Autumn Abundance – Birch Polypore

As the seasons are changing and the vivid summer green has made way for the autumn foliage colors, something else has caught our attention: a beautiful variety of mushrooms. We have just started learning more about foraging in general, and mushrooms were something that frightened us in the beginning. It seemed difficult, complicated, dangerous, and not worth the risk. But after talking with different people who knew more about it all than we did, we slowly became more confident. We focus on mushrooms that are very easy to identify and are extremely careful. We would never eat/use mushrooms if we aren’t 100% sure that we have the right one. And of course, if you decide to go out into the forest to find herbs or mushrooms, make sure you do your research and harvest responsibly.

Entering The World Of Mushrooms

So finally, we have embarked on our journey through the magical world of mushrooms. We went to a beautiful lake in France a while back together with some friends. On our last day, we found an abundance of mushrooms which we cooked up in ghee with onions and garlic in a big wok pan on our campfire. Accompanied by chapati (Indian flatbread) baked on the hot coals of the fire, the meal was extremely satisfying. It was our second experience with a foraged meal, the first one being with friends in a beautiful forest in Oregon. We had met somebody who had learned the mushroom foraging skill from his father, and he learned it from his father. We cooked up the mushrooms in a curry and had an evening filled with music and laughter. Thanks to the knowledge of our friends, plenty of good identification books, and the internet and its abundance of information, we felt confident enough to start foraging ourselves.

A foraging feast!

Getting To Know Birch Polypore

One of the mushrooms that caught our attention this last week is birch polypore. Birch polypore or berkenzwam* (Fomitopsis betulina) is a parasitic fungus which grows on dying or dead birch trees, and grows abundantly in a forest near our home. This mushroom smells great and mushroom-y, and is edible but does not taste very pleasant. However, it is highly medicinal and has been used by humans for centuries upon centuries. Birch polypore was found on Ötzi, a 5300-year-old mummy (dating from the Bronze Age) that was found in the Alps. Ötzi suffered from parasitic worms, and it is believed that he carried the mushroom on him so he could use it as a treatment. Parasitic worms are not our highest concert in modern life, so how can it help us today? Well, first of all, birch polypore is highly beneficial for the immune system and has been used as an immune tonic in the form of tea or tincture. Besides this, it has anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and styptic properties which makes it an effective wound healer. If you ever find yourself on a hike and you hurt yourself, wrapping a slab of birch polypore around the wound can help to treat your wound for that time being. How amazing is that!

Young birch polypore growing on a dying birch tree

How To Identify Birch Polypore

You’ll find these mushrooms growing on dead or dying birch trees, often starting as little white bumps. As they grow older, they become flat and kidney-shaped. The upper skin tends to be white and smooth while young, becoming browner with age. The flesh is white, as is the pore surface (although the latter might become more gray or brown as it ages.) It smells mushroom-y, but the taste is quite bitter. The mushrooms don’t have gills, but tubes with tiny pores that are barely visible on the underside. Sometimes they are directly attached to the tree with no stalk, however, sometimes they have a stalk that is short and narrow.

These are all identification features which we have gathered while doing research, however, we are not professionals and are sharing this information out of love and appreciation for nature! Always do your research and triple-check with multiple sources. 🙂

An older birch polypore

How To Brew Birch Polypore Tea

So you’ve gone out into the forest and positively identified birch polypore. The next thing you do is make a decision, do you want to use it fresh or dried? If you want to use it fresh, you can immediately start brewing your tea. Otherwise, you want to dry your mushroom in a food dehydrator or just air dry it by spreading it out on and underneath a paper towel. A ventilator can greatly speed up this process! So you’ve got your mushrooms, fresh or dry, now it’s

time to make a brew. Ideally, you want to use filtered water to make sure no contaminants enter your medicinal tea. You’ll roughly need about 5-10 grams of dried mushroom. If you use fresh birch polypore this will roughly be about ten times the amount (50-80 gram). All you need to do is fill a pot with water, bring it to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Add your fresh or dried birch polypore and let simmer for 15-20 min up to an hour (the taste will be quite bitter after an hour). Strain and enjoy this healing infusion. The taste can be bitter, but a little bit of raw honey will solve this and also add its own medicinal properties. Ahhhh… The taste of nature! For now, we’re drinking a few cups of birch polypore tea a week as an immune system tonic during the colder months.

Besides birch polypore, we have found fly agaric (vliegenzwam* – amanita muscaria), reishi (gesteelde lakzwam* – ganoderma lucidum), turkey tail (elfenbankje* – trametes versicolor) and a variety of edible boletes, puffballs, and so much more! One thing is certain, there is a lot more to explore and learn about these wonderful organisms, and how they can provide us food and medicine. Thank you Mother Earth, thank you great mushrooms!

*the names of these mushrooms in our language (Flemish – Dutch)

One of the most well-known and beautiful mushrooms – fly agaric or amanita muscaria

Have any of you gone out foraging this autumn? Which mushroom do you like to use culinary, medicinally or for any other reason? Let us know in the comments!

If you want to read and learn some more about birch polypore and its many uses, check out the sources I used:

Birch Polypore – Medicine Ancient and Modern – Lucinda Warner


Soaking in Hot Springs – a Relaxing and Restorative Ritual

Without water, life can’t exist. Water is essential to life. In ancient times, humans rapidly learned this, and the first civilizations often settled near the ocean, rivers, or other bodies of water. Due to its importance, water was often believed to be sacred and in many cultures bathing in these holy waters could heal and purify one’s body and soul. For example, the Ganga river is very important in Hinduism and is a place where many people come together to bathe and meditate. We’ve done meditation practices in the Ganga river ourselves when we were in Rishikesh, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the river just descends out of the mountains and where it is still crystal clear and ice cold. Those meditation exercises were up to this day still one of the most transcendental experiences we’ve ever had and the cold water energized our bodies and quieted our minds. 

The History of Healing with Water

 In both Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, hot and cold water (sometimes infused with herbs) are an essential part of many healing rituals. In ancient Egypt water was used for maintaining hygiene and beauty, and herbs were also often added to baths to infuse them with therapeutic components. The studying of the healing qualities of water began in ancient Greece, where philosophers like Plato and Hippocrates studied the benefits and called it hydrotherapy (water cure). Later, the ancient Romans followed in their footsteps, and bathing became of great importance to their culture too. Since the beginning of the Roman empire, they made use of baths which they called balnea. These could be private in their homes, which was mostly for the elite, or communal. After the building of aqueducts and gaining the ability to move water from the outside to the inside of the city, these baths became huge centers called thermae and these became a major destination for social gatherings, often having gardens, libraries, and so forth. These baths were not only meant as a place for a social or relaxing experience but were also used for their therapeutic benefits and served as a place where wounded soldiers could come and rest. In modern times, bathing in hot and cold water is a big part of all cultures around the world, both for hygienic and therapeutic purposes.

Hot Springs

On our journey through the mid-west and western United States, many things brought feelings of wonder and joy. The astounding views on the open road, the music, and of course, the numerous hot springs. From the Californian high desert to the magical Oregon forests, we visited as many hot springs as we could. They provided the warmth and relaxation that was often missed on a cold winter night, sleeping in a van. Many hot springs that we visited were secluded and quiet and we often had moments where we were soaking alone in sacred waters on a full moon night. 

Hot springs were of great significance to many Native American tribes, who thought of it as sacred grounds and often as a place where the Great Spirit lived. The healing waters were used by tribes as a place to retreat and rest. Tribes that were at war ceased fighting when entering these neutral grounds, honoring the sacredness of the land and the Earth.

Hot springs, picture by Matt Palmer.

Healing Abilities of Hot Springs

There are plenty of reasons why one enjoys being in a hot spring. It is a natural pool provided with warm mineral-rich water from the Earth. Relaxing and restorative. But it is not only the comfort or beauty of taking a hot bath, in the middle of a forest or desert, that makes it a wonderful experience. Many health benefits come with enjoying the waters of a hydrothermal spring. 

Soaking in hot springs can relax the body and mind and at the same time, (thanks to the heat) our pores open, and the minerals that are present in the water get absorbed. Calcium, sodium bicarbonate, sulfur, magnesium, silica, lithium are just a few of the minerals that can be found in natural hot springs.

The heat of the water, and the weightlessness the body has while in it, may relieve musculoskeletal problems such as tense and sore muscles, symptoms of arthritis, and more. Many of these minerals can improve blood circulation, carrying more nutrients and oxygen around, and eliminating toxins from the body. Minerals such as magnesium, potassium, sulfur and silica can help nurture the skin and relieve symptoms of skin issues such as eczema. The steam of the hot water may relieve nasal congestion.

If there is no natural hot spring to be found near your home, but you do have a bathtub, you can find many things to make your own healing bath at home. There are various herbs, salt, clay, or essential oils that all provide therapeutic effects and have the ability to soothe your body and mind, and unwind from your day. 

The Powers of Relaxation

In modern society, being able to relax is often a problem with work, school, or other obligations that worry the mind. Long-term stress can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and more. It is essential to find a way to let go of these worries and unwind, and finding your way to do this can be different for each individual. You might want to listen to calming music, meditate, go for a walk in Nature, do breathing exercises, or soak in hot, healing water. Allow yourself to have these loving, quiet moments to tune in and be aware of your body and mind.  

Resources:

History of the Baths and Thermal Medicine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5535692/#ref1

John W. Lund – Historical Impacts of Geothermal Resources on The People of North America https://oregontechsfstatic.azureedge.net/sitefinity-production/docs/default-source/geoheat-center-documents/quarterly-bulletin/vol-16/art2.pdf?sfvrsn=4b3f8d60_4


Native American Healing Traditions

While traveling through the United States, we often thought about the native tribes who wandered freely through the forests and plains, just a few centuries ago. We wondered how they lived, traveled, what they ate and how they maintained their health throughout all of this. Luckily, we met people who could give us an idea about their way of living, their beliefs and their traditions, and thanks to the vast amount of knowledge on the internet, we could explore their traditions even further.

Healing and Balance

According to Native Americans, everything in our world is connected and to maintain well-being, in oneself and the community, it was important to find balance. An imbalance was often considered to be the reason why one was ill. During healing rituals, they sought to regain balance between the spiritual world, the community, the environment and oneself.

Rituals

Ceremonies were held for various reasons such as birth, death, or the success of a harvest. There were also important healing ceremonies, used to restore balance in the community. During those ceremonies, the community came together to sing and dance, and they were often accompanied by drums and the use of sacred (sometimes psychoactive) plants.

Purifying the body was a part of the healing process, and therefore building a sweat lodge was an important ritual in many tribes. A sweat lodge is a small structure, made of pliable young trees or branches and covered with blankets or tarps (earlier, they used animal skin). A pit inside the lodge was filled with hot stones, and water was poured over them, filling the lodge with steam. It was a ritual to purify and release, to sing, to pray, to connect with the spirit world, and the other participants.

Another tradition in some tribes was the use of a moon lodge, a structure build for the women of the tribe who were in their Moon Time (menstruation). A place for them to rest and regenerate, where they could be alone or together with their sisters of the tribe. Their family obligations were lifted from them, for as long as they retreated inside the lodge, and men were not allowed inside. It was a place for healing, connecting to each other and to the moon and the earth.

These beliefs and traditions vary from tribe to tribe, but a lot of similarities can be found between them. A great deal of these methods are still used today by several tribes, often combined with modern, allopathic medicine.

The Use of Healing Plants

The healers of the tribes combined the healing powers of plants with their connection to the spirit world. Plants were viewed as brothers and sisters and treated with respect. The healers asked permission to use the herb and expressed their gratitude when harvesting and preparing the medicine. These sacred herbs were used as herbal remedies, or as part of ceremonies, where they were smoked or burned.

It is said that Native Americans learned about the medicinal powers of certain herbs by observing animals such as deer or elk. They noticed that these animals ate specific plants when they were ill, and recovered after. The Native Americans understood that the plants must have some sort of medicinal benefits and started experimenting with them. Herbal wisdom was passed on from generation to generation until extensive knowledge was gathered on more than five hundred healing plants!

Balance of body and spirit is something very important in native healing traditions, and often forgot in modern medicine. An illness is seen as just that, and medicine is taken to suppress symptoms as quickly as possible, instead of listening to the body and working together towards healing. But times, they are a-changing! More and more people are interested in the wonders of traditional medicine and are learning to listen to what their body is telling them. After all, our body carries us wherever we need to go, bears the burden that we often put upon it and supports us throughout our lives, and it is something wonderful to honor this.

Resources:

Kathy Weiser – Native American Medicine https://www.legendsofamerica.com/na-medicine/

Mary Koithan and Cynthia Farrell – Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2913884/

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