Thursday, February 16, 2012

Virginia Pepperweed- a Gruit Herb Update

Typically, this is about the time of year when the only way to combat the chill is to consume massive amounts of beer while staring longingly at the calender, waiting for March. Here in the Midwest, however, we've had an unseasonably warm winter. Like many parts of the country, we've seen near record highs and very little winter weather.

Plenty of beer is still being consumed (don't worry). There just hasn't been that much of a chill to fight off. Neither has there been much snowfall, which unfortunately also means there hasn't been much snowmelt. While melting snow typically seems to serve no greater purpose than making a cold, muddy mess, it's actually very important to the gruit herb seeds from the solstice sowing back in December (check out that post here).

Like many seeds in cooler temperate zones, the gruit herb seeds have a protective shell that must be broken down before germination. In the fluctuating temperatures of winter, snowfall and subsequent snowmelt slowly wear down the protective layer on the seeds, preparing them for germination when spring arrives- a process known as stratification. Without proper weathering, the seeds' barriers may not be adequately broken down enough to germinate. In other words, our nice weather is actually putting this year's gruit harvest in jeopardy. Nice weather... no gruit ale?

Confounding though such a situation may be, this is not the only plot twist in the gruit herb saga. As I mentioned in the last gruit ale post, I found this familiar-looking little plant growing outside near a fence. I replanted it in a pot at home, thinking that it must certainly be mugwort.

After a few months of rapid growth, however, it seemed increasingly unlikely that this plant was mugwort. I researched several plant databases, and the mugwort look-alike turned out to be Virginia pepperweed, a common roadside plant. Though edible (and apparently rather nutritious), it's certainly not mugwort. The two plants, when young, are remarkably similar looking...

Virginia pepperweed vs. mugwort. Can you blame me?

After swiftly finding the mugwort seeds I purchased in December, I managed to mix up a planter and get them sown just in time for a surprise dusting of snow.

Mugwort likes a somewhat richer soil than the bog myrtle and marsh rosemary, something not quite as peaty and acidic. I made a potting mixture with a larger portion of humus before planting, and I used oak leaves as a protective layer instead of pine needles. Like the bog myrtle and marsh rosemary, mugwort requires a stratification period. As our mysteriously warm winter winds down, hopefully there will be just enough cold and snow to get the seeds ready for springtime.

Until then... anyone for Virginia pepperweed salad?

Readers: Has there been strange weather where you live? How has it affected you? Leave a comment!


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