Wildcrafting

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.

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|
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