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?
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
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
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?
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
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
PETERSON Poison ivy and the false Solomon
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
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
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
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.