Research before you harvest in B.C.'s edible forests

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      Starting in April, David Lee Kwen keeps a sharp eye out for his “prey” in B.C. forests. His most elusive conquest: the matsutake, or pine mushroom. The fungus grows under fallen needles and rotting leaves, so nothing more than a lump in the forest floor hints at a find. It’s a crusade that’s helped build his thriving Richmond business, Misty Mountain Specialties, over the past 10 years.

      “It makes a walk in the forest an adventure,” he told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “When you see a mushroom, it’s fascinating.”

      Lee Kwen’s mycological quest is part of a thriving B.C. wild-foods movement, which is open to everyone. He noted that, unlike parts of the U.S., this province’s forests are still unregulated, so anyone can harvest mushrooms, berries, maple and birch sap, ostrich fern fiddleheads, and other young shoots on Crown land. The Centre for Non-Timber Resources at Royal Roads University in Victoria will soon release a downloadable harvester’s handbook at to assist locals in discovering forest foods. The program’s goal is to help B.C. develop a forest economy independent of chopping down trees.

      “The time is ripe for it,” Tim Brigham, CNTR’s coordinator of education and capacity building, told the Straight in a phone interview. “With all the talk about the 100-Mile Diet, there’s a good hook.”¦Once you start doing it [looking for wild foods], you see the forest in an entirely new way. It can be a little dangerous, because when I’m driving, I’m always looking over the side of the road to see what might be growing in that patch. It’s amazing, what the forest holds that most of us who live in urban areas have lost touch with.”

      Our forests, he warned, are “in big trouble”. An interest in pursuing a smaller environmental footprint in B.C.’s forests through the responsible harvesting of wild foods, plus a friendship with Royal Roads professor Darcy Mitchell, helped him start the department in the late 1990s. Now, it publishes the booklet “Buy BCwild” (available on-line at and at farmers markets), and will soon come out with the harvester’s handbook.

      Around the time Brigham started the department, author and carpenter Gary Backlund was pursuing his own wild-foods enterprise. He’d always wanted to live in a forest, he told the Straight in a phone interview, so he bought 70 acres on Vancouver Island. Then he needed to figure out how to make it pay for itself. At his Master Woodland Manager course, his instructor brought in a jug of West Coast–made maple syrup.

      “It looked dark,” he recalled, “like it probably tasted like turpentine. But I tried it, and I just flipped. It was just wonderful.”

      He immediately tapped three trees on his property. In a day and a half, he’d harvested 40 litres of sap. He boiled it down, and says he’s “been hooked ever since”. Now, thanks in part to courses he runs, about 70 Vancouver Island–based small syrup producers have started up.

      “It’s all so enjoyable,” Backlund said, noting that he still runs a small sawmill occasionally. “Walking the sugar bush in the morning to see if the sap has flowed, watching it boil [in the yard], and it smells so nice. We’ve added a lot of sugar to our diet! But it really has made cooking fantastic. We add it [sap] to soups and stews, hot chocolate. We even replace the water with it in our bread machine. It just adds that slight hint of maple, and a little sweetness.”

      So far, it doesn’t seem that any Vancouver maple-syrup enterprises have sprung up, but according to Backlund and Brigham, there’s no reason locals couldn’t tap bigleaf maples throughout the Fraser Valley. Harvesting birch syrup, which is booming in the Quesnel region, isn’t a good idea in the Lower Mainland right now, according to George Powell, the agroforestry initiative facilitator with the joint government-industry program, the B.C. Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative. Due to an infestation of the bronze birch borer in local trees, the trees’ health is compromised, and tappers should only source healthy trees. Ordinarily, however, Lower Mainland birch are potential syrup producers.

      Brigham noted that even B.C.’s most adventurous souls should research before they harvest. First, make sure your harvest practice is sustainable. (“Being humans, we can screw it up,” he noted.) Second, some foods—especially mushrooms—can be poisonous. Before you dig in—or even set out—he suggests going on a guided mushroom walk, and arming yourself with a good field guide so you can tell the difference between morels and false morels. Both your palate and the planet will thank you.