I wasn’t always a forager. Generally, mom and dad kept me away from wild edibles while a child. There was just too much risk involved and, while they both had a great deal of outdoor experience, that experience didn’t really include all the wild goodies around us. And it’s certain now that we missed excellent opportunities for wild harvest as we moved around the eastern U.S. and Canada.
I dabbled a little during my teen years at eating from the wild, sometimes successfully, sometimes inviting disaster. I didn’t really know what I was doing though and I certainly didn’t have an internet back then to inform my decisions. I didn’t start foraging seriously until the first of my long eastern brook trout hikes (get the book here) when I was twenty-seven. This was purely out of necessity. I hadn’t budgeted well and just started eating wild greens about the time I hit the Great Smoky Mountains.
What I learned first about foraging is that it’s really, really tough to meet your caloric requirements, especially if you’re on the move through the mountains with a huge pack. I know what the early stages of starvation feel like now, a sensation that your body is entirely fat-free, gaunt and uninsulated. My mood was one of constant discouragement and my energy level hit rock bottom. I found myself sitting a lot at campsites, boiling some more greens and maybe not moving on down the trail at all. But this was how I learned something about choosing foods and setting realistic expectations for one’s foraging.
The following is given as a starting guide for the recreational forager, not for hard-core woodland survival. Your prioritization of best foods will be a lot different if you need to survive (you’re going to need to eat animals) but there will be a lot of overlap between survival foods and interesting-to-gather delicacies. So, let’s start with some plants that are easily located, particularly here in the mid-Atlantic region. I advise practicing with these in a real kitchen before attempting to cook them up at a campfire.
Among the most basic of wild fruits are the berries, wild foods that you’re already aware of if you’ve ever eaten from the wild at all. This group includes members of the Rosaceae family (the roses): blackberry, black raspberry and red raspberry. This whole cluster berry group is easily identified and not easily confused with anything poisonous. Look for these through most of the summer months in open areas like gas line/powerline rights-of-way, the edges of fields or along woods roads. Several species of blueberries are found throughout the Appalachian region and New England, also in summer. Strawberries are usually of the least value because of their small size and often sparse patches. The berries are perhaps also mentioned first because they’re probably the best tasting of the wild edibles listed here. If you’re not eating these, you’re missing out.
Here are a few you can most likely find in just about any yard in the suburbs: dandelion, clover and plantain. Every part of each of these is edible, though not all parts are really desirable all the time. A rule of thumb is to take the youngest specimens you can find, particularly with plantain. Large, old specimens are basically inedible. These are plants that will be unavailable in the dark shade of the forest but start looking around if you find yourself on a dirt road or passing through fields. These are plants which were long ago dispersed by the droppings of horses and cattle and that’s why they’re now found far from farms in places where livestock once roamed or were used for transport. Most of these greens need to be boiled thoroughly before eating, if only to remove the bitter chlorophyll taste.
Cattails are an abundant resource which can be found, collected and eaten through much of the year. Of course, you’ll want to search wet, swampy places for these and have the right kind of footwear to go in after them. I choose to include this one in my list of the best and first to try mainly because it’s versatile: all parts of the plant can be eaten at some time of the year. I began with cattails by eating the rhizomes, or roots. I’m still not great at preparing these but it’s a decent potato replacement especially at times of the year when little else is available.
Another plant which grows in great abundance throughout the mid-Atlantic and beyond is the non-native Japanese knot weed. Please, eat as much of this as you can! It’s the bamboo-like stuff crowding streams and rail trails, if you don’t recognize the name (you’ve certainly seen the plant). This should only be eaten in its early, sprouting stage when it resembles a fat, red bud poking above the ground. The earlier you get to it, the more palatable you’ll find it.
Also worth mentioning are the abundant opportunities to experiment with wild teas. Common ingredients for these include rose hips (fall and winter) and blackberry and raspberry leaves. Learn to recognize the very common turkey tail mushroom as well to brew yourself a potent and healthful cup.
There aren’t a lot of plants out there that are really likely to be deadly poisonous but there is one, or rather, one family, I feel is worth mentioning: the wild carrots. I think these are especially tempting because they seem to offer a large portion of rich, delectable greens along with especially well-developed, often ginseng-like, roots. If you are just beginning to forage anywhere on the North American continent south of Hudson’s Bay, you should look up the wild carrots and become very familiar with them. While some parts of some of these can be eaten, they should be left for experts. After a close call last year with poison hemlock, I don’t eat from this group at all myself. Minute portions of some of these will kill you, even the roots.
I’m not going to write here on “foraging” edible animals. This just becomes a different sort of game, more hunting or trapping than foraging and there are a lot of writers with a lot more expertise in this area than me. A different set of equipment is required and utterly different tactics. I’ve never seen any of the plants or mushrooms described here pursued with either shotgun or rifle. I write a lot on fishing elsewhere so I’m not going to cover that ground again here either. This being said, fish are among the best of survival food resources and you should learn how to find and catch them.
Learning the wild mushrooms of Pennsylvania revolutionized my outdoorsmanship several years ago. I now have about forty species that I can comfortably identify without resorting to guide books and I find all of these and more every year now.
The warnings you’ve surely encountered concerning mushroom poisoning are well founded, though probably exaggerated. Yes, there are a few mushrooms that can kill you outright and there are many more that can make you sick. But most mushrooms are either edible or just inedible due to their unpalatability or toughness. Learning the defining characteristics of each species you seek is vital and learning to recognize any toxic look-alikes is very valuable as well. Mushroom identification requires in-depth study and practice. Neither the tips given here nor the photos are adequate for that.
Mushrooms grow in all kinds of places from bright lawns to dark old-growth forests. Your search can be narrowed down greatly though from “everywhere.” Start by seeking out oak forests, particularly older oak forests with plenty of downed wood. At least here in Pennsylvania, most of the most desirable mushrooms will be found here. Some will sprout from the ground randomly, some from rotting logs and some will grow around the base of live trees, mingling the “roots” of the mushroom with the roots of the oaks. Oaks are simply a good starting point.
You’ll soon find that learning mushrooms means learning trees – the trees that specific mushrooms associate with in various ways. When you do find edible mushrooms, look for them again about the same time next year in the same place and you’ll probably find them.
Let’s take a tour of a few of the mid-Atlantic’s most reliable edible mushrooms in the approximate order of their seasonal progression. In general, in the east, the mushroom season builds from a few sparse but pleasant species in April to a grand mushroom finale in September and early October.
Few would argue that the earliest really desirable mushroom is the toothsome morel. Here, I should say “morels” though because we enjoy at least four main varieties, given here in normal order of appearance: half-free morel, white morel, black morel, and yellow morel. Of these the best-known are the black and the yellow which appear from mid-April to late May here in my neck of the woods. And morels are an exception to the general rule about oaks given above. Instead, look for these sprouting from the ground around tulip and ash trees. Even this is more a starting point than a rule; morels associate with many types of trees or even seem to pop up randomly in places like flower beds.
Pheasant back or dryad’s saddle will almost certainly be found while looking for morels. You’ll see this large mushroom decorating logs throughout the two months of potential morel season. Few would say that the watermelon-like taste of this fungus compares to that of the morel but it can certainly be eaten in its youngest stages. This really is important with pheasant back: take the youngest specimens possible, preferably while it’s still in the “toasted marshmallow” stage before it even flares out into a bracket. You’ll probably see some of the more recognizable speckled brackets alongside the younger “toasted marshmallow” buds and this will aid identification. Morels can simply be picked with the fingers but you’ll probably want a sharp knife for these.
Oysters may appear as the morels fade some time in May. Oysters come in many species and are found as individual brackets to large, heavy clusters on the dead or dying wood. I seem to find most of my best clusters on dead wood that’s still standing. For most people, this mushroom will not be in the same league with morels. You’ll either like it or you won’t. One key identifying characteristic is the anise or licorice-like smell produced by cracking one of these open. The appearance of the well-developed gills underneath is another primary identifier. Oysters are easy to pick out in a sense but it gets more complicated the more you learn. There’s really not one oyster mushroom but rather “oyster” is a complex of species with Pleurotus ostreatus just being the most commonly sought after.
There are many edible mushrooms available in June but let’s skip to July and the chanterelle. Chanterelles may seem too small to waste time on but they compensate for diminutive size with profligate numbers. These are normally yellow gilled trumpets rising a few inches from the forest duff. Here again though, it would just be too easy if there were one species to worry about. The chanterelle family is incredibly diverse with some approximating the size of an oil funnel and others tiny black trumpets on the forest floor. Chanterelles though are normally rated among the very most choice of mushrooms.
Two unusually large mushrooms appear in the Pennsylvania woods, one around early September and the other early October. First comes the chicken of the woods and there’s a good chance you’ve seen this, whether you realized it was edible or not. This is a bracket fungus which grows on dead or dying wood and has no gills, only fine yellow pores on the underside. You too will probably be giddy with excitement the first time you collect this one to take home to the table.
ONE OF MY FIRST MUSHROOM POSTS
The last well-known choice mushroom of the Pennsylvania mushroom season (arguably) is the hen of the woods. This one lacks the flamboyance of chicken of the woods but surpasses chicken in flavor. To me, this is not only just about the biggest of Pennsylvania’s mushrooms, it’s also the best, a close contender of the morel. Look for these mid-September through October at the base of large old oak and beech. Go afield with a good plan in place for getting it home. These seem to average about 3 or 4 pounds, I take some every season that hit 10 or more and I’ve seen specimens as large as 40. Obviously, you’re not going to drop this one in your little hand basket and go on looking for a few more.
Eat a tiny portion of any mushroom that’s new to you (after confirming the ID!) the first time and gradually increase your portion size at subsequent meals, barring any adverse reaction. Learn what realistic portions look like so that you’re not taking home ten pounds of delectable mushrooms that are simply going to spoil in the fridge. You may one day learn excellent techniques for freezing and drying mushrooms but, having experimented with these, I’m usually content to take only what I can eat over the next few days. A few hours out in the Pennsylvania forest can yield twenty pounds or more of mushrooms and you couldn’t possibly eat this before it wastes away. The best storage practice is normally to place your “catch” in a paper bag in the fridge. You’ll probably have about a week to eat it, depending on the variety.
The most frequent ill effect of eating the wrong mushroom or too much of a good mushroom is some kind of digestive upset which will soon pass. Every mushroomer will experience this sooner or later.
A final mushroom that’s easy to learn early on is the lowly turkey tale. This is a very small bracket fungus, normally growing in groups of hundreds on dead wood. Normally, this is dried and then used to make a medicinal tea. This is probably the most well-studied medicinal (health-related) mushroom there is and makes an excellent gateway to medicinal fungi as well as to mushroom teas. The health benefits attributed to this one mushroom include super-charging the immune system, improving brain function and preventing cancer.
General foraging gear starts with your clothes. The Pennsylvania forest is full of thorns and full of ticks. These should be primary considerations as you dress for just about any woods pastime. Camouflage clothes may be best to keeping prying eyes from spotting you on a fifty-morel patch. I like light-weight shoes for the same reason I prefer them on long-distance hikes: It will take you a lot longer to become exhausted in light shoes than in heavy boots.
DEET insect repellant is pretty much mandatory – almost year-round in Pennsylvania. I picked up a tick yesterday (February). This is primarily for Lyme-disease spreading ticks but will also keep the skeeters off you.
You will likely be able to carry your collecting gear, your lunch and your finds in a school book-bag-size backpack. A backpack isn’t the only choice but I find this the most convenient way to carry everything.
A sharp knife and a sack to carry in one hand are good ideas too. And there’s no reason to make it more complicated than that at the outset. An identification field guide’s not a bad idea either but you can wait till you get home to spread your finds on a table and carefully ID them.
With that, you’re ready to head out the back door and into the nearest patch of woods. You can find things to eat in any wood lot or hedge row at all but with experience you’ll become accustomed to finding what you’re after at the time it’s actually waiting for you. Good luck!
HERE’S A BASIC PHOTO GUIDE TO SOME COMMON APPALACHIAN EDIBLES