The squirrels in my back yard are going to hate Sean Rowe.
“Butternuts,” he says, “are delicious.”
The gray tails have known this for years, and that’s the main reason they run around the branches of my towering butternut tree. In late summer and early fall, my lawn becomes a buffet for squirrels — who polish off these green-covered nuts the way I polish off bottles of Coors Light.
Rowe, a nationally-known musician from Troy musician whose specialties are folk, alternative and Americana, told me I shouldn’t be raking up dozens of butters that will fall from now into October. I should be eating them.
And maybe I will.
When Rowe isn’t on stage, he’s in the woods. As an avid naturalist and an experienced forager, he knows where to find the best free deals. Rowe knows his trees, barks, vines, and plants, and “shops” in local parks, state forests and abandoned fields. Greens are generally on his grocery list during early spring. Berries are the usual summer harvests, and late summer and fall mean seeds and roots.
“You really don’t have to buy anything in the store in the spring as far as greens go,” said Rowe, 40, talking about his natural game plan earlier this week at Peebles Island State Park in Waterford. “There are nettles, which are terrific, there are all kinds of docks, yellow dock and patience dock, there’s chickweed, there’s garlic mustard, watercress. They all come up in the spring and some of them last a good long while before they start getting too old.”
Taking a walk into the Peebles woods, he spotted a hackberry tree and the small green fruits hanging from branches. The berries are sweet and sugary, kind of like dates, and Rowe says they are nature’s version of M&Ms. Birds generally get to them before he can.
On a black birch tree, Rowe broke a few branches and released a strong wintergreen scent. “I can do a lot of things with this,” he said, explaining birch’s value for both tea and root beer.
Rowe can’t do much with white snake root, but he’s got a great story about the plants that line many parts of the Peebles paths. Snake root has bunches of tiny white flowers, and people could gather bouquets. But it was big trouble during the early 19th century, when cows ate leaves from the plant, which are poisonous. Milk from these cows gave people “milk sickness,” a disease that killed thousands of early settlers in the Midwest.
It’s good that Sean knows about poisons. I would have no problem grabbing a handful of wild cherries from a forest fellow’s branch full of red fruits, but there’s no way I’m going to try may apples.
“A may apple is a misnomer because it’s not really an apple,” Rowe said. “And you don’t harvest it in May, but the flower comes out in the spring and it’s a beautiful plant, very exotic looking. The leaves look like a giant umbrella.”
The small golf ball-sized apple is kind of hidden beneath the leaves. It’s aromatic and edible with a tart and sweet pulp. The tricky part is everything about the plant — except for the apple — is poisonous. So no thanks, I’ll stick to October apples.
Rowe then told me one of my favorite plants — what Irish guy doesn’t like potatoes? — kind of comes from a rough neighborhood. “Potato leaves are poisonous, they’re in the nightshade family,” Rowe said. “They’re the same as tomatoes, which is why people thought tomatoes were poisonous when the Europeans first came here.”
I didn’t even want to get into mushrooms. I don’t even like buying them fresh in the stores: Give me bottled and sliced every time.
Rowe, who has info on upcoming wilderness skills and foraging classes on his website, www.seanrowe.net, said it takes time to know what to pick and what to eat.
“Some of it I’ve learned from people who are considered experts in the field,” he said. “A lot of it is self-taught. A lot of it you really have to spend a lot of time with it to get a full-rounded sense of how to forage, really, because every plant has different needs, requirements, different life cycles. That’s a lot of learning, so you really can’t just learn it in a book or from somebody else exclusively without doing you own, self-directed learning that teaches you a lot and you get more comfortable with it, you know things you could have only known through experience.”
Rowe is not a vegetarian. And he doesn’t have a perfect record on nutritional choices. Sure, autumn olives, mustard grass and watercress are natural and nutritional when he’s in the woods, but time on the road means time with potato chips.
“You balance that out with touring all over the place and stopping at gas stations and eating there,” said Rowe, who will next perform locally at The Newberry Music Hall in Saratoga Springs on Oct. 17. “It cancels itself out in some ways.”
And speaking of cancelations, Rowe gave me instructions on how to send my butternut-loving squirrels home hungry this fall.
“If you want to be lazy about it, you just collect them when they fall on the ground,” Rowe said. “You can put them in a burlap sack or just in a cardboard box and put them in the garage or basement and leave them like that.
“The green part will rot and dry out and then, by wintertime, you can just shake the bag or slam the bag on concrete and it will shake all that outer husk part away from the shell,” he added. “You’re left with the shell and then you just crack it and eat it. It will be seasoned and delicious. It’s fantastic, one of the best.”