By Liz Glass
Herbal medicine has begun its resurgence in the modern media world, whether you see it on TikTok or YouTube or elsewhere. Humans, over the course of fifty to a hundred years, have slowly forgotten about the roots of medicine that our Mother Earth can provide for us. Beginning with the boom of the industrial revolution, and continuing on into the second boom of mass consumerism in the fifties, humans have been blessed with the luxury of modernity. This was an amazing breakthrough to better our everyday lives – from the creation of cars to the evolution of modern medicine, the quality of life for us has vastly improved. However, we have forgotten the value of the practice of herbalism. So, in short, this is a Noob’s Guide to Foraging. Herbalism, foraging, it’s practically the same thing. This is a beginner’s guide to doing so. We will be directing our focus on plants and fungi that grow in the Midwest, but particularly Illinois, just so we get a realistic, close-to-home perspective on the act of foraging, so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.
Illinois definitely has hidden beauties throughout it. Whether it be flowers or fauna, despite being lost in a sea of cornfields, there’s hidden gems within this state. To start, the fungi that grows within Illinois is usually not too hard to identify, and you may realize some of these mushrooms are quite popular because of the evangelization of health benefits that is spread on social media.
Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)
To start off strong, let’s talk about Lion’s Mane. This hearty mushroom’s appearance is very hairy and club-shaped, with a white-yellowish pigment. The Lion’s Mane is especially efficient in cognitive function and neurological health. Many people describe its taste when cooked and/or sauteed as ‘crab meat’ or other seafood. The Lion’s Mane is labeled as a ‘functional mushroom,’ because it is not only safe to eat, but it is jam-packed with nutrition. Nootropics are included in this funny fungi, which are a type of compound found in the brain that works as a protective coating and supports cognitive function. Many studies have concluded that a supplement of this shroom helps in neurological regeneration, as found in lab rats, and it seems that with continued consumption in humans, it reveals the same benefits. This is another big reason why a lot of people recommend this shroom to patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Studies in Japan have found that these patients, when given 3000mg of dried Lion’s Mane powder daily, had significantly improved cognitive function – unlike those approached with a placebo. What is amazing is that once the supplements stopped, the cognitive function vastly declined. Antioxidants are found in Lion’s Mane and have anti-inflammatory properties. The antioxidants help neutralize free radicals whilst the anti-inflammatory portion promotes healing in the body – counteracting tissue damage caused from oxidative stress.
Immune support is another benefit that comes with this hefty, healthy shroom. To further this explanation, this means that the Lion’s Mane includes a bunch of crazy phytochemicals called polysaccharides, which help support immune health in vast ways, like healthy gut flora. Another benefit with these little guys is that they neutralize the gut biome in a sense – so that the gut doesn’t overreact and its whole system is modulated.
Giant Puffball Mushroom (Calvatia gigantea)
The Giant Puffball most definitely lives up to its name, and it is extremely easy to identify due to its sheer size and unique look. The Puffball is a big, white round mushroom that can grow one foot in overall size. This cuddly shroom must be cut up, however, in order to fit it in the fridge, due to its sheer size. Preparation of this shroom to be eaten must be taken into top
priority, because Puffballs essentially operate like a hunk of meat – if you don’t refrigerate them quickly, they will spoil and smell horrendous.
Always be sure to look under the Puffball and in it when cutting. Make sure it is a nice white. If it is yellow or greenish, this means it is too old and has spoiled. A nice, steady white on the inside of the shroom when cut is healthy to eat. However, if there are bugs on the inside, a more thorough inspection is needed to make sure there is no larvae or worm tunneling going on. If so, it may not be safe. However, if it’s only on a portion of the shroom, it is okay to cut that part off and eat the rest.
While there are not many deadly look-alikes to the Puffball, it is worthy to note them. Do not pick any that are black on the inside when cut or brown and textured on the outside. These are poisonous Pigskin Earthballs, and they are most definitely fatal. Do not pick any small, egg-shaped ones that show undeveloped gills and cap when cut – these are deadly amanita buttons, and they usually aren’t a solid white but instead a wet-looking yellowish gill on the inside.
The nutritional benefits of the Puffball mushroom are pretty solid. They are chock-full of protein – which explains the previous comment before, stating they operate like a hunk of meat! They are also very filling, making a good weight loss addition to your diet if this is your goal. They are also great for the immune system, can lower cholesterol and are good for the cardiovascular system. Puffballs also have what is called calvacin, which scientists believe is known to be anti-tumor and anti-cancer properties. Puffballs can also be used to treat hemorrhaging and various bleeding. They have a mildly nutty, but earthy taste. They are very versatile in cooking because they tend to soak up the taste of anything it is cooked with. They can be boiled, baked, roasted, fried, or sauteed. However, the rind tends to upset some people’s stomachs, so
removing this wouldn’t hurt in the process of cooking with any Puffball.
Shaggy Mane (Coprinous comatus)
Shaggy Mane mushrooms are definitely an odd looking mushroom. You can easily identify them by their name – their cap layers are shaggy, similar to hair or frilling parchment with a tan or reddish-brown color. The caps are more conical, and the flesh of the cap is easy to damage. The gills under the cap will start out white, but turn black and gooey with age. Now, don’t let this fact intimidate you – this is what’s known as auto-digestion, which many mushrooms tend to do with the natural aging process. This also gives a reason to the name the Shaggy Mane may also inherit, the ‘ink cap.’ Perfectly edible and nutritious, the Shaggy Mane only has one potentially fatal look alike, which is known as the Alcohol Inky. Why do they call them this, you ask? Well, firstly to identify this shroom – they are not shaggy on the caps. Secondly, if you consume alcohol with this particular cousin to the Shaggy, the shroom acts as a poison to the body. It does not mix well with alcohol, therefore the name – and the symptoms when ingesting this include face reddening, nausea, vomiting, palpitations, limb tingles, and even a heart attack in cases where the person continues to consume alcohol.
The health benefits of this mushroom are immense. Studies have shown that the Shaggy Mane can inhibit gastric tumor growth and the ability for cancer cells to colonize within the body. In other words – it stops the cancer cells and other deadly growths in their tracks!
This shroom also contains antioxidants, is antimicrobial, includes fatty acids, protein, B and C vitamins, and polysaccharides, which we covered earlier with the Lion’s Mane. Many studies have also shown that the Shaggy Mane can halt unwanted weight gain and regulate blood sugar levels. To cook the Shaggy Mane mushroom is pretty straightforward – like the Puffball, it is suggested due diligence with cooking them, as they begin the self-digesting process and if you aren’t quick you will be left with an inky, gooey mess. You can cook them and freeze them to use in later dishes – maybe sautee or use in a hearty soup. When fresh from the ground, their taste is a nice and subtle earthy flavor. However, the taste is often lost when cooked with other things that have a distinct and strong flavor. But not to worry – the nutritional benefits are not lost in the process!