Saturday, October 17, 2020

Escape to the Adirondacks: Northville Placid Trail


Northville-Placid Trail blaze

We recently took a three-day hike in the Adirondacks on the Northville-Placid Trail (NPT). The NPT runs from the town of Northville to Lake Placid. This was my very first hike in the Adirondacks, and truth be told, only my second venture in the region. Over twenty years ago, when I was considering schools, my mother and I had taken a road trip to visit Paul Smiths College (boy, does that make me feel old!) and although I remember being awed by the mountains, I was less than wowed by the weather. It was cold and grey and dreary and the college campus miles away from the nearest town. After that trip we had driven down to Asheville, NC, to visit Warren Wilson College, where it was seventy degrees and sunny and young people played hacky sack in the vibrant city not far away - and well, that was that! Considering the Adirondack Park is comprised of six million acres (2.6 of which is considered public land), making it the largest park in the lower 48 states, excuses for not returning since, I have none. Scott and I were well overdue. 

I dusted off an ADK Mountain Club guidebook I had purchased back when, and got to planning. We settled on a 22 mile hike from Upper Benson parking area just northwest of Northville to Route 8 just outside of the small town of Piseco. The NPT was appealing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was a passage into the mysterious Adirondacks, secondly it appeared dog-friendly - void of treacherous rock scrambles, and thirdly not all that far from home - roughly three hours. 

Amos all suited up for the trail (Ruffwear approach pack)

Not only was this my first hike in the Adirondacks, but our three year-old coonhound, Amos', first multi-day backpacking trip. Amos has hiked many a trail, camped in a tent, and traveled for months at a time in a travel trailer, but we wanted to see how he'd fair hiking with a pack in potentially less than favorable conditions and making camp in a different place each night. We booked a shuttle with Bob, owner of Bob and Matt Campwood, whom we found through the Northville-Placid Trail Facebook page to shuttle us from our truck which we'd park at Route 8 to the start of our journey. Bob was a pleasure, didn't mind Amos leaving a lil' fur in the backseat, and a great start to our trip - I would recommend him to anyone looking for a lift. 

Scott on bridge over West Stony Creek

West Stony Creek

We started off from the trailhead mid-afternoon, temps in the low sixties, under gray skies that made the autumn colors pop. The yellow birch trees' silvery peeling bark studded with blackened hoof fungus contrasted the scarlet leaves of sugar maple that littered our path as we followed winding trail beside West Stony Creek. Amos had ample opportunities for a drink as the trail very gradually ascended (abundant water sources persisted throughout the hike). The forest green boughs of eastern hemlock drooped overhead while oaks and beeches spread their leafy branches across the sky, creating a canopy that couldn't help but make you feel like you were entering into a shrouded secret world. The NPT has been completed and a part of the park since 1927, making it older than the Appalachian Trail, yet never has it gained the popularity of some other shorter long distance trails such as the Long Trail or the John Muir Trail, so surely in hiking it, we were to experience a magic known to relatively few. 

Scott and Amos at Rock Lake

That evening we made camp, about five miles in, at Rock Lake. This was a glorious spot set not far from a bowl of blue water with a view of the collage of red, tan, and yellow trees around its circumference. As soon as we pulled out the tent, Amos bounded about excitedly, pulling bits of gear from our packs and throwing it around the forest. Once the tent was erected, he pawed to get inside and roll about. This guy couldn't have been more excited to spend a night in his favorite place - the forest. A barred owl hooted in the dusk and that night, a gnarly beech tree kept vigil as we slept. Now romantic as this sounds, I must say, it was a tight squeeze, three peas in a very small pod, considering we were zipped up in our two person sleeping bag with Amos wedged between. To roll over was no small feat.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides)

The next day we awoke leisurely, dined on warm oatmeal and instant black coffee, packed up our belongings and hit trail. The sun periodically burst forth from the clouds throughout the morning and later claimed the sky, lending us a beautiful blue canvas overhead. Hobblebush lined our path with plum-colored heart-shaped leaves and boreal forest plants such as bunchberry speckled the mossy earth. Hobblebush has edible blue-black one-seeded fruits (flesh can be sucked from the seed), whereas bunchberry, the smallest member of the dogwood family provides red pectin-rich berries, although both are mealy. Sparking amidst the leaflitter, was Foamflower, it's leaves bejeweled in forest moisture. 

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Partridgeberry, a prostrate vine of acidic soil, sporting the biggest leaves we've ever seen, twined along the ground, minty smelling wintergreen peeked from the leaf litter -both offering up tasty red gems of the forest - and snags and stumps housed plump ivory puffballs. Puffballs are a category of edible mushrooms, comprised of numerous genera, however the tricky part is finding those that are not already going to spores. These mushrooms, in fact, earn their name from their spore stage, when they turn hollow and become filled with airy spore that "puff" from a tiny hole in the mushroom's top when crushed. A puffball is edible when you split it open to find it pure white inside, rather than yellow or purple or oozy. But do your research before eating these - there are potential deadly look-a-likes. 

Puffball (Apioperdon pyriforme)

By late morning, we reached Meco Lake. Here, we walked undulating trail blanketed in crisp needles and were shaded by the boughs of an evergreen forest. I was excited to spot the flat needles of balsam fir - a tree that I rarely encounter and usually associate with higher elevations. Pinching a twig tip, I cupped it in my hands and breathed deep its sweet aroma. This aroma brings back so many memories of hikes past, from the Appalachian Trail to the Catskills. Balsam fir was dappled between thick stands of red spruce, which can be distinguished by its sharp four-sided needles arranged on all sides of the twig. Red spruce needles are also generally shorter and finer. I felt truly transported, we could have been far more than a few hours from home.

Balsam fir (Abies balsamea)

Meco Lake

At Silver Lake, only a hop-skip away from Meco Lake, in the damp, moss-cushioned earth, the delicate three-parted leaves of goldthread sprung forth. Although this plant is abundant in certain environments such as bogs and acidic-soiled moist forest, it is not one that you can find just anywhere. It is most certainly habitat-specific. Its common name refers to its golden colored thread-like root, which is rich in berberine, a medicinal constituent. For those of you who are familiar with goldenseal - a once popular herbal supplement - it too contains berberine. Berberine is a potent anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant. However, please do not harvest either of these plants from the wild  - instead opt for another berberine-rich invasive plant, Japanese barberry. 

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia)

Scott and Amos at Silver Lake

The forest floor held other treasures as well, such as this toad which I believe is scientifically named, Anaxyrus americanus - any of my amphibian-loving peeps out there reading? Correct me if I am wrong. Scott spotted him first, at a wet spot on the trail where we had to use roots to cross, and this totally cool dude remained perfectly still through numerous photos and our stepping over him. By the looks of him too, I think he'd been working out - beefcake!

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Onward we hiked over rocky, rooty, trail, blanketed in leaves, now warmed in the mild autumn temperatures, beneath enormous rough-skinned beeches to which we had to crane our heads to the sky to see their leaves. These beech trees were continually perplexing throughout the trip. Beech trees typically have smooth grey bark, even into maturity. It's what sets them apart from many other trees that grow scaly or furrowed with age. However, it was no denying these were Beech trees, the mature ones with flaking/peeling bark and silvery-white patches, the younger trees covered in what looked like gray canker sores erupting in the trunk of the tree. After some research (upon returning) home, we learned of beech-rot disease. An invasive insect, originating from Europe, attacks the tree bark, which in turn leaves the tree susceptible to a native fungus that causes further damage. Eventually the tree, in its weakened state, falls prey to various insects and fungi. Over 90% of beech trees in the Adirondacks have been affected by beech-rot disease. Knowing this, has given us an even greater appreciation for this dominant tree of the forest.

American beech (Fagus grandfolia) with beech-rot disease

When we reached Canary Pond, the landscape expanded, sun pouring down upon us. Carefully, Scott navigated Amos over the plant boardwalk that crossed its width, while I got up close and personal with the pitcher plants that flourished in the pond's boggy, sphagnum moss turf. 

Scott and Amos on boardwalk at Canary Pond

Canary Pond

Pitcher plant (Sarrancenia purpurea)

Pitcher plants (Sarrancenia purpurea) cluster

Pitcher plants are by far one of our most intriguing native plants. These unique plants are carnivorous, meaning that they consume insects to supplement their nutritional needs, given that they typically inhabit nutrient poor soils. Insects are attracted to the flared hood, with brightly colored veins and nectar-rich glands. However this flap is covered in downward-pointing hairs that guide the insect towards the pitcher. Near the base of the flap, its surface is smooth and so the insect slides down into the pitcher, which is filled with rainwater. The plant produces enzymes that mix with this rainwater and gradually digests its prey, turning it into food. Pretty wild stuff. I've had a lot of folks express surprise at the fact these carnivorous plants can be found in the northern US. However, although they are habitat specific, their presence is not all that unusual. I have seen pitchers in numerous bogs surrounding where we live in Milford, PA and I remember well the copious sundews in Maine on the AT. This particular species grows along the entire Eastern US, west into Illinois and Michigan and throughout Canada. Apparently, it also grows in California. 

Amos on lunch break

We broke for lunch in a pile of sun-drenched leaves and it was then that we witnessed a most miraculous event - Amos took a break! Usually when we go for a day-hike, no matter the mileage, when we take a break and secure Amos' leash to a tree, he wanders about getting tangled around this tree and that, nags us for our snacks (despite how many he gets of his own), or simply leans into his harness facing ahead on the trail and whines. He'd rather be hiking than breaking - believe me I get it. But low and behold, from this break forward, he just took a load off, sometimes curling up and falling fast asleep. It only took about twelve cumulative miles. Great to know for our future long-distance endeavors.

Beaver lodge

Now what hike is complete in the Adirondacks, a region rife with ponds and lakes, than a beaver lodge sighting. It may seem strange that this lodge sat in the center of a dry meadow, but according to the guidebook, this meadow is at times a substantial beaver pond. In fact the trail purposely skirts this expanse due to its periodic flooding. This would also explain the lack of trees and snags at its center. At this meadow's northern end, at a stream crossing, we also spied a formidable beaver dam.

Scott and Amos at Mud Pond lean-to

When the temps began to dip and Amos took to shivering in the leaf litter on a water break, we decided to call it a night at the Mud Pond lean-to. Mud Pond lives up to its name with a thick muddy shore, home to many a blueberry shrub. The evening was quiet, all except for an owl hooting nearby and mice in the lean-to. In quiet. We wondered about this quiet - we barely heard a bird, a toad, not a chirp from a cricket nor a squeak from a chipmunk the entire trip. Never had we been in woods so quiet. Any of my Adirondack readers have an explanation for this quietude? However, we were also pleased not to hear a single passing car, airplane, nor human sound for three days. 

On the NPT amidst so many trees!

The morning began with a long descent towards the Sacandaga River. Temperatures were warmer than ever and the airy felt balmy. Last we had had cell service - three days previous - the forecast had called for rain and so we wondered if we'd lucked out. Did I mention how amazing it was to have absolutely NO SERVICE all that time? Pretty awesome. 
Scott crossing suspension bridge over Sacandaga River

However, upon reaching the river, all that changed. The clouds rolled in and light rain started to fall. We took shelter beneath the impressive suspension bridge, had a snack and suited up for the last 6 miles of the hike. Once to the other side of the bridge, the rain turned steady and continued for pretty much the rest of the afternoon. We hiked along, Amos keeping up the pace despite his usual aversion to precipitation, and I took the time to bathe in the vivid colors in which we were immersed. Had we had no way to get dry that night, I might have felt different, but given that within a matter of hours we'd be warm and dry and back in civilization, all I felt was gratitude for one more day in the these sacred woods. Don't ask Scott, he had a slightly different vibe, especially with the uphill that persisted for pretty much the rest of those six miles. 
Scott leading the way uphill on NPT

Adirondack meadow

Close to the end of our mileage, we crossed the outlet to Buckhorn Lake (I believe) - what a beauty spot unexpected. We walked downed logs hewn by beavers, dodged sucking mud, and marveled at evergreens strung with usnea lichen like garland. It is these unexpected displays of magic, on any trail, that stick with you, and that call you back to the trail again and again again. 

A swampy beauty spot in Adirondacks

Our last half mile ended in a torrential downpour and strong winds. The tree tops whipped back and forth overhead, thunder reverberated throughout the forest, as lightning illuminated the dark tree trunks beside us. And by god, Amos kept on hiking, despite dripping wet hound dog ears plastered to his head, wetter than I've ever seen him in my life. We dashed the last so many yards to the truck and just like that...we'd finished our first, of many, hikes in the Adirondacks.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Savoring Summer

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
Sweet summer, if only you could last forever. My days have been deliciously long, providing me time to run the woods with Amos in the morning, wander the property during the day, picking this and that, my imagination filled with all the wild foods yet to harvest, some for the first time, and medicines to prepare, and in the early evenings, when it's quiet and cool, I can revel in a late day woods wander. With all that has been happening in our society lately, I know I'm blessed to be able to detach from that the turmoil and remain connected to that which sustains. I don't spend much time reading or watching the news these days - perhaps I'm irresponsible - but I think it's important we remain attuned to that which connects us all and nature's perpetual equilibrium. I think in doing so, the rest may follow. So, by chance you're in need of some of that connection right now, here's a little highlight of some of the plants that have been illuminating my days. I'm sure some of these grace your property or your favorite walking routes too.

Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)

Blue vervain, Verbena hastata, has been showing off her crowns of violet-blue flowers for roughly the last month in my neck of the woods. Vervain prefers the damp places, clustering on the edges of bogs and ponds. If you aren't on the lookout, she could be an easy one to pass by, but once you take note and let your eyes adjust, it's likely you'll see her elegant spikes punctuating the landscape before you. The leaves and flowers of blue vervain may be steeped in hot water for a nervine tonic infusion and is especially good for those who tend towards obsessive thought and anxiety. It is not one that I've had much experience with personally, but recently I harvested a small bundle that I put up to dry. I'm looking forward to exploring the energy of this plant some more. I have a feeling it could become a go-to.

Motherwort (Leonarus cardiaca)

Speaking of nervine tonics, here's Motherwort, Leonarus cardiaca. Take a stroll around the edges of your yard, where perhaps the thicket grows, weedy and forgotten, safe from the blade of the mower...this is a common dwelling for motherwort. Motherwort also likes horse pastures, farm fields, and roadsides. This non-native naturalized member of the mint family is a bitter herb that's just what your heart needs should you be experiencing stress-induced palpitations, high-blood pressure, or simply in need of a little comfort. The leaves and flowers can be steeped in hot water for an infusion or tinctured as well. Partake of motherwort daily for the best results. This common weed can also be helpful in regulating sleep cycles.

Goosefoot (Chenopodium albidum)

Here's another pasture plant. I've been grazing for greens these days alongside my parents' horse. Thankfully we have different tastes. She leaves all the hearty greens to me, but after I've done my picking I make sure to give her thanks by cutting her a big handful of tall grass from my overgrown lawn. Goosefoot, Chenopodium albidum, is one of my favorite wild greens, but not one that I've always had available. Years ago when I worked on a lil' organic farm in Western North Carolina, this five-foot weed lined the fallow beds and I'd happily take home a bundle at the end of the week. What a thrill to have access to it yet again! This wild plant is relative to quinoa and does provide similar seeds, but its leaves I appreciate most. 

Goosefoot leaves, upper and undersides

Leaves are glaucous, especially on undersides, which have a powdery appearance and texture. Because of this quality, I always cook the leaves, although reportedly, they are edible raw. We've been having sautéed goosefoot lately with pasta and curry, wilted and folded into scrambled eggs and veggie quesadillas. When cooked, it's similar to spinach, also a relative, and is packed full of nutrition, rich in vitamins A, C, B, protein and iron.

Seeds of wild amaranth (Amaranthus) - notice the heart-shaped cluster that happened all on its own - expect a picture of the green leafy plant here soon!

A relative to goosefoot is wild amaranth, scientifically called Amaranthus. There are numerous species of amaranth, aka pigweed, but all are edible. This is a plant of which I have only recently become aware. I don't know if its a newcomer or if the weeds finally got tall enough on the property that I finally took notice. Maybe I just didn't have my awareness tuned to it - it's amazing how we can live alongside plants for years, maybe a lifetime, and never really notice them until one day, you simply stop to wonder at that weed. I found notes I'd written about amaranth back in herb school a decade ago...this one never stuck. But it will now. I have harvested bundles of its seed heads and plan to harvest the amaranth seeds - that's right, the same thing you buy in the health food store - in the next week or two. Although as you can see, the heads are already eagerly offering them up. I'll let you know how it goes! The leaves of young plants are tasty raw too. 

Cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis spathulata)

Check out this wild and crazy fungus! Meet the cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis spathulata. I stumbled upon this cauliflower-shaped mushroom the other day when I ventured down a trail that I typically consider hum-drum. It bloomed, along with about four others, at the base of an old decaying stump and just down the way from an eastern hemlock snag, housing plates of burgundy reishi. This trail will be a new favorite from here on out. Some research told me cauliflower mushrooms were edible and no poisonous look-a-likes...what a thrill! I don't know why more foragers don't talk about this mushroom. It was deelish! I cleaned up its rubbery ribbon-like parts, washing them free of forest debris, and sautéed them with butter and salt. Sparassis made a terrific addition to black beans as well as a fried egg.
Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Boneset, Eupatorium perfoliatum, is always a special find. I was pleased to wander into this patch beside a large pond I regularly visit on my morning runs. It grew beside a stout patch of cattails at the pond's outflow. Boneset always strikes me as quite stout as well, in stature and presence, that is. It's perfoliate leaves are so rough they're almost sticky, its stalk sturdy, and its flat-topped clusters of white flowers bristly. It's a strong plant and a strong medicine at that. Its primary properties are immuno-stimulating, diaphoretic, and bitter. For many it was a common herb to reach for in fighting colds and flus. However, it's recently been discovered that boneset contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which over time are damaging to the liver. This is not a reason for us to nix it from our apothecaries, but we should be mindful to use it only for short periods and never in those who may be liver-impaired.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Every morning the yellow blossoms of Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, radiate, petals spread wide to greet the sun. I can see this particular plant, as well as some of those other mulleins you may notice in the background, from my kitchen table and every morning they make me smile along with the blue faces of chicory. Morning is a time of high activity for these flowers as they are a favorite of the birds it seems. Hummingbirds visit the blossoms daily and I've even seen a pileated woodpecker pecking at its seed capsules. I'm sure the bees take pleasure in mullein as well. By noon...the blossoms have closed. And everyday I wonder if that will be the last I see of their brightness, perhaps they will close and go to seed...yet every morning, at least for now, they reopen. The flowers have traditionally been used in ear oil for wax build-up and the velvety leaves are highly mucilaginous, perfect for moistening the sinuses and as a gentle expectorant, when ingested as an infusion.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

I'll close up this post with a special flower, commonly appreciated as an ornamental, Rose of Sharon. However, deceiving as common names often can be, this is not a rose at all, rather it's a hibiscus, in the genus Hibiscus and therefore a member of the mallow family, malvaceae. The shrubs from which I am harvesting were planted by my grandparents decades ago and continue to produce. Honestly, despite their beauty, for sometime I had never really acknowledged them. They fell into the "average non-native landscape shrub" category in my head. However, one day, just like that amaranth, I decided I'd look them up. Low and behold - medicinal and edible. Like other members of the mallow family, the leaves and especially the flowers, are demulcent. I peeled apart one of the flowers, took a nibble of its petals, and was delighted to notice this slimy quality immediately, as it pretty much dissolved in my mouth. A tea of both leaves and flowers is rather neutral tasting, I found, but still confers moistening anti-inflammatory properties. I have some further plans for this flower that I'll be sure to feature in an upcoming post. For now, I must say it feels pretty special to be making medicine of a plant that my grandparents - both plant people - treasured.

Until next time, remember the magic is all around, of which each and every one of us is a part. We need only take the time to notice.                                                                                                                         

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Reishi: Mushroom of Immortality

Young reishi (Ganoderma tsugae) growing on an eastern hemlock log
The half-moons of reishi, scientifically called Ganoderma, illuminate our shaded, densely green, forests here in northeastern Pennsylvania. June is this fungi's preferred month for fruiting, bearing mushrooms rich with spores. Reishi has a long history of use and has earned itself such titles as "The Mushroom of Immortality" and "The Great Protector." In this post I'll share with you how to identify and prepare these alluring woodland inhabitants, but first let's talk about this mushroom's multitude of medicinal attributes.

Maturing reishi (Ganoderma tsugae), however still in its growth stage, on eastern hemlock. Notice varnished looking cap, rippled and bumpy near stout stem, these are not uncommon features.
Reishi is primarily considered an immune-modulator. In the herbal world, this means a plant or fungi that works to balance the immune response. If the immune system is under-performing, evidenced by frequent infections, it will strengthen the immune response. However if the immune system is overzealous, illustrated by chronic allergies or autoimmune disorders, reishi will quell overreaction. Although I am sure reishi has an innate intelligence it employs for its own purposes, this modulating action occurs rather scientifically. In the most general terms, our immune system has two modes: clean-up, which uses antibodies to capture and dispose of harmful pathogens, and immune facilitation, which uses antibodies to stimulate histamine and in turn allows for easier transport of white blood cells to an infected site. Reishi encourages clean-up rather than histamine response, activating the immune system to recognize and rid the body of that which doesn't belong.

But reishi works on far more than just the immune system. Reishi contains a wide spectrum of antioxidants (polysaccharides, terpenes, and triterpenes) that nourish and support the body as a whole. In fact, it has been discovered that fifty of these chemicals have not been recognized in other fungi and are unique to reishi. Their effects are anti-inflammatory, hypoglycemic (reduce blood sugar), anti-ulcer, anti-mutagenic, and hypolipidemic (reduce lipids in blood). To top it off, reishi has also been shown to decrease the body's reaction to stress (cortisol production), protect the liver, and assist the body in more efficiently utilizing oxygen, therefore benefitting the heart and lungs. Reishi inhibits viral reproduction. I have used reishi for not only fighting lyme disease but reducing severity of symptoms, in rebounding after surgery and prolonged disease, as a heart tonic, as well as a tonic for general health. Reishi has been used by the Chinese for thousands of years to support both health and mental clarity. Chinese monks even used it in preparation for sitting in meditation for long periods. Today in China, it is used in healing countless maladies, and as a common adjunct to chemotherapy to improve the immune system.
Young reishi growing on eastern hemlock stump
So just how do we find this miraculous reishi in the wild and make a certain identification? Firstly, lets clarify just how dangerous a misidentification of any mushroom can be. Mushrooms are loaded with chemicals of all kinds and many more mushrooms will harm rather than help. Consuming mushrooms from the wild is inherently dangerous, some mishaps may cause irreparable damage to the liver and others are deadly. However, reishi is a good beginning forager's mushroom because there is not all that much with which it could be confused and true look-a-likes are not poisonous.

Reishi grows shelf-like on stumps, fallen logs, or living trees. The two species which we may find in the northeast are Ganoderma tsugae and Ganoderma lucidum. Both can be used interchangeably. Ganoderma tsugae will be found growing on eastern hemlock trees (Tsugae canadensis), whereas Ganoderma lucidum is found on hardwoods. Besides their chosen host, species are indistinguishable.

Plate-like or half-moons of reishi on eastern hemlock - notice the burgundy, yellow, and white coloring
Reishi is a polypore, meaning that the cap's underside bears pores rather than gills. Undersides of reishi mushrooms are white, easily bruising brown, with pores are so tiny that they are nearly imperceptible. With age, undersides brown. The topmost portion of reishi's cap has a varnished appearance. When young, it is burgundy in color, brightening to yellow and finally white at the outermost edge. As reishi matures, yellow and white will darken to burgundy as well. The mature mushroom's general form is stemless and looks like half of a plate protruding from a tree trunk. When very young, some mushrooms may have short stout stems attached to bulbous caps. Reishi is tough and feels more like wood rather than the soft, squishy mushroom we would purchase in a grocery store. For this reason, we would not eat reishi as a food, but it is perfect for using in tea and tincture.

White undersides of reishi, a polypore mushroom, which bears pores rather gills.
As far as look-a-likes, there aren't many. The only mushroom I have encountered in our neck of the woods that even resembles it is Ischnoderma resinosum. It too is a polypore and grows shelf-like on hardwoods and conifers, but it has a velvety cap that is mostly brown in color, gradually bleeding to a muted yellow and finally, white ring. Also, its new growth appears in the fall rather than late spring and early summer. The good news is, if you still make an error, it is edible and safe for consumption.

Harvested reishi, ready to be prepared
Harvest your reishi with a sharp knife, where the cap or stem meet the trunk of the tree - do nut cut into the tree - and carry home to the kitchen. Using a damp cloth, wipe the mushrooms clean of any dirt, bark shavings, or bugs. Then slice thinly, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. I put mine in an oven at 150 to 180 degrees and "bake" for roughly two hours, checking and turning them over periodically. Your reishi may take more or less time depending on moisture content. Bear in mind reishi will harden as they cool. You may dry reishi in  a well ventilated room free of humidity as well, by spreading on a screen or hanging slices on strings, but be careful not to let them mold. If you have a dehydrator, even better.
Reishi slices in process of being dehydrated in oven
Once reishi slices are thoroughly dried, crisp and mostly inflexible, they may be stored until needed, remaining potent up to roughly one year. To prepare reishi as tea, simmer slices in hot water, strain and sip. To prepare reishi as a tincture requires an extra step than the typical tincture - a double extraction - so that your medicine contains both reishi's water and alcohol soluble constituents. Infuse slices in alcohol for 4-6 weeks, then strain, be sure to retain mushrooms as well as your alcohol extract. Then simmer mushrooms in water (using 1/2 gal of water to 2 c mushrooms) until water is reduced to roughly 1/3 of alcohol extract. Combine water and alcohol - voila! A reishi mushroom tincture at your ready!

So keep your eyes peeled for this luminous medicinal mushroom, reishi. It's presence is sure to brighten your spirit, and its medicine, your body. You will inherit the strength and resolve to persist through many a season, as does reishi, long after its fresh growth has matured. This find is surely a woodland treasure.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Enchantment in Delaware State Forest

Amos looking down the trail in Delaware State Forest
Delaware State Forest is an under-appreciated gem. It is comprised of a patchwork of protected lands, encompassing over 83,000 acres in northeast Pennsylvania. A small, but seemingly vast, portion of it has been my stomping grounds providing exploration, inspiration, botanical study and serenity for many years. Just two roads are my only access points by car, neither of which are paved by the time you reach the forest. Mind you, not only are they not paved, but riddled with potholes and ruts. There are few amenities for visitors, but I believe this lack of development has preserved the magic for those of us who enter wilderness for wilderness' sake. When I hike this land, I rarely encounter another person, even during our covid pandemic, and I admit I like it that way. Therefore, although I encourage you to visit this special patch of forest, I will leave it to you to do the homework to learn how to access it by trail. May you have the joy of discovery I have in uncovering its little-visited treasures.

Marsh with beaver dam 
Recently Scott and I explored Yellow Pine Trail, a trail I have tried numerous times to follow to its end, but maintenance is so poor, that much of the trail has overgrown with lowbush blueberry, blackberry brambles and high grasses. However, sunlight streaming through the trees at a sharp bend, beckoned us through woods rife with black birch, witch hazel, and highbush blueberry to see what laid beyond. We soon reached land's end at a marsh. From looking at a map, we decided this was likely Pinchot Brook. The beavers here have flooded the neighboring woods, dramatically widening the creek and making a luxurious home for themselves. An impressive dam retained its waters that reflected the blue sky above. We could see clearly where the materials for construction had been obtained given the gnawed through tree trunks surrounding us.

Evidence of beavers
Grassy hummocks made for good stepping stones and moss-covered fallen logs made homes for northern white violets, while the sucking mud on the shore provided just the right stuff for fuzzy cinnamon fern fiddleheads. Birds flitted to and froe and salamanders glided through shallow water near the shore.

Cinnamon fern fiddlehead
Northern white violet (Viola pallens
Inspired by this bushwhack, we decided we'd finally venture beyond another marshy area at the end of Craft Farm Road. We'd walked this gravel and grass forest road many a time before, but always stopped when we reached the crumbling remains of the old Craft Farm and what looked like a pond encircled with white pines. However, the woods whispered to us, err at least me, from the other side. Having spent so much time swamp-walkin' in Florida, I suggested to Scott we just put on our swamp sandals and walk across the thing. But, Scott wisely suggested the mud might be deeper than we think and perhaps we should walk around the edge of it, see if there wasn't an easier place to get across.

Craft Brook
And we sure did! Instead of mucking through mud and algae and swamp water up to our knees, we waded across the slithering Craft Brook, although I did sink in up to my shins when I mistook a hunk of black sodden soil for hard earth. We lunched on the other side beneath a thick leafy canopy on a slab of lichen-blanketed rock and let Amos off the leash when he started protesting.

Amos cooling off in Craft Brook
And with that - lunch was abruptly over. Amos sniffed around the leaf litter for a moment, darting this way and that and then took off like a shot from a cannon headed downstream. We packed up and scurried on after him. Turns out Amos was leading us to the most intriguing aspects of this forgotten place.
Stonewall with passage for creek
While he waded in the creek we enjoyed a stroll across a wide stone wall fashioned with a passage for the creek. Once on the other side, he leapt through the woods like a fox and we tromped over downed trees and beneath the low-hanging boughs of pines, side-stepping many a sun-bathing snake and glimpsing the wildflowers growing along the moist embankment.

Windflower (Anemone quinquefolia)
Meet windflower, one of the very first medicinal plants introduced to me by my mentor, Juliet Blankespoor. It is considered an anxiolytic, nervine, and hypnotic - slightly psychoactive. She promoted its moderate use in trauma, depression, and panic attacks. I have personally never partaken of its medicine, but can remember well sitting in a circle with my peers somewhere deep in the Appalachian mountains admiring its finely cut leaves that have a sort of shimmer and it expansive flower face.

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius)
Here's another beauty - dwarf ginseng - a much smaller version of the wild ginseng that is far more difficult to find in our Pennsylvania woods. Dwarf ginseng, although related, is not considered to have the same medicinal properties as ginseng, which is adaptogenic, but is instead an edible. The tubers may be unearthed and eaten as a trailside nibble.

Amos traverses a downed tree trunk
It took us a solid forty minutes to wrangle that Amos up, who had frolicked his way downstream, back to the trail and all the way to the truck before turning tail and returning to us. So when only Amos and I set out for our most recent excursion, he stayed leashed. Still, together we managed to discover some more beauty unexpected and delve into the mysteries that these woods behold.

Buckhorn Ridge fire tower
Here in Delaware State Forest stands Buckhorn Ridge fire tower, a relic from a bygone era in which men used to staff these towers to keep watch over the forest. Up until fairly recently, one could climb up into the cabin at the top and gaze out over the treetops in all directions. The door in the floor that provided access has now been nailed shut - likely due to vandalism - but that didn't prevent another creature from keeping vigil just below it. Likely this nest of twigs, branches, bark and duff was persistently crafted by a hawk or perhaps even an eagle. Any of my birding people have an idea?

Bird nest just below cabin to fire tower
At the base of this fire tower, upon a mossy bed atop the earth, sprung forth woodland plants. These plants persisted along a long carpet of soft green moss that led from the tower deeper into the woods along the Buckhorn Ridge Trail.

Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Wild sarsaparilla is a common sight in out northeastern woods, although easily overlooked due to its indistinct divided green leaves. When the plant produces its flowering stalk which arises from its base and also branches three ways terminally, supporting three round umbels of white flowers, it is easier to identify. But it is the root of wild sarsaparilla that is the prize. The root possesses some of the same adaptogenic qualities as ginseng, supporting the body's energy through enhancing the function of the entire glandular system. When unearthed, the root is fragrant and when simmered in hot water for an infusion, delicious. It also provides warmth throughout the body and is useful in combatting chest congestion.
Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana)
This special plant, Indian cucumber, cannot be found just anywhere, however where you find one, you will often find many. I find it indicative of healthy woods or woods on the rebound, steadily making their way back to balance. Its common name speaks to its tuber which grows laterally under the soil. It is small and slender and white in color and when washed up, makes a for an crisp edible morsel. The flavor is surprisingly close to cucumber but with a touch of heat at finish.

A watery botanical wonderland
Our runway of moss carried us gradually downhill and soon transitioned to rocky trail. At a depression in the forest, we stumbled into the most magical wallow. False hellebore stood tall above the shallow water with roots deep in mud, marsh marigold and ragwort camped on grassy island hummocks, and faces of marsh blue violet poised on long slender stems arose from grass and moss beside fallen logs. Fiddleheads clustered here and there just on the outskirts and sensitive fern, fully unfurled, dappled throughout like footprints through the muck. Amos collapsed belly down in these spring waters, as enchanted as myself.

Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
Marsh marigold, a member of the Buttercup family, is indeed edible but not one that I have personally ventured to sample. Reportedly, young leaves and flower buds are edible, after boiled in numerous changes of water to leach toxic glycoside protoanemonin which can cause intoxication and gastric upset. There are other cautionary edibles I do from time to time enjoy, such as common milkweed blossoms and shoots, but this beauty is always one that I've felt more compelled to admire than ingest.
Marsh blue violet (Viola cuculatta)
Any violet in the Appalachians that is blue or white in color, or a combination of, is edible. Leaves are highly mucilaginous as well as astringent - a unique combo - reducing inflammation and irritation throughout the gastro-intestinal tract. Besides all that they are deliciously green in flavor, perfect raw in salads or cooked in any meal. Flowers are edible as well and may be sweet, spicy, or even minty. Use them to enhance any dish with a touch of the wild.

Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis)
A fern guide I regularly reference from 1956 (one of the simple truths of plants - in form they remain the same even over three-quarters of a century) accurately describes sensitive fern's appearance as an "unfernlike fern". Compared to our many lacy- or feather-leaved ferns, it does have a dramatically different appearance. Leaves are short and stout, triangular in shape and backward bending so that they face the sky.

Trail in Delaware State Forest
Making our way down the trail, the forest seemed to spread out all around us. The trail grew increasingly rocky and we moved more slowly watching our steps carefully. Given that the trees had not yet leafed out, we were bathed in sunlight. At our feet, some very special plants made an appearance.
Downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens)
Yellow violets, a sight I always regard as unique as we have so many blue and white violets, but so many fewer species that are yellow. Here we have the downy yellow violet, appropriately scientifically called Viola pubescents. It you look closely you can see its fine hairs adorning leaves and stem. These are not violets that we would eat, but those that offer simply their sunny faces to brighten our path.
Pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
These broad green leaves with deep parallel veins harken the soon-to-arrive showy pink blossoms of the pink lady slipper. Pink lady slipper is an eye-catching orchid, distinct from all other flowers in our forest. To me, it almost seems out of place in our northeastern woods, perhaps better suited to an alien plant with a kaleidoscope of vibrantly colored vegetation. Sometimes you'll find just one or two of these in a patch, other times you are lucky enough to spot one and then notice them scattered all about your feet.
Moss with rusty-colored reproductive stalks called seta and capsules atop. Inside these capsules are spores that when conditions are dry, will be released to generate more moss 
Slime mold (Hemitrichia) - slime molds were initially included in the Fungi kingdom but are now considered part of the kingdom Protista. The orange cap atop this stalk is a sporangia, containing spores. 
It seemed all around us, new life was awakening, our eyes adjusting to the finer details of the forest the longer we attuned to our surroundings. At another mucky wet area in the forest, dead trees laid across pools of water gathered about the snaking tree roots of yellow birch and provided substrate for mosses now reproducing. Speaking of alien, slime mold probed the gelatinous surface of still water, their orange caps like tentacles reaching upward. In a gnarled tree stump, long decaying, gradually morphing from stump to soil, a community of marsh blue violet flourished.

Decaying stump housing wildflowers
But we could not stay here in Delaware State Forest forever. The light had shifted, it was now late in the afternoon and time to pick up the pace and head for home. So as Amos and I made our way from forest to field, arriving in an old shooting range, the grass about our calves thick with goldenrod shoots and the unfurling leaves of sweet fern, we swiftly made our way to Range Road. Crossing over the gas pipeline, that is an eyesore but at the same time affords views of the trees in flower, I was grateful to have had the time once again in these woods, a place where nature reigns in all her all at once, subtle and magnificent beauty.

Range Road with view of flowering trees bordering pipeline