One of the most satisfying takeaways (literally) for me living up here in Northern Vermont is being able to discover some of the state’s most delicious treasures hidden in her woods and near her rivers.
Whether it be spring oyster mushrooms, Japanese knotweed, ostrich fern fiddleheads or the majestic hen of the woods, finding the correct wild edibles can be tricky without a mentor, and I’ve accidentally picked my fair share of impersonators.
While I regularly haul out full pounds of greens, bulbs, mushrooms and shoots now, I was once a new gatherer without a “mushroom eye,” or the perfect eye to find tricky to find fungi like the Black Trumpet mushroom, whose color is identical to the brown fallen leaves that typically surround them providing camouflage to the human eye.
Below I’ve included five of the tips that helped me most when I was in my beginning years as a forager, as a student at Green Mountain College.
1. Pack a bag
No matter where you’re going, especially if it is soon after a rain, make sure you stuff a plastic bag next to your water bottle and windbreaker. You never know when you’re going to come across forageable edibles on your way and the worst feeling in the world is hiking the full 5.5 miles in only to realize the flush of fresh, white oyster mushrooms you find on a nearby maple have to be left there because you need your hands and your feet to climb back down.
2. Don’t pick what you don’t know
The woods are home to various species, many of which are edible, but many of which are dangerous. One example might be the all-too-common curly dock and its cousin, red dock. The curly dock is all green with slightly frilled leaves at the edges and a green stem, while a red dock has a red stem shooting out the center of the leaf. Curly dock is the one you want. Wilted down with butter, it tastes like spinach and is delicious in stir-frys, a new take on spanikopita, or spinach pie.
3. Flush them out
Though mushrooms can be found three seasons of the year, the best time i’ve found to go find mushrooms is after a rainfall. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a heavy rainfall, but I’ve found most of the mushrooms flush — if they’re going to — after a decent sprinkling. I almost always expect to find a flush of white oyster mushrooms in the spring and early summer if there’s been a rainy day before.
4. Know your lookalikes
There are a lot of forageables that imitate each other, and picking the wrong one could cost you sick time at work, a ruined dinner or both. A great example of this is the morrel and false morrel mushrooms. Thought the two fungi look alike, a great way to tell whether or not it’s the morrel you want, is the stem. The inside of a false morrel stem will have a soft, fluffy interior, while the stem and cap of a true morrel are hollow.
5. Know the shelf life
It’s important to know that wild edibles, while delicious and fun to find, like any other refrigerated item, they don’t last forever. The key to keeping your wild edibles as long as you can is to remember two steps: wash the edibles in cold water, but do not put them away wet. After patting them dry with a paper towel, wrap with a fresh dry towel and ideally seal in a plastic bag. Any softer edibles, such as mushrooms, flowers and ramp leaves will have a shorter shelf life than ramp bulbs, fiddleheads and fibrous vegetables like the Japanese knotweed. Preserving wild edibles is also very common, and the ramp leaves can be ground into a rich, garlicky pesto while the bulbs can be pickled using sugar and vinegar. Japanese knotweed chutney with raisins and mustard is also one of my favorite ways to keep the spring edible around just a little longer.
Kate Barcellos is a forager, nature lover and reporter for the St. Albans Messenger.