Sunday, 25 November 2012

Wild Food & Natural Resources Course - November

Autumn is almost over with many trees now bare, though some still retain their glorious colourful leaves. The season for ground fruiting fungi is pretty much over and you might think because all of the nuts and berries have passed that there is very little to eat, but there are plenty plants that work well in the winter, not only because there is little other competition. So without further ado, let's see what's about this month.

Tree - Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

It's a tree which has been in the corner of your eye all year. It was in the hedgerows, by the lanes, in the park and in the woods. Sycamore copes well with harsh environments, including urban and coastal areas. You probably recognised it by its distinct winged seeds a couple of months ago, but it's one to know all year round as the wood is very useful to the bushcrafter or survivor. 

The broad, palmate (hand shaped) leaves are great shade from the sun. The wood burns with moderate heat and is great for cooking and mixes well with slow burners. Without resin, it doesn't spark and has relatively low smoke which isn't particularly scented. The branches are strong, like oak, but can be a bit twisty at times and can be a bit annoying for a building material. For the carver, sycamore was the favoured wood for making Welsh love spoons and we all know how much bushcrafters love making spoons.

Plant - Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Young Yarrow
Just when you thought all of the leaves were on their way out, Yarrow springs up in grassland. It'll eventually grow to about two feet tall. Distinctly pointy (strictly lanceolate) leaves and feathery structure make it quite distinct from the grass which normally surrounds it. The flower structure is left as an exercise for the reader. Watch it grow. All of the parts above ground can be used. The leaves, though a little bitter, can be eaten raw in salads, or made into a tea, some would say  being the most superior of all naturals teas. Caution should be taken however, since prolonged or excessive use can cause rashes and irritation in some.

Yarrow has been used medicinally both internally and externally, where it has been used to treat wounds. The tea has been used as a treatment for colds & fevers, to relieve inflammation and to relieve stress, but as there has been little scientific study, it may all be twaddle.

Fungus - Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda)

This mushroom has been reclassified a couple of times, but now resides in the Clitocybe genus which contains a number of edible and poisonous mushrooms. Thankfully, Wood Blewits are pretty easy to distinguish within the genus, because of their lilac tinge, especially the gills. This does not mean that all purple mushrooms are Wood Blewits. Oh no, there are several of the Cortinarius genus, know as Web Caps, which look alike, but are rather poisonous. So how do you tell the difference? Well, once you know, you know. This may sound glib, but like many plants, once you have positively identified them a good few times, you'll wonder why you ever got it confused in the first place.

Let's see what we know. Wood Blewits are saprotrophic, which means they grow on decaying leaves, including needles, which is where I've found most. They grow in clusters or rings. I've founding the growing with other Clitocybes, including the Clouded Agaric (Clitocybe nebularis).

They grow to about 15cm tall and wide, though nicer young, with a bulbous stem, as do Web Caps, but the stem lacks the cobweb structure and orange ringed remnant which Web Caps can often retain. In this case, web or ring are a negative identifier, but their lack is still not a positive one, since these features can be lost over time. The cap is generally convex (domed) and becomes more brown with age, as do the gills. It often curls under a little, specially when young (see right).

The gills are sinuate or emarginate, meaning they have either a concave or notched structure before attaching to the stem. Here comes the key difference. Wood blewit spores are pinkish, web caps are rust brown. It's rather easy to take a spore print. Simply cut the cap from the stem, place it on white and either brown or black paper, cover with a glass (or similar) and leave over night. You cover it to keep the spore in place and the two pieces of paper are there to allow you to see both coloured and white spore. Hardcore mycologists use glass, as they are generally going to head straight for the microscope.

So, don't be afraid of these mushrooms, because they are very tasty indeed, though you do have to cook them. Instead, use them as an exercise in building confidence. Start to take notice of the features, habitat and spore print. If you do find a web cap, take note of the differences.

Next month, it'll be the beginning of our final season. During winter, we still have plenty to find, so keep up with the practice and maybe consider some warmer socks.

REMEMBER: Do not pick or eat anything you can't positively identify as safe and legal.

BE AWARE: There is an inherent risk in the consumption of all new foods, both wild and cultivated. Ensure they are cooked as prescribed and begin by eating a little of only one new food at a time in case you have an intolerance or adverse reaction. If you are taking any medication or have a current or family history of any allergy or medical issue, seek advice from a medical practitioner before eating any new wild foods.

NOTE: All articles are written from a UK perspective. Common names and identifying features will almost certainly differ in other places around the world. Seek local advise to confirm positive identification.

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