Survival in the Northeast Wilderness
After watching news bulletins about hikers getting lost in the woods, I wanted to determine if a person could survive on the plants and mushrooms available in a Massachusetts forest. I read an article in the local newspaper about the Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve, the state's first bioreserve, primarily located in the city of Fall River. The bioreserve is a 13,600-acre parcel that permanently protects a large forested and wetland landscape with plant, fungus, and animal species that can be found elsewhere in New England. It seemed like an ideal place to test my idea.
My observations would be limited to the autumn season. I needed to determine what plants and mushrooms were available, where they were located in the forest or its wetland areas, and how to distinguish which plants and fungi were edible or poisonous. On September 18, 2002, I attended a walk with Dan Herzlinger, education coordinator for the Westport River Watershed. The guided tour gave me a bird's-eye view of the bioreserve, which has been preserved for public use and enjoyment.
My investigation began on September 29 at the Miller Brook Conservation Area, part of the bioreserve. I brought a journal, a knife, a camera, colored pencils, a field guide on mushrooms, and three field guides on edible wild plants, medicinal herbs, and plants. In the wooded area, I discovered plants that I identified as sassafras, Sassafras albidum. These bushes grew close to the ground in moist soil. The leaves appeared bright green with three lobes. I crushed the leaves, which released a fruity odor. After pulling the bush from the soil, I scraped the root. It smelled similar to root beer soda. According to my field guide, sassafras is an edible plant. Its roots can be used to make root beer or tea. Its leaves, when young, can be used in salads, and when dried and crushed can be used to flavor soup. However, I would be reluctant to rely on a diet consisting of large amounts of sassafras because my guide notes that it may cause cancer.
Walking up the grassy and overgrown path, I found tall mushrooms that grew in clusters in the grass. These mushrooms had cylindrical stalks and light brown caps covered with scales. Upon breaking apart the cap, I found gills underneath. According to my guide, it was a shaggy mane mushroom, Coprinus comatus. These mushrooms are edible but decompose quickly; one started to turn black after I broke it open. I would have to eat this mushroom soon after picking it.
I observed similar-looking, yellow- to tan-colored mushrooms. Many of these mushrooms grew in clusters on wood near the base of trees. The edible species I found was the honey mushroom, Armillaria mellea. This mushroom had a sticky, rounded cap and was broad and flat at the bottom. It had whitish to yellowish gills under the cap, and many of the cylindrical-shaped stalks contained a small ring. Although I identified this species as a honey mushroom, I would not attempt to eat this fungus. Many of its related species are poisonous.
My observations in the wooded area of the bioreserve continued through October and November of 2002. I found many species of mushrooms. However, as the temperature dropped and the climate became drier, I noticed a decline in the number of mushrooms. I determined that, generally, the more brilliantly colored mushrooms were poisonous species. One such poisonous mushroom, which had a pinkish-white cap and a pinkish-white body, I identified as the jeweled death cap, Amanita gemmata. Its cap was covered by wart-like structures and had gills on its underside. Upon picking the mushroom, I smelled an odor similar to chlorine in a swimming pool. After further review in my field guide, I realized that this mushroom was the poisonous "many warts," Amanita polypyramis.
I also found two species of bolete mushrooms. These mushrooms have a sponge-like pore system underneath their caps. Most boletes are edible, but novices are warned to avoid the brilliantly colored ones or those that turn blue as a way of avoiding the very few that are toxic. One bolete had a thick stalk and a large, brownish-white cap with a spongy porous underside. This I identified as the king bolete, Boletus edulis. Although the guide indicated that this was an edible bolete, I was afraid that it might be a similar, toxic species. I later discovered a bolete that had a flat, brown cap with a spongy, orange- to brown-colored underside. The stalk of the bolete appeared pinkish and cylindrical, and was attached to a piece of a dead tree. When I broke the mushroom in half, the stalk turned black, and the broken area of the underside of the mushroom turned inky blue. I thought I had discovered a bay bolete, Boletus badius, which is edible. However, the cap felt leathery to my touch, and the cap of the bay bolete is supposed to feel velvety. Based on such ambiguous wording, it was difficult to identify the mushroom with precision. As my guide indicates that many boletes with blue-staining flesh are poisonous, I would caution anyone to resist the temptation to try one. Positive identification is required.
As I traveled through the forest, I noticed that many of the trees produced fruits that seemed edible and were very plentiful, as it was fall. The common trees I found were the white oak, Quercus alba; the shagbark hickory, Carya ovata; and the white pine, Pinus strobus L. The white oaks were quite tall, with light, flaky bark. These trees produced great numbers of acorns. The exterior shell of the acorn was brown and dry. Before now, I thought only squirrels and mice ate acorns. Surprisingly, the nuts of the acorn tasted very sweet. My guide provided many recipes for making flour and candy out of acorns. I also learned that this tree has medicinal uses. The bark has been used to treat poison ivy, rashes, and burns. This tree would be of great value if I were lost in the woods because I could eat its fruit and use its bark for any skin injuries I might experience.
In contrast to the flaky bark of the white oak, the shagbark hickory has bark that peels away from the tree in strips. I located large, light brown, egg-shaped nuts under the tree. The shells were easily broken with a rock to get at the sweet-tasting kernel. On a later visit, I found the shells encased in a thick green covering. The covering must have dried up and fallen off those I saw previously. As with the oak, there are no poisonous species. It is safe to eat these nuts, which appeared plentiful. As with all nuts, they are nutritious and are a good substitute for meat.
White pine trees, when young, can be used for various purposes, but it appears that many preparations require cooking. These trees are evergreen trees and have needles instead of broad leaves. These needles grow in small bundles of five needles. My guide indicates that although this tree is not particularly tasty, in emergencies the inner bark can be eaten, or dried and ground into flour, and is very nutritious. Furthermore, the needles can be chopped up and cooked into a tea rich in vitamins A and C.
During the last two and a half months of my research I found more fruiting bushes, trees, and plants than mushrooms because of the lateness of the season. It was easier to identify these plants than the mushrooms. The fruit-bearing plants were still plentiful even on my last visit on November 23, when it was lightly snowing. One of my favorites was autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata. This was a particularly difficult tree to identify because it looked like the common chokecherry, Prunus virginiana. The autumn olive wa
s small and had green leaves that were relatively smooth along their edges. The fruit was bright red, round, and very soft to the touch, with an indentation at its end. The berries were juicy when squashed and tasted tart and sweet, much like a cranberry or a pomegranate. My guide was not so helpful in describing this tree, but I could distinguish it from the chokecherry, which has sharp teeth along the edge of its leaves and berries containing egg-shaped stones. The berries of the autumn olive had seeds. I later learned that autumn olives were invasive, and were shipped from Europe to attract wildlife. The berries contain a high concentration of lycopene, a good source of vitamins also found in tomatoes. Since I hate tomatoes, these berries are probably the best alternative for me. I also learned that these berries are being used in research to treat different types of cancer. It appears that this tree is very hardy because I found it growing in very sandy soil.
I also found a wonderful array of berries and grapes, and some were very tasty. It seems I could gather enough to make a meal. Many of these appeared to grow on vines. One of these plants I identified as the frost grape, Vitis vullpina. The leaves were wide and rounded at the base, and the edges of the leaves were tooth-like, with many points at the tips. The berries were purple, black, fairly large and round, and similar to those I would buy in the market. Although my guide states that they are edible and can be eaten raw, I did not like their sour taste. It appears there is a poisonous look-alike with similar-looking fruit, but its leaves are much smaller and not toothy. When the leaves of the frost grape are young, they can be collected and used for stuffed grape leaves, a Greek delicacy. These frost grapes were plentiful and so juicy I could eat them to survive if I could not find available water. I found a vine-type plant called the foxberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea, which, compared to the frost grape, had smaller bright-red berries. They were very bitter and tasted like cranberries. My guide states that there are no poisonous look-alikes, so this is a safe plant to eat. However, their leaves are bitter and inedible.
I had hoped to find sweeter-tasting berries, but was unable to do so in the wooded area. I did discover a bush with bright red berries, a spicebush, Lindera benzoin. The leaves were bright green and had a long, pointed tip. The berries were produced in clusters and appeared oval-shaped. The twigs broke off easily, and the berries were either green or turning bright red. The red berries were softer and, when broken, were yellow inside with a single oval seed. I tasted a berry. It tasted very spicy, almost pepper-like. This surprised me because when I crushed the leaves, they had a pleasant scent. My guides indicate that when the berries are dried and crushed, they are used as a substitute for allspice. Although they are edible, I wouldn't bother picking this berry because of its taste. Native Americans and the early settlers apparently used the berry and the bark for intestinal problems. They crushed the berries into a paste that was applied to bruises and or to muscles and joints to relieve pain. This plant might be useful to me if I received a minor injury.
In search of water to drink, I found different types of plants laden with fruit. Surprisingly, I did not find mushrooms in the marsh area surrounding the pond, though I know they thrive in moist conditions. On November 9, I observed a bush that had elliptical, reddish-brown leaves with teeth along the margins. The berries hung in clusters and were bright red and egg-shaped. They were attached to the branch by short stems that made them look like cherries. This plant was difficult to identify. I originally believed that this plant was a highbush cranberry, Viburnum trilobum. I then did further research, and after reviewing images on the World Wide Web, I determined that my original identification was incorrect. In fact, the plant was the Siberian crabapple, Malus baccata. I broke some fruits open and smelled them. They smelled similar to cranberries. I tasted the fruit, and it was sour-tasting but not unpleasant. My research indicates that the Siberian crabapple can be helpful in fighting dysentery, which one might experience in the wilderness. Like most nuts, it is nutritious and a good substitute for meat.
On November 23 at the marshland, the Siberian crabapple still contained fruit, but many of its leaves had fallen to the ground. A little bit upland from these bushes were small plants with dark green and purple oval leaves. They contained small, dark-red and maroon clusters of berries. At first I thought these plants were the same as the ones I had found in September in the wooded area. Those plants were found near the white pine trees and had bright red berries that had no smell or taste. Previously, I had identified them as partridgeberry, Mitchella repens. My guide referred to that plant as a creeping evergreen plant whose berries could be used as a colorful but tasteless addition to salads. Yet the berries and the leaves of the plant I found near the marshland had a strong mint fragrance that was different from the spearmint, Mentha spicata, that I found in the woods on September 29. This odor was more potent. I squashed the berries, which had multiple seeds. I identified this plant as wintergreen, Gaulteria procumbens. I crushed the leaves between my fingers, and they left a pleasant mint smell on my fingers. One of my guides indicates that the berries can be eaten and added to a salad, and the leaves can be made into tea. Yet it appears that the leaves in some species contain oil that is highly toxic and that, if absorbed through the skin, can harm the liver and kidneys. Since I cannot determine whether this wintergreen is an edible checkerberry or a teaberry species, I would avoid the leaves and only eat the berries.
Until now, I hadn't realized the importance of these local plants, trees, and mushrooms, many of which I had seen while walking in the woods around my home. Although my essay describes only a few of the species of mushrooms and plants I recorded in my field journal, I have concluded that there were as many poisonous species of mushrooms as edible ones in my area, and more edible plants than inedible ones. These diverse species are not only nutritious and tasty, but have been used for medicinal purposes. If I were injured in the woods, I would have access to relief for either a skin injury or an upset stomach. On a wilderness trip through Northeastern forests or marshland, someone who made in-depth observations of the vegetation and fungi with the aid of a good field guide could survive by foraging these plants and mushrooms.
Elias, Thomas S. and Peter A. Dykeman. A North American Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 1990.Farmer, Bonnie. "Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)." Edible Wild Kitchen. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 30, 2002: http://www.ediblewild.com/autumnolive3.html.Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.Gilman, Edward F. and Dennis G. Watson. "Malus baccata 'Columnaris' Columnar Siberian Crabapple." Retrieved from the World Wide Web on December 14, 2002: http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/trees/MALBACB.pdf."Malus baccata 'Jackii'." Hort.net photo gallery. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on December 14, 2002: http://www.hort.net/gallery/view/ros/malbaja.McKnight, Kent H. and Vera B. McKnight. Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.Peterson, Lee Allen. Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.Roth, Charles E. and Clare Walker Leslie. Keeping a Nature Journal. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2001.
More About This Resource...
Less than 1 period.
Supplement a study of biology with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Send students to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Divide the class into small groups, and have them browse local field guides to find plants and mushroom species that thrive in your area.
- Then have them research the plants to find out which ones are edible, and create a "menu" that shows and describes them.
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