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On one of my days of rest from running last week, I went for a little hike in a wooded area near me, enjoying that early autumn coolness. The leaves are still stubbornly holding on to their greenness, but they will eventually change into all sorts of brilliant colors within a few weeks as the temperatures fall and the days get shorter.
As much as I enjoy the fresh air and greenery of a hike, I also venture out into the wilderness to see what Mother Nature has to offer me. As I often like to say, if you can identify edible wild plants, a hike in the woods can be like a visit to the supermarket.
Unfortunately, my favorite wild mustard greens are all dead; so are most other wild greens. Fortunately, sassafras grows plentifully in this area, and I’m in the mood for some spicy tea. Sassafras is usually a small to medium sized tree, and saplings are common in this area. Believe it or not, during the colonial era, sassafras was one of America’s biggest exports to Europe.
Sassafras is easy to identify, due to how it produces 3 different types of leaves: one with 3 lobes, one with 1 lobe so it looks like a mitten, and one that is oval shaped. Very few plants in the north-eastern U.S are like this. If you can’t identify it by sight, you can try cutting off a little section of leaf or twig and smelling it. It will smell sweetly aromatic, sort of like cinnamon to me.
Although you can make tea from any part of the sassafras plant, the roots pack the most punch.
Luckily the soil was kind of loose so it was easy for me to dig up some sassafras root with my hand.
I brought it home, cut it up and then put in some water to boil then simmer it for 20 minutes. I then poured the sassafras water through a strainer into a tea cup. It tasted amazing, it’s very soothing, tasting sort of like cinnamon or even ginger at times.
It’s a pleasant tasting tea, but I don’t know if it has any medicinal effects, beyond some mild anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Sassafras for the longest time was one of the main ingredients in root beer, but I will explain below why this is no longer the case.
The potential carcinogenicity of sassafras
Sassafras contains safrole, which according to animal research is a carcinogen. I think everyone should be made aware of this, even if the evidence for harm in humans isn’t especially strong. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Sassafras is Safer Without Safrole:
Research: In the 1950s and ’60s, researchers showed that high doses of safrole caused liver damage and liver and lung cancer in mice and rats that were fed the compound for long periods of time. Nursing mice developed tumors when their mothers were given safrole. Because human studies are lacking, researchers don’t know what dose might cause cancer in adults or children. (Safrole occurs naturally in many spices, like nutmeg, but in amounts tiny enough to be considered harmless.) Although lab experiments show that safrole has antifungal and antibacterial properties, no clinical research has provided evidence for its — or sassafras’ — supposed health benefits.
Based on other things I’ve read, root beer makers can still use sassafras so long as the safrole is removed. Since I drink sassafras tea about once every 4 years, and in small amounts, I don’t think I have a whole lot to worry about. This post isn’t necessarily a recommendation to drink sassafras tea; you can still enjoy the fragrance on hikes or even use it as an air freshener, but there are a million other herbal teas you can safely drink that may even have some medicinal effects.
This site has some interesting information on sassafras, suggesting the cancer risk is overblown – Safrole is not nearly as dangerous as you would think
If anyone reading this is a chemist, I would love to know what you think about the cancer-causing potential of sassafras. How dangerous is it?
Among Mother Nature’s greatest gifts to humans, as well as bears, and birds, and countless other species are berries. How can anyone resist berries? Brightly colored morsels of sweetness packed with nutrition, how can berries be anything but good? Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. Some berries can be very toxic, and may even kill. There are certain varieties of toxic plants that produce berries this time of year, and it is good to be on the lookout for them. Children and even some foolish adults may eat some of these berries, only to end up poisoning themselves.
One of the most common toxic plants that produces brightly colored berries in the north-eastern U.S is the yew. Usually it’s a medium sized bush, but you can often find medium sized yew trees. You will often see this plant growing in front of or alongside buildings, houses and in parks. Its bright red berries may be eye-catching, but the plant can be deadly toxic. This is because the yew contains the toxins taxol and taxine. Taxol is a mitotic inhibitor, which means it prevents cells from dividing. This is why it is currently the basis of a powerful cancer drug, underscoring the idea that the only difference between a drug and a poison is the amount.
Yew plants are evergreens, with needle-like leaves, similar to pine needles except that yew needles are flat. Even though the fleshy part of the berries usually contains little toxin, the seeds and every other part of the plant are very toxic. So the berries are not worth the risk.
Another toxic berry plant common in the eastern U.S is pokeweed. It is called “pokeweed” because of how the purple berries all have these indentations in them, as if they’ve been poked. Usually a bush, or a small tree it produces purple berries in the autumn. It often grows along the edges of woods, sometimes in woods, in abandoned lots, and in overgrown fields. I’ve also seen it growing as a weed alongside buildings in very urban areas, usually in the back area. Consider all parts of this plant toxic. As poisonous as pokeweed is, it has long been a staple of Southern cuisine, but only when the early spring shoots are used and it is properly prepared. The plant becomes more toxic as it matures. I would just avoid it altogether when foraging.
The killer toxins in this plant are phytolaccatoxin, phytolaccigenin, and glycoprotein. Convulsions, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, or some other wonderful reactions may result from ingesting pokeweed. Like yew, some of the toxins in this plant have shown anti-cancer effects. Pokeweed often has reddish or pink stems. The green leaves are simple, alternate, and pointy at the end.
Study these plants, or admire them for their natural beauty all you want, but make sure no one is eating them.
After that 22 mile run yesterday up to Millwood yesterday, I needed some super-nourishment. So I eventually made my way down to Rye, New York and had an early dinner at Andy’s Pure Foods, which is located in the heart of Rye village on Purchase Street. No, I didn’t run there, I drove.
Andy’s Pure Foods specializes in fresh, organic vegan food. They have a very large selection of delicious legume based meals and fresh salads, and sandwiches, as well as fresh juices, smoothies, and even some vegan deserts. They also have many raw vegan meals.
I decided to have the butter beans with dolmades(stuffed grape leaves) and falafel. The dolmades are very fresh and tasty, almost as good as the ones my family makes. The falafel was delicious too. They have a lot of other Middle Eastern vegan food, like hummus, and various chickpea dishes and I can’t even remember the rest.
Today’s 22 mile(35.4 km) run wasn’t a record breaker in terms of miles covered, but it was the farthest distance I’ve run from anywhere without doubling back. It’s also the farthest north I’ve ever run. I ran up to Millwood where my ride was patiently waiting. Millwood is about as “middle of no where” you can get in Westchester county(it’s not even on the map above because it has such a small population). It took me 3 hours and 19 minutes to complete. I took a short break in Elmsford at the 10 mile mark to get some apple juice from the grocery store. This is also the first time I ran through the notorious gap in the Putnam trail between the northern terminus of the southern portion and the start of the northern portion in the middle of the village of Elmsford. The gap isn’t much, but the streets have a lot of traffic in this area.
The temperature through most of it was in the mid to upper 60s, so I didn’t sweat a lot. I dropped the balls several times. The northern portion of the Putnam trail, also known as the North County Trailway is steeper than I had anticipated. From Elmsford to Millwood, it is mostly an upward slope. I saw some cyclists struggle with it in a few steeper areas. It proved a challenge to me in some parts, and the resulting tiredness is a large part of why I dropped the balls many times.
Another runner seemed interested in challenging me to a race. Somewhere just north of the Irish famine park, I started hearing another runner behind me. Before I knew it, she zoomed ahead of me and looked back at me smugly. I was taken by surprise. I normally don’t race other runners, especially during long runs but I couldn’t resist. I tried keeping up with the woman in the pink leggings, but couldn’t. She kept getting farther and farther away. Eventually I slowed down to a very slow jog to regain my energy.
After doing this for a little less than 10 seconds I felt an energy rush. I was soon able to keep pace with her, though I was still far behind. I eventually caught up to her, and was just several feet behind. My competitive side took over me and soon I ran right by her on the approach to Elmsford. At the same time I think she was slowing down anyway. I lost sight of her by the time I got to Elmsford for my break. She was a very fast runner. If you’re reading this, I had a lot of fun. And yes I dropped the balls many times.
At the end of the run I was tired and sore, though I felt I could have run a few more miles, very slowly.
Remember the big bird in the photo from my last post, “Spectacular Views From Beacon Mountain” I needed help identifying? According to commenter John:
Nice clear skies to be able to see the skyscrapers 50 miles away! That’s a turkey vulture in the one photo. They look so graceful from a distance, soaring over the mountains, but from closer up — yikes! — the naked red head is pretty ugly.
I agree, they sure do look graceful. Thanks for helping us identify it. I believe that in nature, even “ugly” creatures can still be beautiful in their own way. Check out John’s site, Life With John, for some great nature and travel photos.
Here are some more pictures of the turkey vultures from a few days ago. There were several of these birds flying around as I was in the fire tower.
I wish I could be a turkey vulture for a day. Or a week. Or a year! That way I could soar through the skies like I’ve always dreamed of. I’ve had other hikers tell me about turkey vultures before, usually as a warning to not climb a fire tower if they build their nest in one, since they may attack to defend it. Otherwise, they are harmless.
The turkey vultures of the Americas are also a good example of convergent evolution. They are not in the same avian group as Old World vultures, which belong to accipitridae, while New World vultures are in cathartidae. In spite of this, evolutionary forces have made them very similar.
If you could be any animal for a day, which animal would you choose to be?
I went to Beacon Mountain yesterday, and the weather was perfect! At 1,611 feet(491 m), Beacon Mountain is the highest peak between New York City and the Catskill mountains. It is the highest point in the Hudson Highlands and so offers spectacular views of the Hudson valley. On a clear day, you can see for 75 miles from its summit. From the fire tower on top of Beacon Mountain, if you look south on a clear day you can even see the Manhattan skyline, which is 50 miles south. Look closely at the horizon toward the middle of the picture below(which is a zoom in of the same view of the picture taken above – not a zoom in of the same picture), and a little toward the left, and you can sort of see the skyscrapers of New York City.
I tried joggling up Beacon Mountain on the main trail leading to the top, but couldn’t get very far because of how steep and rocky it was. I was reduced to running and then reduced to doing running/walking intervals. There really isn’t any actual “climbing” involved, unless you want to climb this thing off the main trails where it is much steeper. It was much easier joggling down the mountain, and managed to do this 60% of the way down. I took many short breaks while up there to take pictures, to juggle and of course to eat and drink. Due to all the hill running I do, my legs aren’t all sore from this steep run/walk. Years ago I probably would have had trouble walking for a week after doing something like this.
It is called Beacon Mountain because it was used during the Revolutionary War for setting signal fires to alert the continental army of British troop movements. In fact, Beacon Mountain and the surrounding Hudson Highlands were so important to the revolutionary cause that if they didn’t exist, or the British had managed to take them, Queen Elizabeth would probably be our Head of State today. Or at least that’s what the historical markers below the mountain want us to believe.
Beacon Mountain is actually made up of 2 main peaks, the North peak, and the South peak. The South peak is the higher one(1,611 ft), and this is where I took most of the photos from and where the fire tower is located. These two peaks are pretty close to each other, so its easy to go up one, then down a little, then follow the trail to go up the other, though the North peak is more easily accessible from the main parking area below.
If anyone knows what species of bird that is in the photo below, please tell me in the comments.
Yes, it is true, I joggled to Valhalla. I don’t mean the place Norse heroes go after they die heroically in battle. I’m still alive and juggling, and joggling certainly isn’t heroic. And I’m not of Scandinavian or Germanic ancestry.
At 13.1 miles(21 km), this run wasn’t remarkable by any means, but it is the farthest distance I’ve run that that didn’t involve a return trip since I got a ride in Valhalla(no, not by a Valkyrie). It took me 2 hours and 13 minutes to complete this yesterday, and the temperature was just below 80. I took one water break during the run and juggled 99% of the way up to the Kensico Dam in Valhalla.
A very weird thing happened to me near the end of my run in Valhalla. I was running through this wooded area when all of a sudden I spotted a mysterious wolf-like creature just off the trail looking at me in the distance. I thought to myself “there are no wolves in New York”, but as I got closer it became apparent that this was a coyote.
It did nothing except stare at me and I just ran right by it without incident. Since it was kind of small, I wasn’t scared of it. Then a strange thought occurred to me: I’m in Valhalla, and I saw a wolf-like creature for the first time in my entire life in the wild – It’s FENRIS WOLF!
Fenris Wolf, the monstrous wolf that lives in Valhalla according to Norse mythology. It is such a coincidence since I use “Fenris” as a username in another forum. Granted, this was almost certainly a coyote, but coyotes are so close to wolves that they can interbreed. Too bad I didn’t take a picture.
This was a very strange encounter. I’m not superstitious or anything, I don’t believe in Norse or Germanic mythology(I do use the names of their gods for the days of the week, but so does almost everyone), but if I had a coyote encounter in any other town of Westchester county, it wouldn’t have been as interesting.
This makes me wonder: If I were to run with a woman named “Athena”, would this increase my odds of seeing owls(owls were frequently used as symbol for Athena) on my runs in wooded areas? I don’t think so, but it is interesting to contemplate.
Great, now I can’t get Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” out of my head.
What is the weirdest thing that happened to you on one of your runs?
The Lenoir Preserve is a 40 acre park in Yonkers, NY, overlooking the Hudson river. It is comprised of both dense forests and fields, with a narrow step trail that leads downward toward the Hudson river and the Croton Aqueduct trail. Much of the park is very steep, and you may spot a deer or two if you walk around enough. This is one of many nature preserves in Westchester county that used to be part of a grand estate long ago, and traces of it can still be seen throughout.
There is a wonderful little butterfly garden in the preserve with many flowers and a big peach tree. Raspberries grow wild throughout much of the preserve as well.
If you want to make juggling or joggling even more challenging(assuming you’re a proficient juggler), you can add a strength training element to it by juggling heavy balls. This can help build stamina even better than if you are using lighter juggling balls or bean bags, to prepare you for joggling marathons or if you want to build strength to juggle for hours on end. It is one of the best ways to target the muscles used for juggling.
In the above photo, the 3 red balls I am joggling with are 2.25 lb(1.02 kg) ExerBalls by Dube(they come in different weights and these are the heaviest). This may not seem like much, but after several minutes of juggling these babies while standing still you will feel exhausted, unless you’re a bodybuilder. If I try to joggle with them, I can’t go for more than a few minutes with these. Very tiring, but what a rush! You really can get a nice high from joggling with these heavy balls. It’s cardio, strength-training, and coordination training all in one!
They probably help build explosiveness; think of it sort of like juggling mini medicine balls. They are made of rubber and stuffed with lead or steel balls to add weight to them. They are kind of pricey, a set of 3 going for $60. I got mine as a gift(not from the company).
You can always try making your own from tennis balls like I have, though they are much lighter. The juggling balls I am joggling with in the photo below are tennis balls stuffed with pennies. Just cut a small slit on the side with a knife to push the pennies in, put glue or epoxy over the slit, let it dry, and then cover liberally with duct tape. These weigh about 1 lb(0.45 kg) each. I made these 2.5 years ago and have had no problems with them.
They are not as challenging to juggle as the heavier Exerballs, but they can still help build endurance in your arms. Since they are 1 lb each, I can joggle with these for miles and miles, but I have to be careful no one is around since if these hit someone they can hurt(the Exerballs are even more dangerous in this regard). On days when I don’t joggle, I juggle these homemade juggling balls as an upper body cardio exercise, since juggling with regular, light-weight balls isn’t much of a cardio exercise to me. So they are helpful cross-trainers, good for maintaining aerobic fitness on days I don’t run or joggle. Either of these balls are good for quick warm-up exercises before joggling with regular balls, though I usually prefer the lighter, penny-stuffed balls for warm ups.
Joggling with either of these types of heavy balls is one of the ultimate calorie-burning exercises(especially if you are running up a hill), so it’s good to try this out if you are trying to lose weight.
Just make sure you are proficient in juggling lighter balls before trying either of these. You don’t want to drop them on your feet, trust me.
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