currently being researched for its anti-cancer properties. I wonder if any of those white-coated types will ever research the connection between cancers and our (self)exile from the green world.

Gobō (burdock, Arctium lappa), another superb medicinal food, is now largely considered to be a uniquely Japanese and Korean culinary delight but was also once – and not that long ago – widely eaten in Europe. The long tap roots of gobō are deeply nourishing, packed with minerals and vitamins and phytochemicals that help the body absorb all of the goodness. Gobō’s thick tap root penetrating deeply the good earth is indeed a deep earthy food. 

Being so treasured in Japan gobō has been afforded a special place as a pampered and cultivated garden crop but through the process of domestication the plant has remained close to its wild roots – one of those plants that will never let itself be truly domesticated. Yet still, we prefer wild plants, plants growing where they choose, when they choose. Gobō is a tough and persistent character so if you don’t have it growing wild near by plant some seeds, let it grow for its two-year life cycle until it sets its own seed then let its velcro-like burs (burdock burs were, in fact, the inspiration for velcro) carry the seed to a pleasing location and watch gobō go.

We are yet to harvest the roots of gobō this year. We prefer to wait well into late autumn to get the root at its largest although some folks, harvesting primarily for medicinal purposes, recommend digging up the roots from mid to late summer. During September we harvest the seeds for food/medicine and have also had occasion to use the leaves medicinally. The seeds of gobō are edible, nourishing and medicinal. As a biennial it is best to harvest the root of gobō towards the end of its first year. By the second year, as the energy shifts to the setting of seed, the root will be too fibrous for eating. So, eat the seed instead!

In The Book of Herbal Wisdom Turtle Island herbalist Matthew Wood, speaking of burdock, tells us that “the seed has the capacity to penetrate to the core, stimulating metabolism and digestion, promoting waste removal, moving waste products towards the periphery and out through the sweat pores, urine and stool.” The seeds have also long been used to reverse “unnatural” hair loss – the hair having an important relationship with the skin, the skin manifesting waste products inadequately processed by the kidneys. But Wood points out that the seeds are associated with the liver also, acting “on an overfull liver, which is incapable of handling all the waste products sent its way for processing.” The seeds are pungent and slightly bitter. We eat a few raw seeds everyday but they can also be added to other foods and, if not being used primarily for their medicinal qualities, roasted or cooked in any fashion.

On a recent visit to Turtle Island Asako came in contact with poison ivy and a couple of days after her return to Japan broke out in terrible blistering sores. Making decoctions from gobō leaves we swabbed the sores and kept her arms wrapped in whole gobō leaves while she slept. This treatment certainly seemed to help speed the process of eliminating the toxins through the skin, drawing out the poison, and assisting in a speedy recovery.

Last but not least this month we have mukago (Dioscorea japonica). Mukago are the aerial tubers of the plant Discorea japonica, known to the English speaking world as Japanese yam and to the Japanese as Yamaimo (mountain potato). Discorea species are true yams – unlike the ‘yams’ of Aotearoa/New Zealand which are actually oca (Oxalis tuberosa) or the ‘yams’ of North America which are really sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas). Yamaimo may be best known and most widely appreciated for their delicious underground tubers but the aerial tubers are a fine wild food in their own right. And, while it takes a good three or four years of growth for the underground tuber to reach a good size for harvesting the plant yearly produces loads of mukago. The mukago are the seed of the yamaimo so while harvesting take the time to press a few good looking mukago into the soil to ensure perpetual harvests.

The mukago have a texture a little like satoimo  (Japanese taro)  and are fantastic in miso soups or as mukagogohan (steamed with rice). They are small (up to 1cm diameter) so getting a decent harvest can be a slow and relaxing process – if you let it be. We have other species of Discorea at Shikigami both wild and introduced. One which grows wild looks very similar to the Discorea japonica and also produces aerial tubers the same size as mukago from the leaf axils but these tubers are extremely bitter. This species develops its aerial tubers a little earlier than Discorea japonica so, generally, by the time we begin harvesting mukago (late September/early October) the bitter ones have already fallen to the ground (whereas the mukago are still on the vines from which we harvest them). Another way we can tell the difference is that the bitter-aerial-tuber Discorea species’ leaves alternate from the vine whereas the leaves of Discorea japonica emerge from the vine as opposing pairs.

The air potato (Discorea bulbifera) is one we have introduced but as yet have not succeeded in growing it as a perennial – our winters are just a little too cold but by replanting in a slightly warmer micro-climate we may get there. You may be wondering, if it is not a wild food and not even a perennial why am I mentioning it? Just so I can show you a photo of the size difference between the aerial tubers of the Discorea bulbifera [left] and Discorea japonica. Air potatoes indeed!

air potato (Discorea bulbifera) and mukago (Discorea japonica)

Summer, in the Shade

August 27, 2012

As the summer rolls on so too does the succession of wild edibles. The height of summer is often thought to be a relatively barren time for foraging but here, wild foods continue to comprise a significant proportion of our diet at this time. It has been hot, really hot, so our preference is for lurking in the cool moist shade of the trees. A preference shared by many of the wild foods to be found at this time of the year.

A couple of weeks back we held a ‘simple living’ workshop at Shikigami [view photos of the event here] with participants wild harvesting ingredients for the weekends meals. They were surprised – as are most of our visitors – at the abundance and diversity of wild edible plants here. We first introduced them to inutade (Polygonum longisetum), a relatively new one for us too and one that has quickly become a much respected and appreciated summer food. (While I think very highly of the Plants for a Future site and use it often the ‘edibility ratings’ on the site should not be taken too seriously. The entry on Polygonum longisetum is a case in point: it is given an edibility rating of 1 (out of 5). These edibility ratings are subjective, of course, but further, plants are often rated on hearsay rather than from the direct experience of the articles authors. Polygonum longisetum is far better than the designation of ‘famine food’ given it on the site. I would give it at least a 3 out of 5.)

inutade (Polygonum longisetum)
(Polygonum longisetum)

Inutade is a mucilaginous herb growing to 50 – 100cm and one of the dominant ground covers at this time of year. We eat the leaves and the tender tips of the stalks both raw and cooked. As you can see in the photograph above it has quite distinctive dark markings on the leaves. There are a number of related species that carry these markings also. There is one species here with leaves considerably narrower than those pictured but very similar in taste to inutade. Another related species, that carries somewhat similar markings but has a very different leaf shape, is mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii) and it is extremely bitter. The leaves of inutade alternate from a single stem which ranges in colour from olive green to red. From the nodes, where the leaf attaches to the stem, fine white hairs grow.

not inutade
Mizosoba (Polygonum thunbergii)

We also introduced the workshop participants to wild pesto. (And it is to my dear friends Karin and Cath back in Aotearoa that I have to thank for introducing me to this particular culinary delight.) As the late vegetalista Frank Cook observed, pesto is not so much a specific recipe as it is a genre. So then, what comprises this genre of pesto? Some green stuff, some garlic-like stuff, some nuts, parmesan (optional), all very finely chopped and mixed with olive oil and perhaps a dash of salt. The classic formula of basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan is but one way. On this occasion our pesto contained walnuts, parmesan, ushihakobe (a chickweed), tsubokusa (gotu kola), plantain, aomizu (in the Urticaceae, or nettle family and one to which I shall return later), chidomegusa (lawn pennyroyal), clover, oregano…and probably some other plants that I can’t recall right now.

Making wild pesto
Making wild pesto

Wild pesto
Peel and crush the garlic (I use about two cloves for every generous handful of greens but then, I eat a lot of raw garlic. You’ll quickly discover the quantity that suits you). Place a handful of greens on the garlic and begin chopping. As you are chopping keep scraping all the ingredients from the chopping board back in to a pile. Once the plant material is well chopped (does not need to be super fine at this stage) add another handful of greens and repeat the process until all the greens have been added. By this stage, with the repeated chopping as new greens were added, the leaves and garlic should be quite finely cut. Chop the nuts of your choice coarsely, sprinkle them over your pile of finely chopped leaves and garlic and continue to chop. Once the nuts have been reduced to small pieces (but before they have become dust) add grated parmesan (optional) and chop this into very small pieces too. The idea throughout this process is that by chopping the ingredients on top of the previously added ingredients they all get mixed up rather nicely as you achieve the desired fineness for a good pesto (in my humble opinion having it all mashed to a pulp in a blender does not make for good pesto – but as you like). Place your mixture in a bowl, adding salt to taste, then add the olive oil – just enough to achieve the desired consistency if you plan to eat the pesto immediately. If you have made more than you can eat immediately place the remainder in a jar and add more olive oil to just cover the pesto. This should keep for at least a week or two refrigerated (I’m guessing here as I tend to make it fresh each time).

Two attendees of the workshop showed an extreme aversion to garlic and all members of the Allium genus and so experimented further with the basic recipe. Using the same greens they substituted ginger for garlic, sesame oil for olive oil and sesame paste for parmesan. The result…absolutely delicious.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica syn. pumila, Canadian clearweed), one of the pesto ingredients mentioned above, is another cherished summer green, making regular appearances in our salads of the past month. It is a member of the nettle family and the Japanese name aomizu (green water plant) gives you a good idea of where to look for it. A small annual with a preference for shady, moist places. The leaves look and taste very similar to koakaso (Boehmeria spicata), another member of the nettle family that I have written about previously here and here.

Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)
Aomizu (Pilea mongolica)

Myōga (Zingiber mioga) of the ginger family is a plant native to Japan and Korea that is a popular ingredient in the cuisine of both countries. Its popularity has led to its wide cultivation but it can still be found wild or, once introduced to an appropriate site, let go wild. It is a great plant for forest gardens as it grows well in full or partial shade.

Myoga_Zingiber mioga
Myōga (Zingiber mioga)

In Japan it is often pickled or used in miso soup. The flower buds are the most commonly used part of the plant though the young shoots are eaten too. The flower buds appear at ground level – not on the above ground parts of the plant – so a bit of crawling around on the soil might be necessary. Even if not necessary it is fun and…uhh…grounding.

A stand of myōga left alone will soon fill up the available space with a subsequent reduction in the number of flower buds produced. A bit of disruption to the soil now and then (something the wild pigs usually do a reasonable job of) will increase the number of flower buds produced each year. Here we have summer and autumn flowering varieties.

Myoga (Zingiber mioga) flowerbud
Myōga flowerbud

Myōga pickles
Combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt. Guess the amount of vinegar you’ll need to cover the quantity of myōga you have (when in a jar) and add sugar and salt to taste. Bring the vinegar mixture to a boil and remove from heat. Cut the myōga flowerbuds in half and dip in boiling water for about thirty seconds to a minute, drain and place the myōga in a jar. Cover the myōga, while it is still hot, with the vinegar mixture then let the jar cool to room temperature before putting the lid on. Best kept refrigerated or in a very cool dark place.