Foraging for Wild Yeast in the Woods

August 5, 2020 · 4 minute read
Foraging for Wild Yeast in the Woods

I’ve always wanted to try to make my own wild soda and wild fermented beer from berries that I found in the woods, using their native yeast to get the process going.

So what or who has inspired me to think about fermentation? First is the book The Wildcrafting Brewer by Pascal Baudar. Another is Tabol Brewing here in Richmond where I believe most of their beers are made with wild yeast they have collected. And another would be making my own sauerkraut with my wife.

Most fruits in the wild, like blackberry (still around right now), huckleberry (might find a few huckleberries around still in Richmond; they look like blueberries but actually are huckleberries), blueberries and eastern red cedar (they have berries) are all loaded with wild yeast. The cedar tree has berries that are actually not berries but really a fleshy cone. And speaking of eastern red cedar, it’s actually a juniper (Juniperus virginiana).

Tree on left is a male eastern red cedar and the one on the right is a female.

The blueish color you see on the cedar berries is called glaucous or glaucous bloom which is a covering of native yeast on the fleshy cone.  Do you know any other fruits with a cloudy grayish or bluish color on their skin? (How about grapes, blueberry, and plums.)

So, if you look at your window right now or take a walk in your neighborhood, go and look for the disturbed areas that are unmowed or left untouched (edges of woods, right of ways, fields, etc.) and I bet you’ll find some eastern red cedars. So you found a cedar that doesn’t have berries? Not all of them do. Cedar trees are dioecious, which means that they have either female parts (berries (fleshy cones) in cedar) or they are male (small cones that produce a lot of pollen in the spring).  Monoecious are trees that have both male and female productive organs; for example, if you have an oak tree, you get the pollen in the spring from the catkins and then later in the year the same tree will produce acorns.

So I’m setting off to go and harvest my berries. I had been on two long bike rides this weekend and saw piles of cedar trees full of berries. I told my wife on this day that I’m off for a bike ride to get some cedar berries. As I’m walking out my door, I’m thinking that although I’d love to get on my bike, I’m sure I can walk to find what I am looking for. I know the cedar in my front has never produced any berries (because it’s a male cedar) but then I start thinking I have power lines behind my house so I decided to walk down my yard to look for berries. Fifteen-feet off my deck I find my first cedar with berries. Another 20-feet, another cedar then into the back power lines I find more.

Close up picture of the fleshy cones on female eastern red cedar

All the fruit (the fleshy cone) I harvested had the glaucous bloom on them so I am hopeful I will get my soda soon. When these fruits mature in fall I hear they can be dried and used as a spice or flavoring. The distinct flavor in gin is from juniper berries. Also, I read that you can use juniper berries to help make a sourdough starter. So, I took my handful of juniper berries and added them to a 1 part sugar to 3 parts filtered water solution to feed the yeast and get the fermentation started. I also used a Ball jar with an airlock lid to let gasses release but also to keep bad bacteria out of my starter.

Fresh eastern red cedar in sugar starter with airlock top.

Why do I run around and collect wild foods and nibble on plants everywhere I go while I ride or walk? I want to reintroduce my body and more specifically my gut biome to wild bacteria and yeast you only find in the woods and in nature (it can not be found in a store or a bottle). I want to eat and breathe as much diversity as I can and visit as many diverse environments in the wildlands here in the RVA.  This journey to gut health made me realize how important healthy soils are for our trees too.

So what else did I find on my ride this past weekend?

Huckleberries

Blackberries

Peach trees in lawns

Pear trees in lawns

And one of my favorite mushrooms: Chicken of the Woods

Until next time.  See you in the woods!

Mushrooms Below the Surface (or Fungus Among Us)

June 24, 2020 · 2 minute read
Mushrooms Below the Surface (or Fungus Among Us)

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of rain. For me, this means more walking and less riding my bike in the woods. During my most recent walk, I noticed a lot of mushrooms popping up from the forest floor.

Lactarius indigo mushroom is mycorrhizal with oaks and with pines.

When many people and even most arborists see mushrooms on the ground they often think they are bad or something is wrong with the soil and that something needs to be done. They may even think that a spray or fungicide is needed to get rid of the mushroom.  

Amanita species

In contrast, when I see mushrooms my mind starts to travel deep into the soil and I think of the miles of mycelium that are under my feet, and I think healthy soil.  

Some armillaria mycelium I found under some bark of a tree on the forest floor.

Mycelium is basically the vegetative body of a mushroom that you never see and is below the ground. The small fruit body part we see above the ground (the Mushroom) is the sexual reproductive part of a mushroom. The mushroom releases spores. These spores are single cells, and they float around in the air and lay around on the ground or some other substrate to reproduce and produce hyphae. When two compatible hyphae meet they create mycelium. Mycelium spreads throughout the soil and creates symbiotic relationships with the roots of many trees and plants. Some have termed these mycelium networks in the soil as the information superhighway or the “Wood Wide Web.” These mycelium networks can link the roots of different plants so they can share nutrients and information. Paul Stamets called them “Earth’s Natural Internet”

When there is a beneficial relationship with mycelium and tree roots we call that mycorrhiza or mycorrhizal fungal associations. These benefits include water absorption, nutrient uptake, resistance to disease and pathogens, and increased plant health and stress tolerance. All the tree has to do is release some carbohydrates from its root system and the mycelium give the trees what they need.

Without good mycorrhiza in the soil a tree may not survive or thrive.

So, what else is so special about mycelium?  Here are just a few examples to look up and enjoy!

Cleaning up toxic waste

Building Insulation

Packaging

Building Materials

There are some mushrooms that cause damage or weaken trees and should be observed or monitored closely by a Certified Arborist.  Feel free to call.

P.S.  This list below could be very very long, but I suggest starting here on your mushroom education journey.

P.P.S.

Below you will find the Lactarius indigo mushroom that I harvested and ate. 

Edible RVA: Mulberry Salad

May 20, 2020 · 3 minute read
Edible RVA: Mulberry Salad
Box of spinach with wild mulberries on top… My lunch salad this past Monday.

Disclaimer: “do not eat any wild plants, herbs, trees, mushrooms until you have verified with your health professional that they are safe for you; these articles are for inspiration and entertainment.  No liability exists against Truetimber Arborists, Peter Girardi, or Urban Forest Dweller or anyone who works or volunteers for us; nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness, or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of information in these articles or website or through using any of the plants, trees, mushrooms, or things mentioned”

This is a fruit that will leave evidence on your hands.

Last Friday I was riding my bike on a breezy day in the Southside of Richmond, heading from my office to the Dogwood Dell area where I had parked my car earlier. As I cruised along the road with my head down in the wind, I saw the sidewalk up ahead blocked by leafy branches with red and mostly black fruit. I could see from over 100 yards away that it was a mulberry tree with ripe fruit. 

I hopped the curb and stopped under the shade of the tree and started to eat the darkest fruit I could find (there’s evidence that unripe mulberry fruit can cause digestive problems). Some I grabbed with my hand. Others I just ate right off the branch. This is a fruit that will leave evidence on your hands, your mouth, and your teeth. With my purple teeth, I smiled at a young man walking down the sidewalk. He did a double take. I think he was laughing at me.

I got back on my bike, and when I was near an apartment complex I saw two kids with a plastic bowl collecting mulberries. A few more miles down the street a young woman was reaching up into another mulberry tree in an empty lot collecting fruit. They must have been calling us to eat them!

These are the mulberries that caught my attention!

I guess since we are talking about mulberry trees, we should talk about the different mulberry trees you’ll find here in Richmond: red mulberry (Morus rubra), white mulberry (Morus alba), and paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera)… have fun looking them up.  

The fruit on the mulberry is technically not a true berry. It’s actually an aggregate of very small fruits called drupes. Other drupe fruits include peaches, plums and cherries. True berry fruits include blueberries, cranberries, grapes, and tomatoes.

Here are a few nutritional facts that I found on a quick internet search, on Dr. Mercola’s website:

  • Mulberry trees are on nearly every continent and have a long history of food use, as well as use in disease prevention
  • Traditional medicinal uses for mulberries included treating diseases of the mouth, throat and lungs, strengthening bone tissue, protecting vision, improving metabolism, increasing blood circulation and acting as a treatment for dysentery and a digestive aid
  • Mulberries contain vitamins C, K, B-complex, A and E, iron, potassium, magnesium and resveratrol, each bringing their own constituents for health

Here is another mulberry comment I found in a book titled Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by “Wildman” Steve Brill:

  • “The water of boiled young mulberry leaves, the unripe berries, uncooked young leaves, and mature leaves are toxic and mildly hallucinogenic”… Steve Brill explains that the hallucination may be caused by a “terrific headache and an upset stomach”.
Picture above: fruit going into the food dehydrator to see how they taste dried.

So what else have I seen out there while on my bike over the past few weeks that may or may not be edible or have some medicinal use (I actually didn’t sample or eat any of these listed below):

  • Knotweed, chicken of the woods mushroom, unripe purple leaf plum tree fruit, unripe blueberries in the woods, wild ginger, bear corn, morel mushroom in two clients yards (both didn’t know they had it there, just hiding in their garden), black locust flowers, and cattails.

Oh, and by the way: mulberry salad is delicious!

Edible RVA: A Foraging Foray In Our Urban Forest

April 29, 2020 · 8 minute read
Edible RVA: A Foraging Foray In Our Urban Forest

Foray RVA are my stories of walks, bike rides and adventures in the Richmond area while searching for edible plants and fungi. These experiences may include but are not limited to: recipes, tree identification, experiments with wild edibles, and generally the good, the bad and the ugly of my encounters in the urban forest.

I started exploring edible plants over 25 years ago, so I’m not new to it, but I’m also not an expert. Although I am relatively confident in my identification of trees, plants, and mushrooms, I am very aware I could make a mistake. So I’m not going to put a ton of time researching my articles since there are thousands of pages on “The Google” that can help give you more detailed information. Another note of caution: these are not your common foods bought at your local grocery store. Who knows, you just may be allergic to the same plants I have eaten and about which I am writing.

(Disclaimer: Sorry but I have to do this: Do not eat any wild plants, herbs, trees, mushrooms until you have verified with your health professional that they are safe for you; these articles are for inspiration and entertainment.  No liability exists against Truetimber Arborists, Peter Girardi, or Urban Forest Dweller or anyone who works or volunteers for us. Nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness, or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of information in this article or through using any of the plants, trees, mushrooms, or other items mentioned.)

This Foray was inspired by viewing photos from a year ago where I made a homemade wine from Elaeagnus fruit. The fruit I collected was most likely Silverthorn (Elaeagnus pungens), a plant closely related to Russian olive and Autumn olive.

(3 lbs of Elaeagnus fruit)

Unfortunately I let the wine sit too long and instead of drinking it when it was ready, it became too sour (some would say it “went bad’).  During the process of aging (rotting) I had some of the wine and it was OK, but not very great.  The Elaeagnus species are considered an invasive species so most people spend a lot of time and money removing this shrub before it takes over the native flora; well I went back to the same spot this year for more fruit to try my skills at wine again and all I found were freshly removed browning shrubs and stumps; I’m sad but I guess I’m also glad.

The actual motivation for the Foray today was to find Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) which I had seen during my bike rides over the past few weeks and which, if you didn’t know, is an invasive species. I had only nibbled on garlic mustard before and never harvested any large amounts of it or cooked it at home. I heard stories of friends harvesting this plant to make a pesto. So, this was my chance to try and report on my harvest. I felt like it was getting a little on the late side of harvest, so I knew I needed to act quickly. I’m pretty sure you can walk along most any road or trail near the river and find this plant. Right now the plant is upright about 18-24 inches tall with white flowers. It’s usually found growing in a group. I harvested about two large handfuls of the smaller leaves and younger stem of this plant (below) and tried to saute it in a pan with butter.

I’ll say the raw leaves had more flavor, and I definitely didn’t succeed at cooking this plant this time (probably too much salt). But it’s not too late to try to make pesto.

In the picture above you can see a few other plants and mushrooms I found during my Foray. For simplicity and for comparison I attempted to cook all the items separately in a large frying pan with grass-fed butter, some extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt.

American Basswood Tree (Linden)

The American basswood (Tilia americana) is the American version of the European Linden tree (Tilia sps.) which is a very common street tree, an ornamental tree here in Richmond and across the country. Be aware of possible pesticides that could be on this tree before tasting the leaves, buds or flowers. It is common to find heavy populations of aphids on this tree which is why it sometimes will be sprayed by commercial tree and lawn service companies. But also “bee” aware: New regulations restrict the timing of any pesticide on these trees when the tree is in flower or about to flower to reduce the risk of bees dying from the pesticides being in the flowers nectar and/or pollen.  

So, I tried the raw small leaves of the basswood this weekend and kept chewing on the sweet nutritious young leaf and noticed a little bit of mucilaginous reaction similar to that of an okra but not as much. I also tried to fry the leaves in butter/olive oil and actually I think these leaves would do better raw in a salad.

Pheasant’s Back mushroom or Dryad’s Saddle mushroom (Polyporus squamosus)

  • I have been eyeing this mushroom for years and tried it for the first time this weekend.  The top has a very distinct marking of an actual pheasant. Another main key characteristic is it has a melon smell; some say cucumber or watermelon. Every time I’ve seen it here in RVA it has been on a dead log on the forest floor. This was a tasty mushroom but nothing that blew my socks off. I will definitely try and eat it again the next time I find it. 
Wood ear mushroom (Auicularia auricula-Judae)
  • This wood ear mushroom is kinda gross and slimy looking and so strange to touch and to eat, but for some reason, I like to eat it.  Over my entire career as an arborist and tree climber, I would prune limbs out of many oak trees unwittingly passing up an edible mushroom.  The wood ear is a popular ingredient in soup dishes at Chinese restaurants. In the past I have cut them into small pieces, sautéed them for good while in butter, puréed with a mixer, and then poured the thickish brown sauce on top of a burger as a mushroom gravy. That turned out well.  Last night however was a little interesting if not dangerous. I tried to fry in butter, and I guess, as the little moist ears heated up, the high water content in the mushrooms caused them to hop out of the pan landing on my shirt, the wall, and even my wife.  Maybe frying wood ear is not the best technique, maybe more of a boil or cooking in a soup is the way to go.  There’s always a next time!
Greenbrier vine (Smilax sps.)
  • The newest growth of the Greenbrier vine is supposed to be edible and some say best when cooked like green beans or asparagus. I loved the way these new sprouts looked after being cooked in butter and salt. They were savory and delicious.  They were tasty raw as well. I enjoyed plucking the tip and popping it in my mouth as I walked the trail. Ants seem to love them too, so be on the lookout.

Stinging nettle (above)

  • Stinging nettle is one of my favorites to harvest, cook, and eat; it really tastes so good. You must look up stinging nettle! It’s so nutritious and such an important plant, but boy does it hurt. The plant has spines that when touched release toxins causing skin irritations. I feel a lot of pain at first that eventually turns to itching. According to the internet, some people may experience severe reactions when in contact with the spines.
  • I have been on numerous mountain bike rides deep in the mountains where you can not turn around and the stinging nettles are six feet tall and have closed the trail and the only way through is to pedal fast, cry, scream, laugh and cry some more. A trick is to follow the poor rider in front of you very closely. The wind created forms a wave in which you can be protectively enveloped for a few seconds before the wall of spiny plants fall. That’s what I tell myself anyway. I know its just a game I play to get through the torture.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Apparently, if you adjust your picture to the right orientation. the flower looks like a hummingbird (this was not my observation but was mentioned during a lecture in the past from Nancy Ross Hugo)
Very edible flower, you can even add it to an ice cube for a fun Spring Party

In this picture, you can see there were more flowers than ice. When I do it again I will use fewer flowers.

Use redbud flowers as decorations if you want to add a little design to your cake next spring. The cake above was made by my two daughters. It was beautiful and soooo good.

Redbud tree

I’ve always wanted to try the pods (the young fruit) of the redbud. They look like snow peas, and I’ve read that the fruit is tasty when eaten young and tender.  Well, these were not very tasty. I think I will try again when they get a little larger to see if they get less bitter and have more flavor.

So, this was round one of my Foray RVA articles. Just thought I would share the mistakes I made this past weekend when harvesting and cooking these plants:

  • I tried too many new plants/trees/mushrooms in one night, if I had an issue or reaction I wouldn’t know which was the culprit.  
  • I harvested the stinging nettle without gloves (some may call it stupidity while others call it grit)
  • I tried to fry a very wet mushroom in a very hot buttery pan. Water and hot oil is never a good idea in the kitchen. I thought I knew better.  Wood ear and oil went everywhere.

What is the Soil Food Web?

March 17, 2020 · 2 minute read
What is the Soil Food Web?

The soil food web is essentially a healthy and functional soil that is living with bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, as well as more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods — and the sometimes visible earthworms, insects and small vertebrates. The soil food web is living soil and not dead soil, aka dirt.

These living organisms in the soil can convert silt, clay, sand, rocks and organic matter into available nutrients for our trees. Trees will also help feed these organisms with exudates (soluble sugars, amino acids and other compounds secreted by roots; these are produced from the sun and photosynthesis). Actually the trees and plants can send signals to these living organisms in the soil that indicate the nutrients the trees and plants need. 

So what does a healthy soil do?

  • Retains nutrients
  • Increases plant available nutrients
  • Suppresses insects and diseases on trees and plants by making them more healthy to defend against diseases and pests
  • Helps decompose some toxins that may be in the soil or make them less biologically available
  • Builds soil structure
  • Increases water holding capacity in your soil
  • Reduces run-off from rain or irrigation
  • Increases in carbon stored in soil (Google it! It’s very interesting and promising science.)

What does dead or unhealthy soil, aka dirt, look like or do?

  • Exposed bare soil is never good
  • Erosion is more likely to occur with dead soil
  • Trees become dependent on inorganic fertilizer inputs in dead or unhealthy soils
  • Trees may show leaf discoloration, smaller leaf size, short internodal growth
  • Trees and more likely to have inspect and disease issues 

Above picture: four-foot rod easily pushed into healthy soil

What does healthy soil look like?

  • The soil should smell good, should smell earthy and maybe like mushrooms.
  • Soil shouldn’t be void of smells or have a very bad smell (sewer smelling is bad).
  • You may see earthworms in healthy living soil
  • Should be dark; the soil should be glued together and holding on to roots
  • you should see other living organisms in the soil.

Healthy soil EQUALS healthy tree… similarly like a healthy gut EQUALS healthy human

What can you do to help your soil?  

  • Stop tilling your yard or garden.  Actually tilling your yard is likely to damage a lot of small roots adjacent to mature trees.
  • There should be no exposed or bare soil in your yard; always mulch or plant cover plants in your yard or garden.
  • Increase the diversity in your yard (not just one tree and one species of grass)
  • Increase organic matter in your soil
  • Reduce compaction in your soil: so do not aerate or move when the soil is wet; do not drive on your soil with cars or trucks, especially when the soil is wet.

See the below links if you’re interested in more info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Soil Food Web or if you’d like a digital copy of the Soil Biology Primer book.