Foraging Around the Fringes

Emerging from the hair salon on an early May day, my freshly shorn mane still smelling of styling product, I hear the river. Only a block away, turbulent with snowmelt as it courses over the boulders. So close, I think. I might as well check.

I hop on my bike, and within moments am face to face with a large beige clump of oyster mushrooms. Bingo! A cold spring rain about 10 days before must have produced this pulse. The shelf-like fungi fans out, some specimens bigger than my hand. I lean down to inspect them, and am saddened to find that many are too far gone to salvage. I knife out what I can, leaving the wormy and dried-out stuff behind. The haul is still substantial, and I pack it home in my backpack.

On Saturday morning, scrambled eggs and mushrooms — at about a 40-60 ratio — sprinkled with chives from the yard. The next night, over miso mushroom risotto, I discuss the situation with my co-conspirator, aka my mom, Miriam. I’ve recently been out of town for more than a week, and fear we have missed the prime spring mushroom window in central Wyoming. She checked another of our reliable sources and found inedible remnants of a cluster gone bad, and I spied yet another high on a willow tree — desiccated and petrified, a sad reminder of the ephemeral lifespan of fruiting fungus. Miriam is undaunted. It’s supposed to rain this weekend, she says, optimism in her eyes.

The rain comes, prompting the lawns all over town to grow at a rate of approximately an inch an hour, and the situation looks promising. Days later, I am halfway up a tree in my bike cleats and helmet, knife in my teeth, in pursuit of a neat little clump of mushrooms. Two nights after that, dinner is fettuccine with leeks, mushrooms and peas.

The next Saturday is clear and gusty. I’m puttering in the greenhouse and get a text from a fellow parent in my daughter’s preschool. He’s going to check a big burn area in the mountains for morels. Could be a total goose chase, he warns. Do we want to join?

We do. A few hours later we’re following his truck up a dirt road as it climbs high into the sky, our Subaru straining at the incline. Tiny wildflowers and unfurling vegetation blanket the thawing earth. Shooting stars, bluebells and silky phacelia look almost miniature, but everything does against a sky this big. The views are enormous. The road soon grows soft and it’s not long before we reach an impassable switchback — snowmelt has turned it to gumbo. Skunked, we retreat. Before we descend, we pull over at a meadow to let the kids and dogs wander through snow crust and find bleached bones, salvaging the outing with skinned knees and muddy boots.

Morel mushroom pokes out from the forest floor. Photo: Shiela Brown/CC

The following Monday, I am summoned to jury duty. As I pedal to the courthouse, I circle by our most reliable stump, a once massive cottonwood we know to be prolific. I glimpse what appears to be a fresh spray of mushrooms, though it’s hard to tell through the hedges without close inspection. Duty calls, so I continue on my way. Three hours later, the judge dismisses me, and I return to the stump. Jackpot! Mushrooms fan out, filling a sizable notch in the coffee-table-sized stump with their aromatic flesh. After securing permission from the teenage son who answers the door, I tackle the thick cluster with my knife. My bag is heavy with mushrooms by the time I’m finished.

Two days later, it’s lurid with spring. It’s absurd with spring. Leaves spin open in lime greens, blossoms weigh down branches, the birds sing their guts out. It’s my lunch break, and I decide to ride to a dirt road where Miriam reported seeing asparagus stalks gone to seed. I walk slowly along the fenceline of an irrigated field, and soon spy a skinny spear amid the grass. By the time I head home, l am clutching a handful of stalks. They were sporadic and well hidden, but there they were. Hooray!

That night, salmon with asparagus spoon sauce and roasted mushrooms with parsley gremolata. Heaven is a spring forage feast.

The mushroom haul lasts through a sesame stir-fry with tofu and another round of pasta. This delicious window is closing soon, I figure. Then my husband texts me a picture of my mom holding another bag of freshly picked mushrooms. “Jealous?” he asks. I kind of am. The stump has giveth yet again. Miriam gifts us some, and when we dust off the grill over Memorial Day weekend, we toss olive-oil coated mushrooms in the basket to eat with our burgers. Crispy, smoky, umami, amazing. That same weekend, I check the asparagus spot again and find about three dozen more stalks, pristine and sweet. So good you don’t need to cook them. But I do, grilling some, folding others in eggs and making one more batch of pasta before they vanish.

Living in a human-built environment, it can be easy to forget that nature is all around, responding to the sun’s change, migrating and moving, producing life and even proffering delicious food.

Finding said food doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. Heck, even the ubiquitous dandelion is edible. Just look to your backyard or local park and you are bound to see their yellow heads.

It’s also reckless to swallow the next mushroom or leafy green you see sprouting from a sidewalk crack. You have to educate yourself on how to identify, harvest and prepare foraged foods, and take care not to ingest toxic lookalikes. It takes some work, but I doubt there’s been a better time to learn. There are even foraging TikTok accounts these days.

Once you know what you are looking for, it’s more a matter of learning to discern seasonal cues, pay attention to what is growing around your home and keep your eyes peeled for anything you know to be edible.

Finally, don’t forget to ask permission. That’s how I harvested one final mushroom bounty, which I noticed sprouting from a stump while riding my bike to a class at the local Game and Fish office. I knocked on the residence’s door to no avail, but later tracked down the owner’s number. She was out of town as her stump put forth one final fruiting, and generously gave me the OK.

With spring now tilting into summer, the wild oyster mushrooms are finally spent, the asparagus grown tall and woody, the dandelions all but going to seed.

As if on cue, however, the rhubarb stalks are thickening up. Time to think about pie.

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