Here on the Minnesota/Wisconsin border, winter is the season of bitter cold and blankets of snow. I never used to notice anything else outside because I was busy grumbling, snarling and shivering. But the more time I spend outside, the better I handle this bane of the Northern Midwest. I finally own some great long johns, a bomber hat and a faux fur scarf that really does the trick. I explore in this frigid landscape, and still find plants to identify. I can’t help myself. The dead ones are the harbingers of the bounty yet to come, and I feel my instinct to scope things out begins to increase in late February. As I am out, even in the coldest weather, I am feeding myself in more ways than one. And I am awake to the patterns of tree bark, of animal prints and the sound of nothing.
Medicinal mushrooms have been my main focus this winter. I moved onto some new land and am enjoying searching for these treasures. It is almost impossible to search for these in summer. They are there, but hidden. I am careful to leave enough to continue their precious propagation.
Soon it will be March, and in that magic time when the temperature variation between night and day is just perfect, the sap flows. Although it is still most definitely winter, it is my own personal official sign of spring. It means my foraging season is beginning. Most medicinal barks are ready for careful harvesting now, and I can finally allow myself to look forward to the warmer weather.
For me, winter is but a few short months every year this way, and I really don’t mind the break. The blood, sweat and tears of the spring foraging season is about to begin.
I admit I have an obsession. Maybe it was because of my nature girl upbringing by hippy rock climbers. I spent an extraordinary amount of time living outside. I have since come to understand that not everyone is all that comfortable in nature. They speak of things like sleeping on the ground, bug bites, no air conditioning and lack of electronic entertainment as if they are a bad thing. I was always well entertained by nature. When I began to study traditional plant medicine and wild edible foods, I received a primal calling. The call is louder than the buzz of mosquitoes, and I hardly notice the rivers of sweat that pour off me during chanterelle season the sting of the nettle (well, mostly) or the blood that wells during blackberry season.
My journey began with an injury. I was a chiropractor, already fascinated by the innate ability of the body to heal when obstacles are removed. I already knew a great deal about nutrition, herbs and vitamins and was a busy practitioner and mother. But in my 15th year of practice, I was down with a back injury, and was forced to move at a snail’s pace on rehabilitative walks in the woods. Suddenly I noticed, as if for the first time, the diversity and detail of the vegetation and mushrooms all around me. I had an urge to learn Latin, to know all their names. It felt very important. As I became a master herbalist, and learned to identify more and more plants, the forest came alive for me. The comfortable green haze of my childhood became a sharply focused, aware, intensely stimulating back ground for my middle age.
For the last 6 years my obsession has included mushrooms. The intensity of my identification fervor has grown and my pace has slowed even more substantially. Students that want me to lead them on a “mushroom hike” realize pretty early on that they are on a “mushroom creep” instead. A fitness romp it is not, unless you count the sweat. However, the entertainment factor is definitely part of the appeal. Finding a prize that is both delicious and valuable at the same time is a great thrill.
This brings me to the general foraging rules:
1. Know your identification, poison is part of the game.
2. Don’t be greedy–only harvest 10% of plant matter you see and 50% of mushrooms (which have a whole additional set of rules). If others gather in the same area take less. Karma punishes greedy pigs.
3. Be very selective with roots. Harvest only when there is a large number. Harvesting roots kills the plant. Be very aware that some parts of plants are edible and others may even be poisonous.
4. Don’t harvest from dog parks (this may seem common sense, but I have witnessed it) or fertilized areas. Nitrogen concentrates in many edible plants and makes them less edible.
4. Do not harvest protected plants/in protected areas..
5. Get permission to harvest wild plants on private land.
6. Do not harvest in run-off/pesticide use/road side land
7. Be aware of who depends on those plants (bears, monarchs, bees, etc.) and share accordingly.
8. Be thankful and respectful to nature for these gifts. I always take a distinct moment for this.
During the time that I have been eating weeds and wild mushrooms I have become familiar with the astounding levels of nutrients in wild plants. This is because of the miccrorhizal connections of fungus and tree roots that is the forest neurology and nutrient system. The difference between obtaining nutrients form vitamins and pre-made herbal supplements and from freshly foraged plant material became a life changing, staggering revelation to me. I began to heal myself with the help of these plants. I also began applying herbal medicine that I had foraged from the wild in my practice, with the philosophy that each plant provides a very specific compliment of chemicals which can influence specific components of illness in roadblocks to health in our own chemical/physical/emotional makeup. Different people react to different herbs in different ways. What a concept! Chinese, Aryuvedic, and Western herbal medicine all approach the problem with a set protocol of herbs geared toward the problem, not the person. My observational sense says it is more individual than that.
The forest has taught me some outstanding observation skills. My senses have increased, and It has trained me to slow down and consider what is actually happening. It is an ongoing present time consciousness exercise. Nature is a patient teacher, and I am thankful for the wisdom.
If you would like to learn more about wild edible mushrooms (and edible plants) and even begin foraging for them yourself, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Wild Foraging eCourse in We Are Wildness U by the author of this post, Dr. Kelley Hagenbuch. Learn identification, preparation, sustainable practices, recipes, and specific techniques to safely begin enjoying Nature’s bounty.