Delicious Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote The Wonders of Queen Anne’s Lace. In that particular post, I provide a recipe for making a delicious jelly from the flower. This year’s jelly is the best Rebecca has ever made. The flowers were plentiful and extremely fragrant this year. In fact, the wildflowers as a whole were amazing this year. Something about the cool wet spring and odd summer weather caused the wildflowers to grow in such profusion that every trip to town was a joy (I just wish I had thought to stop along they way and take some pictures—such is the problem with missed opportunity). The difference was so incredible that the road department actually held off mowing the shoulders just so people would be able to enjoy the flowers longer (the shoulders have since been mowed in the interest of public safety). Wisconsin’s rustic roads received quite a workout as people enjoyed the splendor.

In thinking about my post earlier this week about every year being a good and a bad year at the same time, the profusion of wildflowers this year is definitely a good thing. However, it also brings to mind an issue that everyone needs to consider when using herbs of any sort (including Queen Anne’s Lace). The difference in potency this year is striking. Just sticking my nose into the bag I used to collect the flowers this year was overwhelming and you can definitely taste the difference in the resulting jelly. Herbal potency varies year-by-year and also location-by-location (it also varies according to the age of the plant, the part of the plant used, and a number of other factors). It’s important to consider the strength of the herbs you collect when you use whole herbs as we do. We don’t use herbs for medicinal purposes (an exception is comfrey, which I do use for foot baths and on sore muscles), but we do use them in cooking where a difference in potency can be quite noticeable and sometimes unwelcome when the result is unbalanced. In short, you need to take potency into consideration when picking and using herbs.

Some people try to overcome these differences by using a standardized herbal extract. A standardized extract contains a specific amount of the active ingredients in a particular herb. You can depend on the herb extract acting in a certain way. However, the equipment needed to create a standardized herbal extract is well beyond the means of most enthusiasts working in smaller herb gardens. In addition, there is some discussion that standardized herbal extracts leave out valuable, but less researched, components that are also useful and helpful. In short, when you buy a standardized herbal extract, you might not get everything the plant has to offer.

In looking at the beautiful jars of Queen Anne’s Lace jelly now adorning our larder shelves, I know I’ll enjoy a bit of summer this winter every time I have a bit of it on my toast. Sometimes the wonder of herbs comes from enjoying them just as they are. Even so, the smart gardener does keep potency in mind. Marking jars with perceived strength is a good idea, especially when cooking with a particular herb could lead to a resulting imbalance in the taste your food. Let me know your thoughts on herbal potency at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Making Grass Hay

I’ve talked about grass hay in the past (Adding Chickens to the Coop and Easter Bunnies (Part 2)). Grass hay is field grass that we let grow long, cut with a weed whacker, and then use as you would normal hay. With the price of alfalfa (the hay that most people are familiar with) going way up due to last year’s drought, we’ve expanded our use of grass hay substantially. This summer has seen the grass grow quite tall in our orchard. I’ve been out there with the weed whacker as needed to get what we need and I’ll soon cut down the rest to use this winter.

Generally, the grass hay is used green during the summer for feeding the rabbits. In winter, we can use dried grass hay for feeding the rabbits, but usually feed them pellets instead. However, in order to use grass hay for bedding, we need to let it dry. The chickens definitely don’t enjoy a wet bed.

Initially we used the garden tractor to cut the grass hay. After all, it’s quite fast. However, using the garden tractor creates several problems. The most important issue is that the garden tractor tends to cut the grass too short for bedding and the rabbits don’t appreciate the mashed grass. In addition, grass cut with the mower tends to mildew, rather than dry properly. Using the mower is also quite hard on the mower, as I found out after having to replace one of the pulleys on the deck because it stripped due to the excessive load. Of course, cutting the grass with a weed whacker is also better for the environment (less gas used for the same area of grass) and better exercise. The biggest downside of this approach is that it’s time consuming.

Drying field grass is similar to drying alfalfa. However, the drying time is considerably shorter. I normally cut the grass in the morning after the dew is gone, let the grass dry until evening, and then rake it into long lines for further drying. The next day, after the dew is gone, I rake the grass over, let it dry for another few hours, and then put it into feed sacks for later use. The grass hay isn’t compressed as bailed alfalfa is, so you need more of it to accomplish a given task. The use of feed sacks is important because it allows air to circulate around the grass. Otherwise, the grass could heat and spontaneously combust; causing a fire.

Our field grass is actually made up of a number of grasses (such as canary and broom grass) and other plant types (such as millet and Queen Anne’s Lace). We also have many of the native grasses growing in our orchard (where we harvest our grass hay). It’s normally best to wait until the grass goes to seed so that the animals obtain the nutritional benefit of the seed heads.

Grass hay is perfectly acceptable feed for rabbits and the chickens seem to enjoy eating the seed heads. However, it wouldn’t be acceptable feed for an animal with higher nutritional requirements, such as a cow. You need to have the right sort of feed for the animal you’re working with.

Have you ever tried making up your own grass hay? What sorts of issues did you encounter when using it? Let me know your thoughts about grass hay at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com

 

The Wonders of Queen Anne’s Lace

Sometimes, the best herb or edible plant is the one you didn’t plant. Nature provides a number of edible plants that grow naturally where you live. I’ve shared about the berries that grow in our woods before. There are blackcaps, blackberries, gooseberries, wild grapes, wild plums, and choke cherries available to anyone who wants to pick them in the woods. You can also find any number of usable mushrooms and other useful plants out there. However, the wild grass area also has abundance to offer. One of the most useful plants is Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot.

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It’s quite possible that you’ve passed this plant by in the past because it normally grows in with the rest of the weeds. The large taproot is edible. However, you don’t want to dig it up mid-summer. It’s better to dig up a second year plant early in the spring or a first year plant late in the fall. Wait until the plant is dormant or you’ll end up with something that’s akin to shoe leather without much value. Older plants develop a woody interior (xylem) that’s most definitely unpalatable.

Some people actually use a tea made from the root for a number of medicinal purposes. When the root is used for medicinal reasons, the common wisdom is to dig it up in July, which is the same time the plant flowers in profusion.

Wild carrot is an ancestor of the modern cultivated carrot, but they’re different plants. In other words, it would require a lot of work to change Queen Anne’s Lace into anything resembling a domesticated plant and you should focus on the usefulness of the wild plant instead.

One of the most delightful uses of Queen Anne’s Lace is to make jelly from the flowers. You must pick a lot of fresh flowersthe more the better. I normally provide Rebecca with at least two shopping bags full of flowers to make jelly and it takes quite a while to obtain that many flowers, but the effort is most definitely worth it. The Queen Anne’s Lace flower looks like this.

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In some cases, the center of the flower will contain a purple floret, but I’ve found that the purple floret is somewhat rare. Before you go out and pick a bunch of flowers that look just like this one though, be aware that many flowers have precisely the same coloration and similar appearance. For example, the hemlock flower and fool’s parsley are easy to confuse with this flower. Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid the mistake. Hemlock and fool’s parsley both tend to grow in wetter areas, while Queen Anne’s Lace prefers a drier spot to grow. In addition, Queen Anne’s Lace has a distinctive carrot leaf like the one shown here (the photograph is courtesy of my friend William Bridges):

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When picking Queen Anne’s Lace, look for the flower in July, check the flowers carefully, and verify that the leaves are correct. If necessarily dig a plant up to ensure you’re getting the right one. The root will have a distinctive carrot aroma. If you take these four precautions, you won’t ever have any trouble.

There is conflicting information about the use of the leaves. I’ve never personally eaten the leaves and based on the conflicting information, I’d recommend not eating them. Here’s the Queen Anne’s Lace jelly recipe (courtesy of Rebecca).

Queen Anne’s Lace Jelly

2 qts Flower Heads, Rinsed
  Boiling Water to Cover
2 Lemons, Juiced
2 packets Certo
6 cups Sugar
Dash Cinnamon or Nutmeg

Infuse flowers in boiling water for 4 to 5 hours. Strain the result to obtain 5 cups of liquid. Add lemon juice, sugar, and spices. Bring the mixture to a boil. Add Certo. Bring to a full boil for 1 minute. Prepare the jelly according to the instructions on the Certo package. Can using a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

The jelly has a subtle taste. It really is hard to describe, but think of something with an almost honey-like taste, but a bit of spiciness too. Add some tea and an English muffin, and you have a wonderful breakfast. The jelly ends up with a wonderful amber appearance.

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So, what are your favorite wild plants? Do you use them regularly? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.