Interest in foraging, plant identification booming

·4 min read

Interest in foraging and plant identification has been growing on PEI and gripping onto our new-normal culture like seaweed to rock, according to avid foragers and biologists who have observed local plants for decades.

Anne Gallant has foraged edible seaweed and plants for other purposes for more than 30 years. She saw public interest skyrocket near the beginning of the pandemic. But the classes she offers continue to fill with first-timers.

Her foraging classes at Roma Historic site, on the Roma Point Road, just north of Montague, as well as on her home turf in Hunter River, have been consistently well attended, she says.

People had more idle time and spending some outdoors seemed to get them through isolation and difficult times, Ms Gallant said. Participants show up to her classes today for different reasons.

“With the economy and some modern agriculture practices, I want to empower people to make use of the food in their backyard,” she said. Taking money matters and environmental issues into hand seems to be the driving motivation of most participants along with general curiosity.

About 10 Islanders waded with Ms Gallant, knee-deep through thick slicks of dark brown, red and green weeds on a beach in Lower Rollo Bay in mid-June. Any sense of “ew” from participants as she dredged up slurpy weed after weed was overshadowed by “ahhh.”

Ms Gallant explained often overlooked properties of Irish moss, wrack, kelp, sea lettuce and more as participants took notes, shared knowledge and taste tested their finds.

Biologist Kate MacQuarrie has seen an overwhelming interest from locals in learning to identify plants flourishing into PEI’s new-normal.

She offered a free plant ID hike at Sir Andrew Macphail Woodlot in Orwell this spring. With no registration or group size limit required, more than 70 people joined her on an informative walk-about.

Ms MacQuarrie knows more showed up but left when they saw the size of the crowd. She continues to offer smaller workshops that are regularly filled to a maximum of 12 participants.

Rosemary Curley, an Island biologist who works with Nature PEI, says the interest in local nature can be beneficial to conservation efforts.

More than 300 people have already joined Nature PEI’s Mushrooms of PEI project. The initiative invites Islanders to find and identify mushrooms growing here.

Right now, published lists overseen by scientists show only 75 species of mushrooms growing on the Island but other Atlantic provinces have documented more than 1,000 species. Ms Curley says this is a good indicator there are more than are listed on PEI.

Locals can take photos of the mushrooms they see through the season’s end, later this fall, and upload them to an app called iNaturalist. The app records the location the photo was taken and assists with identification. Identification of common, easy-to-identify species can then be confirmed by other citizen scientists as well as biologists on the app.

So far, even through a relatively slow Island mushroom season, the app shows more than 400 species have been found and uploaded to the project. Ms Curley expects even more by the end of fall.

Ken Sanderson, a conservationist who is also involved in the Nature PEI project, wants to see even more locals tracking mushrooms.

“We need as many eyes on the ground as we can get,” he said, adding tracking when and where different species show up through the season will provide interesting data that can help in finding more rare species in the future.

While no endemic species (species that are native and restricted to a certain place) have been documented on PEI, the Island has not been scrutinized by scientists to the same degree as other Canadian provinces and there are no labs able to examine and confirm samples of more rare species like New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Labs in neighbouring provinces all have capacity.

“We have no idea what we have here,” Mr Sanderson said.

He has been particularly interested in finding mushrooms that grow in dune grass.

Fungi visible by their fruiting body as well as growing more subtly underground may play a large role in the vitality of grasses that hold sand dunes in place, he said.

“But we have no idea what we have here, or what should be protected,” Mr Sanderson said. Last year he documented Dune Cavalier growing in an Island dune. This was the first documentation of this species in Canada.

He added it may be in other provinces and growing undocumented.

Identifying what is on the Island playing a role in our local environment is key in conservation efforts, say both Ms Curley and Mr Sanderson.

Mr Sanderson invites citizen scientists to keep an eye out for mushrooms at the edge of sand dunes and the shore but to avoid wandering aimlessly in fragile environments such as dunes. He noted Islanders can be fined in some areas such as National Parks for walking on the dunes and stress-endangered areas with species such as piping plovers.

Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Graphic

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