The Middlebury Campus

Science Spotlight: The Foraging Club

By Toby Aicher

A walk in the woods with a forager reveals all the neglected treats. As Jake Faber ’16 strolls along the forest floor he scans the undergrowth looking for edible plants and mushrooms. He lets loose a victorious cry, strides over to a small tuft of weeds, and takes a handful.

“This,” he explains, “is a wood sorrel. It tastes good, kind of like a lemon, and is used as flavoring. Try a little, although not too much because the oxalic acid in it can be poisonous in large quantities. You would have to eat a lot of it though.” I eye it, take a bite, and decide to pick some to munch on later.

Foraging is a growing trend in the U.S. and Faber and Aiofe Duna ’16.5, co-founders of the Foraging Club, are trying to introduce it to the College. Foraging is the act of searching for wild plants, fungi and fruit to consume. The idea for the club started last spring semester in a conversation between the two.

“Aiofe and I found out we were both really interested in foraging,” Faber said, “and when we started talking about it we heard there were a lot of other people on campus who thought that it sounded cool and wanted to learn about it, but were afraid to try it because they didn’t now enough to avoid things that would poison them.”

The two then decided to create a group where students could learn to safely identify and collect wild mushrooms and plants. The club plans on holding expeditions into Middlebury’s surrounding woods for a hands on foraging experience, as well as inviting guest professional lecturers on campus to speak and hold workshops.

Duna and Faber thought students would be interested in foraging on a number of levels. For starters, it’s a valuable survivalist skill. If you ever find yourself lost in the woods, you don’t want to end up like Alex Supertramp and eat a handful of poisonous seeds. And, however unlikely it is to find oneself in such a rough situation, people still enjoy being prepared for the worst and knowing they could do what survivor man does. On another level, it brings a heightened appreciation and understanding of nature.

“There’s the survivalist aspect,” Faber said. “But I think practically it’s something that gets people to become more aware of what’s going on around them in the forest. It changes how people view the landscape. There’s a lot going on in it.”

Foraging is also a nice way to apply the knowledge learned in the class to one of the most fundamental of personal concerns, hunger.

“If you understand the basics of ecology and plant biology,” Faber said, “you can apply it and make it more relevant. A lot of people are turned off by that sort of memorization because they think it’s tedious and abstract, but if you can apply it to something tangible it brings a sense of fulfillment.”

Foraging also taps into the same well of inspiration as the organic farm and Weybridge house, the effort to build a more personal connection to the food we consume.

But foraging also has a darker side. Many plants and fungi have evolved toxins to fight off predators, and some pose health concerns to humans. Faber is well aware of the health threats, and plans to safely avoid anything dangerous.

“The two biggest [concerns] ,” Faber explained, “are the Jack O’Lantern and the destroying angel. They are both very toxic, and look sort of similar to two edible mushrooms that some more advanced foragers try to eat…” Instead, Jake and Aiofe have made up a list of eight safe mushrooms safe for consumption that have little to no chance of being mixed up with other mushrooms.

“Morels, chicken of the woods, lions mane, hedgehog, puff ball, and lobster,” Faber said, listing off the safest mushrooms. “Each of those is pretty easily distinguishable; none of them have look-a-likes that are really dangerous or inedible. Each of them has particular characteristics that give them away, so that as long as you teach someone to look for that one thing they can determine what it is.”

It was this concern for safety that led the club to be initially rejected by the club committee last year.

“The approval process for us is slightly more difficult than other clubs, because foraging has risks that are associated,” Faber said, “So we need to work with risk management before we can officially go out and do activities, so right now we are reworking our constitution that will hopefully allow us to start doing things pretty quickly before the fall foraging season ends.”

The Foraging Club hopes to get approval, because not only is it a fulfilling activity but it is important to spur on interest in a neglected, important scientific field. The fungi kingdom is not only the most diverse in the animal kingdom, but it is also one of the least understood. The fungi kingdom has given us penicillin and many other useful drugs. While the Foraging Club might not find the cure to cancer, it would raise awareness of this often-neglected kingdom of life.

Faber and Duna hope to gain official approval sometime this Fall and start leading expeditions as soon as possible. To contact them to express interest head over to their website, go/shroomsquad.

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