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Guardian of the Cinnabar Chanterelles

It’s nearly dusk and I am bushwhacking up a steep hillside of mixed conifers, punctuated by ancient oaks. The oaks that stabilize these craggy slopes are survivors – spared widespread logging not due to conservation but to convenience, the prohibitive price of hauling hardwood out a ravine.

One elder oak invites me to sit down and rest my spine against its sturdy trunk as I gaze down at the sloping forest floor and catch my breath. Sometimes the hunter sees more by slowing down. A sliver of sunlight catches the rich, rosy hue of a collection of brightly colored mushrooms, so I leave my pack by the oak and stumble downhill to investigate.

Soon I have harvested a handful of fragrant cinnabar red chanterelles, more elusive and exotic than their celebrated golden relatives. Cinnabars tend to be small and can be good hiders despite their brilliant red coloring, and I wonder if I am just scraping the surface of a bigger flush. In the dimming daylight I carefully massage the duff, pulling back a clump of decaying pine needles and oak leaves to find several new cinnabars stretching up from the ground. More and more cinnabars begin popping into view – most too young to harvest – but my hunter instincts keep me surveying the scope of the patch and planning a return later in the week.

Crawling around under a darkening sky, well aware that it’s time to head back uphill to reclaim the pack I’d left by the oak, I notice an odd buzzing sound. I look at the soil, just inches from my face, and see a few massive earthworms wriggling around nervously. I wonder if the wriggling of these behemoths is creating the buzzing sound, but I’ve never known earthworms to be very vociferous creatures.

I clumsily uproot a small cinnabar I did not intend to harvest, and as I lament my overzealous twilight hunting I hear the buzzing noise escalate.I look down and notice it is originating from my hand. A bee! I feel a sharp pain as the stinger sinks into the pad of my forefinger and, recalling the time my father was swarmed after sitting on a rotting log, I take off sprinting. I could hear more buzzing and envisioned a fiery swarm on my tail, and I bolted back up to my backpack and out of the woods, now dark. When I ran out of breath and looked back, I found not one bee had followed me. And why would they have? The bees were quite content to return to their duties protecting the cinnabar patch.

By |August 15th, 2017|Cinnabar Red Chanterelle, Wildcrafting|Comments Off on Guardian of the Cinnabar Chanterelles|

ForageCast: Summer Chanterelles

Baby chanterelle bursting from the forest floor.

With wild strawberry and spearmint on my tongue, and chanterelles on my mind, I walk past the sun-splashed frog pond and into a dark glade of spruce. I’m back in familiar territory, having recently returned to northern Vermont after a stint in the southern Green Mountains.

I have not forgotten my spots, and it seems the chanterelles haven’t forgotten me, either. Dozens of flakes of gold, no bigger than fingernails, stud the soil like a fine necklace. Just where I expected them to be, the chanterelles cut through time and welcome me back home. With my chanterelle eyes on, I wander into a beech and maple grove and discover another dozen hearty new chanterelles. They’ll need at least another week to mature – chanterelles take their time.

The woods don’t need a calendar to know we’re safely into the sweet hours of summer. Warm soils and relentless rain have created prime conditions for summer porcini and early golden chanterelles. Meanwhile, oysters and reishi are ready for harvest throughout the region.

Chicken of the woods and giant puffballs have made early and impressive showings, but it’s not just edibles that enjoy the warm rains. Poisonous fly agarics and deadly destroying angels are back, too – bold reminders of the vital imperative of safe, prudent and ethical wildcrafting.

 

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

By |June 27th, 2017|Chanterelle, ForageCast|Comments Off on ForageCast: Summer Chanterelles|

ForageCast: First Morels of the Season

Our first morel find of 2017 – pictured is one of two chubby yellow morels we spotted yesterday morning in downtown Burlington, VT.

The season’s first morels, even if growing in highly questionable soil in downtown Burlington, always are a true sight to behold. Jenna, right out the passenger seat window as we were parking, spotted two plump yellow morels on woodchips among dog-doo and debris.

We gazed out the window at the majestic morels, knowing we would not eat these urban fruits but that their presence was a sign of a delightful season to come. Morels have burst into season with gusto, with Vermont flushes reported from Barre to Burlington to the Northeast Kingdom. In higher spots or mountain areas throughout New England you should not expect good flushes for another couple weeks. But in warmer microclimates, even up through New Hampshire and Maine, we’re again reaching the season when we foragers begin our pursuit of the elusive and exquisite morel.

Of course, it’s not just one species of morel we’re looking for – yellows and blacks are equally delicious, and rare and diminutive half-frees are tasty, too. Michael Kuo and collaborators describe 19 DNA-distinct species of North American morels in their 2012 study, an impressive number of outstanding morel variations. Region of harvest is an important factor in keying out morphologically similar morel specimens. It makes the wildcrafter wonder about terroir and flavor, and the need for further studies (sign me up!) exploring the taste of the myriad species and sub-subspecies of gourmet wild mushrooms in North American forests.

But don’t forget – diversity of false morels is also phenomenal. As a rule, do not eat false morels, or any “morel” which does not have a completely hollow, contiguous cavity from tip to tail. The Verpa and Gyromitra false morels may be most likely to confuse foragers – neither has the signature hollow cavity of a true morel.

The stakes are high, but morels are unbelievably good and maddeningly fun to find. True morels are distinctive once you find them in the field with an expert forager and master a few key ID characteristics including the hollow stem. And if you’re ever in doubt, morels are one mushroom any forager would be happy to take off your hands for you!

 

By |May 5th, 2017|ForageCast, Morels|Comments Off on ForageCast: First Morels of the Season|

Wintergreen: The Hardy Wild Breath Mint

Wintergreen berries (Gaultheria procumbens) are my favorite January breath mint and trailside snack. One of the few fruits that is actually at its sweetest and freshest on a cold winter or early spring day, frozen wintergreen berries offer the texture of sorbet and a classic wintergreen flavor.

The rosy red berries of this native species persistently cling to the plant and, like wild fox grapes, truly come into their own after the first frost. Prolonged, hard frost only invigorates the wintergreen flavor, reducing lingering bitterness and bringing out the cool, creamy texture of the red berry’s flesh. The fruit is at its finest freshly picked and eaten raw, but its flavor can be strong and only one or two berries is plenty to cleanse the palette. This is not a fruit that should be eaten by the handful; think of it as an garnish or palate cleanser.

Ari forages wintergreen berries in between the trees

Honestly, I cannot remember when I discovered the joy of wintergreen berries, but I can tell you that it was years before I gained the confidence to forage wild mushrooms. As a child who roamed the coniferous wood that abutted pastures behind our home in Western Massachusetts, I loved the unexpected sour, minty, piney, or herbal flavors I discovered in the woods. I grazed on tangy wood sorrel and low-bush blueberries in summer, and nibbled wintergreen berries and made black birch tea on bright January mornings.

Wintergreen thrives in acidic soils, showing a particular affinity for hemlock and white pine in my local Vermont forests. Wintergreen likes shade but to yield the most abundant, plumpest, and juiciest fruit, it needs occasional dappled sunlight. I often see the best fruitings very close to the side of the trail or along power line cuts, but too much sunlight can make the berries slightly bitter or buddy.

Wintergreen foliage

The plant is not rare if you know the proper habitat, but fruitings are often modest and intermittent and it takes patience and precise timing to find the plumpest, reddest berries at their sweetest, coolest and mintiest. Each small plant may put out just one or two fruits per season, though trios of red jewels are not unusual. Be mindful to harvest sustainably – these berries are slow-growing and a few go a long way as a sweet or savory garnish.

Wintergreen almost always grows in close proximity to its sneakiest look-alike, partridgeberry, which is not highly toxic but is bland and certainly not recommended for human consumption (leave it for the partridges). Keep in mind that the potent essential oil of wintergreen leaves can be toxic in certain quantities.

If the plant has lots of small red berries and a viney, groundcover-like growth habit, it is probably partridgeberry. Wintergreen looks more like a tiny shrub than a running groundcover, and each small wintergreen plant never has more than a few distinguished looking berries. Many plants are without berries. Wintergreen berries, depending on the season, may have a pronounced minty aroma, and always offer a wintergreen flavor that the partridgeberry lacks. The richness and quality of this flavor, and whether the berry is something you want to savor or spit varies dramatically depending on exposure to sunlight and frost.

In their finest winter form, wintergreen berries are underrated and intriguing. This bright red berry stays crisp and fresh when other fruits of the forest are long rotten, offering a zesty burst of woodland flavor to enliven the darkest winter day.

By |January 17th, 2017|Wildcrafting, Wintergreen|Comments Off on Wintergreen: The Hardy Wild Breath Mint|

ForageCast: Fall’s Fleeting Mycological Treasures

Lion's mane and maple leaves

Lion’s mane and maple leaves

Camouflaged among the freshly fallen maple leaves, autumn mushrooms are thriving in the wet woods. The long-awaited rains – slow, steady, and abundant – arrived just before a looming frost that threatens to put the mushrooms to bed for the season.

Fall foraging has a different tenor and flavor from summer hunting – diversity of gourmet edibles is down and with splashes of color everywhere it can be easy to overlook mycological treasures. No longer can you traipse through the woods with a broad, sweeping gaze, waiting for the signature golden hue of chanterelles or the fiery orange of a lobster to jump out from the brown duff.  You may walk a mile only to spot a few pithy entolomas, when suddenly a thousand-strong legion of honey mushrooms or a heavy, bug-free trio of king boletes sends you reeling.  You might check one hundred ancient oaks and find nothing but slippery acorns, but keep pressing on – the next oak tree, seemingly no different than the rest, could hold enough maitake to carry your family through the winter.

I love late season hunting; you can taste the crisp, starlit nights and heavy morning dew in each bite of blewit. You can smell clean October air and fresh mountain mist in every morsel of lion’s mane. Each hunt carries the weight of knowing it might be the season’s last as the daylight dwindles and winter falls upon the land.

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

Northeastern ForageCast for the next two weeks!

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