Porcupines of the North Woods

Porcupine quillwork on a birch bark container, depicting a beaver.

  For thousands of years, Native Americans of the Great Lakes region spent the cold, dark months of winter engaged in hunting and trapping, ice fishing, mending snowshoes, and making things around the hearth fire. Before glass trade beads became available, women perfected the art of decorating clothing, baskets, bags, and other items with dyed porcupine quills. Quillwork takes patience, skill and practice, and has been taught by parents to their children for many generations.

A porcupine curls into a ball before taking a nap at the tip of a branch, high up in a tree.

  Winter is also a traditional season for storytelling. In the Ojibwe culture, certain stories are only meant to be shared when there is snow on the ground. One of these tells the tale of how a clever porcupine, originally covered by just a coat of thick fur, outsmarted a hungry black bear. After placing hawthorn branches with sharp thorns on his back, porcupine rolled into a ball just as bear sprang upon him, offering a spiky surprise. When Nanabozho learned of this clever trick, he took some branches from a hawthorn tree and peeled off the bark until their spines were white. After putting clay all over porcupine’s back, Nanabozho stuck in the thorns, one by one, until it was completely covered. He then made this a permanent part of porcupine’s skin so he and his descendants would always be protected from their enemies.

  Most visitors to Mackinac State Historic Parks learn a great deal about beavers. Beaver pelts fueled the fur trade for centuries, providing jobs for Native Americans, voyageurs, merchants, soldiers and civilians. Guests at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can even hike the trails to search for fresh signs of beaver activity and look for their dam built across Mill Creek. Only humans alter the landscape more dramatically than this industrious mammal, the largest rodent of North America.

Porcupines usually rest during the day. Activity is mostly nocturnal (at night) or crepuscular (during twilight hours).

  Few people realize that Mill Creek is also home to the second largest rodent on the continent, the North American Porcupine. Growing up to 30 pounds and more than two feet long, a porcupine can live up to 10 years. Porcupines are slow, secretive, and solitary, usually seen sleeping at the top of a tree or walking warily across a road.

  A porcupine is truly amazing in many ways, particularly due to its needle-sharp, barbed quills, which are actually modified hairs. A fully-grown porcupine has more than 30,000 quills, which are loosely attached to muscles just beneath the skin. Despite a popular myth, porcupines cannot throw or shoot their quills. When threatened, they turn their back to an attacker and quickly flick their tail, driving quills into the toughest flesh. As quill tips are barbed like a fishhook, they are very painful and difficult to remove.

  Porcupines can be found many places in the woods of Michigan. As you hike, watch for signs such as chewed tree trunks or branches, as inner bark is especially sought after in the winter months as a source of food. Porcupines even chew on buildings and trail signs looking for salt, glue or paint, and will even seek out sweat residue left on wooden tool handles. Because they are rodents, a porcupine’s teeth continually grow, just like a mouse or beaver’s do. With binoculars or a camera, look closely to see if you can spot the orange coating on their teeth, which is an iron-rich coating of enamel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Visitors to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park can learn about porcupines and other animals of the north woods during naturalist programs throughout the season, which begins on May 7. To get a treetop view, also join us on an Adventure Tour and climb the steps of the Treetop Discovery Tower. Who knows, you might even see eye-to-eye with a porcupine! Tickets can be purchased here.

What’s Growing the Garden? Cabbage!

Cabbages are attractive vegetables. They come in a variety of shapes, textures, sizes and colors. Many gardeners in the 18th century, including Michilimackinac resident John Askin, considered cabbages to be an essential vegetable in the garden. They keep well, are versatile in the kitchen and generally low maintenance. They can be placed out in the garden earlier than crops like beans, cucumbers and melons and are quite cold hardy. This winter, we even had one cabbage winter over in our King’s Garden. It was quite a surprise, especially since it was covered in snow for a few months with no protection at all.

The downside to these vegetables is that they are incredibly tasty to slugs. The gray beasts like to get inside the cabbage heads and munch away. Just when it seems like all the slugs have been picked from the leaves, there are five more that pop out. In the 18th century, gardeners had many solutions to deal with slugs, but most come down to manual removal. At Michilimackinac, we have found that encouraging toads in the garden has also proven useful.

Right now, our cabbage seedlings for 2020 are started and doing well. The transplants will be planted out in early to mid-May and when they are big enough, they will find their way to our daily food programs at Colonial Michilimackinac. If you have never grown cabbage, take a cue from history and give this beautiful and useful vegetable a chance. Be sure to visit our website for more updates, and check out Mackinac Associates, a friends group which makes many of our programs and exhibits (including the gardens) possible at all of our historic sites.

What’s Growing in the Garden? Carrots!

Carrots in the ground.

We have begun our spring cleanup of the gardens at Michilimackinac! It Is the best time. Every year we find a few unexpected things, and this week we came across a number of forgotten carrots. We are usually quite meticulous about digging our root vegetables and storing them for use later, but it seems that these escaped our shovel. Surprise!

What will these be used for? Well, 18th century sources abound with recipes and uses for carrots. Some books recommended them as a cure for everything from cancer to asthma. Cooks turned the root vegetable into puddings, added them to soups, and used them in salads. One of our favorite historic ways to use carrots is from a recipe by E. Smith that was published in the Compleat Housewife in 1736:

To make Carrot or Parsnip Puffs

Scrape and boil your carrots or parsnips tender; then scrape or mash them very fine, add to a pint of pulp the crumb of a penny-loaf grated, or some stale biscuit, if you have it, some eggs, but four whites, a nutmeg grated, some orange-flower water, sugar to your taste, a little sack, and mix it up with thick cream. They must be fry’d in rendered suet, the liquor very hot when you put them in; put in a good spoonful in a place.

They end up being sweet and deliciously greasy.

While it is not uncommon for root vegetables to winter over in the gardens at Michilimackinac, it still always seems like something that shouldn’t be possible. Check back later to see what other things are happening this spring at Michilimackinac. If you would like to help support our gardens and other activities at all of our historic sites, consider joining Mackinac Associates, and visit our website for tickets and more information.