Morel guidance

An insider’s handbook to foraging in Manitoba

More Manitobans are turning to the internet for help learning to forage for mushrooms, berries and other wild food. (Supplied photo)

Every day, a handful of the 16.6 thousand members of the Foraging Manitoba Facebook group log on for some morel support. No, that’s not a typo.

“Can you identify this strange plant? Are these mushrooms edible? What should I make with these lovely violet berries growing in my yard?”

These questions occupy the expanding Facebook page each day, where budding fungi scavengers seek the advice of experienced foragers.

Louisa Longford is one of many longtime foragers who began replying after noticing a few well-intentioned but inexperienced friends post on the forum.

Her inkling for edible plants was passed down from her grandfather. Now, she shares that knowledge with strangers on the Foraging Manitoba Facebook group.

“I’ll gently guide them in the right direction,” Longford says. “(It) made me feel like there’s knowledge I have, that I can support people in their journey and guide them in the ways I was taught, which is very, very conservative.”

For many, the group isn’t just a way to prevent an aching stomach or avoid an emergency phone call to poison control. It’s also a way to build a sense of community with like-minded fungi hunters and edible-plant enthusiasts.

Two years ago, John Bo, like nearly everyone else, found himself cooped up in his home, longing for a way to get out and keep his hands busy.

In early 2020, he tried – and failed – his hand at foraging.

“I kind of was just walking out with a friend in the forest just looking for anything,” Bo says. “I couldn’t find anything that was edible or was what I was looking for.”

But this year, with a guidebook in hand and a wealth of knowledge from the Foraging Manitoba group, he succeeded.

“They have a lot of proof of concept,” Bo says of the Facebook group. “If you see pictures of people posting them, you feel pretty good about going out and finding them yourself.”

The local foraging boom is welcomed by Tom Nagy, the co-founder of River City Mushrooms, who knows his lobster mushroom from his chicken of the woods. As the Winnipeg Free Press put it in December 2020, he’s “a real fungi.”

River City Mushrooms, Nagy’s passion project, was established a few years back to get people excited about fungi in Manitoba.

“My main goal, at first, was to increase what I call ‘mycological literacy’ in the community,” Nagy says. “What I mean about that is to develop and cultivate an appreciation for and a knowledge for working with fungi for all the various reasons and uses that it has for us.”

As Nagy explains, mushrooms have a host of unique characteristics that make them appealing to humans and the greater environment.

“Since fungi and mushrooms are decomposers, they’re incredibly efficient at transforming waste material and natural organic compounds and converting them into a format that can be used by themselves to create energy,” Nagy says. “They can create food for us. They can create medicine for us. They can create all of these really interesting novel compounds.”

Such characteristics make foraging a gift that keeps on giving – but not without limits.

Nagy believes there’s a tendency for beginners to take more than what they need. While he says individual foragers hold different perspectives, he’s maintained a set of principles to ensure environmental ethics are upheld during his forest travels.

“I don’t forage for profit,” Nagy says. “I would forage for myself, I would forage for my friends and family, I would forage for my community, but I would personally never commodify or sell what I forage.”

Similarly, Longford encourages amateur foragers to go in with few expectations and the intention of only taking what they’ll use. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask.

“It was always taught to me that you don’t pick the first one you find. You don’t pick the last one, and you only pick it if you need it,” Longford says.

Additionally, Nagy says libraries, online forums and local guided tours are the amateur forager’s best friends.

“If you can find someone – a friend, a family member, someone in your community – that knows about this sort of stuff really intimately and you trust that they have your best interests in mind, absolutely, 100 per cent go that route,” Nagy says. “Trying to accumulate as much information as you possibly can before going out for your first time will really help.”

As Manitoba’s fungi hobbyist community grows, others forage to heal. Carla Dyck, who resides in Gladstone, was introduced to foraging as a young girl. In her 40s, she began collecting wild chamomile (pineapple weed) as a natural remedy for anxiety.

“I lived in town when I began foraging wild chamomile and was picking my chamomile at a family member’s farm,” Dyck says in an email sent to The Uniter.

After battling breast cancer, foraging helped her bring a renewed sense of wellness.

“I’m on my way back to health, and foraged products are some of my best tools,” Dyck said. “This year, I’ve started making oils, salves and tinctures with poplar buds, wild chamomile and plantain weed for physical pain and skin conditions.”

Whatever their reason – be it scavenging salad toppings, home remedies or simply to relish the joy of finding – those bit by the foraging bug say it has indelibly transformed their connection with the land.

“Foraging, in a sense, is a great way to develop a connection with your local environment and also to be a steward of that environment,” Nagy says. “If that’s something that you want to continue doing, then of course you’re going to need to try your best to advocate for the protection of the environment and the habitat that those organisms need.”

“Once you start to look at one particular aspect of the natural world, you quickly realize that it’s attached to everything else.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 05 of The Uniter (October 6, 2022)

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