Mushroom Weirdos

I never really stop thinking about hunting for mushrooms, but when winter starts to melt into Spring, I get obsessed. I pull out my notes about where I’ve found which kinds, and I look at my calendar to plan Mushroom Dates with my husband Dan (thank goodness he is such a good sport and loves a fun mushroom hunt!).

“Mushroom Weirdo” could very well be a term for those of us who obsess about hiking all over creation to pick strange-looking stuff off the forest floor and eat it. (You know who you are…..). But I think of “Mushroom Weirdos” as being the fungi that don’t look like the classic cap-and-stem mushrooms. They are my favorite kind to hunt and eat, because they tend to be so distinctive looking, and have few, if any, poisonous look-alikes.

Here are some of my Very Favorites, in no particular order.

Pheasantback is a nice consolation prize when I’m out hunting for Morels. I find them exclusively on dead hardwood trees, particularly Elm. Isn’t it pretty? It really looks like it has feathers, doesn’t it? Slice this one thin, fry it crisp and enjoy. The texture holds up nicely in soups, too.

Underside of Pheasantback. See the large pores? That means this one’s going to be tough – you can still use it for mushroom stock, but it’ll be too tough to eat. Small pores = tender and pleasant.

Oyster Mushrooms are so yummy! No, they don’t taste like oysters, but I guess they are named that because they look like oysters. I find them on dead hardwoods. They smell faintly of anise, and the flavor is nice and meaty. I like pretty much all of my mushrooms fried in butter and seasoned with salt, this one’s no exception.

Underside of Oyster. See how the gills go all the way across?

Bear’s Head Tooth is a really interesting looking mushroom, with it’s longish soft ‘spikes’ hanging down off of a solid core. The one on the left is at a perfect stage for harvesting, the one on the right is a newly budding one. I find them on Dead wood, both hardwood and conifers. Lion’s Mane, Comb Tooth and Pom Pom Mushrooms are other common names.

The first time I saw this mushroom, I thought it was moldy dog poop. Seriously, who was the first person to see this on the forest floor and think “Hey, I think I’ll try eating that!”?? Fortunately for us, someone DID, and now I love me some Shrimp Mushrooms. They don’t taste like shrimp, but they kinda/sorta look shrimpy, and the texture is VERY shrimp-like. If you cook these up and throw them in a seafood chowder, you could totally make yourself (and your friends) believe you are eating shrimp. They usually grow in clusters, right on the forest floor near a dead tree.

Hen of the Woods looks like a large fleshy flower to me. Those ‘petals’ have pores underneath rather than gills, and are attached to a solid core. I usually find these on the ground at the base of a live oak tree, and sometimes on dead oak stumps. This mushroom is nice and firm, and holds it’s texture really well even after being dehydrated/rehydrated or thawed out after freezing.

There are so many more Weirdo Mushrooms that I love……and I will save them for another post. In the meantime, Happy Hunting!!

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads

Quite often, people will ask me what my favorite thing to forage is. Every time, I think hard……….and come up with the same answer. Fiddleheads. There are so many things to love about foraging for this yummy food:

  • They come up early in the spring, when I’m chomping at the bit to get outside. In my journals from the last few years, I’ve noted the dates that I’ve seen and picked all kinds of wild foods, and I’m already scanning my fern spots for signs of life.
  • It’s easy to pick enough for a few meals – Ostrich Ferns are prolific spreaders, often forming large colonies with the plants fairly close together. Snapping a fiddlehead or two from each plant fills up my bag fairly quickly.
  • They are SOOOooo yummy! I like them cooked simply, just steamed and served with butter. The taste for me is like a cross between asparagus and green beans.

All ferns have fiddleheads – that’s the term for the curled up frond as it emerges in the spring. Not all fiddleheads are edible, though, so it’s important to know what to look for. Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) has the most commonly eaten fiddleheads, and here are some key points for identification:

  • The “Nest”: See that large brown thing at the top of the above photo that looks sort of like a spider? The ‘legs’ of the ‘spider’ are last years’ fronds, and the lumps in the middle are baby fiddleheads about to emerge from a cup-like structure that I call the Nest. Other ferns grow in clumps, but lack that cup-like Nest Thing.
  • The Paper-like coating: Those brown baby fiddleheads at the top of the photo are covered with a brown paper-y stuff that breaks open when they emerge. You can see a tiny bit of green poking out of the one on the top right. At the bottom of the photo, the fully emerged fiddleheads are nice and green, and you can see the remnants of that papery coating around the bottom.
  • The Celery Groove: No, not a cool dance – not that I know of anyway. 🙂 You can see how those green Fiddleheads at the bottom of the picture have a groove toward the inside, like celery does. Other ferns have a slight groove, and Ostrich Fern’s groove is very pronounced.
  • Smooth Stems: Lady Fern looks pretty similar to Ostrich Fern in my opinion, even having a slight groove, but she has little brown hairs on her stems, while Ostrich Fern stems are smooth. Sometimes that paper-like coating will break up into pieces, stick to the fiddlehead stems and look like hairs, but up close you can see that it’s not.
  • Habitat: Ostrich Fern prefers a bit of shade, and moist, rich soil. I usually find them in the woods, sometimes with a river or a lake fairly close by.

Happy Hunting!! If you’d like some help identifying wild edibles, check out my class schedule or consider a Bountiful Backyard Gathering.

Edible Invasives

What, exactly, is an ‘invasive’ plant?

According the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources,  “When non-native plants, animals, or pathogens rapidly takes over a new location and alter the ecosystem, we consider them invasive species.”

There is a lot of Concern and Kerfuffle around Invasive plants, maybe it’s warranted and maybe it’s not – That’ll be the topic of another blog post in the future.  In the meantime, here is a list of common plants that are considered Invasive in Wisconsin, and happen to be edible.

Click on the links for more information about each plant. Enjoy!

If you are curious to learn more, here is a link to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Invasive Plant information.

Rare and Endangered Plants Need Our Help

Ramps/Wild Leek

One thing I talk about constantly on the subject of foraging is the need to pay attention to how plants grow so that we can harvest them in a way that keeps them healthy, vital and thriving. To me, it just makes sense – once I find a nice patch of Wild Leeks, I’d like to be able to go back year after year to pick some leaves and bulbs, right? It’s simple enough to honor and respect that Beautiful Being by taking a leaf from each plant so that it can flourish and fulfill it’s role in the ecosystem.

Weirdly enough, not everyone thinks that way.

Believe it or not, there are people who will strip an entire area of wild leeks, digging up all of the bulbs and not leaving any behind to thrive and grow. Some do this for their own personal stock, and some do it for the money they make by selling them. Either way, I just don’t understand it – why oh, why wouldn’t you want a steady supply that you could keep coming back to?! And the total disregard for the role these plants have in the ecosystem is staggering. It makes me sad, and it makes me all the more determined to keep talking, keep teaching, keep doing everything I can to spark the Wonder and Curiosity in others that will lead to a deep connection to Nature.

Echinacea Flower

I’ve recently become a member of United Plant Savers, an organization whose mission is to “protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.” Isn’t that a lovely mission?? I encourage you to explore their website and see if it’s a good fit for you, too.

Wisconsin Rare Plant Monitoring program is another great organization, dedicated to preserve rare flora in our own beautiful state. I recently signed up to be a volunteer, and I look forward to being an advocate for plants in need of some loving attention. Again, I encourage you to explore this organization and see if it’s a good fit for you.

Other things you can do to help plants in need:

  • Look at the list of rare and endagered plants, and cultivate a few of them in your garden.
  • Even if you don’t become an official volunteer for the WI Rare Plant Monitoring Program, you can still conduct a survey for a particular rare plant (if you happen to know how to identify it) and submit data online.
  • When you are harvesting wild edible and medicinal plants, pay deep attention to how you are harvesting, and keep the health of the plant a priority.
  • Share the information you know with your like-minded friends. For instance, you might know what the endangered Bloodroot looks like, so when you are hiking with your friends and family, you can point out this lovely plant and share it’s plight with others.
  • Keep learning, keep growing, keep sharing. 🙂
Beautiful Bloodroot

10 Reasons Foraging is Good For Us AND Good for the planet

Foraging is Good For People

  1. Excellent Nutrition

   a. Wild plants grow where the conditions are Just Right, so they are packed with excellent nutrition

   b. Wild plants don’t contain artificial dyes, preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.

2. We can make our own ‘medicine’.

     a. Food is medicine, right?  What we eat informs our bodies how to grow.

     b. We can make salves, tinctures and healing syrups out of plants from our own backyard, suited to our own unique needs. 

3. Foraging gets us outside

     a. Hiking, kayaking, fresh air! 

4. Learning botany skills for plant identification. 

     a. Continual learning is good for our brain health, helps us live longer and be more content with our life.

5. Foraging inevitably leads to other enjoyable activities….

     a. Making cordage with plant fiber

     b. Kayaking and canoeing

     c. Weaving baskets with willow and other plant materials

     d. Birdwatching

     e. Geocaching

Foraging is Good for the Planet

  1. We can help control Invasive Species by foraging them for food and medicine:

         a. Watercress, garlic mustard, barberry, autumn olive, parsnip, and so many more! 

      2. We can help wild plants to propagate while we forage them:

         a. Spitting out wild plum pits, spreading mushroom spores, dropping seed heads, etc

      3. Regular harvesting keeps some plants more vigorous and hearty

       a. Think about when you pick basil from the garden, how the plant responds by branching out even more

       b. Wild plants like stinging nettle, wild mint, pineapple weed, etc also benefit from regular picking

      4. When we find wild food that will continually return year after year, we will naturally want to take care of that plant and its habitat.

a. Of COURSE we will take care of the plants and their habitat, otherwise what happens isn’t ‘Foraging’, it’s ‘Pillaging’. Right?

5. Foraging reduces our carbon footprint – our food isn’t traveling 1000 miles in plastic packaging.

Foraging on Public Lands

A friend recently asked me to write a blog about the rules around foraging in public places.  What a great idea! Since most of my foraging happens in Polk County, WI, that’s where my focus will be for this post. 

When I think about “Public Land”, I think of 4 categories: Federal, State, County, and Municipal.  Each category has slightly different rules about foraging, so let’s break it down.

Federal Land:

In Polk County, we have the National Park Service area along the St Croix River, and various tracts of US Fish and Wildlife areas south of Highway 8.  Perhaps there are other Federal Lands too, these are the ones I’m aware of.

Here is a link that outlines specific rules about activities on National Park Service land along the River, including foraging: “Visitors are allowed to harvest and eat berries and mushrooms in the Park, but collecting freshwater mussels, mussel shells or wildflowers is prohibited.”

US Fish and Wildlife Service areas allow berry and mushroom collection for personal use.   This link has a list of these areas in Polk County.

State Land:

In a State park, Forest, Natural Area or Trail in Wisconsin we can pick edible fruits, edible nuts, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus and watercress for personal consumption.  I will add that we can pick edible invasive plants as well – things like garlic mustard, feral parsnip, and hybrid cattail.
This link has a list of state lands in Polk County.

County Land:

Polk County Parks, Trails and Forests have pretty much the same foraging rules as State Lands, above. There are presently no policies written down, but the kind county forester that I spoke with said that respectful harvesting of wild edibles for personal consumption would be considered legal.

This link has a list of Polk County parks and trails.  You’ll notice some of these are also in the State Land list – that’s because some parks and trails are jointly owned/managed by DNR and the county. 

Municipal

I debated about calling up all of the Polk County villages and cities to see what they had to say………but I got lazy and didn’t, lol!  My advice here is to call your local village/city office and ask if it’s alright to pick mushrooms and wild edible plants from the parks in town, and then also ask if herbicides/pesticides are used in any of the parks as well.  I imagine each village or city will have different rules. 

So there you have it. Go forth and forage, my friends.


	

How Not to Get Lost in The Woods

Do you see the arrow?

One recent morning, my husband Dan and I were talking about a spot on our 40 acre property.  He was explaining to me how to get to this particular spot: “You walk along the Ridge Trail (we have names for the trails and even some of the more distinctive trees on our property) almost to the Meadow (a clearing in the woods that you can’t see from our house). 

I interrupted, “Do you mean until you are parallel to the Meadow??  because the Ridge Trail doesn’t get close to the Meadow”. 

“Um, yes it does”.

“Nope. Nope it does not”!

We then looked at an aerial photo of our property, where lo and behold our Meadow was indeed very close to the Ridge Trail.  How can that be?!  Our 40 acre square looks so different in my head! 

I must admit here that navigating through woodland is a skill that I am, um, well I don’t want to say ‘lacking’, so I’ll say ‘honing’ instead. I may have even gotten sort-of-lost in my own woods, once. A long time ago.

Why am I telling on myself like this??  Because I want to point out that We Don’t Have To Be Good At Everything. 

Though it seems reasonable to WANT to be good at navigating through woodland when foraging for wild foods is your chosen profession, you don’t HAVE to be. 

Really.

What I lack in skill here, I have learned to make up for in rigorousness.  (Is that a word?  Yes, yes it is).   I do what I CAN do, without getting lost, and I have some ‘rules’ that I’ve made for myself. Obviously, I could forage in fields and open places where it would be difficult to get lost……..but……I LOVE being in the woods! And that’s pretty much the only place you can find wild goodies like fiddleheads and morels. SO….here’s how I navigate:

  • I follow trails, and only leave the trail if I can still see it. 
  • If the trail forks, I mark it somehow so that I’ll know which way to turn when I come back. See the photo at the top of this post? I took a few sticks and laid them out in an arrow shape in the middle of the trail so I’d be sure to see it, and take the correct trail.
  • I make mental notes about things that stand out – like a boulder that is heart-shaped, or a  tree that looks like it has lips.  When I’m heading back to my starting point, I can reassure myself along the way that haven’t gotten turned around.
  • I always tell someone where I’m going. Usually this ‘someone’ is my husband, Dan. That way, if I get myself in trouble and my phone doesn’t have service, he will at least know where to start looking if I haven’t returned in time for cribbage on Saturday morning.

You don’t have to be good at everything, so be good at what you DO know.  Be fearless. And make a smart plan.

Isn’t this a beautiful stump? It marks a turn on a trail that I like to hike on.

Wintergreen

Wintergreen is a tiny, low-growing plant which, as its name suggests, stays green all winter.  This is a lovely plant to harvest in the winter, as those shiny green leaves and beautiful little red berries show up really well against a dusting of snow.  I often find them under pine trees, so even if there is heavy snow cover, there tends to be less snow underneath pines, so I can still see that punch of color. 

It’s tough to get enough berries to do anything with because I cannot resist eating them as I pick – they are deliciously minty!  The leaves are strongly minty, too, and make a wonderful tea.  I find it interesting that this plant is NOT in the mint family – it is in the same family as blueberries and cranberries.   I’ve got a tincture made with the berries and leaves that I’m going to try using in some baking this winter.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  

Wintergreen often grows alongside and intermixed with Partridgeberry, and they are similar looking.  In the picture below, you can see how the Partridgeberry leaves are smaller and rounder.  The berry is more orange than red, and if you look close, you can see how the berry has two little depressions that makes it look like it has eyes.  While Partridgeberries are edible, you’ll probably be disappointed like I was when I first ate them – they are tasteless.  Not bitter, not sweet, not anything.  Oh well, they are pretty.  

In the very top left corner of this photo, you can see Wintergreen’s larger leaf photo-bombing this Partridgeberry shot.   Oh, Wintergreen, I’ve got my eye on you!



Five Fun Facts About Chaga

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  1. Chaga is not a mushroom, though it is often included in mushroom books and referred to as Chaga Mushroom.  Rather, it is a hardened mass of mycelium (the underlayer of growth that produces mushrooms).  The proper term for this hardened mass is Sclerocium, and the plural is Sclerocia.  See, that’s fun to say, isn’t it?
  2. Chaga grows exclusively on Birch trees.  Other trees have similar looking growths, and mostly those are Burls.  Burls are an abnormal growth that is covered by bark, often caused by an injury or a virus.  Chaga starts growing in the heart wood of the tree, and slowly pushes its way out through the bark.
  3. Chaga is medicinal.  It has been used medicinally for many years, and like many folk medicines, our science is slowly beginning to ‘prove’ it.  It strengthens our immune system and even has some cancer fighting properties.  Here are links to a couple of studies:
    1. One on mice: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4946216/
    2. One on humans: https://iubmb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/biof.552210120
  4. We don’t eat the chaga – it’s much to hard and woody.  We simmer the chaga chunks or powder for a long time and then drink the ‘tea’.  It tastes like coffee, but much smoother.
  5. It can be harvested in the winter.  In fact, it’s much easier to harvest in the winter-time because we can easily see the blackened outside part of  Chaga against the white of the Birch without all the leaves in the way.  Some people say we should ONLY harvest in the winter, but that’s just not true.  There is no change in the medicinal value of the chaga in other seasons, and you won’t harm the tree by simply cutting the chaga off.

Here is a link to more detaily information about chaga by a fellow forager in Eastern Wisconsin.  Enjoy!

https://edenwildfood.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/harvesting-chaga-what-you-need-to-know/

ChagaChunk2

Chokecherries

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The chokecherries are ready to harvest!  I don’t know why the birds haven’t gotten them all, but I’m glad!  Last weekend, hubby and I harvested 25# of these beauties, most of which are bubbling into wine right now.  We saved out a few pounds to make jelly and syrup with, too.  They are delicious when cooked, but very astringent when you eat them raw.  It feels like they suck the spit right out of your mouth, leaving it dry and feeling weird.  

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One of the ways to know you have chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) is to look on the leaf petiole (stem) to see if it has a couple of little glands – they look like tiny bumps, and you can see them here, just barely.  Black cherries hang in a long cluster, just like chokecherries, and can be used interchangeably.  

To make a syrup, I pull the little berries off the stems and put them in a pan with enough water to not-quite-cover them.  I simmer until they get good and soft and I start seeing the pits floating around, then strain the pits out, keeping as much of the pulp as I can.  (I like my syrup chunky….if you like it smooth, then you’ll want to use a finer mesh to strain just the juice).  I’ll put the chunky juice back into the pan with an equal amount of organic sugar, then boil until I can’t stir it down.  Cool and refrigerate.  So far the syrup I made has lasted a week in the fridge, and I am going to freeze it soon.  I’m using it to flavor my kombucha, and over ice cream.

Happy Trails!!