Forest food: Foraging and fakes

‘Tis the season to spot folks tromping through the woods, mesh bag in hand. The forests are full of mushroom lovers taking advantage of the warm-but-wet spring weather that has been coaxing forth the elusive, much-coveted morels.

I’ve seen photos of really nice hauls, even out of Lapeer County, in various foraging groups on Facebook, and I’ve spent a few hours in the woods, but my luck has not been great so far this year. Still, despite the lack of results, the thorn scratch marks that criss-cross my arms and the random itchy bumps from touching goodness-knows-what, there is really nothing unpleasant about being out in the Michigan springtime forest.

About an hour and a half of foraging the other day led me to find a whopping six tiny just-popped morels.

It should be noted, this post is not in any way intended to help you identify any wild foods. There are many lookalikes out there, some of which are potentially poisonous. Even edible wild foods can cause illness if used improperly, so take it upon yourself to become informed about what you can and should not consume.

Morels, for example, have a couple lookalikes. One, the half-free morel, is said to be edible, but my personal preference is to leave those alone. I did find one large half-free that was disconnected from the ground, so I took a photo for comparison purposes.

These are often called “peckerheads”

Morels, by the way, should always be one piece, and hollow all the way through. A false morel will often have cottony fibers in the stem.

My morels checked out OK, though I did find three slugs hiding inside them

While I was in the woods, I also found some dryad’s saddle, also known as pheasantbacks. Apparently, if you catch these young enough, they can have a pleasant flavor that is reminiscent of watermelon. However, being relatively new to most foraging, I choose to err on the side of caution. Even though I am confident in my identification of the dryad’s saddle, I decided not to harvest any. Most were too large anyway, though I did find some little ones as well.

Dryad’s saddle

A trip into the Lapeer State Game Area a couple weeks ago led to the discovery of another wild edible, the ramp, or wild leek. I was taught by my father to find ramps in the U.P. years ago, but this is one you really want to be careful about, as the leaves can look very similar to some toxic lily species. In addition, it takes years for ramps to mature, so you don’t want to over harvest when you find them — don’t take an entire clump, so they will continue to proliferate.

Like my dad taught me, I started the process of teaching my youngest to forage for ramps. I wouldn’t turn him loose to fend for himself in the woods just yet, but the seeds are planted and hopefully, like me, he will retain not only the knowledge, but also the memories. We brought just a few young ramps home and made ramp butter to top our steaks at dinner that night.

Digging for ramps

A subsequent trip to the State Game Area on Mother’s Day led to another foraging lesson for me. I was enchanted by the coils of the unfurling ferns, and shared a few photos. Several friends responded, believing I had found another spring delicacy — fiddleheads, or unopened Ostrich ferns. Further investigation shows I had not found that particular fern, and some ferns can cause significant distress if eaten. If you plan to delve into the consumption of fern fiddleheads, exercise caution. I think I’ll just take photos and leave the ferns for the more adventurous of foragers.

These are NOT edible ostrich fern fiddleheads
Unfurling fern

One wild spring edible, the wild blue violet, has been a favorite of mine since I was a little girl. I see them everywhere this time of year.

When I was a kid, a patch of these flowers showed up in our yard. I caught my dad trying to dig them up, and I begged him to leave them, because I loved the purple flowers. He did, even though he knew they spread like the dickens. I later bought the home from my parents, and now I have a yard full of the violets. Entire flower beds have been taken over, and these things just can’t be removed once they take hold.

The flowers make a pretty edible addition to spring salads, and I always wanted to try making violet jelly, so I finally tried it, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

I found this recipe and followed it exactly. First, I picked two heaping cups of violet blossoms.

I rinsed them well, then poured boiling water over them and let it steep all day. I was left with an indigo blue violet tea.

Next comes some fun alchemy — when you pour the lemon juice into the blue liquid, it turns a brilliant jewel purple. It’s gorgeous!

Next, I followed the directions to add sugar and pectin, prepare and fill the jars, and process them in a hot water bath. I ended up with nine four-ounce jelly jars full of sweet violet jam. One of them didn’t seal for some reason, so I put it in the fridge for immediate use. We tried it on pita last night and it was very pleasant. Almost like grape jelly, but instead of a grapey flavor, it’s lightly floral. I definitely recommend this recipe if you’ve got a lot of wild blue violets. Again, just be certain of your identification.

There’s no doubt that the Michigan woods are full of good things to eat, as long as you know what you’re looking for. If you make the effort to become educated, you can enjoy this bounty free-of-charge. Some areas offer classes, and there are many books and websites devoted to locating and identifying wild edibles. One of my favorites, which starts with some of the most popular (and easiest to identify) is Abundantly Wild. It has lots of color photos, recipes, and information about dangerous lookalikes.

Happy hunting!

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Krystal Moralee Written by:

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