In praise of edible wild plants and fungi

This past weekend I attended a local fungi festival here in the Shuswap. Not intentionally, I admit, but rather by accident.

This past weekend I attended a local fungi festival here in the Shuswap. Not intentionally, I admit, but rather by accident. I just happened to drive by and my curiosity got the better of me. It was both interesting and informative, to say the least. I not only learned about both poisonous and psychedelic mushrooms, but also about how to identify, prepare and cook edible ones. Up until now I have been pretty much dependant on the labelling on grocery store shelves.

Subsequently, and in the process of searching on the Internet for information about wild foods, natural medicines and other edible products derived from nature for a column, I discovered some pretty interesting facts.

Did you know that the young shoots of the spruce tree are high in vitamin C or that Captain Cook had a sugar-based spruce beer made on board during his sea voyages to prevent scurvy among the crew? Or, that willow bark, which provides salicylic acid from which Aspirin was originally synthesized, was used a pain reliever by the ancient Greeks sone 2,500 years ago.

I certainly didn’t know that there are more than 70,000 kinds of mushrooms and that only a fraction –about 250 – are edible. The rest can cause illness or even death.  Like I said, I’ve always been one of those people who prefers to buy my mushrooms at the grocery store.

The common white mushroom is, in fact, a fungi and in more instances than not, fungi are something best left alone. When your feet are itchy, you’ve probably got athlete’s foot, which is caused by, you guessed it, a fungus. Fungi and the spores from fungi can be nasty little things. In some cases they can even be deadly.

Euell Gibbons once posed the question: “Ever eat a pine tree?” in a Post Grape Nuts cereal commercial on national television back in the 1970s. Gibbons, was a writer, outdoorsman and proponent of eating edible wild plants and fungi. In his day, Gibbons made foraging for, cooking and eating wild food stuffs sound like fun. I was never convinced, but I do enjoy just walking in the woods – especially when I have an apple and an egg-salad sandwich in my pack. And, while I’ve never eaten a pine tree or really gotten into the whole foraging for and eating of wild plants and fungi thing, I do appreciate a more natural diet. I eat more fish than meat and I try to eat salads at least once a day. I cook most of my meals from scratch and make a point of using organic ingredients whenever possible.

I did read, at least in part, some of Gibbons’ books: Stalking the Wild Asparagus written in 1962, 1964’s  Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop and Stalking the Healthful Herbs, written in 1966. Gibbons also wrote a number of articles for National Geographic, including one in the July 1972 issue which described a two-week stay on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine, where Gibbons, along with his wife, Freda, and a few family friends relied solely on the island’s resources for sustenance. For some reason, I’ve always remembered that article. I think he would have kicked butt on the television program Survivor.

Different kinds of tubers, leaves, flowers, seeds, nuts and the stems of many plants are all edible, not to mention certain fungi. Some can be eaten raw, while others are best boiled or roasted. Some can be used in soups or made into tea, while others are used in a variety of homeopathic cures and medicines.

While I’m not altogether sure I am ready to head out into the woods to forage for supper, I think I may add a few cremini mushrooms to my next wild rice casserole, or add some sautéed oyster mushrooms to my next omelette. I wonder what pine cone seeds taste like? Maybe I’ll add some to my next bowl of Grape Nuts cereal.