Teeth You Can Eat

I just love it when the experts say that something is widespread and common, yet I have just encountered it for the first time in my half-century-plus lifetime.  Such is the case with a couple of fungi I encountered over the weekend.

Another Bizzare Fungus
According to Michael Kuo, “Hericium americanum is North America’s only Hericium species with long spines and a branched fruiting body.”

As I surfed around looking for more information about this one I discovered that it has many common names including Bear’s Head Tooth Fungus, Monkey Head, Lion’s Mane, Pom pon Blanc, and Icicle Mushroom.  I also discovered that the scientific name has changed recently and you might find it listed as Hericium coralloides, a name that has now officially been given to a different species – a coral fungus that used to be called Hericium ramosum.  Yikes, I think I’m glad I’m NOT a mycologist!  (Click here for an interestng article about how and why names change.  It’s not related to this fungus, but the story is illustrative!)

There are several Hericium species in the northeast woods.  Kuo says that H. americanum is sometimes confused with H. erinaceus.  So I began to wonder about this one:Bizzare Fungus

H. americanum is branched, H. erinaceus derives from a single clump.  I dunno.  What do you think?  Is the one above a single clump or branched?  The spines (or teeth) are shorter, but I think it is younger, too.

Both are “toothed” fungi, meaning that spores are produced from elongated spines or teeth, rather than from gills or pores as in some other fungi.

All of the Hericium species in North America are edible, so They say, and several species in this genus are cultivated for consumption.  Indeed, the Hericium species are reported to be quite easy to cultivate.

Have any of you sunk your teeth into these teeth before?  How are they?

Learn more:

P.S.  Seabrooke blogged about fungi, too:  http://themarvelousinnature.wordpress.com/2008/09/29/fungal-growths/


Pawpaw Range MapEarlier this summer, Sarah got very excited when she noticed that the Pawpaw tree had fruits.  She has been waiting for months for them to ripen.  In the 10 years I have worked at Audubon, I don’t recall it ever having fruits.  In fact, I don’t recall paying much attention to the tree at all…  What a mistake, for it is a lovely tree.

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native tree of Eastern North America, though it tends to like inland, humid climes, more than the cooler seasides.  The USDA range map for North America is misleading, since entire states are colored even if only a single county holds a specimen.  Look at New York and Florida, for example:

Pawpaw Range Map NYSPawpaw Range Map FL

Also, the USDA only shows places where plants are native or naturalized.  Apparently it is grown in several states for the delicious fruit, which I tasted for the first time yesterday.

Sarah Searches for PawpawsWe headed out to the Arboretum and Sarah began searching for fruits that were just beginning to show a bit of brown on the otherwise green skin.



The Peterson Guide to Edible Plants says you should pick them when they are green, bring them inside and wait until they are brown to eat them.  We didn’t read the book before going out, so we did it our own way:

Sarah selected one that was nice and soft and began to peel it:Peeling a Pawpaw

She handed it to me so I could take a bite:
Eating a Pawpaw

The fruit is soft, like a cross between a banana and a mango:
Eating a Pawpaw

That was my first taste of Pawpaw and you can bet it won’t be my last!  (I wonder if any more of them will be ripe tomorrow?)

The seeds are large and disk-shaped:
Pawpaws are Yummy and have cool Seeds
Native Americans are credited with spreading the Pawpaw across “the eastern U.S. to eastern Kansas and Texas, and from the Great Lakes almost to the Gulf.” (source)

Pawpaws also produce root suckers a few feet from the tree.  If these are allowed to grow, you will have a Pawpaw patch like the one in the folksong!  Pawpaws are understory trees and don’t reestablish well after a clearcut.

Learn more:

Common Arrowhead

Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) is doing very well this year around the ponds at Audubon as well as in other wet places I drive by.

Common Arrowhead

It’s a pretty, white, 3-petaled flower with arrow-shaped leaves that grows on the pond’s edge – or even right IN the water.  Newcomb’s description says: “The leaves vary from broadly to very narrowly arrow-shaped.”  That was very evident during a walk at Audubon this week.  Take a look at the variation we observed:

Broadly arrow-shaped:
Common Arrowhead 1 - fat leaves

Common Arrowhead 3 - Medium-sized Leaves

Common Arrowhead 2 - Skinny Leaves

There are lots of different kinds of Arrowheads.  The USDA Plant Database lists 28 species.

Peterson’s Guide to Edible Wild Plants calls the Arrowheads “Duck Potatoes” and describes how the tubers can be freed from the mud of the pond with a hoe or rake, then collected when they float to the surface.  The passage goes on, “Although slightly unpleasant when eaten raw, the tubers are delicious when cooked; prepare them as you would potatoes.”  Collection time:  Fall through early spring.

I keep telling myself I’m going to try some of these Wild Foods… but I never do… Hmm….

Please Pass the Mustard

Field Mustard

“What do you call the stuff you put on your hotdog that is THAT color?” I ask the kids while walking about at Audubon, pointing at a stand of bright yellow flowers atop a straggly collection of stems with all kinds of leaves.

Field Mustard Range Map“Mustard!”

“That’s right… and guess what the name of that plant is?”



“They make mustard out of that?”

Well, probably not this mustard plant…  There are lots of different kinds of mustard plants, over 3,000 worldwide.  This one is called Field Mustard (Brassica rapa) and it is very common – found throughout North America, though originally from Europe.  According to one source, all mustards are edible, though some taste better than others.  Want to try some?  The article states:

For the purposes of the Mustard family, all you need to remember is “4 petals with 6 stamens–4 tall and 2 short”.

And the site has this incredible diagram:

Brassicaceae Diagram

I’m always intrigued by the seeds.  Mustards have dehiscent (notice how I use that word so easily… as if I’ve known it all my life… when actually, I just learned it yesterday…) seedpods called siliquesDame's Rocket by Dave Bonta(Pronounce it as if “sleek” had two syllables:  suh-leek.)  A silique has two outside parts that will fall away when the seed is mature to reveal a clear membrane in which the seeds are held.  The picture at left by Dave Bonta shows the skeleton of the Dame’s Rocket siliques.  (Yes, Dame’s Rocket is a mustard, too!)

To make the mustard we use as a condiment, the seeds are ground and mixed with other ingredients, such as water and/or vinegar.  Black Mustard (B. nigra) seeds are most commonly used, but not exclusively.  Learn more by watching this five minute documentary on the making of mustard:


Dame's Rocket BudsMustards have been cultivated and bred for thousands of years.  On Monday, I planted three members of the mustard family that were all bred from B. oleracea:  cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, and broccoli.  Three others that might be in your garden from this same heritage are kale, kohlrabi, and cauliflower.  Radishes and turnips are also in the mustard family!  And toothwort, and horseradish, and garlic mustard, and…

We owe a lot to mustards.  That’s probably why there is a Mustard Museum (http://www.mustardweb.com/index.htm) and a National Mustard Day (the first Saturday in August).

Dame's Rocket

 Learn more:


Mayapple LeafEver since I was little and found huge patches of these flowers at Girl Scout Camp, I have been captivated by them.  I imagined myself the size of a fairy living underneath them, where they would form a huge palm tree forest above my head.  I don’t think I ever noticed the flowers in May or the fruit in August when I was a kid.  I walked above them and never saw what was happening beneath the giant umbrella-leaves.

Mayapple Range MapOver the last few years, I’ve become very fond of the flower that is produced by a mature plant.  Mature plants will sprout two of these enormous leaves and the flower will dangle from a separate stem between them.  A fruit may set and ripen by August or so.

Mayapple Blossom in May  Mayapple Fruit in August

On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Nature Photographer Magazine.  It contained an article by Brien Szabo called “My Summer Project” which can also be seen at his website here.  The article inspired me to take advantage of Saturday’s “magic hour” of light and take way too many pictures of Mayapple Blossoms.  I’ve numbered them, so you can vote for your favorite:

Mayapple Flower Closeup 7

Mayapple Abstract 2

Mayapple Flower Closeup 5

Mayapple Abstract 1

Mayapple Flower Closeup 2

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is also known as American Mandrake.  The ripe fruit is edible and can be eaten raw or made into jelly BUT THE GREEN FRUIT, LEAVES, ROOTS AND SEEDS ARE TOXIC, so be careful!



One of the earliest colorful spring flowers in our area is often mistaken for Dandelion.  Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is an alien wildflower that sends up blossoms long before it sends up leaves.  Because they are in the same family – composites – and because they are yellow, folks often point and say, “Dandelion.”


ColtsfootDon’t let it fool you.  Dandelions bloom from the center of a bunch of leaves.  Also, check the stems… Dandelion has a hollow smooth (or sometimes slightly fuzzy) stem.  Coltsfoot has an interesting scaly stem.

Both Dandelions and Coltsfoot make good Wishing Flowers when they go to seed.  Just pick one, close your eyes and make a wish, then blow the seeds.  Your wish will be carried by the wind into the universe and surely it will come true.

Circle in a Square Coltsfoot Leaf


The latin name Tussilago means cough dispeller and this plant is often used to create cough syrup and cough drops.  The fresh leaves collected in May or June coltsfoot range mapare boiled in water, then strained.  The liquid is sweetened with sugar and cooked until the right consistency.  Dried leaves can be made into tea.  They can also be smoked to alleviate a dry cough and open the lungs…  Hmm…  So “they” say.  Has anyone tried it?

If you’re thinking of trying it, be aware that I found one warning against mistaking Butterbur (Petasites hybridus) leaves for Coltsfoot.  The source didn’t say why…  In fact, another source claims that Butterbur may help prevent migraines, but that’s a story for another day.   Butterbur leaves are similar to Coltsfoot, but the flowers have no rays, come in clusters and may be any color from cream to pink with white anthers.

And one more use for Coltfoot… if the leaves are burned to a black ash and sprinkled on food, they can fool your tongue into thinking you’ve sprinkled salt.


Learn more:

Skunk Cabbage

I wrote a bit about Skunk Cabbage last spring.  It’s such an interesting plant…  It generates heat in very early spring and actually melts its way through the ice and snow so it can be the first wildflower of the season.

Let Me Out of Here

UPDATE:  “How does it do that?” asked a reader.  So I googled and found this:

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to see spathes growing up through a thin layer of ice, the ice melted around the spathe in a circular form. This is an indication of skunk cabbage’s remarkable capacity to produce heat when flowering. If you catch the right time, you can put your finger into the cavity formed by the spathe and when you touch the flower head, your finger tip warms up noticeably. Biologist Roger Knutson found that skunk cabbage flowers produce warmth over a period of 12-14 days, remaining on average 20° C (36° F) above the outside air temperature, whether during the day or night. During this time they regulate their warmth, as a warm-blooded animal might!

Physiologically the warmth is created by the flower heads breaking down substances while using a good deal of oxygen. The rootstock and roots store large amounts of starch and are the likely source of nutrients for this break down. The more warmth produced, the more substances and oxygen consumed. Knutson found that the amount of oxygen consumed is similar to that of a small mammal of comparable size.  (source)

Seriously… If you are interested in Skunk Cabbage, click on the word “source” above.  You will read more about Skunk Cabbage than you thought was possible to write… and it’s all pretty fascinating!

The flower is odd, resembling raw or rotting meat in color and smell, attracting the only pollinator out at this time of year:  flies.  Later in summer, it will have leaves bigger than your head!

Skunk Cabbage Green

Those leaves will have a distinctly skunky smell which leads me to question why anyone decided to try to eat them…  Except that they are quite plentiful in wetland settings and if you were looking for an easy crop, this would provide…  Or maybe someone saw turkeys munching on the stuff:

Turkeys Eat Skunk Cabbage


At any rate, here’s what the Peterson Guide To Edible Wild Plants has to say about Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus):

The thoroughly dried young leaves are quite good reconstituted in soups and stews.  The thoroughly dried rootstocks can be made into a pleasant cocoalike flour.

Warning: Contains calcium oxalate crystals; eating the raw plant causes an intense burning sensation in the mouth.  Boiling does not remove this property – only thorough drying.  Also, do not confuse the young shoots with those of False Hellabore.

Cocoalike… Hmm… Makes me want to try that!  FYI:  False Hellabore is poisonous.  Personally, I don’t think they look anything alike:

False Hellabore

Skunk Cabbage Range Map


Skunk Cabbage is found in the northeast.  Here is the range map from the USDA website.