If you walked a mile in Russ Cohen’s shoes, you’d be bent over plucking at all manner of flora, finding there something to eat. Whether scouring the landscapes of urban or suburban sprawl to hiking along woodland trails or seashores, Cohen is going to find a plant that early settlers would have recognized instantly for its edible or medicinal qualities.
In its ever-expanding role as a source for information on the natural world that surrounds us, Sippican Lands Trust hosted a remote-access presentation on August 28, authored by Cohen and titled Edible Plants and Mushrooms.
Cohen has spent his professional life learning and educating people on the types of plants that humans can consume directly from nature. Educated at The Ohio State University and Vassar College where he studied law, natural resources, and land planning, today this master of all things growing in Mother Nature’s garden spends his time writing books, at speaking engagements, and establishing native plants back where they belong in the ground that surrounds us.
On Friday, Cohen brought his vast knowledge on the subject of edible plants via remote roadshow, that is, Zoom. The Sippican Lands Trust has been successfully utilizing the virtual platform to continue its community engagement, offering unique presentations and informative themes that refresh and enliven our human experience. Hence, Cohen’s plateful of plants was delectable.
“Mushroom season begins now through mid-October,” Cohen began, remarking that foraging is best from summer through late fall. He said that the SLT holdings, some 1,350 acres of protected properties, gives local folks ample area to begin to identify local edibles. He believes, “If you like being outdoors anyway, foraging adds to that experience… it’s like meeting old friends.”
Before going through a very long list of plants to potentially find by yourself and, yes, taste as well, Cohen cautioned that poisonous plants “taste awful” and not to “override” your body’s alarm system – if it tastes bad it’s most likely bad for you. Having said that, he also warned that mushrooms do not offer an exit strategy; they won’t taste bad, but eat the wrong ones and, “they are deadly without warning.”
And so onto some of the plants one can find in the local area. The complete list may be found on any number of websites; the following are highlights to engage the imagination.
Yellow wood sorrel or Sour Grass may be found 80-percent of the time from May through October. It is oftentimes mistaken for clover, but Cohen said its heart-shaped leaves, three to a slender stem, are the clue. He said that these are tasty in moderation when added to a salad, but consuming a giant bowl can make you quite sick due to its high oxalic-acid content.
Pepper Grass or Poor Man’s Pepper is part of the mustard family, tasty in sandwiches and salads, while Jewel Weed has a two-fold use – you can eat it or apply it to poison-ivy rashes. Cohen said that applying the plant to affected skin may bring relief from the itch of poison ivy, but that the ripe seeds, which by the way are a glorious shade of Robin’s egg blue, are edible, tasting much like walnuts. Expanding on the plant’s unique qualities, he said that most of the time “color in nature serves a purpose.” However, in the case of pepper grass, “We don’t know why it’s that amazing color, but it’s dramatic when added to a salad.”
By the way, most of the green-type plants Cohen discussed were used in the raw state, while berries, which can be rather sour, were suggested in a number of cooked creations.
Raw-food lovers should also try purslane, sweet fern also known as goldenrod, orache also called lamb’s quarters, wild rose (all roses are edible, Cohen said), swamp rose mallow, riverside grapes, common hazelnuts, black walnuts, and, yes, even acorns!
Mushrooms were also touched on as Cohen pointed to a slide where a massive layered Sulphar Shelf or chicken mushroom was shown growing directly on the side of trees. Another variety, ominously called Trumpets of Death, were not at all poisonous. “They are a chanterelle… if you find it, stop in your tracks because you may find hundreds of them surrounding you.” They are diminutive at only a couple of inches in height.
Cohen talked about Puff Ball mushrooms that appear as they are named like giant white balls, and King Bolete with its baked-bread color and lacey-appearing stock.
Likely the most surprising fungi Cohen discussed was a rather nasty sounding and looking one called Corn Smut, which grows as you would imagine on corn husks. He said that it was once considered a delicacy fit only for kings. “If people found corn smut on their crops, they were required to call in the royal guards.”
Moving from the meadows and fields, woodlands, and swamps, Cohen briefly touched on seaweeds. Dulse, with its strong flavor, was suggested for use once dried; Irish Moss when cooked turns green, and Codium, known as Oyster Thief or Deadman’s Fingers, is an invasive variety. “So take as much as you want.”
Complete information on edible plants, berries, seaweeds, and more can be found in Cohen’s YouTube videos and writings, where not only will you learn plant identification but also recipes for turning your foraged foods into something quite delicious. Or you may visit identifyingthatplant.com.
Sippican Lands Trust
By Marilou Newell