Winter’s Harvest: Part 2

Last year, I realised that the shortening days and die-back of the world of herbs and plants didn’t have to mean the end of my beloved foraging walks or of learning more about the woods I call home or their inhabitants. I fell in love with mushrooms and fungi (Exception being the dry rot that has plagued our house over the past few years!).

This year, as the shelves in the dispensary started to fill up with tinctures and dried herbs, and we came to the end of September, the only two things on my ‘to make’ list were Inula and Viburnum opulus tinctures. Ordinarily, that thought would in some ways fill me with dread: I really do love foraging, gathering, making and connecting with the medicines I use. But this year, as the leaves started to turn, my eyes were sharp… looking for the unexpected splash of colour that signifies the eruption of the ‘Fly Agaric’ mushroom (Amanita muscaria). The Fly Agarics came, and found their way into my foraging basket and thence into a tincture bottle. I will use it topically as an anodyne for neuralgia and nervous pain. Since I added A. muscaria to my my dispensary last autumn, I have found it invaluable for sciatica, dental and trigeminal neuralgia, and even for some muscular pain.

Turkey Tails - Trametes versicolorBut it is not just mushrooms that are so obvious that I have been searching for. At the start of the autumn, I also set my heart on finding Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor), which doesn’t seem to be that common here. But find it I did, on one (just one) stump. I harvested some and used slivers of the fruiting body to ‘inoculate’ other dead stumps in the area, so I will hopefully have more to harvest next year. Trametes is well known as an anticancer medicine, especially in Japan where it makes up a sizeable portion of their cancer treatment protocols. Look it up, it’s most amazing.

I have also observed and photographed countless other mushrooms that are beyond my very limited mycological experience to identify. So I harvest photograps and descriptions and will hopefully work out what they are over the winter.

I found Birch Polypore (Pitoporus betulinus) growing on a stump in the quarry – the first one I’ve noticed in this area. I say noticed, because I am unsure whether I’m encountering these fungi because I am looking for them and aware of them, or because the land around me really is changing (it is mainly a postindustrial area, now wooding over but with few trees older than 50 years).  The Birch Polypore I harvested was actually on a stump close to the ground, and knowing what little vandals the children round here can be (I often see smashed toadstools and cracked lower branches or saplings from kids senselessly damaging them), I just had to harvest it. I felt resistance though – I sometimes feel this when I’m either taking too much or taking what the place doesn’t want to give. So I traded with the place – an rhyme for the Polypore:

Roots like chainsaws, fruits up the tree;
Brings the oldest birch tree down to its knees.

Unsurprisingly, the Polypore (which weighed just under a pound), got made into a tincture. Birch Polypore is often described as being inedible, but it is medicinal. It appears to be an immune stimulent (as most medicinal mushrooms are), antibacterial/antipathogenic, and antiparasitic. Oetzi the Ice man was found carrying Birch Polypore, probably to treat his own parasites and an old infection he had from an injury.

I wasn’t expecting the Polypore, nor was I expecting to find a very common bracket fungus that grows here is also medicinal. We have a lot of Willow trees that have pioneered (along with Birch) the regrowth of woodland in the quarries and waste industrial ground. On the Willow grows a bracket/polypore called the ‘Blushing Bracket’. It is very common indeed with most mature Willow trees growing along the river Llyfni having multiple fruiting bodies growing along branches on on the bole. It also happens to be medicinal. Nowhere near as well investigated as the more usual medicinal fungi, but it seems that Blushing Bracket is antifungal, antibacterial and to some degree antiviral. It is also claimed that it is an antioxidant. I doubt I’ll use it on patients unless a condition stumps me, but I harvested a basketful for family use this winter – in the event that the winter maladies strike us and to generally improve our immunity.

Fruits of Winter Foraging - Yarrow, Turkey Tails, Blushing Brackets
A spot of mid-November foraging: Yarrow, Turkey Tails (Top), Blushing Bracket (Bottom). Baskets like this are increasingly common in our home in the Autumn!

So, the foraging hasn’t stopped though it is now the middle of November, definitely winter in the traditional sense of the season. But still you will find me walking the woods and harvesting lungfulls of fresh air as well as the occasional basketfull of fungi. This autumn has been kind to us, and the start of winter is equally as kind. I feel almost compelled to be out in it – to bear witness to the changing of the seasons, and to learn from what is around me. To breathe in the smell of decay – of mushrooms – and know that life and growth have not stopped even though the days are short and the world brown. That there is wonder around every corner on every tree trunk.

This is what made me become a herbalist in the first place – the wonder of a little boy scuttling through the northern woods, many years ago. That wonder doesn’t stop. My parents frequently ask what I’ve brought in from the woods and meadows next – my Mother says it is like living with a younger Brother Cadfael. Well, maybe I am. While the world around starts going mad with the obscenity of things like ‘Black Friday’ and the run up to the commercial christmas season, you won’t find me fighting over cheap tellies in Tesco. You’ll find me in the woods, with a basket, notebook and camera, or back at home by the fireside drinking mulled wine and occasionally writing blog posts such as this.

Fly Agaric - the Lord of the Woods

I am currently finishing up an article on Medicinal Mushrooms that will include British Natives for Tilia magazine – why not subscribe and read it? It’ll be in the Winter issue. Also, I am aware that I said to some people that I would share a post on the considerations I have for making tinctures of fungi/mushrooms and how they differ from herbs and plant materials. I shall do that too, in the next day or so.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you out in the woods… or in the comments box below!

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james says:

how do you use them as a medicine? Dry them? Turn them into powder? etc.

Herbary says:

Hi James, with medicinal fungi, I tend to make them into tinctures using the dual-extraction (Decoction, then maceration) technique – some, such as turkey tails and birch polypore I dry and use in teas, though you have to be a little careful about how you grind them up (Turkey tail tends to go to fluff, which is fine… Birth Polypore can kill most food processors as it goes hard like plastic when dry. I tend to cut it into little cubes (~5mm each side) to use in immune tea blends. Hope this helps!

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