February 28, 2020

Seek & Eat

Take an easy amble to find to the wild foods of August.
By Clay Bowers | Aug. 10, 2019

This summer, while you’re out hiking around the forests and fields of northwest Lower Michigan, remember that many of the places that you go are hiding wild food available to any aspiring forager. Here’s a list of six can’t-go-wrong forageables that can be found in our region this August.

Portulaca oleracea
Purslane might be a common and much-maligned common garden weed, yet it’s one of the most healthful of all of the things that you grow (intentionally or unintentionally) in your garden. This native species boasts relatively high levels of vitamins E and C and it contains the highest levels of Omega 3s found in any plant measured. This plant is so healthful, in fact, that nearly every culture that had it in their midst ate it regularly.

My friend Rachel Mifsud, a fellow forager from downstate, refers to picking garden weeds as "farmaging." This summer, you can add ample amounts of purslane to your salads and become healthier while also helping your farmer friends rid it from their gardens! Simply cut the stems back to the main crown and chop them up for a wonderful tangy addition to your salads. For additional harvests, leave the crown, and the whole plant will re-sprout again.

Prunus Virginiana
Chokecherry is yet another plant that many will consider to be a noxious weed, but this native species is chock full of anthocyanins (the healthy antioxidants found in wild blueberries), vitamin C, manganese, calcium, magnesium, and many more healthful nutrients. The word “choke” in the name is inspired by the astringent nature of these berries; they can cause your mouth tissues to dry rapidly. To prevent the pucker effect without compromising the nutrition of these berries, simply press out the juice or make a delicious jam. The pits, much like their domesticated cousins, are to be avoided, so my preferred method of preparation is to use a food mill to separate the pits from the edible portions of the berries, then mix the pulp with sugar (preferably maple) and make an absolutely wonderful jam. 

Lions Mane
Hericium spp.
Lions Mane mushrooms are a vital part of northern Michigan mushroom foraging. There are three native species endemic to our beech-maple forests: Hericium corraloides, Hericium erinaceus, and Hericium americanum. Of all of the mushrooms out in the woods, these species are some of the easiest to safely identify. If you’re wandering in the forest, and you find what appears to be a cheerleader’s pom-pom stuck against a beech or a maple tree, chances are excellent that you have found this genus of mushroom.

These mushrooms generally can be found beginning in the latter half of August, but more commonly they are found in the cooler months of autumn. Lions Mane mushrooms are so full of vital nutrition and wonderful mycochemistry that there are many studies attesting to their benefits to your health. Like any edible mushroom, Lions Mane should be cooked; they’re indigestible otherwise. My preference: Choose a healthy fat and sauté until they’ve reached your preferred texture.

Beaked Hazelnuts
Corylus cornuta
NorthwestLower Michigan is not in the native range of American Hazelnuts (Corylus americana), but we are in the native range of their beaked cousins — an absolutely wonderful addition to any forager’s plate. While most of the world thinks of nuts in terms of autumn harvesting, these nuts ripen and are picked clean before the end of August has a chance to come around.

Where to find them? Beaked hazelnuts are an incredibly common shrub all over Northern Lower Michigan and all over the Upper Peninsula. They tend to make forest edges their homes, and if you happen to find a good patch, I urge you to bring gloves —the involucres (a fancy forager way of saying “their outer covering”) are covered in irritating hairs. One warning: Do not wait to harvest these nuts until they have fallen from the shrub, or you won’t not get any! All the native wildlife enjoy and seek out these highly nutritious native sources of lipids. We toast these nuts in a pan with a little butter and sea salt and enjoy them hot.

Milkweed pods
Asclepias syriaca
Milkweed pods are a vegetable that we never miss eating in the summer months. These delicious plants are both house and food to Monarch Butterflies, so pay close attention to these plants before harvesting to make sure that you only harvest from monarch-free homes. And it should go without saying that you should only take a portion of the available pods so as to allow some seeds to spread for next year.

Milkweed pods have a slightly green bean-esque flavor, but even better. Only harvest firm pods, and once you get home, throw them into a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes, then toss out the water (this process assures that these pods are safe to eat). Native Americans in every part of this milkweed’s range ate and enjoyed this wonderful vegetable. Eating this plant will give you the inexplicable urge to plant and spread Common Milkweed.

Gaylussacia baccata
An extremely common woodland understory plant in the entirety of northern Michigan, huckleberry plants often grow alongside lowbush blueberries, which are sometimes mistakenly referred to as huckleberries. Huckleberries grow knee-high to thigh-high shrubs hosting blueberry-like berries that contain noticeably crunchy seeds. The bushes never seem to have as many berries as their neighbors, so collecting an ample amount can be quite the effort. The flavor of these berries and the crunch of their seeds drive foragers like myself crazy with the urge to pick them. The habitat that you will generally find these plants in are pine-oak barrens. These berries also contain ample amounts of vitamins and minerals and are generally devoured raw by our family before we have the chance to turn them into anything! If we do have extra, we typically add them to our sweetened wild rice for breakfast, or you could add them to oatmeal.
Wild foods are a healthy addition to your diet, and they get you interacting with nature as well. Always make sure that you have permission before foraging, and please make sure that you are certain of the identity of the plant before ingesting (see sidebar). After safety, foraging sustainably should be your No. 1 priority. Never take too many of any plant, so you can it continues to thrive and provide food in the future.
About Clay
Clay Bowers is a self-described “plant nerd” and founder of Traverse City’s NoMi Foraging, through which he inspires and educates people how to seek, find, handle, prepare, and value nature’s wild bounty. He teaches plant and mushroom identification and foraging classes in the Traverse City area nearly all year-round, with a special emphasis on the ethics regarding sustainable harvesting. If you’re interested in learning more about foraging, you can find Bowers’ upcoming class schedule, events — like a wild food dinner on Sept. 8 at Waterfire Vineyards in Kewadin — foraging products, and book recommendations at www.nomiforager.com.


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