Picking Wild Plums

Several weeks ago, I waded across the Creek and picked twelve pounds of wild plums. That’s not so easy to do this week because the channel is back to running full after the latest “rain bomb”. Most of the major plum thickets are located on the north side of the Creek and location, as we all know, is everything.

Location within the thicket controls the plum crop. The best clusters of ripe fruit seem to be on the south sides of the thicket. That’s where the blossoms were less impacted by strong north winds this past spring. And, those are the places where fruit can ripen in the full exposure to the sun now this fall. It also seems like the smaller trees at the edges of a dense, mature thicket have the best fruit. At least that’s where the ripe plums are easiest to pick. Access is an important part of location.

Picking is tricky. The ripest fruit is on the end of small, springy branches, so you can pull those branches down to get the plums within reach. But if you inadvertently let go of the branch, it bounces back and shakes off all of the unpicked ripe fruit. Those problems don’t exist for the inaccessible plums at the top of the larger, older trees.

One clue to finding a concentration of ripe plums is smell. The fruit that has naturally fallen off the trees has a distinctive good fragrance that warns you to stop looking at the ground and start looking up in the branches. Commonly, wild plums hang in pairs; one big and one small. Both the big and little plums have a thin layer of yellow flesh between the bitter outer skin and the large pit that dominates the center. If you happen to be eating as you pick, that yellow flesh is sweet and warm from the sun. However, usually you end up spitting out both the bitter skin and the big central pit.

Wild plums have thorns. Ripe fruit that falls may get impaled on a thorn. And, the plum picker may get scratched. Those thorns are there for protection, after all.

Picking wild plums is a trip back in time. One Native American nation called September the “moon of ripe plums”. Their linguistic descendants probably still do. My grandfather, who was the son of the homesteaders, had his own technique for picking plums. A canvas tarp was stretched over a wagon box and the team of horses pulled it into the thicket. Then he shook the trees and the falling ripe fruit collected on the tarp. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people from town would come out to go “pluming”. It was quite a social event and was also a real contrast to my solitary communion with Nature as I pick.

For the children of the Depression, the plum harvest was a balance between waste and greed. They felt a deep obligation to make good use of the bounty, but it was also a big job to pick and preserve. I once offered an elderly aunt a bag of plums, but she refused forcefully. She knew that she had a responsibility to do the preserves if she accepted the gift.

One of my great-great grandmas had a unique recipe for plum jam that I really like. However, Margaret doesn’t care for that jam because it has anise in it. She also likes a clear jelly better than the lumpy jam. We’ll probably be making jelly with this batch of wild plums because the prime cook’s preference is paramount.

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Fall on the Farm

Our currant pop culture recognizes Labor Day as the last weekend of summer. Some schools started in August, but most started this past week. The astronomical end of summer and beginning of fall is still several weeks away (September 22-23), but the meteorological first day of fall is taken as September 1, according to the National Weather Service. That makes it easier to summarize the seasonal differences by quarters of the calendar months.

Fall on Lone Tree Farm is full of color. Red grass ripens in the prairie patches and warm season paddocks. It’s mostly big blue stem, but other native grasses like little blue stem and switch grass also seem to turn red at the ends of leaves and up the stems. And, golden rod lights up the green and brown grass areas…….. and gets blamed for allergies. But, the “interweb” says the main allergy culprit is ragweed that often grows in association with the golden rod. Golden rod is another case of an innocent plant getting labeled as a problem.

Sunflowers are running riot in the ditch near the mailbox and also in some of the waterways. We need to harvest some of the seeds and get them established in our prairie patches to go with the good standing crop of milkweed. Golden rod, sunflowers, and milkweed all add biologic diversity and provide support for pollinators. OR, are they “weeds”?

Thistles are weeds, but they are also monarch food. We do have some monarchs migrating through, but not as many as some of the clusters that we used to see. We’ve got a friend who is raising and releasing monarchs that she collects from milkweeds. Someone commented that she’s saving the world one monarch at a time. Another friend is involved in a program to tag monarchs to document migration patterns. I think that both of these are worthy causes.

Trees are starting to turn color. This is Margaret’s flame-shaped red maple (and her picture, like the monarch on the thistle). Some cottonwoods and box elders are starting to show yellow. However, hackberries and ash are still mostly green. They both seem to last longer in the fall after getting a late start in the spring. Dad used to say that they were “careful” trees that waited to green up until later in the spring when the risk of a killing frost was reduced.

Fall is harvest time. We’re just starting to see these spider webs get set up as bug traps in the short grass. So, that’s one harvest that has begun. There are a few apples on the old tree up at the “Greats’ house”. It’s the last apple tree in the yard and it hasn’t got many more fall seasons left. There are more dead branches than green ones with apples. After the warm days this past week, we’ll check the wild plums down at the Creek. They should also be ready for a fall harvest.

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Ice Age Animals

Last week we left the Farm on a quick, nostalgic trip to the Black Hills. We did all the “touristy” things that we haven’t done for decades, including the Mammoth Site at Hot Springs. My bright wife suggested that we take along a box of bones from the Creek (why didn’t I think of that?) to show them to the professional staff at the Mammoth Site. And so, that’s what we did.

The director of research at the Mammoth Site is the same paleontologist who worked on a tusk excavated at Hills, MN, (about 20 miles west of the Farm) earlier this month. Dr. Jim Mead was extremely helpful and identified several of the fossils that were illustrated in the post from Lone Tree Farm last week. This currant post has lots of pictures from our visit to the Mammoth Site. Thanks to Dr. Mead we now know that our Kanaranzi Creek pasture has the remains of several animals from the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago.

The tooth on the left is from the Farm. Dr. Mead described it as a lower tooth from a young Columbian mammoth. The teeth in the right are still in place in the excavations at the Mammoth Site. The flat ridges on mammoth teeth are designed to grind up grass in contrast to the conical ridges on mastodon teeth that were more effective for browsing twigs on trees and shrubs. There are no mastodons at the Mammoth Site. Last week I incorrectly said that our tooth is from a wooly mammoth, but there’s a big difference in size and population. For example, the Mammoth Site has the remains of 56 Columbian mammoths, but only 4 wooly mammoths. 

Mammoths only had four big teeth, two upper and two lower. Here’s a picture of a reconstruction that shows the position in the skull. That skull is part of the total skeleton shown on the right.

The bone on the left is from Lone Tree Farm. It eroded out of the Creek bank this past spring. Dr. mead identified it as part of a leg bone from an extinct Ice Age bison. The picture on the right is a similar bone on display at the Mammoth Site. So, now we have a 10,000 year-old bison bone to go with the 1,000 year-old bison bones from our archaeological site located in about the same area.

Here’s the location of the leg bone in the Ice Age bison compared to the human skeleton. And, here’s the skull that shows how large the horns were. These are both displays from the Mammoth Site. These Ice Age animals were big!

This partial horn from the Creek may be from an Ice Age bison. Dr. Mead was not absolutely certain, but the size and curvature do suggest that it’s probably not one from a modern bison.

There are a couple displays at the Mammoth Site that illustrate just how big these extinct animals were, relative to their modern counterparts. The Columbian mammoth is the big dark gray guy, the wooly mammoth outline is brown, and the modern African and Asian elephants are also shown in shades of gray. The biggest bison is the extinct long-horn species probably represented by our leg bone and the smallest bison is the modern one that is probably associated with our archaeological site.

Last fall we had some preliminary work done on the archaeological site located down in our Creek pasture. She helped us get this Native American site registered with the state and another archaeologist identified a piece of pottery associated with a culture that was here about 1,000 years ago. We need to have some more work done on those artifacts and buffalo bones, but now we additionally have a nearby site of fossil bones from Ice Age animals. The work on these bones from 10,000 years ago will have to be done by a paleontologist. “Science marches on!”

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Two Layers of Bones

This tooth was found several years ago on a sand bar along Kanaranzi Creek. It probably eroded out from the layer of gravel that’s buried beneath the Creek bed. And, it’s probably a tooth from a wooly mammoth. That suggests that the buried gravel was originally deposited during the Ice Age thousands of years ago.

Here are two more specimens that most likely also came from that buried layer of glacial gravel. I think that the long piece of splintered horn might be from an Ice Age bison. Maybe the big, dark brown knuckle is also from a bison? That’s all speculation on my part. We’ll have to show them to a paleontologist who knows about really old bones.

We can see the top of the glacial gravel exposed in the lower part of the Creek bank when the water level is low. However, most of the steep banks along the channel show a thick layer of black clay and silt that was deposited by the Creek in the last few hundred years. This layer of alluvium also has bones that erode out of the steep banks and end up on modern sand bars.

The bones in the alluvium layer are also from bison, more commonly referred to as buffalo. We found these three skulls in 1997, 2001, and 2014. In addition, we found these six horns. So that represents at least six total buffalo! Growing up along the Creek in the 1950s, my brother and I searched a lot and only found one small piece of horn. And, the previous generations of children and grandchildren of the homesteaders never found any that I know of. The Creek is eroding a lot more lately, so there are more buffalo bones coming out of the alluvium layer lately.

The buffalo bones are broken open in strange patterns and lots are splintered. Some seem to show cut marks. It looks like there may have been a buffalo butcher shop back when Native Americans lived along the Creek. However, buffalo bones look a lot like cattle bones so we’ll have to get an expert’s opinion on these bones too. That will come from an archaeologist who knows about younger bones.

Earlier this month, a paleontologist worked on excavating a mammoth tusk at the town of Hills about 20 miles west of our farm. http://www.star-herald.com/news/hills-backyard-becomes-site-paleontologist-fossil-dig So, there are Ice Age fossils over that way as well. I don’t know if the tusk was exposed in glacial gravel like the layer below Kanaranzi Creek. But, this would be a scientist who could confirm that our tooth really did come from a mammoth. Now we’ll have to find an archaeologist who might be able to confirm the butcher marks on the younger buffalo bones.

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Wild Cucumber Hanging Around

Have you seen any of this stuff lately? It’s prime time for the wild cucumber vines and they’re climbing everywhere! Here’s one stretched up on the lilac bushes north of the old house. The other one nearby is headed up the dead tree by the gas barrel.

The flowers do smell good. Wild cucumber has been planted some places as an ornamental, but it is a native forb that’s probably in the seed bank all over the farm. That’s good because it adds to the general biologic diversity. You can buy the seed online for $20 an ounce (seems kinda spendy to me) because it is, after all, a wild flower. However, that depends one where it’s growing. The USDA officially lists it as a weed.

Wild cucumber vines grow so fast that it’s sorta scary stuff. Seems like those extensive, vigorous vines would smother the other plants that they cover. But, I’ve read that it rarely does any damage. Still, we pulled the vines off our favorite asparagus cluster right after we took this picture. We didn’t want to risk losing one of the best suppliers for next spring’s asparagus crop. So, yup, it’s a weed there.

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Springs This Summer

The high rainfall this year and last year has saturated the subsoil and filled the underground storage “tanks”. Actually these buried aquifers are NOT open spaces, like caves, flooded with water. But, instead they are layers of sand and gravel saturated with the water stored in tiny void spaces between the sand grains and gravel pebbles. And, when the buried aquifers spill out onto the land surface, we get springs. A lot of springs this year.

This is the fairly permanent spring that we have in the western part of the farm. The active spring is marked with a star in the dark green vegetation. And, the band of yellow and light green vegetation along the edge of the hill is where the layer of sand and gravel is leaking out to form a new spring this year.

We can actually see the layer of saturated sand and gravel where it’s exposed in a high bank along the Creek farther north. Water from the uncovered aquifer goes directly into the Creek channel at this location. There’s a layer of wind-blown silt, called loess, covering the aquifer layer. Black soil has formed at the top of the silt. Loess is the parent material for all the good soil in this part of Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota.

There’s also a layer of sand and gravel buried down below the actual Creek channel. When this lower aquifer is filled up like this year, water flows directly into the channel water. However during a dry spell, the surface water in the Creek may flow back into the buried aquifer. The exposed layer of wet sand is basically unstable and big blocks of the over-lying clay alluvium (which was deposited when the Creek was flooding over it’s banks) slump down into the channel. The same thing has happened with the upper sand layer back over along the high bank.

Upland hills are capped with loess rather alluvium and below the loess there’s clay that has interspaced boulders. This widespread geologic unit is called till and it was deposited directly by the ice in the old glaciers. Clay doesn’t usually store much groundwater, but if it is highly fractured it can act as an aquifer. The bands of Queen Anne’s Lace and white clover on this hillside probably mark moisture available from the fractured clay till. When the gravel road on a hill slope crosses the layer of saturated till, we get the frost boils and mud holes that have been so bad this year.

An active spring forms when the saturated, fractured till leaks its water out onto the side of a hill where it runs down to puddle up on the flat surface of the Creek’s floodplain. I’ve never seen a spring at this location, but this year there’s a new one. The boulders at the base of the tree are part of the till layer. This is the place where we got the boulder that became my brother’s headstone. Native American traditions link springs with places with spiritual significance and that certainly holds true for me at this spot.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

Over the past several weeks, the Queen Anne’s Lace has made its annual appearance. Usually we’ve got grandchildren visiting the Farm and that’s the way that it happened again this year. These two pictures, however, are from past years; both girls are “much” older now. Catching fire flies is also one of the standard activities when the Queen Anne’s Lace is in bloom and the kids are at the Farm.

Internet information says that the red center of the flower is supposed to be a drop of Queen Anne’s blood when she pricked herself while sewing the lace. It also says this is a “nativized” plant which means that it was introduced into North America, but now it thrives in the wild. In fact, the state of Minnesota classifies it as a noxious weed. But, weeds are in the eye of the beholder.

Queen Anne’s Lace is related to the wild carrot and there are on-line suggestions for eating it. We tried these pancakes several years ago, but there wasn’t much of a distinctive taste. Mainly it was for decoration, I think. However, there were warnings to go with the cooking ideas. “Don’t confuse Queen Anne’s Lace with poison hemlock.” What? So much for on-line suggestions! Margaret deserves thanks for making the pancakes and for building these two photo collages.

The calving paddock just south of our house has strips of the plant that are probably related to soil saturation. The green and more wet waterway has bands of the white flowers on either side. But there are fewer flowers in the foreground of the photo and over on the hilltop with the trees. These zones of vegetation may correspond with distinct soils developed over layers of different parent material. And, the layers of silt, clay, and organic matter each hold different amounts of water. This is all a “teaser” for the post next week!

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