Gleaning and Foraging in Late Fall
If you didn’t feel it already, November marks summer’s end with the holiday Samhain (pronounced Sow-wen). This is the time of year when you bring in the last of your harvest – all that will sustain you through the dark months ahead – hopefully. What are the things you need to help you weather the dark times? Perhaps you’ve been grilling too many tomatoes and cut yourself on one too many pears and grated your gazillionth batch of zucchini. Perhaps your freezer is overfull of pesto and pumpkin pie filling and chicken-of-the-woods and blanched kale. Perhaps your pantry is packed with apple sauce, peach cider, blueberry jam, and autumn olive fruit leather. Appreciate the abundance!
Take stock: what plants are you thankful for that you cohabitate with? Is it the wand of mullein whose leaves you harvested and made into a tincture for an earache? Is it the plantain the carpets your lawn that you applied to a cut to heal the wound? Is it the lambs quarter growing wildly in your garden that you’ve been harvesting to add to your salads and stir fry? Is it the expanding comfrey that you are now grateful you had whose leaves you steeped into a tea for bronchial discomfort? Is it the goldenrod you made into a tincture to treat your urinary tract infection? So many plants surrounding us in our daily lives that can provide, not just beauty, but also health and nutrition.
We live in an area where we have access to, not just garden space, but also wild space. Not just neighbors’ yards for collecting drops (always be sure to ask first!) but also on and off-trail finds. Much of what is now in my freezer and covering my counters comes from gleaning unwanted fruits and nuts from my neighbors’ yards and forest foraging efforts.
There is still time to collect…
If the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate) drupes are still hanging on the shrubs that are attempting to overtake the fields, now is a good time to harvest these silver-speckled red berries. They become sweeter after the frost and may persist unless a strong wind comes along and strips them off the stems. Keep your cache in the freezer for winter use. Add a handful to pancake and muffin batters.
As you are scanning the woodland oaks and maple, you can count yourself lucky if you stumble upon wild edible mushrooms. Hen-of-the-woods aka maitake and chicken-of-the-woods, Laetiporus sulphureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus prefer oaks (Laetiporus conifericola prefer conifers as the Latin name suggests) while oysters prefer sugar maples. Mushroom hunting tends to require observant eyes and luck. You can have all the helpful conditions – a old, dying, or dead tree, mycelium threading through the bark, and time to hunt a couple of days after a soaking rain, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will find mushrooms blooming. But when you spy that bright orange (top) and yellow (bottom) shelf fungus that tends to grow up dying or dead oaks – you are in for a treat! Chicken-of-the-woods can appear as scalloped stairs climbing an oak or in rosette formation on an exposed root. Notice that chickens have no gills on the underside and the topside tends to be smooth and wavy. As a member of the polypore family, it has thousands of microscopic pores. When you conduct your spore print (always conduct a spore print for proper identification!) use a black sheet of paper as this mushroom has a white spore print. It is a very meaty mushroom and there are no poisonous look a-likes so this is an easy mushroom to ease into mushroom hunting. Sauté fresh or freeze for winter soups and stir-frys. If the mushroom is a bit on the old and tough side, you can add water as you sauté to reconstitute it or you can make soup stock from it by roasting and then simmering it. Always cook your mushrooms! Do not consume any mushrooms raw because the least of your problems may be gastric distress. Edible and medicinal mushrooms, when prepared correctly, are healthy additions to one’s diet.
Like the American chestnut, Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) nuts are edible – and unlike our declining American chestnut – plentiful. Chinese chestnuts tend to be grand ornamental trees you may spy in your neighbor’s yard. Come autumn, the trees drop green spiky hulled nuts. The green husks turn brown as they age. By stepping on the sharp husks with your shoe you can usually open them up to get at the brown nuts. Mature nuts will be plump. Score an “x” into the tough shell with a knife and then roast at 400° for 30 minutes. The nuts will become tender and you can then remove the shell and bitter brown skin. After that, you can eat as is or add them to savory or sweet dishes.
As the season deepens into winter and you explore the outdoors, observe what is left in the fields and forest that you can eat. Perhaps it’s the kale, parsley, and arugula in your garden that you can continue to harvest for
dinner. Perhaps the green white pine needles you reach up for and snag a bunch to make a cup of vitamin C tea. Whatever it is, keep a log of what you notice is growing and when so that you can remember when a particular herb, vegetable, fungi, nut, or fruit is ready to be gleaned or harvested.
Enjoy and be thankful for the great outdoors!
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appeared in the November 2020 edition of The Ashfield News.
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