From the Forest Floor

Local Foragers Talk Mushrooms and Medicinal Herbs

By Chelsea Risley

Photography By Sarah Unger

Because of Chattanooga’s incredible natural resources and biodiversity, many of the folks who call the Scenic City home are nature lovers, though some take that passion to the next level by foraging for edible mushrooms, berries, and other plants in the wild. Here, six locals share their excitement, wonder, and satisfaction that comes from foraging, plus offer a few tips for beginners.

Amy Foster

Deep curiosity and love for nature is rooted in Amy Foster’s childhood. Her father was a walking field guide, as she puts it, and she learned to value and appreciate plants from him. “There are so many places around Chattanooga that are so diverse. I mean, people drive hours to see that stuff, and it’s right here for us, so we’re kind of spoiled,” she says. 

This unique plant diversity is part of why she loves foraging and encourages others to enjoy “the food and medicine available at our fingertips.” When you learn more about the things growing around you, you become invested in the place where you live, and “you really make sure you’re protecting it,” Foster explains. This intention has led Foster to her business, Healing Sun Plantscapes, where she does creative, ethical, and sustainable landscaping, which includes a lot of invasive plant removal. She’s also working in partnership with Rosy Harpe of WaterWays to restore and rescue native plants. 

Foster discovered the local foraging community where she’s made some of her closest friends very organically. She had been foraging on her own in the area when she met Matt Shigekawa while working at Whole Foods. “He came up to me and said, ‘I’m looking for a beer and cheese to go with this mushroom,’” she recalls. “I found [Matt], and it was just history.” 

Her advice to newcomers is to be respectful of other people’s territories and even recommends using an app to be aware of property lines when you’re in the woods. Foster also reminds beginners to learn the ethics of foraging to avoid overharvesting. Additionally, researching anything you’re planning to eat is very important – knowing a plant is edible isn’t enough to ensure your safety. “With watercress, it’s like a filter for water. You have to test the water; you can’t just go and pull it out – you’ll end up with all kinds of stuff from the water,” Foster explains. 

“A wise man once said, ‘It’s a very good day when you learn something and a bad day when you don’t.’ I’ve always loved that, and you’re just constantly learning with all these micro ecosystems – it’s mindboggling in a good way,” Foster shares. 

Favorites From the Forest Floor

“Pesto made from purple dead nettles, forsythia tea with local honey, and pasta with Lion’s Mane mushrooms in cream sauce.”

 

Matt Shigekawa

Sometimes a lifelong foraging practice stems from simple curiosity. Matt Shigekawa and his youngest son were hiking when they noticed an odd white mushroom. When they returned a few days later, they saw it had unfurled into a vibrant orange flower shape. When Shigekawa learned from a friend that it was actually an edible Laetiporus cincinnatus, or a chicken of the woods, he was hooked. “The idea of finding food in the forest was wildly attractive to me, and thus began the count to see how many wild-foraged mushrooms I could find, correctly identify, and safely eat.”

Part of the enjoyment of foraging is “the thrill of the chase,” as Shigekawa puts it, but he also enjoys the magic of time spent in the forest alone or with his fiancée. “To see any type of mushroom is like treasure at the end of the rainbow,” he shares. “It’s almost like a reward from the earth itself, saying, ‘Thanks for spending time with me and helping to keep me clean.’” 

While Shigekawa definitely has respect for deadly fungi and recommends admiring those from a distance, he says that he tends to stick to foraging for mushrooms that have few look-alikes to avoid any mishaps. Though he focuses his efforts on what he knows will taste delicious, Shigekawa continues to learn more about the long list of vitamins and nutrients to be found in edible fungi. He also appreciates the positive impact foraging for forest food has on the environment. He believes the practice “not only feeds the forager, but also the forest, by dropping [mushroom] spores along the way and further feeding the mycelium beneath the surface.” 

He advocates for learning with experienced foragers in the local community and cross-referencing with multiple guidebooks to make sure you can safely consume your finds. Not only has Shigekawa made friends in the local and online foraging community, he also occasionally takes friends out on their first foraging trips – when he isn’t writing, performing, and recording music with his band Shiggy, that is. “I really love seeing them light up when they find their first edible mushrooms, whichever we may be hunting that day,” he shares.

Favorites From the Forest Floor

“Pan-seared scallops with sautéed morels, wild violets, and watercress.”

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Meagan Stone

Meagan Stone began foraging when she was little, wandering the woods looking for things to use in her “experiments.” As she grew older, she carried her love of plants into her career, studying aromatherapy and plant oils for her massage therapy practice and eventually beginning her formal studies in plant medicine. “It makes me feel empowered to collect and create my own remedies and meals from the land around me. Plus, it’s amazing to be able to share that knowledge with my community,” she says. 

Stone finds a lot of joy and beauty in the outdoors, which really shines through when she describes some of her first foraging trips searching for mushrooms along the Appalachian Trail. “It was so exciting – the mica in the dirt made it sparkle, and the trees were full of luscious moss and ferns,” she recounts. One of her most exciting finds was the endangered Georgia trillium in her friend’s backyard. “It was in full bloom as well,” she says. “It was a beautiful sight to see.” 

Though many people think foraging is dangerous and difficult, Stone emphasizes that with a little education and a good guide, anyone can do it. She recommends learning how to identify poisonous plants in your area. “Beginning with what you shouldn’t consume makes the whole process a lot more relaxing,” she says. It’s also useful to find out if any of the invasive species in your area are edible or medicinal so you can forage freely without worrying about taking too much, plus help remove an invasive species. You’ll also want to learn about the endangered species in your area so that you can be on the lookout and help protect them, Stone recommends. She notes that kids are often the best foragers and herbalists, because “they are inquisitive and have keen eyes. Once they know a plant, they begin to see it everywhere and show the adults.”

Stone leads public plant walks and teaches classes at several venues in the area, including Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, as well as offers private plant walks to teach folks about the plants on their own property. “I enjoy seeing the inspiration light up in people’s eyes when they find out how useful a weed from their yard is.” 

Favorites From the Forest Floor

“I love to make teas and tinctures out of my herbal goodies, though I have been known to just eat them!”

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Taylor Hinton-Ridling

Foraging is often a natural extension of a general love of the outdoors, and is perhaps even inevitable, as Taylor Hinton-Ridling put it. She and her wife both enjoy wandering in the woods and learning wilderness skills, so they learned “everything from animal print tracking to archery bow-making in our 20s,” she explains, including foraging. Hinton-Ridling says it “feels like play and prayer at the same time,” and it’s a great way to get exercise, enjoy solitude, learn about regional ecology, and hone practical outdoor skills.

She got started foraging on her own, but soon began taking classes and learning from herbalists to sharpen her identification skills. Her most exciting find was on her own property when she discovered her first maitake, or hen-of-the-woods. “The name means ‘dancing mushroom’ in Japanese because people danced with happiness upon finding it in the wild – and that was certainly my reaction! I celebrated by making a big Southern-style lunch with the mushrooms prepared like fried chicken,” she recalls.

In terms of the local foraging community, Hinton-Ridling has connected with people of all ages and experience levels by attending conferences, classes, and clubs. “Everyone is so willing to share knowledge, access, and excess,” she enthuses, and this helps build her confidence when she goes out on her own. “I like to go out with my wife; it feels safer being off the beaten path when we’re together. Plus, she’s really good at spotting mushrooms and hypes me up when I know the Latin binomial,” she shares.

According to Hinton-Ridling, foraging is sustainable not only because it produces less waste and is a departure from consumer culture, but because it reminds people that they are connected to the earth, which fosters a desire to protect wild spaces and vulnerable species. This connection to nature is also spiritual for Hinton-Ridling. “The first thing I notice on a walk has often been the ‘medicine’ that I or a loved one needed – pipsissewa for bladder issues, ground ivy for an ear infection, peach leaves for morning sickness. There’s a real mystery to this practice that is beyond textbooks,” she shares.

Hinton-Ridling encourages people who are interested in these ideas but don’t find eating weeds appealing to try wilding their landscapes with bee-friendly native plants like Cumberland rosemary, mountain mint, and coneflower. 

Favorites From the Forest Floor

“Medicinal tinctures and oils, sun teas, or sumac lemonade. I also make cyanotype photograms, a kind of botanical artwork.”

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Erik Hancock

For Erik Hancock, an interest in foraging grew naturally from the fondness for gardening and growing his own food that he’s held since he was young. Besides the benefits of delicious treats, he also enjoys the increased awareness he’s gained from the practice. “It forces you to constantly be more observant and cognizant of the natural world around you,” he says. “There is also something primally enjoyable about safely collecting and consuming your own food.” Hancock is passionate about sustainability in all areas of his life, saying, “It would be hard to find a more sustainable practice than eating wild food that grows naturally around you.” 

Hancock’s first foray into foraging was in combination with a paddling trip, where he and the others in the group paused at several locations along the river to search for mushrooms. He found it thrilling to end up with a bag of mushrooms at the end of the trip. He’s learned that folks who enjoy foraging also typically enjoy other outdoor adventures. He explains, “Often-times, we will enjoy a mountain bike ride, paddle, or climb as we also spend time foraging. It’s delightful!” Though Hancock got started foraging with friends and has had many kind mentors, he prefers to go out alone to appreciate the solitude of the woods. 

If foraging interests you, Hancock believes the best place to get started is to find experts who have the resources and hyper-local knowledge about what grows where that will “help you get started on this lifelong journey,” he says. He recently taught a class on mushroom foraging at Outdoor Chattanooga in partnership with Gowin Valley Farms, a Wild Mushroom Food Safety-Certified mushroom farm in Rocky Face, Georgia. Other area farms and organizations offer foraging classes that would be a good place to start your education. 

Hancock cautioned beginners with the old adage: “There are old foragers, and there are bold foragers. There is no overlap between the two.” Besides learning from experts, his main advice to those with a burgeoning interest in finding their food in the forest is to be cautious and go slow, but remember to have fun. 

Favorites From the Forest Floor

“All kinds of delicious and nutritious meals! A personal favorite is using Lion’s Mane or similar varieties as a subsitute for crab meat.”

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Michelle Neubel

Michelle Neubel also became interested in foraging by studying the environment directly around her – specifically, the dandelions in her parents’ yard. She began using the dandelion blossoms and roots for stir fry and herbal teas. From there, her interest bloomed into an intensive study of herbalism on her own. Neubel explains that one of the things she loves most about foraging is getting the full picture of the environment. “I love noticing the ecosystem of the plants’ natural habitat and being able to use most of my senses to identify each plant,” she says.

Once she familiarized herself with the native and invasive species in the region, she began learning how to use the plants for culinary and medicinal purposes. She also started going on hiking excursions with the local forest rangers in national parks and taking classes from other herbalists, mycologists, and botanists. One of her first foraging trips was with a group at Stringer’s Ridge where they found a Lion’s Mane mycelium. 

There are many health benefits of foraging for food or medicinal herbs. As Neubel explains, “You receive a different composition of minerals and vitamins from the humic acids of the earth in an uncultivated growth area than you would from regular farmed land sources.” This means you’ll get more diverse and well-rounded nutrients. 

Another significant benefit of foraging is the community you build while learning and going out on trips. As Neubel puts it, “It has been a blessing to have built true friendships with those who study fungi as well as other herbalists, gardeners, culinary artists, bird lovers, naturalists, and environmentalists.” Many folks interested in foraging are lovers of the outdoors and are eager to share their love with others. “They want to share their experiences of the peace and medicine of nature with their families, learning how to reset their beings and how we all fit in as part of the earth.” 

Neubel certainly falls into this category and enjoys sharing her enjoyment and knowledge of foraging with others. She leads medicinal plant walks at Audubon Acres that include a hike where participants learn how to identify medicinal plants as well as a medicinal tea-making workshop. 

Favorites From the Forest Floor

“Herbal teas, sautéed vegetable medleys, and salads.”

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