Foraging

5 Easy-To-Identify Edible Mushrooms For The Beginning Mushroom Hunter

chickenofthewoodswildfoodism2In the world of foraging, few organisms conjure up fear and mystery more than mushrooms.  Tell someone you harvest wild berries, and he thinks to himself what a great hobby.  Tell another person you hunt wild mushrooms, and she fears for your life.

“Aren’t you scared?”

“What if it’s poisonous?”

“I could never pick wild mushrooms, they’re much too dangerous.”

The fungal kingdom, it seems, is a bit of an enigma.  In 1991, a paper was published suggesting that, although 1.5 million fungi were thought to have inhabited the earth, only about 70,000, or 4.7%, of fungal organisms were identified at that time (1).  Today, it is estimated that there are 5.1 million fungal species in existence, and the number of identified species is still quite small in comparison.

It’s true, out of 5.1 million fungal species, some of them are quite toxic.  Destroying Angel, Deadly Galerina, and Death Cap aren’t just fancy names, though they may or may not be hit singles from late 80’s heavy metal bands…

Destroyingangelwildfoodism

Amatoxin, forever popularized by their hit single, “Destroying Angel”

It’s easy to focus all our attention on the dangers of wild mushroom hunting, and of course the risks are valid concerns.  One must absolutely know what he or she has in hand before even thinking about pulling out the butter, salt, and frying pan.

There is another side to wild mushroom hunting, however.  The medicinal side.  The healing side.  The delicious side.

Obviously, several mushrooms are edible.  A quick trip to the grocery store confirms this.  Many individuals are interested in going one step further by foraging edible mushrooms, yet have no idea where to start.  It can all appear quite daunting at first, especially after realizing you’re dealing with 5.1 million potential species (okay, this is an exaggeration; much of this large number does not pertain to mushrooms in their fruiting body stages, but rather to microscopic fungi, such as yeasts and molds).

So where do we start?

Well, why don’t we begin with the most easily identifiable wild edible mushrooms?  You know, the ones that when you see them you think, “Yep, that’s exactly it!”

In this post, I have put together a list of 5 easy-to-identify edible mushrooms.  These mushrooms are fairly conspicuous, they’re delicious, and they require a hefty stretch of the imagination to misidentify as toxic look-alikes.

Note:  I live in western Pennsylvania.  This list, therefore, is based on my experiences with the organisms in this area.

1. Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)

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Not all mushrooms look like the portobellos and the shiitakes found in the grocery store.  Lion’s Mane, for one, certainly does not.  It is one of the most unique-looking mushrooms, with its unbranched body of icicle-like spines and soft white tissue.  Accordingly, Lion’s Mane is a great mushroom for beginning mushroom hunters.

The fruiting body of Lion’s Mane consists of an unbranched, cushiony, water-rich mass that is between 3-10” wide and typically the same size tall.  Lion’s Mane is the only Hericium species in eastern North America that is unbranched.  The fruiting body of Lion’s Mane consists of numerous, icicle-like spines (“teeth”) that point downward and taper to a point. Each spine is soft and typically half-an-inch to 2 inches in length. These spines are white when young and yellowish when older.

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The spore color produced by Lion’s Mane is white.

Very few mushrooms resemble Lion’s Mane, and the ones that do are taxonomically placed in the same genus (Hericium).  These include Bear’s Head (H. abietis), Coral Tooth (H. coralloides), and Bear’s Head Tooth (H. americanum), among others.  What distinguishes Lion’s Mane from its relatives are its long spines (1-4 cm long) and unbranched fruiting body.  All species of Hericium are considered to be edible.

Also known as the Pom-Pom mushroom, Lion’s Mane is one of the most delectable mushrooms in the fungal kingdom, resembling crab meat in taste and texture.  Additionally, Lion’s Mane has been well researched for its role in improving cognitive health, producing neuro-regenerative effects in numerous studies (2, 3, 4).

Look for Lion’s Mane on the wounds of living hardwood trees, such as oaks and maples, as well as on recently felled trees.  It can be found in the summer months through autumn.

2. Chicken Of The Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

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While Lion’s Mane is one of the easiest mushrooms to identify, its presence is a bit more rare than some of the other choice edibles.  Take Chicken Of The Woods, for example.  Once you develop a search image for this fungus, you’ll start seeing it everywhere (okay, maybe not on Mount Kilimanjaro, but you get my point).

Chicken Of The Woods (also known as the Chicken Mushroom or Sulphur Shelf) grows in clusters on both standing and downed trees, emerging as knob-like growths and soon developing into numerous shelves.

Each individual cap can be up to 12” wide, though oftentimes you’ll find individual caps that are much larger than this.  The top of the mushroom is typically smooth and faintly wrinkled, and when fresh, its color is bright orange to yellowish orange (sometimes with a bright yellow margin).

With age, the caps of this mushroom will fade and turn whitish and become very crumbly. However, if you find Chicken Of The Woods at this stage, check that spot again in a few months or next year, because this mushroom tends to fruit multiple times on the same log or tree.

Chicken Of The Woods is a polypore mushroom because its fertile surface (underside) contains numerous pores from where the spores are dispersed. This means that there are no gills on the underside of Chicken Of the Woods, and there will never be gills on the underside. This mushroom always contains a pore surface with very tiny pores.

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In this particular species, Laetiporus sulphureus, the pore surface is bright yellow when fresh, though this color will fade with age.

Note:  The closely related L. cincinnatus contains a peachish-orange cap and a whitish-peachish pore surface.  It, too, is edible.

The spore print produced by Chicken Of The Woods is white.

The texture of cooked Chicken Of The Woods resembles… get this… chicken, and this mushroom is best collected when young.  As it ages, this mushroom becomes too tough to eat, though the outer edges can still be salvaged and used in dishes.  Like all wild mushrooms, it requires cooking before consumption.

Beyond edibility, Chicken Of The Woods is medicinal as well.  Research has shown that an extract from this mushroom possesses antimicrobial activity against the pathogen, Aspergillus flavus (5). Chicken Of The Woods is also a great source of antioxidants, including quercetin, kaempferol, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid (6), and it contains lanostanoids – molecules that have the ability to inhibit cancerous growths (7). What more could you ask for from a humble saprophyte?

Look for Chicken Of The Woods in the summer months through autumn.  To learn more about this fantastic fungus, I encourage you to check out a video I created on its identification, look-alikes, medicinal benefits, and more.

3. Hen Of The Woods / Maitake (Grifola frondosa)

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The Maitake mushroom (also known as Sheep’s Head or Hen Of The Woods) is a choice edible and medicinal that always demands a good hunt.  While it’s easy to identify and widely distributed, Maitake can be somewhat tricky to locate compared to the showy Chicken Of The Woods, as the former blends in well with the autumnal foliage.

Maitake contains overlapping gray to brown caps attached to a single base.  Each cap is between 1-3” wide and typically fan-shaped and fleshy (not woody like you’ll see in other polypores).

Underneath each cap is a pore surface containing numerous tiny pores.  There are no gills on the Maitake mushroom… just a pore surface. The pore surface is whitish or light gray in color, and these pores do not bruise when handled or scratched.

GrifolafrondosaUnderside

The spore print produced by the Maitake mushroom is white.

While not difficult to identify, Maitake may resemble other non-toxic polypores.  The Black Staining Polypore (Meripilus sumstinei) bruises black and can be found growing on buried wood.  Young specimens are edible, though they become too tough to consume with age.  The Umbrella Polypore (Polyporus umbellatus) is another edible look-alike which contains white to grayish caps, though this mushroom is multi-branched and not as common.

Maitake compliments a variety of dishes, lending a hearty flavor and tender texture.  In addition to its use as a food, Maitake has been researched extensively for its medicinal properties, specifically in the areas of cancer and diabetes.

Maitake, with few look-alikes, is certainly one of the safest mushrooms to harvest.  Look for this gem under oak trees (and make sure you circle the tree … you may be pleasantly surprised to find a second or third), late summer through autumn.

To learn more about the Maitake mushroom, I encourage you to check out this video I created on its identification, health benefits, and more!

4. Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Pleurotusostreatus2018-10

Oyster mushrooms are popular amongst both mushroom hunters and cultivators.  To positively identify Oysters, one only needs to visit a grocery store and observe these mushrooms in bins or clamshells.

Still, many features ought to be noted before harvesting Oyster mushrooms in the wild, and once learned, you’ll have easy access to wild fare many months of the year.

Oyster mushrooms are edible fungi that grow in overlapping clusters on wood… usually on hardwood logs, stumps, and standing dead trees.  Rarely will you see this particular species, Pleurotus ostreatus, decomposing conifer wood… though it is possible.

Each cap is typically between 3-8” wide and shaped like an oyster.  While many Oyster mushroom species are white, Pleurotus ostreatus can be cream-colored and even grayish-brownish in color.

Pleurotusostreatus2018-11

The underside contains whitish gills that become yellowish in age. A key feature of Pleurotus ostreatus is that its gills are decurrent; in other words, the gills run the complete length of the cap and down the stalk.

The spore print of Pleurotus ostreatus is pale-lilac to whitish.

Pleurotus ostreatus is unique in that it tends to grow in the colder months of the year —  mid-autumn, all the way through winter, and even into early spring. If you’re finding an Oyster mushroom during these colder months, and its color is tannish, grayish, or brownish… there’s a good chance you’re looking at Pleurotus ostreatus.

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

5. Morels (Morchella sp.)

MorchellaMorel2018

Morels (genus Morchella) are among the most prized of all wild mushrooms.  Every year, countless mycophiles scour the woods in search of these tasty, elusive fungi.

Mushrooms within the Morchella genus belong to one of 3 groups (“clades”):

  • Black clade (elata)
  • Yellow clade (esculenta)
  • Rufobrunnea clade (which currently contains the species Morchella rufobrunnea, a Morel that appears in woodchips and landscaping settings on the West Coast from California to Seattle.)

Black Morels (in the elata clade) typically appear first.  Depending on where you live, you might see Black Morels in March.  These mushrooms grow terestrially underneath a variety of trees, including ash, sycamore, aspen, and coniferous trees, and are most commonly found in Northern and Western North America (though they certainly do grow in Eastern North America).  Disturbed areas are good places to look, including campgrounds, along roads, and in logged areas.

MorchellaAngusticeps2017

Black Morels can be found in burned areas as well, especially 1 to 2 years after the occurrence of a forest fire. Additionally, wetland areas can be conducive to Black Morel mushroom fruitings, especially in lowlands containing sycamore and cottonwood trees.

Yellow Morels (in the esculenta clade) are more common in Eastern North America and in the Midwest (though they do grow in Western North America). They grow near a variety of hardwood trees, including tulip poplar, ash, and dead or dying elm trees. Older apple orchards are also good places to look.

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Of course, these are generalizations for both groups. Yellow Morels grow in burned areas, too. Black Morels may be found under tulip poplar trees. I have simply narrowed down the descriptions to what is most commonly observed. There will always be outliers.

Regardless of clade, Morels generally demonstrate these physical characteristics:

  • Honeycomb-pitted caps made up of a series of pits and ridges.
  • Entire mushroom (cap and stem) is hollow from top to bottom.  This feature is easily observed when each mushroom is cut in half lengthwise.

MorelInsideLearnYourLand

These features, once learned, will help you clearly separate “true” Morels from their look-alikes, including false morels, thimble morels, and stinkhorns.  False morels of the genus Gyromitra tend to retain a darker shade of red and have a wrinkled, brain-like, or convoluted cap.  A few mushrooms in the Gyromitra genus are known to be toxic (to a degree).  Thimble morels (Verpa spp.) have free, “skirt-like” sides, and stinkhorns (Phallus spp.) have a sack or volva at the base and are generally quite foul-smelling.

For more information on finding and identifying morel mushrooms, check out a very detailed article on this blog: How To Find And Identify Morel Mushrooms


If I had to include additional easy-to-identify mushrooms, I would extend this list to boletes, chanterelles, puffballs, and shaggy manes.  The ones that made the final cut, however, are those that I have found to be the easiest to identify.  I hardly need to think twice before bringing these delectable fungi home.

The mushrooms that earned their ranking are also the ones that, when taught to other beginning mushroom hunters, are identified with confidence and ease.  If you are just starting on the road to becoming an ardent mushroom hunter, use this list as a guide for helping you along your journey.  Remember, however, that the descriptions here are not complete and are only meant to briefly discern the listed mushrooms from their potential look-alikes.

A good habit (actually, an extremely wise habit) is to cross-reference your mushrooms with other resources, and always be absolutely positive with your identification before ingesting wild mushrooms in any form.  Your safest bet is to have an expert identify, or confirm the identification of, your specimens.  A quick online search will yield local mycologists as well as online forums to assist in the identification process.

There, that eases the fear of wild mushroom hunting just a little bit, wouldn’t ya say?

Thanks for reading, and as always … happy foraging!


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Adam Haritan

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Finding Vitamin C Outside The Grocery Store – Looking Into Wild Sources

redbudwildfoodismI’ve written about this before, and other wild food advocates have concurred:  wild plants, on average, contain more vitamins and minerals than their domesticated counterparts (wild lettuce vs. iceberg lettuce, wild blueberries vs. cultivated blueberries, etc.).  This is one of the many reasons why I strongly encourage others to adopt a wild food diet, even if that means consuming only one wild species per day.

Let’s take a look at vitamin C, conventionally known as L-ascorbic acid.  If you ask the average person which foods are high in vitamin C, you will almost always receive the same answers: orange, orange juice, and other citrus fruits – sometimes red pepper (Go ahead, try it.  Ask someone which foods are high in vitamin C, and I’d be surprised if the answers differ).

These responses are not entirely incorrect.  The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin C is 90 mg and 75 mg for adult men and women respectively.  A medium sized orange contains approximately 70 mg of vitamin C.

While humans cannot manufacture their own vitamin C, it is relatively easy to acquire through diet.  Vitamin C plays an essential role in the body, combating free radical damage and aiding in the synthesis of collagen, carnitine, and catecholamines.  Deficiencies are rare, though prolonged inadequate intake can lead to subcutaneous bleeding and poor wound healing.  The end result is scurvy.

Foods from the supermarket can certainly provide enough vitamin C to meet the recommended RDA, though it’s actually much easier to do so from fresher sources.  You see, vitamin C is a delicate molecule, and its content in food decreases significantly during storage.  For example, potatoes lose 50% of their vitamin C within 5 months of storage, and 65% within 8 months.  During winter storage, apples can lose up to 50% of their vitamin C, and cabbage up to 45% (Combs, 2012).  The mechanism at play here is oxidation, where ascorbic acid is oxidized into dehydroascorbic acid.

Where, then, do we find fresher sources of vitamin C?

Well, how about the wild?

When harvesting food from the wild, one has more control over storage methods.  Sure, some foods can still be stored for quite some time (dried aerial parts, nuts, seeds, roots), but most edibles will be consumed within the same week of gathering, at least in my experiences.

In addition to minimizing the loss of vitamin C due to storage, there is another important benefit in seeking the wild sources:  inherently, wild plants generally contain much more vitamin C than the plants found in the grocery store.

Let’s take a look at a few wild sources of vitamin C from plants available in my habitat (Southwestern Pennsylvania).  For reference, the orange – at 100 grams – contains approximately 53 mg of vitamin C.

Species (100 g), parts of plant, vitamin C content (1, 2, 3)

  • Dog rose (Rosa canina), fruit, 1252 mg
  • Balsam fir (Abies balsamea), needles, 270 mg
  • Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), bark and needles, 200 mg and 32 mg respectively
  • Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), aerial parts, 190 mg
  • Red spruce (Picea rubens), needles, 169 mg
  • Wild garlic (Allium vineale), leaves, 130 mg
  • Garden yellow-rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), basal leaves, 130 mg
  • Common blue violet (Viola sororia), basal leaves, 130 mg
  • Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album), whole young plants, 130 mg
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra), fruit, 116 mg
  • Shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), basal leaves of first year plants, 91 mg
  • Wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), leaves, 80 mg
  • Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), fruit, 80 mg
  • Mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica), leaves, 79 mg
  • Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), flowers, 69 mg
  • Mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), fruit, 68 mg
  • Common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta), leaves, 59 mg
  • Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), needles, 45 mg

Looking at this list, it’s quite evident that vitamin C is ubiquitous in nature.  And it’s not just found in plants.  One can acquire vitamin C by consuming animals; the heart, liver, and adrenals are all good sources of vitamin C.

This list also hints at another important implication:  our hunter and gatherer ancestors surely were ingesting vitamin C in levels greater than what is recommended today.  After all, the average indigenous diet was far more diverse than the modern dietary amalgamation of corn, wheat, and soy; this traditional heterogeneity ensured that vitamin C was easily acquired.  Additionally, research has shown that animal organs, rich in vitamin C, were favored over muscle meats in traditional diets.

Today, the RDA for vitamin C is based off of a different way of eating – primarily, the agricultural diet.  The RDA may prevent scurvy, and it may be enough for the body to function at an adequate level, but is the RDA for vitamin C high enough for humans to perform at optimal levels?

I’d dare to say “No, not really.”  If two cultivated oranges can supply the RDA for vitamin C, imagine what a meal supplemented with garlic mustard, rose hips, and white pine bark would provide.

If you are interested in approximating a diet with vitamin C levels in tune with your natural biology, consider ingesting an impressive array of wild foods on a daily basis.  And think of the 75-90 mg target as “just enough” to function adequately.

We certainly deserve more!

References
Combs, G. F. (2012). The vitamins: Fundamental aspects in nutrition and health. Burlington, MA: Academic Press.


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Adam Haritan

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Healing Chronic Diseases For Free With Wild Food

chickweedwinterwildfoodismFrom Reuters:  “One in three Americans with a chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or high blood pressure has difficulty paying for food, medications or both, according to a new study.”

It has become quite evident by now that the most heavily subsidized and advertised foods are responsible for the declining health of America’s citizens, offering little in the way of solutions.

Remember, as the popular phrase reminds us, that a problem cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created it.  Relating this to the topic at hand:  Even if all Americans with chronic diseases could afford food and medications, this would do very little to solve the overarching issue.

(Note: the chronic illnesses discussed in this article refer primarily to the ones caused by diet and lifestyle, and not the disorders of absolute genetic influence.)

What is the overarching issue?  America is centered around a diet of domesticated, medicine-deficient foods.  Not surprisingly, these same adulterated foods are associated with chronic diseases, like diabetes and hypertension.

Through the agricultural process of domestication, wild organisms have had most of their medicines bred out of them in exchange for improvements in taste, size, and yield.  Today, medicinal compounds are sought after by pharmaceutical researchers, extracted and patented, and sold back to sick Americans at enormous profit margins.

We’re sold on the idea of an inferior diet.  We’re sold the foods of an inferior diet.  We get sick on an inferior diet, and expect these same foods to provide relief and aid ourselves back to health (with the help of synthetic drugs, of course).

If only we had let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.

Sometimes, we confuse ourselves so much that even the obvious – what is literally in plain view – remains obscured.  Food was, and also has been, free.  For the majority of our time on this planet, we, Homo sapiens, consumed the wild foods that grew naturally in our ecosystems.  Only with the development of large-scale agriculture did we start to see evidence of massive surpluses of food, necessitating individuals to reign over the food supply and ultimately assign monetary value to their agricultural commodities.  And yet, the wild foods remained free.

I understand that our species, at least in the United States, has evolved quite a bit away from the natural processes of hunting and gathering (i.e. self-sufficient living), and it may not be feasible to expect the average American to reacquaint him or herself with these skills.  But it seems to me that this idea – of becoming more self-sufficient in all areas of life – targets the root problem, and is not just another band-aid to superficially cover the wound.

Contrast my thoughts, about becoming more self-sufficient in all areas of life, with what Reuters has to say:

…the authors recommend looking into eligibility for food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and WIC…

And later..

“The most important thing people can do is talk with their doctors about it,” said Berkowitz.

Yes, it is possible that the proposed solutions, at least in the short-run, will allow individuals to access food and medications during difficult times.  But is the lack of access to food assistance programs the real issue here?  Do all doctors teach self-reliance?  Do they have the answers as to why more and more Americans are experiencing chronic diseases with no conventional relief?

True, particular individuals with chronic diseases may not be able to afford certain foods.  But are the foods of the standard American diet really the ones best equipped to heal ourselves in times of distress?

A radical paradigm shift must be enacted, apparently, to understand that the most natural and healing foods for the human body are, and always have been, the wild foods of this planet.

And these foods are free.

I understand that this extreme transformation, from once relying on others (supermarkets, doctors, pharmacists) to now taking full responsibility for one’s health, may not be the feasible, overnight solution for which everyone is looking.  It’s not meant to be a short-term fix.  But if more and more individuals understood that true health could be gained and maintained by sustainably utilizing the natural resources of this planet, then perhaps we would finally see real change.

No, I’m not talking about the change that comes from recommending that men, ages 31 to 50, consume 2 cups of dark green vegetables, 6 cups of orange and red vegetables, 2 cups of beans and peas, 6 cups of starchy vegetables, and 5 cups of “other” vegetables weekly (1).  Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong crowd here, but I have yet to meet anyone doing just that.

What we need to see, for any real progress to occur, is an emphasis on the kind of lifestyle that has been shown to be effective, for instance, in producing healthy children, with adequate bone and facial structures, generation after generation.  Healthy indigenous populations, consuming a majority of their calories from wild foods, come to mind.

I suppose that in an ideal world, things would be different.  We would have less food assistance programs, and more food education courses.  We would have less food banks, and more wild food to harvest.  Never again would we think of food as just a source of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients.  And never again would we think that “healthy” food costs too much.  Instead, we would understand the food we consume to be the foundation of all nourishment, medicine, and health.

Ultimately, we would treat food less as a commodity, and more so as the sacred resource it always has been.


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Adam Haritan

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22 Trees That Can Be Tapped For Sap And Syrup

maplespilewildfoodism2As winter wanes and spring approaches, wild foodists all across North America tap into the time-honored tradition of sugar production – mainly, the transformation of maple tree sap into maple syrup and sugar.  This process, passed on from the Native Americans to the early settlers, is still quite popular today, and is responsible for one of the few wild foods that can be purchased commercially in most supermarkets.

Most people associate syrup with the maple tree, and although much of today’s syrup does originate from the sugar maple, all species of maple can be tapped.  Even better, many other trees from other genera can be tapped to extract sap, which ultimately can be turned into delicious syrup.

In this post, I won’t be discussing the methods involved in tapping for sugar production.  If you are unfamiliar with the process, there are a variety of great websites, videos, and books to guide you.  Rather, I would like to provide a list of various trees (maples, birches, walnuts, etc.) that you can tap successfully to yield wonderful, sugary products.

Now… before we get started, I’m wondering if you’re the kind of person who would rather watch a video than read a blog post.  If that’s you, check out this recent video I created.  In it, I discuss how to properly identify 4 trees — including 2 maple and 2 birch — that you can tap for sap and syrup production.

Okay… back to the list:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
The sugar maple yields the highest volume and concentration of sap, making it a superior candidate for tapping.  Its sugar content is approximately 2.0%.

Black maple (Acer nigrum)
Black maples produce as much sweet sap as sugar maples.  The trees closely resemble sugar maples and can be distinguished by their leaves.  Black maples tend to have leaves with three major lobes, while leaves from sugar maples have five lobes.

Red maple (Acer rubrum)
Sap yields from red maples are generally lower than those from sugar maples, although some tapping operations utilize only red maples.  The trees bud out earlier in the spring, which may reduce syrup quality near the end of sugaring season.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
Like red maples, silver maples bud out earlier in the spring and have a lower sugar content than sugar maples (1.7% compared to 2.0%).

Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
Native to Europe, Norway maples are now considered invasive throughout much of the United Sates.  They are not as sweet as sugar maples, yet can be tapped regardless.

Boxelder (Acer negundo)
Also known as Manitoba maple, boxelders can be found growing in urban areas and along roadsides.  They’re not recommended as a first choice for sugar production, although maple producers in the Canadian prairies rely almost exclusively on boxelders for their sap.  Research suggests that boxelders may yield only half the syrup of typical sugar maples.

Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)
Bigleaf maple is the main species of maple growing between central California and British Columbia.  Native Americans have tapped these trees for centuries, and although the sugar content and sap flow are less than those from sugar maples, these trees can still provide a commercially viable source of syrup for the Pacific Coast.

Canyon maple, big tooth maple (Acer grandidentatum)
These trees are found primarily throughout the Rocky Mountain states.  They also grow in Texas, where they are referred to as Uvalde bigtooth maples.  The sugar content is comparable to that of sugar maples, but the volume produced is much less.

Rocky Mountain maple (Acer glabrum)
Rocky Mountain maples are native to western North America, and have been used traditionally by various groups, including the Plateau Natives.

Gorosoe (Acer mono)
Gorosoe, which translates to “The tree that is good for the bones,” is the most commonly tapped maple tree in Korea.  The sap is usually consumed fresh as a beverage, and not boiled down to a syrup.

Butternut, white walnut (Juglans cinerea)
The butternut produces a sap that yields roughly 2% sugar – similar to sugar maples.  The timing and total volume of sap are also comparable to sugar maples.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
The black walnut tree is a valuable timber species, whose sap flows in autumn, winter, and spring.  It is more common in the Midwest than in the Northeastern United States.

Heartnut (Juglans ailantifolia)
A cultivar of Japanese walnuts, heartnuts have sugar contents comparable to sugar maples, but produce much less sap.

English walnut (Juglans regia)
These are the walnuts commonly eaten and purchased from supermarkets.  They are not typically found in the Eastern United States, but rather are grown most abundantly in California.  English walnut trees can be tapped successfully, especially when subjected to a freezing winter and spring.

Paper birch (Betula papyrifera)
The paper birch has a lower sugar content than sugar maple (less than 1%), but is the sweetest of the birch trees.

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis)
The yellow birch tree has been found to have a higher mineral composition, lower sugar content, and a higher ORAC value (measure of antioxidant capacity) than sugar maple.

Black birch (Betula lenta)
Native to eastern North America, black birch is most popular for its use in making birch beer.  And, as this list suggests, the black birch can be tapped.

River birch (Betula nigra)
Found growing abundantly in the southeastern United States, and planted as an ornamental in the Northeast, the river birch can successfully be tapped.

Gray birch (Betula populifolia)
Gray birch is more of a shrub than a tree, but may be tapped if it grows large enough.

European white birch (Betula pendula)
Native to Europe, and grown as an ornamental in urban and suburban areas of the United States, European white birch can be tapped.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Native to North America, the sycamore tree has a lower sugar content than sugar maple, yet is reported to produce a syrup that exudes a butterscotch flavor.

Ironwood, hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana)
These trees produce a sap later in the spring, although the sugar content and volume are much less than those from birch trees.

And there you have it – a list of 22 trees that can be tapped.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, as other trees surely produce a sap that can be extracted through tapping.  It is, however, a good representation of the most commonly tapped trees, including those that have been used traditionally for centuries, and some that are just recently gaining in popularity.

If you are fortunate to have access to any of the aforementioned trees – and the trees are healthy – explore the traditional art of sugar production by learning and participating in this beautiful craft.


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The Psychological High Of Foraging

chickcleaverswildfoodismThere is a peculiar difference between the acquisition of food from the supermarket and from the wild.  It isn’t a tangible difference, one that can be quantified and explained away with numbers and statistics.  It’s much more abstract than that.

The difference is a feeling that evades the supermarket harvester and will never reveal itself inside grocery store walls.  It is only felt by those who have a much deeper and more intimate connection to their food.

For the majority of time on this planet, humans have directly relied on the bountiful offerings that earth has provided.  Harvesting involved not only the physical process of acquiring food, but the emotional feelings of achievement and personal fulfillment that went along with it.  Food, while plentiful, was never a guarantee, and it’s not hard to imagine periods of ample feasting, followed by fruitless episodes of fasting.  The vicissitudes of obtaining food, therefore, aligned the body’s biological and psychological needs – the physical requirement for food and the emotional thrill in finding it.

Contrast this scenario with the modern supermarket shopping experience.  The biological requirement for food is easily met, yet the psychological thrill of seeking and discovering that food is extremely diluted (at best).

Going into the grocery store, the shopper already knows, almost precisely, which foods will be there and where they will be found.  Mindlessly perusing the aisles, dodging the other loaded shopping carts, the shopper may never even entertain the thought of where the food comes from, what conditions it grows in, and how it appears to be so neatly manicured on the grocery store shelf.

There is no hunt for the food, no chase, no challenge, no journey, no story to be told.  And because of all this, the psychological high is restrained.  The connection is lost; the process is too easy.

The forager experiences a different adventure altogether.  His food selection is dictated by the natural laws of his ecosystem – not by the global food network.  As an astute forager, he can predict when and where certain foods can be found.  But his experience is almost always enhanced by the discovery of new areas, new patches, new springs, new organisms, new highs.

As an example, mushroom hunting embodies the essence of this psychological high, where each foray is a treasure hunt into a mysterious world within valleys, riverbanks, fields, and forest floors.  The fungal kingdom is a bit less calculable than that of Plantae – always full of surprises, always feeding the forager’s thrill.  The mushrooms in the grocery store?  Not quite the same.

It’s difficult to put into words the specific feeling evoked when discovering new foods in the wild.  It seems that, at least to me, this feeling fulfills an inherent urge deep within the human spirit – to explore this world and participate in the act of accepting its gifts, while giving thanks in return for all that is selflessly given.

As one who experiences both realms, I can say this:  Shopping is predictable; foraging is boundless.  Shopping is taking; foraging is receiving.  Shopping is an activity; foraging is an adventure.  Shopping provides an account; foraging tells a story.  Shopping feeds the belly; foraging satisfies the soul.


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Adam Haritan

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6 Reasons To Eat Wild Food

wildreasonsThere are too many reasons why a wild food diet makes sense.  Remember, it does not have to be all or nothing.  Even incorporating just a small portion of wild edibles into your current diet will provide numerous benefits.

Here are 6 reasons to practice Wild Foodism:

1:  It is the most natural diet

For a long time, it seemed as if local and organic were enough.  Then raw foodism exploded onto the scene, raising the point that humans are the only animals that cook their food.  And more recently, we have the Paleo diet, which advocates an ancestral way of eating.  But the proponents of these diets rarely mention the kind of food that Homo sapiens consumed for the majority of their time on this planet:  food from the wild.  No matter how local, organic, raw, or Paleo a diet may be, none can be as natural as a wild food diet.

2:  More nutritious

Wild edibles are, on average, more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts.  They generally contain more phytonutrients (antioxidants), more vitamins and minerals, more fiber, less calories, and a better omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio.

3.  Connection to your ecosystem

Modern humans consume meals with ingredients sourced from all over the world.  Even something as simple as a fruit salad can contain apples from New Zealand, bananas from Ecuador, and pineapple from Costa Rica.  Eating wild organisms directly from your ecosystem connects you immediately to your land.  You know where the food grows, when it grows, and what it looks like.  Harvesting wild food creates a story between yourself and what nourishes you.  Those who do not share this same connection will be less likely to express concern when wilderness is cleared to make room for the next big-box store, for these individuals experienced no value from the land in the first place.

4:  Food security

When you can locate, identify, and harvest your food, food security is greatly increased.  Many of us are completely dependent upon grocery stores for our food, and pharmacies for our medicine.  But knowing how to source our food and medicine directly from our land provides a huge safety net, especially in times of need.  In an emergency, would you be able to feed yourself from the land?  Could you locate and harvest clean water?

5:  The cost

Many people claim that eating healthy is expensive.  “I’d buy organic, but it just costs too much,” they say.  Well, what if I told you that you could eat healthier (much healthier!) and do so for free?

Eat wild food (plants, animals, fungi) and watch your food expenses drop.  Sure, nibbling on wild greens from time to time may not save you much, but if you know how to source the calorically-dense wild foods, like nuts, tubers, fruits, and animals, you will really see a difference in your expenditures (and your health).

6.  Outdoor experience

Many of us spend most of our hours indoors.  We sleep indoors, play indoors, shop indoors, cook indoors, and work indoors.  Is it any surprise that we long for a summer vacation with a beautiful landscape – the beach, the mountains, the woods?  Harvesting wild food is not feasible indoors.  Instead, it requires you to get outside and immerse yourself in a door-less world.   As you begin the foraging process you will discover many more reasons to step outside.  Need some greens? Berries for a smoothie?  How about some roots for a hot-water decoction?  Explore the outdoors and see what you stumble upon.

Of course, there are so many other reasons why a wild food diet makes sense.

What are some of the reasons that inspire you?


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Adam Haritan

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The 10 Most Utilized Plants By Native Americans

westernredcedarIf the saying is true, that we are what we eat, it’d be fair to say most Americans are walking columns of corn, soy, and wheat.  These three crops are grown in abundance for many reasons.  Most people consume manufactured forms of these foods, like wheat-based cereals and breads, soy-based emulsifiers and oils, and corn-based … well, pretty much everything from sweeteners to thickeners.  Animal feed is also supplemented with these crops, so when we’re eating the animals, we’re essentially eating more corn, soy, and wheat.

And then there are hundreds of other reasons why these items are mass-produced.  We produce fuel, plastics, paints, pharmaceutical excipients, candles, etc. from food crops.

Here is a chart detailing seven major agricultural crops produced in the United States in 2011.  It does not include root, citrus, and vegetable crops, like potatoes, tomatoes, and oranges, but instead presents a more generalized snapshot of American agriculture.  Take a look (click to enlarge):

majorcrops

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to very many people.  From a Wild Foodism standpoint, however, these foods aren’t too exciting nor promising.

As a resident of North America (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be exact), I am far more interested in the foods that the Natives utilized as treasured resources, rather than the foods that make the most profit.  This is valuable information for anyone attracted to Wild Foodism.

Believe it or not, there are indeed certain species that once possessed more utility than someone today might imagine.  These plants were incorporated into cultures as drugs (medicine), food, fiber, dyes, and other things (incense, talismans, toys, fragrances, tools, etc.).

I have included two charts, similar to the one above, examining the most utilized plants in Native American culture.  Both tables are taken from Daniel E. Moerman’s tome, Native American Ethnobotany (2008).

The first table outlines the 10 plants with the greatest number of uses, and with uses in all five categories (click to enlarge).

Moermantable1

The second table outlines the 10 plants with the greatest number of uses, regardless of category (click to enlarge).

Moermantable2

It’s important to note that not all of these plants grow throughout North America.  Western red cedar, for example, is primarily found in the Pacific Northwest.  Stinging nettle, on the other hand, grows throughout most of the United States and Canada.

If you are not familiar with these organisms, I encourage you to seek out more information regarding their uses.  There are reasons (very good reasons!) the Natives chose these particular plants to be their allies in everything from medicine to food.

Sure, Triticum aestivum (common wheat) may serve a purpose in your life.  If nothing else, it’s pretty neat to watch bread rise with the help of yeast.  But never forget:  dietary diversity is crucial for robust health, and consuming an agricultural diet of corn, soy, and wheat in their various adulterations may not be the greatest health strategy long-term.

What is a great strategy, however, is to include more wild foods into your lifestyle.

What can you do right now?  Take a look at the latter tables above and see which plants inhabit your ecosystem .  Research their traditional uses and begin to incorporate them into your life.

And ask yourself, from what building blocks do you want your body to be built?  The genetically modified, chemically-laden inferior foods of agriculture, or the wild and hearty organisms of the natural world?


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Adam Haritan

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Lessons from Zimbabwe

AmaranthushybridusCommunities all over the world utilize wild plants for many reasons.  Here in the United States, the foods have fallen out of favor for the majority of citizens and have been replaced by a diet composed primarily of domesticated staple crops like corn, wheat, and soy.  Even though the evidence is clear that on average, wild plants are more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts, this fact alone may not be enough to recruit the U.S. population.

But if not for the nutrition, why else would individuals adopt a lifestyle of eating “weeds?”  Perhaps  the answer lies amongst the residents of Shurugwi District, Zimbabwe, who supplement their tropical agricultural diet of cassava, maize, millet, sorghum, and wheat with wild plants they gather within their community (1) .  They don’t earn much money either, as most are unemployed and make less than $50 per month.  Foraging for them, it turns out, is not only a means for nutrition supplementation, but also for food access and security.

Take a close look at the nutrient levels of the 5 most common wild edibles consumed in Shurugwi District, Zimbabwe (click to enlarge).

Table4

Amaranthus hybridus, commonly known as smooth pigweed, is an excellent source of calcium, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin C (all above the DRI).  The ratio of nutrition to caloric density in all of the foods listed is quite high, meaning individuals are receiving high amounts of vitamins and minerals without consuming many calories (when combined with staple crops, like maize, caloric intake is increased).  This nutrition persists into the dry seasons, when periods of drought create food shortages.  Because the residents preserve the wild plants through different methods, they are able to provide a buffer against cold and dry spells when they occur.  The foraged food, therefore, plays two important roles in Shurugwi District: nutrition and food security.

In the United States, 46.5 million people, or 15% of the population, live in poverty.  Many inhabit food deserts and have access only to convenience stores and gas stations.  Efforts are being made to alleviate this problem, but very few focus on the massive potential that one solution contains.  What if there was a shift in focus to wild food identification and foraging, as well as preservation and storage?  As the inhabitants of Shurugwi District demonstrate, a strategy is necessary to ensure food access and security, not only involving the cultivation of crops through agriculture, but the sustainable harvest of wild edibles as well.

Yes, certain wild edibles alone may not meet the caloric needs of those who consume them.  But any effort to increase the consumption of these plants (and/or animals) is a huge step forward for every human being in the quest for sustainability, survival, and health.