How To Build A Solid Wall Yurt

This manual provides step-by-step instructions on how to build a semi-solid wall fully portable yurt in under 40 hours. Assembly time: 3-4 hours. Disassembly time: 2 hrs. Available on or, or from the author's website at

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Canada Plum Beats American Plum

Canadians are not known to brag, but when it comes to our Canada plum versus the American plum, it’s time to puff up our chests. Of course, we want to forget that the Canada plum often is referred to as the Horse plum, and that is far too close to horse chestnuts or horse apples for comfort!
The Canada plum grows particularly well near the edges and headlands of clearings, partly because of the sunlight/shade mix and partly because of the tendency for bears and racoons to raid a plum tree just as the fruit is ripening, and then spreading the seeds as they defecate along pathways.  But the Canada plum also is especially good for pollinating other plums, and often is used to pollinate hybrids and domestic plums.
It is a juicy, sweet tart fruit – more tart than most plums, requiring less acidity in jams and preserves.  In the spring, masses of whitish pink flowers adorn the trees, yet the fruit does not ripen until late in the summer. And, in contrast to the beautiful flowers and tasty fruit, the tree itself is a gnarly neighbour, with its spiny like twigs thwarting many predators.
The wood, though, is hard and brittle, and, with its beautiful graining, makes excellent small woodwork stock.  That, I admit, seems wasteful, given the value of the live tree versus a dead one.
The nutritional worth of the fruit is obvious.  Eaten fresh, plums, although on the smaller side, are juicy and flavourful.  Plum jam forms well and thick, and will be consumed well before commercial alternatives. Plum sauce – a staple with Chinese egg rolls – is an enticing supplement to wild game and pork. Plum preserves, made with the stone removed, are quality dessert or aperitif items. Dried, the fruit is an excellent source of energy on hikes, although if not sufficiently dried, they can begin to ferment in heat! That leads to another excellent use for plums: wine making.  Plum wine beats any commercial wine for vibrancy and taste, as well as providing a good source of antioxidants.
However, a word of caution here: plum seeds (stones) should never be consumed, as plum seeds contain significant amounts of cyanide to cause harm.
There are enough medicinal uses and health benefits to the Canada plum to make it an excellent addition to the diet, and to the winter larder.  As mentioned, they are high in antioxidants.  Like their domestic cousins, wild plums work well as a laxative. They are high in fibre. They are astringent and antispasmodic. Plums relieve indigestion, and act as a mild sedative.  Tinctures made from root bark scrapings can be applied to wounds to assist in cleansing. Infusions made from root scrapings and ground up tender shoots is a good quality mouthwash and to cure mouth cankers.  The North American natives used these tea infusions as a digestive system cleanser in spring, while contemporary herbalists use the same infusions to treat urinary tract infections and kidney stones.
Like most wild-harvested plants, plum is a good source of natural health maintenance, and the fruit should be sought out as August winds down, and the less tough root shoots trimmed in early spring.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Medicinal & Nutritional Benefit of Thistles

The list of types of thistle that are indigenous or have been introduced to North America, and that proliferate across the continent is extensive: floodman, field, wavy leaf, swamp, milk, Canada, bull, musk, plumeless and scotch are just a few of the 200 varieties that thrive.   As well, the sow thistle and Russian thistle, while not true thistles, make the prairies and western Canada their home, as well as in many of the states of America. While it is commonly associated with Scotland, the thistle is almost as common as dandelion in the New World.
But thistles, like dandelion, offer a source of sustenance for those of us who are willing to vary our diet to include native weeds.
Unlike dandelion, thistle roots are not edible throughout the growing season.  Once the leaves have matured in late spring, the roots become very tough and bark-like.  At all times, they have a bitter taste much like the milk in the stems of dandelion flowers.  However, they are edible in the spring, and, with a little lemon in the water, they can be peeled and boiled as a nutritious vegetable.
The stalks, too, can be eaten for much of the season, but become tough as the hot weather arrives.  By peeling the outer layer of skin, you will be able to eat the stems of most thistles, raw, in the spring and early summer.
The leaves present an obvious problem.  Thistles all have spiny leaves that irritate the stomach.  Again, though, with a little effort, younger leaves can be trimmed and boiled, then eaten with butter as a lively side dish,
Thistle increases the production of bile, and therefore has value for the liver and gall bladder, and aids digestion while reducing cholesterol. Thistle is recommended for reducing blood glucose and treating diabetes. As a leafy green it contains moderate to good levels of vitamins and minerals.
Most herbal remedies use the milk thistle seed.  However, separating the seed from its parachute carrier can be tedious.  A simpler way is to use the flower petals in salads, or dry and crush the flowers for use in an infusion.
While thistle is far from a gourmet item in the wild harvesting diet, it is a great option, particularly since it likes to grow where many other plants would wither and die.  Since it is one of the earliest weeds to sprout in the spring, it also offers one of the virgin spring feasts from nature, and should not be overlooked.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Medicinal & Nutritional Benefits of Poplar Bark, Sap & Catkins

Growing up in rural western Canada, our family relied heavily on natural, wild remedies and food sources. My father’s close ties to the First Nations of the Fairford reservation meant that we were privy to dozens of secrets to wild harvesting of plants for medicinal and culinary use. Yet, we overlooked one of the most prevalent and beneficial sources: the poplar.
Although the local native people did use poplar bark, poplar catkins and poplar sap, we relied on the white willow, a close relative of the poplar.  For us, its primary use was as a pain reliever.  The inner bark of the willow contains salicin, a natural reliever of headaches, muscle pain, fever and blood disorders.  Similarly, poplar bark contains salicin, one of the components of aspirin. Natives used the bark, as well, for cuts, fevers, and coughs.  The bark has antiseptic and expectorant properties.
Poplar sap, readily available in the spring, often is harvested and boiled down like maple syrup.  However, it does not store well, and must be used in season.  Like the sap, the slippery inner bark does not render well, and has limited use as a winter remedy.
Many wild plants, cattails and common plantain among them, are mucilaginous and act as a thickener for stews.  The inner bark, when dried and ground, can be used in a similar manner.  Like the former two plants, it also acts as an excellent digestive system cleanser.
Poplar bark powder, used in a poultice, is an excellent dressing for wounds, acne, sore joints and even rheumatic complaints.  Some people have used the finer root tendrils similarly, or have chewed them foe toothache relief.  The bark can be made into a tea-like infusion by steeping the ground bark in boiled water for ten minutes.  It is not unpleasant-tasting.
Poplar sap tea is a commonly used spring tonic, or a seasonal pick-me-upper for the elderly, to treat urinary infections, relieve nausea, alleviating hay fever and to relieve allergy symptoms by clearing the nasal passages.
Catkins, available in early spring before the leaves grow, are much more bitter tasting than either the bark or the sap. They, though, can be dried for use throughout the spring, summer and fall, with effects similar to that of the bark or sap.

Poplar offers an array of health and nutrition options, but, unfortunately, has a limited season. Nonetheless, this tree should be on your list of chosen plants for wild harvesting.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Enjoying, Instead of Eradicating Ragweed

One of the advantages of growing up poor in the country is that you get to experience nature, raw. Throughout our harsh Manitoba winters, any vegetables were at a premium, and fruit (except for that which we picked wild, such as Saskatoon berries) non-existent in our diet.  That meant that, with the first rush of greenery in the spring, almost everything that sprouted was a potential meal.
Dandelion, pigweed, common plantain, spruce buds, mustard greens, and many others found their way into our meals.  Even the hated and much maligned ragweed  was a treat, once the snow had melted.
Today, ragweed is blamed for the majority of pollen allergies in North America.  Sixty years ago, it may very well have created similar adverse reactions, but I recall none of them.  Young greens were a source of bland vegetables on a plate that had been bereft of greens for months.  It was a treat. I have picked and eaten it raw, boiled it, or created an infusion by pouring boiling water over the leaves and then using that infusion to make breads, soups and so on.  I have yet to develop the skin rash that a few people report from handling the plant.
Several centuries ago, natives harvested the plants routinely.  Although there is scant written documentation as to how the plants were stored or prepared, my First Nations friends tell me of how their parents would pound the fine seeds and use them in stews or even in dried meat preparations.  Some tell me that the seeds, along with others collected in the autumn, were carried on hunts, and were well regarded as a source of energy.  This makes sense, since the seeds have close to fifty percent oil content (about the same as soybeans).  Others still harvest the root and boil it.
I have tried similar tactics with this plant, but the roots pose two problems.  While some varieties have a sort of tap root, most spread horizontally, with a main root and lots of rhizomes.  These are difficult to clean, and the main root tends to be tough.  Since ragweed thrives in poor soil, the root has to be tough, being subjected to harsh and varied weather conditions.
Flowers, too, can be consumed, but with their high pollen content, the best one can hope for is a weak tea.  They cook poorly, even when the green flowers are immature.
My favourite use of ragweed is simple: boiled greens from young leaves harvested when the plant is less than a foot high, in spring.  A little butter, a little thyme (or Italian spice mix) and a teaspoon of vinegar make it a pleasant vegetable option.
Many of our wild-harvested plants provide a medicinal benefit as well as a culinary experience, and ragweed is no exception.  It is recognized as one of the best extractors of lead from soils, and, by logical extension, a good cleanser in your own body.  Yet, this attribute can also be a hazard, so care should be taken that you do not harvest plants from environmentally polluted areas.  Few scientific studies have been conducted on this plant to determine either medicinal or nutritional benefit and hazard.  Instead, emphasis has been on how to control and eradicate the weed.  That means that you should exercise caution around ragweed, until you know how you will react to it.
Other medicinal properties and uses have been reported to be effective.  The extracts are anti-bacterial and anti-viral.  Some varieties have been used to cure diarrhea or constipation, alleviate symptoms of colds and flu, resolve upset stomach, or to stimulate appetite.  However, many of these remedies are simply common sense solutions, since raw or natural foods with high vitamin content generally are used to cure minor upsets.

As with most plants, fresh is better than dried or preserved, so eat your fill while the plant is still available.  Winter comes too soon, and we will miss our weedy nemesis and friend in January!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dandelion Wine & Dandelion Syrup, Quick And Easy

Dandelion easily is one of the most versatile nutritional and medicinal plants that can be harvested in the wild in North America.  Root, leaves and flowers of the dandelion all can be consumed, for both health and culinary benefit. 
My last blog provided a few recipes for the flowers (including calyx) and leaves.  This blog continues with the various ways that the flowers can be used, focusing on making wine and syrups.  Both are quite simple, but both also have myriad optional recipes.
Wine, for instance, can be made in as short a time as four weeks (the recipe in this article) or as long as twelve months.  Syrups can be fairly thin, or processed with pectin into jelly or marmalade.
This month, I made a syrup that is thick enough to use in the place of honey, or, when warmed slightly, is a perfect topping for pancakes and waffles.
Begin by picking two quarts of packed flowers.  I include the calyx, as I like the slightly bitter taste of the green parts. Boil two and one half quarts of water, pour over the flowers in a large vat.  Let the infusion stand for fifteen minutes or so, drain the water, reheat and pour over the flowers once again.  Let this stand until the water has cooled to room temperature, then drain off the water, being sure to squeeze out the liquid before discarding the flowers. (I compost these flowers, as they will not produce seeds)
Pour the liquid into a large pot, add eight cups of sugar (I use two cups of brown sugar to replace two of refined sugar, for a more syrupy final product, and for a slightly healthier syrup), as well as one half cup of lemon juice and two tablespoons of crushed mint.  Boil at medium low heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture is rendered down to roughly three cups.  Pour into containers and store in the refrigerator for up to six months.
My wine recipe starts off the same as the syrup, by infusing two quarts of flowers.  However, use four quarts of water instead of two. Bring the liquid to 32C (90F).
Add eight cups of sugar, one half orange and one half lemon (sliced thinly),  and a handful of mint leaves (crushed). Stir in ½ ounce (two packets) of yeast. Pour the mix into a fermentation container (I use a plastic water jug, with good results), place in a cooler, dark area, and let the mix ferment for two weeks, or until the bubbles stop. Strain the liquid into four sterilized quart jars with lids, and store for a minimum of another ten days to two weeks. 

This wine tastes best when chilled, and has an alcohol content of approximately 10-12%.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Using Dandelion Flowers

You face a choice: eradicate them or enjoy them.  My personal choice is to enjoy them. It’s dandelion that I am talking about.  Every spring, the first flower to bloom in the northern hemisphere seems to be dandelion, across every lawn north of the 49th parallel, and even well down into the central USA. Europe, too, has dandelion in abundance.
But dandelions are only noxious weeds because of our perception of them.  In fact, they are one of the best sources of nourishment of any plant, from flower to root.  In the spring, the young dandelion greens (the tender leaves) are delicious in salads or boiled and buttered, with thyme.  Once the plant starts to produce flowers, the leaves tend to get a little bitter, but are still edible until the hot summer sun toughens them up.
Dandelion flowers, though, offer some of the best bounty available in the spring.  Whether you want to make homemade dandelion wine, dandelion syrup or want just to enjoy the flowers fresh in a salad or steamed or sautéed, they are delicious.
There are a variety of ways to prepare dandelion flowers.  Begin by picking either fully flowers or buds that have not yet bloomed, but that are full. When cooking the flowers, they will close up, in any event, and will shrink by about 80%.  Four cups of loosely packed flowers will render down to about 2/3 of a cup if sautéed, and ¾ to 7/8 cup if steamed.  If you choose to boil the flowers, be sure to save the juice.  It makes excellent soup base or water when making homemade bread (use sage and parsley to kill some of the bitterness).
To reduce the slightly bitter taste of dandelions, avoid picking stems (containing a white milk) with the flowers.  Also, if you have lots of time, remove the calyx (the green cup-like shell holding the petals) from the petals.  You will need at least five time the amount of flower petals if you choose to do this, but it is the stalk and green calyx that hold most of the bitter flavour.  Unfortunately, much of the nutrients also are found in the calyx.
All methods of preparing the flowers for consumption require that you rinse the flowers under cold water, to remove debris.  (If you are squeamish, you will also be removing any aphids, ants and other insects).  Be sure that you pick flowers in any area that has not been treated with herbicide or insecticide. Also, any areas where animals may have urinated (corners, near trees and shrubs, against walls, etc.) should be avoided.
The first method of preparing the flowers is to sautee them.  Dandelion flowers, like the more mature leaves, can have a slightly bitter taste (reminiscent of tonic water).  Heat two or three  tablespoons of grapeseed or olive oil in a skillet. Add two cups of flowers, recue heat to low, spice with 2 teaspoons of brown sugar and 1/8 teaspoon of thyme.  Cover the skillet and cook until the flowers are tender.  Serve with peas as a companion.
The next method involves steaming.  Steam the flowers for about 7-10 minutes.  Save the liquid, as much of the nutrients will have leeched back into the water.  Remove the flowers and, in a bowl, toss the flowers with melted butter and a little corn meal.  Add a little hemp or flax oil for a smooth taste, or use ginger, melted butter and brown sugar for a lighter, sweet taste. If you wish, you may boil the flowers instead of steaming them.
Dandelion flowers can be eaten raw, as well.  The buds, when washed and chilled in vinegar, make excellent snacks, while the flower petals (or entire flower & calyx) are great additions to a tossed salad.  Sprinkle sunflower seeds or crushed walnuts on the salad for a great complimentary taste.
The next blog will deal with making dandelion wine.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Morel Cousins

While morels are considered to be one of the most distinguishable fungi in North America, and are thought to be almost universally non-toxic, each year there are reported incidents of allergic, toxic and fatal incidents involving these mushroom-like delicacies. However, in most cases, reactions are not from morels, but from the morel’s evil cousins.
Many members of the mushroom family have relations that look like safe, edible mushrooms, but are deadly or disagreeable.  Morel look-alikes are almost non-existent.  However, there are a few fungi with which you should exercise caution. Unfortunately, these second cousins, known as “false morels,”  tend to grow near, and in the same conditions as morels.
Perhaps the most frequently encountered morel imitator is the “brain mushroom.” The brain mushroom has a wrinkled, rather than pitted or honeycombed surface.  Its dark brown stout body  and bulbous, brain shape make it relatively easy to distinguish from true morels.  It tends to “slime” quicker than morels due to its interior spore makeup, and does not have the same nutty taste as the morel. But if it is toxic, how will you know what it tastes like? In past centuries, many brain mushrooms were sold in marketplaces, cooked and consumed with little ill effect.  However, for many people, there is no toxic or allergic reaction.  Unfortunately, what was edible yesterday has been known to kill people the next day. For many, the symptoms are no worse than mild diarrhoea or upset stomach.
Harder to distinguish are look-alikes for the half-cap morel, whose tapered cap is held to the stem only by a band at the top of the stem, half-way up the cap.  Again, though, this false morel has a wrinkled surface, rather than honeycombed.
The “Big Red” false morel is generally found in south eastern USA, and is distinguished by its bright colors.  Most morels tend to be colored similarly to the leafy carpets in which they are found, which will help to distinguish “Big Red” from true morels.
Generally, even the imitators do not produce a severe reaction in most consumers of morels.  Unlike many mushrooms with their extreme and deadly toxicity, false morels are more likely to cause upset, rather than intense reaction.  Many people are spooked by the possibility of poisoning, and will shy away from any wild fungi.  Some avoid any variation in size or coloration.  But morels in poor conditions, or varying soil types, or even climatic conditions, will produce varying results.  Some yellow morels, found growing in gravelly trailside soils in Manitoba, are of a gray color, while some growing in the willowy drainage ditch sites in Minnesota are tall and spindly, with an elfin morel (false morel) look.  Classic black morels growing in the rich red soils of the Dakotas have taken on a reddish tinge like the “Big Red.”  Yet, all are true, edible morels.
The key is to exercise both caution in picking, and moderation in consumption.  Aside from a very few imitators, there is no need to fear morels.

Where Morels Grow

Fortunately for morel lovers, morels grow in almost every state of the USA and province of Canada, and in part of Mexico.  They officially are found in all but the Arizona, Nevada & New Mexico, Florida & Georgia, Alaska and Hawaii and the provinces of Saskatchewan and Newfoundland-Labrador.  Yet, at least three varieties are common in Manitoba, two in Saskatchewan, one found in northern Georgia, and one in the eastern regions of Alaska.
Morels are identified as at least 16 separate family members, from the common yellow morel and  black morel to the half-free and western blond morel.  While each is specific to a region, many of the taxons identified are almost indistinguishable from the common yellow or black morel.
Generally, morels are found where winter temperatures reach near or below freezing on a sustainable basis, where deciduous forests allow filtered light during the late spring season, where daytime temperatures are not above 80F during the fruiting season, and where the spider-like rooting networks are able to penetrate and spread in the soil substrate. 
For these reasons, hot, arid regions do not host morels.  Similarly, deep, dark evergreen forests are inhospitable hosts.  However, some varieties of mushrooms do grow beneath evergreens.  At the same time, sandy, dry soils generally are not welcoming hosts.  But morels will grow in these soils where they adjoin more beneficial soil substrates.  Thus, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and other low-population states produce morels.
As stated earlier, morels need a looser substrate in which to spread their root-like filaments. Theoretically, then, mountainous regions would not be suitable terrain.  Yet, morels are common in the Pacific Northwest, where leafy mulch provides the needed soil conditions, and spring light, moisture and warmth is abundant. 
Half-free morels seem to deviate from their morel cousins’ preferred sites, growing well in the mossy shoulders of small creeks and drainage ditches.  These morels  are found from the  Dakotas to the maritime states and provinces, from Tennessee to Manitoba, and along the Pacific states.
The classic black morel grows abundantly in the Midwest, along the Pacific Northwest, Colorado & New Mexico, and even in Mississippi.
The classic yellow is even more wide-ranging, from the west, throughout Manitoba and central Canada, central and south central USA, and even the eastern seaboard states, while its sister, the Western Blond, is commonly found in Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
Even in the Yukon and eastern Alaska, a unique morel, the fuzzy footed morel, can be found in abundance, venturing into British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Colorado.
All varieties  are distinctively cone-shaped, and equally delicious.  All are welcome spring snacks across all of North America, and can be found with a little determination, and lots of luck.