Foraging is the art of finding and harvesting edible plants from the wild. The “wild” can refer to your backyard, the edge of your property, the local park, the woods, forests, and other natural areas. It’s a great way to learn about the plant life around you while saving some money at the same time.
But, you have to know what you’re doing and you cannot jump into this with blinders on. Let’s be honest, there’s a lot of dangerous and poisonous plants out there. What compounds this is that some plants appear edible, but they belong to another family altogether and, if you eat them, will make you sick.
Here’s a basic guide to getting you started. It takes practice and patience, but with some tenacity and self-discipline, you can create an entire meal out of what you forage.
Safety Is Everything
Please consider the following warnings and cautions before foraging:
- Be 300% certain about the plant’s identity before you ingest or harvest it; when in doubt, leave it alone.
- Always harvest in a “clean” location; avoid roads, building foundations, railroads, electric lines, floodplains, polluted bodies of water, and fields sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.
- Only harvest plants with a clear abundance or others that are non-native invaders.
- Only harvest any given plant when it’s the right time to do so.
- Once harvested, thoroughly wash and prepare your plants – first soak them in very warm (not hot) water, white vinegar, and baking soda for 20 to 30 minutes; then rinse again in lukewarm water.
- Always get permission to harvest plants on someone’s private property. Check with the government and other legalities in the event you’re harvesting from a national or state park. Do not take plants listed as endangered species.
The best way to understand what plant you have on your hands is to know the various plant families available and look at an individual plant’s stem, leaves, and flowers, if any.
Also, get a plant identification book specific to your area. It’s also advisable that you start in your neighborhood before wandering out into the great outdoors.
Also, enlist the aid of an expert. Every state has a local professional botanist and/or foraging expert. They often hold workshops and seminars on how to forage for plants and which plants to avoid along with all the nuances that go with selecting plants for consumption in your area.
Another useful tool is an app for your smartphone or tablet that helps with plant identification. For example, “Picture This” allows you to capture a pic of the plant and it then searches its user-submitted database to return results. It isn’t a foolproof solution, but it does make a handy guide.
Plants to Avoid
What’s more important than anything is knowing what you should NOT consume. Avoid anything from the Buttercup, Trillium, and Orchid families. Do not take wild ginseng, goldenseal, lady’s slipper, and black cohosh, to name a few.
The following is a list of some of the most common plants you can safely consume that offer nutritional and medicinal value—more from Outside as well.
This popular and familiar weed grows almost anywhere and dandelions are famous for their ability to help with digestion.
When harvesting, dig up the entire plant from the roots. Roasting the roots makes for a great additive for coffee or tea. Sautéed leaves, stems, and flowers can go into salads, fritters, and rice side dishes. You can even turn the stems into noodles.
Another common plant often considered a weed is red clover, easily identified by its reddish purple-pink color and distinctive leaves. This is one perfect for the whole family because you can make a tea out of it for children under seven as a sleep aid and is a wonderful anti-anxiety agent for adults. You can put it in salads, soups, baked goods, and sandwiches.
Almost anything from the mint family will be great for foods or medicine and easily identified by its square stem and incredible aroma. Note that there are some species from this group of plants you do have to be cautious about taking, especially when pregnant. Avoid deadly nightshade, pennyroyal, and germander.
Things like mint, spearmint, lavender, lemon balm, rosemary, or basil are all great in tea, sauces, salads, soups, sandwiches, and as spices.
The rose flower and the entire Rose family are often safe to consume. These will always have flowers with five petals. You may get contact dermatitis with species like tea rose or agrimony, but anything else should be fine. Apples, pears, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries are all part of the Rose family. These are fabulous in desserts, baked goods, salads, teas or as is.