TRAVERSE CITY — Clay Bowers strolled through overgrown fields near Silver Lake Road, stopping now and then to pop seeds from a wild carrot flowerhead or berries from an autumn olive into his mouth.
“I’m just a complete plant nerd,” said Bowers, who named his 3-year-old son, Nettle, after a favorite wild plant. He shares his love of botany in monthly classes called Foraging Unlimited.
More than a half-century after the publication of Euell Gibbons’ groundbreaking book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” foraging for wild edibles is catching on again. Bowers’ students include everyone from home cooks to survivalists.
And fall foraging offers a particularly plentiful bounty, from roots and leaves to nuts and berries.
“There’s all kinds of mature things out there this time of year,” said Charlevoix area forager John Sheets. He’s a café manager and chef who likes to use his wild harvest in home dishes like cream of mushroom soup. “The vast majority of mushrooms come out late summer to fall, including chanterelles and a variety of lobster mushrooms and black trumpets and boletes. The huge variety of mushrooms is later in the year, where you might go out and pick 10 species in one foraging.
“Some of the best mushrooms come up in the fall, and some of the very best edible mushrooms are very easy to identify. They’re not the traditional cap-and-stem button-like mushroom,” he said.
Another fall edible is highbush cranberries, which are often found on area streambanks and can be used in jellies and sauces, Sheets, 52, said.
“They’re not the same as the lowbush cranberry, the Thanksgiving cranberry. They have a softer skin, they have some seeds in them. They take a considerable amount of work because they’re incredibly tart. It requires a fair amount of sugar,” he said.
Fall foraging can be as simple as roaming fields for wild apples, said Bowers, 30, who rents a cider press with friends every year to make dozens of gallons of fresh cider with fruit that would otherwise rot on the tree. But finding and using other wild edibles, like black walnuts from trees native to the southern half of Michigan and planted locally at places like Grand Traverse Commons, can take more time and know-how.
“Black walnuts are a pain in the hooha but they’re my favorite nut,” said Bowers, who gathers 80 to 100 pounds each fall and prepares them by removing the outer hull, washing and drying the nut in its shell, storing the nuts for a couple of months to remove all moisture and prevent mold, and finally cracking them with a hammer and roasting them. “It’s basically four hours to crack one pound of nuts.”
Other fall favorites include elderberries for jam and wine, autumn olive berries for fruit leather, stinging nettle leaves for tea, and burdock root — cultivated in Japan as “gobo” — for stir-fries.
Positive identification is an absolute must, as is proper harvesting, cooking and preservation methods, all of which Bowers teaches in his three- to four-hour classes.
“I love to forage and I love to teach people about plants,” said Bowers, who turned 10 years of self-study into a small teaching business about three years ago. “Where else can you find free, organic health food?
“And it’s a lot more fulfilling to make my life more plant-based. We do live on a finite planet. There are so many wild foods. It should be something everybody learns. We subsidize corn farmers so we can have lots of corn, and there are millions of pounds of nuts that rot on the ground every fall,” he said.
Would-be foragers should know that wild edibles, like burdock, can be an acquired taste.
“Most of these things are not purely domestic-tasting,” said Sheets, who began foraging as a boy and became fascinated with the idea of living off the land. “I think you have to maintain an open mind and say these things are not going to taste like supermarket food.”
Sheets’ favorite recipe for Cream of Mushroom Soup uses shaggy mane mushrooms. He said the mushrooms, which eventually turn black and liquefy, should be picked and cooked while still white.
Cream of Mushroom Soup
¼ lb. butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 t. dry thyme
1-1 ½ lbs. shaggy mane mushrooms, chopped (stems and caps)
4 oz. flour
7 c. chicken broth
½ c. white wine
1 c. heavy cream
1 T. salt
1 ½ t. white pepper
Melt butter and stir in thyme. Saute onion and garlic in seasoned butter until soft. Add mushrooms until cooked through. Add flour and stir on low heat. Whisk in chicken broth and wine. Slowly bring to boil, whisking carefully to keep soup from sticking to bottom and scorching, until thickened. Add cream and cook for three or four minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.
— Source: John Sheets
Upcoming Foraging Unlimited classes Sept. 28, 10 a.m., Grand Traverse Commons Oct. 26, time/location TBA Nov. 9, 10 a.m., Grand Traverse Commons (donation-based class) Nov. 23, time/location TBA Oct. 5, 10 a.m., Grand Traverse Commons (in conjunction with Human Nature School) Oct.19, 10 a.m., Grand Traverse Commons (in conjunction with Human Nature School) To register or for more information, call 649-1644 or emal email@example.com. For classes at the Human Nature School, call 649-1906.