Check out these videos from “Next Earth: Teaching Climate Change Across the Disciplines,” an online conference hosted by UCSB. Sherrilyn Billger has two videos up called “Take it Outside: Eating for the Ecosystem” and “The Philosopher and the Entrepreneur: The Pedagogical Significance of a Symbiotic Relationship.” Find out what respect, consent, trust, and empathy have to do with plants and our relationships with them!
Did you know that humans are pretty much the only animals who get severe skin reactions from Poison Ivy? Many other animals not only tolerate the plant, but are fed and nourished by it. Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron or Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American plant that serves an important role in various ecosystems. Among modern humans, though, it often garners a sense of loathing and dread, since the plant seems to harm us rather than benefit us. I admit I’m pretty tired of seeing it everywhere in the Wissahickon and Fairmount. But ultimately, the goal of this article is to allow knowledge, understanding, and humility to transform the hatred, anger, and fear into a kind of deep respect. That respect will, of course, include eco-friendly ideas for coping with it on your property, how to avoid the rash, and what to do if you have been exposed.
History, Botany, and ID
It behooves us to understand some botanical history and the roles of Poison Ivy (PI) in the ecosystem. PI is part of the Anacardiaceae family, commonly known as the cashew family. Other members of this plant family include mangoes, pistachios, and the urushi tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), which provides sap used in creating Japanese lacquerware. This sap contains the urushiol oily resin, the very same substance found in Poison Ivy. It is the urushiol that causes that horrible rash on human skin. More on this invisible spreader below.
PI is a robust and resilient plant with many variations—it can take a shrubby, vining, or ground cover form and the leaves can also vary in their appearance. “Leaves of three, let it be,” is a pretty good reminder, but you should specifically look for the middle leaf on a slightly longer stem, jagged edges (though some may not be very jagged at all or look more like a mitten), and possibly a reddish stem. The vining type is very common in the eastern U.S.—look out for hairy stems/aerial roots climbing up trees and fences, which are just as poisonous as the leaves.
One last weird piece of history: William Bartram (whose last name you may recognize from Philly’s Bartram’s Garden), listed Poison Ivy seeds in his late 1700’s catalogue of “American” plants he would sell to plant-collectors in Europe. Apparently, some people did, in fact, find ornamental value in this dangerous plant.
Food and Function
Many animals consume various parts of PI, including the leaves, stems and berries. Animals who enjoy this food source include rabbits, goats, bears, deer, raccoons, muskrats, robins, crows, bluebirds, quail, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and a variety of insect pollinators.
We know that Poison Ivy often shows up in disturbed soil, and because it can cause such an uncomfortable rash for humans, an interesting theory is that PI serves as a sort of “keep out” sign. It makes us more cautious, slow, hesitant—less eager to enter a particular area of the woods where PI abounds. That place needs time to heal, perhaps. For me, that caution is also respect. It requires me to hone my observation skills and look around carefully. It means I don’t get to touch or take just anything I want from the land. If I want to walk barefoot in the woods, I must heed the “keep out” signs vigilantly.
But perhaps more fascinatingly, did you know that increasing levels of of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere generally cause growth enhancement in vines? A six-year study at Duke University showed this to be especially true for Poison Ivy—elevating levels of CO2 in the air are responsible for increasing the growth rate, biomass, and allergenic intensity of urushiol in PI.
Wow, we knew the CO2 was bad for climate change, but who knew it was also making PI grow bigger, stronger, and more allergically potent?! If you needed yet another reason to fight for green policy and culture changes individually, community-wide, nationally, and globally–there you go.
Managing PI on your Property
It can be a real bummer to discover Poison Ivy on your property, especially in areas where you or pets or children may wish to play or walk, or in areas where you’d like to be planting desirable plants or otherwise maintaining a garden. Here at Eating for the Ecosystem, we aren’t in favor of using chemical herbicides to kill the plant. If you are really set on clearing a given area of PI, the methods we usually employ are as follows:
-For smaller areas or single plants, dig out the plant by the root if you can (be sure to see precautions below, and work very carefully).
-For larger areas, you might first attempt to dig out as much as you can, while wearing protective gear. Consider a painter suit or nonporous clothing to shield your skin. Then, you can lay a sheet of black plastic over the designated area to continue to inhibit growth of any vegetation in that area. Over time, without sun or water, the plants should die. You should still exercise caution when digging or planting in that area later, in case any roots were left behind.
Thinking again about the scientific findings on PI growth, continuing to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions and improve carbon sequestering in soil can help halt the rapid spread and proliferation of PI.
Precautions and Post-Exposure Remedies
Observe and actively look for PI nearby; identify where it tends to grow.
Do not touch any part of the plant with bare skin.
Do not burn PI— the smoke can irritate the lungs.
If the plant must be touched, use thick non-porous gloves and either wash them well when you are done or discard them if disposable.
Be careful to avoid letting your clothing, backpack, cellphone, tools, etc. touch the plant—the oil can get on these objects and be subsequently transferred to your skin. The urushiol can stay on surfaces for up to five years if not washed off properly! If you know any objects or clothes brushed a part of the plant, wash thoroughly. Use rubbing alcohol to wipe down tools and phones, etc.
Be careful on rainy days; water dripping off of a poison ivy leaf can contain urushiol in it.
Be careful if intending to touch or harvest a plant dwelling nearby a PI plant.
If you know your skin has touched any part of the plant, wash immediately (within the first 10 minutes) with Tecnu or similar product. You can also wipe skin with rubbing alcohol. If that is not available, it can also be effective to wash in a cold creek— use sand or silt granules to rub the skin as you wash, this will more effectively dislodge the oil.
Jewelweed is a plant that often grows near PI and is the most effective remedy. The sooner you use it the better (you can just mash it up and rub it on the area you think was exposed).
what to do if you get a rash
Jewelweed is also effective if you already have a rash. I’ve had success turning it into a green paste (blended with other goodies like plantain and witch hazel) and applying it every night to the affected area. I then wrap the area in gauze so that the paste doesn’t get anywhere else, and also so that I do not scratch the blisters.
Even if you don’t have jewelweed and opt not to make your own natural remedy, store-bought remedies like drying Calamine can be helpful.
In all cases, I have found wrapping the rash with gauze to be the most effective way to stop me from scratching the blisters. Less scratching also makes it less consistently itchy.
Try homeopathic pills to reduce the severity of the symptoms (I use Hyland’s brand), which contain tiny amounts of Rhus toxicodendron. This is not the same as the folks who will tell you to make yourself immune by eating parts of the plant. People do that, and it works for some people, but it also has led to bad situations for others. I don’t recommend this method as of now, but then, I haven’t tried it myself.
Once again, make sure you have washed everything well, including your entire body and any clothing and objects that may have contacted the plant directly or your skin after you had touched the plant.
For those with severe allergies or with very large areas of rash, seeking medical attention may be your best bet. If you have access to a doctor you trust, seeking their help and advice is recommended.
Nature is life, and nature is rhythm. Co-evolved and co-evolving with plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, weather, water, and all organic elements, humans are inherently part of the symphony of rhythms and relationships.
It’s no surprise, then, that a number of recent scientific studies tackle the problems of modern indoor-centric life and support the assertion that spending a significant amount of time outdoors improves wellbeing. A robust study in 2019 found that exactly two hours of time in nature (outdoor environments like woodlands, beaches, parks, etc.) per week improved health and wellbeing, as reported by the participants. Jim Robbins recently reported on this topic and included findings that time in nature can “lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhance immune function, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.” A 2017 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health elucidates how the many benefits of nature experience are most likely related to the variety of sensory inputs combined with particular microbes and chemical compounds our bodies contact and absorb. While vision can be an important sense overall, the article affirms that total lived experiences in the environment full of sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile opportunity are crucial for wellbeing.
Phytoncides, organic compounds usually emitted by plants for defensive purposes, “permeate the air in natural environments and are ingested by visitors [or inhabitants]…They are a popular topic of study in Japan, and widely believed to contribute to benefits experienced during nature walks known as ‘shinrin-yoku,’ or ‘forest-bathing.’”Several phytoncides have been found to be antimicrobial, to increase immune system activity, and to decrease stress.
Air ions, charged particles resulting from radiation, cosmic rays, solar waves, waterfalls, thunder, and UV light, are “particularly abundant in natural places…and they have been suggested as one of the potential mechanisms for the physiological and mood benefits of natural places.” The negative air ions found outdoors “stabilize mood and increase vigor, friendliness, and ease of concentration,” while indoor spaces devoid of the ions are associated with depression.
And of course, we must remember that many of the hundred trillion bacteria in our bodies come from soil, water, animal feces, and spores. The “gut microbiota” is crucial for nervous system functioning, and decreased exposure due to a sanitized indoor lifestyle hinders our ability to benefit from those relationships.
Deepening Relationship: Co-regulation
The scientific findings on nature and wellbeing are amplified when we invite in dialogue from psychology and the arts. As someone engaged in body-based healing and therapy, I’ve been studying the Polyvagal Theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges and referred to by Deb Dana as “the science of feeling safe enough to take the risks of living.” Polyvagal Theory works with the commonly known idea of “fight, flight, or freeze” in regards to human behavior and nervous system activation, and it adds another category: social engagement. The states of nervous system activation could be envisioned as a ladder–if something has signaled to us that our life is in major danger or that we are trapped, we shut down and freeze. That’s the bottom of the ladder, and the oldest part of our nervous system known as the Dorsal Vagus. When we mobilize in order to fight or run away from the stressor or threat, we’re in our sympathetic nervous system. When we perceive safety, largely through the presence of healthy relationships, we enter into the newest part of our nervous system, the Ventral Vagus (VV). Here, at the top of the ladder, we are able to socially engage and communicate with a sense of curiosity. In order to move from shut down to VV, one needs to move through some sympathetic activation on the ladder.
Co-regulation is key for accessing VV energy. In cases of trauma, it can be difficult to self-regulate. Though it may also be difficult to establish enough trust to develop a healthy co-regulation relationship, that relationship built over time is crucial for regaining resilience within the nervous system. Co-regulation is actually a biological need that all humans have for reciprocal regulation; it’s the way our nervous systems talk to each other, connect, mirror, and help each other feel safe enough as we move through the various states of activation and relaxation. It’s for this reason that I love to see “community care” involved in any conversation about “self care.”
Essentially, the research on how nature time and health/wellness are interconnected mirrors the finding that spending time in nature helps people reconnect with the VV state. As described in the book Nature-based Therapy by Nevin Harper, Kathryn Rose, and David Segal, “Nature is filled with an abundance of flora and fauna that help engage people in the present moment and embodied exploration. [They] bring out curiosity in people and motivate a further connection with nature…Encounters with beings that can be climbed, tended, and taken in awe or wonder provide a powerful means to engage in the present moment and begin the process of acquainting [people] to their own nature, their own animal bodies, and specifically their mammalian nervous system.” In other words, outdoor environments stimulate curiosity, connection, wonder, and embodied presence that immediately bring us into a Ventral Vagal state.
In “Performing ecologies in a world in crisis,” (an editorial preface to Choreographic Practices) Robert Bingham references choreographer/performer/professor Merián Soto’s outdoor improvisational work Into the Woods: “She urges readers to ‘just go’ outside and feel the heartbeat of nature through their moving, sensing bodies.” To feel a heartbeat is, indeed, a somatic experience. In your own body, you might find that you are aware of your heartbeat and that the awareness is heightened through touch. Touch, colloquially referred to as “the mother of all senses,” is in many ways our most intimate sense and has the greatest co-regulating capabilities. What would it be like to touch the earth with the open intention of feeling the heartbeat of nature, of life itself? What would it be like to garden and grow food with that kind of touch? What would it be like to move through the world still in contact with that rhythm, to make decisions and develop habits from that place of felt-connectedness?
In terms of co-regulating with non-human creatures, we probably most readily understand it with animals, perhaps through relationships with pets. But I propose that even though plants don’t have a nervous system in exactly the way mammals do, we still enter into a dynamic, responsive relationship with them. Studies show that “plants evolved to have between 15 and 20 separate senses including human-like abilities for smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing.” Plants can remember, sense danger, respond with chemical alterations accordingly, and communicate information to their nearby communities. They’re especially intertwined with fungal communication networks. And there may be much more about their rich internal life that we haven’t scientifically explained yet. All this to say: our plant friends are very much alive, and they have a rhythm and intelligence that inevitably resonates in our bodies, helping to balance us as we grow closer to them. Perhaps we can co-regulate with them, just like we co-regulate with friends, partners, pets, or therapists.
Deepening Relationship: Reciprocity
As we grow closer to nature, spending more time outdoors, getting to know various species, becoming more and more intimate, we may find that we agree with Merián Soto when she asserts that “we are nature.” The authors of Nature-based Therapy agree, emphasizing that their approach to therapy involves supporting a reunion with nature as opposed to an extraction relationship in which humans take benefit from some “thing” that is separate from them. Importantly, the authors also note that outdoor experiences often include an element of risk. Nature isn’t always soothing or tranquil. And from their standpoint, accepting inherent risk is “both restorative and meaningfully disruptive (i.e. burdensome, tiring, challenging).” The risk and therefore inclusion and toning of quick-response survival mechanisms combined with the overall Ventral Vagal support as described earlier in this article actually helps create a more resilient nervous system.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose environmental work is grounded in the knowledge systems of First Nations, sees human-plant relationships as that of “kin.” The view of being-family supports an attitude of gratitude and togetherness. Sondra Fraleigh beautifully writes that “as we move our senses out towards the world, and a sense of the world returns to us, there is folding reciprocal play in consciousness.” Reciprocity is real depth of relationship, and what is missing from so much of modern postcolonialist life. While I can appreciate the scientific studies about how being outside in “nature” (for just two hours a week!) improves human health, the studies also perpetuate the problematic view that nature is simply something beautiful/useful for us to feel better, and then we can go on back into the broken bifurcated system keeping us separate from our kin, and essentially, ourselves.
When we come into full reciprocity in relationships, we feel the ebbs and flows of giving and receiving. We feel the innate desire to take care of the earth arise within us. We recognize all the ways we are fed, and we wish to give back equally and frequently. We grieve loss of non-human kin the same way we grieve human loved ones. We ask what we can do to help and support in times of need. We are ready to respond in times of crisis, such as now. Whether the response is shifting the paradigm back to connection, supporting and ushering in political systems that will immediately create large-scale energy and environmental protection reform, supporting indigenous people and returning land to them, caring for regional plants through propagation and stewardship, seed saving, reforesting cleared lands, getting to know local ecology and species, learning wildlife rhythms and needs, taking fewer resources, fighting for regenerative growing practices rather than destructive industrial agriculture, offering material tokens of appreciation, or simply feeding a bird, or a bee, or dancing the spirit of a place— whatever the response, the embodied reciprocity is the heart of healing.
“‘Imagine a conference not on the Future of the Humanities in the Capitalist Restructuring University, but instead on the Power of the Humusities for a Habitable Multispecies Muddle!
…human beings are with and of the earth, and the biotic and abiotic powers of this earth are the main story. However, the doings of the situated, actual human beings matter. It matters which ways of living and dying we cast our lot rather than others. It matters not just to human beings, but also to those many critters across taxa which and whom we have subjected to exterminations, extinctions, genocides, and prospects of futurelessness.”
Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene
Much of our soil is becoming mere dirt. And if you care about climate change, you need to care about the crucial role that land degradation is playing in global warming, and the crucial role that soil restoration will and does already play in creating real climate solutions.
Healthy soil teems with life beneath our feet. Being land-dwellers, we tend to focus on what’s aboveground. When we observe plants, we’re typically only seeing 30 percent of the overall biomass of that plant! Besides root structures, all sorts of bacteria, organisms, and detritus interact in complex ways in soil. Within a cubic meter of healthy earth, you may find fungal hyphae twice the diameter of the earth! For those who do not know, hyphae are thread-like tubular structures, a mass of which make up the mycelium, which is the true body of a fungus. Hyphae digest externally (by releasing chemicals and enzymes into soil and nearby plant tissues) and form connections that transfer nutrients into itself as well as the nearby plants. The complex subterranean world was designed by nature intelligently; our interference in its wellbeing has had devastating fallout including desertification and global warming.
The number one culprit in degrading and eroding soil is big agriculture. Practices like tilling, no use of cover crops, and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides all strip nutrients and microbes and destroy what Walter Jehne, Australian climate scientist and soil microbiologist, calls the “soil sponge,” full of fungal hyphae helping to create a porous living material that can sequester carbon. Sue Van Hook, mycologist, naturalist, teacher and healer, explains in this interview with Mushroom Revival that carbon is like the skeleton of the sponge and can hold up to 8x its weight in water. This massively increases the longevity of soil and the ability to continue growing in times of drought. Spores from fungi that grow in soil also trap water vapor, and Walter Jehne notes in this excellent interview how water vapor plays a key role in hydrology and the cooling of the planet.
He further explains that, “For the last 8,000 years of ‘human civilization,’ we’ve been very effective at clearing and burning [productive] land, cultivating those soils and building industrial systems. We’ve oxidized the carbon and destroyed the biological cycles that underpin the health of those landscapes. We’ve done that with 5 billion hectares of land, turning 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface into desert and wasteland. As we oxidize the carbon, by definition, those soils can’t infiltrate, retain, or make available water from rain. Invariably, they go to desert. That’s been the history of man on this planet.”
In brief, sequestering carbon in soil has the potential to reverse climate change by firstly drawing down the oxidized atmospheric carbon into the ground where it is stable and beneficial, and by rebalancing the water cycles of planet earth.
OK— so how does humus play into this?
You may be thinking it has something to do with compost? Topsoil? Organic matter? Well, sort of. Let’s start with organic matter. When it decomposes, all kinds of molecules are broken down (protein, sugars, amino acids, etc.) by bacteria/fungi/other organisms in the soil. Eventually usable stuff that’s been broken down as much as is possible is available to plants. Then there’s leftover molecules largely made up of carbon, and this absorbent material that we’ve historically called “humus” is very stable and can persist in soil for hundreds of years.
Humus is hard to define. In fact, Erhard Jennig writes that “humus is not a real substance, but rather a process.” The seemingly simple and common definition of humus as “black-brown matter in the topsoil produced by the putrefaction of vegetable and animal matter” does not capture the complexity of formation processes that take place following decomposition processes, which includes binding together with inorganic compounds like fine clay particles. More recent research into soil microbiology by Jehne reveals that “humus” may have more to do with what is secreted by plant roots than we previously realized.
We can agree that compost is good, and adding organic matter especially to areas in which you frequently harvest seems especially good. But Jehne says that most soil carbon comes from plants’ root exudates. “Nature created soil by growing plants and making sure that potentially up to 60 or 70 percent of the biomass produced can be fixed into stable soil carbon. Currently though, little of it is.” Importantly, fungi are the necessary agents that mediate conversion of these root exudates into humates or glomalin (stable soil carbon). Glomalin is produced from leftover chitin from cell walls of fungi and acts like a glue or bedsprings within our soil sponge.
These facts illuminate why common agricultural practices that rely on constant soil disturbance through clearing and harvesting end up making the humus process nearly impossible. The humus process generally requires undisturbed land, which is why you’ll find the richest stores of that authentic black topsoil in untouched forests. We need to revise what “commonplace” growing practices are these days—let’s choose practices that support the humus process and the formation of a strong soil sponge that sequesters carbon, retains moisture, and creates nutrient-rich food for everyone.
What You Can Do
Every bit of carbon that we can re-sequester into soil matters. In reality, restoring the human-humus relationship—restoring our “soil sponge” and recognizing the sacredness of living soil itself— is much more about land management practice than adding awesome compost or other soil amendments.
Van Hook and Jehne note or imply the following basic land management tasks that will restore the soil sponge. Many of these are obviously applicable to farm management, but they can also be adapted for personal backyard growing practices.
Don’t till! Tilling breaks up important fungal hyphae, disturbs other processes, exposes soil to radiation, and oxidizes carbon.
Use cover crops and groundcover. Keeping soil covered at all times with plants reduces carbon dioxide off-gassing, provides food and relationships for beneficial fungi, attracts biodiversity and potential pollinators, increases fertility and aeration, and decreases the likelihood of heat domes and runoff.
Implement appropriate grazing practices, especially in grasslands. Think of grazing animals as “mobile biodigesters” (term coined by Jehne) who help return unharvested vegetation to the earth rather than having it burn. The hooves of these herbivores also break up soil, they help spread seeds, and waste adds fertility. Appropriate grazing means livestock are moved regularly so nothing is overeaten. Atmospheric science has shown that herbivore-maintained grasslands produce an abundance of the kinds of ions needed to break up methane ions, another harmful greenhouse gas.
Oppose fracking however you can—the methane exposed from that far outweighs any methane from other sources.
Stop using biocides, which whether organic or not, kill life outright in our soils.
Plant crops with deep roots like bluestem prairie grass, which pump carbon downwards into the soil.
Support regrowth of forests—including urban forests—however you can.
Aim to create perennial gardens and food forests rather than gardens full of annual plants.
As it goes in this “multispecies muddle,” our human health is directly tied to soil health. Nutrient density depends on fungi converting organic matter into available minerals, and nutrient density and quality of food grown (possibly even the presence of beneficial microbes) affects our gut health. And as we now know, many illnesses can be tied to gut imbalance. Oh, and not to mention the obvious hard truth: loss of productive soil ultimately leads to not only less nutritious food but less food period…many civilizations “plowed themselves out of business,” so to speak. But of course, we only need to worry about food security if we can first secure the habitability of this planet (i.e. mitigating climate change): habitability not only for us humans, but for all our critter friends whose homes and lives are intertwined with our own.
I hope that alongside the abovementioned practices, more humans will feel an inner perspective and awareness shift. The ground beneath our feet is incredibly complex, intelligent, responsive, and alive. We have historically demanded of the ground so much, dominating it with our shovels and machines and flames. What will happen when we recognize that which we stand upon and that which feeds us as sacred and sentient? What if, along with our revision of physical actions and care-taking, we infuse our everyday awareness with deeper sensing and gratitude for the cycles of the underworld?
For visual/auditory learners interested in hearing more details from Walter Jehne and his feasible solutions for literally saving the world, check out this full lecture video.
A shorter visual illustration of the soil sponge can be found here.
While lots of fungi are very small, in some cases too small to see, today’s spotlight mushroom is hard to miss when you come across it. Often mistaken for a volleyball lost in a field, the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea) is aptly named—it’s a large, usually round, all-white fruiting body often found in fields, meadows, yards, and woodland areas. I found my first Giant Puffballs this year in early November, which is a littler later than what most guides would suggest (September-October). They were located in a kind of border area between a wooded zone and a landscaped yard. One of them was being choked by vinca—this one was too mature to be eaten (see my tip guide below for how I knew that).
Luckily, the disappointment didn’t last long as I soon spotted two other perfect volleyballs nearby! It isn’t uncommon to find Puffballs living in communities like this.
Tips for Safely Harvesting Giant Puffballs
It is safer to harvest volleyball-size Puffballs than smaller ones. Some smaller ones are fine, but there is a higher chance of misidentification in those cases.
They are always found on the ground.
The texture of the Puffball should be smooth, perhaps leather-like, and perhaps with small “craters.”
There should be NO STEM and NO GILLS.
When you cut open the mushroom, the color should be solid white all the way through. The texture should be something like tofu. If you see any colors besides white (like yellow or brown or green), don’t eat it. If the texture is mushy, don’t eat it. If it smells really funky, don’t eat it!
It isn’t exactly known whether this mushroom is mycorrhizal (in a complex relationship with plant roots) or can simply spread its spores anywhere to reproduce, but what we do know is that it isn’t easy to cultivate like some other mushrooms. I would suggest simply noting where you found a Puffball and returning there the following year to harvest again.
Eating Puffballs: A Recipe for Pizza!
There are as many ways to prepare Puffballs as there are ways to prepare meat or tofu. One idea I’ve heard about from forager friends that I decided to try this time is Puffball Pizza. It turned out great! I’ll share with you my basic recipe below.
The next time you find the spectacular lost volleyball fungi poking out from the ground, go ahead and get excited! You really can make a feast with this mushroom, and food security and deliciousness are definitely things to get excited about. For me, there’s a thrill and feeling of connectedness when I am able to forage for wild food. Luckily, puffballs can have trillions of reproductive spores, so as long as one of them is left on the ground to reach maturity, the spores will ensure future mushroom friends, fruiting bodies, and hopefully plenty of Puffball pizzas to come.
Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.
One of EFTE’s values is “plants are people too;” but lately, I’ve been thinking of it also as “people are plants, too.” Just like people, plants deserve love, care, and understanding of how they like to be treated and what their needs are in times of transition. Just like plants, the roots young humans develop given their environmental conditions have long-term impacts on wellbeing.
The other day as we were installing viburnums and Mountain laurel at a woodland site, we found that the plants from the nursery were extremely pot-bound with badly kinked roots and root flare buried too deep under the soil. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for nursery conditions to lead to this type of growth. Like people, the plants develop in a way that reflects circumstance, context, environment. Any number of factors such as soil quality, container size, sunlight, watering habits, etc. can affect the roots of a baby plant. What happens when it’s time for a young container-bound plant to move to a new earthen home? As with humans, we know the world is larger than the home we grow up in, but we may find that as we start to fill out into possibility and fertile expanses of soil, perhaps there are some girdled roots, so to speak, getting in the way of healthy growth.
A good handful of landscapers out there would probably just install the plant as is, thinking it looked fine at first glance. And it’s true, in *some* cases perhaps the resilient plant would do fine, but in other cases the roots would continue to girdle and end up leading to sickness or short life. Before beginning work in the field of gardening and eco-landscaping, I didn’t know that, like people, sometimes you need to dig around a little bit to find out what’s really going on with the roots and growth patterns of a plant, and that this is a crucial step when transplanting a young shrub or tree.
As we examined the rootballs of the viburnums, we had to dig and scrape and work with the material to discover where the healthy roots were that we needed to keep and where the kinky roots were that would inhibit the plant from up-taking nutrients and living sustainably. This process reminded me of therapeutic frameworks and healing work. Through therapeutic and mindful practices, humans often find that within themselves, there are kinked roots (usually formed when developmental needs weren’t met or through childhood trauma, or perhaps stemming from generations-long familial trauma) amidst strong, healthy, resilient roots. We may have been planted in a new situation after childhood or experienced trauma and/or transition at various later stages of life and found that, perhaps surprisingly, some of our coping mechanisms can actually get in the way of living our healthiest possible lives.
I recently attended a workshop on the Hakomi Method of Mindful Somatic Psychotherapy. Fascinatingly, we learned with hands-on experience how someone with developmental trauma who hears a potentially nourishing phrase will often have some somatic response indicating that they are not quite able to uptake that nourishment. For example, this is a potentially nourishing phrase: “Your heart deserves to be taken care of.” Folks who are able to absorb this statement will report pleasant somatic feelings, or “that feels good,” or perhaps don’t feel much somatically at all. Folks whose life experience has been traumatic in some way relating to this phrase may report different kinds of pangs, pains, or swooshes of sensation in different parts of their body, perhaps connected with emotion. The body is not able to uptake the nourishment, and now the client and therapist can both see more clearly where the girdled or problematic roots may be.
Although with humans it isn’t always so straightforward or possible to detangle or cut away the kinky roots when being transplanted, with plants it is something we can certainly do. Researchers have said that it is possible to cut away up to 90% of kinked roots at planting time and still have the plant thrive. The most important thing is to find the root flare at the base of the plant, make sure it is level with the top of the soil, and to get as many of the roots as possible to expand outwards rather than circling in on itself. This is a beautiful metaphor for humans as well: sometimes we need a little assistance getting organized inside and getting prepared to expand outwards.
Experience shows that plants with a significant amount of problematic roots removed during transplanting may look less beautiful in the first year, but in the long run will look more beautiful and will live longer than trees who were planted with rootball still potbound and girdled. This makes me think metaphorically of a larger scope of humanity. It feels to me that our society is in a big time of transition (maybe we always are, more or less)— that we’ve exposed a lot of kinky roots at our core. I think we’re still digging around and getting a feel for the shape of the rootball and the extent of the girdling. Yet, there is a sense of urgency. It’s time to cut away the problematic roots. I’m referring broadly to histories and persisting realities of racial, gender-based, and other types of oppression and violence, white supremacist and colonizer frameworks, human-first/domineering non-relational systems, and more. It may not appear to be a “beautiful” process for everyone, at first, as we snip such roots, but it’s crucial for a healthier and more just future. I wonder where our healthy collective roots are–how can we locate those and help them get stronger? To me, this often is the work of artists, myth-relayers, storytellers, and more: creative documents can help us examine where our kinky roots have sickened ourselves and where our strongest roots could grow us into uniquely graceful, robust, or resilient beings.
If you can keep following my societal metaphor here, or even the personal therapeutic metaphor, consider that there may be times we are dealing with an older, well-established tree rather than a young tree at planting time. Older trees, for a number of reasons, including but not exclusive to the poor initial planting and root conditions, may have sick roots or get sick in other ways. One technique arborists use to ease this is to do radial trenching. In addition to cutting away obvious and easy to locate girdled roots, we can dig holes between root flares to add nourishing organic matter and to aerate the soil. Like with older individuals or with habituated societal patterns, we can certainly still work to cut away the unhealthy and knotted roots. At the same time, we can infuse the context and individuals with nourishment, love, and support. We want to give them the best chance possible to thrive. Maybe plants and people are not so different, after all: we all need a healthy environment where we can safely grow to our fullest potential, and sometimes, when conditions weren’t perfect, we need a little extra -or maybe a lot of- TLC at various stages of life to help us revivify.
Ahh, autumn! The leaves crunching underfoot, the crisp and chilly morning air, the pumpkin-everything-everywhere, and—what’s that huge cluster of orange cascading down that oak tree? Mushrooms, you say?
Yes, that’s delicious “Chicken of the Woods!” Laetiporus sulphureus, to be more technical, also commonly called Sulfur Shelf. Laetiporus cincinnatus is another edible similar-looking species, but not as delicious, so I’m focusing on sulphureus. It’s relatively easy to identify (David Arora of Mushrooms Demystified lists it as one of the “foolproof four”) and, as its name would imply, can have a quite chicken-like texture and flavor when prepared properly and if the specimen is young and from a good tree. Below I cover some key identification and harvesting tips as well as some ideas for culinary use.
Note that if you do not have personal experience mushroom foraging, it is suggested to obtain a positive ID from your local mycologists or experts. Some wild mushrooms are poisonous and it is your responsibility to identify wild food before ingesting.
WHERE TO LOOK FOR IT
Sulphur Shelf grows exclusively on trees. It grows on living (mature and already dying) as well as dead trees (as it is both parasitic as well as saprotrophic). This includes logs, so double check those logs and piles of wood to see if a Chicken might be lurking on the other side!
You will find it anywhere on the tree, from the base up through the height of the tree. You might also find it on stumps.
Only harvest from hardwood trees such as oak or beech. Oak is often a safe bet. Do not harvest from any conifers or locust or eucalyptus trees (these are the ones that might make you sick).
Be on the lookout during August through October, possibly even later, for that beautiful pop of orange as you walk through the woods. These mushrooms tend to grow fast and in large quantities. Make a meal to share with friends!
HOW TO IDENTIFY IT
The color can range from orange to salmon to orange-yellow to yellow. The color fades or becomes more white with age. You can use these photos for reference as well as any mushroom book, other websites, or online mushroom groups.
The underside has bright sulphur yellow pores (it’s a polypore, literally it will look like many pores, rather than gills).
The brackets are somewhat fan-shaped and can be smooth to wrinkled to lumpy; caps are usually overlapping or in bunches, though occasionally solitary.
There is no obvious stem.
OTHER COOL FACTS
Unlike some more rare mushrooms, there aren’t major sustainability issues around the ethics of harvesting this mushroom.
For the ambitious folks, it is possible to cultivate your own C.O.W. —but this is beyond the scope of this current article.
As for nutrients, Sulphur Shelf is high in protein as well as an assortment of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
These mushrooms may also have medicinal aspects such as antimicrobial and cancer-inhibiting compounds.
Sulphur mushrooms can also be used to make natural dye.
HOW TO EAT IT
Harvest only young and tender caps. If you do want to use the older specimens, you can try to just cut off and use the more tender outer edges.
If possible just clean with a damp cloth. The mushrooms are very absorbent and you don’t want them to become spongy.
Make sure to cook very thoroughly. This breaks down the cell walls, making the mushroom more digestible and nutrients more available. This also kills potential toxins or pathogens. And little bugs if you didn’t clean them well 🙂
Substitute the same amount of this mushroom in any recipe that calls for chicken.
Super easy way to cook: just slice it thin and fry it in oil or butter, with some salt and pepper. Use as little oil as possible, again because of their absorbency.
Easy: slice thin and add it to your next omelet or scrambled eggs dish.
Foraging meets fast food: Try making breaded “Chicken” nuggets or “Chicken” fingers with a side of homemade honey mustard.
Stay tuned for more episodes of “Meet the Mushrooms.” For those of you new to mushrooming, I really can’t say enough about the joy of relating to fungi. Mycelial networks are all around us, giant organisms largely invisible to our own eyes, yet engaging in all sorts of ecological functions that often transcend human categorization. Learning to identify and eat the fruiting bodies of some of these species is just one simple way of developing a relationship, albeit a very useful and nourishing one! While my articles will tend to focus on visible and edible species, I encourage the intrigued reader to embark on their own mycological research. It is a pursuit sure to inspire, or at the very least, boggle your mind.
All photos in this article are from members of the Philadelphia Mycology Club, specifically Bethany Teigen, Dan Schimmel, and myself.