6 foraging tips for free and adventurous eating

September 8 | Guest post by Adrienne
By: alexanansi – CC BY 2.0
By: alexanansiCC BY 2.0

Foraging is searching for wild food. You can forage food from the woods, from the sea, or anywhere you can find wild food growing. So, why would you forage when you can just go the grocery store? Because foraged food is free. It can help you have a closer connection with your food. And it's also a great way to spend a day exploring nature, while getting some fresh air and exercise.

But, before you go foraging, you should know some ground rules. Here are my top six foraging tips…

1. Stay safe

Make sure you know where you are going, and bring a friend, maps, a cellphone, and GPS. Getting lost in the middle of nowhere can be dangerous and scary. Make sure you have proper supplies in case you do get lost or injured. Bring a first aid kit, water and snacks. You should also make sure you are on public land or you could get in trouble for trespassing or theft. Make sure you have the correct permits if you are fishing or collecting shellfish.

2. Know what you are looking for

This is especially the case for food like mushrooms — if you pick the wrong one, it could be poisonous. Berries and other plants can also be harmful to humans, but look deceivingly delicious. Consider taking some classes on plant identification, or take someone with you who knows what they are doing. Consult field guides before you pick, and only eat a small amount the first time you collect a new food in case you have identified a plant incorrectly. Better safe than sorry.

3. Don't over-harvest

If you pick too many, you may pick them all. This is what happened with several varieties of mushrooms in our neck of the woods. Too many pickers picked, and now it is rare to find mushrooms like morels out in the wild. When foraging, make sure you leave plenty behind so that the plant can reproduce. Try to take mostly mature plants (unless the plant can only be harvested when it is young) so that the young ones can grow and go to seed.

4. Ask permission

If you are urban foraging (foraging in an urban area) make sure you ask permission if you are collecting things like berries or fallen apples that are at the edge of someone's property. Most people are happy to share as long as you ask first. If you do not ask first you are stealing. Not cool.

5. Don't harvest in toxic areas

Make sure you are foraging in areas that are free from pesticides and other harmful toxins. Be careful about harvesting too close to the road, as exhaust and other chemicals from cars may contaminate the plants.

6. Know which parts of the plant are edible at what time of the year

Some plants are only edible are certain times of the year. Stinging Nettle for example should only be harvested before it goes to seed. There are also some plants that you can only eat part of like the stem or the leaves. Make sure you know what you are looking for.

What are your best foraging tips? Share in the comments!

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  1. While your tips may be true for non-mushrooms, they're pretty off-base for the fungi kingdom. For one thing, the actual body of a mushroom plant is not visible – it's underground, or inside the tree, or wherever else you find it. Mushrooms are the fruit of that body. Picking mushrooms is therefore like picking apples – you could pick every single apple off of a tree and it will still make more the next time it fruits. If morels didn't come back, it's probably because of environmental factors; morels are some very temperamental fungi. Also, you should never, ever eat a mushroom you're not sure about – even a small amount of some poisonous ones can kill you. The mycologist's mantra is "When in doubt, throw it out!" There are some referred to as unmistakable mushrooms (these differ in different parts of the world) that are safe to eat because there aren't any poisonous lookalikes, so if you are interested in foraging mushrooms, start there. Mushrooms with pores on the underside (as opposed to gills) are usually safer, and AFAIK there aren't any deathly poisonous ones, although there are some that will give you some serious stomach issues. I don't want to scare anyone off of mushroom hunting, it's SO rewarding. But please, do some mushroom-specific research first.

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  2. I just went out foraging for wild blackberries this morning and came back with a huge bowl. 🙂 I'd love to learn how to pick mushrooms but I don't trust myself to learn from a book or online. Are there clubs and things like that I could go out with? How should I find them (the clubs, that is)?

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  3. For me, I find it's useful to learn a plant and learn it's poisonous lookalikes. Like right now, it's grape season. And growing next to and sometimes intertwined with, are poisonous look alikes, Virginia Creeper and Moonseed. That way, I know without a doubt that I've harvested the right plant.

    Depending on the item, I try to harvest by the 1/3rd rule and using sustainable practices. Ramps popularity have gone absolutely insane, so it is best to cut the top portion and leave the bulb so it can continue growing in the coming years. On the other hand, I absolutely pick everything I can when it comes to invasives – Wineberries, Autumn Olives, Japanese Knotweed, & Garlic Mustard.

    It's also important to be aware of your surroundings – make noise picking blueberries in bear country, I've found a ton of ticks on Wineberries and poison ivy hiding in berry patches.

    Also, just because you see animals eating wild fruit/plants, does not mean it is not toxic to humans!

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    • Moonberries look so much like grapes it is absolutely terrifying. We bought a house with grapes in the back yard, and I had no idea they could have been something poisonous.

      Thankfully ours are just normal table grapes!

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    • One year I made grape-infused vodka for a party. When my stomach started hurting from drinking it, I realized the terrible mistake I had made by picking Virginia Creeper with the grapes. I thought I had been so careful! After all, I had been picking berries at my parents' farm for over 20 years.
      By sheer luck I was the only one to drink it, and didn't suffer any effects other than a stomach ache. But even still, some things look so alike, it's scary.

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  4. Awesome post! I seem like one of few people foraging in my area, though wild raspberries, blackberries, mushrooms, apples and chokeberries are a-plenty!

    If you forage near a trail, don't pick up anything that sits both near the ground and right by the trail. Dogs (or humans!) might have peed on it and it can carry bacteria. I'd also advise to wash your foraging bounty thoroughly upon returning home, even if snacking the odd berry or two won't harm you.

    I do have a question. In my home country, if you're in doubt about anything foraged, i.e. berries, mushrooms… you can take them to a pharmacist (by that I mean someone with a PhD in pharmacy, not the cashier in a pharmacy) because identifying poisonous plants is part of their curriculum. They HAVE to know which mushrooms are toxic or not to get their degree, so they know their toxic shit from their edible shit.
    What about in Canada and/or the States? Could you take your wild plants to any professional for advice?

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  5. Deadly Nightshade looks a lot like little blueberries or something similar. They're supposedly okay when they're dark, but (obviously) deadly other times (when they're green). Be careful. It would also be smart to look up deadly plants (hemlock…etc) before you go, so you know what *not* to eat.

    Also, you can forage for art supplies (raw, dried, or to be used as natural dyes etc). Check out the instagram of this guy who does earth mandalas. He forages for supplies every morning and then creates art as mediation. His Insta is @morningaltars. Also Cara Marie Piazza @caramariepiazza does natural clothing dyes from flowers. Personally, I've used sticks and moss etc. for landscaping dollhouses.

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