The Humble Harvest

Yellow Food Chanterelles

This winter I have seen plenty of mushrooms, but they never seem to make it to the frying pan. Trouble is, I’ve been doing most of my hunting in the realm of dreams. The same thing happens every time – as I float through the bizarre and befuddling dreamscape, out of nowhere I find myself in a hemlock forest heavy with honeys, or a beech grove laden with lion’s mane. I have hit the motherload, and I gleefully reach for my forager’s knife. But before I can even slice into the first fungus, I am overwhelmed with doubt, and my treasure trove begins to feel tenuous.

Suddenly I have switched from undoubting dreamer to skeptical dream analyst. “Wasn’t I just skiing yesterday?” I ask myself. And then, in that fleeting moment of lucidness, I am jolted awake, as the icy air in my barely heated bedroom reminds me why the mushrooms are nowhere to be found.

Even in a dream, when we find an epic patch of mushrooms, our first instinct is to reach for our knife. This is not about greed – it is about gleefulness. Finding a pair of porcini or a clump of chicken of the woods is exciting, but have you ever found (as I have) acres of black trumpets, so densely packed that it is hard not to crush twenty trumpets with your every step? If you forage for long enough, one day you will find yourself in the holy grail of mushrooms, a patch so endless and glorious that it surpasses what even your most tantalizing dreams can conjure.

When you find a patch like this, you will be tickled with delight and disbelief. There is nothing more life affirming and awe inspiring than finding, among the leaf litter and squirrel-strewn acorns, a carpet of pristine, gourmet mushrooms. In this rare state of reverie, you may well forget all rules you have learned about sustainable harvest, as you bend down and begin plucking by the handful. As you delight in the Earth’s cornucopian abundance, your basket will quickly fill itself.

If you are a commercial picker, in a moment like this money really does grow on (or, more accurately, out of) trees, and there is an incentive to harvest with abandon. But even if you are a recreational picker and steadfast tree hugger, you may find yourself picking more than your rightful share and contributing to what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons.”

Even though some patches may feel inexhaustible when they are fruiting in all their glory, last summer was a reminder that mushrooms are not always so plentiful. As climate change, habitat loss, and overharvesting alter the fabric of the region’s mushroom populations, it behooves us as foragers to harvest responsibly.  For most species this means never harvesting more than half of a patch, and favoring more mature specimens that have already released their spores. Keep in mind that the visible mushroom is only a fruiting body; the mycelium that threads its way through leaves, soil, roots, and downed trunks is the organism itself. We are not killing the mycelium when we carefully harvest a mushroom, but we are removing a spore-bearing fruit.

I use even stricter harvesting guidelines for mycorrhizal species such as porcini, chanterelles, and matsutake. These elusive and expensive species are very challenging to cultivate, as they depend on a delicate ecological balance and play an integral role in the health of the forest ecosystem. Japanese buyers pay obscene rates for grade A matsutake buttons, putting immense pressure on Northwestern populations and incentivizing efficient but destructive harvesting methods such as raking vast swaths of ground.

Of course, every now and then even the most prudent forager enjoys a hearty harvest. Fall is the time – lion’s mane, chicken of the woods, and maitake are often so abundant that we can harvest only a third of a patch and still have plenty to share with friends or preserve. If you want a supply to last your family through the winter, try the parasitic honey mushroom, nemesis of forester’s throughout the country. This prolific tree pathogen may be slightly slimy, but once you learn to safely ID it your pantry will never be empty again!

The parasitic honey mushroom!

The parasitic honey mushroom!

The Restorative Reishi

The white growing tip of these younger reishi means that they are still actively maturing.

Something subversive is brewing in the dimly lit depths of my pantry. Two mason jars sit atop a nondescript white shelf, stuffed with thinly sliced reishi mushrooms steeping in cheap vodka.

Sounds innocent enough, right? Yes, my reishi moonshine is entirely safe and legal, but something tells me that Big Pharma would be less than thrilled about my wildcrafted mushroom tincture concoction. While I certainly see a place for Western pharmaceuticals – they saved my mother’s life three times – there is something empowering and paradigm shifting about finding medicine in the woods instead of at the drugstore.

Many popular pharmaceuticals have active ingredients isolated from plants or fungi or synthetic analogs of these chemicals, but we forget about the natural sources of our medicines when we encounter them as brightly colored pills encased in plastic. It’s no surprise we now take aspirin instead of willow bark tea – turning a plant into a pill makes it easier for a pharmaceutical company to regulate, patent and market a drug.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but I am weary of the way it makes us overlook the inextricable connection between human health and ecological health. Perhaps if we were more accustomed to foraging for medicine in the forest, we would think twice before chopping down rainforests that could hold cures to our most menacing diseases, not to mention mitigating our most noxious assault on planetary health – global warming. Any assault on planetary health is ultimately an assault on our own health, but it is easy to overlook this when we cling to the myopic and antiquated notion that technology and medicine will extricate us from whatever environmental quandaries we may face.

Don’t be fooled by the boxes of Annie’s Mac & Cheese – something subversive is brewing in my pantry . . .

Finding a wild reishi mushroom – be it the varnished red Ganoderma tsugae on hemlock in the Northeast and Southwest; the varnished yellow-ocher G. curtisii in southern New England and throughout the central and southeastern states; or the varnished red G. lucidum in southern New England and stretching across the seas into Europe and Asia – can be quite a magical experience. Even though I find reishi regularly in hemlock forests around Ithaca from May through July, I still am mesmerized every time I see a tree covered in them, in all their glossy glory. Reishi are hard to mistake for any other conk mushroom, with their gradient of lacquered red, orange, yellow, and white hues. As a rule, if the conk you are holding is breathtakingly beautiful, you have found a reishi.

Emerging reishi mushrooms make a delicious and medicinal appetizer when lightly sauteed. Because reishi has an indeterminate growth habit, most specimens will grow back after being cut. Nonetheless, I harvest babies sparingly.

As if its looks were not enough, reishi is reputed to have analgesic, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant, antitumor, antiviral, anti-HIV, and blood pressure reducing effects. Before reishi cultivation became widespread, in China it was a rare wild mushroom reserved for royalty and their ilk. The Chinese names for reishi – Mushroom of Immortality, Ten-Thousand Year Mushroom, and Herb of Spiritual Potency – reflect its status as a panacea.

Reishi belongs to a class of herbal medicines called adaptogens, a group which includes ginseng, the only other natural medicine traditionally revered quite as highly by the Chinese. Adaptogens are reputed to enhance the body’s overall ability to cope with physical and mental stress. Reishi can be taken acutely when you feel the onset of a cold, but the system strengthening effects may not fully set in until several weeks of daily use in small doses.

Reishi tincture is expensive, and I find making it myself with local conks to be very satisfying. To impart the full spectrum of medicinal components, I make a double extraction tincture that contains both reishi’s alcohol and water-soluble constituents. I already have two additional large mason jars of tincture brewing since the photograph of my pantry distillery was taken!

Last year's reishi mushrooms are no longer of any use medicinally, but they're still eye-catching.

For medicine, it is most efficient and ethical to harvest relatively mature conks. The white growing tip should be very thin or gone, and the overall color gradient should fade to a deeper, but still vivid, red.  If you see a tree or stump that has conks growing directly above one another, look for the thin layer of brown spores that the mature reishi drop on top of their host-mates below. Unlike the perennial artist’s conk, reishi is an annual polypore that will fruit quite reliably every year on the same tree until it has consumed all available substrate. Take care not to consume last year’s reishi, distinguished by their uniform deep maroon cap, softer surface and turquoise rot on the dull brown pore surface.

I have taken a dropperful of reishi tincture almost daily for a couple of years (with occasional breaks), and I have noticed a marked increase in my body’s ability to fight off the common cold. I’m not sure the relaxing effect has fully kicked in yet, but who knows; perhaps if I didn’t take reishi tincture I’d be even more excitable than I already am!

ForageCast: Week of June 12, 2011

Northeastern ForageCast for the week of June 12, 2011

This week we have two new additions to the ForageCast – the scaber stalk boletes and artist’s conk. As a perennial polypore, the artist’s conk can be found year-round in Northeastern hardwood forests. However, it arrives on the ForageCast this week since most of the local conks have now developed their new annual layer of milky white, fragrant pores. During the winter months the conk is dormant, its underside hard and brown and lacking its distinctive woodsy odor. There is not much sense harvesting it at this stage, since it is weaker medicinally and artists cannot etch on its creamy pores.

When you do harvest an artist’s conk, be aware that it is a long-lived perennial fungus, so I recommend taking younger specimens and leaving the elders. If you are curious about the age of the specimen whose life you (or your hatchet) just ended, slice off the base to reveal the interior, where you can count the ¼ inch thick layers of pores as you would tree rings.

If any of you are still searching for morels, I hate to break it to you – you’re going to have to wait until next spring! Perhaps a few stragglers are still rotting in the ground in the northernmost reaches of the region, but in Ithaca there are no more morels, only memories of their splendor. While there are king stropharias, oysters, chicken of the woods, and reishis to keep me busy, I must admit that June is not the most exciting month for mushroom foraging. But alas, chanterelles and black trumpets are just around the corner. May the rains continue!

The Ramp Ritual

Ephemeral wild leeks, or ramps, bring bright splashes of green to northeastern deciduous forests in early spring.

As my anticipation of morels begins to grow unbearable, I have found a welcome diversion in ramps (Allium tricoccum). On March 29 I reported seeing ramps beginning to pop through the leaves and uncurl, their vivid green hue contrasting sharply with the brown forest floor. On Tuesday, three weeks later, I returned to the same spot to find a sweeping carpet of nearly mature, densely spaced ramps, as well as several smaller satellite colonies. That very night, they were the karpas, or spring greens, on the Passover Seder plate.

Ramps, minutes from eating!

Ithaca’s forests produce a formidable bounty of these wild leeks every April, before the canopy closes in and yellows the remaining greens. In mid-May, the now leafless ramp bulb puts out a flower stalk, which blooms in June before dropping its seeds near the base of the mother plant. Both the broad leaves and small bulb have a delicious, earthy flavor and a garlicky kick that is mellowed by cooking. On top of being delicious and versatile, they are esteemed as a vitamin and nutrient-rich spring tonic.

Ramps may still be rampant throughout the deciduous forests of Appalachia, New England, and Canada, but their numbers have declined due to overharvesting. In particular, a long tradition of ramp festivals in southern Appalachia and growing demand from chefs have stressed native populations.  A recent New York Times article, “When Digging for Ramps Goes Too Deep,” highlights this problem and cites the example of Great Smoky National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Here, ramp harvesting was banned in 2004, after a study carried out by the park found that the only way to sustainably harvest ramps is to harvest less than 10% of a patch once every 10 years.

The case study of Great Smoky National Park reminds us that, while the land may offer a cornucopia of wild food, as foragers we must take great care to ethically harvest. The meaning of ethical harvesting varies depending on the species one is collecting, but in the case of ramps it means only picking sparingly from well-established patches.

Jenna harvests ramps from one of our patches in Ithaca.

Harvesting technique is often just as important as volume collected. In the case of the perennial ramp, I consider the ubiquitous practice of harvesting both bulb and leaf inane. Ramps are not garlic; the leaves contain the vast majority of the edible material, while the puny bulbs offer nothing superior in terms of flavor. I may occasionally dig up a few bulbs for pickling, but for fresh eating the leaves offer much more substance and a more unique texture. For this reason, I cut the mature ramp leaves at the base with garden scissors, leaving the bulb in the ground to produce new leaves next spring. This way, I can have my ramps and eat them too!

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