Back-pocket Details: 2 Examples of Where and When to Find Wild Food: False Solomon Seal & Hemlock Varnish Shelf
Recently I was asked if I eat wild edibles every day. Perhaps not every day but I do tend to go outside and collect garden, feral, and wild flora to incorporate into my meals. Throughout August I was pulling Mugwort leaves, then seeds, and pinching Queen Anne’s Lace, Evening Primrose, and Chicory flowers. In mid-August I munched my way through on Blackberries and Purple-flowering Raspberries while also collecting Rugosa rosehips to dry for tea. And then there was the challenge of watching the Elderberries ripen and waiting for the berries to be ripe enough to collect before the birds descended upon them and gobbled them all up. And without rain in August, my favorite August mushroom –Black Trumpets – have been hard to come by. As we turn towards September, I have been watching False Solomon Seal, Grape, Cherry, and Nannyberries ripen, knowing that I will have trailside nibbles throughout the autumn. And with any blessings there will be rain and with rain there will be fall mushrooms such as Chicken- and Hen-of-the-woods.
What’s named “false” is not always inedible.
False Solomon’s Seal, aka Solomon’s Plume aka False Spikenard, Maianthemum racemosum in Liliaceae. is a native shade-loving herbaceous plant that bears edible red fruit in the fall. I tend to find them growing near Sugar Maples, along backroads. They appreciate rich, moist soils. When identifying this plant many people turn to an old adage that states something to the effect of, “The truth lies beneath whereas the lies are in plain sight”. Which is completely unfair to this plant as there is nothing false about it. Apparently, Solomon Seal, Polygonatum spp., another New England native, was named first, so False Solomon’s Seal was named such because its leaves resemble Solomon’s Seal. Both plants have long, arching stems with long tapering elliptic leaves. However, Solomon’s Seal flowers and berries (which are toxic to humans) hang down in pairs from the leaf axils whereas False Solomon’s Seal flowers and berries are clustered at the tip of the plant. False Solomon’s seal blooms white flowers in the spring, later producing pea-size beige berries that turn ruby red in September. The red ripe berries are an edible trailside nibble. The initial taste is molasses-y, but the aftertaste is a bit acrid. Though the rhizomes are also edible, not only are they fibrous and somewhat similar in taste (and after-taste) to the berries, one needs to be cautious not to over-harvest. If you were to find a healthy colony of these plants, then I would suggest harvesting a few of the plumper rhizomes and boiling them like a potato. In the spring you can harvest the shoots and cook them – apparently only if there’s no other options. (Hence why I have yet to sample them.) Be sure you know the difference between False Solomon’s Seal shoots and toxic False Hellebore shoots which tend to be much thicker. False Solomon’s Seal is a good plant to keep in your “back-pocket” for survival food knowledge.
From trailside treats to woodland treasures.
If you walk yourself out of a deciduous forest and into a conifer forest, another red “fruit” you are apt to find is Hemlock Varnish Shelf, Ganoderma tsugae in Ganodermataceae. If the “tsugae” part of the Latin name looks familiar it is because this medicinal shelf fungus grows mainly on Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis. So, tuck that tidbit of knowledge into your back-pocket as you walk through the forest and keep an eye out for these treasures. There are several species of Reishi in Ganoderma and none of them have any poisonous look-alikes. These polypore shelf mushrooms are relatively easy to identify by their red glossy coloration and plump fan-like shape. The mushroom is red at the base of the fan and lightening to yellow and cream at the fringes of the fan. Though Ganoderma lingzhi, also known as Reishi and used in traditional Chinese medicine doesn’t tend to grow this far north, you may hear folks stating that they found Reishi, which seems to have become the common name for the variety of Ganoderma one can find in the woods. Some species of Reishi specialize on hardwoods such as Ganoderma curtisii while others on softwoods such as Ganoderma tsugae. Know that whichever specie of Reishi you have found, these fungi are your ally as an anti-carcinogen when prepared as a tea or tincture. Reishi are adaptogens, which means they help you to cope with physical stresses. They safe for long-term use. Reishi are also known to be analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-allergic, and able to reduce blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar.
To preserve for later use, cut the fan into thin strips and place on a drying rack, then store in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. If making a tincture, community herbalist Hannah Jacobson-Hardy of Sweet Birch Herbals recommends, that because mushrooms are water and fat soluble, chop fresh mushrooms, then simmer for 8 hours, then add equal parts 190 proof alcohol to the decoction in order to preserve the extract. Store for up to 6 weeks prior to use. This method is called double extraction
Reishi is not considered a choice edible because its flesh is quite tough. Ganoderma tsugae tends to bloom from May to July but given the drought I have not been finding many edible mushrooms of any species this summer. With any luck Hemlock Varnish Shelf pop out this fall after a good rainstorm as they can fruit into November. Pick while the underside is still white, ensuring that the mushroom is a recent bloom. Notice the underside flesh bruises tan when pressed. Reishi can be gently torn from the host tree. The top and creamy-colored porous underside will darken as the mushroom ages. Although Ganoderma tsugae does not have any poisonous look-alikes, it is always good practice as you are learning your fungi to do spore prints.
To do a spore print, look up what the spore color is supposed to be and then place the mushroom on a piece of paper the opposite shade of the spore print. Given Ganoderma tsugae provides a reddish-brown spore print you would want to use a white piece of paper. If the spore were to be light-colored you would want to use dark paper so that you can see the print. Leave the mushroom gill- or pore-side down for a few hours to get the print for proper identification. Proper identification, along with proper preparation, will help you grow into an old mushroom hunter. Bold mushroom foragers don’t necessarily become old ones. Do not eat raw mushrooms. Whether drying or cooking, mushrooms need preparation to reap their health benefits.
Pray for rain and happy foraging.
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
This article appears in the September 2022 edition of The Ashfield News.
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Foraging Reishi Mushrooms by Practical Self Reliance