Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - April - Set Two

Welcome back to the fourth set of plants, trees and fungi in what is turning out to be quite a popular course. If you've missed anything so far, take a look back through the archive and see what you can find. This set is a little bit late because my chosen fungi, the St George's Mushroom has decided to come out late and so I was unable to get a photo. Thankfully, fellow forager, Alan Smylie, was able to find some on his local site and has dropped me down a picture. So let's just get on with it, shall we.

Plant - Ramsoms (Wild Garlic)

Ramsoms (budding) and Nettles
Wild garlic has been out for a couple of weeks here, but has not flowered. It has distinctive leaves with a flat surface and unlike Lily of the Valley, with which it can be confused, it has no definite ribs. The petals are also pointy (not shown), as opposed to bell-like. The most distinctive distinguishing characteristic, however, is that is SMELLS LIKE GARLIC!

We can eat all of this plant raw or cooked from the leaves, stems, buds, flowers to the bulb. I personally prefer it to cultivated garlic as it has a fresher taste which does not linger.

As a bulb species, they can be found in patches and normally speaking, if you find one, you'll find hundreds. Favouring partial shade, they can be found at the edges of woodland. A good indicator species for Wild Garlic is Bluebells, which needs similar growing conditions. Bluebells are often more prolific, so you're likely to see them first, not only because of their distinct colouration. Like Bluebells and other bulb species they come and go quickly because the newly forming canopy of the woodland soon restricts the sunlight.

Tree - Silver Birch

Arguably the method of tree identification which applies all year is that of bark identification. Without buds or leaves, branch structure and bark are the only characteristics available to us. As with other trees and plants, over time we get used to the less distinct features, but in some cases, we don't have to, as they are quite distinct already. That is the case with the Birch.

Silver Birch
Birch is that white one with the bark that comes off in horizontal strips. There are really no other trees in temperate woodland that look like it. At this time of year the leaves are either not showing or they are small and indistinct, however, even at a distance, this tree sticks out like someone has painted it white and can be seen clearly at a distance. You don't generally find these as a majority occupier of woodland, rather that they pop up here and there amongst other deciduous trees.

The sap, which rises in early Spring, is a source of fluids and sugars, can be extracted by tapping. There are a billion videos on youtube, but be warned, it's not the elixir people make it out to be. It's a lot of effort for slightly sugary water.

As a relatively hard wood, with a straight, limited branching structure, Birch is an excellent construction material as well as a good firewood.

In addition, the bark is steeped in oils which are superb for fire lighting and almost impervious to rain water and are hence a favourite amongst bushcrafters. When stripped or roughed, it takes a spark easily. Taking the bark is simple and does not need a knife. See the article Birch Bite for my moan about people killing Birch by cutting and peeling the bark aggressively. The oils within the bark can  be extracted as tar which has been used as an adhesive, waterproofing agent, tanning agent and disinfectant. As a useful resource, it's worth removing all of the bark from branches you intend to burn, not only because it burns with an annoying black smoke. If removed in large sheets, the bark can be used to make containers and if really quite big, a canoe or coracle.

Fungus - St. George's Mushroom

Still early season for mushrooms and other Fungi, the St George is the first of the really tasty ones. As a proper looking mushroom, however, it's time to get a but more strict on identification. Thankfully, this early in the season there are not many confusion species. St. George's only grows in Spring, around St George's Day, so if you think you've found on in October, you've not. It is absolutely imperative that you do not eat any fungi you can't 100% positively identify.

St. George's Mushroom
The many gills are on the underside of a rounded, mostly white/pale, mostly smooth cap which can measure between 5 and 15cm. The stem is largely smooth and widens towards the base. The spore print is white. That is to say it if you leave a cap on a black piece of paper for a few hours, it'll leave a print of white spore. It also smells of grain, or say leather or cucumber.

It is important when learning new fungi of this nature, that we follow all of the steps to identifying the mushroom. Only with constant repetition of this process will we gain confidence in identification.

St. George lives on the ground, in the grass forming rings, many feet wide. My foraging friend, who also supplied the photo, pointed out to me that the ring has another characteristic; it affects the grass, which appears darker green. As this mushrooms forms a symbiotic relationship with trees, it's is found exclusively close by to them; normally Ash, which we know from a previous article. Other indicator species are Ramsoms and Bluebells. This whole package makes finding them a lot easier than simply looking everywhere.

As Spring continues, there are other treats available. It would be folly for me to publish them all, as it would be as overloading as a book. Keep your eyes peeled and remember all that we've learned. Repetition and confirmation are the key.

Happy foraging and keep an eye out for complementarity articles.

REMEMBER: Do no pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

NOTE: This article was written from a UK perspective and identification will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advice to confirm positive identification.

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