Mushroom Spring

It’s that time again here in The Pacific Northwest, the time when it’s wet and cool enough for fungus to abound. The woods are fruiting with a ground treasure like no other, so get out there and start looking around. Many mushrooms are edible, but few are easy to identify, so safety is a number one concern. Don’t pick what you don’t know- a brave mushroomer is a dead one. With that in mind, have a look at some wild friends, edible or not, that I’ve been finding in my local forests.

Chantrelles are the most widely known edible mushroom here in Western Washington, with good reason- there are few look a likes to confuse it with, and the taste is excellent. Chantrelles are golden yellow, and have veins rather than gills. They come out in the fall (mostly) and grow on mossy soil under Douglas fir stands. A great place to go hunting is forest land with 30-60 year old stands. Look on the north facing slopes, where salal and Oregon grape thrive. Keep a sharp eye out in the green mosses, and look carefully, sometimes the golden treasures are partially buried by the thick duff.

When you harvest chantrelles, please cut them at the stem or tear them from their base, keeping the bottom part in the ground with the mycelium to prevent disruption of the shroom cycle. If you pull out the “root” of the chantrelle with the fruit, you take away future blooms and upset the delicate lace of hyphae (little white hairs) in the soil. I’ve seen great flushes disappear in areas where the ground is severely disturbed by bad pickers who rush. If you are a beginner and not sure of how to harvest sustainably, seek guidance from a veteran picker.

Medicinal mushrooms are also a great find in the woods. Our native Reishi is a Ganoderma verity which has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. They are very rare, so when I found this perfect specimen, I left it. It’s often better to leave a mushroom untouched, especially the woody ones growing on logs. The red belted conch is another great example of polypore fungus which should be left alone. These mushrooms can be very medicinal, but it takes special preparation to ensure the medicine comes out, and most people do not know the proper steps. It takes a long time for many of these wood eating species to establish, so let them be.

Sometimes I’ll find a new species I’ve not identified before and get excited. I make sure there are several of them around before I pick one- if it’s the only one, I leave it alone to reproduce. If it’s one of a crowd, I’ll select a medium sized one to study, and take a few pictures. Often, I never follow through at home with my field guides, but sometimes, especially when I am writing these blogs, I’ll pull out the books and get cracking. This is the best way to explore new species, and rather than experimenting with a fork, it is best to use field guides or find an expert- someone who is an established mycologist with a lot of experience. (I am not one)

This specimen is a Lactarius of some kind. I can guess L. rubrilactus, but without closer inspection (spore print) and a lot more study, this mushroom will remain a mystery for now. Sorting into a family is sometimes more than enough to get a basic understanding. Families are diverse, and in the mushroom kingdom, families are often changing and evolving as we learn more about the DNA structure of mushrooms. You’ll often hear me in the woods talking about “nice looking Russulas”. This is a HUGE family with many species, most of which are not edible, but the general family is easy to recognize with a few key characteristics.

nice looking russula
  1. Russula are chalky, and shatter like safety glass when you throw them against a tree trunk.
  2. The russula are generally spicy on the tongue, warning of their inedible nature.

Now, should you go out and put all mushrooms on your tongue to test for spicy flavor? No! And without an expert to show you, don’t taste any mushroom you don’t know. However- if you put a little mushroom on your tongue and then spit it out, you are not going to die. BUT- don’t test mushrooms outside the russula family and don’t test at all if you are unclear on russulas. See why most mushroomers are hesitant to share info and broadly discuss mushrooming? It can be a nightmare of what ifs. So, unless you are out with an expert- someone who had been mushrooming a long time and hopefully has a degree in mycology, don’t get brave and start assuming, you will end up very sick or dead in the long run by experimenting on your own.

Sometimes I run across a real beauty and fall in love. This Cortinarius violaceus is a rare find in any woods across North America. The purple color is so striking on the forest floor, and the texture of that cap is mesmerizing. There were two in this forest, and I picked one only because I really wanted to get the full understanding of its profile. I chose the more mature of the two because it was open and after picking it, I could lay the open cap back down on the ground to keep putting out spores. Next time I see this guy in the woods, I can look and know without having to pick. That’s the great learning journey. Later, on a walk with a qualified mycologist, I was informed that this species is also edible, but I have not had a chance to find more to try. Next year for sure!

Remember that all mushrooms have something to teach you, and there is an endless verity out on the landscape to find and enjoy. I recommend picking to identify, then putting all your samples into the compost, or better yet, back onto the landscape where you found them. If you are hunting for food and medicine, go with an expert and learn safely. I have a great passion for mycology, but I only eat a few species from the wild. These species have been carefully studied, and have been shown to me by professionals first. If I am unsure, I DO NOT EAT. Remember to wash you hands after handling mushrooms too. Having a healthy fear of fungus is not a bad thing, but also appreciate and enjoy the vast diversity of this amazing forest friend and learn what you can.

On a personal note, I found my first lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum) this Fall. It was a great triumph, because lobsters are rare, and short lived. I have been shown older specimens in the past, but they were mushy and worm ridden. What’s so special about lactifluorum? Well, the lobster mushroom is not a mushroom at all, but a different kind of parasitic fungi from the family Ascomycota. The lobster grew over another mushroom, consuming it. In Western Washington, lactifluorum does not “borrow” any toxic species, but might in other regions so learn locally. On this day, the lobster was a loner, hidden well under needles and ferns. The flesh was hard, like an actual lobster shell, with little worm sign. I was elated, and able to carry this treasured find to a dinner that evening with good friends. It’s always a pleasure to share such special forest prizes with others. Gratitude for the forest and all it’s bounty- and thank you fungi!

Bird’s Eye View

Greenbelt of Weiss Creek runs down center frame, flowing E to W (bottom left corner to top center), landscape stretches L to R (S to N)

With the gift of drone technology, EEC Forest Stewardship was able to capture a great bird’s eye view of the forest from above. Our modest collection of young 60 year groves and two large clearings at either end of the property reflect a landscape in slow recovery. The forest looks relatively healthy, considering the continued drought facing much of the west. Our western hemlocks suffer the most from a lack of deep watering, meaning we get heavy downpours instead of slow seep continuous rains that were, up until the past decade, a common occurrence in our temperate rain-forest. In response, the landscape has been altered in a few major places to help slow runoff from these heavy rains.

Human habitat- established infrastructure, high impact, cultivation space

Our most altered part of the landscape is in zone one, or the area inhabited by humans. Five people live full time in this area, with room for up to 8. We seasonally host some travelers who drop by for a month or two in the summers, and occasionally host a WWOOFer or student at a local wilderness school. In this part of the landscape you will see large earth works projects like the pond and swales, most of which deal directly with water flow and retention. We also have two shop spaces and the animal housing, including a chicken coop, two covered stall areas for goats and sheep, and grain room. The large blue square in the upper part of the picture above, is a 20,000 gallon cistern. This pillow tank allows us to flood irrigate our swales to water a young orchard planted in the fall of 2018.

Fields and groves, patches of new forest and fast growing giants

The view from above also offers a great perspective of our rotational grazing work around the property. Katahdin sheep graze field and forest after we move our goats through on tethers. The sheep are important grazers, really working on the grasses we have established in clearings around the landscape. In the picture above, you can clearly see the brown areas of short cropped pasture, versus the greener, lush parts of the pasture which has not yet been grazed down. In the bottom right corner of the right clearing, there is a larger patch of green that is completely fenced in to keep out all the livestock. It has been recently planted with young trees, including an oak grove, and deciduous trees like big leaf maple and hazel. We don’t invite sheep into this enclosure to protect the young trees and native under-story we are also establishing, like blue huckleberry.

orchard left, coops and stalls below (top center)

Forests mark the boundary between an active human habitat and the wilder forests at EEC Forest Stewardship. Further south, past the animal shelters, you enter a world of towering giants, leading down to a hidden stream which hosts spawning salmon in the fall. Here there is a great wetland setback, creating habitat for wildlife and native forest. EEC Forest Stewardship hosts a CREP grant, which allows cost sharing with our local conservation agencies in our efforts to restore the canopy of green. Without habitat, our beloved old growth will never return. Even on small acreage parcels, 5 acre plots, can have a forest stewardship plan and tended native forest restoration. If everyone stewarding land would plant a few trees, we’d have a much better chance for forest in the long run, and still have plenty of room for fields and orchards.

“back 40”, left frame (E) is untouched reforestation from the 70s with intact under-story

Our back field, the southern most part of the landscape, and furthest from the main settlement of human activity, still hosts habitation. A lone wall tent has stood for two years, hosting a rather talented and experienced naturalist who loves living quite off the grid. I appreciate his presence in this far away part of the land, because he keeps an eye on the space and deters predators from predating my sheep and goats. This field will remain partially open, but in the most southern boundary of the land, we’ve established a grove of (grafted) chestnuts. This is a future food forest in action. There are also a few ponderosa pines establishing too. The bare patch across the fence on my neighbor’s land is a sign of great disturbance. It also illustrates a clear departure from restorative stewardship into chaotic sandbox for off road toys. There could be some serious sediment runoff from his land next fall. This runoff would clog our salmon stream with loose dirt, which in tern, can kill salmon eggs and endangered fresh water muscles.

Land stretches L to R (N to S), Weiss Creek greenbelt runs top R to bottom center (SE to W)

With the responsibility of land stewardship, comes a great moral maze full of naturalist idealism and harsh organic truth; every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Our good intentions may not serve the greater ecological recovery in the short term, but further on down the road, every tree planted will be one step closer to rebuilding a greater canopy.

Forest Regeneration

tree nursery (fenced)

A large part of the long term vision at EEC Forest Stewardship, involves regenerative growth. For our old growth forest to reach it’s potential, we have to reinstate a lot of biomass to fulfill the nutrient needs of the ever growing trees. This biomass includes a lot of under-story, and of course, the establishment of new trees. Some of the root stalk and native plants on the land were bought- through local conservation district plant sales, nurseries, and even wild specimens from the edge of logging roads. Often, when new plants are acquired, they go right into the soil upon the land where they are intended to grow long term, but sometimes, plants arrive in too vulnerable a state to be haphazardly thrown into an active landscape. By active, I mean deer browsed and rabbit feasted areas of regeneration. The plant predators of western Washington are fierce.

black-tail deer, notorious plant predator

The regeneration of a forest takes many human generations to create, and new plants and trees should be added throughout stewardship. Keeping young plants protected over a manageable space, a few acres, is relatively doable with some sturdy fencing, but very young trees are a pain to protect individually, especially if they can be contained within a small plot when small, and later replanted in a larger, less protected space as they mature and grow larger. Once a tree is over five feet tall, it can usually fend off deer. Elk would be another matter, but for now, at least in this lifetime, elk are not expected to repopulate this immediate vicinity, but they once did call this hillside home.

willow hides a native crab apple

In some areas of the land, tree islands house and hide small young trees. This method of planting a younger tree near a larger, especially bushy plant that the deer prefer, can be enough protection. However, this method does not work very well in the further reaches of the land where people do not usually go. In those areas, trees must be fenced. Ground covers and smaller shrubs usually do establish more easily on the landscape, so long as they are placed within an established forest cover. Most under-story plants will not establish well in exposed soil, preferring the shade of canopy to thrive and grow.

trees in the garden

Even young trees, like the coveted chestnut, need shade and protection when young. I keep my seedlings in the veggie garden, along with some fruit tree root stock, oaks, and mulberries. I’ve learned not to plant faster growing plants like river birch or twin berry in the garden (even after I convinced myself it was just for one year). I’m still struggling with a few tenacious tenants like Cascadian Hops and Nootka rose. I do root up comfrey every year, and the classic weeds like wild lettuce and herb Robert still find their way in, but sufficient weeding keeps them in check. Some starts take more care when young, and the gardens close to the house offer excellent over-site.

Within the restoration areas of EEC Forest Stewardship, many patches of blackberry can be found. Many are eaten back by forest goats who work 24 hrs a day consuming the vegetation, but blackberry can still take over a clearing in one season, as this thick mat of first year regrowth shows- the roots are still established, and unless we keep cutting it back, the bramble will return. However, if a tree is planted, it’s eventual shade will knock back the blackberry with canopy, and since canopy is the goal, trees are a must. A nursery tree can be transplanted into the blackberry at 3-5 years of established growth. The replanted growth must then be taken out of goat maintenance, meaning all blackberry must be hand cut till the trees establish a canopy, which takes many years.

To fast track forest regeneration, we use already established canopy along the edges of young third growth trees to help younger trees re-establish. In more open areas, entire clearings are replanted, after most of the blackberry has been removed by heavy livestock browsing. If a large number of trees can be established in a protected clearing, including a thick replanting of under-story cover, like vine maple, hazel, and twin-berry helps keep out the unwanted bramble and encourages a good biomass for the future forest. By cultivating young plants, we ensure the longevity of the ecosystem for generations to come.

Hedge Edge

4 year old hedge

Edge space is the most happening part of any ecosystem, hosting the most diversity and transition. A multitude of plants and animals use edge space; plants take advantage of the light, having open space to grow into, and animals like the thick shelter offered by low lying shrubs and dense briar. Most transition zones happen where forests meet clearings, but can also occur where land meets water, or any major topographic and/or ecosystem change happens upon a landscape. At these edges, a forester can grow the most biomass, and should take care in selecting a good hedge where they can.

Hedges are cultivated edges, usually creating a boundary between fields, or a field to forest transition. Sometimes they include rock walls, or split fence backing, especially when newly established. In the picture above, our young hedge is backed by pallet fencing, which is a great barrier to livestock, as well as the ever invading blackberry. All the hedge plants have an orange tag, and most are mulched with cardboard. This is the fourth year of this hedges growth, and we’re still adding new plantings. The oldest trees will be pleachered this winter, encouraging abundant new shoots to thicken the hedge, as well as laying the trees to encourage horizontal growth. .

Back in the home garden, a nursery of young trees awaits transplanting into the hedge this winter. Mulberry, birch, and twin berry are along some species selected as good hedge species. Red alder and vine maple are two examples of native plants which are good hedge material. Other ground species like twin flower, comfrey, yarrow, and day lilly are great companions.

tree islands

Some parts of the land at EEC Forest Stewardship are being reclaimed from pasture into tree islands. Above is an example of two islands close together, one established with cypress and spruce cultivars, while the one in the foreground is comprised of native willow and crabapple. These micro-habitats are not an intact forest, or hedge, but they do provide that crucial transition zone, offering more edge space within a larger pasture. Within the shade of a few trees, under-story can thrive with teaming diversity. In these islands you can find iris, thimble berry, carrot, dock, clover, sweet pea, rose, and more. Wildflowers often come in around these edge spaces in early spring. It’s a great pollination station too.

Cultivating nursery space for future hedge plantings is important, not just for the cultivation of species to plant into the hedges, but also as a way to save money. Instead of buying expensive potted trees and shrubs, you can order root stock, and also take cuttings and re-rootings from already established plants in your forest. Just remember to keep track of these plants and make sure they eventually find a place in the planned hedges. The Douglas fir in this tree nursery is getting almost too big to replant. The red oak behind it will stay where it was initially put in, which also means eventually, this tree nursery will be overtaken by an oak. By then, we’ll hopefully have enough established plantings on the landscape to negate the need for a set aside nursery bed.

Forest Fruit

Frost Peach

Late summer ushers in the bounty of nature, and she’s putting on a feast for harvest with bright, rich fruits of all shapes and sizes. From Peaches to Blueberries, we’re beginning to pick nature’s natural sugar with an enthusiastic sweet tooth.

The land cared for by EEC Forest Stewardship has a few, well established apple trees, which are in high production. We’ll end up with so many apples, it’s hard to keep up. In past years we’ve had a pig to eat the glut, but this year, we’ll end up composting a lot of our fruit, which makes great fertility for the soil.

scab on apples

Because these trees are older, they have a common disease many fruit trees in western Washington end up with called scab. It’s on the red alders in the forest naturally, transferring to the fruit trees easily if they are near an older stand of alder, which these trees are. Though scab makes the apples unmarketable at a fruit stand, we’ll still happily eat them at the farm, because the scab does not harm the flesh of the apple, or taste, in any way. It’s simply a cosmetic blemish. The tree its self will be less productive with scab, but we’re grateful for the abundance that comes from the tree, and feel no inclination to treat with harsh chemicals to fight the blight.

more apples

Fruit trees are a great way to repopulate the landscape with canopy. For people who wish to cultivate a food forest, nut and fruit trees are an important main stay. If you want to run an orchard, you’re looking at a lot of hard work and inputs to get fruit production up enough to pay the bills, and you’ll need a lot of trees. However, if you are instead, cultivating an intact forest cover, with companion under-story, including medicinal and edible plants, you’ll end up with a self regulating ecosystem that puts out endless food and medicine for you’re household, and the extended neighborhood.

tree island

Above is a snapshot of a young “tree island” being established at EEC Forest Stewardship. In this small mix there is a small decorative evergreen, already established to mark the curve in the driveway, and added to it’s grove is an edible crab apple, a native crab apple, and shrubs, including lavender, twin berry, and two types of current. As this island takes shape, we’ll have a few trees for canopy, with plenty of light around the edges for all the under-story. The diversity of habitat will feed us, the wildlife, and offer multi-season pollination options for the beneficial insects. It’s an island, because of it’s isolated location and size, with only one or two trees forming the “grove”.

Think about how big your fruit trees will get as you are planning your plantings. I usually select for dwarf verities to keep height down near my gardens and pastures. Along the eastern fence line, I plant taller verities, because there is a young forest just on the other side already blocking the light, so my full sized apple trees can develop into 50-60 foot monsters and still be dwarfed by the towering evergreens. EEC is also focusing on diversity of verities, because western Washington hosts a lot of diseases, which cripple many fruit bearing plants over time. We’re also making sure to incorporate native plants into all our cultivated space, like the currents, twin berry, and native crab apple. If the cultivars fail, at least we’ll have a relatively resistant native to back it up.

Blueberries

Livestock and wildlife are another big consideration when establishing fruit species. Our blueberries were covered in bird netting, with a 3 foot high chicken wire mesh around the base to keep out rabbits. The setup worked well for a few years. We knew to keep our goats away from the structure, and let our two sheep graze briefly in the area under supervision. This year, we got a larger herd of sheep, and they completely decimated the blueberries in half a second during a mob graze. Luckily, our blueberries were mature enough to resist the invasion, and we still managed to get some fruit off the top of each bush. Still, we’ll be building a more substantial structure to protect our little berry patch.

Once we have blueberries spread out across the landscape, we’ll have no need to fence everything because there will be enough to support both wildlife and our community. Livestock are a different story, and you’ll need good fencing and even better rotational grazing to prevent the destruction of a young food forest Baby trees and shrubs are most vulnerable, and you will need to fence them off to prevent complete predation. Eventually, they will establish enough to fend off most attacks. The long term pay off for your efforts will be endless bounty.

Summer Wilds

The activity in our local forests amps up during the summer months, with an abundance of wildlife moving around the landscape, including this Black Bear, who’s tracks are pictured above. A domestic dog’s tracks parallel the bear’s, and they happened the same day. Did the dog spook the bear and run after it? Or, did the dog smell the bear’s recent passing and investigate the tracks? These prints are about ten feet off a logging road that is frequented by joggers and hikers in state forest. People come to the woods more in warmer months with less rain. The age of the tracks could be roughly determined by a light rain earlier that morning. Neither track has signs of that rain, yet the undisturbed ground around them did.

In this closer picture, with my hand as a size reference, there is a very fresh grass stalk well pressed into the mud by the animal’s broad foot. This bear’s hind foot is a medium size for a western black bear, so I would guess it’s a yearling, which is larger than a cub, but not fully mature. Looking closely at the distance between front and back feet, the bear was moving quickly, lunging across the muddy wetland towards the cover of thick brush, away from the road. Usually, wildlife is moving away from people, and having a dog helps, though it should stay leashed; for both the safety of the wildlife and the dog. An encounter with a black bear is possible, and startling them is the worst, so keep up a clear sound as well as visibility when hiking in the woods. Some people wear bells, I was talking actively with my friend as we traversed the landscape, and we were together with my young Aussie.

Because of our great rains, which have continued generously into July, keeping the temperatures dreamy and cool, (like a normal summer) fungus is thriving. I would be a great time to take a hike into the mountains on a shroom hunt. You can also still find a few in the lowlands, so keep your eyes open, even in planted landscape beds along sidewalks and buildings. The most diverse selections will be thriving in the forests, so take time to wander under an intact canopy if you can.

One other summer observation in the landscape- berries! Many are out early, so check your thimble berry and huckleberry patches sooner this year. I even saw blue elder fruiting out on a 4th of July visit to the east side of The Cascades. My apple trees at home are putting on fleshy fruit rapidly, and I worry for the branches of some overladen in the orchard. Peaches are ripening up fast too as our fruit year continues on epic proportion. If you know of any blueberry bushes nearby, start checking for the first fruiting flush. I’ve knabbed from my few shrubs and look forward to more. Though I’ll have to check out another secret patch in the area, an old farmstead that’s become a city park, because the sheep got to my mature bushes this year.

Alpine Lakes are great trout fishing hot spots. I always recommend live worms from the compost. In the elevations, you can still find minimal snow, which is a good sign for keeping the forests damp and streams flowing through the driest months of August and September. The Snoqualmie Tree Farm, where the above picture was taken, boasts two large alpine lakes, both of which I’ve caught my limit in. There is also older growth trees around these remote bodies of water, and on Lake Hancock, pictured above, old logging families have established summer cottages along its shores. This alpine wilderness offers great fishing, hiking, bird watching, and other wildlife encounters. I’ve seen loons, black bear tracks, cougar tracks, and bobcat in this area, and look forward to more adventures in the mountains this summer.

Why Goats?

Our herd of awesome goats clears land and keeps blackberry at bay. They are a hand full to control, one of the most difficult systems in the landscape, yet their contribution and hard work are invaluable. For years these hard working stock animals have moved around the property eating invasives and keeping our freezer full of delicious meat. This year is a milestone, as we are working with 5 animals through the summer, and planning to breed 3 does next fall, which will be the largest gestation hosted on the land.

before

In the picture above, you see a wall of thick green bramble and ferns, a forest floor without much diversity, languishing in briar. There is a thick green mat of vegetation, but little diversity to recommend to wildlife or the greater ecology of the area. When goats move through. they open up the landscape to new opportunity. It also becomes easier to access parts of the landscape that might otherwise be neglected. This stand of forest is slowly being cleared of red alders, opening the canopy to new plantings of western white pine, wild Nootka rose, and native crab apple. These species are native, productive as fruit baring, and offer good pollination opportunities to insects.

after one day

When the bare ground is exposed, reseeding can occur, allowing the introduction of ground covers like knick-knick, elder, and twin flower. Wildflower mixes and shade loving under-story crops can be directly seeded into the landscape, through irrigation through early plant development (several weeks), will be necessary in our dry summer climate. In shad areas, like the one above, its more successful to plant out roots stalk instead of seeding, but I always throw something down, just to offer a foot hold.

before

Goats brows hard, leaving little in their wake of appetite. This is not a system I would recommend to sensitive ecosystems that are fully intact, not without a lot of supervision. Tethering goats takes a lot of work and good planning. Most people who raise goats, keep them in well fenced paddock systems. Chain tethers are used to maintain strong boundaries on the goat’s destruction zone. Many areas of the property are scattered with fragile young trees and shrubs, which the goats would gladly chow down on if they were left unchecked.

The challenges of goats revolve around negotiating strong individuals with iron will. If a goat wants to go somewhere, and you don’t have a good hold on her, she’ll drag you along for the ride. She’s usually heading for the nearest fruit tree when she escapes, and she knows their location by heart. A goat will panic when alone, so you can’t have just one. They are prolific breeders, so if you do have a stud in the herd, you’re going to have a large herd in no time without proper planning. Goats are sensitive creatures, and cannot handle extreme temperatures- meaning most of the winter is spent under cover, eating expensive hay. In summer, extra oversight is needed to make sure goats do not overheat.

The herd plan for our goats is all about mixing two wonderful breeds; the Boer, a meat breed, and Nigerian Dwarf, a milking breed. Gamble is out first product of this crossing, and she’s already showing the slightly smaller frame of build, along with good muscle mass. We’ll breed her this fall in her second year, after she’s finished growing. Our new buck, Valcore’s Dream, is a papered ADGA Nigerian Dwarf. He and Gamble should produce the perfect homestead animal, something duel purpose but not too big. Next spring, we should have around five kids, a lot of genetic material to work with as we shape our ideal goat for a smaller forested landscape.