Monday, July 30, 2012

Partridge Berry Identified

These berries were still on the plant in the spring, even as it is getting ready to flower for the season

Often called partridge berry, squaw berry, or two-eyed berry, Mitchella repens is a common, native plant in North America. It ranges from eastern Canada to Florida, and as far west as Texas. It prefers moist woods, and we find it often in conifer-filled forests of pine and hemlock, often blanketing the forest floor with its creeping stems.

Partridge berry is a very small, woody-stemmed shrub, with about 6"-12" long stems. The woody branches produce opposite pairs of small, dark green, ovate leaves, about 1/2" long, with white or yellow mid-ribs. At the nodes where the leaves grow from the stem, the plant may produce additional roots where it contacts the ground, helping the plant spread into great mats. It is easily propagated by cuttings, and makes a handsome ground cover in shady areas.

Photographing the flower was a bit of a challenge for us, since we always seemed to miss that short time in the late spring when the blooms are out. The flower is unusual in that they are produced in pairs, fused at the base, sharing a common calyx. The trumpet-shaped, white flowers are covered with fine hairs, and each flower has four petals, one pistil, and four stamens. Before they bloom, the bud has a pink hue.
Unripe berry

The pair of flowers will produce one berry with two "eyes" on the underside. The berries ripen from green to bright red in July, and can persist on the plant through the winter and into the spring when the plant starts blooming again. There are several small seeds inside. While pretty and technically edible, the berries are mostly flavorless and a bit dry. They are great for kids to find and eat, and could go into a mixed wild foods salad. This is more of a survival food, as the berries last on the plant for so long, and can even be found under the snow. They are a good food source for many wild birds and small rodents in the forest.

Berry underside, with the two "eyes" visible

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why We Joined the Local Mycological Group

"Can I eat it?" Honeys, puffballs, parasols, chickens, winecaps, and pear-shaped puffballs, all edible.

While we have foraged wild edible plants for about 7 years now, our mushroom experiences had been limited, somewhat hesitant and filled with fear. Some mushrooms can kill you, no joking. We would fantasize about finding the ones labelled "choice edible" in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, but were filled with doubt when it came down to correctly identifying any mushroom we found. Sometimes part of the description matched what we found, but not 100%. Sometimes we found stuff not in the book at all, or we just didn't know where to look. Our best score was trading Russ Cohen some wild fruit jellies for a hen-of-the-woods mushroom after he led a walk, and the taste and texture of that mushroom haunted us for more than a year, as we wondered how, when and where to ever find another. Joining the Connecticut Valley Mycological Society has changed that.
Fried "Chicken" Mushroom and
Onion Strings

Hen-of-the-woods, Chestnut, and
Butternut Squash soup
We are not scholars, we hunt for the cooking pot, so we are known as mycophagists. While the more learned biologists might scorn us for our primary interests of eating a mushroom rather than looking at its spores under a microscope or doing a DNA sequence, we want to know the answer to the most basic and persevering question of "Can I eat it?". Joining the local mushroom club will get that question answered, along with the all-important  "Is this poisonous?", "When and where can I find this mushroom?", "Does this taste good?", and "How can I cook this?".

Black Trumpets, Craterellus fallax
Gillian and her Puffball,
Calvatia  cyathiformis
It was at the Coventry Regional Farmer's Market  about one year ago that we ran into the club, on a day when the market was featuring mushrooms.Some vendors had mushroom-related wares, but we were interested in the promised display of Connecticut fungi and the ability of meeting local experts and enthusiastic amateurs. The array of different fungi on display was unimaginable, and we got the time and place of their next meeting to attend a trial foray. We joined up immediately, and while the first few forays were a bit overwhelming (CVMS identifies ALL of the fungi found on a foray, not just the edibles), some of the information we were learning was staying with us. Amazing! is just about all we could say about the fungi being found, displayed, and identified every week. Stinky mushrooms, mushrooms with teeth, mushrooms with pores instead of gills, red ones, orange ones,  and blue ones, crusts growing on trees, and mushrooms you could draw pictures on. Robert was photographing some gorgeous specimens, I was cooking up some yummy recipes, and Gillian was using her senses finding fungi. We attended every weekly foray for the rest of the season.

Summer oysters
Foray display
We renewed our membership for 2012, and I was "volunteered/recomended" for a position as the Membership Secretary for CVMS. I thought I would share some of the club literature and the benefits of membership, as we find it invaluable for education. It is the people in CVMS who make it the club what it is, including the local experts, the kind educators, the funny characters and the warm personalities. We are a group of people interested in the world around us!

Connecticut Valley Mycological Society, INC. (CVMS) was founded in 1975. It is a "Mushroom Club". . . A club for those interested in mushrooms as food, a club for those interested in mushrooms for study, and a club for those who are interested in mushrooms as an art form. Whatever your interest might be, CVMS, with its many members with diverse interests, can help you increase your understanding and knowledge in your special avocation.

LEARN more about mushrooms, where to find them, their diversity of color and form.

COLLECT mushrooms throughout the year under the guidance and supervision of competent amateur mycologists at regular field trips and forays.

IDENTIFY mushrooms by using field guide books or by taking notes at the regular forays where all collections are identified. If you find some mushrooms while foraging on your own, bring them to one of the scheduled forays and you will receive assistance in identifying them.

EXCHANGE recipes, ideas, and information.

RECEIVE our newsletter, the "Spore Print" regularly for information both entertaining and educational.

ENJOY the beauty of Connecticut State Parks. After a few months, you'll find that you can identify not only mushrooms, but mosses, ferns, trees, weeds, lichens, and many other forms of life. . . this is because of the broad interests of many of our members.

PHOTOGRAPH the beautiful and unusual mushrooms of Connecticut. Share them with other members during our indoor winter meeting.

BENEFIT from the "Workshops", lectures, field identification sessions, and the experience of our members.

BECOME aware of the delights and dangers of eating wild mushrooms.

DISPENSE of "old wive's tales". Discover how to safely collect mushrooms for the table.

WHATEVER your interest, let it mature and develop. Mycology is a strange science, the more you learn, the more you become aware of the questions you never thought to ask. Knowledge only seems to whet your thirst for more.

JOIN in the many activities of the club . . . workshops, forays, annual regional conferences, banquets, picnics, and fellowship! Get a Member Handbook. Enjoy the Spore Print news letter every quarter. But first,  you must be a member! Contact me, Karen Monger to receive an application at kraczewskiATcomcastDOTnet

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Would You, Could You Forage for Profit?

Handful of free, organic, seasonal, and delicious huckleberries

Wild food foraging seems to be growing in popularity. Blogs are popping up all over, wild food discussion groups abound on facebook, new books on finding, identifying and cooking wild food are being published, dinners at restaurants are being promoted, and more people than ever are teaching. Money is being charged and earned, making what used to be a form of survival into a profit-earning job. Is this a good thing, or bad thing? Do we forage wild food for profit?

Japanese knotweed, violet, and dandelion jelly
Currently, we blog about wild food. I do have a few small ads on the blog, but I have yet to receive a check for any generated income. We have our own facebook page, where I can give current updates and add some fun photos, and a YouTube channel with videos we have made about wild food and featuring some wild food educators. We take tons of photos of wild foods, and are willing to share them without payment, we just ask for photo credit and a link back to the blog. We develop recipes and post them for free, hoping someone else may be inspired to taste wild foods. On one special occasion, we foraged food for a dinner at a restaurant in Providence that was hosting Hank Shaw, a wild foods author. In exchange, we enjoyed that fantastically prepared wild food meal and had a lovely evening out. We do make lots of wild fruit and berry preserves that we sell, but many of those also get gifted or swapped for other foods or services. We place an educational display about wild food at our local library in the autumn, and it is up for one month in the lobby. Although the library administrators have asked us to do a program to accompany the display, we have declined (stage fright!). We get asked all the time if we give classes, but I personally feel we are not at that level of education and experience. So, no profit for us.

Gillian holding Laetiporus
cincinnatus, dinner time!
If we are not making money foraging, why are we doing it? We started with a general interest in the plants around us when we were hiking in the woods. Wondering if they were edible comes from being able to identify and eat common berries like huckleberries and blackberries, and looking at the other plants we could not yet identify. We started buying books and looked for teachers, and we traveled to see Wildman Steve Brill, Blanche Derby, and Russ Cohen give talks and walks. Our interest was mostly for fun, but now we actually end up saving money on food costs. Making dinner with wild food can be challenging, but the benefits include a tasty and unusual meal. Robert enjoys the survival possibilities of eating wild food, along with the seasonal, organic and health aspects. Gillian, being a naturally inquisitive and curious child, truly enjoys the sweet berries, the minty wintergreen leaves, and the peppery greens. Our interests have also grown to include fungi, and we actively participate in the local mycological club. For now, we are willing to walk with friends and show them some edibles, but it is done in a fun manner, and we are not "teaching". Being outside and feeling comfortable with our surroundings is immensely satisfying, and spotting something free and edible is a bonus. We are still foraging without deadlines, schedules, and obligations, and I think I like it this way!