Adirondack woods offer a bounty equal to any food store. Take care to follow rules around wild food gathering.
By Carolyn Shapiro
Jane Desotelle crouched at the edge of a brick walkway outside the Ausable Club lodge and plucked a green leaf and spindly flower from a low-lying plant. To the untrained eye, it’s a nuisance weed.
Desotelle, an expert Adirondack forager, identified it as broadleaf plantain. The seeds of the flower spike act like Metamucil to combat constipation, and its dried leaves make a tea that can fight inflammation, even stop internal bleeding, Desotelle explained to a foraging group she led late last summer from the club grounds.
She showed them how to squeeze the green calyx at the base of a yellow dandelion flower to release the petals, which she turns into a sweet, floral jelly. The long, strong dandelion roots—a source of aggravation to many a gardener—smell and taste like rich coffee when ground up and roasted, aiding digestion and liver and gallbladder function, according to Desotelle, who is 72.
“That’s bringing up a lot of trace minerals and nutrients from the subsoil that we don’t get in our diets anymore,” Desotelle told her group. “And this is the big advantage of collecting wild foods. They’re growing in woods where nothing’s been taken away for millions of years.”
The health qualities of wild plants drive Desotelle and many Adirondack residents into the woods in search of things to eat. Some foragers have an aversion to commercial food production or a simple desire to dig their hands in the dirt to make their meals.
Foraging grew in popularity during the pandemic, when the shutdown of restaurants and grocery stores to combat the spread of COVID-19 piqued consumers’ interest in the delicacies they could glean right outside their doors. But the roots of the modern foraging boom started about 20 years earlier, spreading with the local food movement.
Eaters have grown increasingly wary of the environmental damage of industrial production and more conscious of the health deficiencies of the commercial and packaged products they put on their plates, said Patricia Banker, the 4-H program educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County.
“We really want to know how to supplement our food bill, I guess, or supplement our diet with things that are really good but also really good for us,” Banker said. “And we’re not destroying the environment to get it. In some cases, we’re actually helping the environment to utilize it.”
Banker, 69, leads Wild Edibles Walks in the summer from the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center. During the pandemic, those strolls shifted to webinars that drew 400 to 700 people at once, she said. Participants kept her online answering questions well past the session time. Her in-person walks, which resumed in summer 2021, have attracted foragers from as far away as Japan and Hawaii.
Desotelle has spent four decades studying the beneficial and medicinal properties of common plants. She owns Underwood Herbs, selling tinctures, teas and essential oils made from foraged ingredients mostly online and at farmers markets. She leads walks around the Adirondacks and welcomes visitors to her home in Plattsburgh, where she tends a plant sanctuary of more than 400 species.
At the Ausable Club, her group included a young couple with three boys and four older women. Desotelle pointed out pine needles, which carry a lot of vitamin C if drunk in tea, she said, guiding the group toward an Adirondack Mountain Reserve trail. Common yellow sorrel tastes like lemon and is antiviral and antifungal. Prunella, also called Heal-all, boasts purple flowers and a unique ability among wild Adirondack herbs to calm the immune system.
Know before you go: Foraging rules
Banker said picking endangered wildflowers, such as trillium, would likely get a forager in trouble if caught. The list of protected species—including rare, threatened and vulnerable plants—is extensive and the state warns that “it is a violation for any person, anywhere in the state, to pick, pluck, sever, remove, damage by the application of herbicides or defoliants, or carry away, without the consent of the owner,” any of them.
In the Adirondacks, foraging season starts as soon as the green shoots of spring ramps, fiddleheads, lamb’s quarters and chickweed start to poke through the soil, usually in April. Ramps and fiddleheads, the curled shoots of the giant ostrich fern, are particularly susceptible to overharvesting.
State law allows for picking for personal consumption. Responsible foragers take just a few of any plant, particularly sensitive ones, according to Desotelle and Banker. Ramps, also known as wild leeks, grow in big clusters but need enough left to continue to seed. A leek seed takes 18 months to germinate, “let alone to grow into something that’s big enough to eat,” Desotelle said.
Anyone digging ramps should leave some of the smallest bulbs, the youngest ones, in the soil to keep growing. Same with fiddleheads: If seven branches are sprouting, foragers should only clip two or three. Banker adheres to the “one-third rule”—to take no more than a third of anything. With ramps, she advises removing much less than that. Native people, she noted, were mindful to respect plants, but the one-third rule isn’t attributed to them. “The Indigenous people always left an offering and were very in tune with how to harvest only what was needed and sustainable,” she said.
Mushrooms, though, sprout as the fruiting body of a giant underground organism that continually reproduces on spores, so it’s difficult to decimate it by harvesting. “Collecting mushrooms is like picking an apple from a tree,” Desotelle said.
Many foragers focus on mushrooms, starting with elusive morels in the spring. In the Adirondack woods, they’ll find plentiful chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and lobster mushroom–which resembles the crustacean’s tail. It’s not a mushroom but a parasitic fungus that grows on mushrooms.
Jordan Sauter passed a basket of golden chanterelle mushrooms to a foraging group he led in mid-July last year through the trails of Craigarden, a nonprofit arts and agriculture organization in Elizabethtown. He instructed the foragers to bring the fungi to their noses.
“Get a good smell on ’em,” he said. “They smell buttery and sweet like apricots…. That is the biggest distinguishing feature for chanterelles. If you smell them and they don’t smell like that, they’re not chanterelles.”
Sauter, a chef who owns the Red Oak Food Co. catering business and bake shop in Essex with his wife, then pointed out the “gills”—the vented ribs under the mushroom’s cap—that extended in stripes down the chanterelle stem. The stem and the cap form one piece, Sauter continued. He took a small knife and shaved the chanterelle stem. Inside, the flesh gleamed white.
These are the tell-tale signs that distinguish a chanterelle from its toxic lookalike, the jack-o’-lantern. Another feature that separates the delectable and the dangerous: The jack-o’-lantern grows in clusters on wood, while chanterelles only sprout out of the forest floor, typically under Eastern white pine or old oak or beech trees, Sauter said. And in the Adirondacks, he has only seen an occasional jack-o’-lantern in August, when chanterelles mostly have finished their season, so they don’t overlap much.
“There’s a lot of fear baked in with going out and picking mushrooms,” Sauter said. “There’s more plants out there that can kill you than mushrooms. More of them will make you sick (rather) than kill you.” People worry more than necessary about eating things found in the woods, he added, though “it’s always good to be safe.”
Bridgette Blemel was hanging laundry behind her house in Wadhams last spring when she spotted a crop of morels, one the size of a baseball, in the grass. In the surrounding woods where she walks her dog, she sees a multitude of mushrooms and has wondered which are safe to consume, prompting her to join Sauter’s stroll that summer with her son, Jesse Misarski.
“I’m nervous,” Blemel admitted. “We need to have somebody explain, well, these grow in this certain environment or under this tree or this time of year.”
After his group walk, which yielded few fungi, Sauter ventured into one of his favorite spots in Willsboro that he preferred to keep secret. “People that do what I do are very protective of their spots,” he said.
He wore a large woven pack basket on his back and, on his best quests, fills it with as much as five pounds of found mushrooms. Off his favored trail in the woods, he swept away dry brush and twigs and tucked his hands under a downed tree branch, revealing the golden-hued chanterelle.
Sauter, 38, grows several mushroom varieties on logs at his home in Jay and sells them at farmers markets and to a few local restaurants. He also prepares them himself for special catered dinners. In the spring, he forages for ramps and fiddleheads, careful to slice off small portions of the plants and never pull them out of the ground.
“If one patch didn’t recover because I took too much of it—I just don’t want to be part of that,” he said.
A few weeks after Sauter’s outing, Desotelle led her Ausable Club group to the entrance of the West River Trail and pointed out a patch of wild mint. Nearby, she recommended the flowers and leaves of red clover, which is high in iron and protein.
As they meandered along the Ausable River, they encountered numerous mushrooms, including a large orange-hued chicken of the woods clinging to a tree trunk by the water and a varnished conk, which looked like shiny mahogany the size of a dinner plate. It’s in the reishi family, carrying a long roster of medicinal uses, Desotelle explained. High up on another tree, she noticed a cantaloupe-sized chaga, which has mushroomed in popularity as a powder to make a hot drink chock full of antioxidants.
“The best thing about walks like this is you can see, feel, smell, taste,” Desotelle said.
Diana Mears, her husband and two boys joined Desotelle’s walk. Now living in Washington, D.C., Mears has visited Keene Valley since she was a kid and wanted her boys to experience the Adirondacks in summer.
“This is the coolest thing ever!” one of her twins, 4-year-old Landon, exclaimed as he scurried alongside his mother, who carried the varnished conk. He explained his delight with the foraged find: “You get to take it home.”
At the end of Desotelle’s walk, Mears said the whole family is fascinated by foraging. “We love the woods and the wilderness and a lot of the nutrients that you can get in the soil” from wild edibles, she said. “It’s one of the many incredible things that these woods have to offer.”
From an early age, Desotelle had her hands in plants. She’d pick elderflowers that her grandmother in Ohio dried for tea to sip when they got sick. After her parents married, they bought a half-acre lot in Plattsburgh where she was raised and still lives, maintaining a wild-growing garden of therapeutic flora.
Click here for foraging tips
Go with someone experienced and knowledgeable.
Avoid areas within 200 feet of a busy or heavily trafficked road; areas on the edges of farm fields where pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals are used; areas near working railroad tracks or other industrial areas where herbicides are applied to control vegetation; and areas near drainage ditches, canals or polluted waterways.
Use two or three region-specific identification guides, such as L.A. Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America,” Linda Runyon’s “The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide,” or Samuel Thayer’s “The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.”
Check with the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s endangered plant database before harvesting.
Find out which parts of a plant are edible, and which may not be. Even the green stem and leaves of a common potato plant are toxic.
Wear long sleeves, socks and pants for protection from ticks, stinging nettle, poison ivy and other irritants.
If you’re not sure what it is, don’t pick.
Ask permission on private property
Desotelle started Underwood Herbs in 1978. She has long favored getting vitamins, minerals and general health care from plants. Since her 30s, she has suffered from gallbladder problems but avoided doctors’ advice for surgery by opting for dandelion root tea to perk up her sluggish digestive system, she said. She joined the nonprofit national conservation group United Plant Savers “to protect medicinal plants from overharvesting.”
Most foragers are self-taught, and Desotelle said she never stops learning. Just last summer, she took an intensive online course in Chinese and ayurvedic medicine. In the woods, she favors The Peterson Field Guides and mycologist Alan Bessette’s mushroom books for the Northeast.
Banker, who lives in Paul Smiths, said she dislikes the term “foraging” because it suggests that someone has no other way to procure food. “I just call it utilizing what’s there in a way that’s sustainable.” She favors the phrase “free-range shopping.”
When Banker was a kid growing up in Saranac Lake, foraging was frowned upon, she said. She recalled grabbing some berries during a trek through the woods with her high school hiking club. The adult leader chastised her, telling her she set a dangerous example for other students.
Banker, though, said she always was inclined to dine from the wild. “I don’t remember not knowing that you eat dandelions and ramps and things.”
One of her favorite finds is the fruit of the juneberry bush, also called serviceberry or shadberry, especially if she beats the birds and other creatures to it. “It flowers very early in the spring,” she said. “The berry has a starred base. When it’s ripe, it’s a really deep, deep, deep purple, almost black. And they taste like a very sweet blueberry. So, they’re delicious.”
Once she was following moose tracks that led to a stand of hazelnuts. They like to grow on the edges of woods in clearings or along stone walls, she said.
The Adirondack woods offer a bounty equal to any food store, Banker declared. “We were hunter-gatherers for a whole lot longer of our human history than we were grocery shoppers.”