This past year was full of successes, failures, and near-misses in my ongoing quest to forage food for myself and my family. Throughout the year I learned a lot. In this post, I highlight some of 2019’s most memorable foraging. (I thought about recapping the entire year, but honestly, you could get that from just – you know – reading my previous posts!)
Japanese Knotweed – this was a bittersweet (or more exactly, sweet-and-sour) discovery near me, as Japanese knotweed is invasive and extremely destructive. Now that I have Marie Viljoen’s Forage, Harvest, Feast, I hope to do an even better job foraging this plant in defense of the local ecosystem. Especially with the patch just down the road from my house. The knotweed chutney I made in the spring was a hit with everyone who tried it, and I kept portions of it frozen to enjoy throughout the year.
Elderberry – the shining star in my edible landscaping and reverse foraging ventures. In the fall of 2018 I finally uncovered the elderberry shrubs I believed were buried in the overgrowth in my front side yard. Over 2019 they blossomed like crazy and produced more berries than I could keep up with harvesting. I also planted one new elderberry, because I don’t know whether all the existing canes are genetically identical and elderberry produces even more copiously with cross pollination. I don’t know how I would keep up with even more fruit, however, so next year I will harvest some of the flowers as well. Particularly flower clusters which are in locations where the berries would be challenging to collect. So far the only thing I have made with the elderberries is a fermented syrup (again, from Forage, Harvest, Feast) as a cold and flu tonic. I don’t know whether it “really” worked, but sipping 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) mixed with a mug of hot water (about 10 ounces) soothed my throat while sick this winter.
Chicken of the Woods – this was the most unexpected and delightful discovery of the whole year. Whenever in the woods, I always hunt for edible fungus. I guess because I have had such poor luck finding anything, it is always exciting when I stumble onto something. Especially as large as the chicken of the woods I found this year! Now that I know where the stump is, I can keep an eye on it for future mushrooms as well. I still hope to find others, particularly lion’s mane (I found a tiny sample earlier in 2019, nothing really to brag about), chanterelles, and maitake. I know they are both in the woods nearby, I just know it!
Acorns – Acorns were a mixed success for me. I am thrilled I actually got usable acorn meal this year, because that was an utter failure in 2018. However, I meant to go back in late November when the temperatures got cold enough to kill the weevils. Unfortunately, that was also when things started getting crazy around the holidays and I never did return to the oak trees. And knowing where they are doesn’t necessarily benefit 2020. Apparently oak trees produce prodigiously some years, and barely at all other years. You would need to have several stands of oak trees all on different production cycles to ensure acorns for every year.
Forage I Failed to Find
Maypop – I know Maypops are around here somewhere! I can feel it in my bones (and I can see it on the map at the Maryland Diversity Project). I even tried planting some, only the company through whom I purchased the plants sent me redvine passionflower instead. (And boy was I angry.) While the card with the plants said they produced edible fruit (presumably similar to maypops), no fruit ever followed the stunning blossoms.
The hunt for maypops continues. … hopefully it won’t end like the mayapples, where the effort to harvest and eat the fruit ended up being more trouble than it was actually worth!
Hazelnuts – same story as with the maypops. I KNOW there must be hazelnut shrubs in this area somewhere, only I just haven’t found them. Instead of looking for the leaves and nuts in the fall, maybe in 2020 I will look for the male catkins in late winter / early spring because going by the Maryland Biodiversity Project photos, those may be more easily distinguishable. Also same as maypops – I have planted my own hazelnuts in my edible landscaping / food forest. Unfortunately, they are basically still sticks in the ground, and must grow for several more years before I can enjoy a harvest.
OK, there were a LOT of candidates in this category so I will just highlight a few of my more dramatic foraging disappointments for this year. Again, if you want to read all the gory details, just search for “fail” on this blog!
Persimmons – I know where the persimmon trees are. I know what time to harvest the fruit. I just struggle to make/find the time to venture up that country road and dash into the roadside brush to harvest enough fruit to actually use for anything meaningful.
Black walnuts – As an update to last week’s post… after much reflection, I concluded I forgot to add the two cups of water called for in the recipe. (In addition to leaving the walnuts in too long.) I have since added the water, and tucked the nocino back into its cupboard to continue mellowing. I did try harvesting black walnuts for the actual nutmeat in the fall as well, but quickly gave up the fight separating the nuts from the husk and shell. Apparently they should be dried for a while first (after hulling) to allow the meat to pull away from the shell first. I will, of course, try again next year!
Autumn olives – I knew where the shrubs were, but unfortunately a late frost seemed to have prevented fruit formation for most of the local plants. This was a big disappointment for me because I had plans for those berries!
Of course, I hope to find ALL the things (and effectively use ALL the things) in 2020. But one I know for sure I can (and hopefully will) try for the first time is cattails. I have access to a small pond nearby which is starting to be overrun by the plants. The property owner has given me permission to forage to help keep the population under control. The challenge with cattails is actually how very useful they are, with different edible food to harvest at different times of the year. Given how I have struggled to make/find time for foraging this year – even knowing how important foraged food is for a variety of reasons – we’ll see how 2020 goes!