Foray into foraging
Turn a winter walk in the woods into a treasure hunt
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.”
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.”
These are examples of chaga, on the left, and birch polypore.