Text by Ashley Giordano
Photos by Richard Giordano

A Beginner’s Guide to Foraging

Bounty in the Backcountry

Some are drawn to foraging, the collection and harvest of wild plant foods, for nutritional purposes. Others enjoy the hunt. Some folks want to hone their wilderness survival skills or are looking to add variety to their diet. But, most importantly, learning practical foraging skills instills confidence, empowering us to engage with nature while reminding us that we are not separate from it, but part of it.

Step 1: Learn to Properly Identify Plants 

The first step to foraging edible plants is learning how to properly identify them. Plants, like every living thing on the planet, use a variety of adaptations to ensure their survival. Sharp spines on a cactus, thorns on a rosebush, and thick bark are good examples of the external lines of defense that plants have developed to protect themselves against predators. If these external defenses are breached, the plant must resort to more extreme measures. For example, Foxglove produces several toxic chemicals that, if ingested by humans, can cause nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, convulsions, or death. As foragers it is crucial to be able to determine which plants will harm us and which are safe to eat.

Fortunately, there are ample resources at our disposal. A quick Google search will often reveal guided plant walks, workshops, edible plant hiking adventures, foraging meetups, Facebook groups, or wild food classes in your area. Resources are also available online, such as the Herbal Academy’s 5 Lesson Online Foraging Course. Seek out plant walks or courses hosted by local indigenous groups or elders. Much of what we know about plants comes from the extensive knowledge base of Native American tribes who, by carefully observing and experimenting, determined the best seasons for harvesting, the most efficient methods of harvesting, and the best ways to preserve and store plant foods.

As a novice forager, a good guidebook and/or field guide will be your best friend. Plant species vary with climate, so choose a guide that is specific to your local area. Well-known titles include The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer and Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants: Eastern and Central North America by Lee Peterson. To round out your foraging toolkit, try downloading apps such as PictureThis and iNaturalist.

Step 2: Choose A Location

Regulations in both the United States and Canada limit where you can forage; these rules vary significantly by state, province, and local government. It is largely illegal to harvest in national and state parks and nature preserves, but there are exceptions. Wild plants and mushrooms are bio-accumulators of soil contaminants, so it is important to be wary of plants that have been sprayed with pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or herbicides, and avoid foraging at least a quarter mile from any heavily traveled roads and at least 10 miles from any waste disposal or toxic dumping areas. Such areas include old orchards, abandoned roads or parking lots, next to train tracks, or near factories and landfills. While these areas are not ideal for foraging, they are a great place to learn and practice your identification skills. 

When foraging, gather fresh fallen boughs rather than taking from the tree itself

One of the best ways to collect evergreen needles and branches is to gather fresh fallen boughs, rather than foraging from the tree itself.

Where should you forage? On public or crown land where allowed, private property (with permission), near hiking trails, off-road trails, near marshes, swamps, hillsides, stream banks, moist woodlands, coastlines, and your own backyard or garden. If you are seeking wild plants in urban environments check out Falling Fruit, an interactive public-sourced online map identifying foraging locations across the globe.

“WHEN LIFE IS NOT COMING UP ROSES LOOK TO THE WEEDS AND FIND THE BEAUTY HIDDEN WITHIN THEM.” –L.F. YOUNG

Fireweed leaves are edible and can be combined with flowers to make tea

Considered a pioneer species, Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) appears in areas of soil disruption, such as after forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and logging. The young leaves are edible and can be combined with the flowers to make tea.

 

Foraging amongst a field of Fireweed in New Brunswick, Canada

Amongst a field of Fireweed in New Brunswick, Canada.

If you are fortunate enough to have a plot of un-sprayed greenspace near your home, look for greens such as plantain, chickweed, or dandelion. Yep, the flowers, leaves, and roots of the pesky dandelion weed are edible! Rich in iron, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, E, and B-complex, this plant’s young leaves are often consumed in a salad or stir-fry, while the roots can be roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. The bright yellow flower heads are also used to make wine. Despite its ubiquitousness, it is important to harvest this plant in a pesticide-, herbicide-, contaminant-free environment (aka in the wild). A word of caution: some react to dandelion’s milky sap, which can cause rashes on sensitive skin. Also, be diligent in your plant identification as this plant is often mistaken for Hawkbit or Hawksbeard.

Step 3: Use Best Practices 

Just like camping, hiking, and off-roading, the goal is to impact the land as little as possible. As Andrew MacKinnon aptly states in Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada, “The use of wild resources must be viewed as a privilege rather than a right.” Take only what you need and harvest species that are invasive or recover easily. A good rule of thumb is to take only 5 percent or less of the population; for example, one plant or one berry in 20. Know which part of the plant you actually need. For example, it is unnecessary to uproot wild mint as you only need the leaves and not the root. Hop onto United Plant Savers for their species at-risk list. American ginseng, echinacea, sandalwood, ramps, and white sage are examples of several species that you want to avoid due to their at-risk or “to watch” status.

“WHAT IS A WEED? A PLANT WHOSE VIRTUES HAVE NOT YET BEEN DISCOVERED.” –RALPH WALDO EMERSON

A guided plant walk is one of the best ways to learn about edible wild plants

A guided plant walk is one of the best ways to learn about edible wild plants.

Now the fun part. Helpful tools for the job include a basket, bucket, large paper or cotton bags, a sharp knife, some scissors, a trowel or hand spade if you are collecting roots or rhizomes, gardening gloves, and your favorite field guide. Start with easily identifiable plants and only consume a plant if you are 100 percent certain you’ve identified it correctly. As the old adage goes: “There are bold mushroom pickers, and there are old mushroom pickers, but there are no old, bold mushroom pickers.”  

“A GOOD RULE OF THUMB IS TO TAKE ONLY 5 PERCENT OR LESS OF THE POPULATION, FOR EXAMPLE, ONE PLANT OR ONE BERRY IN 20.”

Most parts of the wild rose (Rosa spp.) shrub are edible, including the petals, leaves, roots, and peeled twigs–most often for tea. Rose hips are rich in vitamins A, B, E, and K and are one of the best sources of vitamin C. This species was found in Patagonia, Chile.

The fruit and pads of the Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.) are edible, as long as you can get past the prickles. (Hint: burning them with a flame works.) The pads called nopales, are a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine.

Foraging for Juniper berries, commonly used in meat dishes or soups and stews

Juniper (Juniperus spp.) is most commonly known for flavoring gin, but the berries can also be used to add flavor to meat dishes or soups or stews.

Douglas Fir Needle Tea

(Pseudotsuga menziesii)
The light green needle tips of Douglas fir branches are high in Vitamin C and make a delicious cup of tea. The Nlaka’pamux of the Thompson territory of British Columbia consumed needle tea to prevent scurvy, while the Isleta Puebloans in New Mexico used it to treat rheumatism.

2 tablespoons pine needles (fresh)
1 cup boiled water
Honey (optional) to taste
Strip the needles off the branch and cut into smaller pieces. Add a spoonful of needles to your mug and cover with boiling water. Cover and steep for 10 minutes. Strain out the needles, sweeten to taste (optional) and enjoy.
Caution: Be careful not to confuse with Yew family as these are toxic. Always drink evergreen teas in moderation. Do not eat the needles or drink the teas in high concentrations or with great frequency.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the November/December 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine

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