I was out in the woods with a couple of clients on a private 2-day course. They were interested in improving their plant and tree identification as well as refreshing friction fire-lighting skills – both bow-drill and hand-drill.
I had planned to spend most of the daylight hours of the first day exploring the woods, looking at how to identify tree species in winter, when many of them are without leaf.
This would also be a good format within which to examine various edible, medicinal or poisonous plant species.
The idea was that while on this ‘plant and tree walk’ we would also assemble all the materials needed for making bow-drill and hand-drill apparatus as well as gathering suitable tinders to take our embers to flame.
In particular we were looking for Elder, Sambucus nigra, to provide us with the raw materials with which to make hand-drills.
Apart from its usefulness for fashioning hand-drills, it has a number of other uses and is therefore a species very much worth knowing. Also, Elder is pretty common, being widely-distributed in Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.
That said, even though the area of woodland we were in is large, there are not many specimens of Elder growing there.
After quite some time I spotted a couple of large specimens that had been wind-blown a good number of years ago. Some of their roots had obviously remained intact and continued to nourish the trees. They certainly seemed healthy enough – one of the specimens was beginning to put out new leaves (quite incredible for January).
Despite the horizontal trunks, there was a good amount of vertical growth from them. This provided the materials we needed for hand-drills.
Some of the older limbs were festooned with Auricularia auricula-judae, a fungus commonly known as Jew’s Ear or Jelly Ear.
The auricula-judae part of this species’ name translates to ‘Judas’ Ear’. The association with Judas Escariot comes from the folklore that he hanged himself from an Elder tree and the fruiting body of the fungus is a manifestation of him that remains with the tree.
The fruiting body certainly looks like an ear and in this part of the world Auricularia auricula-judae is largely, although not exclusively, found growing on Elder. It is common in temperate and sub-tropical regions around the world.
Further afield the fungus can be found growing on other species, for example on Eucalyptus in Australia.
The fungus is edible and easy to recognise; this makes it a relatively safe fungus to forage. As with all wild fungi, it should be cooked. This fungus has a mild ‘mushroomy’ flavour. It also has the tendency to take on other flavours, such as that of the stock it is cooked in.
In the West it isn’t generally considered a particularly good edible fungus, however, being somewhat chewy if not cooked properly.
It is popular in Asia though and, known as Wood Ear, is an ingredient of hot and sour soup.
Let us know in the comments if you have tried this fungus. Do you like it?
Oh, and yes we did do some hand-drilling…