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Into the Woods

Sandy Geffner (left) and Nick Peterson explore the flora of Letchworth Woods on UB’s North Campus.

Sandy Geffner (left) and Nick Peterson explore the flora of Letchworth Woods on UB’s North Campus.

Published November 12, 2013

On a clear September morning, Sandy Geffner, environmental studies faculty member, and Nick Peterson, Geffner’s student and a UB staff member, treaded through Letchworth Woods on the North Campus. As they walked beneath sunspeckled trees, the conversation turned philosophical. What does it mean to connect with a forest?

“These pursuits keep us in touch with the rhythms and bounty of nature. ”
Sandy Geffner, Professor
Environmental Studies

SANDY GEFFNER Before we venture into this world, it is important to have a clear sense for precautions. Because just as this world will feed us, heal us, this world can do harm to us. So we need to separate the herbs from the grass, separate the trees and shrubs from one another and get a sense of who’s in the neighborhood. Then there are certain factors we need to be aware of before we take the leap and begin to collect and utilize.

No. 1, we positively identify. No. 2, we need to focus on purpose. Is this plant a food, a medicine, a poison or all of the above, which is sometimes the case? We also have to know what time of year is it best to harvest the plant for food, medicine and the like. Then we need to know how do we prepare? Do we eat fresh? Do we have to apply heat to relieve that plant of toxins? Then we have to know if our environment is clean and unpolluted. And finally, if we’re harvesting, we have to make sure that we’re not completely removing a stand of plant from its environment. We need also to know if that plant is protected by law. So there’s a lot to know before we start to take that plunge into this world.

NICK PETERSON And to always be thankful.

GEFFNER Thankful indeed, and this is something that we share in all of our work and all of our programs. These plants are all alive; these plants work really hard to make their fruits, the seeds and their leaves. In our minds, we always say “thank you”— it’s a healthy way of interacting with the plants.

PETERSON A lot of times, we humans consider ourselves to be the top of every food chain. There’s plenty of other animals that we feel above. We gather fiddleheads for the sake of gourmet restaurants. The attitude is “the leeks and the fiddleheads are good, so let’s just take them all.” 

GEFFNER It’s the all-for-us mentality, which is harsh. You bring up a good point regarding the animals. There are clues right out in the field. Especially with edibles, if we see animals feeding upon plants in the field, we have to say, “Maybe,” because their bodies are actually designed to tolerate those materials that we cannot. 

PETERSON Here we have dogbane which is absolutely poisonous but utilitarian.

GEFFNER The dogbanes that we’re seeing here contain a compound that speeds up the heart and is very dangerous. Most creatures when they see dogbane stay away as a result. They’re not heavily fed upon at all. But we do use dogbane to make cordage. It’s very fibrous, like milkweed, and they make very good rope. Nick, it looks like you’ve got the beginnings of a nice rope there? 

PETERSON It’s a little bit thin but I was starting to get the idea.

GEFFNER Here you’re looking at the brambles and this as you can see is a rather four-sided stem. There are three brambles that are commonly found in our area. With this one, do you feel angles in the stems?

PETERSON Yes. 

GEFFNER Ok, so this would be a blackberry. If you have thorns with a rounded stem, it’s probably a black raspberry. And when you have prickles rather than thorns that would be the red raspberry. So we have red raspberry, black raspberry and blackberry as the common brambles. They are all in the genusrubus.

Do you recognize this tree? 

PETERSON I do not. Well, I’ve seen it but I cannot identify it, let me say that. 

GEFFNER If you’re ever in doubt with this individual [plant], you see the leaves are elliptical, pointed. On the underside, can you see the orange fluff at the base of the main vein? What you smell is prussic acid. And no matter how you look at it or how you describe it, when prussic acid is taken internally, it is a form of cyanide. This is a wild black cherry. If you really want to make sure, you take a little branch and take off the leaves and you can actually take your fingernail, give it a scratch and smell. This is one example of an individual who will feed you with edible cherries, heal you as a cough medicine or kill you if you ingest too much.

Be careful—this is poison ivy here. Do you see? 

PETERSON Poison ivy and the false Solomon seal.

GEFFNER The false Solomon seal and the mayapple offer a good lesson. We should look at the poison ivy first. Because when it comes to plants, animals, all aspects of nature, there’s no good or bad out here from the naturalist’s point of view. If we break a leaf or stem, the sap gets on our skin that can cause an outbreak of dermatitis. But poison ivy produces fruit in the fall, which is heavily used by many small animals and a wide range of birds. They depend on the poison ivy for food, and the poison ivy wants them to eat the berries. That’s why plants make good-tasting fruits. The fruits get eaten and digested and the seeds are dispersed. This is the most functional way of spreading seed, using animals to do that in that way.

PETERSON That’s interesting. Something you might think about when you see a particular plant in the middle of a human landscape and wonder how did this plant grow up here? 

GEFFNER Oh my goodness! These are really old, but look at the size of this crop [of mushrooms]. This looks like Hen of the Woods, what’s left of it. This is one of the edible fungi. Keeping in mind how careful we have to be in harvesting the herbs, it’s doubly so with the fungus. I do a lot of mushroom harvesting. My record is 80 pounds in one year!

PETERSON That’s a lot of mushrooms. How can we be conscientious collectors when it comes to mushrooms like these?

GEFFNER I wouldn’t take them all. When I harvest clumps of these Hen of the Woods, I’d want them to reproduce. You harvest them close to the ground. If we harvest them properly, we will encourage the reharvesting of these fruits. And they may come up year after year in the same place.

PETERSON For someone who’s completely new to foraging, what would you suggest to them about wild edibles?

GEFFNER No. 1, the best place to begin is always with someone who’s connected to that field. That gives you a good introduction. No. 2, you get a good field guide that will help you identify, then [obtain] the field guides that take you into your area of interest. The first thing is to learn to recognize. You go from there to careful experimentation, then you’re ok. But I don’t recommend that you experiment with mushrooms! Seriously, that’s something you should always do with someone who knows.

PETERSON So what is to be gained through this knowledge or these interests in these wild foods?

GEFFNER These pursuits keep us in touch with the rhythms and bounty of nature. 

Nick Peterson and Sandy Geffner make cordage from dogbane fibers found in the UB forest.

Nick Peterson and Sandy Geffner make cordage from dogbane fibers found in the UB forest.

Peterson holds garlic found in the field.

Peterson holds garlic found in the field.

Peterson then savors garlic found in the field.

Peterson then savors garlic found in the field.

Peterson digs at the root of the false Solomon seal (Maianthemum racemosum), a wild edible that is also used medicinally.

Peterson digs at the root of the false Solomon seal (Maianthemum racemosum), a wild edible that is also used medicinally.