Autumn brings to mind such lovely images, scents and memories. There’s so much delicious produce to buy and favourite recipes to make, all while getting cozied up again in knits, plaid, denim and leather that’s been stored all summer.
This fall I’d like to help you learn about some wild foods you can harvest from your local landscape, so you can branch out from the supermarket or farmers’ market and get all the amazing juicy nutrition that foraged undomesticated foods have to offer.
Where to find wild foods
I’ve had success in urban parks, along river valleys, beside country roads, and exploring trails stemming from dog parks. Once you know what to look for, your eyes start to see tasty wild foods everywhere! :)
What to collect in the Fall
I’m a beginner forager, so I’m not well-versed with the full list of what you could haul in. So far this season I’ve picked up sumac, wild apples, crab apples, may apples, puffball mushrooms, wild ginger and wild leeks (ramps). I’m also experimenting with foraging acorns, nettles and pine nuts.
This post won’t serve as an exhaustive list but I’ll go into some depth on what I’ve learned so far on how to find, harvest and process those wild foods I have experience with, for tasty, nutritious and unique meals.
Foraging for sumac and wild apples
Sumac and apples are pretty easy to find as far as foraging goes. Apples may be untended domesticated cultivars (ie abandoned orchards, or trees that are the “babies” of orchard trees that got pooped out by a bird or whatever and grew somewhere untended). Or they may be wild apples, which are sort of like the apples that would have been found here before settlers came and starting breeding only perfect, big round juicy apples. Domesticated apples are kind of like if you compare wild strawberries vs domestic strawberries – tiny, tart and delicious vs big, GMO and watery. Wild apples are more potent in their antioxidant power and have more varieties of wonderful flavours.
Crab apples vs wild apples?
You may be thinking, oh yeah wild apples! Like those little shitty crab apples that are sour and only taste good when you cook them! Wild apples are actually a little different in that they are the predecessors of our tasty big modern apples. They are just smaller and more concentrated in their flavour. You can recognize that they might remind you of apples that you know, like Gala or MacIntosh or Golden Delicious, but they’ll be like smaller gnarled cute forms of them.
Crab apples on the other hand hang more like cherries on the tree, are much smaller, and are very tart. They are more drop or oval-shaped, not really apple-shaped.
Foraging apples and safety considerations
If you’re ever in doubt of whether a fruit you’ve found is in fact an apple, you can cut it in half along its ‘equator’ horizontally. If it has a star shaped profile with 5 seeds, then it’s an apple.
If you’re harvesting near a road or agricultural area, make sure you wash them well before eating to get rid of airborne chemicals.
I’ve heard that if you find a wormhole that is heading from the inside apple to the outside, this could harbour bacteria. Feel free to just trim off any yucky parts and enjoy what’s left. It’s still a free, delicious, nutritious apple!
Where to find wild apples?
We’ve had luck in an urban park by a river valley in Toronto, a little distance from the river in more dry grassland type spaces. Also along road-sides in the country near Stratford, Ontario. You could try checking the tree maps on FallingFruit.org and see if there are any marked in your area.
What to make with wild apples?
You can experiment with apple sauce, apple butter, apple pie, stewed apples, apple jelly, apple juice or cider, apple vinegar. I’m sure that’s just a start! This weekend we made a beautiful apple crumble from our foraged apples, pears and may apples.
The recipe for wild apple crumble with homemade paleo vanilla ice cream will appear in a later post, which I’ll link to when it’s done!
Foraging for sumac
Sumac is also easy to find, you’ve probably seen it everywhere and not even realised it! It tends to change colour dramatically in the fall and becomes quite striking.
Hold on, isn’t sumac poisonous!?
You’re right, there is one type of sumac which is poisonous, and according to my readings it’s pretty bad too. But luckily it’s very easy to tell the good one from the poison one! Poison sumac has:
- white berries
- grows in very wet swampy areas
- smooth reddish branches
Whereas the sumac you want to be foraging, which is called Staghorn Sumac, has:
- red furry berries in a cone shape
- grows along roadsides and everywhere else but in more dry woodland areas
- furry brownish branches, thus the name Staghorn
So clearly you would need to be pretty confused to mix up those 2.
How to harvest Staghorn Sumac
Harvesting Staghorn Sumac is pretty darn easy. Just clip off those nice fluffy berry bundles and pop them in a bag to take home.
How many should you take? Well first of all, ensure you are respecting the plant and the ecosystem. You should aim not to forage more than 10% of any plant/berry/root/mushroom etc that you find. That way you will ensure the plant can continue to grow for years to come and bring joy and sustenance to other animals (that includes humans don’t forget!)
The other consideration is what you want to make. We made sumac-ade, a refreshing drink, from the sumac that we picked this fall. I found that one head of sumac berries makes one nice tall glass of drink. So that will give you an idea of how much to pick based on your party size and how thirsty you’re all going to be after all this foraging! :)
How to make Sumac-ade
A drink made from sumac is probably the laziest and easiest way you can use your foraged bounty. I know that sumac also has many other medicinal and nutritional applications, but at this particular time I just wanted to enjoy some wild sustenance right quick.
The steps are simple:
- Push the furry berries off of their stems into a bowl, just with your hands. If you find the furs to be irritating, you could wear gloves.
- Add fresh water to the bowl, about 2 Cups per head of berries. This could be hot or cold water depending on your goal for your drink.
- Let the berries soak for about 20 minutes – you can also mush the berries with your hands or with the back of a spoon to encourage their juices to come out.
- Strain the juice into a glass, and if you’re doing the cold version you can add some ice if you like!
It’s that simple! So are you wondering what it will taste like? I thought it was quite a bit like cranberry juice, except a lighter gentler version. Really tasty and refreshing, plus the pink colour is gorgeous! I plan to experiment with cocktails in the future…
Foraging for May Apples
So the confusing thing about May Apples is they are not ripe in May, nor are they apples! They are ripe in late summer – early fall (or mid-summer in warmer areas) and they are a strange fleshy fruit that has a pleasant light taste. They are ripe when they are firm and yellow, like a pale lemon yellow. Find them by noting their 1-2 umbrella shaped leaves on a Y-shaped stem, and one single fruit coming from the middle of the Y. You can eat them as is, add them to salads, or make a stewed preserve out of them if you find enough!
Safely identifying may apples
Note that to the inexperienced eye, hogweed has sort of similar-looking jaggedy edged leaves (although hogweed is MUCH larger). Hogweed is a super dangerous plant that can cause chemical burns to the skin. It’s easy to tell the difference though because hogweed is tall (3-5 feet or taller) and has large flowers that have a similar structure to Queen Anne’s lace. The may apple plant is only about max 18″ tall and has white blossoms that look like apple blossoms in the spring.
Wild Leeks (Ramps)
When Will and I learned how to forage wild leeks (also called “ramps”), our leader Peter (from Puck’s Plenty) led us up off the track into a sparsely wooded area and explained how we were standing in a wild leek patch. I was sort of confused and was looking around and asked where the plants were. Peter started pointing them out, and then I started seeing them everywhere under our feet! It’s funny how when your eye gets trained to spot something, you can’t believe you never noticed it before.
How to harvest and prepare wild leeks
The wild leeks will be in bunches, 2/3 buried like you can see in the image above on the left. You can take a spade or small shovel, and gently pry up the whole bunch of leeks (be sure to leave enough to allow the patch to continue to thrive). Then just shake off the worst of the dirt, and stick ’em in your bag! The images above show them washed (top right), and then sauteeing in grass-fed butter (bottom right) – YUM!
I just sauteed them whole, but you could also chop them up. Wild leeks have a delicious spicy taste that is divine with a pork roast or with creative mexican dishes. Next time I’m definitely serving them up with some raw grass-fed sour cream.
Wild Ginger Root
Peter taught us how to harvest wild ginger root without disturbing the plant. First identify the plant by its heart-shaped leaves (pictured below), and then run your hand down and find the main root. The roots are partially above ground so they are pretty easy to follow. You’ll see the main root that has the leaves attached, and forking off of that root will be secondary roots. You can gently tug the secondary root above ground and then snip off a few inches. That’s it! The secondary roots will grow back and you’ve got yourself a tasty aromatic flavouring.
How to find and use wild ginger root
We found our wild ginger on a moist slope near a creek. The plants are about 6″ tall. If in doubt of the plant’s identification, just snap off a little piece of root and sniff it!
We chopped ours up and used it in a stirfry. You can also simply steep it in just-boiled water to make a tea. It has a lovely scent and mild flavour.
Gem-studded mini puffball mushrooms
Mushrooms are a whole different story, as I’m sure you’ve heard. You never want to go foraging for mushrooms unless you’re very experienced (or your guide is!). Luckily Peter is a long-time forager and he taught us about one species that’s pretty fail-safe. It’s a type of mini puffball mushroom called the Gem-studded.
Where to find mini puffball mushrooms
We found our mushrooms in a damp and shadowy pine forest. They enjoy the sparse floor created by all the pine needles. Just take your knife and gently press toward your thumb to cut off the puffball part of the mushroom.
How to make sure your puffball mushrooms are safe
This species is easy to identify because of its little “gems” – the protrusions covering it. Peter didn’t mention any dangerous look-alike species. Another safety net is to cut the mushroom in half vertically – it must be white all the way through.
How to use gem-studded mushrooms
Will and I fried up our little puffballs in butter. They turned beautifully golden but kept their shape, unlike a lot of mushrooms that shrivel when cooked. They had a nice almost ‘meaty’ texture, and unique flavour. Definitely worth trying! The day after our foraging trip we even went out in High Park (Toronto) and found a few more little puffs. They seem to be quite common! We felt confident in identifying them since their gem-studs are so distinctive.
I hope this post helps you in your foraging adventures!
Hopefully you’re successful in locating some of these tasty edibles in your area, and may your body thrive on their delicious flavours and juicy wild nutrition.
Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll try to help you out! Please share foraging stories, recipes or tips in the comments below…