Seaweed Foraging

Kelly and I took a trip up to San Francisco over New Years to see relatives. While up there we were lucky enough to attend a seaweed foraging class with ForageSF that took place north of Bodega Bay.

Foraging for seaweed is a lot simpler than my recent, rekindled interest in edible mushrooms. In California there are no poisonous seaweeds, just ones that taste better than others. In this class we focused on Kombu, Laminaria setchellii a California version of the closely related seaweed that the Japanese harvest (Kombu is just the Japanese word for kelp). You can use Kombu in Japanese recipes, as a flavoring in soups and stews, as well as a substitute for Beano.

To conveniently harvest Kombu you need three things:

  • Unpolluted water
  • A rocky beach
  • Ultra-low tide (so called “negative” tide)

You also need to learn to distinguish between “true” Kombu (Laminaria setchellii) and “false” Kombu (Pterygophora californica). [Editors note: I’m not 100% sure of the scientific names in this post so please correct me if I’ve got this wrong] False Kombu looks like a palm frond and is tasteless. They both tend to grow together.

Responsible harvesting means cutting no more than a quarter of the leaf like structure of the Kombu, leaving around an inch at the base of the cut for the kelp to regrow.

Seaweed begins rotting almost immediately after harvesting so you’ll need to start the drying process immediately. Before drying you need to wash the seaweed. Purists do this in the ocean. We didn’t have time for this so we did it at home. The disadvantage is that fresh water will dissolve seaweed so you have to work quickly and start the drying immediately. Drying can be done in the sun, on a dashboard, in a dehydrator or in an oven at the lowest setting. As it was dark and cold by the time we got home we used Kelly’s step mom’s oven.

Our very small Kombu haul dried and ready to use.

You should only harvest what you have space and time to dry within 24 hours after harvesting–the sooner the better. It’s legal in California to harvest up to 10 pounds of seaweed for personal use without a permit but you’ll probably want to harvest considerably less than this as scampering over the rocks, hauling it all back and processing it is exhausting work. It would be easiest to divide duties between a group of people if possible.

Our choice of footwear, loose fitting rubber boots used in construction work, was not up to the task. The best option would probably be a wetsuit. The water is cold, the rocks jagged, and you’ll want to also step around carefully so as not to kill starfish, anemone or one of the many other lifeforms that inhabit the shore.

In addition to Kombu we also encountered Bladderwrack Fucus distichus, the tips of which can be used in salads and a few other seaweeds. We hope to come back in the summer when you can find Nori.

The beach we were at also had enormous mussel beds. If I ever get around to attempting this I’ll blog about it but, from my initial research, mussel harvesting seems simple (leave a comment if you’ve done mussel or other shellfish harvesting). You just need a fishing license, a scale, a bucket and gloves. You’ll also need to check in with the state’s shellfish advisory website or hotline (1-800-553-4133) to avoid biotoxins that can be present in mussels at any time of the year but especially during the summer months. I should note that an unfortunate trend of irresponsible tide pool harvesting got going during the pandemic as reported by the LA Times.

Back to seaweed. Here’s a few resources:

California Native Plant Society article (pdf) on California Seaweeds
Fin + Forage Kelp Identification guide
A guide to brown seaweeds
The sea forager’s guide to the Northern California coast by Kirk Lombard and Leighton Kelly (has a short section on seaweed)
LA Times article on seaweed foraging in Southern California (I’ll note that I’ve heard conflicting information on whether SoCal beaches are too polluted to harvest seaweed)

Chicken of the Woods 2021

We begin this post with a disclaimer. The very last thing you should do is act on edible mushroom foraging advice from this particular blogger. That said, we enjoyed two delicious meals of chicken of the woods mushrooms this week thanks to friend of the blog Lee. And, yes, it really does have both the taste and texture of chicken.

Back in 2019 Lee alerted us to a secret stash growing on one of LA’s many carob trees. Our 2021 harvest was on another carob tree, this time on Lee’s compound.

In the two years since that first harvest I’ve learned a few things about the edibility of this mushroom. You need to cook the mushroom thoroughly or nausea and vomiting can result. It’s also good to harvest on the young side as the older specimens are tough and can cause stomach upset. You also need to avoid specimens growing on conifers or eucalyptus trees. I’d advise eating a small amount first and seeing how you do. We consumed copious quantities of it with no ill effect.

Recent research has shown that what was once thought of as one species of chicken of the woods in North America is, in fact, a complex of species. Here in the west we have Laetiporus gilbertsonii.

Here’s some good photos showing Laetiporus gilbertsonii at various stages.

Note that should this mushroom show up on one of your trees you’ll want to hire an arborist as this fungus can cause serious structural problems. On the plus side you’ll have many gourmet meals.

To review, eat the young growth, cook well and know the species of tree you’re harvesting from and you should be fine. Chicken of the woods is sort of a gateway to edible mushroom foraging as it’s one of the easiest wild mushrooms to identify. The only problem you’ll have is what to do with the many pounds of delicious bounty that will appear, I guarantee you, when you’ve got other stuff to do.

Chicken of the Woods

Am I the only person confused by mushroom taxonomy? Root Simple friend, Brother Lee, let us in on a well kept secret stash of delicious Chicken of the Woods mushrooms growing out of a diseased carob tree in a easily accessible public location. Figuring out the scientific name of this particular mushroom has proven a lot more complicated than harvesting.

Chicken of the Woods is listed in Clyde Christensen’s 1943 “Foolproof Four,” easily identifiable edible mushrooms that lack poisonous look-alikes which also includes Puffballs, Morels and Shaggy Mane. Alas, life is more complex and this “foolproof” list has changed over the years as lookalikes were found and DNA testing complicated the mushroom family tree.

In the case of Chicken of the Woods it turns out that what was once considered one species, Laetiporus, might actually be five or six. From what I can tell on the interwebs all are edible but some are associated with nausea in some people. Some mushroom pundits caution against eating Laetiporus found growing on conifers or eucalyptus. The very same mushroom pundits suggest thoroughly cooking all Laetiporus. I can report having consumed a lot of the mushroom we foraged with no ill effects. It was, in fact, one of the most delicious mushrooms I’ve ever consumed. But one should not trust the musings of an aging urban homesteading blogger when foraging for mushrooms. Find yourself a local mushroom nerd or run it past your cats.

That said, don’t be too fearful either or you’ll miss out on a free source of gourmet food. Chicken of the Woods is distinctive and still considered one of the easier mushrooms to identify. And, yes, it really does taste like chicken.

133 Trees of Power with Akiva Silver

On this 133rd episode of the Root Simple podcast Kelly and I talk to Akiva Silver of Twisted Tree Farm, described in his author bio as a “homestead, nut orchard and nursery located in Spencer, New York where he grows around 20,000 trees a year using practices that go beyond organic.” Akiva’s background is in “foraging, wilderness survival and primitive skills.” He is also the author of Trees of Power: Ten Essential Arboreal Allies (Amazon, library) just published by Chelsea Green. In our conversation we discuss how trees could replace a lot of the staple crops in our diet. During the podcast we also rap about:

  • J. Russel Smith Tree Crops (Free download on Archive.org)
  • Kat Anderson Tending the Wild
  • Mulch, soil and water
  • Processing acorns
  • Exotics vs. natives – should we learn to love the invasives?
  • Tree of heaven!
  • Coppicing and pollarding
  • Arborist fails and #arboristfails
  • How to plant trees

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

The Virtues of Gerard’s Herbal

That last bastion of sanity on the internets, Archive.org, hosts a copy of John Gerard’s 16th century bestselling foraging manual, The Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plantes. I’ve embeddified it as an alternative to spending an evening staring at the Netflix browse menu or as an opportunity for workplace dinkering.

Here’s how the University of Virginia describes it,

Gerard was superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, advisor to Queen Elizabeth. Gerard was one of the most respected plant experts of his time, but, strangely, he was not the primary author of the famous herbal that bears his name. Except for the additions of several plants from his own garden and from North America, Gerard’s herbal is simply an English translation of Dutch scholar Rembert Dodoen’s highly popular herbal of 1554.

I appreciate Gerard’s (Dodoen’s?) Herbal for two reasons, first the beautiful illustrations but principally for one word that Gerard uses. Where a modern plant guide would have a section devoted to the “uses” of a particular plant, Gerard uses the word “virtue” instead. I propose a revival of this word when we speak of plants.

“Use,” like so many other things in our culture, is far too utilitarian. Speaking of the “uses” of plants reminds me of a professor in my music department who, when arriving at a party, asked the department secretary, “who’s the most powerful person in this room?” so that he would not have to “waste” his time with simply enjoying the company of other people.

Speaking of the “virtues” of plants seems much more civilized.