Sunday, September 10, 2017

Edible wild plants: A guided tour at Theresa Marsh


Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area is not small. From County Highway 28, which cuts across the northern end of it, a vast sea of cattails stretches nearly to the horizon. I’d never heard of it, however, until I went there recently for a hike led by Dianne Robinson, a naturalist with the Wisconsin DNR.

Sandhill cranes

I’ve seen the Wildlife Area before—many times in fact. It is adjacent to Interstate 41, which I’ve driven often on my way to points north. But the small wooden sign identifying the marsh has escaped my notice and the wetland is out of sight from the freeway, beyond a tree line.

Hunters know the area though. That was easy to tell and not only from the numerous signs indicating where they could and couldn’t hunt. I wasn’t there long before a group of hunters came out of the marsh with two canoes and two brace of enormous-looking goose carcasses.

But I wasn’t there to hunt. I joined about a dozen other folks who came to learn about edible wild plants. The “hike” turned out to be a short stroll along the dirt road leading to a gravel parking area next to the marsh. The edible plants we found there were mostly very common ones like dandelions, yarrow, chicory and even cattails. Believe it or not, cattails produce more edible starch per acre than any other green plant! Whoa. Who knew? (Well, the U. S. Army did. There was a plan to use the plant for the war effort during World War II, according to a website called “Eat the Weeds.”)

As you might expect, the edible parts of many wild plants don’t often look like recognizable foods, except for berries and salad-like leafy greens. The most obviously food-like plant we found was wild grape. Although smaller than commercially grown blueberries, let alone grapes, they hang in clusters just as you can imagine.

Clusters of wild grape on the vine
The other thing about edible plants is they tend not to be photogenic, especially when the edible parts are underground as with wild parsnip. We learned that if we were to dig up the root it would look very much like the ones in the grocery store. However, although it has an edible root, wild parsnip is better left untouched. If broken open it oozes a chemical that can cause severe, painful burns when exposed to the sun. The resulting blisters can leave long-lasting scars.

I did manage to get some photographs of a few of the plants, edible or not, as well as of the surrounding landscape. Robinson, our guide, said that her primary purpose in offering the hike was not so much to educate people about the plants as to acquaint us with the marsh. I am following that lead. She told us that, unlike most parks and except for sections designated as refuges, you are free to wander around off trail in wildlife areas such as this one. (I would be cautious about that during hunting season, though! Wear bright colors.)

Robinson with milkweed, the fresh shoots of which are edible. The sap of the plant, however, is toxic. “I would never eat any plant in the wild unless I knew it was safe.” Robinson repeated this advice like a mantra every now and then during the hike. Milkweed, of course, is a well-known food source for monarch butterflies if not humans.

The berries of the hawthorn are edible, if you can safely pick them from among the seriously threatening thorns! And then, after you have braved your way through the thorns to grab a handful of ripe berries you must remember to spit out the seeds. They contain cyanide. Yes. Deadly. (See Robinson’s advice, above.)

The Rock River spills out of Theresa Marsh at the point where we were hiking along the road. Across the wetland surrounding the river we could make out the rooftops of Theresa Station.

The tiny unincorporated hamlet consists of a dozen or so buildings along a dead-end road leading to, yes, a railroad. I assume it once had a station.

Smartweed, which grows in and near the wetter places, blooms from June through September. Not edible but pretty, said Robinson. Eat the Weeds claims it is in fact edible, but so strong and spicy as to not being worth the effort—like eating “a piece of burning paper.”

Robinson holds up a wild cucumber. The name might easily fool you into thinking it is edible. The spiky “cucumber” is a seedpod and is as inedible as it appears! 

Considering our topic, I should note that foraging for certain types of edibles, such as berries, nuts, and mushrooms, is legal on state lands like this. You are not allowed to harvest other parts of plants, including seeds and roots. The official guide is on the DNR website.

On my way back to Milwaukee after the tour ended I found another lovely view of the marsh beneath a sky dotted with Georgia O’Keeffe clouds. Widely dispersed clumps of brown-eyed Susans and goldenrod appeared almost to mirror the stippled sky. If you want to go there, Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area is just off Interstate 41 between Highway D and Highway 28 and only a few miles east of its more famous neighbor, Horicon Marsh.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Summer bouquet: area parks alive with flowers

Black-eyed Susans, Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa
Is it my imagination or are there more flowers this year? When a friend asked me that recently I agreed it seemed to be true. The couple of experts I asked for corroboration differed in their judgments. The point remains mysterious. And yet, I’ve come to believe it. Now and then over the course of the summer I have been startled and amazed at the abundance.

Comfrey, West Bank Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway
I didn’t set out in June to photograph flowers all summer. Flowers are lovely, of course, like flags commemorating nature. But they haven’t especially appealed to me as a subject before. As the summer progressed, however, I noticed them more and more. Everywhere I went the parks—as well as roadsides, yards, and random fields—were resplendent in colorful blossoms. “Earth laughs in flowers,” wrote Emerson, and we smile along with them, enchanted. I began to be more deliberate about finding and photographing them.

Sweet wild clover, Barloga Woods, Oak Creek
And so, as is my custom, I sought out the parks—familiar ones and some I’ve never been to before—with the best floral displays. Here I present to you, dear reader, a summer bouquet gleaned from my wanderings: A photo essay and personal award ceremony for flowers from parks all over the metropolitan region, from the Kettle Moraine to the Lakeshore and many points in between.

Menomonee River Parkway, Wauwatosa

Like Edward Abbey I am drawn especially to wildflowers. "For myself I hold no preferences among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous,” said Abbey. But unlike him, I am far from a purist. That quote is followed by this characteristically caustic proclamation: “Bricks to all greenhouses!” As for me, after a month or so of park-hopping to find wildflowers I decided I also needed to visit a few gardens. Thankfully, Milwaukee County has several.

Lobster Claw, The Domes, Mitchell Park, Milwaukee
Photographing flowers in a conservatory is like shooting ducks in a barrel. But I seldom pass up an opportunity to revisit the Domes! Despite the closure in 2014 due to structural instability attendance at the iconic and unique structures has rebounded. I had to jostle among almost 2,200 other visitors the day I went.

Partridge pea, Three Bridges Park, Milwaukee

After a while my task shifted from discovery to selectivity. For this essay I’ve tried to narrow my choices to those places and flowers for which my descriptions ran to superlatives. Hence the awards in a number of logical and quirky categories. Forgive me if I missed your favorite park or summer bloom. I hope you’ll leave a comment and tell me your picks.

An edited version of this story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading

You can also click here to see more photos and additional parks at Flickr.

Washington Park, Milwaukee

A kayak’s-eye view of Milwaukee’s inner harbor


A visual tour of one of the region’s most dynamic and hard-to-see places

Milwaukee owes its existence to its harbor. European settlers arriving here discovered an excellent natural harbor at the confluence of three rivers. The name Milwaukee was derived from an Ojibwe word that means “gathering of the waters.” That gathering place of water from the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers is now known as the inner harbor. The fertile estuary that had sustained its previous inhabitants was transformed into an economic engine that drove the region’s development as an industrial powerhouse.

Today the picture has changed again. The Port of Milwaukee is still active, shipping mostly bulk commodities such as salt, grain, cement and steel. However, a shifting economy has left vacant and underutilized land around the inner harbor. Plans to revitalize the area, known as the Harbor District, are underway. Public access being limited, the best way to experience the inner harbor is from the water.

Fortunately, you can rent a kayak right on the inner harbor. The Milwaukee Kayak Company is a little hard to find. There is no sign outside the fenced precinct at 318 South Water Street, which Milwaukee Kayak shares with Jerry’s Dock, a marine salvage, diving charter and boat storage facility. But once you’re there you will be well taken care of by the knowledgeable and attentive staff. I joined a tour organized and guided by Harbor District, Inc., the non-profit tasked with redevelopment of the district.

This story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading.

You can also see additional photos of the Harbor District on my website. I am currently serving as artist in residence for the Harbor District, Inc.