Foraging

Before You Buy Another Superfood, Check Your Backyard First

juneberryripe2wildfoodismI know what you’re thinking.  “Oh no, not another article on superfoods…”

Or maybe you weren’t thinking that at all, but now you are because I brought it up.

Or maybe I’m just looking into things a little too much.  Anyway…

I’m not here to proclaim that I have discovered a new miracle food – an ancient plant that sheds unwanted pounds, curbs your appetite, supercharges your immune system, and contains so many antioxidants that the concept of infinity seems miniscule in comparison.

Foods like that probably exist, but I’ll let someone else sell you on them.

Rather, my intention in writing this article is a bit different.

If you’ve felt confused over all the superfood hype – not sure which Amazonian berry should go into your morning smoothie; considering if it’s really worth spending $29.99 on 3 ounces of powdered fruit that contains more vitamin C than 12,000 oranges – I’m here to say, “It’s okay.”

Really, it is.  Your health can flourish with or without these products.

Phew, take a breath.  I just saved you some serious cash!

However,  I’m not going to let you off the hook that easily.  If I did, my writing would be done for the day, but I would also be doing everyone a big disfavor.

You see, while it may be easy to reject the whole concept of superfoods and much of what the movement stands for, there is some truth behind all the hype – enough that it may not be worth dismissing completely.  Unfortunately, though, this truth tends to become slightly twisted, causing mass confusion and ultimately… poor decision-making.

Did I just confuse you some more?  Let me explain…

Yes, superfoods are necessary

It’s true, which is why I have to pause and think whenever I hear someone declare that superfoods are bogus.

Critics will claim that our bodies can function quite well so long as they are fed by apples, bananas, oranges, cruciferous vegetables, and other items found in the grocery store’s produce department.  No need for superfoods, they say, as the true superfoods consist of our common fruits and veggies.

But therein lies the problem: “quite well” does not equate to “optimal” when defining health performance, and relying on a diet of heavily domesticated foods has never been shown to generate exceptional health, especially when analyzing health across multiple generations.

Let’s take a step back…

You see, many millennia ago, as the agricultural revolution commenced and subsequently accelerated, humans became very proficient at breeding many of the medicinal compounds out of the wild plants that once sustained our species.  What we lost in medicine we gained in taste and size.

Let’s look at an example…

The powerful medicines found in a wild plant – for instance, in wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea)protect the species from predation and consumption in the wild.  Through the process of breeding, these protective compounds are usually weakened and reduced in order to produce a tastier crop (think cauliflower).  Without the original bitter compounds, the cultivated organisms cannot defend themselves quite as well as their wild counterparts can, and as a result, they generally require the services humans provide, such as adequate sun exposure, water, food, fencing, etc.

Question:  Have you ever seen cauliflower growing in the wild?

No?  Why not?

Cauliflower is not strong enough to survive on its own.  Through years of domesticating the Brassicaceae genus, most of the protective bitter compounds have been removed.  Today we have “cauliflower,” or a subspecies of Brassica oleracea, and it absolutely requires the support of humans for its reproduction and survival.

Cauliflower tastes great and has a healthy nutrient profile.  It just doesn’t possess the same medicinal composition that a wild cabbage may contain.  Whenever we eliminate wild foods (like the wild mustards) from our diets, and instead consume only highly-domesticated species, our bodies do not receive the full spectrum of nutrition and medicine we require for optimal health.  As a result, we suffer.

Generalizing this example to our apples, oranges, bananas, and most other cultivated foods found in the produce department of our grocery stores, one can begin to see why these foods may not provide all that we need for optimal health, for they themselves are lacking in their full expression of all that they could be.

This is where the hype surrounding superfoods contains some merit.  Many of us understand the importance of a diversified diet built around high quality foods, and we look to species that generally contain not only vitamins and minerals, but potent medicines and phytonutrients as well.  Superfoods in the marketplace help us recognize that, yes indeed… an elevated class of food does exist!

However, before ending this piece and calling it a day, there is some information regarding location that I’d like to discuss.

And we’ll start by pondering this question:  Must we scour the jungles and mountains from lands far, far away to receive our superfood fix?

Superfoods – not as exotic as you’d think

To answer that question, I’d have to say “no, probably not.”

And here is where consumers tend to really get swept away by the hype.

Most species glorified as superfoods hail from far away lands – the rainforests of the Amazon, the hills of China, the mountains of Peru.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment.  Isn’t it interesting that very few superfoods are species that naturally grow within our immediate ecosystems?

I mean, it’s as if a plant must grow at least 3,000 miles from our hometown in order to qualify.  Were the Shawnee natives deficient in beta-carotene because they didn’t have access to goji berries?  Are the Hadza hunter-gatherers lacking chlorophyll because they’re not drinking wheatgrass?

Listen, I know that most of the “superfoods” on the market are legit.  I enjoy goji berries as much as the next health-nut.  I’ve had great success introducing quality Theobroma cacao into my diet.  And wheatgrass… well, if you really enjoy the taste, more power to you.  There are more than 8,000 species of grass (Poaceae spp.) on this planet though, and why wheatgrass is the Chosen One is anyone’s guess.

But really, most of the currently marketed items are indeed quality products – if not in their plastic containers, then at least in their native habitats.  Many of the products’ claims are supported by adequate research, and most species have been consumed, in one form or another, by traditional cultures for centuries.

Surely, many people – past and present – have witnessed improvements in their lives through the consumption of these foods.  I’ve seen it happen with numerous individuals, and I’ve experienced it myself.

So it’s not as if we’re being sold bags of lies and containers full of deceit.  No, these products are fine.

It’s just that the inner-consumer inside of us can often be persuaded and tempted to purchase a novel product from a distant land – a must-have food that promises Health! Vitality! Longevity! – without pausing for a moment, taking a deep breath, and checking our backyard first.

And that is what I encourage you to do.  Check your backyard first.  Then check the nearby parks, fields, woodlands, forests, mountains, bogs, and so on.  No, not for bottles of açaí juice.  Not even for fields of green coffee beans.  We’re talkin’ ’bout the wild species that naturally inhabit these areas!

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The backyard – a treasure trove of “superfoods” (and spiders)

Remember, “superfoods” are found in all inhabitable ecosystems – not just ones characterized by 4 walls, automatic sliding doors, fluorescent light bulbs, beepin’ cash registers, and lots of manicured species on display.  As I alluded to before, true superfoods comprise the wild foods that inhabit the landscapes within which we live.

Examples, Adam, examples! 

Okay.  Here are a few.

In the past decade or so, health professionals have been geeking out over flax and chia seeds – two good sources of α-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) – shifting purslane, a wild green that thrives in disturbed areas, into obscurity.  It’s unfortunate, as purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an excellent source of α-linolenic acid, containing between 300-400 milligrams per 100 grams of fresh material.  Purslane also contains impressive levels of potassium, magnesium, and calcium, while additionally providing gamma-linolenic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and α-tocopherol (a form of vitamin E).

And then there are the mushrooms.  Yes, shiitake is an excellent food and medicine, and indeed it can be cultivated here in Pennsylvania.  The wild maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa), however, is truly a superfood in every sense of the word.  Research suggests that, in addition to providing the body ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), maitake can protect the body against various cancers.  Maitake has also been shown to support the immune system, regulate healthy blood sugar levels, and provide numerous dietary antioxidants.

In addition to these 2 species, the list goes on.

Morels?  Yes, they count.  Nettles?  Certainly.

So, we really do need superfoods, huh?

Yes, we do require superfoods for optimal health.  We need species that are strong, robust, wild, and very fit for their environments – species that contain their full spectrum of nutrients and medicines.

But no, we don’t necessarily need the ones that we’re tempted to purchase.  They may look flashy on the grocery store shelves, but that doesn’t mean our options are limited only to what a company can harvest, package, and sell.  It’s like getting all your information from the local TV news channel and believing that there’s nothing more to reality than what it broadcasts.  But if you turn off the TV and step outside, you’ll soon realize that there’s so much more to life than we’re being told.  (sold?)

The same goes for superfoods…

Step outside… they’re all around you! 

Well, not in a creepy kind of way.  But in a “Won’t you take me home?… I’d be happy to give ya some of those missing medicines” kind of way.

Anyway…

To summarize, while apples, oranges, bananas, cabbages, and collards are great foods to include in our diets (hey, you know I love and eat them too), they’ll never be enough. (*Note:  I believe animal products are necessary for optimal health as well, though because they’re not generally marketed as “superfoods,” I did not reference them in this article.)

We must supply our bodies with foods that not only provide macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals, but also with the medicines which, once upon a fruitful time, granted our species exceptional health.

Final thoughts

Yes, superfoods are necessary.  But let’s clarify…

The packaged ones on display?  Maybe.

Well, how about the ones in our ecosystem?  Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.  Yes, those wild and plentiful species are the true superfoods that our bodies desire and require.

Oh, and did I mention they’re free?  Because, well… they are!

Thanks for reading, and as always… happy foraging!


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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Waorani Hunter-Gatherers, Excellent Eye Health, And Wild Foods

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Credit: Tom McElroy

A new study was published in the journal, Nutrition Research, comparing the excellent eye health of the Kawymeno Waorani hunter-gatherers in Amazonian Ecuador to the deteriorating eye health of the neighboring indigenous Santa Teresita Kichwa farmers.

The title of the article is “A phytochemical-rich diet may explain the absence of age-related decline in visual acuity of Amazonian hunter-gatherers in Ecuador,” and the abstract can be found here.

There are several key takeaways that I’d like to discuss, as many of them (if not all) can apply to the choices modern humans face.  Some of them seem obvious, while others may surprise you.

Key Takeaways

•The Waorani hunter-gatherers consume an average of 130 animal and plant species as part of their diet. The Kichwa farmers consume about 64.

•It appears that phytochemicals in the wide variety of plant foods confer the most benefits toward eye health in the hunter-gatherer population.

•Fruits (about 76 different species) provide the majority of phytochemicals to the Waorani diet.

•According to one Waorani hunter-gatherer, “Wao do not like vegetables, we only like fruit.” They even express disgust when they see vegetables being consumed. Their food system has no other vegetables other than 3 species of starchy tubers – cassava (Manihot esculenta) and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas, Pachyrhizus angulatus) – one wild grain/root, and wild peanuts (Arachis sp.).

•This is a big one: Even though the Kichwa farmers consume a diet rich in organic, agriculturally produced vegetables, it’s still not enough to preserve eye health, which begins to show signs of deterioration in the 40-49 age range.

•These results are fascinating particularly because the Kichwa farmers do not read, use the computer, or do close visual work, which are all variables that contribute to vision problems in modern societies. Yet the Kichwa still show signs of eye diseases similar to what we see in Western populations.

•How is the general health of the Waorani hunter-gatherers as they age? According to the researcher’s field journal, “He [a young man] was astounded that a 72-year-old woman could run faster than he could, as we could tell from his expression, when she hit him in the testicles while he was sprinting.”

•This isn’t the first study showing a stark contrast between excellent eye health in hunter-gatherer populations, compared to deteriorating eye health in nearby agrarian communities (1, 2).

Once again, we are provided evidence that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is anything but deprivation, hardship, and famine. What can we learn from this study?

  • Even organically raised food may not be enough to protect against age-related vision problems.
  • Eat a variety – a very, very large variety – of foods rich in phytochemicals.
  • Don’t fear (wild) fruit.

Like what you’ve read?  Sign up below to receive notifications for new posts, and don’t forget to check out the Facebook (facebook.com/wildfoodism) and Twitter (twitter.com/wildfoodism) pages to learn more about wild food nutrition and identification!

Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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How To Receive The Benefits Of Chaga … Without Consuming Chaga

chagawildfoodismStanding under the protruding, irregularly-shaped black mass, it’s hard to imagine anyone would make a fuss about this fungus.

I mean, look at it.  Certainly there are mushrooms that could seemingly outperform chaga in a beauty contest.  There’s hardly a debate about that.

It’s not a prized edible fungus, either.  Chaga is essentially a hardened mass of mycelia and much too tough to chew (though I have been known to nibble on the interior amadou from time to time).

So why is it that photographs of chaga (or growths that people want to look like chaga) inundate most mushroom identification forums with the accompanying million dollar question, “Is this chaga?”  Why is it that every nutraceutical company seems to market a chaga-containing supplement?

And why is it that chaga is so near and dear to my heart, routinely forming the foundation of my personal medicinal protocol?

Simple, really.  Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) truly is a great medicine – not because the latest health magazine said so, but because it passes two important criteria when evaluating credibility:  1) Chaga retains historical use as a medicine, and 2) Chaga has been well researched, demonstrating diverse pharmacological activity in numerous scientific studies.  Yet, as it turns out, the same holds true for many other wild species – including mushrooms, plants, and yes… even animals.

But never mind that last sentence…

The word has gotten out.  Chaga is apparently the medicinal superstar of the fungal kingdom.  This prestigious prize, however, is awarded at a cost.

Supplement companies are capitalizing on its value, requiring a continuous supply of the fungus for sales.  Mushroom hunters are seeking out the wild conks, and in some cases poor harvesting techniques are utilized, causing more harm than is needed.

Chaga, without a doubt, performs an essential role in its ecosystem, and any unnecessary disturbance to this balance could potentially produce disastrous long-term consequences.  Paul Stamets has discussed this issue in depth while suggesting a shift toward the use of cultivated chaga mycelium as a solution (1).

For some of us, sustainability is a concern.  Yet for others, access to wild chaga is the issue.  Many of us do not live in a habitat that hosts this fungus.

What are we to do in these particular instances?

You see, as remarkable as this organism is, it’s not the only one that can do what it does.  Many other species impart similar benefits to the human body when ingested, and in some cases, these species contain the same exact chemicals and compounds that are responsible for chaga’s effects.  Sometimes (gasp), other species medicinally outperform our beloved chaga (I know, I know… in the words of Metallica, “Sad But True”).

What does all of this mean?

Well, it just so happens we can essentially receive the benefits of the chaga mushroom … without consuming chaga.

Now, before we proceed, I’ll provide this little disclaimer:  Yes, I am aware that an organism cannot be reduced down to its chemical components.  I have written about this in the past.  We cannot simply create the whole of anything from its myriad parts.  Nature doesn’t work like that.  Chaga constitutes much more than every compound ever isolated from it, and to suggest we can fully substitute this fungus with another species – while receiving all of its exact benefits – is silly.  This article is meant to provide options on how we can receive similar health benefits using a variety of plant and fungal medicines in the event we do not have access to chaga, and ultimately in an effort to protect and preserve the niche that chaga occupies in the wild.

Sound good?  Great!  Let’s proceed…

Triterpenes

Have you spoken to anyone lately about the medicinal actions of chaga?  Mm hm.  And did they happen to mention the word “triterpenes?”  Mm hm.  Thought so.  Speak to anyone about the medicinal actions of chaga, and this is a term you’ll most likely hear.  Triterpenes.  What the heck are those?

The simple answer (chemists, bear with me) is that triterpenes are naturally occurring compounds that provide a wide spectrum of biological activity.  They’re extremely common in nature.  Why should we care?  Well, triterpenes happen to be quite medicinal.

Chaga is notoriously hailed for two of its medicinal compounds: betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid (2, 3).  Betulin is a triterpene, while betulinic acid is a derivative of a triterpene, known as a triterpenoid.  These molecules are concentrated in the outer black portion of the fungus and can be extracted most effectively for human consumption with non-polar solvents (i.e. alcohol).

Betulinic acid has demonstrated anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-HIV, anti-malaria, and antioxidant effects in numerous studies (4).  Its precursor, betulin, has been shown to possess anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties (5).

Both compounds, however, are not unique to the chaga fungus.  In fact, we can find betulin and its derivative, betulinic acid, quite easily in nature.

As chaga is essentially a parasite to its host tree (most commonly a birch tree, genus Betula) it’s not hard to imagine that many of its compounds will be derived from the birch tree.  This is what we see with betulin and betulinic acid.  Both compounds are created in the outer bark of birch trees, with betulin found in much higher concentrations than betulinic acid (6).  An additional compound found in the chaga fungus with origins in the outer bark of birch trees is lupeol.  Lupeol, another triterpene (gotta love them), has been shown to possess anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial properties (7).

Because the birch tree naturally contains many of the medicinal compounds found in chaga, we can utilize this knowledge by using birch bark for medicine, sparing the chaga fungus itself.  All 3 of these compounds – betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol – are most effectively extracted via non-polar solvents, such as alcohol, due to their chemical structures.  Vinegar (i.e. acetic acid) may also be an effective solvent (8).

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Bark from the yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) contains many of the same medicinal compounds that can be found in chaga

Of course, ruthlessly hacking away at birch trees to obtain their bark is no sustainable solution.  Wounded and barkless birch trees, though still harboring plenty of chaga, is not the image I’m envisioning.  All foraging practices would benefit from responsible and conscientious harvesting methods – for example, extracting birch bark from recently felled trees or branches to use as medicine (live trees may harbor more medicine, though recently felled trees will still be effective to a degree).

In addition to its bark, the birch tree also concentrates betulin in its sap (9).  Though not as high in sugar as maple trees, birch trees can successfully be tapped to yield drinkable sap, which can eventually be turned into syrup.

Useful alternatives to chaga may include other species that utilize birch as their host tree.  Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is a fungus that generally grows on dead birch trees and logs.  A fairly common mushroom, it contains many of the same medicinal compounds as chaga, notably the triterpenes.  For example, birch polypore possesses betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol, and while its content of betulin is much lower than that of chaga, it contains a significantly greater concentration of lupeol in certain extracts (10).

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Birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is often overlooked by its superstar housemate, Inonotus obliquus

Betulin and its derivatives can additionally be found in other species.  Alder trees (genus Alnus) contain all 3 aforementioned compounds – betulin, betulinic acid, and lupeol (11).  Not surprisingly, Native Americans used alder tree bark to treat various conditions, such as headaches, rheumatic pains, colds, congestion, and anemia (12).

Other sources of betulin (13) include sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), Indian jujube (Ziziphus mauritiana) and the seeds of common jujube (Z. vulgaris var. spinosus).

Betulinic acid is generally found in low concentrations in nature.  However, the rare exception is buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) – a bog plant native to the United States that contains a high concentration of this compound.  Betulinic acid can also be found in self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) and rosemary (14, 15).

And to throw out just a few more examples before we wrap up this section, several additional medicinal mushrooms have been reported to contain pharmacologically active triterpenes.  The reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) is one example among many.  Not only does reishi contain several triterpenes, it has been reported to contain 3 times the total amount of triterpenes as chaga (16).

To summarize:  Triterpenes are responsible for many of chaga’s medicinal effects, though other fungi – notably the reishi mushroom – contain greater numbers of these compounds.  Additionally, if you are specifically seeking betulin or betulinic acid, other plant parts and species can be used.  Examples include birch bark, birch sap, birch polypore, alder bark, buckbean, self-heal, and rosemary.

Polysaccharides

Enough with the triterpenes.  Let’s look at another fraction – the polysaccharides.

In addition to its content of triterpenes (can’t get away from them, sorry!), chaga contains a diverse group of molecules known as polysaccharides.  These molecules act, among other things, as antioxidants (17) and immune system regulators (18).

Obviously, chaga isn’t the only mushroom that contains polysaccharides, as these compounds form the structure of fungal cell walls.  Polysaccharides are ubiquitous in the fungal kingdom.  And in fact, other mushrooms contain the same amount of, if not more, polysaccharide fractions than chaga.

For example, the Indian oyster (Pleurotus pulmonarius) and the golden oyster (P. citrinopileatus) have been shown to contain the same number of polysaccharide fractions as chaga.  What’s more, Leucopaxillus giganteus, maitake (Grifola frondosa), and hemlock reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) all contain more polysaccharide fractions than chaga (19).  These mushrooms have routinely been studied for their medicinal actions, and while I understand that more does not always equal better, it is worth noting that several species outperform chaga in the polysaccharide numbers game.

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Hemlock reishi (Ganoderma tsugae), a polypore found on conifers, has been shown to contain more polysaccharide fractions than chaga

However, while its number of polysaccharide fractions may not be its most impressive feature, chaga certainly excels in a particular way.  Beta-glucans belong to particular class of polysaccharides that may provide the most benefit to the immune system, and research has shown that a large percentage of chaga’s polysaccharides are in fact beta-glucans (20).

Other mushrooms that have been shown to contain immuno-regulating polysaccharides include (21):

  • Snow fungus (Tremella fuciformis)
  • Split-gill polypore (Schizophyllum commune)
  • Umbrella polypore (Polyporus umbellatus)
  • Lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus)
  • Reishi (G. lucidum)
  • Artist’s conk (G. applanatum)
  • Shiitake (Lentinus edodes)
  • Velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes)

To summarize:  Chaga contains structural components known as polysaccharides.  These compounds, of which beta-glucans is one class, display antioxidant and immuno-regulating properties.  Many medicinal mushrooms contain immuno-regulating polysaccharides, including reishi, maitake, lion’s mane, and shiitake.  Polysaccharides from a few of these species may outnumber those found in chaga.

Antioxidants

Both classes of compounds discussed thus far – triterpenes and polysaccharides – demonstrate strong antioxidant activity.  Oxidation is a natural process in the human body that, if left unchecked, can result in conditions such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease (just to name a few).  Antioxidants combat the process of oxidation by neutralizing reactive molecules in our bodies known as free radicals.

Triterpenes found within chaga have the ability to scavenge a reactive and potentially damaging molecule known as DPPH.  Polysaccharides within chaga can scavenge DPPH as well, though they also have the ability to scavenge a reactive molecule known as the superoxide radical (triterpenes do this as well, though to a lesser extent).  This potentially destructive molecule has been implicated in numerous diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease (22, 23, 24).

Chaga isn’t the only resource to offer help in this situation.  Within the human body, a built-in mechanism is already in place.  An enzyme known as superoxide dismutase targets and neutralizes the superoxide radical, helping to prevent oxidative damage.  Additionally, other species have been shown to demonstrate similar effects.  For example, reishi (G. lucidum) and the umbrella polypore (P. umbellatus) both possess superoxide radical scavenging ability, and both were shown in one particular study to demonstrate the highest scavenging effects of 8 mushrooms tested (25).

Another study compared the antioxidant and immuno-modulatory activities of aqueous extracts from chaga, cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris), and cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa).  Chaga certainly demonstrated strong antioxidant effects in this study, as did cordyceps.  Researchers found, however, that cat’s claw displayed the strongest activity in scavenging both the superoxide radical and DPPH – which, if you will recall, are two highly reactive molecules implicated in oxidative damage.  When tested on mice, cat’s claw was the optimal species to exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects (26).

It’s also worth noting that pure vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid, was generally just as effective, if not more effective, in displaying antioxidant activity compared to the other three species tested (this was usually seen in higher doses).  Vitamin C is very prevalent in nature, and if you’re interested in learning which wild species contain large amounts of this compound, check out this article (after you’re done reading this one, of course).

To summarize:  Chaga, due to its concentration of triterpenes and polysaccharides (among other compounds), displays strong antioxidant effects.  Chaga is particularly effective against two reactive molecules – DPPH and the superoxide radical.  Other species that demonstrate powerful antioxidant effects include reishi, the umbrella polypore, cordyceps, and cat’s claw.  Vitamin C is also a potent antioxidant with impressive physiological effects.

Anti-diabetes

Several studies have suggested that chaga contains compounds that may be useful in the treatment of diabetes (27, 28, 29, 30).  Many of these compounds have been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase – an enzyme that breaks down starch and simple sugars to glucose.  By inhibiting this enzyme, glucose absorption slows down in the body, ultimately reducing the impact of carbohydrates on blood sugar.  Chaga, with its ability to inhibit alpha-glucosidase, is therefore a promising candidate in the treatment of diabetes.

Another highly sought after fungus with similar anti-diabetic activity is the maitake mushroom.  Maitake extracts have been shown to inhibit alpha-glucosidase.  Two of its compounds, oleic acid and linoleic acid, may be responsible for this inhibition.

Stinging nettle leaf extracts have also been shown to display blood sugar-lowering effects in patients with type 2 diabetes.

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You may not like its sting, but you may appreciate its ability to treat diabetes

Several other species possess anti-diabetic properties.  The list is much too vast to include here, though an online search will be sure to offer additional assistance.

To summarize:  Chaga demonstrates anti-diabetic effects, notably through its ability to inhibit the enzyme, alpha-glucosidase.  Similar effects have been seen in the maitake mushroom and stinging nettle.

Now, we have only looked at a snippet of what chaga has been shown to do … both scientifically and anecdotally.  It is no surprise that a fungus so dearly prized by many individuals exerts a vast array of biologically-pertinent effects.  This article has only scratched the surface of what chaga is capable of doing.

For example, we haven’t even discussed the anti-inflammatory, the anti-microbial, nor the anti-viral properties of chaga.  Nor have we talked about other classes of biologically relevant compounds – including the polyphenols, sterols, and melanin – and their documented effects.  While many of these compounds can be found in numerous plants, fungi, and even animals, there are some compounds that are entirely unique to the chaga fungus – ones that have not been discovered in other species.  Inotodiol, an anti-tumor compound found only in chaga, is just one example (31).

Remember, this article is not meant to suggest that substituting another species for chaga can serve as a complete replacement for all its medicinal effects.  Nor is this article’s intention to undermine chaga’s medicinal actions by pointing out that other species may perform better than chaga in certain tests of strength.

Rather, individuals who lack access to chaga, though wishing to experience similar health benefits, may find this information useful.  Heck, even those with seemingly unlimited access to chaga may benefit from this information.

You see, dietary diversity is essential for optimal health.  Our ancestors understood this, as evidenced by the extensive number of plant, animal, and fungal species consumed as part of their traditional diets.  Today, most Americans rely on only a handful of species (i.e. corn, wheat, and soy), and no matter how clean, pure, or organic these few species may be, they cannot constitute an optimal diet without the inclusion of dozens (think hundreds) more species from the natural world.

And so it is with chaga.  As fantastic as its medicine may be, surely our health would benefit from the addition and inclusion of other medicines from the various kingdoms of life.

Not only because our health depends on it, but the health of our planet, too.  We cannot excessively extract one species from the land and expect the rest of the biological world to pay no attention.

And so it is with chaga.

Earth notices, and Earth responds.

Thanks for reading, and congrats for making it to the bottom!  As always… happy foraging!


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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3 Benefits Of Winter Foraging

chickweedwinterwildfoodismYou didn’t call it quits for the season, did you?  Oh, good!  Not that I was worried or anything…

The temperatures are cooler, the wind is stronger, and the snow is falling.  This can only mean one thing:  Time to head outside with the ol’ foraging basket in hand!

“Why?” some may ask.

Well, plenty of food can still be harvested during the winter months.

Okay, maybe not plenty as in “plenty of summer chanterelles, blackberries, and purslane greens.”  But plenty as in “many winter greens, fruits, roots, and mushrooms.”

In fact, there is no season where you can’t find anything.  This time of year, I’m still finding greens such as bittercress, garlic mustard, and dandelion; fruits such as rose hips and crabapples; and mushrooms such as late fall oysters and turkey tails.

Heck, even wildflowers are still making an appearance, notably those resilient asters.

Besides the immediate benefit of feeding oneself with local foraged food in the winter months, there are many more reasons why it is so important that we collect winter edibles.

I recently created a brand new video regarding 3 benefits of foraging for food … specifically in the winter months.  And, I’d love for you to check it out!


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Thank you!
Adam Haritan

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Winter Mushroom Hunting – 8 Species To Collect For Food And Medicine

latefalloystersnowwildfoodismI’ll admit:  My enthusiasm for mushroom hunting wanes ever so slightly in the winter months.  Of course, the anticipation to locate, identify, and harvest select members of the fungal community never perishes, though its intensity remains somewhat tempered compared to the escalating excitement I experience during the late spring, summer, and autumn forays.

You see, winters in western Pennsylvania are cold.  Last year, a record was set when the temperature dropped to -9°F (okay, I suppose it could be worse, though this is indeed cold for Pennsylvania!).  Compound this variable with the seasonal ice, snow, and numerous sunless days, and it’s not hard to see why many foragers in the Northeastern United States hang up their mushroom baskets for the season.  It’s not that we, as human mycophiles, cannot tolerate these wintery conditions (polar plunging is a favorite pastime of mine); rather, the fungi themselves – at least the ones considered prized edibles – generally require slightly different circumstances in order to produce fruiting bodies.

Fair enough.  Nature knows best, and who could ever argue with that?

But wait!  “Fewer” does not imply “none.” The hillsides, fields, woodlands, trees, fallen logs, and stumps may not necessarily be teeming with an over-abundance of salient mushroom fruiting bodies in the winter months, yet mushrooms can certainly still be found.  In fact, quite a few can be harvested, not just for identification, but for the table as well.

Below, I describe 8 species that can be found here in western Pennsylvania (and generally the Northeastern United States) during the winter months.  Of course, many more exist, and if you are interested in locating and identifying these, I’d love for you to join me on a winter plant and mushroom ID hike (see Learn Your Land for more information).

For now though, here are 8 reasons why you should dust that ol’ mushroom basket off and throw on an extra layer (or two).

Update:  5 out of the 8 species listed below are featured in this video!


Now onto the full list:

1. Late fall oyster (Panellus serotinus = Sarcomyxa serotina)

Panellusserotinus2017

The late fall oyster mushroom (Panellus serotinus, also known as Sarcomyxa serotina) is a cold-weather fungus traditionally eaten in Japan, where it is known as Mukitake.  It has a wide distribution in the United States, and is very common in Pennsylvania.  It’s a tough mushroom, one that requires slow, long cooking for best texture and flavor.  Still, to get wild nutrition and medicine into your body, the late fall oyster mushroom can easily satisfy that need.

Speaking of medicine, research has shown that Panellus serotinus possesses anti-tumor and immuno-modulating activities, like many medicinal mushrooms (1).  This is primarily due to its concentration of beta-glucans, which can easily be extracted through prolonged hot water decoctions (teas, soups).  The late fall oyster mushroom, as shown in animal studies, also displays protection against non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and dyslipidemia (2).

Not bad for a log-decomposer who doesn’t ask for much.

Look for this mushroom on dead hardwood logs and branches in the autumn and early winter months.  Colors vary – I’ve seen blends of grey, orange, yellow, and green.  Look-alikes include the mock oyster (Phyllotopsis nidulans), though its cap is mostly orange, and its smell is rather unpleasant.  Panellus serotinus also resembles the classic oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus), though the latter rarely contains shades of yellow/orange, can be much bigger, and is a choice edible anyway.

To learn more, check out this video featuring identification and medicinal benefits:

2. Oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Pleurotusostreatus2018-10

Oh hey, oyster mushroom.  We were just talking about you (see 2 paragraphs up).

This popular mushroom is fairly common, and while it didn’t quite make my immediate list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms, it would most likely be ranked #6 in ease of identification.  Characteristics of the oyster mushroom generally include a smooth white (sometimes gray) cap, white gills, white to pale-lilac spore print, broad growth in clusters, and a substrate that usually includes hardwood logs (rarely conifers) and stumps.

Oysters are choice edible mushrooms.  They can be buggy though, and if this is true for your harvest, soak them in a bit of saltwater first before cooking (not usually a problem in the winter months).  While they are included on this winter mushroom identification list, oysters can be found year round on stumps, logs, or trees.  Always remember your spot, as they tend to reappear in the same place year after year.

To learn more about oyster mushrooms, check out this video in which I discuss identification, medicinal benefits, and more.

3. Brick caps (Hypholoma sublateritium)

hypholomalateritium

Brick caps are edible mushrooms that improve in taste as the year progresses.  They can usually be found in the autumn months through winter, though they become less bitter generally after the first frost.

This is not necessarily a beginner’s mushroom.  Brick caps resemble sulfur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare), poisonous mushrooms that grow within the same season (I found sulfur tufts not too far from where this picture was taken).

Both species grow in clusters on decaying wood and produce purple-brown spore prints, though brick caps have reddish caps (paler at the margins) with grayish-purplish brown gills, and sulfur tufts usually have greenish yellow caps with greenish yellow gills (becoming darker with age).

Beyond edibility, brick caps are quite medicinal.  A compound known as clavaric acid has been isolated from this species (3).  Clavaric acid has been shown to act as an effective FPTase inhibitor, which in non-medical speak translates to “a compound that may impede cancer proliferation.”  Research suggests that these inhibitors, of which clavaric acid is one, may be effective particularly against colorectal, pancreatic, and lung cancers (4).

If you’d like to learn more about brick caps, check out this recent video I created while hiking in the woods one day.  Another winter species (not described in this article) is also discussed in the video, so you may want to hit the play button to find out what it is…

4. Velvet foot (Flammulina velutipes)

flamulinavelutipes2017

There is no doubt that this species enjoys cold weather temperatures, as velvet foot can usually be found from October through early spring.  A cultivated version is popular in East Asian cooking, though its appearance differs somewhat from the velvet foot found in the wild.  Regardless, both are edible.

Velvet foot (also known as enoki, enokitake, golden needle) can be recognized by its slimy orangish-brown cap, white gills, velvety-brown stalk, and growth in clusters on deciduous logs (usually elm).  It produces a white spore print, which helps to distinguish this species from a toxic look-alike, the deadly Galerina (Galerina marginata).  The deadly Galerina produces a rusty brown spore print and dons a ring on its non-velvety stem.  The seasons for both Flammulina velutipes and Galerina marginata overlap somewhat, though with an understanding of these key differences, discernment should be easy.

A choice edible, velvet foot is also medicinal.  Studies have shown that certain biologically active compounds derived from this mushroom (fiber and polysaccharides) help to reduce blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol (5).  Velvet foot also possesses immunomodulatory compounds, which have been shown in studies to inhibit lung cancer cell migration and proliferation (6).

To learn more about Enoki mushrooms, and to positively differentiate between this species and a toxic look-alike, check out this video:

5. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

chagaANFwildfoodism

Because I have yet to create the “Top 5 Sclerotia To Harvest In Winter” article, chaga will have to be included here.  It’s true, the chaga fungus pictured above is not necessarily a “mushroom” in the truest sense of the word, but rather a sclerotium – a compacted, hardened mass of mycelia.

Additionally, and like the oyster mushroom, chaga is not strictly a winter mushroom.  Rather, it can be found year round, though it has been my experience that it is easier to find during the winter months for two reasons:  1) vegetation is minimal (leaves, tall grasses, shrubs, forbs), and 2) the dark colors of this fungus contrast nicely against the winter snow.  Both of these reasons make spotting chaga, especially from a distance, much easier in winter.

Be aware that if you plan to harvest chaga in colder temperatures (below freezing), the fungus may be frozen to the tree.  If using a metal tool (for example, an ax), be careful not to strike the tree, and only harvest the actual chaga fungus itself.  While I have included it on this list of winter mushrooms, I actually find it a bit easier to harvest during the warmer temperatures, as I can use my bare hands to aid in removal from the tree.  Therefore any unnecessary damage to the host tree is kept at a minimum.

Chaga, a medicinal fungus used for centuries in traditional Siberian medicine, typically inhabits the circumpolar boreal forests of the world.  While it grows almost exclusively on birch trees, it has also been spotted on elm, ash, beech, and ironwood trees.

For detailed information on how to locate and identify this incredible fungus, please check out a recent piece I created on this very subject, entitled Is This Chaga? A Key For Identifying This Remarkable Fungus (that’s a clickable link, by the way).

And for a recipe using the chaga fungus as a base for an upgraded hot chocolate, please check out this additional clickable link: Bulletproof Hot Chaga Chocolate Recipe

6. Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)

turkeytaillogwildfoodism

One particular fungus really begins to shine this time of year when hardly a mushroom wishes to poke its fruiting body from the earth.  I am referring to the aptly named turkey tail fungus.

Turkey tail is not difficult to locate, as it’s one of the most ubiquitous fungi found in our woodlands.  Look around at the logs, stumps, and fallen branches in your neck of the woods – and you may eventually discover turkey tail. 

Other species within the Trametes genus resemble turkey tail, though the latter can be distinguished by its multicolored concentric zones and whitish pores on the underside.  Look-alike fungi usually lack the brilliant colors of turkey tail, or they may be hairier (Trametes hirsuta).  Additionally, look-alikes may lack pore surfaces (genus Stereum), or their pores may be colored. 

Turkey tail is not necessarily edible (too tough), though it sure is medicinal.  One particular study found that turkey tail can improve immune system status in immuno-compromised breast cancer patients following conventional cancer treatment (7).  These findings are extremely important, as the study was not conducted on animals, nor in petri dishes, but rather on living human subjects.

A more recent human trial (again – not in animals, nor in petri dishes) found that a polysaccharide extracted from turkey tail mycelia displayed prebiotic effects in the human microbiome (stimulating the growth and maintenance of beneficial intestinal bacteria).  In the same study, participants who were instead fed Amoxicillin (an antibiotic) demonstrated detrimental shifts towards more pathogenic bacteria in their microbiome, with effects lasting up to 42 days after their final antibiotic dose (8).

Turkey tail is a pleasure to hunt in the late autumn and winter months – its cap providing stunning visuals amongst the senescing vegetation – though like oyster mushrooms and chaga, this fungus can be found year-round.

To learn more about the turkey tail fungus, check out this video:

7. Birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina = Piptoporus betulinus)

birchpolyporewildfoodism

This is one of the most common fungi found in birch forests, and like a few other mushrooms described in this post, it can be found year-round.  Now, some sources report that it is best to harvest this fungus in the summer months into early fall, and I suspect this is because the growing season for the birch polypore generally includes these seasons.  Hence, young specimens (which are preferred for collection) are prolific during this time.  I have included the birch polypore with this list of winter mushrooms because, at least here in Pennsylvania, young fruiting bodies can indeed be found at least into January (the above photo was taken in late-December, 2013).

The birch polypore is fairly easy to recognize.  It typically has a tan cap with inrolled margins, a whitish pore surface, and a somewhat tough (though not rock-hard) texture.  Growth is almost exclusive on living or dead paper and yellow birch trees.

A multipurpose fungus, its utility extends far beyond food and medicine into the survival realms of fire making and blood coagulation.  Medicinally, birch polypore has been shown to be an important species with anticancer, antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial properties.

To receive the concentrated power within the birch polypore, you can use freshly picked young specimens, thinly sliced and boiled, as food.  Teas and tinctures can be made as well.  This fungus contains betulinic acid (9) – the same compound in chaga, derived from the birch tree, that confers several health benefits (anti-tumor, anti-cancer).

It has been my experience that the birch polypore is much more common than chaga (more frequent sightings, more fruiting bodies).  It seems that medicinal diversity is essential for great health, and cycling between chaga and birch polypore (instead of relying solely on chaga) can benefit not only the health of the boreal forests, but our personal health as well.

To learn more about the birch polypore, check out this video:

8. Wood ear (Auricularia angiospermarum)

woodear1

While hunting mushrooms in the early summer days, you may discover this species.  While hunting mushrooms in autumn and early winter, you may also discover this species.  The wood ear, also known as the jelly ear, is an edible mushroom found throughout the year, usually growing in clusters on logs, branches, and stumps of both coniferous and deciduous trees.  Characteristics of this mushroom include its cup-shaped, ear-like appearance, its reddish-brown color, rubbery to gelatinous texture, and a surface that usually includes minutely fine hairs.

The wood ear is indeed edible and, like many mushrooms, it also possesses numerous medicinal properties.  Studies have shown that Auricularia mushrooms contain anti-viral, antioxidant, anti-tumor, and immuno-supportive compounds (10, 11, 12, 13).  Additionally, a water soluble polysaccharide from Auricularia fungi has been shown to reduce triglyceride, LDL-cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in animal studies (14).

9. Blewit (Clitocybe nuda = Lepista nuda)

Clitocybenuda2017Good

Okay, I couldn’t stop at 8.  Can you blame me though?  Consider this one a bonus, and instead of explaining this beautiful mushroom through text alone, I thought I’d introduce you to the blewit mushroom through video.  If you’re interested in learning its key identifying characteristics, hit the play button!

How about that?

In case you’re just joining the party, we’re finishing up a discussion on 9 mushroom species we can harvest during the winter months (at least in the Northeastern United States) for food and medicine.

Now, this list isn’t exclusive.  Surely, there are many more for which I haven’t provided detailed analyses, including:

  • Bitter oyster (Panellus stipticus), a bioluminescent mushroom (meaning, it glows in the dark)
  • Amber jelly roll (Exidia recisa), a winter fungus typically found on willow twigs
  • Artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum), a perennial polypore
  • Red-belted polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola), a perennial polypore
  • Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius), a perennial polypore

…and so on.

During your next winter excursion, see what kinds of cold-loving fungi can be found.  The number may be greater than you think.

Yes, I know … I opened up this article by expressing a slight ebbing to the excitement I feel for winter mushroom hunting.  Personally though, it is a rewarding activity, for even in the midst of “the great biological nap” (aka winter), a harvest – heck, even a sighting! – of just two or three fruiting mushroom bodies can seem like I’ve hit the jackpot.

Yes, this is how I feel even after finding a single mushroom during a winter walk.  Am I alone on this one?  Let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


Let’s stay in touch!  To receive information from Adam Haritan on wild plant and mushroom identification, please enter your name and email address below.  Thank you!

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Adam Haritan

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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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Common Ink Cap, And Other Mushrooms That Shouldn’t Be Consumed With Alcohol

Coprinopsisatramentaria2019Remember 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 Ink 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 Common Ink 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 the 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 this species 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 Common Ink 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 Common Ink Cap mushrooms are consumed without alcohol.  Some authors report that this species should never be eaten, while others consider it a good, meaty edible.

The Common Ink 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 Common Ink Cap, aka the Tippler’s Bane, therefore, is indeed edible … with caution.

Other mushrooms that produce disulfiram-like effects

The Common Ink Cap, Coprinopsis atramentaria, is taxononimcally placed within the section Atramentarii.  Interestingly (or not), other species within this section have been shown to contain coprine.

These species include:

C. acuminata
C. alopecia
C. erythrocephala
C. fusispora
C. geesterani
C. insignis
C. jamaicensis
C. krieglsteineri
C. maculatus
C. ochraceolanata
C. romagnesiana
C. variegata

Additionally, an unrelated fungus known as Imperator torsus (the Brawny Bolete), is reported to contain coprine.

All the species listed above, in addition to Coprinopsis atramentaria, should not be consumed with alcohol.  Otherwise, coprine within these mushrooms can inhibit acetaldehyde dehydrogenase… therefore forcing a buildup of acetaldehyde within the human body and potentially resulting in tachycardia, palpitations, nausea, flushing of the face, tingling of extremities, headaches… you get the point.

Other mushrooms that may or may not produce undesirable effects when consumed with alcohol

Up until now, we’ve discussed mushrooms that contain coprine.  All of them, save for Imperator torsus, are taxonomically placed within the Coprinopsis genus, section Atramentarii.

(As a side note, Coprinopsis fungi within the section Picacei are also reported to contain coprine.  More information on this is forthcoming).

If you dig a little deeper through various reports, you’ll eventually encounter cases of completely unrelated mushrooms causing undesirable side effects when consumed with alcohol.  In almost all these cases, the mechanisms behind these “poisonings” have not been identified.  The majority are anecdotal, and are only experienced by very few people.

Please keep this in mind.

Morel mushrooms are listed below.  This does not mean you will get sick eating Morels while drinking beer.  We all know plenty of people who do both.

Chicken Of The Woods is listed below.  This does not mean you will get sick eating Chicken Of The Woods while drinking wine.  We all know plenty of people who do both.

Coprine is found in mushrooms within the Coprinopsis genus, section Atramentarii, as well as in Imperator torsus.  Coprine is not found in the mushrooms listed below.  Whether or not the following mushrooms actually contain any specific compound (they probably don’t) that interferes with the human body’s ability to metabolize alcohol is speculation.

Still, the reports listed below are featured on various websites, in books, and occasionally in scientific publications.

I thought I’d include them here, too.

Please proceed.

Freckled Dapperling (Echinoderma asperum)

Lepiotaasperawildfoodism

Known in many field guides as Lepiota acutesquamosa and Lepiota aspera, 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 E. asperum consumption in combination with alcohol in five patients (7).  All had mistaken E. asperum 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 E. asperum has not been identified.

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

Fat-Footed Clitocybe (Ampulloclitocybe clavipes)

Clitocybeclavipeswildfoodism

Credit: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster

This mushroom, formerly known as Clitocybe clavipes, is widely distributed in North America, and can be found under conifers and hardwoods in the autumn and winter months.  Like Echinoderma asperum, A. 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 A. 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.

Ampulloclitocybe 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 (Suillellus 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.)

MorchellaAngusticeps2017

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.

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).

Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Pleurotusostreatus2018-10

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 spp.)

honeymushroomwildfoodism

Armillaria is a genus that comprises over 30 species of wood-decaying fungi. These species are primarily recognized for their association with root rot of woody plants, but they are also important decomposers within many forested environments.

According to the North American Mycological Association, Armillaria species 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 extremely 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.  Or before you call me out for spreading “mycophobia.”  I would never do such a thing.

Looking back, however, we do have quite a few fungi that unquestionably may produce undesirable side effects when consumed with alcohol.

Now, I understand that an infinite amount of exceptions exist.  Hopefully, you understand this too.

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

Is This Chaga? A Key For Identifying This Remarkable Fungus

isthischagannowildfoodismThis is a fairly common question I receive, usually accompanied by a picture similar to the one shown here.  It’s a good question indeed, and it’s one that I would like to explore beyond a simple “Yes” or “No” answer (spoiler alert:  the answer is “No”).

In my early mushrooming days, it was the chaga fungus that had me most excited (don’t get me wrong, I’m still bedazzled).  I remember exploring the hardwood forests near Pittsburgh (not exactly an ideal habitat for chaga) in search of this medicinal marvel, and discovering what I thought were potential candidates.  I’d perceive one far in the distance and immediately scurry to the spot.  Standing under the darkened mass, hoping my search yielded success, I’d wonder, “Is this chaga?”

It wasn’t.

Rather, the abnormal growth that had myself (and countless others, judging by requests on identification forums) fooled was a tree burl resembling the one pictured above.  Through the years, my mushrooming skills have improved to the point where no confusion remains on this matter.  I have encountered chaga dozens of times during my hikes through the forests of Pennsylvania, I have harvested it on numerous occasions, and I use the fungus as part of my primary medicinal strategy.

Still, there are many individuals who may find it confusing to discern between the two, and I understand.  They kinda-sorta look like one another.

To answer the original question proposed in this article’s title, I’d like to further explore the differences, both superficially and functionally, between tree burls and the chaga mushroom.

Tree burl

treeburlwildfoodism

Sorry, not chaga.

A burl is an outward growth on a tree usually attributed to environmental stress, whether it be physical trauma, an insect, fungus, or even pollutants.  Burls can be made up of numerous buds that would typically develop into new shoots, but instead they remain dormant.

Whatever their true cause, burls are not inherently detrimental to the tree.  Rather, as trees mature, so do their burls, which develop beautiful patterns and colors that are prized by furniture makers and wood turners.

Unfortunately, burl poaching is a common practice especially in the old growth redwood forests, where burls are illegally harvested and sold for large profits.  Harvesting burls from living trees can leave the trees more susceptible to infection and disease, though in many cases the tress are able to heal themselves.

It’s important to understand that a burl is not a fungus, while chaga is.  A burl is simply an outgrowth of the tree, meaning the tree’s bark extends to include the burl.  The two are not necessarily separate entities.

While the colors may vary depending on the species, burls are usually the same color, if not a bit darker, than the color of its tree.  Contrast this to chaga, which usually forms as a blackened crust (on its outside), and appears as a distinct entity on its host tree.

While burls can form on numerous tree species, I encounter them most frequently on oak trees (Quercus spp.) in Western Pennsylvania.

Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

chagaANFwildfoodism

Yes, this is chaga.

Upon first glance, it’s hard to imagine that this fungus would serve any purpose in benefiting human health.  Centuries of traditional use and current research, however, suppress that skepticism, if only by a little.

Chaga is a sterile fungal body usually found on birch trees, though also rarely found on elm, beech, and hornbeam.  Its outer material is usually black, brittle, and cracked, while its interior is golden-orange and cork-like.

chaga2hr2015

Note the black, cracked outer appearance and the orange interior (visible at its point of attachment to the tree).

Chaga forms over several years within the tree and eventually erupts through the bark, pushing itself out from within.  Thus, it is a distinct species from its host tree, and appears as such.

chagahr2015

Notice how distinct chaga looks from its host tree (a yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis).

To distinguish chaga from a tree burl, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this the right ecosystem for chaga?  Chaga usually grows in the circumpolar boreal deciduous forests.
  • On which tree is it growing?  Chaga grows almost exclusively on birch, though as stated previously, it has been found rarely on elm, beech, and hornbeam.
  • What color is it?  The outer surface of chaga is cracked, brittle, and relatively black (if not rather dark).  A tree burl’s color resembles its host tree, perhaps a bit darker.
  • What color is the interior?  I don’t recommend haphazardly damaging formations on trees, though sometimes the interior color can be seen naturally without any effort, or simply by removing a small piece by hand.  The interior of chaga is an unmistakable golden-orange color (see image below).
  • Does the specimen appear to be a separate species, distinct from its host tree?  If so, it may be chaga.  If the specimen appears to be an extension of the tree, bark and all, you may be looking at a burl.
  • Is the growth phallic in nature, or rounded?  Chaga usually grows as a phallic, cone-like extension.  Tree burls are generally rounded outgrowths.  These are shape generalizations for both, as appearances can vary widely, though the majority of chaga fungi and tree burls I’ve seen fit these characteristics.
chagawildfoodism2

Note the orange interior amadou of chaga — corky to the touch when fresh.

Having run through these questions, you can feel more confident in your identification of the chaga fungus.  If you still harbor some confusion, feel free to send me a photograph and description of your unknown specimen, and I will be happy to assist in identification.

And oh yes, one final note:  chaga fungi and tree burls are remarkable sights to view in nature, though both are prone to over-harvesting.  Medicine can be made from chaga, and intricate woodwork can be produced from burls.  If harvesting either, do so with the utmost intention while inflicting the least amount of harm.  It makes the world a better place for everyone!

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


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Adam Haritan

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