When it comes to foraging, spring and summer seem to reign supreme as the best times of year. When most people think of foraging, images of morel mushrooms popping up in the damp spring woods and wild blackberries shimmering in the summer sunshine are what usually come to mind.
And yet, Autumn and all that comes with it is my favorite season — and foraging is something that can be done well into the cooler months of the year. I have always found Fall to be the easiest time to forage. Perhaps it’s because I’m already in the woods hunting and seem to happen upon all sorts of edible fruits, mushrooms and nuts without putting forth much of an effort. Even someone who hasn’t really foraged before can still easily find something to bring home for dinner.
Like any other time of year, you want to be sure to identify everything correctly. If there are any doubts in your mind as to whether or not what you have found is edible, take some photos and continue on your way. You can always return later if it turns out you were correct at identifying your fruit/plant etc.
One of the easiest things to forage for in the Fall are Hickory nuts and Walnuts. As a kid we had three massive black walnut trees in our backyard. We had a rope swing hanging from one of the largest branches, and when October rolled around we would have to dodge falling walnuts anytime we jumped onto the swing. Many people stopped and knocked on our door asking if they could collect some to take home. You may feel like a squirrel getting ready for winter, but squirrels aren’t dumb — walnuts are delicious and they are certainly expensive to buy at the store. With a little work you can get them for free in the woods.
Not only are hickory nuts and walnuts easily identifiable, but there isn’t anything in the woods that is considered a “poisonous look alike” and nuts are extremely easy to turn into something good to eat. You can simply crack them and eat them plain, freeze them for later use, or add them to baking dishes. The most difficult part about gathering nuts to eat is that they can be a pain to crack open. However, practice makes perfect. My grandpa used to sit on his back porch and crack open hickory nuts one after the other until he had a bucket full of perfectly cracked nuts. I’m still not sure what his secret was to getting them out in one piece, but I remember my mom using them in many of her baked goods and they were certainly a good treat to eat plain. If you have kids, nuts are a perfect thing for them to help gather.
Spring is the most well-known time of year for foraging mushrooms (hello Morels and Pheasant Back mushrooms) and yet Fall is my favorite time to mushroom hunt. With the cool days of September come Chicken of the Woods mushrooms and in the cooler months of October and even into November the Oyster mushrooms will thrive.
Chicken of the Woods are one of the easiest to identify in my opinion. The intense orange color makes them stand out against the landscape, and their characteristics make it easy to eliminate any other mushrooms. This large shelf mushroom grows only on dead trees and logs, and has no gills underneath. Instead, it is a smooth brightly colored mushroom that often grows in large groups of layers and is easily cut off the tree to bring home to eat. Its name gives away the flavor – it really does taste like chicken and can be used in place of chicken in any dish you choose. It’s great deep fried and makes a killer Chicken and Rice Pilaf.
Oyster mushrooms can be a little trickier to identify as they aren’t quite as obvious. These mushrooms are much softer, and I can usually identify them by aroma alone – similar to the scent of vanilla extract. These mushrooms don’t freeze as well and work great in sautés and stir fries or as a side with steak.
Fruits are usually long forgotten by the time the days grow shorter and the sun grows weaker. Frost kills most of the tender juicy fruits of summer, yet there are many varieties that still thrive in the colder months.
Apples are the first thing that comes to mind when people think Fall fruit. I’ve eaten many a wild apple on my way to a deer stand, and although they aren’t quite as good as the crisp sweet apples you may find in a farmers orchard, they can easily be cooked down into a delicious apple sauce or dried with some cinnamon for a great hunting snack. Apples also keep for quite some time when in cold storage, which means you don’t have to preserve them right away.
In early Fall, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Paw Paw trees — and if you find a grove, you’ll want to drop a pin and guard the location with your life. Paw Paws are the largest edible fruit trees that are native to North America, and widely sought after by many people. Buying them at a marker will set you back more than a few pennies, as the trees don’t grow everywhere as they used to and the fruit itself is a delicacy. If you do find some Paw Paw trees at the time when they are perfectly ripe, fill your pockets and bag with as many as you can as they are easy to preserve and can be used in many recipes.
On the other side of things, Wild Grapes and Autumn Olive berries are two other fruits but they are literally everywhere. I can’t take a walk in the woods in southern Ohio without seeing both of these plants, and Fall is the time to pick them! Both are best after the first frost, but are certainly edible beforehand. Bring home a bucket or two to make some homemade fruit leather or jelly — just make sure you are identifying them properly as there are several other wild plants that look similar and are toxic.
Lastly, one of the common fruits that are also one of my favorites to gather, is a Persimmon. They have many names, but are best known simply by the name Persimmon or Wild Sugar Plum. They closely resemble plums (hence the name) and are very easy to identify and gather. If you find a tree or two, make sure that they are ripe — an unripe persimmon will make your mouth pucker and leave a bad after taste. You want them to look like they’re rotting, soft wrinkly skin that looks like it’s starting to shrivel. This is usually after the first frost when they can easily be shaken from the tree. Bite in to one of these and they will be deliciously sweet! The pulp can be used for many delicious desserts and jams, and the whole fruits can be easily frozen whole for later use.
If you’re familiar with the fruit, you’ll also know the story of how persimmon seeds are indicative of what type of winter you’ll be having. Remove a seed from the persimmon and split it lengthwise. A “spoon” indicates a shovel; this means a snowy winter. A knife equals cutting wind, and a fork equals a mild winter. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it’s a fun thing to do especially with kids. Lastly — deer love persimmons so if you find a tree you may want to hunt nearby if at all possible!
Whatever game you’re hunting this year, and whatever state you hunt, be sure to keep your eyes open for some non-living food. It truly makes a great meal when you shoot the main course and gather the side dishes!
RECIPE: Persimmon & Hickory Nut cookies
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup butter
- 1 large egg
- 2 cups flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 cup persimmon pulp
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 cup chopped hickory nuts (or walnuts)
- ½ cup white chocolate chips plus additional for drizzling
- Preheat oven to 375
- Cut the top off the persimmon and squeeze the ripe fruit pulp into a measuring cup until it equals one cup.
- Sprinkle with baking soda, set aside.
- Add the sugar, butter and egg to a large mixing bowl. Cream this together until light and fluffy.
- Add the persimmon and mix again.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, cinnamon and salt. Mix the flour mixture into the butter and sugar mixture until well combined.
- Stir in the nuts and white chocolate chips by hand.
- Drop by spoonful onto a greased baking sheet.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes until golden brown. I use a large ice cream scoop and the result is a deliciously chewy cookie with crisp edges.
- Allow to cool completely on wire rack. Drizzle with additional melted white chocolate on cookie tops if desired.