Word of the Day: Hori Hori

Nisaku hori hori gardening tool

The hori hori is a gardening tool, a kind of short knife with a double-edged blade serrated on one side, with a semi-sharp point.  It originated in Japan, and most commercial hori hori for sale are still made there, for example by the Japanese DIY tool manufacturer Nisaku.

The exact history of the tool is unknown, but it is known to have been in use since at least the 13th century in Japan.  At that time, it was the tool of choice for harvesting sansai, or mountain vegetables–that is, wild vegetables that grew and were harvested from the boundaries separating farm and forest.  Red Pig Tools’ website has an interesting short article on some of the theories surrounding the invention of the hori hori.

The hori hori is still in use today, mostly as a gardening tool, but also among modern-day foragers.  It is listed as a “must-have” tool in John Slattery’s wonderful book Southwest Foraging (published by Timber Press in 2016).

Featured image: A modern hori hori gardening tool knife, made by Nisaku. Photo courtesy of gardentoolcompany.com

Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Kapok

Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra). Nassau, Bahamas.

The kapok, or silk-cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra) is a species of tropical tree in the mallow (Malvaceae) family whose native range is thought to be Central and South America.  It is now widely naturalized to and cultivated in the tropics, particularly Southeast Asia.  Kapoks are some of the largest trees in the world, as high as 250 feet, with buttressed trunks that can be up to 19 feet thick (or more), above the buttresses. It’s cultivated mainly for the highly useful fibers harvested from the outer casing of the seed. In addition, its edible seed oil also has potential as an alternative to petroleum-based fuel. According to the folklore of Trinidad and Tobago, the demon of death (Bazil) lives in a huge kapok tree deep in the forest, where he was imprisoned, thanks to the clever trickery of a common carpenter.

Kapok seed pods showing fiber.
Kapok seed pods showing fiber. Photo courtesy of thechicecologist.com

Featured image: A kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra), in Nassau, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Word of the Day: Strake

Old wagon wheels with strakes.

A strake is a section of iron laid around the rim of a wooden cart of wagon wheel.  The purpose of the strake is to protect the wooden rim from damage.  The manufacture of the strake is the domain of the blacksmith, where the construction of the wheel itself if made by the wheelwright (also known as the wagonwright, or wainwright).

The word also applies to mining, where a strake is a trough or (originally) a pit with two boards laid across the bottom, used for washing ore.

A strake for washing ore.
A strake for washing ore. Photo courtesy of mediastorehouse.com.

The word is also used in shipbuilding, where the strake is the planking (wood) or plating (metal) forming the outer skin of the vessel.

Strakes on a ship's hull.
Strakes on a ship’s hull.

Additionally, “strake” is used in the aviation industry to refer to a type of aerodynamic surface mounted on an aircraft fuselage to fine-tune the airflow.

Strakes in the aviation industry.
Strakes as aerodynamic devices in the aviation industry. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hm.  Even though most of us have probably never heard of it in our lives, “strake” seems to be a pretty crazy useful word.

Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Sorghum

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor)

Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), also known as great millet or durra, is a domesticated species of cereal crop in the grass (Poaceae) family.  It is the single cultivated species within the genus Sorghum.  Wild sorghum is native to Africa, where it was originally cultivated and domesticated about 5000 years ago.  Domesticated sorghum is now the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, and has a number of uses. The sweet sorghum cultivars within the subspecies bicolor are variously grown for fodder, food, syrup production, and ethanol production.  The Sudangrass cultivar in the subspecies drummondii is widely grown as animal forage.  More recently, the stalks remaining after the grain is harvested are being used to make a pressed board building material.

Featured image: Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor). Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Word of the Day: Collier

Charcoal seller from 1960's on Mauritius

A collier is a person whose occupation is to procure or sell coal.  Formerly, the term applied to a person who made and traded in charcoal.  For centuries, charcoal was fuel of choice for many cottage industries.  Charcoal is mostly pure carbon, made from wood whose moisture content and impurities have been removed through a particular process of slow-burning.  This is often done by creating a “pile,” which allows the collier to carefully control the supply of oxygen to the burn.  The benefit of charcoal is that it allows for hotter fires with a smaller amount of material than does raw wood.  This made charcoal highly desirable for household use such as cooking and heating, and for industrial uses such as smelting, forging, and glassmaking.

Traditional charcoal pile
A traditional pile for making charcoal of oak and beech. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Featured image: A collier (charcoal seller) from the 1960’s on the island of Mauritius.  Photo courtesy of Vintage Mauritius.

Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Cod

Image of cod

Cod is a name that refers to the two species of fish in the genus Gadus, in the Gadidae family. They are the Pacific cod (G. macrocephalus), and the Atlantic cod (G. morhua).  Of these, the Atlantic cod is by far the most intensively commercially fished.  It is highly valued for its meat, which is rich in vitamins A and D, and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. In addition, the liver is processed to produce cod liver oil, a popular dietary supplement since at least the time of the Vikings.  During the 19th century it was given to children to prevent rickets (a bone deformity caused by vitamin D deficiency). Today it is taken as a prevention against heart disease due to high cholesterol.

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Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Mangosteen

Purple mangosteen
Purple mangosteen

The mangosteen is a species of evergreen tree in the Clusiaceae family, native to Southeast Asia, but now cultivated in several other tropical areas.  It is cultivated for its edible fruit, the purple mangosteen.  It is the most widely cultivated species within the Garcinia genus, though many other species also produce fruit and are grown for local consumption.  The mangosteen is closely related to the gamboge trees (G. hanburyi and G. morella, both native to India), whose resin is used to make the yellow pigment of the same name. Gamboge is famous as the dye used to color the robes of Buddhist monks.

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Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Alunite

Styptic made with alunite

Alunite (hydrated aluminum potassium sulfate) is a naturally occurring mineral containing alum.  The name “alum” is used for several different compounds, but usually refers to the double sulfate salt of aluminum and either potassium, ammonium, or sodium.  Most commonly, it refers to potassium alum. Alum has been in use since antiquity, and it is still widely used today in industry as a mordant in dyeing, in tanning, in making paper and baking powders, as a flocculant to purify piped water, and to fireproof paper and cloth.  Alum is commonly used as a styptic to stop the bleeding of minor wounds, and an astringent. Styptic pencils and alum blocks were once common items in men’s shaving kits.

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Master of Cottage Industry: Pacific Flake Sea Salt

Sea Salt Flakes

Evergreen Pulp Mill Samoa Peninsula Humboldt Bay
The old Evergreen Pulp Mill (formerly the LP Pulp Mill) on the Samoa Peninsula, Humboldt Bay, California

Pacific Flake Sea Salt is a salt harvestry located in a tiny corner of what was once a huge Louisiana Pacific pulp mill out on the Samoa Peninsula, just across Humboldt Bay from my hometown of Eureka, California.

I met the owner, Bryon Duty, back in 2017 when I was first developing an interest in the idea of cottage industry. I was very impressed by someone who was not afraid to go back to the basics, and it just doesn’t get much more basic than salt.

Although salt is something that most of us take for granted, Bryon takes his profession and his craft very seriously. He is self-taught, and I can understand why: salt makers are a rare breed these days, and I can imagine it would be extremely difficult to find someone to teach you how to do it.

Pacific Flake Sea Salt
Photo courtesy of Pacific Flake Sea Salt

Bryon gave me a tour and explanation of his small facility, and his pride and knowledge are obvious and well-earned. His is the kind of passion that inspires in the listener a desire to find something similar–a trade, a craft, something you can do and put your hands on and be proud of sharing.

Although I live in Salt Lake City now (home a facility of Morton, the industrial salt harvester), I still get the salt that I use as a flavor enhancer in my home-made hot cocoa mix from Pacific Flake. To me, it adds just that little extra bit of pure love that comes from a high quality product, made with skill and dedication.

Bryon Duty of Pacific Flake Sea Salt
Bryon Duty, owner and operator of Pacific Flake Sea Salt. (Photo courtesy of Pacific Flake Sea Salt)

Word of the Day: Coppice

Coppice in a field of colza

A coppice (also known as a copse) is a thicket of small trees and shrubs, typically those whose slender trunks and branches (or withies) are cut periodically for a variety of uses.  The word also refers to a tree’s ability to regrow shoots from a cut main trunk.  Some trees, such as willow, chestnut, oak, hornbeam, hazel and linden coppice better than others and have been widely cultivated for this purpose.

Coppiced alder with one year's regrowth
A coppiced alder, showing one year’s regrowth. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Coppicing is a very, very old method of tree management that has its roots (so to speak) far back in prehistory, in many parts of the world.  Coppicing is an important resource for the so-called woodland industries.  These are cottage industries that rely on the fast-growing smallwood coppices, such as: charcoal-making, basket-weaving, thatching, fuelwood, and many others.

The practice is alive and well today, though not as commercially important as in former times.

Redwood coppice, Sequoia Park, Eureka California
A redwood coppice in Sequoia Park, Eureka, California.

Featured photo: a coppice in a field of rape (Brassica napus), Poland.  Courtesy of Shutterstock.