Do you ever feel like you’re just too far away from your food? Even when you shop organic at your local market, it’s not always obvious where your food was grown. Enter: foraging, the practice of gathering food and medicine from native wildlife. Whether you’re looking to reconnect to the ecosystem around you, get some exercise, or practice presence in nature, foraging is an ancient practice that requires patience and wisdom. Before you embark on your foraging journey, here’s some helpful information to get you started.
Begin your foraging journey before ever leaving the house!
Although foraging is a physical activity, it is first and foremost knowledge based. Knowing exactly how to identify plants is the core of the practice, because misidentifying can lead to food poisoning, allergic reactions, or worse. The absolute best way to become a foraging pro is to find a mentor in your area. Connecting with someone who knows your specific ecosystems is a sure-fire way to get all the important information. Whether or not a mentor is accessible, getting a good foraging book is always a good idea. A reference book can help you identify plants, learn new ones, and gain confidence to try out new things. Check out this curation of foraging books. Whether it’s through a book or mentor, be sure to learn about the dangerous native plants in your area before you set out. If you know for sure what to avoid, you can be more confident when branching out.
Pick a good location
Now that you’ve done your reading and learned what you can, it’s time to take your preparation to the field! But what field? When picking a place to forage try to get as far away from highly populated areas or highways. Many plants absorb toxins from cities and car exhaust. Less humans and cars means healthier plants. Oftentimes, there will be a sign indicating whether an area has been sprayed with pesticides. Do everything you can to identify and avoid these areas. Even “untouched” areas of wilderness can be unsafe to forage in. Contaminated water sources or toxic soil can be present in even the most seemingly “pristine” environments. Research on your environment beforehand, how to spot contaminated water and soil allows you to be confident that the plants you’re using are safe to be ingested. This is especially important if you are foraging water plants, or if you’re planning on eating or using something in its raw form.
Also, make sure to stay on public property. The last thing you need when foraging is a trespassing ticket. If on federal or state owned land, acquaint yourself with foraging restrictions as well. It’s never a bad idea to wear a reflecting vest while foraging. Being visible is a good way to avoid a variety of conflicts. Safety first!
Identify like a pro
Identifying plants is the name of the game! When setting out, pick two or three easily identifiable species to get you started. Dandelion, chickweed, and pine nuts are three easy to spot and ingestible plants. But of course, there are a couple tips you may want to consider when branching out into new plants. The first is, not to always rely on common names, as sometimes they can refer to several different plants. Latin names are specific to each plant, so when using them you know you’re only speaking about a particular species. While learning from a book teaches visual identification, it’s important to use all your senses when foraging. Many edible plants have lookalikes. Utilize scent and feeling as well as visuals. Often, poisonous plants are bright or smell bad. While taste can be used to identify in some cases, it’s not the best approach for beginner foragers. Some plants, like hemlock, are deadly in small doses. When in doubt, don’t touch or taste, and always have a poison control plan ready.
A note on sustainability: Foraging responsibly means making our presence in nature as least impactful as possible. Never over pick a species and only harvest the parts of the plant you’re going to use. Knowing the flowering and growing cycles of plants also allows you to harvest at a time of abundance. Foraging is a natural act, and when done right, is safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly. a