Nature Study: Henbit

This little plant is one of my favorites.  Last year it, alone, managed to pull me out of a dark winter funk.  It’s peppery and spinachy and purple and pretty and all of those things make me happy (well with the exception of spinachy…I have a loathing attitude toward all dark greens).

Henbit (Lamium ampelxicaule) is in the mint family.  Plants in the mint family are easy to recognize with their square, hollow stems, opposite leaves and usually aromatic leaves (think of plants like {obviously} the mints, but also basil, lavender, sage, and thyme).  Just roll that little stem between your fingers and you’ll feel how it doesn’t roll…because being square it has no round edges.  There are some plants with square stems that don’t fall in the mint family, but smelling the leaf will give you another clue.  Crush a leaf between your fingers and chances are, if it’s in the mint family, you’ll be rewarded with a delightful smell.

Henbit in its entirety

The best thing about henbit is that it is literally growing all over our city, most likely right outside your front door (and if it’s not in your yard, check your neighbors’ yards).  This makes it a no-excuse nature study plant since you don’t have far to go to see it.  It begins growing in the fall, goes dormant under the snow (or in cities like ours with beautiful, sunny winters, it just keeps growing) and then finishes up right around the time when spring begins.  Seeing henbit last year after a long, cold and gloomy winter let me breathe a sigh of deep relief knowing spring was on its way.

Henbit, just as the flowers are beginning to appear

My kids LOVE finding henbit.  Aside from its square stems (green when young, reddish-purple as it ages), it is easy to identify with its scalloped round leaves that grow in a rosette and its pretty little tubular flowers (the flowers, when open, remind me of a miniature orchid).  We all especially love finding it when it’s in our untreated yard…the entire plant is edible.  We nibble on it raw, but it can be cooked or used in a tea. You can toss it in smoothies or even make a pesto with it.

While it could be confused with purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), both have edible leaves (although you should wait to harvest deadnettle until it flowers so you can be sure you’ve properly identified it as it looks very similar to many plants early on, some of which are poisonous, and deadnettle should not be used when pregnant!).  Personally, I think the deadnettle leaves look very different from henbit, but at a glance, there are definite similarities between the two.  (Deadnettle is really only found in East Texas…I’ve never seen any growing in this area.)

Beware of creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) as you first learn to identify henbit.  When it is young, it has leaves that are similar in shape to henbit.  Creeping buttercup will produce yellow flowers and will look quite different from henbit as it matures, but it’s still one to learn and be mindful of.

Henbit with budding flowers

Pop out in your neighborhood and see if you can find any henbit growing around you.  Come back and share with me what you’ve found!

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Brazilian Pepper Tree

Do you remember that part in The Lion King when all of the hyenas are gathered together and one of them says that Mufasa’s name makes them shudder?  And then one of the hyenas says “Mufasa” and they all shudder and so one says, “Ooh say it again.”  “Mufasa.”  And the hyenas shudder again.  That scene replays in my head every time I’m out in nature and somebody calls out Posion Ivy.  Every mom in the area visibly shudders.  I feel myself shudder and shiver and frantically look around to find the offending plant.

Imagine the horror I felt when I realized that we did a spontaneous object lesson on a plant IN THE SAME FAMILY as Posion Ivy, the Anacardiaceae family?  Obviously I shuddered.  And then I researched.  Turns out there are A LOT of plants in the same family as Poison Ivy.  Turns out the Anacardiaceae family, also known as the sumac family, has lots of our favorites in it like mangoes and cashews.  So what about this invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree that grows so beautifully around here that is also in the Anacardiaceae family?  Edible?  Poisonous?   And are those little pink peppers (the drupes) the same ones in my peppercorn mix that I adore?

Well…

The Brazilian Pepper Tree (schinus terebinthifolia) is sadly not the Peruvian Pink Pepper Tree (schinus molle) that produces the delicious pink peppercorn that is all the culinary rage these days.  Peruvian pink peppercorns are not related to the well-known tropical vine that produces black peppercorns {piper nigrum}; they fall in the same Anacardiaceae family as the Brazilian Pepper Tree.  They hail from Peru but grow well here in places like California, Texas and Florida and are safe to eat and are not known to contain any urushiol-type allergens, whereas the invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree is a tragically different story (tragic only because I shudder at urushiol-type allergens, apparently, and because I adore plants that I can eat and this is one of the former and not one of the latter).

The Brazilian Pepper Tree is a large ornamental shrub or tree that is native to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay and was first brought to Florida in the mid 1800s.  Observing it showed us that it has alternate leaves that are pinnately compound.  Its leaves look very different from the Peruvian Pepper Tree, so it would be hard to confuse the two.  People who are sensitive to poison ivy, oak or sumac may also be allergic to the Brazilian Pepper Tree with reactions ranging from dermatitis to respiratory issues (respiratory issues seem to be an issue only during the blooming season).  The leaves, when crushed, have a peppery, resinous smell almost like black pepper mixed with turpentine.

While it is a pretty plant (sometimes it’s called the Christmasberry tree), it is incredibly invasive and not one to be encouraged.  Just like poison ivy, you can’t burn it to get rid of it or you’ll end up releasing its irritating chemicals into the air.  I actually had a really hard time finding reliable information about it…it did not show up in any of my plant or tree books.  If I’m reading it correctly, the FDA lists the triterpenes (a chemistry term that my brain just cannot process) of Schinus terebenthefolius as poisonous.  That being said, admire it, paint it, but consider keeping your distance.

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Brasil

A few weeks ago, Jessica and I had taken the kids to the trails out at Hilltop for a nature walk (no journals or object lessons, just a stroll through field and trees to see what was in bloom) and, as always, we found ourselves stumped by plant after plant (this whole botany thing is a long journey!).  Jessica and I tend to spend a whole lot of time saying, “Ooh, I wonder what this is!”

But slowly we’re learning and gaining confidence in our identification skills.  It’s a slow going journey, but by going slow, there’s time to absorb what we’re learning and look for it everywhere we go.  Our newest find (which Jessica already knew and pointed out to me!) is the Brasil, a deciduous tree or shrub that grows well down here.  We found it in abundance out on the local trails so we took the kids this past week for an object lesson.

The Brasil (Condalia hookeri) is also known as the Bluewood Condalia or the Brazilian Bluewood  and is a member of the Buckthorn family.  

The kids observed the leaves and found them to be simple, alternate, glossy, small and bright.  After describing the shape of the leaves (they described them as some being oval and some being spoon shaped), I taught them that in botany, those are called obovate (oval) and spatulate (like a spatula) blades.  The margins of the leaves are smooth to weakly toothed toward the tip.  A fun little fact is that the leaves are host to the Snout Butterfly.  

I also introduced the kids to the botanical term pinnate vein which is present on the leaves of the Brasil.  A pinnate vein is one main vein extending from base to tip with smaller veins branching off.  

The kids quickly noticed the sharp thorns at the tip of each branch.  I had to do a little research of my own to find out exactly what qualifies as a thorn…it’s not as simple as I thought.  Turns out there are basically three botany terms for sharp points on plants: thorns, spikes and prickles.   While each of them is a defense mechanism and each is incredibly sharp and pointed, they are formed in different ways.  Thorns are modified branches; spikes are modified leaves; prickles are an outgrowth from the epidermis.  Those sharp tips on a rose plant are actually prickles while the sharp tips on a cactus are spines.  The sharp tips at the end of the Bluewood Condalia’s branches are thorns.  You can read more about the difference here or here.  

The wood on the Bluewood Condalia appears red but yields a blue dye.  Pioneers used the bark chips to make red ink.  

Of course, our favorite fact about the Brasil is that the berry-like drupes are edible.  They begin as a red fruit but ripen to a blue-black fruit.  They’re sweet and juicy and loved by squirrels, raccoons, opposums and birds (and clearly by Gavin, whose mouth turned a bit blue temporarily from all the fruit he ate!).  We just like to nibble on them, but I’m sure if we were a bit more industrious and could brave all those thorns and collect enough, they’d make a delightful jelly.

The flowers, when present, are small and inconspicuous and almost a light green.

Ironically, after the object lesson (and the fruit tasting), Jessica read Rapunzel to us…it sure made us wonder if, when the prince fell out of the tower, he landed on a Brasil shrub…it’s certainly a possibility.  Please learn from him…be careful around thorny plants!  

I used the books Trees of Texas and Wildflowers and Other Plants of Texas Beaches and Islands in my research.  Both of these top my list of favorites for local plant identification guides.  Even though the pictures in Trees of Texas are black and white, they are so well done that they make identification easy.

**Even though I have researched these plants thoroughly and feel confident in my identification skills of the plants discussed here, you should still always do your own research before teaching your kids and definitely before eating any plant…there are a lot of look-alikes out there and not everything that looks good IS good!  I strongly urge you to find a Master Naturalist or a foraging guide in your area to help you properly identify plants before you do any foraging and please be sure to obey all laws and follow foraging ethics.**

2018 Coastal Bend Nature Challenge

Many years ago, in a faraway land, my kids were uninspired by nature study (?!) and I knew next to NOTHING about natural history. I was a frustrated mama, eager to embrace the idea of observation and love of all things in nature but the methods I was using just weren’t touching the hearts of this crew (it didn’t help that I didn’t have a firm grasp on how Charlotte Mason actually did nature study).

Then we signed up for the Coastal Bend Texas Nature Challenge – Texas A&M Forest Service and while it’s not CM inspired, it opened our eyes to all of the tiny details in nature around us…it was a welcome help for inspiring us! We spent a few months exploring sites we’d never known about (and that was after living in Corpus Christi for almost 20 years!) and discovering all kinds of amazing nature facts as we did scavenger hunts, learned to fish, and journaled all of our journeys (one year we participated we kept a blog instead of a paper scrapbook…you can read about that year here.)

Tomorrow is the Opening Ceremony for 2018. It’s out at Camp Aranzazu and will feature many of the vendors who will be issuing challenges. If you’re local, I urge you to attend…it’s a come and go event so you don’t have to be there for the full two hours and it’s hands-on, family centered, nature related fun! 

As for the challenge, you can read more about it here.  Basically you sign up as a team (which can just be your family or you could grab a few other families and form a team that way), then you check out all the challenges when they are posted tomorrow and choose what your team is interested in participating in. From there, you complete the challenges and keep some kind of record…a scrapbook, a journal, a blog, a nature notebook…to turn in at the end of the challenge. You must complete 2 challenges to be eligible for prizes.

And, finally, if the nature challenge just isn’t your thing (or maybe you aren’t local), then check out my Nature Study posts over on With Every Intention and join us every week as I feature nature around our area…grab your kids, your nature journals and art medium of choice (my personal favorite is watercolors) and head out to any of the beautiful trails around you!

Hope to bump into you out in nature sometime soon 

Nature Study: Wild Grapes

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

“Nature seems to have intended Texas for a vineyard.”  Stephen F. Austin

Last week we went out for a nature hike to see what is blossoming around here and we stumbled on, what I was sure, were Muscadine Grapes.  Tons of ripe, plump purple grapes.  I snapped a couple of photos so I could come home and use my book to confirm it, but I was sure I couldn’t be mistaken.  I came home and promptly forgot about the grapes (as so often happens).

A few days later, I was reading Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of my Life and she referred to the Scuppernong vines around her.  That was one I’d never heard, so I looked it up.  How wild!  They’re a green variety of Muscadine grapes…I had no idea there were different varieties.  I decided it was time to learn a little more about those ripe purple grapes we had just seen.

I planned to take the kids out again this week and brave the mosquitoes in search of the grapes.  We’d take our nature journals and sketch them while they were ripe.  I thought it would be handy to prepare a bit so we could have an object lesson once we got to the grapes.

{An object lesson, part of Charlotte Mason’s nature study philosophy, is a perfect opportunity to allow our children to become more observant.  We call upon them to carefully observe and examine an object using their five senses.  Object lessons should appear to be by-the-way, somewhat spontaneous discoveries where we are out and about and come across something fascinating.  Considering the fact that I am not well-versed in nature study and I am learning alongside my children, I tend to keep an eye out when we’re on a nature walk for items that I can use in our next lesson and then I prepare my object lesson before we head out.  I aim for one object lesson a week so my kids have time to absorb what they learned and to notice it in future nature walks.  I do require them to make a drawing and write down a few notable facts in their nature journals to help cement the object in their minds.  You can read more about object lessons here and here.}

Good thing I decided to be prepared!  As I began to look at photos of Muscadine grapes, I thought the leaves looked very jagged compared to the leaves we had seen.  I pulled back up the pictures that I had taken and sure enough, the leaves we had seen were not so clearly jagged.  I got distracted and walked away from the open book.

When I came back, I looked at the picture again (not realizing the page had turned while I was away) and thought, no, those look like what we saw…I could have sworn the picture had jagged leaves.  Then I looked at the top of the page and realized now I was looking at Mustang Grapes.  Wait, what?  More wild grapes in South Texas?

So it turns out there are two types of wild grapes that are seen often in this area: Muscadine (Vitus rotundifolia) and Mustang (Vitus mustangensis).  Good to know.  While both are used for making jams, the Mustang grapes are known as “cut throat grapes” because of their high acidic levels…they shouldn’t be eaten raw as they can cause burns on the lips and in the throats.  Really good to know.  (And glad I waited to confirm I had properly identified it before trying it!)

Luckily, there’s an easy way to tell the two apart.  The leaves of the Mustang grape are very fuzzy with a white underbelly whereas Muscadine grape leaves are smooth and shiny.

Grapes are an interesting study in and of themselves: viticulture is the word used for the science, production and study of grapes, whereas viniculture is the word used for the cultivation of grapes in winemaking; both of those are branches of horticulture, aka the art and practice of garden cultivation.  As for the history of grapes, they made an important contribution to Roman, Greek and early Christian civilizations.  North American grapes made an impression when the Europeans began to explore the area, so much so that they called it Vinland literally because of the crazy amount of grapes growing everywhere.  In Texas, grapes are present in archaeological findings way back to 7000 BC where evidence exists that canyon grapes were consumed at that time by Native Americans in the Devils River area.  It’s all quite fascinating stuff, but that’s a rabbit trail for another day.

For the object lesson, I decided to focus mostly on Mustang grapes (which is a bit less fascinating than the Muscadine grapes but as they were Mustang grapes we had seen, I wanted to focus on what we could actually observe).  Their leaves begin with five lobes and as they mature, the leaves become unlobed cordate shaped (heart-shaped) with a deep cleft in the base.   Again, the leaves are fuzzy on top and bottom and they have a white underside.  The leaf edges are toothed but not nearly so sharp toothed as the Muscadine.  The leaves grow along the vine in an alternate pattern  with opposing tendrils (the tendrils and teeth of the leaf are important in identification as the moonseed vine lacks both and the Virginia creeper adheres rather than entwines…this helps you avoid the poisonous look-alikes!)

Mustang grapes are dark purple with thick, tough skin.  They are very acidic: eating them raw is a bad idea as they can cause acid burns to the lips, mouth and throat (which is how they became known as “cut throat grapes”.  To harvest them, simply cut the clusters and use gloves to process them (with plenty of sugar) into jelly, preserves, pies or tarts.

Muscadine grapes are a bit more fascinating as their fruit may be eaten raw and it is very sweet.  The seeds may be crushed and boiled to be made into grapeseed oil.  Also, the leaves, when young, may be eaten raw; the large leaves may be boiled or pickled and then stuffed.  The vines of the Muscadine grapes can also be used as an emergency water supply.

Now, we’re off to re-read The Fox and the Grapes, only because now we’re wondering if maybe it was better the fox didn’t get those grapes…who knows, maybe they were Mustang grapes ; )

*Books I used to research wild grapes included Idiot’s Guide to Foraging and Remarkable Plants of Texas; websites have already been notated throughout the post.