What began as a hunt for oyster mushrooms turned into a much bigger adventure when my wife, Elaine, and I spent a chilly day outdoors with Jim Crumley, a wild food enthusiast, in a winter forest in Botetourt County, Virginia. Our objective was to gather oyster mushrooms, one of the relatively few fungi that can be collected this time of year. But Jim also showed us how the winter woods brims with other nutritional, tasty, and free edible wild foods.
Our first stop was at a creek that meanders through Crumley’s land. For many wild food gatherers, mushroom season takes place during spring and summer, but Crumley doesn’t restrict his foraging to the warm-weather period.
Oysters (Pleurotus ostreatus) are one of the rare mushrooms that can grow year-round. As long as you’ve got moisture, along with hardwood stumps and decaying logs, you can harvest oyster mushrooms in winter. Crumley says he’s also seen them growing on dead poplars, under evergreens, at the tops of mountains, and in streambeds.
Oysters often feature a white to light-brown cap, although they’re sometimes dark-brown, with whitish-yellow gills radiating off the center stem. The flesh is also white. An oyster mushroom looks like, well, an oyster. These wavy fungi thrive throughout much of North America in temperate and subtropical areas by growing on the sides of trees.
As is recommended with any edible wild fungi, Crumley says oysters should always be cooked before they’re consumed. Then, they can be eaten right away, or they can be cleaned and precooked, then dried and frozen for later use.
“My wife, Sherry, and I usually sauté them in butter, then use them in omelets, soups, stews, sauces, and to top off burgers and pizzas,” Crumley says. “Oysters are definitely one of the most versatile mushrooms. If we gather too many to use at one time, we’ll clean, precook, and freeze them, as usual.”
The puffball family consists of many species, from the giant varieties with diameters of several feet that look something like a soccer ball, to many smaller types about the size of golf balls. One species or another thrives in much of North America in a wide range of habitats. Puffballs can appear just about any time, except during extreme cold. On Crumley’s land, they seem to grow best along the seeded logging road that runs through the woods, and along his gravel driveway.
There are certain restrictions with puffballs concerning their edibility. “Many puffballs have to be white inside to be safe for human consumption,” Crumley says. “If you step on them and the spores pop out, they’re well past the eating stage. And if they’re reddish to dark-brown on the outside, even if they don’t have spores, it’s best not to eat them.”
Given their tiny size, Crumley says puffballs are ideal salad mushrooms. As with any foraged mushroom, you should be completely certain about their positive identification before consuming them.
After we finished looking for mushrooms, Crumley showed us how to gather watercress, a dark-green, leafy plant. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is known for its many health benefits, including high vitamin K content. It also possesses calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Not only that, but one cup of watercress has only four calories. It’s not surprising that this plant offers so many health benefits, as it’s a crucifer, just like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale. Watercress prospers throughout most of North America, and flourishes in springs and small creeks, especially if running water is present.
Crumley says he typically gathers watercress in one of two ways. If he wants to take home a “big mess,” or if the plants are hard to reach, he gathers it from the creek bottoms with a rake, which was his tool of choice for our tour. If a patch is easily accessible, often visited, and he desires just enough sprigs for a few fresh garden-type salads, he uses shears. One advantage of shears is that the plant remains in place to send out fresh growth for future foraging endeavors.
The smaller, younger leaves are the most tender, while the older leaves can be bitter, Crumley says. In addition to being used for salads, watercress can be boiled (like collard greens), and it becomes a tasty side dish when drizzled with bacon grease. Or, you can use it as a garnish for wild game dishes, especially if you like its peppery, spicy flavor.
Watercress should always be washed thoroughly to hopefully remove parasites, such as Giardia. The presence of those beasties is why many people prefer to boil it before consumption.
Wild Black Walnut Syrup
Our next stop was at a grove of wild black walnuts (Juglans nigra). This stately hardwood, with dark-brown furrowed bark and long, alternate pinnate leaves, thrives along fence rows and in coves and riparian zones (areas bordering bodies of surface water) from South Dakota to Texas and eastward. The most complex foraging activity Crumley undertakes in the winter woods is collecting walnut sap and turning it into syrup.
Typically, it takes 40 quarts of walnut sap to boil down to one quart of syrup. “As good as maple syrup tastes, black walnut tastes even better,” Crumley says. “There’s a sweet, nutty flavor to walnut syrup that’s incomparable.”
Crumley begins the process by tapping what he calls “middle-aged trees,” which are 13 to 16 inches in diameter. These trees are the most productive sap producers, and he doesn’t have to drill as far into them to reach liquid. The process is basically the same as that of the legendary New England sugar maple tappers. He waits until around New Year’s Day to begin, when morning temperatures generally drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit and then rise into the mid-40s by afternoon.
Employing a 1-inch drill bit, Crumley bores 3 to 4 inches at a slight angle into a walnut tree on the southwest side, and then inserts a tap into the hole. He chooses the southwest side because it usually receives the most sunlight, which accelerates the dripping process. A gallon bucket or plastic milk jug is used to collect the sap, and these are usually filled in a few days, or, if the weather’s ideal, in one day. The collected sap is then stored in the refrigerator.
On syrup-making days, the sap is poured into a stainless steel pot and heated to a steady, rolling boil until it’s done.
Shagbark Hickory Bark Sweetener
Our last stop was a woodlot, where shagbark and mockernut hickory hardwoods prosper.
A common tree in the eastern half of the country, shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is aptly named, as the outer bark forms long, loose, gray strips. Crumley says he cuts off enough strips to fill a 5-gallon plastic bucket, cleans them with a hose and a stiff brush, rinses them, dries them, and then bakes them in an oven for 30 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, to eliminate much of the tannin’s bitterness. Next, he places the strips in a 48-quart cooker, covers them with water, and, leaving the cooker uncovered, boils the mixture for 2 to 3 hours, adding water as needed to keep the strips immersed. This process turns the water into a dark, tea-like consistency, which is then drained, resulting in about a quart or so of hickory “tea.” An equal amount of sugar (1 quart) is added, and then the mixture is brought to a boil for 10 to 15 minutes. When it looks like a thick oil, it’s time to taste it. If it’s ready, it’ll have a pleasantly sweet taste, which goes great in both coffee and tea.
Shagbark and Mockernut Hickory Nuts
Shagbark hickory, and its close relative, the mockernut (Carya tomentosa), share a similar geographic range. They also share nuts that feature a delightful, somewhat sweet flavor. The mockernut’s dark-gray bark isn’t as distinct as the shagbark’s, but its bark does have pronounced ridges, and the compound leaves typically have 7 to 11 leaflets (the shagbark has about 5 leaflets). The outer yellowish-green husk, which becomes darker when ripe, contains a light-brown husk inside that conceals the nutmeat. The shagbark’s nut is similar, but slightly larger. Both are a little bigger than shooter marbles.
Shagbark and mockernut nuts don’t possess the amount of nutmeat that wild black walnuts do, but they remain edible longer, often well into the winter, according to Crumley.
While tromping through the woods in December and January, there have been times when I’ve gathered a handful of hickory nuts, cracked them with a rock, and enjoyed an invigorating snack. You can use hickory nuts in the same way you would walnuts, adding them to breads, cookies, and muffins.
If you thought the woods were barren of good things to eat in winter, you should rethink that assumption. After our day in the woods, we discovered that there’s plenty of food available in the winter woodlot, if you just know where to look.
Field Guide for Mushrooms
Jim Crumley considers the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms an essential book for both experienced and veteran fungi gatherers. The book contains more than 750 color photographs of multiple species; well-organized sections of the various fungi families; and precise details of each mushroom’s appearance, edibility, season, habitat, and range.
I especially like the information from author Gary H. Lincoff at the end of each write-up on an individual species. Like Crumley, Lincoff cautions novice gatherers to be careful before eating any mushroom, and goes so far as to suggest that people join a club to “benefit from the experience of other collectors.” I won’t eat a variety new to me until someone with experience with that particular mushroom positively identifies it. For more information, visit the National Audubon Society Field Guides marketplace.
Bruce Ingram is a hunter, angler, and gatherer who often writes about the outdoors. He and his wife, Elaine, co-wrote Living the Locavore Lifestyle about living off the land. For more information, contact them at BruceIngramOutdoors@gmail.com.