Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
In This Place

Local foods to cure a spring cold

As many of us have taken off our masks, the everyday cold has begun to circulate again. As you can probably hear I have one now, and it’s like I’ve forgotten how to be sick. Or at least, how to do it gracefully. Luckily, I recently tagged along on a foraging walk with two friends and herbalists who are masters of using the land around us to create medicinal broths and teas. Here’s Briget Bride, who lives on the South Shore.

"The folk name for usnea is lungs of the Earth. You generally will find it where you have a lot of clean air and healthy trees."

Usnea is that pale green, beard-like lichen that grows almost everywhere on the Cape and Islands. It’s common on oak trees, and you know you’ve found it when you gently pull apart a piece and see that it has a stretchy white filament in the center. Usnea is a potent anti-biotic and an immune system stimulant that as its nickname suggests is especially good for the respiratory system.

"It makes it easier for the cilia in the lungs to absorb oxygen," Briget says.

The same is true for the leaves of a common plant called mullein, which has soft, pale green leaves that look a lot like lamb’s ear. For both plants, you can make a tea or a broth by steeping the lichen or leaves in hot water. It’s pretty mild — beyond hints of earth and a little bitter there isn’t much flavor. Next up a couple of mushrooms for soup to soothe a sore throat. Truro nutritionist and forager Nicole Cormier tells me about a sweet and sour soup made with wood ear. Its Latin name is Auricularia auricula-judae

"It’s a jelly-like fungi and it is what’s used in sweet and sour soup and you can find it on fallen branches. It’s the ones that I find most often are the darker brown color but you’d also see similar ones, that’s another jelly-like fungi called witches butter that’s like the bright orange one."

Wood ear
Nicole Cormier / @deliciousliving on Instagram
One type of wood ear, a tree jelly. Nicole says they come in a variety of colors ranging from dark brown to bright orange. The folk name for the orange tree jelly is “witches butter.”

"It grows on hard wood fallen branches so often times that’s it dried out a little bit. This dries up to be the tiniest dot of nothing and then you add water and it’s a hundred times its size," Briget says.

There’s a guy online who calls himself The Forager Chef — he’s written a cookbook called Flora — and he has an amazing recipe for Sweet and Sour Soup with Wood Ears that also calls for chicken broth and ginger. Meanwhile, Briget mentions another mushroom that’s easy to identify and a known immune booster:

"Birch polypore is a great like it grows one year and dies so picking it isn’t a problem."

I harvest and dry birch polypore all the time — they’re kidney shaped and grow like shelves out of dying birch trees. Once you learn to spot them, you see them everywhere — I once grabbed one going through some glades on skis. And while some people say the broth they make is bitter, I like it. I drink it as a tea or fold it into hearty soups or stews like chili. Last but not least is a common weed called burdock.

"So I have some of the burdock up back so you can see what the root looks like when you slice it and then you can dehydrate it and you can put that into your broths or your teas as well," Nicole says.

Dried burdock root
Nicole Cormier / @deliciousliving on Instagram
Dried burdock root, ready for tea or soup.

One of my favorite recipes for an immune broth comes from a New York cookbook author named Rebecca Katz. In addition to burdock root it calls for fennel, onions, carrots, celery, shiitake mushrooms, garlic, ginger, and thyme. It’s not just soothing, it’s delicious.

Like many of you, I grew up getting medicine at the pharmacy. And I still do a lot of the time. But there’s something deeply comforting about getting to know the plants outside my front door and the many foods and medicines they provide.