Foraging, Part 2: A (Sub)Urban Foraging Walk with a Master

A week or so ago, I took a midday foraging walk led by Russ Cohen, foraging extraordinaire and author of the book Wild Plants I Have Known… and Eaten. After a few not-so-successful foraging adventures – including a potential brush with (possibly) dead(ly mushrooms) I was thrilled to finally have an expert teach me how to avoid poisoning myself.

The walk started in the parking lot of a well coiffed sports field in Lexington, to be led along the park’s mostly paved or boardwalk-ed nature walk through the adjacent “woods”. But before we started off, Russ fed us all japanese knotweed coffee cake. Turns out this weed (of which four inch sprouts pop up nearly every day in my tiny yard) is an invasive species that is also a cousin of rhubarb. It takes very similar to this relative – a bit sour with a hint of sweet crunch – and can be prepared in much the same way.

Our first show and tell in the wild was dandelion and wild lettuce (below). Both are easily identifiable and best eaten (read not extremely bitter) when just sprouting in the early spring.

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We also discussed edible fiddleheads. Only a few kinds of ferns are edible and the most prolific in New England is the ostrich fern, below. Look for onion skin-like covering on the stalks and growth of multiple fronds in a rounded “vaselike” pattern. These would have been edible had I stumbled upon them a few weeks earlier.

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After learning about more edible greens and attempting to memorize the leaf pattern of trees that would eventually fruit edible berries (until I gave up and mentally committed to just buying Russ’s book) we stopped to hear about the myriad edible parts of the cattail. I dubbed this the “buffalo of wild edibles” – for like that majestic beast, the Native Americans used it for everything from grinding the starchy root tuber into flour for bread to eating the young shoots like other nutritious greens.

But then. We saw a mushroom. Someone – was it me? – noticed this bad boy and alerted Russ who asked if anyone had a knife. Apparently this city girl was the only one packing a weapon (for this very purpose, I must make clear). Russ sawed this Dryad Saddle mushroom off of the tree and passed it around. He explained that it is a polypore mushroom – which means (among many other things I am sure) that it did not have gills. I asked if it was edible and he said that it certainly wouldn’t hurt you, but that it wasn’t very tasty. “Kind of like a tough cucumber,” is how he described it. Well, non-poisonous was enough for me. After the show and tell I stuffed it into my bag.

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We had almost finished the “nature walk” loop by this time, but the last hundred yards were the most delicious. First Russ pointed out these mica cap mushrooms (below) and noted that they were edible. The other foragers oohed and ahhed for moment and then walked on, which was when I swooped in and foraged them all for dinner. By the time I caught up with the group, they were stopped at a patch of wild onions. Also completely edible, these look (and smell) a lot like scallions that might be cultivated in a garden. Once again, I hung back and dug some up for dinner.

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By the time I returned home, my mica caps were already oozing black liquid (they were quite delicate) and turned out to be hard to clean without completely breaking them apart. But I persevered for the sake of an almost completely foraged dish, saute-ing up some chopped wild onions and the mica cap mushrooms in local butter for a (quite small) appetizer. With my meat and chopped veggies, I also added some of the more tender portions of the polypore mushroom, which, like Russ noted, wasn’t that tasty. And I ordered Russ’s book, in hopes that I could use his expertise to confidently forage a bit more sustenance in the future. Perhaps I didn’t quite feed myself with my foraging – although there were enough cattails to do so, had I been so inclined – but a lovely day walking through the suburban woods.

A Walk In the Woods: Adventures in Foraging, part 1

On Mother’s Day my mom, husband and I took a walk in the woods. The weather was nice, if cloudy and a bit cool, and we chose a path about twenty miles from the city of Boston with a specific goal: to find something – anything – out in the wild to eat. Luckily my mother is game for my locavore adventures, especially after growing up in small town western New York state where her mother made regular meals from dandelion greens and puff ball mushrooms found along the runways of the airport her family founded and managed.

Walking along the leaf-lined paths through the woods, still close enough to civilization to hear the cars on the highway as well as the wind in the trees, we searched in vain for mushrooms, fiddleheads, ramps and wild leeks – the only items we felt confident to identify. My husband followed along behind, cringing when my mother or I licked or sniffed a torn green stalk, checking for that distinctive onion smell or taste.

“You’re going to make yourself sick,” he warned.

Finally we chanced upon some brown mushrooms.

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They were nestled among dead oak leaves – just where mycologists indicate some of the tastiest varieties like morels might be found. They smelled divine – like the ultimate, freshest mushroom. I gathered all I could find, resisting the urge to taste them, knowing that one bite of the wrong kind of mushroom could kill me. But oh – how I wanted to pop one in my mouth! Luckily, my cautious side won out and I tucked the bulging bag of mushrooms into my backpack, confident we would be eating them saute-ed in butter in a few short hours.

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We continued on our walk, spotting not another fungi, which made our earlier discovery feel even more fortuitous. We did, however, come across some fiddleheads (or young, sprouting ferns). Alas these were not the edible kind. Only the species that grows in a circular “vase-like” pattern and has onion-like skin on its stem is edible – and only after the tightly-wound fronds are boiled for at least 3 minutes (so says Russ Cohen, local forager extraordinaire, others recommend even longer boiling time). As you can see, the ferns below are furry and grow in different pattern than the edible kind.

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After our walk, we returned home and my mother, complaining of dizziness and slight nausea, retired to bed. While she slept I checked the internet and my hefty mushroom guide for verification of the species we had gathered. The only definitive information I could ascertain was that some of the most lethal mushrooms were small and brown. About five hours after ingestion, those who have been poisoned by these mushrooms experience headaches and vomiting. Once the toxin enters the system, even modern medicine cannot always save the victim. I began to worry that my mother had tried a mushroom during the exciting flurry of tasting weeds and smelling that delicious earthy aroma once we made our initial fungal discovery – that she was in our guest bedroom-slash-office dying from mushroom poisoning. I was moments away from checking in on her, berating myself that my uninformed foraging excitement had maimed my mom – and I mother’s day, no less –  when she emerged, claiming her headache was gone. She felt great.

I breathed a sigh of relief that she was fine – and then confessed that I had thrown all the mushrooms away. I couldn’t ensure their safety and the risk was far from worth it. I was disappointed that our foraging trip had resulted in nothing edible – that I couldn’t cook the gourmet wild mushroom dinner I had hoped to celebrate all that my mother had done for me in the past year. But then I realized that our day wasn’t a waste – how could it be? I had spent an afternoon walking through nature with two of my favorite people – looking under fallen logs and surprising snakes and traversing ancient stone walls. It was then that I realized was so many seasoned foragers already knew: that even an unsuccessful day foraging was still a pretty good day.