This article is meant to be an introduction to the world of foraging. My goal is to use my own journey to show how approachable and safe foraging can be and to inspire others to learn these skills. I am not writing this article as an “expert,” but as someone who has gained enough confidence in my skills to regularly gather wild food. A number of the “wild” foods I will mention grow in my yard or garden and I have simply stopped weeding them and started eating them instead.
Here is what we are going to cover together in this article: the reasons you should consider learning foraging skills, how to get started, resources to begin your foraging journey, and some plant profiles of valuable or fun plants with which to begin your new hobby. Spring is coming in just a couple months, and if you begin now you can be ready to start harvesting your first plants in just a few months!
You alone are responsible for what you put in your mouth. Do not eat any plant you have not identified with 100% certainty! When you see an apple at the grocery store you know with certainty it is an apple. If you had to pick between an apple and a deadly poisonous fruit sitting next to it you could pick the right one to eat every time. You can and should develop the same level of certainty with the wild foods you forage. We will cover additional safety protocols later in the article.
I do not have any financial affiliation or personal connection with any of the products, books, or websites mentioned in this article. I have simply included some of the resources I have found helpful in my foraging journey.
With those out of the way, let’s begin!
Why Learn the Skill of Foraging?
There are many benefits to learning to forage native and wild plants. It’s not very hard to imagine some of the benefits in a survival or grid-down scenario. In a world with fragile supply chains, wars, natural disasters, and major crop failures, foraging can become another layer of food security for you and your family. What if you were forced to evacuate or bug out long-term and were not able to make it to another safe location with a food cache? In an extended grid-down disaster how and where would you find food? Would you even know where to look? What if you experienced a crop failure and didn’t have enough to make it through the winter? Where could you find additional food? Foraging skills could be the difference for you and your family.
Besides the obvious survival benefits, almost as important are the real-time benefits received while learning and mastering these skills. The exercise and mental health benefits of being in nature have been documented and measured in multiple studies. The food you gather is often some of the most delicious you can find, and some high end restaurants pay big money for gourmet wild crafted foods.
Many of these plants have served as traditional staples for millennia and have only been abandoned because they do not fit our modern industrial agricultural model. Many of the wild plants also have medicinal value (for example, dandelion), or very robust nutritional profiles (for example, Nettles). With each plant you learn to identify, harvest, and process you also gain the personal satisfaction and confidence that comes from learning new skills.
Lastly, you gain a greater connection to the land and appreciation for creation. A thicket or patch of weeds will never look the same when you realize how many of those plants can provide food or medicine for you. There are no useless plants. Our creator put them all there for a reason, and they each have a job to do.
I have had people tell me they would just live off the land in a survival scenario. It was very difficult not to laugh in their face. After a fall hunting season of cooking tag soup, and several years of casual foraging I can tell you this is impossible unless you have already located a network of nearby plant resources and have the skills to use them.
The native peoples that lived off the land before European settlers arrived actively managed the land for both plant and animal populations. They knew where to go, and when to arrive for various seasons of harvest throughout the year. I know where to find dozens of hickory and black walnut trees near my house. I know where to find wood nettle in our township park. I know where to find sunroot on nearby state game land. I’ve got my own pawpaw grove in a nearby state forest. As you learn to identify and forage food, you will also need to build a mental map of foraging spots (or better yet a real map with marked locations). This is the real way to maximize foraging as both a survival skill and a fun delicious pastime. If you have the land for it, you may even want to introduce or plant your own patches of certain plants or encourage what is already growing as a “food forest” or “food meadow.” I’ve planted sunroot, ostrich ferns, and hazelnuts in my yard and I’ve encouraged black nightshade, wood sorrel, and purslane to grow in my gardens.
How to Start Foraging
Chances are that many of you reading this article have already foraged wild food at some point in your life. Have you ever gone picking for wild blueberries or blackberries? Ever eaten a wild strawberry? That’s foraging. It’s simply heading out to a location that you already know has a patch of the plant you are seeking, at the right time of year, with the right items to collect/carry your harvest, and knowledge to process and use it in the kitchen. I find it helpful to think about each plant as its own separate cluster of skills: 1.) Identification and Habitat 2.) Harvesting 3.) Processing & Storing 4.) Cooking & Preparing.
Identification is the hardest part for any new plant you want to learn to harvest. You not only need to be able to identify it in the field, you also have to be able to find it in the current life stage of the plant. Many plants are not easily identified at the time of year they are ready for collection. For example, Jerusalem artichoke/sunroot are easiest to identify in late summer when they are blooming, but the tubers are best harvested in early winter after several freezes and the plants are already dead. In your first season of foraging you just want to start getting familiar with as many plants as possible, and observe them throughout their lifecycle.
It can be helpful to mark patches of plants you want to come back to later on in the season for observation or harvest. Did you find a nice stand of shagbark hickories on a day hike in June? You might want to come back in the fall for harvesting. Identification will get much easier with practice. Our brains are designed to learn and recognize patterns. Once you learn a plant well you will suddenly start to notice it popping up all over the place, and will learn to recognize it in all stages of its life cycle. The most important skill in foraging is careful observation.
Another tip I have for identification is to purchase seeds of the wild plant you want to observe from a reputable seed seller and plant it in your yard. This gives you a chance to observe the entire life cycle of the plant, and makes it much easier to spot in a natural setting. This is a great option for plants that you really want to try out, but which you are having a hard time locating a harvestable population.
Safety Guidelines for Identification
(This section is summarized from Sam Thayer’s book: Incredible Wild Edibles)
1.) Identify plants with absolute certainty before eating them. Your plants must match all the characteristics in your field guide. You cannot make the plant match the guide. If you are not certain if you are absolutely certain, then you are not.
2.) Confirm which part of the plant is edible, and how it is prepared. Ripe mayapple fruit is delicious, but the leaves, roots, and stems are dangerous. Some plants are toxic until they are cooked, such as elderberries. Learn what to use, when to pick it, and how to prepare it.
3.) Collect from a chemically safe environment. I have yet to try cattail rhizomes because I haven’t been able to find a patch that isn’t going to be full of water from farm or road runoff. Roadside bramble patches or power line cuts may look like great places to forage, but do they get sprayed with pesticides or herbicides? Fence rows and tree lines between farm fields may have tons of selection, but how much herbicide/pesticide does the farmer use?
4.) Eat a small portion the first time you try a new food in case you have an adverse reaction. Some foods that are generally edible can cause gastric discomfort in some people or show intolerances/allergies over time. It’s like introducing a new food to an infant. Just one new food at a time, and just a little bit until you know you can handle it.
5.) Do not eat what disagrees with you or is distasteful. This rule is not a substitute for identification, nor is it foolproof, but it helps keep you safe in the event you misidentify a plant. For example if you mistakenly harvest dogbane instead of milkweed shoots it will be extremely bitter and spitting it out will save you a bellyache.
Steps to Positively Identify a New Plant
(This section is summarized from Sam Thayer’s book: Incredible Wild Edibles)
1.) Tentative Identification: This is when you think you know what a plant is. Maybe a friend has pointed it out to you but you are not ready to trust your life to their plant identification skills. For foraging appliacations even an identification with a dichotomous key should be considered tentative. They often rely on single characteristics which can vary or be misinterpreted.
2.) Reference Comparison: Use reputable identification resources, preferably several of them. Compare all parts of the plant to the images in your guide. Carefully read the descriptions and observe your plant to see if they have ALL the identifying characteristics. The descriptions will often explain which features can vary, which are consistent, and which are diagnostic. When comparing your plant to your references don’t “make it fit.” People have an amazing ability to see what they want to see. Don’t fool yourself. Also make sure you tether yourself to the scientific name, not the common name. An herb I have used for tea has common names including: teaberry, checkerberry, boxberry, and wintergreen. You should use the scientific name, Gaultheria procumbens, for identification purposes. You don’t have to learn latin, or even remember all the names. It just ensures you are talking about the same plant as your reference guide.
3.) Specimen Search: Once you have positively identified a plant go find more of them. This forces you to repeatedly confirm your identification and helps you understand the variability within the plant population. Look for the plant in multiple stages of growth and confirm them. Your specimen search builds your brain’s “search image,” the process by which over time your brain learns to recognize plants instantly. 10 years ago I could not have identified a black walnut tree. I have 3 of them in my yard at my current home and can now identify them from the highway at 65 mph, even in the winter with no leaves. Now that I know what to look for I realize that I have been driving past them for years. My brain just didn’t recognize them, and threw them into the general category of “tree.”
4.) Assessing Confidence: Before you eat any wild plant you need to be completely certain that you have identified it correctly. No doubt, no hesitation, absolutely certain. If your confidence falls short, repeat steps 2 & 3 until it does. I observed black nightshade through an entire growing season and did not harvest and eat from the plant until the 2nd year (they are delicious). I was “pretty sure” the 1st year. “Pretty sure,” isn’t good enough.
(To be continued, in Part 2.)