Hunting Mycelium in the Wildwood
There is a forager in town who lives a two minute walk from my house. We kept running into each other because small towns are small which led to conversations over local beer about medicinal mushrooms, wild harvesting, and beekeeping which led to me purchasing super fresh chaga and turkey tail mushrooms from him, which then led to me hiring him to help me make and ship products for the shop. Everyone give a warm hello to Alex! He could very well be the one who bottled and labelled your elixir or packaged your order to mail out.
Witches' butter - jelly fungi
Foragers are always looking for more places to forage, so when I told Alex about my parents' 83 acre farm, half of which is wild forest, he was intrigued and wanted to see if the land would be good for harvesting wild mushrooms. Last Tuesday we drove out of town to Lawless Lane Farm and off into the woods we went, him with an axe in his pocket and me with my foraging basket, antler knife and shears. The first thing we found were spruce tips covered in sticky, sugary resin which just screamed to be infused into good whiskey with maple syrup.
It was very cold out, but just brushing aside fallen leaves on the forest floor revealed endless amounts of fuzzy white networks of mycelium. It is a very good sign of a healthy forest with a balanced ecosystem. The farm will most definitely be a mushroom foraging hot spot next spring! We did find some mushrooms, but none were good enough to harvest due to the cold; witches' butter (Tremella mesenterica), ancient turkey tails (Trametes versicolor), birch polypore, and some small, clustered brown ones we couldn't identify growing on a dead fir log.
The highlight of the hunt was finding some chaga growing on a very tall and still living yellow birch tree. Alex's favourite word of the day was sclerotia, which is a mass of mycelium growing like a keloid or scar tissue over wounds in trees. Chaga is the sclerotia growing on birch trees and can be found across the Northern Hemisphere, though it is best known for growing in Russia, parts of Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Boreal Forest of Canada where it has been prized as a medicinal mushroom for boosting the immune system.
Humans have been using it medicinally for thousands of years so I figure our ancestors were on to something. It has an earthy chocolaty flavour which makes it great to mix into hot chocolate, coffee, and chai recipes. I've made chocolate ice cream with it and have found it added to raw brownie and bliss ball recipes-- raw because any temperature over 125°F supposedly kills its medicinal properties. I know it doesn't seem as if a tumour-like growth on a tree would be very tasty, but it can be!
We took a break to sit on a fallen log and share some sausage and cheese roughly cut up on the spot with my knife. My mother's border collie (who looks like a black bear) happily ate some, convincing me it was totally cool for her to accept offerings on behalf of the forest spirits. When the food was gone she ran off back into the woods, she's mostly wild and has free reign on the farm. Hiking through the bush once more we harvested spruce tips, grand fir, and Eastern hemlock to make conifer herbal goods for the shop. I snip some tiny-needled hemlock branches with my shears and then remove some dead fallen branches and large clusters of dead leaves from its boughs as a thank you offering. Alex helps me and then feels free to talk to the trees without feeling silly about it.
Wandering onward I found some beautiful, large club mosses. The Ground Pine (Lycopodium obscurum) looked almost like heather instead of moss and the Running Ground Pine aka Stag's-Horn looks like the fuzzy stag antlers it is named for. The latin name for both club mosses translates to mean wolf paw. This pleases me greatly. Can you believe that millions of years ago they were as tall as trees?! The ground pine is made into a medicinal tea by Natives and carried as a talisman to ward off disease and likely evil spirits too. Medicinally the Running Ground Pine seems to be used for everything under the sun. The coolest fact I found out about it is that if you gather a high enough concentration of the spores they become explosive, creating you own wild harvested flash powder for magical effects.
Ground Pine Club Moss - Running Ground Pine Club Moss
At the pond in the forest we ran into the cows my Irish-Scots-Canadian father has kind of stolen from his neighbour after they broke into his hayfields on a weekly basis. He simply fenced them in on his property, informed his neighbour, and then proceeded to name them all. My father used to raise an Irish heritage breed of cows called Dexters. I think he's really missing his days of raising cattle... enough to take in a whole herd like they were stray cats. The cows were friendly and curious, if a bit shy, and tried to make off with my foraging basket. I've always loved cows. They are like the fattest, stubby-legged deer you could imagine. You just know I'm going to go nab all that manure for my compost.
Happy with our chaga and conifer haul, we returned to my house and set about processing the chaga while it was still fresh. If you let it dry it becomes very hard to break up and process, I know because I have three pounds of dried chaga I am not looking forward to chopping and grinding! Alex broke the large hunks into smaller pieces with his axe and I chopped them into even smaller pieces with my garden shears. Then I ground it all up in my nut and spice grinder until it resembled coffee grounds. Once ground, it becomes a nice even chocolate brown colour. It sounds like it all went smoothly, but the reality was that Alex almost sliced off a couple fingers with the axe and went home with a couple bandaids, I cut myself with the shears, and there was chaga all over the kitchen counters and floor. In the future we will just cut it by hand and forego the axe.
We decided to use the fresh chaga to make a tincture. Chaga tincture takes a long time to make and requires a lot of plant material compared to other recipes. If you do make it, make a big batch. I filled up a 2 litre jar with the ground chaga mushroom and added 1 cup of freshly ground cocoa nibs, leaving 2 inches at the top of the jar. Then we topped it up with half and half brandy and vodka. An alcohol that is 40% is acceptable, but higher is always better. It will be left to infuse for 2-3 months and then it will be strained and the leftover chaga will be made into a decoction which is then mixed in with the infused alcohol. Here is a link to recipes for chaga tea and tincture. Really this ends up being more of a liqueur! Mmm chocolate chaga liqueur... sounds like it would be pretty good in coffee or just mixed with cream and drunk as is.
And now we wait. I have good hopes for more collaborations in the future. Alex is teaching me all about the local mushrooms, and words like sclerotia, and I taught him to identify trees and small plants. This coming week we'll be making a lot of herbal goodies for the local christmas farmers' market and also for this month's CSW collection. I'm excited to make things after two weeks straight of shipping! Wishing you wintery blessings from the woods.