An Iowa Treasure Hunt

By Ryan Graden

I am an Iowa boy to the core! Don’t get me wrong, I like to travel and see other places in our great nation. However, even during my short retreats elsewhere, I’m always missing my home here in Iowa. I love the history, the surroundings, the people, the culture, and the environment that Iowa has to offer and I wouldn’t exchange that for anything!

With that said, I would like to challenge you to begin to treasure this state that we live in. Step outside and truly experience what it has to offer us. These “treasures” won’t cost too much for you to seek out or enjoy. Frankly, most of them will just cost you some physical effort. Exercising and social bonding is good for the body, mind, and soul!
In this article, I would like to expose you to some of the “treasures” that you could find here in Iowa. Most of these might be right outside your door and you’ve never known about them! If you’re looking for something to do, take a family member, friend, or neighbor and hop in the car to go treasure hunting!

Spring Time Treasures Morel Mushrooms
The Midwest has been a hotspot for mushroom hunters for a very long time. Mushroom hunting can be a rewarding and a profitable business! The wild Morel mushroom has always been a table top favorite in the spring time to many folks who like the taste of fungi! And some are willing to pay a hefty price to get them!

Morels will “pop” (literally takes a day or two to grow!) in the spring when the time is just right! What I mean by that is there needs to be the right moisture context and the right amount of heat to make these guys grow. In addition, when you find one, take time to look carefully. There usually are more in the immediate area.

Key in to dead elm trees. These trees are usually in a grove among other elms. The bark will be loose on their trunk and slowly falling off. Morels can be found in the general area of elms that would fit this description. The mushroom itself will look like a wrinkled up mushroom and will stand anywhere from a few inches to eight inches tall. Morels can also vary from gray to yellow in color.

Cut them at the base of the stem, soak them in lightly salted water (to remove debris and any small bugs), and sauté them in some butter. Mmmmmm! You can also bread and fry them too. They are a delight to any dish!

Dryad Saddle or Pheasant Back Mushroom
These mushrooms are new to my family’s springtime diet over the last few years. However, we have enjoyed them just as much as the coveted Morels with some of our meals. It is a very different fungus to find, but when you do, there could be a lot of it to eat!
Pheasant Backs are usually found on trees in damp, warm areas. It is a “shelf” mushroom meaning that is usually grows on the side of dead logs that are not very decayed. Logs that have been dead for a few years. For these mushrooms, the younger they are, the better they taste. If you let them grow too large, their core will become more fibrous and will not be tasty to the pallet.

Just like Morels, soak them in salty water, slice them up a bit, and sauté them in butter. One of our favorite spring meals is grilled wild turkey with wild asparagus and wild mushrooms! Who says nature can’t provide?

Wild Asparagus
As I just mentioned, another springtime favorite to find is wild asparagus. People all around Iowa will hunt this wild veggie like it’s a treasure. If you try to ask where they find it, they will usually keep their mouth shut. Just like a good mushroom hunter. We keep our “treasures” hidden!

If you know what to look for, you’ll have success. However, sometimes finding a good asparagus patch is a process that takes a few years!

An easy indicator of wild asparagus is seeing a mature plant swaying in the wind. Honestly, here in Iowa, many of these plants will be found in ditches, on the edge of fields, or in the fencerows of fields. I’ve also found them in abandoned home sights when I’ve had permission to hunt them.

Once you find a mature plant, however, it’s usually too late for you to harvest it. It’s past it’s tender stage and it’s best to leave it alone for it to mature and spread the patch. You might take time to look near it though just in case there are a few late shoots springing up. Remember where you are finding this patch!

The next year, if you have pinpointed it properly, come back in late April and early May and you should find the tender stems of a new season’s growth. They are usually pretty petit and narrow, but they taste just as good as any garden produced asparagus! Make sure that you eventually let the patch grow up and spread. Don’t harvest all that it has to offer. But, if you can find a half dozen or so wild patches in your area, you should have enough to last you for a while!

If you’re a deer hunter, you know exactly what I’m talking about when I say the word “sheds”.

I’m not talking about four walls and a roof here. No, no. I’m talking about deer antlers that have been “shed” in the spring by male deer in the annual process of growing newer and larger antlers for the next year. Sheds are a treasure in themselves and finding one or more could be profitable.

Now, I as a hunter, keep ALL of my sheds. I can’t quite explain the obsession, but each shed is special to me. I can remember where I found it, what deer dropped it, and what year it was when I found it! I know! My wife says I have a problem. However, it keeps me busy and exercising in the spring.

I did just say that shed hunting could be profitable for the person who collects a good number of them in the springtime. Unbelievably, there is a market for shed antlers in our nation and people will pay good money for good sheds. Collectors, crafters, and taxidermists all are willing to give you some money for your efforts. The value of the shed will depend on it’s age, it’s color, and if it’s damaged in any way. However, even the worst conditioned shed can be sold as dog chews.

So put your hiking boots and on seek out the “brushy” areas of the timbers. Low hanging cedar branches, and thick cover is where deer will drop sheds. You might them along fencerows, streambeds, or even in areas where deer feed often. Keep a keen eye for an ivory colored bone laying on the ground. Once you find one, you’ll know what you’re looking for.

You didn’t think you were the first one to walk in the remote areas of Iowa, did you? I hope not! People have been living on the flat prairies for hundreds if not thousands of years before you and I even took our first breath. However, you can find evidence of their way of life during the spring and the early summer if you know where to look and what you are looking for.

I can promise you that if you take up this hobby, you’re going to be putting a lot of walking miles on your boots or shoes. Great distances will be walked on average to find one artifact. However, when you find one, it’s truly a surreal moment to experience. Just think, when you pick that artifact up, the last person that touched it probably did not think that we would be picking it up and considering it a treasure! As the saying goes, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure!”

After the winter frost thaws, the earth begins to “push up” new dirt to the surface of fields. After a few rains, those artifacts become exposed or partially exposed. Most of these “spots” are found in areas that have some timbers as well as water sources. Just think logically. Where would Native American’s set up camp for protection from the elements and supplies? These areas will produce some incredible treasures if you know what you’re looking for!

Summer Time Treasures
Mulberry Trees
Some of my best memories as a kid are of the summers and when the mulberry trees on our property were ripe! Oh, man! Talk about an endless supply of sweet little treats that I fill my mouth full. I am sure my mom was not very happy with the berry stains on my clothes after an afternoon binge of mulberry eating. To this day, if I am walking by a ripe mulberry tree, I can’t help but stop and pick a few to eat before I continue to my destination.

For a “weed tree” of Iowa, mulberry trees produce an abundance of fruit that can be picked and processed into pies, jams, jellies, and other sweet treats. A natural sweet treat can actually save you a bit of money in your grocery shopping during the summer.
Mulberries can be found on edges of field edges, timbers, and on farmsteads. They aren’t a very pretty looking tree. However, when they are prime for the picking, there are thousands of berries that will turn the tree into shades of pink, red, and dark purple. Just remember, it’s the dark colored berries that you want to be eating!

Wild Raspberries
Towards the end of June and into the beginning of July, Iowa’s timbers will produce an abundant crop of wild raspberries for anybody who cares to spend the time to harvest them! These wild raspberries are a dark purple color and are much smaller than a garden produced raspberry. The sweet taste is the same though!

Raspberry plants are easily identified in the timbers of Iowa. They are long single stems with a purple-ish color to them accompanied by some thorns. When walking through the timber, usually raspberries’ will tangle you up and grab at your clothes. They grow in patches and when you find them, you’ll find a multitude of them!

When the fruit turns a deep, dark purple color, they are ready to be harvested. The fruit will often come off with very little effort when they are ready to be picked.

It takes a lot of berries to make jam, or pie filling. Nevertheless, if you can have the patience to spend the hours it will take to pick them, you will not regret it! By far, this is my favorite summer treat. My daughters and I will usually go out and pick a good number of them to use in pancakes for the next few weeks! Wild raspberry pancakes will yield a taste that will make your efforts worth it!

Like the two previous berries, gooseberries are usually ripe and ready for the picking in late June and early July. These berries have always reminded me of a small grape in shape and color. They do not grow in bunches like grapes. However, in their immature stage, they will look like a small green grape. When they are ripe, like the previous berries mentioned, they will turn a dark purple and will be ready to pick.

Gooseberry plants can be found throughout Iowa’s timbers. They are the “brushy” shorter plants in the denser areas of the woods. They too have some nasty thorns what you will have to dodge when picking. If you’re careful, you can pick a good amount of fruit without suffering too much injury.

One of Iowa’s greatest treasures is her public campgrounds. Our state has some amazing areas set aside for folks to enjoy.

Some of these grounds have a multitude of options for guests. Swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, bird watching, and so much more are offered to the public as options for their camping experience. Depending on what you are camping in, prices are still relatively cheap. Let me put it this way, for what you would spend for a one-night hotel stay might pay for an entire week of camping!

Some places I would recommend would be Backbone State Park, Ledges State Park, Rock Creek State Park, Dolliver State Park, and Brushy Creek State Park (a great equestrian park). I’m sure there are more that you all would recommend too. My suggestion, get out there and experience it!

So venture from the house and get out from behind the screens. Take a walk by yourself or with your family and seek out a few of these treasures! It won’t be time wasted. Good luck!