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.