Giant Hogweed – don’t fall for the hype


Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is a plant in the family Apiaceae. This is the Carrot and Celery family, sometimes known as the Umbellifers. Most of you will probably be familiar with Queen Anne’s Lace / Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) as being a common weed in suburban gardens, I know I’m continually weeding it out of my flower beds.


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ID sheet, Giant Hogweed height comparison, stem markings, and colony on a riverbank.


Giant Hogweed was introduced to the USA from Asia as a garden ornamental, prized for its size and architectural form. It is now semi-established in the wild in a number of states, although it is still not widespread as it is in Europe.

Many of you may have seen reports recently that “Hogweed can cause 3rd degree burns and permanent blindness”. E.g.

Before I get into why I think such reports are overhyped, lets talk about why Hogweed can be dangerous. Many plants in the Apiaceae (and some plants in the Fabaceae etc) contain a group of chemicals known as Furanocoumarins. These can, when applied to the skin cause what is known as Phytophotodermatitis. Put simply it greatly inhibits the skins ability to block sunlight, thus resulting in what is essentially very bad sunburn.

OK, so now we know what the issue is, lets go over why I think the fearmongering around this plant is a bad idea, and why the dangers have been over hyped.


Hogweed is not the only plant that causes these issues.


Giant Hogweed is one of several member of the Apiaceae which can occur in the wild in the USA which contain significant levels of Furanocoumarins. Most commonly you will hear about Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) which has similar levels of the chemical, and can cause burns. This plant is super abundant, occurs across a wide range, and grows to a height that is easy to come into contact with when hiking in shorts for example. In fact I have known gardeners to develop rashes of this nature from garden planted parsnips.

wild parsnip

Wild Parsnip – Also phototoxic.



It’s very uncommon.


Giant Hogweed occurs in less than a 3rd of states, and in most states it is confined to a few locations in one or a handful of counties. In the state in which I live, Wisconsin, there are few records, and it is limited to 6 out of our 72 counties. It is of course entirely absent from some areas such as the great plains and the south.

Having grown up in the UK, where the plant is much, much more common, I have to say I have not once spotted it in my travels in the USA so far, and I am very familiar with it so it would be immediately apparent. In the UK I would encounter it regularly, and even then reported cases of exposure were rare.

The chances of you coming across it are very low, and the chances of you being accidentally exposed even less so.

If you think you’ve found Giant Hogweed, it’s most likely it’s native relative Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum).


The map is slightly outdated, but is fairly close to the current picture, and shows that it is not very widespread. In many of those counties it has only been found in 1 location.



It’s generally not THAT bad.


Whilst it’s undoubtedly true that the plant in question can in some cases cause significant injury, there are few cases of severe burns causing lasting damage, and most severe exposure comes from people attempting to clear the plant by hand, or by using mowers or weed whackers on it which will cause more sap to fly around and land on skin etc.

Most cases of exposure, such as rubbing against the plant whilst walking will cause rashes similar to Wild parsnip, which as we have discussed is far more commonly encountered.

If you are exposed, recognizing the plant can allow you to wash off any sap asap and apply sunscreen to the area which can help prevent or mitigate any symptoms.

It is also worth noting that many garden plants can cause skin irritation, or are extremely poisonous if ingested, and pose more of a risk to human health than a rare, wild plant.


It’s not going to make you go blind


I have not encountered any actual case where someone has been blinded by sap from Giant Hogweed. Is it theoretically possible? Erm I guess, maybe, if you took a bunch of it, mashed it up and rubbed it in your eyes and left it there, sure, maybe. But the same would be true of, I don’t know, most things in your house, and sand, glass etc.

Hey kids, don’t rub weird plant juice (or anything) in your eyes and you’ll be good.




Its colossal size makes it easy to identify.


Many people at the moment are mistaking all sorts of similar looking plants for Giant Hogweed, caused by the panic from such articles linked above. However its very easy to recognize the plant by its sheer scale. It is twice as tall as its nearest look alike with leaves twice as big or more. The same is true for stem thickness and flower size etc.

If you come across a 10-15ft tall plant that looks like it landed here from another world, are you going to go and rub it all over yourself? I didn’t think so.


Hogweed 10+ feet tall with leaves 3+ feet long.

The panic is damaging the environment. 


This is a very real problem. Before I moved to the states I had been battling the Hogweed hysteria in the UK for a number of years. In that time I have personally, and by way of the internet foraging/plant groups, seen numerous occasions where valuable and important native plants, which bear passing resemblance to Giant Hogweed being pulled out, mown down, or poisoned with chemicals because of mistaken identity. Indeed even where Hogweed itself is sprayed it will poison other native plants in the area.


Spraying Hogweed with herbicide, note the other native plants in the foreground.


The fact that most people have very little plant knowledge, coupled with some of the similarities of many plants in this genus make the problem worse. On top of that with the plant being so uncommon in the USA most Americans have no personal experience with the plant and hence are bad at identifying it.

This is borne out by a recent post originating from the Virginia DNR citing the presence of Giant Hogweed at a particular park in their state. The photo that accompanied the message was of the native and ecologically important Cow Parsnip, and not Giant Hogweed. When a DNR can’t even get it right, it’s easy to see how misinformation is easily spread.


In summary

In summary, Giant Hogweed is really no more dangerous than any number of other plants, and you are far less likely to ever encounter it.

As with all things in the media there is a lot of hype, and a little bit of hysteria, theres a little bit of the “immigrant plants coming over here burning our kids” going on.

Rather than creating more panic, simply take some time to become more familiar with plants in this family, and avoid contact with them on sunny days if you are concerned.

I would also advise wearing long pants when hiking. Not only will this protect you from low growing Wild Parsnip and Poison Ivy etc, It will also help keep ticks from biting you, which are a far more dangerous issue than any wild plant I care to mention.

If you think you have found giant hogweed, feel free to email me at and I can confirm or correct the ID from a photograph.

Thanks for reading, stay safe and happy foraging!

Matthew Normansell

Eden Wild Food






These 7 Plants Can Ruin Your Day

A walk in the woods is good for your health, but interacting with these 7 plants can turn your fun day out into anything from a sore butt to a stay in the morgue.

This article includes a few of the most common hazardous wild plants you may comes across in the USA. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list and does not include some common toxic plants.

Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)

This plant is essentially the wild version of your friendly cultivated garden parsnip you might find in the store. It is an introduced species from Europe, being common in most states of the US although absent in the far South East. It is a plant of medium height, with a yellow umbel flower and pinnate leaf structure, images below for reference.

The problem comes not from the plant itself being toxic to eat, in fact as you may expect the roots of wild parsnip are edible and delicious, just like their cultivated version, the issue arises from the plants phototoxic sap.

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(Who said vegetables were healthy, this one can send you to the burns ward!)

Wild Parsip is a member of the Apiaceae genus of plants (the Carrot and Celery family)  Most of this family contain some levels of Furanocoumarins, chemical compounds which are designed to deter insects and small mammals from consuming them. Wild Parsnip, Giant Hogweed and several others have noticeably high enough levels to cause potential serious injury.

In humans Furanocoumarins can cause extreme skin photosensitivity, a condition known as Phytophotodermatitis. This negates the Melanin in your skins ability to protect you from ultraviolet light, causing rashes and blisters, which are in essence really bad sunburn.

When coming into contact with Wild Parsnip, wear gloves, long pants and sleeves and avoid getting the sap on your skin. If you do get exposed wash the area with soap and water and stay out of the sun as much as possible until you are sure there is no reaction. If you experience burns, cover up, stay out of strong sun and you can use creams and lotions to sooth the burned area.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis)

Lily of the Valley is a herbaceous perennial of shady woodland. You may be familiar with the distinctive flowers and smell from commercial floral arrangements.

lily of the valley

(Toxic Lily of the Valley – As seen at your local Home depot plants section)

Most cases of suspected poisonings arise in spring when the plant is mistaken for one of the foragers favourites, Ramps (Wild Leeks), as the plants have similar shapes leaves and occur in the same habitat. One easy way to avoid this confusion is to use your sense of smell; Wild leeks are the name suggest smell strongly of onion/leek whereas Lily of the Valley does not.

Lily of the Valley contains a number of toxic compounds including Saponins which cause gastric symptoms, but the main compound of note is Convallotoxin, which causes irregular slow pulse rate and can lead to heart attack or heart failure. Despite a low number of acute poisoning cases it is most certainly a deadly toxic plant.

Woody or Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)

This common member of the Tomato (Solinaceae) family is widespread across Northern North America. It is commonly known as Woody or Bittersweet nightshade, but also as Climbing Nightshade, as you will most commonly find it growing up fencing, other shrubs and large plants.

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(Bittersweet nightshade – no making salsa from this toxic “tomato”)

Many of the Solinaceae are delicious edibles (Tomato, Potato, Bell Peppers etc) but the family also contains some pretty potent toxic species, such as the fatally toxic Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) for which this plant is commonly mistaken for in online searches.

Happily Bittersweet Nightshade is unlikely to cause fatal poisoning, with only 2 published fatalities that I can find in the last 100+ years, both of which were children who mistook it for some sort of edible berry (they do look like tiny tomatoes when ripe).

It is however a plant that can give you some nasty symptoms such as vomiting, gastric distress, dizziness, racing heart etc, and continues to pose a threat of poisoning especially in children because of it’s commonality, its appearance and it’s often proximity to other edible fruit bearing shrubs and plants.

Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculate, C. douglasii etc)

There are 4 Cicuta species in the USA most commonly Cicuta maculata in the East and Cicuta douglasii in the western states, all commonly known as Water Hemlock.

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(This Carrot family plant is Umbel-ievably toxic)

Water Hemlock is the most violently toxic plant found in North America, it has accounted for numerous deaths of both humans and animals. It is another member of the Apiaceae (Carrot family) and it’s consumption in humans is generally from confusion between it and other edible wild species such as wild parsnip, wild carrot etc. The Apiaceae genus is a high risk one to forage if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can literally be gambling with your life. Never eat any wild plant unless you are 100% sure of your identification, and you are experienced enough to make accurate ID’s, even some experienced foragers I know won’t go near this plant family.

Cicutoxin, the deadly compound in Water Hemlock acts like a stimulant to the nervous system and causes convulsions, rapid onset seizures, vomiting, salivation, dilated pupils, coma and death. The symptoms arise as quickly as 15 mins to a few hours from consumption, and its possible death can occur as quickly as within an hour depending on the amount consumed.

The widespread distribution, extreme toxicity coupled with how common it is and it’s close appearance to edible plants make this the most dangerous plant to humans in the USA.

Jimson Weed (Datura stamonium)

Jimson Weed, also known as Moonflower or Datura is an introduced species, now found in nearly all states. It is possible for people to accidentally consume this mistaking it for something edible like wild cucumber, or for children to put it in their mouths by accident. The majority of the poisoning cases however occur through people trying to consume the plant as a recreational hallucinogenic.

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(This high might make you say bye-bye)

People have been known to eat the leaves or seeds, or make a tea from the plant to try and achieve a recreational high. This is not at all recommended as the plant is highly toxic and can cause fatal poisoning. In a case from 2005 from the Wisconsin medical journal a number of adolescents consumed the plant and although none died they all had fairly severe poisoning and unpleasant psychiatric symptoms. One boy was found crawling in the road by the police department, picking at objects on his body that weren’t there and screaming obscenities.

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum)

Some of you may be familiar with Mayapple from your foraging guides, or online articles, indicating it as a good edible. This is true in part, as the flesh of the fully ripe Mayapple fruit is edible and delicious. On the other hand this plant is commonly known as American Mandrake, and all parts of the plant apart from the fully ripe fruit (in limited quantities) is very toxic. Because of its potential edibility there is strong potential for human poisoning to occur from ingestion of the under ripe fruit, the seeds or other parts of the plant through ignorance or confusion.

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(Edible right?, except for most of the time, when most of it isn’t)

This article by my wife Megan from Aayus Holistic Health Services can give you the low down on Mayapple.

Mayapple contains Podophyllin which can cause fatal central nervous system depression in large enough doses. An extract from the plants root is used to treat genital warts.

Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron radicans, Toxicodendron vernix)

Poison Ivy, along with it’s larger, equally toxic cousin Poison Sumac are woody shrubs in the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae).

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(Make sure not squat on this little guy)

This is a big one, over 350,000 cases of Urushiol-induced contact dermatitis (mainly from Poison Ivy) are reported in the USA each year, the true figure is probably higher. Urushiol is a mixture of Pentadecylcatechols which bind to skin on contact, causing severe rashes and blisters which are very painful. In severe cases it can even cause anaphylactic shock and death, on the other hand 15-25% of people are largely immune to the effects or Urushiol.

Most exposure happens through walking through or brushing against patches of the plant without knowing what it is. If you realise you have become exposed the best remedy it to scrub the area thoroughly with dish soap and rinse several times for the first few hours. This can avoid or greatly mitigate the reaction. To treat the reaction, baking soda or oatmeal baths, and herbal Jewelweed lotion have been seen to help, commercial pharmaceutical products are generally ineffective. Another great option for both Poison Ivy and Wild Parsnip rashes is Plantain ointment.

Be extra careful when peeing outdoors, the last thing you want is a rash in some of your more sensitive areas.

For more foraging related content follow Matt’s foraging adventures on social media

Copyright Matthew Normansell 2018 All rights reserved.

A dozen things to forage for in the Midwest this Spring


Foraging is a wonderful way to connect with nature and provide nourishment for the body and soul. However we need to take a few things into consideration before we start. 

As with all foraging I advise that before eating any wild plant or mushroom, you confirm your identification for yourself to your own satisfaction, and do not consume unless you are 100% sure that what you have is correct.

Please ensure you are foraging within the bounds of local laws and regulations and on land which you have permission to be on or that is open to the public. If you are unsure contact your states DNR or local authority.

Take care to always inform someone of where you are going when you enter the wilderness, and take enough food and water and some form of emergency communication. Also wear proper clothing to avoid injury and to protect from things like mosquitoes and ticks which can carry disease.


My dozen things…



Ramps are probably the most ubiquitous herald of spring for most foragers in large parts of the US. This member of the Allium genus (onion family) is often referred to by many as Wild Leeks, but also sometimes called Ramps, Ramp, Ramsons, Spring Onions, Wild Garlic, Wood Leeks, etc. This plant is so iconic that one of the major cities of the Midwest, Chicago, is actually named after a large cluster of Ramps discovered in the 17th century. Shikaakwa (Chicagou) was the name for Ramps by the local native tribes.



All parts of the plant are edible. In the spring historically Ramps have been dug up by the roots so the entire plant, from bulb to leaf can be cooked and eaten. Traditionally in native cultures they would harvest only the leaves (or even only a portion of each leaf) as greens. In Europe a similar species, Allium Ursinum, known as Wild Garlic is also primarily harvested for its leaves, as the bulbs are not as large and easily dug up as with Ramps. I like to preserve Ramp bulbs through pickling, and the leaves in pesto. You can freeze the plants also for use throughout the year.


 Whilst common and abundant in many areas care must be taken to harvest sustainably, as it has been shown that overharvesting can occur, especially in high traffic areas such as the forests in close proximity to large cities. A good rule of thumb is to try and take as small a percentage as possible within a colony, and certainly no more than 5% of a patch in any one year, to allow the patch to regenerate. I also like to go back to my patches in fall and spread some seed around by hand whilst I’m mushroom picking, to ensure an even re-seeding.




Fiddleheads, or fiddlehead ferns are the green furled fronds of a young fern, used as a spring vegetable. It’s been an important part of Native American cuisine but you also see fern fronds being eaten historically in France, and parts of Asia. The primary species we are seeking out in the Midwest is the Ostrich fern (Matteuccia stuthiopteris) growing in damp areas often in swampy or riverside woodland. The Ostrich fern has a U shaped groove in the stem and a brown papery sheath. Be careful not to confuse this species with inedible or even toxic fern species (Bracken fronds can be considered carcinogenic).


Fiddleheads are mostly boiled or steamed and eaten fresh but you will also find people freezing them for year round consumption or another favourite is pickling. I like to pickle my fiddleheads with some ramp bulbs for added flavor. Please take care to cut as close to the furled portion as possible to allow the plant more chance to regrow and do not harvest all fiddleheads in an area.



Japanese Knotweed

This much maligned plant (Fallopia japonica) is classified as an invasive species in the USA and therefore often falls foul of burning or poisoning for fear of it spreading. I feel this is a shame as it is in fact a highly nutritious and delicious alternative to Rhubarb, being from the same family, and eaten in Japan as Rhubarb where it is known colloquially as Tiger Stick. There have been small scale studies in Germany showing that intensive harvesting can actually be more effective as a control method than spraying, so not only can you save money, and avoid using harmful herbicides, you can eat for free in the process.

You will find it growing along waste ground, riverbanks and railroad tracks, or anywhere it manages to grab a foothold. It’s easier to spot the tall architectural stalks of the previous years grown in late fall through winter, and return to the patch in spring for the fresh shoots.


The plant is best harvested at the “Asparagus” stage where the shoots have get to develop substantial foliage and are 2-8″ approximately in height. As it grows larger it tends to get woody.

The plant also contains high levels of Resveritrol, the healthy compound in red wine. If you check the supplements in your local health food store you’ll probably find a Resveritrol supplement made from Japanese Knotweed. Japanese Knotweed is part of the Buhner protocol, the leading herbal treatment for chronic Lyme Disease.

Ironically on of my preferred ways to use it is by making a wine. Take any rhubarb wine recipe and increase the weight of Knotweed by around 50% as the flavor isn’t quite as strong as its cultivated relative. You’ll be graced by a find rosé wine.

Another excellent use is as an ingredient for chutney. I like to adapt something like an onion marmalade recipes but substitute half the onion or more for Knotweed. Goes great with cheese. I’ve also been experimenting with a Knotweed hotsauce, its very versatile.

There are no concerns about sustainability when harvesting this plant because its considered invasive, however care must be taken to try to prevent its spread to gardens etc so take care when harvesting to do all trimming on the area of current growth, and don’t allow pieces of plant material to be distributed elsewhere.




Probably one of the most commonly talked about spring edibles. Several edible members of the Morchella genus occur in the Midwest and whilst I personally think Morels are overrated, they are one of the most prized of edible fungi. In the Midwest one common habitat is around dead Elm and Ash trees. Care must be ensured to distinguish their honey comb like cap structure and hollow form from that of the potentially deadly poisonous Gyromitra (False morel) genus.

morelbaby (2)babymorelsmegan

 Morels make a great vehicle for stuffing and can be filled with both meat and vegetarian options. Another great way to stretch them throughout the year is to make a morel butter which you can add into dishes, this helps when you only found a few and want to enjoy the flavor year round.





Nettles have been eaten around the world for thousands of years, a highly nutritious green they lend themselves to any dish that calls for spinach, but can be pressed into service as a replacement for cabbage or other leafy greens. There are two main species of nettle you may encounter, the top photo is Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle, the most commonly consumed and found on disturbed ground.

stinging nettlewoodnettle

The other species in the basket above is Wood nettle (Laportea Canadensis) this is as the name suggests an inhabitant of shady woodland, mostly mixed hardwoods. The leaves can be eaten in the same way as the stinging nettle, caution is advised as the sting for some can be very painful. Gloves and thick pants are recommended when harvesting.

Stings are neutralized by heat or by crushing, so blanching, cooking or blending make nettles perfectly edible with no risk of stinging your mouth. My favourite way to preserve nettles is to blanche for a few seconds in boiling water, press out the water and shape them into balls and freeze on a tray before transferring to freezer bags. This produces a wild version of the frozen spinach balls you can find in the store, but with better flavor and higher nutritional content. Nettles have around 3.5 times the amount if iron by weight than spinach and they are also 6% protein.

If you retain the cooking liquid from your nettle blanching you can use this to make nettle beer.

Nettle Beer Recipe:

  • 1 Gallon of Nettle Tea (your blanching liquid)                                                                      
  • 2 Lemons
  • 3/4 to 1lb of brown sugar or a mixture of sugar and molasses (Hydrometer reading of 1040-1050)
  • A bittering/hopping agent . You can use some cultivated hops, for a wild option I tend to use Creeping Charlie, or any bitter herb such as Mugwort or even dandelion.
  • Yeast (you can use a store bought brewers yeast or you can culture your own wild yeast. See here for instructions on how do do this
  • Yeast nutrient 1tsp

Squeeze the lemons and add the juice to the nettle liquid. Add the sugar, and stir until fully dissolved. Add you bittering agent. Leave to cool. Strain and add to a fermenting bucket or brewing jug/demijohn. Pitch your yeast, fit an airlock and allow to ferment out. When bottling prime your bottles with 4grams of sugar per 500ml for bottle carbonation.



Garlic Mustard

As with Japanese knotweed, Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is considered an invasive. Every year acres of this plant is pulled or sprayed when it’s actually been shown to be the most nutritionally dense leafy green plant that’s ever been studied. Garlic mustard, as the name suggests is in the Mustard, or Brassica family, and thus related to your favourite grocery store cruciferers such as Kale, Brocolli and Cabbage. 


The young leaves make an excellent addition to a salad, the flower buds and flowers are edible and used in salads or garnishes and my personal favourite are the young flower stems whilst the plant is in the pre flowering stage can be peeled and cooked like Asparagus.

Again as with Knotweed you can harvest as much of this plant as you like as it won’t negatively impact the environment through picking.  You will often find large stands of garlic mustard on waste ground and in forests dominating forest clearings. 



Pheasantback mushroom

This mushroom, Cerioporus squamosus, is a common springtime find on dead stumps, logs, and dead standing trees. It’s often considered a consolation prize by some as it tends to be found on dead elms primarily, which is one of the habitats people search for Morels. As the name suggests its patternation is similar to that of the back of a female pheasant. It has a distinctive melon/cucumber aroma. Some people find this off-putting but I enjoy this mushroom cooked on a high heat until the edges caramelize. 


Harvest when small, around hand sized, or before they become fibrous and hard to slice.




Scarlet Elf Cups

This fungus Sarcoscypha coccinea, is almost entirely overlooked by most in the Midwest, more commonly eaten in Europe and even until recently most guidebooks listed them as inedible or not worthwhile the Scarlet elf cup has a pleasant mushroomy taste and firm texture. I also like to eat small amounts of this mushroom raw. Whilst it’s not normally recommended to consume and fungi raw, the elf cup doesn’t seem to cause any issues for most and it makes a wonderful little canapé receptacle. 

scarlet elf cups



This is the same species as you will find in the grocery store (Asparagus officinalis), Wild Asparagus essentially just being semi-naturalized cultivated Asparagus that’s spread naturally through bird seeding or wind distribution. You’ll find this precious wild gift strewn along ditches and rural roadsides. Try to avoid picking along major roads or areas of obvious contamination. As the Asparagus that we eat is just the young spring shoots of the plant, the easiest way to spot this elusive prize is to watch out for the large bushy mature plant in summer and mark the location for the following season

wild asparagus



Wild Onion

Lagging far behind Ramps both in terms of popularity and recognition but no less edible or useful are the wild onions. Primarily in the Midwest we are talking about Allium Canadense. You will also find the very similar Allium Vineale, a European non native in parts. Both appear like chives, as upright grasslike or tubular leaves with a strong onion/garlic smell and taste. If you dig the bulbs you will find a small onion, around the size of a cocktail onion. The tops I mainly use as a substitute for chives. The bulbs can be used any place you would use onion but can be a little labor intensive. I prefer to pickle them and use them as a snack. 


Wild Onions (Allium canadense) top of photo, Ramps (Allium triccocum) bottom.



Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a low growing plant considered a weed by some, and likes nutrient rich soils which is why its often found taking over patches of garden. An excellent base plant for a salad I would use it in place of lettuce as it has a pleasant not overwhelming flavor. It would also work well as an addition to soups and for juicing. It’s fairly easy to identify once in flower as the closest lookalikes are the pimpernels which have red or yellow flowers, also the underside of the leaves in those have small black spots wheras Chickweed will be clean and green.





Also classed and an invasive in many states, Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a powerhouse of flavor and nutrition. A member of the brassica family this plant will later produce clusters of white 4 petal flowers which are also edible. The young spring growth should ideally only be taken from clean flowing water. I recommend picking the tips from above the waterline to mitigate the risk of any contamination. For an extra stem you can always cook your watercress in a soup or stir fry etc to eliminate any risk from bacteria or parasites. Watercress is very healthy for you, boasting impressive figures for folate, vitamin C (more than oranges) and iron amongst others. It can be pretty fiery so this vegetable is not for the meek of palate. 


Thanks for reading, and I hope you all enjoy a bountiful spring.



For more foraging related content follow Matt’s foraging adventures on social media


Copyright Matthew Normansell 2018 all rights reserved.

Harvesting Chaga – What you need to know…

What is Chaga, and why would you want to harvest some?

Chaga is a medicinal fungus, growing primarily on birch trees in the upper part of the northern hemisphere, it is used as an immune supporting supplement, and as a complimentary or natural treatment for various conditions such as Psoriasis, Stomach issues, Diabetes, immune disorders and even Cancer.

Most commonly people drink a decoction of Chaga as a “tea” for general immune support, in a similar way to how people you use elderberry tea or syrup, as a winter tonic especially. I usually replace one cup of coffee a day with Chaga tea.


For tea I boil 1 to 2 chunks around the size of a golf ball in half a gallon of water then let it simmer for 45 mins to an hour. Chunks can be frozen and reused until the tea becomes weak (usually a few times)


Modern usage and study.

More study is needed, particularly in human trials however there are some promising studies suggesting medicinal benefits, also several of the compounds in Chaga such as Betulinic acid already have studies showing medicinal benefits.

One notable recent study in Korea in 2004 showed human cells pretreated with a water extraction of wild Chaga conk showed a 40% reduction in DNA fragmentation than a positive control (Park et al., 2004)

Along with whole Chaga chunks for tea you will find more potent double extracted tinctures such as those made by my partner Megan of Megans Herbal Apothecary which give you both the alcohol and water soluble compounds in an easy to take form.



How to identify Chaga.



You can find tips on identifying Chaga in my earlier blog post “Is this Chaga??” here

Finding Chaga.


When to Harvest

Chaga is most commonly harvested in winter. Contrary to popular myth this is not due to any change in medicinal content, nor is it I believe particularly any more damaging to the tree to do so outside of this time period (although it’s probably best not to harvest whilst the sap is rising in spring).

The primary reasons to harvest in winter are:

Ease of locating it – No leaves on the trees make it much easer to spot Chaga at a distance. If your Chaga locations are snowy, this makes it stand out all the better.

Less chance of having mold issues – Cold weather inhibits mold growth, giving you additional time to dry and process your Chaga without it spoiling, summer harvesting would be very time sensitive.

Seasonality – Whilst Chaga takes many years to achieve a harvestable size, and persists on the tree year round, most foragers, even those primarily interested in medicinals, are busy in spring, summer and fall with an abundance of other plants and fungi. During the winter, where Chaga grows, there is little to nothing else to harvest, and I feel this is one major reason why traditionally this has been a winter harvest. I also find it’s a nice psychological boost in the depths of winter to be able to collect something useful when spring and the promise of the season to come is still many months away.


What to look for.



Look for older birch trees, especially in larger clusters. Chaga growths take many years to develop and tend to be found on the larger trees and those damaged by storms, especially near rivers and streams. You can and will find Chaga in mixed forests, but I’ve had my best luck in habitats where birch is the predominant species. You can find tree maps online which may help you locate likely areas to search.

It’s a numbers game – Cover lots of ground. I tend to drive round until I see a likely looking area of older birch, park safely, and spend some time hiking round on foot. Many times you will spot things on foot you’d never see simply by driving, it’s always worth a look, and winter exercise is invigorating. Make sure you bundle up.

Tools – What you’ll need to harvest. 

A cutting tool.



I’ll start off by saying I prefer harvesting with an axe. Saws in my experience and observation do not allow the Chaga conk to regenerate well, the natural fracture point you achieve using an axe allows for better regeneration.

I have used several axes and my favourite is the Husqvarna hatchet, I have no relationship to the company I just find it to be the best suitably sized forged steel axe you can get for the money. I believe they are actually manufactured by Hults Bruks but are much cheaper than their own branded axes. If you shop around you can pick them up for around $35 . I have seen many people try and use very small hatchets, and I feel this results in lots of hacking and more chance of damaging the tree, a hatchet of the size this one above with a 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 lb head and a 13-15″ handle, that’s kept nice and sharp is the ideal tool for quickly and cleaning cutting the Chaga from the tree.

You could also use something like a masonry spike and a mallet to split pieces off if you felt this worked better for you, or if you are not confident handling axes.


A bag or carrying aid.

As most Chaga is out in the wilderness you’ll need something to help haul it out. Depending how much you are harvesting this can be something basic like a blue ikea bag, a rucksack, a large trappers basket etc. Even a small amount of weight carried a long distance can be tiring so definitely plan for this. You don’t want to store Chaga in anything plastic for a long time, as that can accelerate potential mold growth.

trappers basket

Megan with a trappers basket.


Personal protective equipment etc.

Chaga harvesting can be dangerous. Along with the usual dangers of winter hiking such as exposure, wild animals, trip and slip hazards etc, you will be handling axes or cutting tools, probably in the cold. My personal recommendations are.

  • Gloves and warm clothing – keep hands warm, aid dexterity, protect from scraping against bark etc, prevent you from getting frostbite and exposure.
  • Eye protection – Chaga has the tendency to fragment, especially the black outer surface, this can cause nasty eye injuries if you are not careful. I would recommend a pair of clear safety or ballistic glasses when harvesting.
  • First aid kit – Axes are dangerous, you need to be prepared that if you do cut yourself, you fall over, or have Chaga you are cutting hit you and injure you, (it happens) that you are prepared to give yourself first aid.
  • Phone with cell reception – Must be able to reach someone for help whenever you are out in the wilderness.
  • Basic food and water – You will get hungry and thirsty, make sure you have some basic rations to support you on your hunt, it is easy to get carried away with the excitement of foraging and over extend yourself physically.

Harvesting technique.

Once you have spotted the Chaga conk you want to harvest, position yourself on a steading footing at an angle, and make a cut close to the bark of the tree swiftly and confidently with an axe, trying to leave a small portion of the conk on the tree to aid in regrowth, be careful not to stand so close that the axe will bounce off and hit you should you make a glancing blow, and make sure anyone with you stands clear of the area whilst harvesting. Remove what you need and store it in your carrier, making sure to replace the sheath on your axe before moving on.

Do not try and harvest Chaga by standing face on to the growth, the outer surface is hard and this is an easy was to glance off, or miss and end up injuring yourself.

Processing and storage.


The biggest danger to Chaga once harvested is mold. Two types are prevalent, first and more commonly a white mold can develop on the black outer layer. This will form fairly quickly with too much heat or humidity when fresh, or later with improper drying or storage. Secondly the inner layer suffers from a greenish blue mold if left fresh or badly processed for long periods of time. Both of these are potentially bad for your health, and proper processing and storage is essential not only to ensure safety, but also so you don’t waste the precious resource you spent hours or days hunting and collecting.

chagamold (2)

White mold on Chaga from improper storage.


Breaking down for drying.

I try and break down and process my Chaga right away. Some people have good results using whole Chaga placing it whole near a wood burner etc, this could work ok where it is frozen in winter, but wouldn’t work as well in areas like Scotland or where you aren’t harvesting in winter. Personally I prefer to deal with the task at hand asap, and have it prepped and stored whilst my mind is on the task.


Below is an example of Chaga being broken down for drying. Id begin by splitting the Chaga conk down into half, then again, and continue in this fashion until you end up with pieces the size of a golf ball or similar. It’s best to wear your eye protection here again, and ensure you use a board or block to make splitting easier, and so you don’t injure yourself with your axe.




Chaga is best dried using a dehydrator. We use an Excalibur model, which is a more expensive high end consumer or commercial type dehydrator. I can’t recommend these enough, and if you have around $200 to spend and you do a lot of foraging for wild plants/mushrooms you’d like to preserve, or you like making jerky, drying your own home grown produce or making fruit leathers etc then this would be great for you.



Cheap dehydrators can be had online from around $35 new, and you often see them at thrift stores and yard sales for just a few dollars. These can work nearly as well for those drying small amounts of material.

Dry your Chaga chunks at a medium temperature. I have seen recommendations to dry Chaga at less than 50c (122F) to best preserve the medicinal compounds. I cannot confirm the validity of this, but I find doing this preserves the Chaga in a way where it seems to be stable, hasn’t cracked or degraded excessively and seems to store longer. I tend to run my dehydrator overnight, and on a lower temperature, if you don’t have a timer model, it’s less time sensitive. If you find your Chaga still seems damp at all (you can touch some to your lip to help test moisture level) then run it a little longer, timing will be down to how powerful your dehydrator is, and how full you fill it.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, and your oven has a very low setting, something like 100F then you could try using that with the door open a crack to allow airflow, or place it on a mesh rack near a furnace, radiator or wood burner and check it regularly. I have also seen people use fans to aid in drying. You can experiment using the tools you have available to you. Expect around a 40% dry yield vs fresh Chaga, so for every pound of fresh Chaga you harvest you can expect approximately 6 1/2 ounces of dried Chaga after drying.



(Chaga chunks ready for dehydrating)



Once dry you want to keep your Chaga in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. Chaga will become easily bleached by direct sun. You can use an air tight container such as a glass mason jar, or any other air tight storage container. If you want to take an extra step for longer term storage, you can add some silica packs and oxygen absorbers to your container, however when properly dried and stored for up to a year I have never had an issue (I always rotate through my stock seasonally, and harvest Chaga fresh each year.


Thoughts on sustainability.


Chaga biology and growth cycle

Chaga is a fungal pathogen of birch trees. It is a heartwood rot fungus. Spores find their way into the tree through damage in the bark, broken limbs etc. The fungus then grows parasitically feeding off the tree, pushing its way out from the heart wood, through the bark, with the visible part being the established Sclerotia (Chaga conk). Eventually after many years it will kill the tree. Several years after the tree dies it releases its spores from under the shedding bark and thus continues the cycle.

These sporocarps are not often observed or recognised for what they are, which is probably why people are often not aware of this reproductive phase. It does take a long time for Sclerotia to form and emerge to harvestable size, which means many many more trees will be infected with the fungus than is visually apparent.


Photo taken from for illustration purposes.


Where birch forests persist and are healthy, Chaga harvest should not in my opinion cause a sustainability issue, especially where sensible guidelines are followed. Harvesting the Sclerotia has not been shown to kill the fungal organism in the tree, or prevent it from producing spores once the tree has died. The real threat to the organism is not foraging, but as is true in most cases, habitat loss. As long as there are healthy birch forests, Chaga will persist as one of the predominant fungal pathogens of this habitat.


Over harvesting?


You often hear the claim by some, that Chaga is being “over harvested”. Nobody ever seems to be able to tell me what this really means however, and the majority of those making the claims are unable to even accurately describe to me how Chaga reproduces, or anything about it’s growth cycle.

I often find that what people really mean when I hear “over harvesting” is “well I wanted to harvest some, and I saw someone else had been collecting it”. By the nature of its collection it is obvious. It leaves a scar on the tree where the growth is removed, and I feel that the obviousness of the collection has led some to make these claims.

When people see something has been removed from nature they instinctively feel that there may be something wrong with that, they are having an irrational or emotional reaction to this, without a full understanding about what it is that they are seeing. I personally don’t feel such claims hold much weight, but am always open to reassessing the situation in the future.

The vast majority of commercially available Chaga in the USA and Europe is not domestic, it comes from the vast boreal forests of Siberia, which can support much higher demand than currently exists for this niche product. Commercially available Chaga is important for those who are geographically or physically unable to harvest their own, such as people in southerly areas or those with health conditions which Chaga could help with. Collection and sale of non timber forest products such as mushrooms and fungi can help bolster rural communities and keep them together offering additional income to those who are just subsisting. When people place value and use forests they become less vulnerable to real threats of environmental exploitation such logging, mining, fracking etc.


My personal ethical guidelines for harvesting.


  • Harvest the largest Sclerotia (conks) you can find. Don’t harvest any smaller than fist size.
  • Harvest only those easily accessible, don’t cut down or climb up trees, this naturally allows some Chaga to remain.
  • Harvest only what you need for the year.
  • Harvest by hand and limit yourself to what you can haul out on foot.
  • Try to leave some of the conk on the tree where possible. Where there are more than one conk on a tree, leave at least one intact.
  • Take care not to cut into or otherwise damage the tree.
  • Don’t waste Chaga, process it quickly and carefully, and use it sparingly. Re-use chunks, and making extracts where suitable to conserve your supply.



Precautionary principle – pros and cons.

When talking about conservation the precautionary principle is often cited as best practice, or something to be aspired to.  It is defined as “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

This may sound like a good idea, after all, we all want to protect the environment don’t we? However I have real problems with this approach. Treating nature as a something to be looked at but not interacted with, to turn nature into an exhibit simply creates apathy, and a lack of understanding. It turns a generation off to engaging with the natural world.

Nature isn’t something that should be mothered, treated like a museum exhibit, and be put off limits to us. This simply makes it irrelevant to most people. Maintaining habitats through social and cultural interaction with nature is a key component in conservation in my opinion.

Most foragers I know are hugely passionate about the environment and sustainability. I feel that active, mindful and sustainable foraging, far from being damaging to the environment, is a catalyst for increased engagement with and interest in environmental protection.

For millennia ethnobotanical uses of wild resources have placed a social and cultural value on those plants, fungi and habitats. I believe this sort of engagement is a driving force toward a reconnection with nature that has been lost to us as a modern society.

One of the reasons I am so passionate about passing on my knowledge to others is that I feel I am helping to create a generation of nature lovers, of people who value the natural world, work with it, and hold it dear to their hearts. Through this connection and close relationship, will help fight to protect and maintain these habitats from the real threats to their existence for years to come.


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Copyright Matthew Normansell 2017 All rights reserved. 





Is this Chaga??


For those of you who don’t know, Chaga refers to a medicinal fungus (Inonotus obliquus) occurring on Birch (Betula) species of tree in the northern hemisphere, most commonly in the boreal forests of Russia and Siberia, Eastern Europe and Northern North America. In Wisconsin, it most commonly occurs in the northern half of the state, stretching up into the U.P, Minnesota and Canada.

Chaga is most commonly consumed as a beverage. Chaga “tea” is a decoction of Chaga chunks or ground chaga, boiled and simmered for at least 45 minutes. This is said to help boost immune function due to it’s polysaccharide and antioxidant content, and has been drunk in Russia and Eastern Europe traditionally for this purpose. It’s also a very pleasant tasting drink, not mushroomy at all, it has woody hints and an almost vanilla like tone to it.

Chaga Tea


Medicinally, to combat symptomatic illness, you most commonly see Chaga administered or taken as a double extracted tincture. This is where the alcohol soluble compounds are extracted first, then the same material undergoes a water extraction, and the two are blended together. This allows you to get both the alcohol and water soluble compounds both of which are said to hold medicinal properties.

Chaga double extract from Megan’s Herbal Apothecary.


I shall be discussing more information on the uses of Chaga, along with harvesting techniques in another post, for now lets focus on how to recognize it.

My experience

I have been harvesting and using Chaga for years now, and started researching it even before that. I began by extensively hiking the Scottish Highlands, in the UK to find Chaga, the only area In the British Isles where Chaga is endemic. I have probably found a few thousand pieces of Chaga there. Since I have been foraging in Wisconsin and Michigan I have also found it extensively on several species of birch. I am often tagged in online to confirm or deny Chaga identification posts because of my experience with harvesting it and differentiating from it’s look-alikes.



The focus of this post is on Chaga identification. It is so commonly misidentified that is has become a bit of a joke in the mycological community, spawning many “is this Chaga” type memes, such as the below.

Chaga meme


The “Chaga” we are looking for is a mycelial mass known as a Sclerotia, which emerges from the heartwood of birch trees, pushing its way out through the bark. It’s external surface is dark black and burnt looking, with a crusty appearance, the inside is a two tone orange pattern as seen in photo 2 below.

With Chaga being confined to birch forests in the north, or at altitude (e.g. in Tennessee), and with it being less than abundant in many areas, there are many cases of people misidentifying other things as Chaga. It’s often very much a case of wishful thinking. I will go through some of these below.

The Brackets

There are many species of bracket fungus out there, and several other common ones which you will encounter more frequently on birch than you will Chaga.

Most commonly I see the Fomes fomentarius (Horse hoof fungus) bracket mistaken for chaga, along with others in the Phellinus, Fomitopsis and Ganoderma genus.

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Below are two examples of someone who is purporting to be a professional, advertising Chaga, when in fact the photo is another type of bracket, you can see the pore surface underneath, which is absent in the Chaga Sclerotia.


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The Burls

This is where the most common confusion occurs. Burls are actually just part of the tree. They are malformed wood growths causes by insects, viruses, fungal pathogens, or stress. The confusion comes because many burls have a dark and round form protruding from the trunk, as does Chaga. I regularly see fairly experience foragers make this mistake, as Chaga is not something many people have experience in.

Chaga vs Birch Burl

As you can see with the Chaga on the left, the outer surface is very black almost like charcoal, with pieces of the surface easy to break off. If you take a piece of white clothing, wet it and rub it against Chaga it will stain badly. The Chaga growth will often have pieces of bark adhering to it due to the way it growth out from the heart wood of the tree and emerges from the bark.

Sometimes you will see burls that are wider than the width of the tree that people think are Chaga, due to the way Chaga grows, it will not be wider than the width of the trunk, so that’s a good way to differentiate in these cases.

Below is an illustration that even “experts” can get it wrong. This is a scan from the book ‘Mushrooms of the Upper Midwest’ by Teresa Marrone and Kathy Yerich, a pocket guide I’ve seen recommended by many to those foraging in the Midwest.



What we see above is actually a burl, and not even a birch tree, Chaga grows almost exclusively on birch. Inonotus Obliquus rare occurs on non Betula species, but it generally isn’t termed ‘Chaga’ as Chaga refers to the fungus on birch, for its particular medicinal qualities.

This really does compound the problem of poor identification when the guidebooks don’t always get it right, and ends up causing people to try and cut into burls, damaging trees for no purpose.


I hope now you all have a better idea as to what Chaga is, and how to tell it apart from potential look alikes, I will be posting more on Chaga throughout the winter, including some info on how to harvest and use it, but feel free to comment or message me with any questions you might have in the meantime. When exploring the world of Chaga please do take care to get accurate identification, and don’t try and harvest things speculatively. When harvesting Chaga always think about what is sustainable, I will discuss my thoughts on this later.

Finally, below I have added a small slideshow gallery of Chaga photos, to help you recognize it even further.

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Copyright Matthew Normansell 2017 All rights reserved.