The Facts About Foraging

As Spring approaches, the outdoorsman’s fancy turns to forageables, as do the searches we see on this site. Ranger, the wife, and I, like to search the back roads and trails. We’ll hunt down mushrooms, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and berries. We’ll go to great lengths, or more like great  distances, in search of them.

There are a lot of websites which encourage the harvesting of forageables. Some sell the concept as “truly natural”.  Others suggest it as cheap food. I’ve even read a site which cleverly advocates eating invasive species. Kinda fires the imagination eh ? As for me, I like the “treasure hunt”. I know I can buy a hand-full of asparagus for five bucks at the grocery store. But while I’m going for farm fresh eggs Farm Gate Fresh Eggs and fresh trout Linwood Acres Trout Farm, both from farms just North of town anyway, I might as well swing by a few wild asparagus patches I know of.

There are an awful lot of potential foragables out there. The question is, are they all as wonderful as some tout them to be ? Like my experiences with trail reviews where 90% of the reviews I read were obviously plagiarized, I had cause to question how many foragers could even ID half the things they swore were delicious.

I’ve expressed my feelings on some personal experiences in numerous, scattered postings on this website. I can’t honestly tell you I’ve tried everything. However, I can tell you what I have tried, and what I’ll be looking for in a few weeks if this Spring ever warms up. I’ll also tell you what you couldn’t pay me to eat again, and why.

This is not a “field guide” post. It’s just my personal assessment of commonly celebrated forageables.  There are hundreds of field-guide postings on dozens of sites splattered across the I’Net, so I’m not about to waste your time repeating them all over again.

Mushrooms

These things make great photo subjects, but eating them ? … extremely chancy. The only ones I’ve ever tried are morels and giant puffballs. Giant puffballs are basically honkin’ big ol’ flavour sponges. Alone, they taste of … not very much. Kinda like a grocery store white button mushroom. Nothing else looks like them, so you’ll not likely mistake a puffball for an Amanita.

However, please believe me when I tell you, nothing tastes like a morel, be it black or white. A morel has a distinct, unique flavour that can’t be described as being like anything else. The flavour stands alone. The only down side is that you might be well advised to avoid alcoholic beverages for at least 12 hours before and after eating morels. They have a nasty effect on some people’s colons. That’s a sh!tty way to end a really good meal.

Morels collected from our “Morel Trail”

They’re also the first fungal sac that rises in the Spring, so there’s not much else out there to confuse them with. The only other one I know of is the False Morel which doesn’t have the same percussionist’s drumstick tip shape.

I love black chanterelles, and can easily describe them as tasting mega-prime rib roasty, so they aren’t really unique, but they add some WOW! to any beef dish they’re used in. Added bonus ? They don’t react badly with alcohol, like morels.

Y’ever heard of Chaga ? It’s found on (mostly) paper birches and looks like this:

Ain’t that a thing of beauty ? You make a tea from it, and it tastes about as appetizing as it looks. However, according to many website experts, it’ll cure cancer too ! But then again … what doesn’t?

Vegetation

Fiddlehead greens (Osterich ferns) are abundant in our area too. However, this is one you’ll have to be sure to distinguish from the toxic Bracken fern. It’s rather easy to tell them apart, once you know how. Be sure you know how before you start harvesting. Once you’re confident that you can tell the difference, please don’t chop every frond off of the crown. Leave at least half of them on the crown to recharge the roots. They are quite prolific, meaning, where there’s one, there’s a thousand. So, it’s easy to get a feed of them by cutting only half (or less) from the crown. They are of course, delicious.

I read that you can eat the troublesome invasive “Japanese Knotweed”. So, Ranger and I tried a couple of fresh young stalks last Spring. I suppose, with a liberal spicing of imagination, it tastes a bit like rhubarb. A bit. Kinda. Let’s just say we’re not likely going to eat that invader out of our country any time soon.

Forget the spindly, sickly looking asparagus you see in the grocery store. I’m not referring to the ones you see in February shipped fresh from Argentina either. There’s simply no comparison between domestic and feral (wild) asparagus, even if the domestic is locally grown. The feral stalks are sweeter and better textured. Even the ones an inch in diameter are sweet and tender. No need to peel the large ones at all. See the article here – Stalking the Feral Asparagus 

asparagus in ground

You can eat dandelion leaves too. The catch is that they gotta be the youngest tender leaves, and even then they’re terribly bitter in my assessment. Besides, until the flower blooms, I can’t even ID a dandelion well enough to spray it on my lawn. Of course, once the plant is old enough to bloom, the leaves are totally inedible. So, the only way to “forage” dandelion leaves is to know exactly where they’re going to grow before they set a flower. That’s called cultivation, and I’m not gonna intentionally grow dandelions when arugula tastes about the same to me.

There’s another edible invader called garlic mustard. It’s not hard to ID either, once it flowers. ‘Course, by then the leaves are tough and chewy. You can ID the plant in it’s first year (it flowers in it’s second year) by crushing a leaf between your fingers. It’ll smell quite distinctly of garlic. So, I guess it can be IDed that way … if you  wanna pick and squish every leaf on every plant that looks like a mustard. I’ve tried a handful of them and they tasted OK, but they’re quite strongly flavoured when you get enough of them. So they’re only good in small quantities and then only if diluted with domestic lettuce.

Cattails are something I tried in my childhood. Not only do you have to wade about in a swamp in the cold early Spring to get the young shoots … you have to wade about in a swamp in the cold early Spring to get the young shoots. If you wait ‘til later in the season, you have to boil, rinse, boil, rinse, to the 7th exponent to change the taste from bitter to nothing. Then there’s the augmentation of your bread flour with cattail pollen. It takes a lot of effort, and cattails to get a paper lunchbag worth of pollen.

Ramps are becoming threatened in many areas, and are illegal to harvest in others. Here in Ontario, they’re doing alright so far. I must admit I personally don’t see the need to dig them up for the tiny little bulb that tastes like a shallot (which is eight times the size, and you don’t have to dig and scrub it). If you want, you can pick a leaf or two, chop them up, and add them to your omelette.  See the article here – Wild Leeks, Wild Garlic Wood Leeks, Spring Onions or Ramps,

Wild Leeks, ramps

 Berries

Ranger and I were marking a trail for the Ganaraska hiking Club many years ago when we came across a small patch of wild strawberries. They were about the size of a pencil eraser and I could only easily pick three of them. NEVER before had I EVER tasted anything of that flavour intensity per gram weight delivered. Unbelievable ! Mind you, they’re very tiny and are a pain in the butt to gather. But, should you stumble across a patch, do try them. You’ll not be disappointed.

Raspberries are delicious, easy to pick and find, and go great with cream and sugar or just as a breakfast supplement (my favourite use is in a glass, slightly crushed, and topped up with vodka). Just look to the West side of the trail or backroad as they seem to prefer morning light while growing in open spaces at the edge of the bush (or edge of a parking lot – we’ve gathered a lot that way). By the way, wild raspberries are black when ripe, not red as domestics are.

At least wild blackberries have a flavour. I find the domestic, though bigger, are virtually flavourless. You’ll find them in much the same locations as raspberries, just not as prolifically, and they take a few weeks longer to ripen.

Currants are more seed than juicy flesh, and I’ve never found enough at any one time or place to explore any uses for them. They do make a nice flavourful trail snack though. I just crush them against the roof of my mouth, suck up the juice, and spit out the seeds.

 

Wild grapes have a distinct berry flavour, not at all like a domestic grape. The mistake most people make is they treat them like domestic grapes. If you crush a domestic, you get grape juice. If you crush wild grapes, you get an incredibly bitter, sour, overpowering, just plain awful tasting juice. Wild grapes need serious dilution with water, and sweetening. I dilute them as much as one part juice to four parts water, then sweeten to taste.

Unfortunately, I have burned the image of Gooseberries into my subconscious, and can find then anywhere. I say “unfortunately” because, I can’t find much use for them. The berries are prickly … very prickly. The shrubs are a bit prickly as well. A half hour of picking them leaves your fingertips feeling like pincushions. The berries taste like rhubarb so what’s the point of numb fingertips and a sore back from bending over picking them ? The only thing they got going for them is the extremely high pectin content. No Certo needed here thank you. Though I must admit Kawartha Country Wines  makes a fine Gooseberry wine.

We’ve all seen the “cones” of sumac berries in the mid Summer into Fall.

No – red sumac is not toxic. The bright white sumac berries found only in swamps is what you’re thinking of

Strictly as an experiment, I made a gallon of Sumac wine a few years back. I had no expectations, no idea, no clue as to what was gonna happen. The 3 resultant bottles went over very well indeed and I make a few gallons every Fall now. The juice can, of course, be consumed straight up. That’s what Ranger did with his. Just soak them in room temp water overnight (NOT hot water, ‘ cause that makes them very bitter). Once soaked, strain the juice and boil that for about fifteen minutes. They yield a very pleasant berry flavour. Everyone says to add lemon juice, but I don’t feel it needs anything more than sweetening.

Black Elderberries, one of my favourites. Heay ! You can make juice from them. You can make jams and jellies from them. You can even make wine from them. And all these things are easy to do. The berries are plentiful (as long as you beat the birds to them) and easy to pick. Combing the berries off the umbrells can be tedious, but not that hard to do. Like wild grapes, they need dilution with water and sweetening. I dilute to about three parts water to one part berries. A squeeze of lemon does help make the juice tastier to some folks. Be sure you have umbrella shaped bunches of black elderberries. Red elderberries in conical shaped bunches can be quite toxic. As well, even the black elderberries’ twigs are toxic, so make sure you pick the berries off cleanly.

Ideally they should be black, but if you wait that long, the birds will usually relieve you of them.

I finally beat the robins to that Serviceberry tree across the street from my house. The berries look like little tiny apples, and taste exactly like blueberries (if you can find any that taste of anything at all). I’ve seen those birds strip that tree, (without a moments notice of when they’re gonna do it), in an hour. So, I rudely ran off mid-sentence with my neighbour when I suddenly noticed the robins mobbing the tree. Moments later I returned with a handfull of berries to explain myself. I don’t think he understood. After tasting the berries, neither did I.

I have made my feelings (tastings) on the subject of Highbush cranberries very clear to anyone who asks. There are supposedly up to three differing species. I have tried all three, and found myself wishing to shave my tongue and eat feces to improve the taste of my mouth afterward. They make lovely “over the winter” outdoor decorations, but that’s it.

Fruit

Wild apples … click the link Just How Tasty Might Wild Apples Be ? to read the assessment we did on them.

Nuts

I noticed a grove of black walnut trees on an in-town trail. So, I researched what to do with them. Gather from the ground, learn the trick of getting the covers off without blackening everything you touch, including yourself. Then learn how to reduce the bitter taste (by soaking them, soaking them, and soaking them), and allow them to dry. Crack them open and find … shriveled up, still bitter, gosh-awfully pathetic excuses for nuts.

Acorns … don’t even think about it. I’m serious. It took hours for my palate to recover. I found a few of the species that are supposed to be quite edible. They were not. Again, it’s a matter of soaking the bitterness out of them, and that just takes way too much water, time, and effort. Now I know why blue jays and squirrels fight like ninja warriors over a peanut on my back deck.

Hazelnuts and Hickory nuts might be worth trying, if I can ever beat the damned tree rats to them. I know where the trees are, I just can’t get to their fruit before the squirrels do.

I read a foragers blog where he claimed Basswood tree nuts have a slight toasted sesame seed flavour.  I finally found some that were dry and ready to taste. But I couldn’t tell you what they tasted like, because they’re about 1/8 the size of sesame seeds too, and I didn’t have a week to spare, picking and cracking the pods open to get a thimble full.

The Final Take 

Didja notice how I used my trail review thing right there ? OK, so here’s the thick and the thin of it. The following are three categories under which I have listed all the foragables I have tried over the years.

Category # 1 – Glad I did it, and will continue to :

Feral asparagus

Fiddlehead Greens

Black or white Morels

Wild apples

Elderberries (use some lemon juice if you wish)

Raspberries.

Red Sumac

Wild grapes

 

Category # 2 – Worth doing once for fun, but that’s about it :

Wild strawberries (I placed these here because they’re very hard to find)

Puffball mushrooms

Ramps (just the leaves please)

Cattail … any part

Invasive Japanese knotweed

Basswood tree nuts

Serviceberries

Gooseberries

Chaga mushroom

Garlic mustard

Category # 3 – You couldn’t pay me to do that again … or … What was I thinking ?

Acorns

Black walnuts

Highbush cranberries

I will, of course, continue trying foragables. As I do, I’ll add them to this list until there are no more to try, or there’s no more me, to do so. In the interim … eat hearty !

 

Bushwhacker

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2 comments

  1. Eric May · · Reply

    Your description of highbush cranberries certainly matches my “how bad could it be?” experience.

    Like

    1. And it’s a crying, dying, shame too ’cause they look so lovely … ’til they hit yer palate.
      Bushwhacker

      Like

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