Foraging: Harvesting Wild Edibles
Knowing where and how to forage is a skill that I feel all Homesteaders need. It’s also something that varies from location to location. There is some risk to foraging, especially for novices, as many safe and nutritious plants have toxic look-alikes. Since I’m a novice, I’m going to concentrate on resources you can use for more expert information as far as plant identification, and I will share tips I was given during foraging workshops that I’ve taken. I’ll also include links and information for some common plants that are plentiful across the US.
Why should I forage? My motivation in learning to forage is directly due to my desire to be self-sufficient. I hate to garden (so sorry, Grandma!) and because of that, I need to rely on grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and my neighbors for fresh produce. Farmers’ markets and neighbors are great, but I hope that someday bland grocery store produce is the exception in our home. I hope that foraging will supplement this. There are also some wonderful edibles that have not been successfully cultivated, specifically morel mushrooms.
Not only is your menu improved by foraging, but grasses, reeds, trees, even pine needles can be foraged and made into items for your home. Baskets, mats, furniture, décor, etc. can be made from bits you can find in the woods, wetlands, and prairies.
Besides, it’s fun. There’s a special sense of accomplishment when you find and gather food and resources for your family.
Two Golden Rules of Foraging: These are the two rules that you should never break when foraging.
DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOU AREN’T ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE IS SAFE. Eating something you aren’t positive is safe is truly life-threatening. Mushrooms are especially dangerous, but there are lots of other plants that are toxic. If you can manage it, go on a couple forays with an experienced forager. At the minimum, invest in a foraging guide with clear descriptions and pictures. However, in my experience, even photographs are a poor substitute for someone with experience pointing out the authentic wild edible.
FORAGE SUSTAINABLY. You never want to be “that guy” who collects an entire patch of <insert wild edible here>. I’ve heard various percentages to forage from one location, but most commonly it’s that one should never collect more than 50% of the plants from one location. Foraging sustainably also means that you don’t kill the plant when you harvest. Sometimes this is unavoidable, like when the root is what you’re harvesting. If this is the case, absolutely only harvest what is needed. Breaking this rule will result in the loss of these wild plants.
Before you go: Make sure you check regulations in your area to ensure you’re foraging legally, and more importantly, with consideration. If you’re going to forage on private land, be sure you’ve received permission from the land owner; trespassing is always a bad idea. If it’s public land, make sure that foraging is allowed.
Tools for foraging: Below are some simple tools that you need to take with you on every foray.
- Basket or mesh bag: Yeah, you’re thinking, “Duh. I need something to carry my loot.” Which you do; however, you need to be sure that whatever you choose to use will allow any pollen or spores to escape into the environment to perpetuate the plants. Avoid plastic, metal and densely-woven fabric.
- Knife: Something with a sheath or folding makes carrying it around safer. I like a belt knife because it’s fewer things I need to have in my hands. You can carry it in your bag/basket, but if it’s on your belt, it’s more accessible.
- Pruners or scissors: Yes, you need this in addition to your knife. Sometimes this type of cutting is just easier and better for the plant. Small hand pruners can fit in your back pocket; scissors should be in your bag to carry them safely.
- Smaller mesh or cloth bags: You may want to keep some of your loot separate from the rest. Remember; try to find a material that will allow spores and pollen to escape. In a foraging workshop I was in, someone suggested the legs from pantyhose. I haven’t used this, but it makes sense to me and is something I’ll probably try.
- Gloves: Gardening gloves or light leather gloves are a good choice. Some plants can irritate your skin – such as nettles – and you may need to get past thorns or burrs to get to the good stuff.
What to forage: Now that you have the tools you need and the location picked out, you need to know what to collect. As I said before – safe and available plants vary drastically from region to region, so find a workshop, experienced forager or book for your region before you go out. Below are some plants that are available in most of North America, are easily identifiable and useful in many ways.
- Cattails – There are so many articles on the internet regarding foraging cattails. Every part of the plant is useful, and everything but the leaves is edible. But don’t discard the leaves; weave them into mats and baskets. Cattail fluff is one of the best tinder materials out there. When you forage, remember that cattails are highly useful to the environment as well as your foraging basket. Collect only what you need and be mindful of collecting shoots and roots especially if the water is brackish or possibly polluted.
- Rose hips – Rose hips are the fruit of roses and have ~50% more vitamin C than oranges by volume. Rose hips can be made into jams, jellies and teas. As with all fruits, they should be prepared soon after harvesting. The fuzzy seeds on the outside should be removed as they could cause irritation. The inner seeds should also be removed by cutting the hips in half to scrape the seeds out.
- Dandelions – Oh, the poor misunderstood dandelion! The attributes that make dandelions so amazing are the very things for which they’re vilified. They’re hardy, fast-growing, resilient and will grow almost anywhere. If this was a tomato, everyone would want them instead of waging war to eradicate them. The roots are a natural diuretic and tradition suggests they aid in liver function. Aside from the medicinal uses, apparently the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried this and, as a coffee addict, I’m intrigued and may be roasting some this summer. It’s not only the roots that are useful, the leaves are wonderful in salads and are even being sold commercially – really – and suburbanites are drenching their lawns in herbicides to kill them?!? As for the flowers, collect them then remove the petals and add water, juice and yeast for dandelion wine. You’ll never look at the lowly dandelion the same.
- Wood Sorrel – These lovely heart-shaped leaves add a surprising zip to salads. It does the same for iced or hot drinks such as tea, cider and lemonade. Please note that this plant contains a high amount of oxalic acid which can exacerbate certain kidney, bladder and arthritis issues; but so does spinach. You can lightly cook the leaves to neutralize some of the oxalic acid.
Be safe: Since foraging is much more uncommon than wandering about the grocery store, research the wild edibles you collect. I really can’t stress this enough. Not only to ensure that what you’re eating is safe and non-toxic, but if there could be any interactions with lifestyle or medications. Rose hips have a high concentration of vitamin C and could interact/interfere with some hormone replacement medications. St. John’s Wort shouldn’t be taken by anyone with thyroid issues or taking thyroid replacement medication. While I believe in natural foods, medications and remedies, I also believe in modern medicine. So, educate yourself on the foods you’re eating and any medication and supplements you’re taking.
Resources: There are so many resources available, both online and in print. Personally, I like to have a hard copy to carry with me on my forays as opposed to a Kindle or electronic version. This way, I don’t have to worry about connectivity or battery availability and it’s easier to make notes. I recommend that you find a foraging guide for your region. Amazon has a slew of options – both print and Kindle versions.
I can’t even begin to cover all of the online resources out there. Of course, with anything you find on the internet, be sure to verify the information. That said, here are a few sites that I’ve found helpful:
There are also apps to install on your phone or tablet. Simply search the App Store or Play Store for foraging apps. Note that these are not usually region specific.
However, the best resource for the novice is an experienced forager to teach you. Someone willing to teach you these pioneer skills. I’m fortunate to live in an area that encourages foraging and I have several opportunities to go on forays with experienced foragers each season.
Try foraging in baby steps. Even if it’s not something you enjoy, the knowledge could be invaluable in some situations.