Foray into for­ag­ing

Turn a win­ter walk in the woods into a trea­sure hunt

The News (New Glasgow) - - FRONT PAGE - BY BREN­DAN AH­ERN

With win­ter’s ar­rival, avid for­agers know these are prime months for gath­er­ing tasty and use­ful plants and fungi grow­ing in Pic­tou County.

“I love it. It’s fresh air and na­ture,” says Conny Mayer from her home in Sutherlands River. Mayer is a medic­i­nal her­bal­ist and owner of Nat­u­ral Edge. She spends two days each week col­lect­ing chaga and poly­pore mush­rooms which can both be found grow­ing on birch trees — “if you know where to look.”

Chaga is a fun­gus that grows in the open wounds of birch trees and looks a bit like burned char­coal.

The Health Canada-ap­proved mush­room can bol­ster the im­mune sys­tem, lower high blood sugar and, like the blue­berry, is loaded with an­tiox­i­dants. Un­like blue­ber­ries, chaga is best picked in the cold.

“You do not go for chaga over the sum­mer,” says Mayer. “You wait un­til we have at least one night of frost and then the tree doesn’t have as much juice, the leaves are gone.”

Birch poly­pore mush­rooms, wild cran­ber­ries and win­ter chanterelles can all be found this time of year. Even tips of ev­er­green trees can be brewed, like chaga, into a sooth­ing tea.

But it’s not like these are found along com­mon walk­ways.

“You re­ally have to go into the woods,” Mayer says. “If I go out, then I’m hik­ing pretty much all af­ter­noon or morn­ing. I think you get an eye for it af­ter a while.”

Mush­room gold

De­vel­op­ing that eye takes time but it can turn a ca­sual walk in the woods into a trea­sure hunt.

“It’s just fun. You feel like you’re an ex­plorer,” says wild food afi­cionado and author, Jamie Simp­son. “That idea of search­ing out and seek­ing some­thing. When you find it, there’s this feel­ing of ela­tion. Even if other peo­ple know about it, it’s still a per­sonal dis­cov­ery for you.”

Simp­son’s pas­sion for wild foods started when his mother would let him roam the woods around his home­town of St. An­drews, N.B.

“She cer­tainly didn’t stand in the way. I am so grate­ful that I did have that free­dom — or per­haps some peo­ple might call it be­nign ne­glect — to let me roam on my own.”

To­day, Simp­son lives in Hal­i­fax, but he’s spread­ing the good word about wild foods through­out the Mar­itimes. The main thing to re­mem­ber is safety first.

“You want to make sure you know what you’re pick­ing be­fore you pick it,” said Simp­son.

Re­search­ing what to pick and how to pre­pare what you’ve gath­ered is an im­por­tant part of for­ag­ing, but it doesn’t need to be a solo task car­ried out be­hind a com­puter desk.

“Maybe or­ga­nize a hike with some­one who’s knowl­edge­able, and get a lit­tle group to­gether,” he says. “Find a friend or some­one who knows about these plants and fungi. That’s a good way to start.”

Har­vest with care

Know­ing how to find wild foods and what the best prac­tices are for har­vest­ing them comes with know­ing about the plant. All of these plants and fungi grow at their own pace and need a healthy place to grow, so it’s es­sen­tial to har­vest in a way that is sus­tain­able and re­duces harm to their en­vi­ron­ment.

The chaga mush­room’s growth is dif­fer­ent from a chanterelle with its roots be­neath the soil ready to sprout again af­ter you’ve picked the tasty por­tion off the top. In­stead, chaga grows into the heart of the birch, and tak­ing ev­ery last bit of it will hurt the tree — and an­other per­son’s chances of find­ing any­thing on their own trea­sure hunt.

“If you don’t know what you’re do­ing — hurt­ing the tree, tak­ing what­ever you can find and then not us­ing it — then there will be noth­ing left,” says Mayer. “It’s for ev­ery­body.”

BREN­DAN AH­ERN/THE NEWS

These are ex­am­ples of chaga, on the left, and birch poly­pore.

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