It’s the middle of winter here in my neck of the woods, and while the weather has been kind here and there, I’ve been fairly reluctant to go out and do any real foraging in the cold rain and snow. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot out there to gather. BUT, even in the cold and snow and frigid wind, there are still wild foods out there to be gathered, I promise! Wild garlic/onions, chickweed, dock leaves, and henbit are all around me, and while not flourishingly abundant or overly flavorful, especially in the currently soggy, sometimes frozen ground, they are still available for our nourishment and enjoyment.
But instead of talking about a specific forage today, I wanted to touch on foraging in general. Why, what, and how.
I am known as the “weird lady who eats the weeds” at work. Most everyone in my social and work circles are what I would call “typical Americans:” caught up in a chemically dependent (chemical preservatives, processed foods, weed killer, pesticides, etc.) lifestyle of fast and easy, low nutrition, low effort food. I get it. I used to be there. The latest product, the latest diet, the latest study on what is an isn’t healthy. The constant struggle to keep up, and the constant stress on my body trying to maintain some sort of balance and health. I don’t live that way anymore. And in addition to other lifestyle and diet changes, I forage.
Don’t get me wrong. I still shop in a conventional grocery store. I still buy conventional milk and meat and produce from time to time. I buy and eat oranges and avocadoes in the winter, and some of our food does come in boxes. But we make choices. Yes, I let my daughter eat potato chips, but I have taught her to read labels and she makes the choice to avoid the ones which contain ingredients she can’t identify. Yes, I buy and eat sliced loaves of bread when I don’t have time to bake myself. But I read the labels and ensure I could actually make it myself, in my kitchen, with my available ingredients. It’s all about awareness and choices.
Wild food is everywhere! I personally have a hard time knowing that there are people hungry and malnourished in my community, my state, my country when I know for a fact there is food to be found all over. But we, as a society, have become so far removed from nature that we can’t recognize it, or won’t accept it. For example, in my state, deer meat isn’t allowed to be sold commercially, but it can be donated to local food banks, which many hunters do. I read an interview recently at one of those food banks, and the “patron” being interviewed was talking about refusing the wild game meat that was offered because she “just couldn’t eat that.” She had never tasted it. She ate other, conventionally-raised meats regularly. But turned her nose up to and turned down the wild meat because it didn’t come from a factory or grocery store.
But I digress…I can run down that particular road all day…
I can walk in my back yard on any given spring day and make a delicious, nutritious, salad for twenty people. I can pick enough wild greens out there to cook and freeze to get our family through the winter months without buying any at the grocery store. In the summer there are black berries and elderberries and cherries all along the edges of our woods, enough to gather pounds and pounds. (have you seen the price of a pint of black berries in the store lately??) A walk in the woods reveals tons of delicious mushrooms and a whole plethora of other edible plants, fruits, and nuts. And it’s all free.
Wild foods aren’t subject to the consumerism race and the financial leash of the marketplace. Wild foods aren’t manipulated genetically or sprayed with chemicals or “fed” unnatural things to make them “bigger, better, prettier.” Wild foods aren’t forced to grow where or how they aren’t naturally intended. And wild foods are generous. They flourish in their environment, requiring nothing from us but to find them and pick them. Anyone who’s toiled over a garden knows the pain of planting, watering, protecting, pruning, training, trellising, feeding, de-bugging, etc. etc. Wild foods require none of that, yet give arguably more nourishment in their simple, weedy ways.
Foraging is fun! It’s like a puzzle and an adventure and a treasure hunt all rolled into one! Some days I go out and have no idea what wonderful gift I will come across. Some days I go looking for something specific, and when I find it, gold! Some days I find something new and get to come up with a new dish to feature it in.
What to Forage?
What to forage depends totally on you: your familiarity with your surroundings, your location and climate, your level of plant knowledge, your tastes. Everyone has to decide for themselves what they will and will not allow in their lives. Everyone has different tolerances and fears. I can only share my thoughts and methods.
I do a lot of research before I consume anything or give it to my family. I have books on edible plants and edible mushrooms. I have books on botany. I have books on plant identification. I use a plant I.D. app on my phone. And even with all that, if I’m not 1000% sure it is what I think it is, I don’t take the chance.
I am very conscious of where I forage from. I don’t pick from roadsides or near public buildings. I don’t forage near fields that have been sprayed with chemicals, pesticides, or sludged. And I don’t forage in the areas of my yard the cat or dog may have decided to relieve themselves.
I only pick certain things at certain times of year. I’m not a huge fan of bitter, so I pick my bitter greens in the early spring, before they flower. I dig my roots (like dandelion, dock, or chicory) in the fall, after they die back because I know that is when they are most flavorful for roasting. If I need a chive/spring oniony type thing in the winter, I know I will need a little extra wild onion/garlic because the flavor seems a little watered down that time of year. And I know if it’s been raining a lot lately, all the greens will be milder and also more watered down in flavor.
I started with the easily identifiable, and the safest of everything. The things I knew, or were unmistakable in shape, color, form, or smell, and the things which had no poisonous lookalikes: dandelion, lamb’s quarters, black berries, paw-paw fruit, wood sorrel and sheep sorrel, chickweed, lion’s mane mushrooms. These were all easy to find, and abundant in my area, so I could get comfortable with them, experiment with them, taste them through the seasons, see what we liked and didn’t like about them, and most of all, allow our bodies time to get used to these “new” foods. And all the while I was looking up new plants I found along the way for potential additions.
How to Forage?
When foraging wild foods, always use appropriate caution and common sense:
* make sure you know what you are picking
* check for critters, both around you and in/on your forage
* only forage where you know it’s safe (contaminants, chemicals, etc.)
* never take more than you need; leave some of nature’s food for nature and leave some to grow for another day
Make sure you know what you are picking.
As I said before, I have lots of books. Local field guides can usually be found in the local library, and are abundant in book stores and online. Find one (or lots) that lay things out the way you learn best. I like pictures, with a backup description in text. Some people learn better with more in-depth descriptions. Use what will work for you.
A note about field guides: I once heard an interview with one of the men who was a co-writer on one of my field guides. He was on an herbal medicine podcast, and was asked why there were warnings for some of the plants which are widely accepted by herbalists as “safe.” He responded that if someone, somewhere, whether by stupidity or misuse or unfortunate circumstance had a negative reaction, the lawyers made them put in the warnings. A good example he had was one plant which has particularly spiny seed pods is warned to have the potential for eye irritation on vision impairment. Once upon a time, some guy accidently stabbed himself in the eye with one of the spines (not how the plant is intended to be used) and lost most of his vision.
Learning some beginner botany is also handy. It will help you identify plant families which comes in handy when you aren’t exactly sure what you are looking at, but can see similarities in a plant you are familiar with. It also helps you key in on specific traits of plants which may be the key to identifying potentially poisonous look-alikes.
For example, water hemlock is a very poisonous plant which, when large, looks a lot like and grows in the same areas (at least where I live) as elderberry. However, I know water hemlock is a herbaceous plant (i.e. has a non-woody stem). Elderberry is a woody plant, so I know if I’m picking flowers, to look for woody stems and branches. Additionally, I know Elderberry is actually part of the honeysuckle family, so if I can’t find elderberry flowers, I can get similar desired effects from the abundant honeysuckle flowers all around my area.
Check for critters
Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy the delights of wild foods. The yummier it is, chances are, the more other bugs, slugs, and wildlife are around.
Bugs, slugs, and caterpillars eat what we eat, so check in the cracks and crevices, and under leaves for stowaways. Also check fruiting bodies for holes or burrows where something might be hiding. Most things you find won’t hurt you, but I know from experience half a beetle in your greens at dinner can ruin an otherwise delicious meal!
Bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and other flying, stinging insects like flowers and sweet things, and may be around collecting pollen or snacking on some natural fruit sugar. They also may be underfoot in the flowers below you didn’t even notice. Be mindful of them, and they will usually leave you alone.
Animals big and small like the yummy things too. And where there’s small animals, there may be small-animal predators. As with bees, most critters will leave you alone as long as you leave them alone, but always be aware of your surroundings. Some bugs, bees, caterpillars, wasps, snakes, etc. can put a real damper on your foraging session. Which goes into…
Only forage where you know it’s safe
Safe from contaminants like chemical overspray, saturation, or runoff. Safe from pollution in general. Safe from animal dens or insect nests (which they can protect quite aggressively). And safe from belonging to someone else, as in, don’t forage on private land without getting express permission from the owner.
Never take more than you need
Leave some of nature’s food for nature: As I said before, critters of all kinds like much of the same things we humans do. Additionally, they don’t have the luxury of refrigerators for food storage, or grocery stores when they run out. As good stewards of nature, we should respect that we are sharing with thousands of other species and other lives when we forage. (And really, no one likes the guy that takes all the shrimp at the dinner party before anyone else can get to the platter!)
Leave some to grow for another day: Understand the lifecycle of plants, and be mindful of your affect on that. Most plants grow roots and leaves, then flowers to be pollinated (and also feed the bees and bugs). Some then grow fruit, while others go straight to seed. The seeds somehow make it to the ground, either by fallen, rotted fruit, dispersed droppings from animals, or maybe by the wind, and the cycle starts over again. If any of those steps are totally removed, the cycle ends, and so does the plant.
Simply put: if you gather all the fruit, there is no seed to get to the ground. If you pick all the flowers, fruits and seeds will never form. If you pick all the leaves, the plant will die before it flowers. If you pull the whole plant up by the root, the whole plant is dead and gone.
Be mindful to only take what you need, what you can use, and what you are likely to take the time to process as needed from your forage (there’s no point gathering two bushels of blackberries if you are just going to let them rot in your fridge). And always, always leave some to grow on. It helps the plants themselves, the ecosystem they live in, the critters which feed on them. And it helps you. When you go back to gather again, the plant, in all its generosity, will have regrown and have more to give!
Bring some tools: A good sharp knife can help with cutting off the tops of mushrooms. A pair of snips of loppers can help cut through stems cleanly. A small spade can be especially helpful if foraging for roots.
Something to carry your load: Baskets are nice for gathering, as they are open and airy, but can be cumbersome for long hikes. Bags are easier, especially if they can be carried on your shoulder or back, but your forage items, if delicate or tender, can end up bruised or smashed. If gathering for medicinals for tinctures, it’s nice to bring the jar you plan on using so you get just the right amount, but again, carrying glass jars can be delicate and/or cumbersome to deal with. Use what you think will work best for your situation, and always be willing to learn from your experience.
And on a final note, take notes! Learn as you go; where things grow, how they grow, how things change from season to season, year to year. What you like, what you don’t like. What works, what doesn’t work. Make drawings, sketches, doodles, add photos. All the books, blogs, and videos in the world can’t replace your experiences!
Oh, and most of all, enjoy yourself!