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.
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.
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.
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.
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.