Month: November 2014

Learn To Identify And Harvest Wild Cranberries Using These 6 Steps

wildcranberrieswildfoodismWouldn’t you love to know, with almost absolute certainty, where a specific wild food grows?  I’m not talking about merely being able to recite a particular habitat characteristic of a specific plant or mushroom, but rather really knowing, before even setting out on your foraging adventure, where your organism of interest can be found.

For example, reading in a field guide, you will learn that wild rice can generally be found in bodies of flowing water, such as rivers, streams, and shallow lakes that have an inlet and outlet.  Morel mushrooms, you will read, are associated with old apple orchards and stands of tulip poplar, ash, beech, maple, and dead or dying elm trees.

It’s one thing to verbalize this information.  It’s another to truly know and understand where these habitats actually exist.

“… shallow lakes with an inlet and outlet?  Where the heck are those?”

“… old apple orchards?  I don’t even know where to begin.”

In this post, I am going to present an easy and simplified guide to locating, identifying, and harvesting wild edibles, using wild cranberries as an example.  Many blogs and field guides will lay out exact habitats for wild organisms, providing extremely detailed text-book descriptions.  This is important information, and a great starting point.  It is my intention to explain a bit further how I then use this information to go out and find, with certainty, the exact food for which I am looking.

Stalking the wild cranberries

  • Use a field guide to learn habitat, defining features, physical description, and proper season of harvesting.

    As previously stated, a field guide is an excellent starting tool.  How can you find anything without knowing exactly what it is you are looking for?  While the question may appear to be a metaphysical one, it is certainly relevant to the topic at hand.

    The wild cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is a trailing evergreen shrub with leaves oblong-elliptic and entire (click on the image above to view details). Its habitat generally includes slightly acidic bogs, swamps, peaty wetlands and, occasionally, poorly drained meadows.  The fruit hardly needs a description, as the cultivated cranberry, found inhabiting supermarkets across the country, appears quite the same.  In the wild, the fruit is (no surprise) red, sour, and 10-20 millimeters in size, hanging from pedicels 2-3 centimeters long.  The small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) presents slight physical differences, though it can be used and eaten in the same manner as the large wild cranberry.  Both fruits ripen in the autumn months.

    North American distribution of large cranberry

    North American distribution of large cranberry, highlighted in green (USDA Plants Database)

  • Ask yourself, “Have I been to an area that includes the specified habitat?”

    It’s a simple question:  Have you ever stumbled upon bogs, swamps, peaty wetlands, or poorly drained meadows?  Think for a moment.  It is likely that you have invested a good portion of your time exploring the wilderness, whether through foraging adventures, hiking, camping, mountain biking, climbing, or any other outdoor excursions.  Can you ever remember a habitat resembling the one characteristic of wild cranberries?

    If so, go there when the time is right (supermarkets don’t count).  If not, read on.

    cranberrybogwildfoodism

    A typical cranberry habitat – bog, during the proper season of harvesting – autumn.

  • Ask around.

    Remember the old adage:  “Ask, and you shall receive.”  Truer words were never spoken.

    You can approach this step one of two ways:  Ask others directly if they know where wild cranberries grow, or ask them if they’re aware of any bogs, swamps, or peaty wetlands in your general area.  I find this step rather effective in fostering the success of my hunt, with the latter question yielding more results than the former (secret spots are hard to part with).

    Who to ask?  Now, I understand that rules and regulations apply regarding the harvesting of wild plants and mushrooms in certain areas, and I’ll provide the usual disclaimer:  know the guidelines in your targeted area.  Having said that, contacting community and state parks and speaking to park staff officials can yield positive results.  Emails, phone calls, and personal interactions (the latter being my go-to method) have all yielded success in my experiences when asking both questions (Do you know where wild cranberries grow? Do you know of any bogs in the area?).  Other groups to survey include naturalists, local foragers, and those who frequent online foraging forums.

    And of course, naturalist-led walks, workshops, and events are excellent educational opportunities to learn your land firsthand, both through the learning experience itself, as well as through the ability to ask event leaders and participants the aforementioned questions.

  • Use a search engine

    Type “(your state) wild cranberries” into your favorite search engine.  Additionally, search the wild cranberry habitat by typing “(your state) bog” into a search engine.  Don’t limit your search to the first page of search results.  Rather, keep digging deeper, through state park websites, research materials, personal blogs, and online forums.  Chances are good that you will discover pertinent information leading to an area replete with wild cranberries.

  • Use a topographic map

    “How little is on an ordinary map!  How little, I mean, that concerns the walker and the lover of nature.” – Henry David Thoreau

    Thoreau surely wasn’t talking about a topographic map, as this particular tool contains a detailed and graphic representation of natural and cultural features, including water, relief, and vegetation.  This resource is especially helpful in the search for wild cranberries.  If you recall, cranberries typically inhabit bogs, swamps, and peaty wetlands.  Lucky for us, this habitat is featured on a topographic map.

    topomapwildfoodism

    Accessing a topographic map of your area is easy.  To view free maps, check out http://www.mytopo.com/maps/

    I am not affiliated with the website in any way, though I find it useful when searching for particular habitats, in this case – bogs.  Now, let’s imagine you are scanning your area using a topographic map, and you discover something that looks like this:

    bogwildfoodism

    If located within the general geographic location of wild cranberries (Pennsylvania, for sure; Oklahoma, not likely), this is most certainly an area where your coveted fruits may be found.  Examine further the general area, seeing if there are more bogs nearby, if the land is public, and whether or not the land is accessible to humans (hiking in 20 miles for cranberries displays some serious dedication).

  • Become an observer of habitats

    With each adventure into the wilderness, take note of the habitats you encounter.  Write down your experiences.  Develop a catalog of ecosystems.  When hiking a favorite trail, for instance, notice that habitats can morph and evolve every few miles, starting with a hemlock forest lining a river valley, moving upland into an area with hardwood trees, and eventually opening up into a peaty bog.  Each habitat can be characterized by distinct species that live and thrive in these areas.  As you begin your search for wild cranberries, perhaps you will recall this trail and explore its bog in more depth.  Use every experience in nature to absorb the features of the land.  When the time comes, any future search for a wild food will be met with less resistance, more ease, and more fun.

The guidelines outlined above can be used not just for wild cranberries, but for any wild food.  Looking back to our wild rice example, for instance, we can use a topographic map to locate a lake that contains an inlet and an outlet in our general area.  For morel mushrooms, we can join a local mushroom club, attend its walks, and ask the trusted identifiers for help in locating old apple orchards, tulip poplars, and dead or dying elm trees (good luck asking them about their favorite spots though).

Now, I understand that not every wild food will be located with absolute ease 100% of the time.  And no single step listed above will work at the exclusion of the others.  However, if you do go through this list and apply the information as best you can, I have confidence that you can refine and vastly improve your skills in locating, identifying, and harvesting your wild food of choice.

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!

Oh yes, one more thing.  I’d love for you to check out this recent video I created regarding … you guessed it … wild cranberries!


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Tippler’s Bane, And Other Mushrooms That Don’t Go Down So Well With Alcohol

Coprinopsisatramentariawildfoodism

Credit: Taylor F. Lockwood, http://www.mykoweb.com

Remember all those college parties with friends, loud music, beer, and meals upon meals full of mushrooms?  Yeah, me neither.  Perhaps I was never invited to the mycological fraternity parties, or perhaps all the mushroom dishes were always eaten before my arrival.  Whatever the reason, it’s probably a good thing that two of these variables – alcohol and mushrooms – weren’t included in the same setting.

Now, it’s not that all edible mushrooms should never be consumed with alcohol.  Many are absolutely harmless with or without the accompanying beer, wine, or liquor.  There are, however, a few mushrooms that have been shown, both through personal accounts and in the scientific literature, to cause rather unpleasant symptoms only when consumed with alcohol.

Interesting, isn’t it?  Mushrooms that contain toxins, that are generally only toxic when combined with another toxin.

That’s a lot to wrap our heads around, so let’s see what’s going on here with the select mushrooms that made the list.

Common inky cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria)

With an additional common name like Tippler’s Bane, a description hardly needs to be given.  Aptly named, this mushroom (pictured above) is the fungus most often associated with the negative symptoms experienced when consuming mushrooms with alcohol.   The tippler’s bane, it turns out, contains a naturally occurring compound that inhibits the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol.

You see, ethanol (alcohol) is essentially a toxin (the dose makes the poison, wouldn’t ya say?) that needs to be metabolized properly in the body in order to be eliminated.  The most common pathway looks like this:

  1. Alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde by an enzyme known as alcohol dehydrogenase.
  2. Acetaldehyde is further broken down into acetate by an enzyme known as acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.
  3. Acetic acid is ultimately broken down into carbon dioxide and water in the citric acid cycle.

*Note:  this is an oversimplified description of alcohol metabolism.  Numerous additional enzymes and steps are involved, though for this article’s sake, only these three main steps are mentioned.  Chemists, accept my apology.

The inky cap exerts its effects during the second step by way of a compound known as coprine.  This non-protein amino acid, when ingested, is converted into its metabolite, 1-aminocyclopropanol (ACP) –  a potent inhibitor of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (1).

If we look back to the second step, we can already predict the problem that the combined effect of tippler’s bane and alcohol would create inside the body:  a buildup of acetaldehyde (2).  What’s the deal with too much acetaldehyde?  Well, for starters, this compound is a potent carcinogen in the upper digestive tract of humans, associated with both esophageal and gastric cancers (3).  It’s also the main carcinogen found in tobacco smoke.

Now, this isn’t to say that consumption of inky cap mushrooms with alcohol on a single occasion will significantly increase one’s risk of cancer (I suppose it is a possibility, though no studies to my knowledge have addressed this hypothesis).  Unpleasant symptoms in the acute setting, however, may let you know your acetaldehyde levels are escalating.

*Note:  not everyone will experience negative symptoms, though caution should still be taken.

When consuming inky cap mushrooms with alcohol, symptoms include tachycardia (rapid heart rate), palpitations, nausea, flushing of the face, tingling of extremities, and headaches (4).  These symptoms are very similar to Antabuse (disulfiram), a prescription drug given to individuals experiencing chronic alcoholism in an attempt to discourage consumption of alcohol.  Antabuse works in a similar manner to coprine, inhibiting acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and forcing a buildup of the carcinogenic compound, acetaldehyde (…you’d think there would be a better way).

There are a few important pieces of information to keep in mind.  The severity of symptoms depends on several factors, including the amount of mushrooms consumed, the amount of alcohol consumed, and the duration between the two.  The symptoms may appear within 15 minutes to 2 hours, and generally occur between 3 – 6 hours after consuming the combination.  Recovery is usually spontaneous.

Symptoms usually manifest when alcohol is ingested after mushroom consumption, though in sensitive individuals the reverse can also be true.  Because sensitivity can persist, recommendations include abstaining from alcohol for 2 – 3 days after mushroom ingestion.

Coprine, the causal agent in the buildup of acetaldehyde, is reported to be present somewhere between 160 – 360 milligrams per kilogram of fresh fruiting body material.  It is not destroyed by cooking.  The level has been found to be more concentrated in older mushrooms, with half as much occurring in younger specimens (1).  Remember, though, that the Antabuse-like effects are not experienced when inky caps are consumed without alcohol.  Some authors report that inky caps should never be eaten, while others consider it a good, meaty edible.

The common inky cap is found quite readily in grass and wood debris throughout North America.  A defining feature of its genus includes the deliquescence of the gills and cap – the ability to auto-digest and turn into an inky black goo (hence the name “inky cap”).  I see no reason to forgo this edible mushroom when approaching it with the usual foraging precautions (be positive of your identification, consume only a small amount the first time, understand its contraindications, etc.).

The tippler’s bane, therefore, is indeed edible … with caution.

Shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus)

Coprinuscomatuswildfoodism

Credit: Nino Barbieri

The shaggy mane is closely related to the tippler’s bane and, not surprisingly, possesses gills and a cap that deliquesces (auto-digests into an inky black goo).  These mushrooms are fairly common in grass and wood chips, and are rather easy to identify.

Shaggy manes may present unpleasant symptoms when consumed with alcohol, though these symptoms are not as common as those presented by the tippler’s bane.  Coprine has been reported to be present in much lower levels, at around 10 – 15 milligrams per kilogram of fresh material in the shaggy mane, compared to 160 – 360 mg/kg in the tippler’s bane (5).

Symptoms of the combined shaggy mane and alcohol ingestion in susceptible individuals generally include gastric distress.  Antabuse-like effects (those seen with the tippler’s bane) are usually not experienced with the shaggy mane.  It’s also worth noting that David Arora, in his book Mushrooms Demystified, reports cooking shaggy manes in wine several times without experiencing any unpleasant side effects (6).

Freckled dapperling (Lepiota aspera)

Lepiotaasperawildfoodism

Known in many field guides as Lepiota acutesquamosa, this mushroom is commonly found in eastern and southwestern North America on the ground in leaf litter from late summer through autumn.

A study from 2011 reported on the effects of L. aspera consumption in combination with alcohol in five patients (7).  All had mistaken L. aspera mushrooms for Amanita rubescens or Macrolepiota procera.  Before consumption, the mushrooms were sautéed, and presented no problems until alcohol was ingested.  Within a few minutes, symptoms developed, including facial flushing, tachycardia, headaches, and shortness of breath.  The effects persisted for a few hours.  Recovery was spontaneous, though symptoms could be reactivated by consuming alcohol up to 48 hours later.  While these symptoms were very similar to those presented by the tippler’s bane, the toxin in L. aspera has not been identified.

Lepiota aspera is listed in field guides as edible, though not recommended for consumption.  Aside from the ill effects observed when consuming this mushroom with alcohol, L. aspera can be mistaken for deadly Amanita mushrooms, in addition to other poisonous mushrooms within the Lepiota genus.

Fat-footed clitocybe (Clitocybe clavipes)

Clitocybeclavipeswildfoodism

Credit: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster

This mushroom is widely distributed in North America, and can be found under conifers and hardwoods in the autumn and winter months.  Like Lepiota aspera, C. clavipes has been shown to cause ill effects when consumed prior to alcohol consumption, though the exact toxin has not been identified.

In the scientific literature, it is reported that on three separate occasions, ingesting alcohol 7 hours after consuming four to six C. clavipes fruiting bodies produced Antabuse-like effects (8).  These included a feeling of warmth in the face, puffiness in the hands, and headaches.  Symptoms could be re-provoked the next day after subsequent alcohol ingestion, though these effects were usually milder than the previous day’s.

Clitocybe clavipes is listed in the field guides as an edible mushroom, though it is not recommended for consumption as it resembles several toxic species.

Lurid bolete (Boletus luridus)

Boletusluriduswildfoodism

Credit: Tomas Čekanavičius

The lurid bolete is a blue-staining European bolete species.  Three cases of mild intoxication have been reported when combining the lurid bolete with alcohol, though unlike the tippler’s bane, the main toxin has not been identified (9).

Morels (Morchella spp.)

morelsinwildfoodism

Is there any mushroom more desirable than the morel?  They’re delicious, nutritious, and medicinal, and while they are considered some of the safest edible mushrooms to identify, there have been reports that eating cooked morels while imbibing alcohol can produce gastrointestinal distress in some individuals (10).

Few, if any, studies exist regarding this subject, and the exact mechanism of intoxication has not been identified.  Still, a bit of precaution wouldn’t hurt before consuming morels (if you happen to be a susceptible individual who wishes to part with your morels, I can give them a good home … email me if this is the case:  adamharitan@gmail.com).

Scaly Pholiota (Pholiota squarrosa)

pholiotasquarrosawildfoodism

The scaly Pholiota is commonly found in clusters on logs, stumps, and at the bases of trees.  Unlike the other mushrooms described in this article, the scaly Pholiota is considered a poisonous mushroom (though some older field guides list it as edible with caution).  When combined with alcohol, this reportedly poisonous mushroom may become even more toxic.  At least three cases of intoxication have been reported when combining the scaly Pholiota with alcohol, with symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, and shock (10).

My advice?  Keep the scaly Pholiota off the dinner plate, with or without alcohol.

Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

oysterwildfoodism

The oyster mushroom is a choice edible that can be found year round growing on wood throughout North America.  According to the North American Mycological Association, the oyster mushroom may produce unpleasant side effects in some individuals when consumed with alcohol (11).  I have not been able to find any additional research on this subject.

Honey mushroom (Armillaria mellea)

honeymushroomwildfoodism

Honey mushrooms are part of a species complex (Armillaria mellea complex), incorporating at least a dozen distinct species.  According to the North American Mycological Association, honey mushrooms may produce unpleasant side effects in some individuals when consumed with alcohol (11).  The exact mechanism has not been identified.

King bolete (Boletus edulis)

boletuseduliswildfoodism

Credit: Hans Hillewaert

A prized edible mushroom, the king bolete has been shown (in very rare instances) to cause ill effects when consumed with alcohol (11, 12).  Any mechanism has not been identified.

Chicken mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus)

chickenofthewoodswildfoodism2

Wait a second, what’s going on here?  Another prized edible mushroom best to be avoided while engaging in adult beverage consumption?  Well, before you start throwing puffballs at me, consider that most of the information on this subject is anecdotal, and no mechanism has been identified.  The chicken mushroom, combined with alcohol ingestion, seems only to be an issue in rare instances (10).

Phew.  I’ll stop there before I create any more teetotalers.

Looking back, we have at least ten mushrooms that may produce undesirable side effects when consumed with alcohol.  Now, I understand that an infinite amount of exceptions exist.  Not everyone will react the same way;  some may be hit harder than others, and some won’t feel a thing.  This information is simply provided to help you make responsible and conscious decisions when foraging and consuming wild mushrooms.

And I’ll end this post the way I end most of my mushroom posts:  always be 100% sure of a mushroom’s identity before ingesting it in any form.  There are numerous field guides, online forums, mycological clubs, and experts available to help you in your mushrooming quest.  Use them all, they’re great!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!

Additional references:
1. Gry, J. and Andersson, C. (2014). Mushrooms traded as food Vol II Sec. 2. Copenhagen: Nordic Council Of Ministers.
6. Arora, D. (1986). Mushrooms demystified. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
10. Ammirati, J. (1985). Poisonous mushrooms of the northern United States and Canada. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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Everyday Is A Day To Vote “Yes”

rickettsglenwildfoodismWell, today is the “day” to vote. Apparently today only, though. Yesterday was too early, tomorrow is too late.

The way I see it is this: every action we take … on a daily basis … casts a vote on our behalf. For example, every time we buy and eat organic, we are voting “Yes” to a world that values healthy humans, organisms, and ecosystems over a society that literally (yes, literally) poisons its food supply, poisons its soil, and ultimately creates the diseases it works so hard to cure (we’ll keep racing). Is it any surprise that a large body of evidence supports the causation of various diseases (e.g. birth defects, cancers) and other health effects (e.g. neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, kidney and liver damage) by exposure to pesticides (1)?

Who would willingly vote for that?

Every time we engage with the natural world, acknowledge its myriad roles, and appreciate its gifts, we are voting “Yes” to nature’s existence, its longevity, and its health, and we are voting “No” to the allowance of myopically-dazed industries to force their way in, disfigure the land, make a quick buck, and deem it all “progress.” According to the World Resources Institute, more than 80% of the Earth’s forests already have been destroyed.

…Progress?

Who would willingly vote for that?

Why reserve your vote for only one day out of the year? Voting can be an admirable act, for sure, and instead of proclaiming to everyone that you voted only today, let others know through your actions that your whole life is a constant, consistent, and never-ending vote for all things life-promoting and sustainable.

First week of November or not, I’ll be voting for that!


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Adam Haritan

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