I am lucky to have a sister who has a cottage in Norfolk County in southwest Ontario. Not only a bountiful county with fruit orchards, tobacco, ginseng, corn and wheat fields, but also a beautiful one with forests, wetlands and sandy beaches bordering on Lake Erie. Last week, we went for a walk in the biosphere reserve, wetland conservation area at Long Point. To my amazement, there were several turtles laying eggs. The turtles live in or on the shores of the lake but cross the road where it is drier and warmer, to lay their eggs. Each turtle digs a shallow hole, lays a number of eggs (not all of which will hatch) and covers the eggs with soil. The turtles we saw were so intent on this annual task, which takes place in spring and early summer, that they allowed us to approach very close without withdrawing their heads, and we could see their bodies moving as the eggs were expelled. I must say that even though my mother kept hens when I was a child, I had never actually seen an animal in the process of laying eggs, never mind a turtle!
My sister and her husband have a glorious vegetable garden and not only do they keep many relatives and friends supplied with salad greens during the summer, but rarely do they buy any vegetables even in the winter. For many years they would ruthlessly pull out purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which is an invasive, creeping plant considered to be a weed.
Well imagine their surprise when they found out that purslane, also known as Pigweed or Little Hogweed, is edible and not only that, but is also very healthy. It is rich in vitamin A and contains more omega-3-fatty acids than many fish oils. Crunchy and juicy, slightly lemony if picked in the morning but not if picked later in the day, we have been enjoying purslane in salads everyday. Those of you who find it, please try it as it is a fine addition to a salad. Healthy, tasty and free, what more could one ask for?
Norfolk County used to be tobacco growing country but since tobacco has fallen out of favour, many farmers have switched to ginseng. There are two types of ginseng, Korean/Chinese (Panax ginseng) and north-American (Panax quinquefolius) and is very much sought after in China and Korea for its many health-giving properties. Supplies of wild ginseng became scarce in China in the 1700s. A Jesuit priest in Montreal, while reading an account of ginseng by a fellow-priest in China, discovered that it grew wild in Ontario and Quebec. A significant trade with China followed. Typically, fur trappers would search for it in the summer months. In 1897 Clarence Hellyer of Norfolk county saw an ad for ginseng in a fur trappers magazine and started collecting it in the woods surrounding his home. It was he who came up with the idea that if it could grow wild, it could also be cultivated. Robert Hough has an excellent article in the Walrus magazine describing the history of ginseng growing in Ontario (http://walrusmagazine.com/articles/2009.01-agriculture-tobacco-ginseng-robert-hough/1/). It is needful of shade and consequently covered by black tarps, needs sandy soil, requires complicated irrigation, and is difficult to germinate. It takes close to 5 years of growth before the roots are large enough to be harvested, and it can never be grown in the same spot twice. Where it will be farmed when all the land in Norfolk county has had ginseng grown on it once, is anybody’s guess. By now, you may be wondering what ginseng is used for. It is reputed to increase energy, improve the immune system, fight cancer, diabetes, improve sexual vitality in men and prolong life. All this through phytochemicals which are polysaccharides and ginsenosides found in the root. Interestingly, a cure for the common cold, Cold-FX, is now being marketed in Canada and is really just ginseng in very expensive form! My brother-in-law swears that ginseng does gives you energy but I haven’t discussed its other properties with him!