Just a Few Friends
A student of mine was in Romania a couple years ago. As she approached a streetside mushroom vendor, she stopped to pick berries from a nearby bush. His jaw dropped. He said, “you can EAT those?”
“Yes,” she replied.
They were blueberries.
See my point? Our fear of mushrooms is purely cultural ignorance. In Eastern North America alone, there are over 5,000 species of mushrooms, most of them edible. Yet the only one many people are familiar with is morels. And what you don’t know won’t feed you.
Fortunately, mushrooms are like humans. You can live in a city of thousands of people and you don’t have to know them all; a few friends is enough. In my experience, in any given area of the country, there’s just a few varieties of mushrooms that make up 90% of the edibles to be found. In my area, if you know just ten varieties or even just any three of them, you can pick hundreds of pounds of wild mushrooms a year.
The same goes for plants. In my area, there are twenty plants that are all equally so common that I can’t narrow the list down any further. Of course, in different regions, the list will be slightly different. For a gallery of the “top thirty” edibles in my area, see here.
The “top ten” mushrooms in my area are morels, chanterelles, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods (a.k.a., maiitake), honey mushrooms, lobster mushrooms, milk caps (leatherbacks), boletes (some, not all), reishi, and turkey tail. The amazing thing about this list is that these varieties are not just some of the most common edibles, they are also some of the most desirable. Reishi and turkey tail are prized not for their culinary but their medicinal value. The rest include some of our most esteemed edibles. We assume that the best is always the most rare. But that’s just what advertising teaches us; it’s not the way the world really is.
Honey mushrooms, for example, are not generally sold commercially because they require thorough cooking and are highly perishable. One patch of honey mushrooms, however, can feed an entire city. The two largest known creatures on earth, in fact, are both honey mushroom fungi. Millions of mushrooms each year sprout from a single underground “monster.” The larger patch, in Oregon, is estimated to be up to 8,000 years old. It’s three and a half miles wide — and it’s heading this way.
Actually, we have our own share of this humongous fungus, enough to fill hundreds of car trunks like this one every Fall.
The majority of these varieties are easy to recognize, and with the exception of morels, they are all easy to find. Like I said, chicken and hen of the woods, because they grow on tree stumps and roots, commonly fruit right in people’s yards. Both weigh 5-50 pounds each. Milk caps and honey mushrooms are only found in the woods, but they are never few or far away. Our land is literally flowing with milk and honey.
With a wild foods market in place and an educated public to supply it, at least ten thousand pounds of edible mushrooms a year can be harvested and sold in Western North Carolina alone. Few regions can match the quantity of wild mushrooms that come out of the Pacific Northwest, but the quality of fresh local mushrooms is consistently better than what is available online.
Many mushrooms – though not all – are delicate and highly perishable. Asheville, for example, having the greatest diversity of mushrooms in the country, has many choice edibles, some of them unique to this area, that are simply too uncommon or fragile to be shipped anywhere else. These include a wide variety of boletes, puffballs, milk caps, parasols, and many more.
Simply put, we have a niche market, nationwide. Try to find any other company selling fresh milk caps (Lactarius volemus/corrugis), one of our choice and most common edibles. A researcher studying natural latex once paid me $350 to help him find just ONE.
The same is true for our edible plants. Try to find another company selling fresh sweet cicely leaf. In 2013, a restaurant in Raleigh found us online and ordered 25 pounds a week to use in cocktails.
WNC has DOZENS of these delicacies that are rare or nonexistent anywhere else. We have thousands of pounds of these varieties that pop up and rot away unpicked each season. Nobody has to grow them; they grow themselves. Nobody has to worry whether floods or early frosts will wipe them out; all these varieties are adapted to our climate. And if something doesn’t come out one year, you just pick something else.
The average price for gourmet wild mushrooms in North Carolina is $16/#. Mail order prices vary far above and below that, so that different regions can at times be competitive with the Pacific Northwest. At high volume, our mushrooms could retail for as little as $10/pound. Paying half of that to the picker, a person in very little time could easily make $25 or more on a casual walk in the woods or just around the block. In other words, they’d be making at least $15/hr for getting some exercise and fresh air. Wouldn’t you rather be flipping burgers?
Wild foods are a no-brainer. More to the point, knowledge is power. The only thing keeping people from enjoying this natural abundance it is fear stemming from ignorance.
In summary, even with our current population, wild foods are still a potentially sustainable, green industry. Consider that:
NTFP in the Pacific Northwest are a $190 million industry
foraging, when done conscientiously, is sustainable
an industry that relies on healthy, mature forests argues for conservation
thousands of pounds of wild foods are gathered and sold in WNC each season
property owners, landscaping companies, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts are all potential suppliers
supply can be supplemented by cultivated production
The East Coast wild mushroom season lasts roughly seven months out of the year. It starts with morels in April and reishi in May. Chicken of the woods follows in June, chanterelles in July, lobster mushrooms and milk caps in August, boletes in September, honey mushrooms into October and maiitake (and turkey tail, for medicine) into November. And again, there are dozens of other edible varieties in between. Mushrooms are easily dried or frozen for continued sales in the winter months, and supply can be supplemented with cultivated varieties year-round. In fact, it’s been estimated that North Carolina alone could be growing $80 million in edible and medicinal mushrooms per year.
The Southeast wild plant season runs for roughly nine months. Edible flowers, salad greens, cooking greens, fruits, nuts, seeds and roots can be harvested from March through December. There are efforts to cultivate several of these as well. For my list of the top 75 wild foods in Western North Carolina, see here.
A Lesson in Teamwork
A public training program and market is a cooperative approach to foraging, one I had to learn the hard way.
When first I started mushroom hunting, I did what you’d expect: I kept my mouth shut. For over ten years, to my knowledge, I had the only wild mushroom business east of the Rockies. I was king of all I purveyed. I wrote my gansta mushroom rap, “A Fist Full of Fungus.” It was the beginning of the end.
Gradually, as my teaching career grew, so did my competition: I taught myself out of a job. But it wasn’t really working anyway. The more I picked, the less I enjoyed it and the less it made sense to continue.
What I learned is that a wild mushroom business doesn’t work well on a small scale: the supply is just too variable. You can have a hundred secret spots all over town, like I did, but you still don’t know when the mushrooms will appear. After a while, driving all across town to check them all gets old. And if a tree falls in the forest and you’re not there to hear it… Better to have each spot watched by someone who lives there or runs or walks their dog by there every day. I didn’t learn that lesson ’till the axe fell.
In short, foraging is best carried out as a community enterprise. You spread your odds when you have more people looking. A hundred heads are better than one, and there’s a thousand times more out there than any one person can pick.
For example, one spring, in the course of four outings, I found less than ten pounds of morels (pictured here). Meanwhile, three other mushroom hunters went in the woods near town one day and brought out 75 pounds. Yes, seventy-five pounds; retail value: two to three thousand dollars. I’m surprised all three came back out! There was actually more than that. This was just all they wanted to carry.
You’d think people would keep something like that a secret, and this spot is in fact secret (otherwise I’d be in Tahiti right now). The point is that in order to ensure a steady supply, if each person sells their surplus to a central clearinghouse, then everyone can have their own spot or two, and that’s enough.
Some agencies are proposing the certification of commercial pickers to ensure their competence in differentiating toxic from edible mushrooms. Because the current incidence of poisoning is so low, it will be difficult to prove regulatory efficacy, but it would make all of us feel better that we are doing something positive. On the other hand an educated public might be a far more effective tool in “policing” egregious behavior. Imagine a general public that clearly knew the dozen or so edible mushrooms and was able to hold markets and chefs accountable. An hour of food safety instruction in schools might benefit the public a great deal more than the billions of dollars spent on regulations…
These attempts at regulation and licensing appear to be bureaucratic efforts with no basis in science or land-use policy. We should be encouraging and teaching the general public these ancient foraging skills—a positive way to ensure that we all continue to value the remaining public lands…
Instead of diluting our efforts on the issue of commercial selling and arcane, confusing regulations, let’s focus on the knottier and larger issue of habitat protection. Add to that a solid dose of natural history education in our schools. Nothing is as powerful as a scientifically literate public.
Denis Benjamin, author of Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas and Former Chair of the North American Mycological Association Toxicology Committee
Since 2005, I have been advocating for local wild foods markets across America. All over Europe, you find open air bazaars where anyone can buy, sell, or trade mushrooms and other wild foods. Some of these, like this market in Barcelona on the left, have been in operation for 800 years.
These markets are basically like the tailgate farmers markets we have in the U.S., and wild foods can simply be incorporated into them. Alternatively, a wild foods clearinghouse could sell directly to restaurants and other commercial clients without any retail storefront. What’s important is that (1) we make it easy for the public to pick and sell what they forage, and (2) everything is inspected by an expert. This practice was recommended in England in 1847 and in the U.S. in 1913.
In France, every pharmacist is trained in basic mushroom identification; consequently, there is always someone competent nearby to show your mushrooms to. Unfortunately, this is not always as great as it sounds.
I met a French pharmacist once at a cafe in Georgetown. She told me something I have heard again since. Only a day or two of their training is spent on mushroom ID. Consequently, since they don’t want to take any chances, 90% of the time, they just say, “they’re all poisonous.”
Similarly, until 2013, the FDA stipulated that all wild mushrooms sold be inspected by an “approved expert,” but they didn’t specify just what that means. They leave it up to each state to set their own parameters.
Some states, like Minnesota, have had regulations in place for years. Others, like North Carolina, have “more or less” allowed the sale of wild mushrooms without regulation. In other words, their illegality has been largely unenforced.
Until recently, South Carolina had done the opposite: wild mushrooms were strictly prohibited. However, in 2014 they came up with a solution: a mandatory weekend certification course for $300. Georgia approved the same course the following year. I wonder if they’re hearing a lot of “sorry, they’re all poisonous” down there. After all, how much can you learn in a weekend?
Granted, candidates are given a strict final exam, but an exam only tests your ability to pass an exam. Besides, if someone trying to make money foraging, it’s usually because they don’t have $300 to spare in the first place. And this certification is just for mushrooms. There are, of course, wild plant foods as well.
Much to my collegues’ chagrin, I recently served on the North Carolina state committee that ended up adopting similar regulations. Many say it’s a yet another bureaucratic solution to a nonexistent problem. But whatever states come up with, taking something that’s potentially dangerous and regulating it is far more effective than simply outlawing it. If the drug trade is any indication, making something illegal does not stop it from happening; it only makes it more profitable.
For All Time
One objection raised against this initiative is the potential damage to our natural areas. The impact of harvesting roots like ramps and ginseng can indeed, over time, be significant. For this reason, ethical wildcrafting is core part of The Afikomen Project curriculum.
However, unlike digging roots, gathering wild mushrooms is like picking berries. This is because mushrooms are just the fruit of a fungus. Even if you could manage to pick every single mushroom, the fungus would still be there, in the ground, tree, or log, ready to put out more. This makes wild mushroom hunting a potentially sustainable enterprise, as it has been in the Pacific Northwest for decades. A search on “non-timber forest products” (NTFP) pulls up many studies on the proven economic value of wild foods. And that’s not just in the woods but in the city as well.
Besides, each mushroom in the wild produces on average over one million spores. Why then isn’t the earth covered in mushrooms? It’s not for lack of “seed.” The limiting factor is habitat. There’s less and less habitat every year, and the number one reason for that is agriculture. The most destructive thing humans have ever done to the planet is clearing land to grow food. The cultivated food we eat, organic or otherwise, is far more damaging to the environment than wild food could ever be.
Critics say that even if foraging is sustainable, there’s not enough out there to feed everyone. However, I’m not talking about surviving merely on what nature provides. The solution to world hunger is neither indiscriminate foraging nor indiscriminate agriculture. It’s permaculture, i.e., managing “wild” lands for maximum abundance and diversity. Native Americans used permaculture successfully for thousands of years. The fox and the hound can be friends. It’s just a matter of “growing” what already grows naturally in the area; not what doesn’t already thrive there on its own.
Native Americans routinely cleared small areas of woods selectively to diversify habitat. This is the same reason why there are more edibles including mushrooms in the city than in the woods. Unfortunately, this means that contamination is a greater concern than misidentification. An expert can pick out the wrong mushroom, but they can’t pick out the ones full of chemical waste. Mushrooms are actually used for “bioremediation” because they soak up heavy metals and other toxins. Some they actually digest; others they just accumulate.
Ultimately, you can’t stop people from picking in contaminated areas or picking species to extinction. Regulation is not the solution. Like the ancient taoists taught, the only thing a laws do is separate the people who can get around them from the people who can’t.
This is why public education is important but also ultimately insufficient. As long as we have poverty, people will do whatever it takes to get by. A local wild food economy can, to some extent, alleviate extreme poverty, and hunger with it, but as long as people have to pay rent, we’re only tackling a quarter or so of the problem.
In short, as long as we live in a culture of exploitation, we will continue to exploit nature. The only thing that can keep people from hurting themselves, each other, or the environment is a culture of communal identity: of loving thy neighbor as thyself. It’s a tall order, but nothing else will save us.
Fortunately, there’s a way to get there, and it’s all around us. When we get back to nature, we also get back to human nature. When we see that there’s enough for everyone, we can open our hearts once again.
Coming Home to Eat
“Nature is not a place to visit,” says Gary Snyder. “It is home.” The dinner bell is ringing; it’s time to come home.
John Burroughs, one of the first American conservationists, declared that “the most precious things of life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door. All that I ever had, and still have, may be yours by stretching forth your hand and taking it.”
We live in a Garden of Eden. If we would only recognize our kinship with each other and all living things, we’d see that the Earth is providing more than enough for her children. Don’t slight the hand that feeds you! Beyond organic, closer than local, WILD is the final food frontier. And is that any surprise? It’s where it all started. Like the psalm says, “can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” I think the answer is clear.
It’s time to heed the call of the wild. We are like horses led to water; it’s up to us to drink.
– all images by No Taste Like Home –Pages: 1 2 3