As we fall into autumn, mesmerized by the colorful leaves spinning in the breeze and sashaying their way to the ground, be watchful of nannies and witches, for this is their season too – trailside surprises that can delight, nourish and heal. There are some fruits and flowers in our New England woods and fields that persist passed the frost into November. Two shrubs I find quite endearing are Nannyberry and Witch-hazel.
As the tree branches shed their leaves, what was once hidden from view, now becomes more obvious – shrub, vine, and tree berries. Several berries persist on the branches… provided the birds and squirrels don’t get to them first. One such berry is Nannyberry. This viburnum – Viburnum lentago – is opposite-leaved, as are all viburnums. The blue-black berries are oval and form a drupe, attached by bright pink or red stem clusters. Pop a nannyberry into your mouth and scrape the fruit off with your tongue and teeth and you will know why this fruit is also known as Wild Raisin. Sweet and nourishing, especially right now in mid-October. The single large seed is also oval, flat, and somewhat soft. Go ahead and plant it. Nannyberries are native. Though actually planting is not this tall shrub’s primary form of reproduction – spreading via an undergrown runner system is. Nannyberry tolerates shade but the shrub certainly wants some time in the sun too, which is why you can find Nannyberry along forest edges, particularly near ditches, streams, and wetlands. Can you think of a back road with mix of deciduous trees that may have an intermittent stream running though it? Chances are you may find nannyberry growing along that edge. In September you may not have noticed the berries because they were green and unripe, but now that the leaves are falling and exposing the branches, you may notice the dark fruit. The fruit will persist through the frost and though it will become past ripe and more shriveled and dry by mid-November, it appears to have staying power, and is available to birds throughout the winter. And this is why, if you harvest now, you can put the ones you don’t eat, in the fridge or freezer, to save for later. You can cook the berries in a small amount of water and strain out the seeds to make a simple fruit spread or dry for fruit leather. The taste is reminiscent of sweet prunes.
Witch-hazel that is. I was walking through the woods in late October, watching the leaves rain down in a cascade of yellow and red, when I noticed what my mom would call a “punky” flower, not unlike a long-haired punk rocker. She normally would be referring to the garden and roadside herbaceous flower Beebalm but I think she would be open to including the Witch-hazel flower as a “punky.” Most shrubs and trees flower in the spring and into the summer, but not the Witch-hazel. This deciduous shrub or small tree, Hamamelis virginiana, waits until autumn to put on its own little show in the understory of the woods. The irregular naked brown buds are scalpel-shaped and you can certainly notice them along the thin twigs that appear to be zig-zagging to their branches. The oval green leaves fade in the fall and as they fall one cannot help but notice the green flowers that appear like many-pointed starbursts dancing in the air. This witch is a helpful healer as many may know. The Native peoples of New England created a decoction of Witch-hazel by boiling the twigs in water. This extract was then applied directly to the skin as an astringent; treating cuts, wounds and inflammation. It became quite popular with the white settlers and has maintained a stable footing in the medicine cabinets of today.
Whether looking for food or medicine, our New England woodlands offer up a bounty to share. Harvest responsibly, always leaving some for other travelers – both human and wildlife – and enjoy what the Great Outdoors provides. And give a nanny or a witch a hug and kiss in gratitude.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News and Shelburne Falls & West County Independent. This article appears in the October 2017 edition of the Shelburne Falls & West County Independent.
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