A natural evolution towards the art of foraging


Nicole Zempel only had to buy a house in the city where she grew up to discover her true passion. Her new home adjoined a native prairie on the edge of Granite Falls, and she began to explore it to identify the plants it housed.

“I didn’t know how much fun it was,” she said, learning about the natural world around her. “Now it’s like an obsession.”

To say the least: today, his entire lawn is made up of native plants, hand-planted by Zempel. “I can literally eat my whole backyard,” she laughs.

Today, her free time is almost entirely spent exploring the meadows and woods she finds near her home. It has become a forager for fungi and native plants; some familiar, some exotic.

She picks dandelions and wild violets to make jellies. She collects fallen buds from poplars to make an antimicrobial ointment.

This outdoor enthusiast has her secret locations to sustainably pick leaves or parts of wild plants such as ramps, nettles, wild onion and garlic, and lamb quarter to add to stir-fry dishes. ‘she concocts herself. She has a secret “Jelly Mushroom Forest”, where she harvests this edible mushroom to add to her dishes. And she knows where the enoki, morels, woodland chickens and other coveted mushrooms are.

It’s where they are that matters most. For her, it’s about stepping out into the natural world, she said. “I didn’t know how much it would do me good,” she said. “I want it. It is a mental and a spiritual thing.

It’s also something she enjoys presenting to others, both through her art and through writing and in-person and virtual presentations.

It all started with this move seven years ago to a new home. She said it was the mushrooms that first caught her attention as she began to explore the natural world outside her front door.

Learning to identify fungi is no easy task, she quickly discovered. There are over 80,000 known species, and some are fatal. There are gallerina fungi found in this area, and ingesting a bad guy’s cap will kill you, she pointed out.

To identify the mushrooms she discovered, she began to photograph them and make prints of them. The color of the spores, the patterns under the cap, the plants and the environment around a given mushroom are all useful in identifying an individual species, she explained.

This pursuit soon led her to capture imagery of the unique microhabitats, cracks and crevices in which she found many fungi. She posted her images on a blog and on social media. About two years ago, the Granite Falls Arts Council asked him to exhibit them at a public screening.

Since then, his works have attracted attention. An exhibition of his works at the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council’s Gallery in Marshall will run until June 25.

Others are fascinated by his adventures in foraging and cooking wild foods. She is frequently called upon to make presentations. “I think mushrooms first caught people’s attention,” she said. “They are mysterious. We are taught not to touch them.

This may explain the popularity of a current series that she offers in partnership with the Bluenose Gopher of Granite Falls titled “WILDLY Unique Pairings!” Participants enjoy pairing locally made beer and wine with edible mushrooms while learning about the jelly fungus, slime mold, and mycelium, all of which are equally edible.

Many of her presentations focus on the more familiar plants she grows. She offered a “Backyard Live” series on Facebook in which she and her collaborators introduce viewers to foraging and cooking with natural plants and mushrooms.

She specializes in student registration within the Minnesota West Community and Technical College system, and her employer has also used her knowledge. She gave presentations on Foraging and Cooking with Natural Foods for “Wellness Wednesday” and other workshops held for system employees.

She sees presentations as a way to give something back to the natural world for all that it offers. By his reasoning, the more people come to appreciate the natural world, the more they will do their best to protect it.

Zempel graduated from her local high school in 1995 and completed a two-year associate’s degree in liberal arts in Minnesota West. She did not undertake any formal study to be the naturalist she is today.

Much like Charles Darwin, she is entirely motivated by her interest in the natural world she has discovered. “It’s like a never-ending discovery,” she says. “I will never be bored as long as I live.”

When asked how it all happened, she replied simply, “This is the natural evolution from where curiosity has taken me.”

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