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Myths about wild foods

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Foraging myths

Dispelling mysteries of the bush 

1. I saw a slug /bird/deer eating it so it must be edible.

Wild Mushrooms

Often people will say, “I saw some deer eating it, so it is fine.” ignoring that all animals have different diets. Just as you can eat chocolate, but chocolate is toxic to your dog, there are many things that animals can eat that are toxic to us. Always make sure you know what you are harvesting and consuming. 

2. Because it is an invasive plant we should remove it.
Black Locust Flower

Some invasive plants are a real pest, take for example garlic mustard and the harm it does to maple forests, however more often than not invasive plants are simply filling a void left by the clearing of land or loss of native species. While ripping out all the Japanese knotweed can help your garden, other plants such as the black locust have moved beyond their indigenous range of the Carolinian forest, and naturalized across much of North America, where they provide soil retention, shade and fit nicely in the ecosystem.

3 That it's okay to harvest at risk plants in an unsustainable way, simply because they are abundant where you are.

Wild Leeks

Often at-risk plants will still seem abundant in micro ecosystems or in secluded regions. However these plants still suffer massive habitat loss over all so their perceived abundance is misleading. Plants such as wild leeks can seem abundant when they carpet the forest floor. Unfortunately leeks still suffer from drastic decline due to urban sprawl, poor regulations and over harvesting, so harvest responsibly and make sure you keep up on at risk and threatened species. 

4. Mushrooms are scarier than plants because the wrong one can kill you.

Indigo lactarius

Truth is there are far more toxic and poisonous plants than mushrooms. There are roughly 10 mushrooms that can kill you, and many more that can make you a bit sick. However just as there are mushrooms such as the Destroying Angel and Gyromitra, there are countless plants that can cause serious damage. From Giant Hogweed and White Snakeroot, to Yew and American Mandrake, the plant word is loaded with green things waiting to get their vengeance on folks who graze haphazardly. Even with all the risks out in the wild you are far more likely to get sick from poorly stored edible food then by a mushroom you picked, by in large most of the mushrooms you will find will simply be inedible and unpalatable however it is always best to know exactly what you are going to consume and never eat lots of something the first time eating it. 

5. Touching a toxic mushroom can poison you or make you sick.

Wrinkled Peach by Dyson Forbes

The common assumption that you can get sick from touching toxic mushrooms or from the toxins rubbing off on something edible is completely wrong. This simply is not the case; you need to ingest part of the mushroom for it to have a toxic effect, keeping in mind that the toxic amount could be as little as 1/10th of a gram, getting some gooey mushroom on your fingers will not make you sick. In some cases you can even go so far as to do nibble and spit tests to narrow down the edibility of a species, however this is only a suitable way of distinguishing edible mushrooms in a few mushroom families, (Russula, boletus and lactarius). With all this said it is important to separate your finds when you pick as mixing edible and questionable mushrooms may turn into a bad idea if small pieces get mixed up.

6. That you can eat wild mushrooms raw.  

No mushrooms should be eaten raw, not even the white and brown ones you find at the grocery store. Mushrooms are made up of chitin, a fibrous long chain polymer that makes up the cell walls of fungi. In order for it to be digested, it needs to get broken down by heat by bringing it up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Secondly many mushrooms may contain compounds in them that need to be neutralized with heat to be rendered inert. While some mushrooms such as Edulis boletus may show up on the occasional menu raw, this is because the cook is unaware of need to cook, and in small amounts they are unlikely to cause any gastric issues.

7. That you can eat fiddleheads raw.  

Fiddleheads often grow along riverbeds and in wet soil, such as with many waterborne plants they can often pick up pathogens and bacteria that require cooking to neutralize, additionally fiddleheads have a paper sheath that is loaded with harsh tannins you will want to remove. In order to remove the tannins fiddleheads are often cook in several changes of water, to avoid boiling the tannins back into the fiddlehead. It is generally best to avoid any fiddleheads, watercress or cattails and other riverside plants that are downstream from agriculture, septic systems or heavy industry.

8. Because this has a compound that is beneficial to some ailment, its benefit will be attainable by eating it.

Often wild foods are touted as medicine and while they may have some medicinal properties you should be aware of, treating them as preventative medicine or hoping for specific results can cause more harm than good. While wild foods can certainly help folks with a number of ailments, understanding delivery methods, dosage, interactions and suitability is important. Sometimes food is best left as food.

9. Milkweed is toxic. 

There are toxic forms of milkweed; however common milkweed is perfectly fine to eat. The myth that milkweed is toxic stems back to when a famous forager had mistaken dogbane for milkweed shoots. While the white latex can cause some issues for people with latex sensitivity milkweed is a lovely plant that can be used a number of different ways from flower syrups, vegetables, life jackets and medicines, plus it is important to let grow for the sake of the butterflies.

10. You can tell something is edible because it tastes good.  

There are many toxic things that are not bitter in the slightest but can make you very sick. The roots of water hemlock taste similar to parsnip, however it can kill you. Some mushrooms such as death caps may not have an off putting flavour at all but get their names for the deadly punch they pack. Meanwhile there are many lovely wild foods that are bitter, funky or harsh in ways that may make you question if they are edible, however make a fantastic addition to your diet. Take for example Chokecherries that are extremely astringent and next to impossible to snack on in the bush but make a lovely jelly or the bitter greens of dandelion. Some bitter foods can help aid in digestion and control appetite.

11. You must cut mushrooms as plucking them hurts the mycelium. 

Many folks live by cutting mushrooms from the ground, and while this is a great practice and results in a much cleaner harvest, in regards to the health of the fungus and future harvests it makes very little difference. Massive studies looking at chanterelle yields saw no significant difference between methods with a slight increase to the yield from plucked mushrooms. If you see a nice path of morels and do not have the tools to collect them, don’t worry about harming the organism, harvest till they are spilling out of your shirt. Just try to avoid the dirt

Happy harvesting!


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