Late Summer Harvest

Late summer is a bittersweet time for me. Mushroom season ramps up, creating some heart thumping hunting expeditions, but many of my favorite plants begin dying back, and in most cases I taste a berry or plant knowing that it may be the last rendezvous for the year. Most of the time, I can rest assured that I’ll see the plant again, but that’s not something we can take for granted. I used to think that I’d have access to butternuts every year, but this year none of the trusted trees I’ve relied on in the past are producing. The butternut canker is killing them all. This summer’s drought hasn’t helped the situation either. For more information on the butternut canker and one effort to save them, check out the Butternut Restoration Project in New Hampshire.

It’s likely that the butternut infection came from overseas, underscoring the deleterious effect that global trade has had on local species. Unfortunately, it’s not just global trade that we need to worry about as foragers. We also have to worry about people who overharvest sensitive species. Purple trillium, wild ginger, wild leeks, fiddleheads and many other plants are in the cross hairs of some overzealous foragers. Greedy foragers make it harder for the rest of us to get our humble shares, and in some cases they threaten the very survival of the species. This is why I’m adamantly opposed to the practices of people who sell native, wild plants to commercial vendors, with few exceptions (some of those include maple syrup producers or wild rice harvesters in certain parts of the country). It should be illegal for restaurants and co-ops to purchase native, wild plants. In many states it’s illegal to sell wild freshwater fish or venison, so I don’t know why plants don’t get the same protection in those areas. I’ve heard too many stories of commercial foragers tearing up entire populations of wild leeks or fiddleheads just so they can make a couple bucks. I have no respect for people who do this, and it is up to us as responsible foragers to call them out and protest the high-end yuppie establishments that condone this behavior under the guise of sustainability. Too often the foraging community treats commercial harvesters like heroes, admiring their knowledge while turning a blind eye to the way they pillage the forest. It’s time that we, as a community, develop a better ethos and hold each other accountable.

On a more positive note, the best part of late summer foraging is that it’s the start of prime mushroom season. With enough moisture and cool nights, the fall mushrooms will start growing, so you never know what you might find. This year, the draught has stifled growth of many of the mushrooms we commonly enjoy. But, the bolete group has still done well, along with many polypores. The appearance of mushrooms tends to capture most of my attention while walking through the woods, so I often have to deliberately force myself to keep an eye out for late season berries, like chockecherries, black cherries, and bunchberries.

The complete list of species I’ve eaten since my last post include chanterelles, partridgeberry, wild bergamot, chicory, lady’s thumb, bunchberry, chokecherry, serviceberry, raspberry, Tylopilus chromapes, wild yellow lettuce, chicken of the woods, summer oyster mushroom, mountain ash, wild blueberries, huckleberry, chaga, milkweed, woundwort, sweet golden rod, elderberry, black cherry, stinging nettle, hobblebush berries and false solomon’s seal berries.