In late summer in central Maryland, fruit continues to take center stage in the world of wild edibles … though depending the weather, other tasty food may be available as well.
I knew autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) was ripe following last week’s class with Fox Haven, so this week I set out to find some shrubs of my own to forage from.
Unfortunately, many of the shrubs near me were still very tart or astringent. I was able to harvest some, but haven’t decided what to use them for. Making autumn olive ketchup seems like a wasted opportunity! In the meantime I will freeze the berries I have until I find a worthy recipe.
Don’t confuse autumn olive for the equally invasive honeysuckle bush (Lonicera maackii). The fruits appear similar at a casual glance, and both are ripe and red now. However autumn olive berries are flecked and hang below the branch. Honeysuckle bush has rounder fruit which sits atop the branch, and has slight striations within the fruit skin. The honeysuckle’s bark also lacks the smooth surface of autumn olive.
Grapes (Vitus spp.) are finally turning ripe as well. I’d been hunting for wild grapes all year, and finally found some that I monitored for several months. (I found another cluster of wild grapes, but they were behind a wall of poison ivy. I didn’t try…) I’d even passed on the chance to use these guys for verjuice as described in The Wildcrafted Cocktail.
Wild grapes are much smaller than their cultivated cousins, and have multiple seeds to boot. To add insult to injury, I couldn’t reach enough grapes to actually DO anything besides sample. (Jelly or jam requires a significant amount of fruit.) Although I might have brought home a few heavily seeded fruits to deposit in a corner of my yard.
In addition to being very small, the fruit were intensely sour. I guess I now know where the term “sour grapes” originated!
Don’t confuse grape with “bur cucumber” (Sicyos angulatus), a variety of wild cucumber with wide leaves similar to grape, and grabby tendrils which allow it to climb trees and shrubs in the same fashion as grape. The bur cucumber sports a hairy stem, flower clusters that reach upward rather than hanging down like grapes, and spiky fruit.
Oh, and the bur cucumber doesn’t have grapes hanging in clusters in the mid-September time frame.
Just like spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and autumn olive were both flowering at the same time earlier this year, their fruit are turning ripe at the same time too. Luckily spicbush berries ripen over several weeks, so the harvest is spread out.
Visiting various locations, I was able to collect two cups, though I discarded about a half cup of berries with black or blemished spots. As mentioned last week, spicebush is best dried then stored in the freezer for optimum freshness. Currently I have an electric dehydrator full of berries for (what I hope is) a year’s supply of seasoning.
Following a week of blistering hot weather, the past week was abnormally cool and wet. My garden has basically molded over, but the weather was excellent for a particular genre of wild edible – mushrooms. In the woods, I was able to find a meal’s worth of wood ear (Auricularia auricula-judae). This fungus is also known as jelly ear due to the gelatinous texture.
You might’ve noticed I don’t often blog about fungus. There are many more poisonous mushrooms than poisonous plants, and I don’t want my meager experience to misguide my two and a half readers! But wood ear is one fungus I feel comfortable in identifying. Its REALLY hard to mistake this guy for anything else. Though please remember, this blog isn’t a fool proof foraging guide – please consult local experts and additional resources before collecting mushrooms especially. (For more foraging safety, see here.)
Even if wood ear is edible, it must be cleaned immaculately in order to eat without gastric distress. It is possible for fungus to be covered with fungus, which might be less congenial to one’s digestive tract. These specimens though made a delightful stir fry … although they were not, in fact, seasoned with spicebush.