Satisfying My Foraging Curiousity
One of the things I've been trying to encourage people to do is to grow their own food - even just a little in a small space can go a long way. One thing I've never done before is encourage people to go out into the forest and "forage" for food in the wild, but that has changed. If you like the thrill of a little "Dining Roulette," by taking your chances in the culinary wild, I say go for it!
Disclaimer: I am not suggesting you go out and eat things in the wild you are unfamiliar with. I highly recommend foraging, but take someone who knows what the heck they're doing with you as a guide, or at least take a reputable guide book.
There's lots of food you can find in the forest - none of which I've ever felt confident enough to pick because I've never known whether it's safe to eat or not. I've always wanted to learn more about foraging though, so I found someone "in-the-know" to learn from. I recently went on a Foraging Hike led by Dan Lipow, Founder of Dining Wild, which was informative and fun. The expected rain that Sunday morning held off until later in the day and we enjoyed a beautiful hike in South Mountain Reservation in Maplewood, NJ.
During the trip, we came across wineberries, which aren't in season, but we got a good look at the plant so we'll recognize them for when they're ready to pick. I've seen the wineberries in that area during their peak, so I know what they look like - they're a lot like raspberries and grow in clusters. I've just never picked them because I wasn't sure what they were.....not any more! Next season...I'm going to make wineberry pie!
If you see berries that look like wineberries, but they aren't growing in clusters, they're something else...It doesn't mean they're poisonous, but...you might want to find out what they are before you eat them.
We also came across wild grapevines. No grapes right now, but the vine is fairly recognizable. However, if it looks like a grape vine it may STILL not be a grape vine. According to ediblewildfood.com, it could be something poisonous called Menispermum canadense (common moonseed). Again...this can be tricky stuff.
Tip: If a vine is hairy, it's probably poison ivy, not a grape vine.
Ringless Honey Mushrooms were the most common wild edible we came across. This mushroom lives on the base of trees - both living and dead wood. They remind me of shiitake mushrooms in size and form, but it tastes a bit nuttier. We found this mushroom in abundance. In fact, when you find one bunch, search the surrounding area because you're likely to find many more bunches. These are plentiful in our area right now (late summer/early fall). I even made a tasty Wild Mushrooms & Swiss Chard dish from what we took home.
We came across plenty of sassafras too. This plant actually grows three different types of leaves (pictured below). I tasted one of the leaves, which has a nice citrus/lemon flavor. The leaves make great tea and the root smells like root beer.
To make sassafras tea, tear up or crush a handful of leaves and pour boiling water over them. Cover the water/leaves and let it sit for about 20 minutes. Strain the water from the leaves and enjoy.
We reached a high peak of the Reservation and Dan pointed out how just this slight change in elevation/environment within the same area yielded mushrooms that were similar on one side and completely different on the other - one was porous and the other had teeth. It just goes to show you how a slight change in the environment can yield completely different species. (Shown in photos below.)
Testing Mushrooms with "Spore Prints"
So, you may be wondering, "How do you know that what you've picked is safe to eat?" The answer to that will depend on what you've foraged, but one way to tell with mushrooms is by their spore color. One of the guides Dan brought with us was the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (there's even an app for that). The guide explained that the spores for Ringless Honey Mushrooms are white. If the spores aren't white, you have something else on your hands. (The Ringless Honey Mushroom can be confused with more toxic mushroom, Jack O'Lantern Mushrooms.)
One simple and artistic way to test for spore color is to make "Spore Prints." (See my artistry below.) To use this method of testing:
- Find out what color the spores of the mushroom you picked should be. In this case, the spores for the Ringless Honey Mushroom should be white.
- Remove the stem from one of the mushrooms you picked and put the mushroom cap, spore side down on a piece of paper that is of a contrasting color. (e.g., if the spores should be white, use a dark piece of paper). Any paper is fine - construction paper or linen paper, etc. I used a piece of black linen paper intended for scrapbooking.
- Cover the mushroom cap with a glass.
- After a few hours, lift the glass and check the spore color. If it matches what you think it should, you're in good shape.
Know before you go:
(From DiningWild's tips provided at the hike)
- Follow the golden rule of foraging: "When in doubt, throw it out!"
- What to pack when going foraging:
- Foraging basket, mesh bags, paper lunch bags
- Pocket knife
- Small pruning snips or scissors
- Trowel or shovel
- Protective gloves and clothing
- Guidebooks, apps, map and calendar
- Water, snacks, insect repellent, good shoes and a hat
- Bring a guide, a guidebook or an app to help identify things on the spot. This way, you can feel more confident you pick what you'll want to bring home and leave in tact what you don't.
- Forage sustainably by following these tips that Dan from DiningWild gave us:
- Stick to the 1-in-20 rule and never harvest more than 5%
- Harvest from vibrant plants in healthy sites
- Harvest only the parts you need
- Stick with native and invasive species
- Tread lightly
- Educate yourself
I'm Catherine, a small-space urban gardener in New Jersey (Zone 7a) who started gardening out of upcycled wooden wine boxes. For years, I wanted to try gardening, but didn't know where to start. I got up the nerve to give it a try - starting small with a single wooden wine box that turned an idea into reality. That reality quickly turned into my filling every sunny inch of space of my postage-stamp size lawn and turning it into a garden oasis. I grow mostly vegetables and herbs with some exception for fruits (when the squirrels and rabbits don't get to them first). I love learning from gardening communities (and lots of trial and error).
I hope one day to take all that I'm learning and apply it to a larger plot of land. To help me get there, I'm extending my learning through the University of Massachusetts, Stockbridge School of Agriculture's, Sustainable Food & Farming program. (I'm addicted to learning as much as I am to gardening.)
This blog isn't just for gardeners (although I hope it inspires some of you to try growing a plant or two). The recipes (food & cocktails) in theRecipes section of this blog contain ingredients that don't have to come from your own backyard. If you like visiting your local farmer's market(or even your grocery store) and would like to get some new recipes you can use with the fresh produce and herbs you get from your local growers, this blog will have plenty for you too.
In addition to gardening and cooking, I also love to visit and photograph my surroundings. I feel fortunate to have so many amazing places here in New York/New Jersey, where I live and work. Visits to local farms, farmer's markets, and cycling through rural farming areas help me feel connected and refreshed. share these experiences in theExploring section of the blog so that you might visit through proxy or be inspired enough to visit yourself.
With very few exceptions, all of the photographs on this site are ones I have taken myself. (For the photographers out there, I shoot with a Canon 7D and sometimes with my Lumix DMC-ZS15 compact camera.)
I hope this blog inspires you to grow, create, explore, and try something new. The best way to stay up-to-date is to follow me using the social buttons above, or click Subscribe and sign up for my email newsletters.
Happy Gardening and Healthful Living!