The woods and fields of American farms are full of wild edible plants and gourmet mushrooms. They’re like an unplanned, untended, yet highly productive crop waiting to be harvested. And they’re just waiting for your foraging self to find them.
These are the same free feral foods that used to sustain tens of millions of Native Americans. It’s just a matter of learning to identify a few of these edibles and then, on a day that’s too wet to plow, grabbing a basket, a beer and your dog and hitting the woods and fields of your own land.
I think any hobby farmer would be glad to have high-dollar perennial crops that are:
- drought-resistant and need no irrigation
- do not need any herbicides, pesticides or fungicides—ever
- grow best without fertilizers of any kind
- come back every year without plowing or planting
- never need mulch
- never need weeding
The only expense required is a bit of education and a few collection tools such as baskets, buckets and a knife. There are plenty of great books on foraging, and you should start looking for a few regional ones at your local bookstore.
Truthfully, a forage guide with two legs is better than one with two covers, as Alan Muskat of NoTasteLikeHome.com says. After your first walk with a local, experienced forager you’ll be able to put food on the table yourself. After half-a-dozen walks in a year or two, you can be proficient in every season.
Of course, you’ll get proficient faster if you’re reading this foraging column, too!
Isn’t there a danger to eating wild edibles? We foragers like to say, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
You’re more likely to be killed by a stampeding herd of horses or eaten by sharks than die from wild edibles. Almost every poisonous plant tastes bad (so you’d spit it out), and most poisonous mushrooms can be identified without much trouble.
Foraging is a very safe activity for careful people, and it’s growing in popularity and profitability.
When people do get sick or die from foraging it’s either because they ate something they weren’t 100 percent certain about, it was an edible that was eaten raw when it should have been cooked or it was an edible allowed to sit in the car or on the counter overnight.
Some studies show that the vast majority of people who get sick from wild foods are really suffering from food poisoning due to poor handling. An article in the Wall Street Journal explores this, quoting a study in the journal Human & Experimental Toxicology, which found that “the majority of mushroom-poisoning cases involved people consuming edible mushrooms, not toxic ones.… Unsafe collection methods and storage of mushrooms considered safe to eat caused most of the illnesses.”
So, if your brain is turned on, you shouldn’t have any problem.
Also, many native, foraged plants and mushrooms can be bought locally or online and planted in places too wet, too shady or too dry to grow conventional crops. If sited correctly, they’ll propagate themselves and fill the hobby farmer’s larder with minimal effort and expense.
Morels resemble a cartoon Christmas tree: a fat stalk and a crinkly, conical honeycombed cap that’s hollow. If they’re big enough, you could pop one on every digit like so many finger puppets.
Cut your morel in half, from top to bottom. Both the stalk and cap will be completely empty—unless there are a few bugs, another reason to slice them open before cooking.
Novices can easily learn to safely identify morels. As the old folks say, “If it’s hollow, you can swallow.”
True, with some wishful thinking, a few mushrooms look enough like a morel to earn the name “false morels,” but they are mostly solid inside and look like a brain on the outside.
If you find those, leave them be. They are either unappetizing or will play havoc with your digestion.
Morel mushrooms (Mochella deliciosa, M. esculenta, M. elata) are the very best of the several edible mushrooms that fruit in spring. They have a meatier texture than store-bought mushrooms.
Chefs and farmers market shoppers will pay $25 to $50 a pound for fresh or dried morels. And if you’ve ever had them in a stew, perhaps with venison and ramps, you’d understand why.
Put any surplus in a dehydrator overnight at about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Save them in a jar in your cupboard. Rehydrate for a few minutes in wine or water before adding to a sauté pan, or toss them straight into a soup pot.
Morels erupt in mid-spring, after the last frost, but before the trees leaf out. They seem to be triggered by a good rain about the time the soil temperature reaches 53 degrees.
Being a good morel hunter means being a good tree hunter.
The submersed part of a morel—its inedible, stringy mycelia—grows underground in collaboration with roots of tulip poplars, elms, ashes and old apple trees.
In the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, last year’s forest fires trigger morels with great flushes arising from blackened soil. Unfortunately, southern morels haven’t learned this trick. So please don’t set fire to your neighbor’s woods, thinking you’ll get morels!
You may not find morels on your first foray. Most mushrooms announce themselves with bright colors: yellow, orange, red or blue. But morels camouflage themselves. They wear the brownish grays of fallen leaves, their outline broken up by the shadowy honeycomb of craters in their caps.
My proven technique for finding morels? I often stop in disappointment and disgust at being empty-handed even though I’m standing amongst massive tulip poplars or elms (dying elms especially).
Then I look down at my feet.
Sometimes I’m surprised to find myself standing in the middle of a little village of modest morels. Then I use my pocketknife to cut them off at soil level (no sense getting dirt in all those craters) and debate the various ways to cook them on my way home.
Few people walk through the woods without tangling with smilax vines at some point. Also known as catbrier, greenbrier, bull briar and chainey briar, this sprawling plant is covered with little, sharp spines that love to snag your shoelaces and rake your jeans or bare skin.
I’ve seen this common woodland plant growing in sun and shade, on wet and dry ground. It’s very drought hardy. Try digging up the large, warty, woody clod of a root and you’ll see why.
But you can take your revenge on greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox) in mid-spring (morel hunting time!) by eating the growing tip of each vine. The fresh, new growth is a shiny chartreuse and the old growth is a dull green.
The new smilax stem, tendrils and spade-shaped leaves are all edible and delicious while tender.
Snap smilax off where they break easily—about 6 to 12 inches long. Toss one in your mouth, and you’ll think you’re eating a succulent cross between green beans and asparagus.
You can boost production by cutting the vines to the ground in winter. Those big roots will push out even tenderer vine to make up for the loss.
Greenbriers were one of the first wild edibles I learned while playing in the woods as a kid in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. We felt pretty adventurous eating smilax tips.
We never told our parents, as we were sure they would have made us to stop because they “might be poisonous.” But they are very safe to eat.
Fortunately, most—but not all—poisonous plants warn you off with their bitter taste.
Chefs in Charleston, South Carolina, tend to be a bit more knowledgeable than our parents were and some have acquired a fondness for smilax tips. They sauté greenbriers very quickly with olive oil and garlic to serve as a side dish.
They also blanch them in salt water for a few seconds and then serve with vinaigrette for a cold salad. And they’re delicious pickled.
Smilax tips often peak during morel season. I once introduced a group of morel hunters to a big patch of tender smilax, and we spent a good 10 minutes snacking, stashing, talking and “mmmm-ing” before we returned to the hunt.
To be honest, I’ve rarely cooked any at home. I’ve usually eaten it fresh before I get out of the woods. Partly for the sheer pleasure, partly for the tiny buzz I get from eating wild food: It makes me feel less like a spectator and more like a part of nature.
Sidebar: Morel Safety Checklist
The best way to tell if a morel is a morel is to slice it in half. Morels are hollow from top to bottom.
False morels will be mostly solid with just a few voids. Toss them. As foragers say about the morel: “If it’s hollow, you can swallow.”
- season: after last spring frost, before trees leaf out
- grow under tulip poplars, elms, ashes or apple trees
- grow from the ground; perhaps covered by fallen leaves
- dull or dark-colored conical cap with irregular honeycombs
Sidebar: Wild Food Pro
Green Deane has been foraging for more than 60 years. He first learned wild edible plants from his mother, grandmother and great grandmother.
On YouTube, he may be the most watched forager in the world. He has several million views.
Deane curates a list of experts from all over the country. The safest and quickest way to learn some of the iffy mushrooms and wild plants is from local experts.
You can probably find someone near you, like the folks at www.eattheweeds.com (click on “Foraging” and “Foraging Instructors”). If you are an expert forager and want to be listed, contact Deane directly, through his website.
If someone on that list doesn’t cover your region, search on Facebook or Meetup.com for foraging groups in your state or region.
Deane is an award-winning writer and photographer who has profiled more than 1,000 species of plants on his website, from salad greens to spices to seaweeds and more. His profiles will keep you on track to learn edible plants right the first time.
Deane also offers classes in Florida, or you can sign up for his free newsletter. There’s a discussion forum on his website. And he offers nine DVDs about identifying wild edible plants (useful outside of Florida), available on his website.
Sidebar: Be Smart (A Disclaimer)
This column is intended to provide general foraging information only. Do not eat any wild edible plants, herbs, weeds, trees or bushes until you have verified that they are safe for you.
Seek expert advice, and use at least two reputable field guides to confirm the identification of a species. Be extremely cautious about look-alike and poisonous species.
No liability exists against EG Media or anyone who works for it. Nor can they be held responsible for any result of using any of the plants mentioned or any adverse health effects due to the consumption or other use of any plant described.
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Hobby Farms magazine.