Eating food you’ve grown is tremendously satisfying—but what about food nature has grown for you?
“Wild mushroom foraging” is a skill that served our ancestors well for millennia, and it’s become somewhat of a lost art. Thankfully, it’s possible to attend seminars on this important topic. When you do, make sure the focus is on edible plants that grow locally for you.
Learning About Edible Plants From Local Experts
My husband and I recently attended a seminar about Florida’s edible plants that was led by two amazing guys: Andy Firk and Mycol Stevens.
Andy is a permaculturist who has lived in Florida since 1993. He grows bamboo, fruit trees, and other useful plants in tremendous numbers at his Bamboo Grove Farm in Arcadia, Florida. Mycol is a self-described mushroom nerd. You can tell that he really knows and loves his fungi from the way he talks about the different kinds that are available and how you can identify them. He lives at Finca Mycol, a 20-acre, off-the-grid permaculture homestead in central Florida near Gainesville.
Identifying the Three Types of Mushrooms—and Which Ones You Can Eat
One of the most important lessons we learned about wild mushroom foraging is, “Don’t be the first person to eat a mushroom if you don’t really know the mushroom!” Unfortunately, there are lots of mushrooms that can make you sick. If you can’t identify which ones are edible and which ones aren’t, you can have a very bad experience. It’s best to grow ones you know are edible or forage with someone who has experience with mushrooms and can help identify the ones growing wild.
In addition to the appearance, a spore print can help to correctly identify mushrooms.
During the wild mushroom seminar, we learned the three main types of mushrooms, based on how they survive:
- Saprotrophic—These mushrooms are decomposers that thrive on decay. They feed on and help break down rotting wood, plants, and even animals. If you have any dead wood on your property, or you can get some from someone else, you have a great opportunity to grow your own edible mushrooms like shiitake and oyster.
- Mycorrhizal—These mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with living trees and other plants. They help their hosts gain access to additional moisture and nutrients, and in return, the host plants give them access to sugars. Well-known mushrooms in this category include truffles, chanterelles, and porcini.
- Parasitic—These mushrooms also feed off of living plant hosts, but don’t provide any benefits in return. Rather, they harm the host and will eventually kill it. Some examples of parasitic mushrooms include chaga and lion’s mane.
Mycol then took us outside and showed us some interesting fungi that could be eaten, but only after being cooked. The heat destroys chemicals in the mushrooms that could be a problem.
Using Native Plants for Food and Medicine
Andy showed us many other Florida native plants that can be eaten or used.
- There is shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet), which can be used for—you guessed it!—shampoo, and another plant (Elettaria cardamomum) that smells like cardamom.
- We found many “weeds” that make good salad additions; air yams (Dioscorea bulbifera) that grow up trees; and other plants that can be made into teas, like winged sumac berries (Rhus copallinum).
- In Florida, we have a native called a firebush (Hamelia patens) that is related to the coffee plant. It has edible fruit, the flowers attract pollinators, and the leaves can be crushed to handle ant bites and insect stings.
- There is another herb called wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), which looks like clover but has flowers, leaves, and roots that are edible.
- We also saw some wild huckleberry bushes (Gaylussacia frondosa), muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia), and bitter melon (Momordica charantia) that have edible fruits. The grape leaves can also be eaten. (Note, though, that bitter melon’s fruit is only edible when it’s still green. Most parts of the fruit turn toxic once it ripens.)
Of course, there are plants you should not eat like the golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and the elephant ear (Colocasia esculenta var. aquatilis).
Even a little nibble of one of these and your taste buds will warn you away from them!
Other Reasons to Learn About Wild Mushroom Foraging
Attending the seminar on wild foraging was a wonderful experience for my husband and me. It really opened our eyes to some of the plants that grow wild here.
If you, like us, are just getting started with homesteading in your area, these seminars are also great ways to meet like-minded people. We were amazed at how many colleagues were in our immediate vicinity.
Additionally, Andy offered to come to our property and identify the edibles we have growing there.
I’m sure we will take him up on his offer once we get more established. We are definitely interested in harvesting and enjoying both the food we grow and the food nature grows for us!
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