When you’re putting a meal on the table, where do your ingredients come from? Most of us buy the bulk of our food at the grocery store or farmers’ markets. Some people grow their own food in their gardens or on farms—and some people go out into the wild to forage.
Foraging has gained popularity in recent years, but it’s a time-tested tradition. The term simply refers to going out into the woods or other wild areas to find edible plants to eat. When done correctly, you can find nutritious, tasty treats like mushrooms, nuts, herbs and edible flowers.
Whether you try foraging once or make it part of your weekly food “shopping” routine, it’s a great way to get nutrient-dense food, try new flavors and maybe even save money on your grocery bill.
Is foraging safe?
Yes, when you know what you’re doing, you can safely gather a variety of locally grown foods. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should charge out into the untamed yonder and consume every plant you see. There are plenty of poisonous plants out there—some which look a lot like safe plants—and it’s important to educate yourself before you go.
Alexis Nikole Nelson, a popular internet foraging guide, spoke to The Washington Post about not dying while foraging (a goal we fully support). But you don’t need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of local plant life in order to successfully forage. “There’s no shame in the ‘taking something home to do more research where I have better Internet’ game!” she says. “When I’m in new places, I still take samples home or to my hotel or what have you to further research.”
Nelson further recommends that you start small whenever trying a new plant. After all, you may discover a new allergy or intolerance. No need to make an entire salad of dandelion greens when you’ve never eaten them before.
Is foraging sustainable?
Foraging can be sustainable—but it’s important to keep location, size of the patch and species in mind. Nelson discusses ethical ramp harvesting as an example. In New York, ramps are close to being considered endangered. That’s not the case in every state, so be sure to find out whether common, local wild plants are endangered.
She recommends that you look at the size of the patch you’re foraging in. For instance, if you do come across wild ramps, would there be any left if 20 more people took the same amount you’re taking?
Finally, consider only gathering leaves from multi-leaved plants and leaving the rest, so they can continue to photosynthesize. When harvesting bulbed plants, look for something far more prolific (and/or invasive), like invasive field garlic.
Ultimately, foraging sustainability depends on your level of education, how you treat the plants and how quickly they can reproduce. Nelson, however, believes that the more we respectfully interact with green spaces, the more sustainable foraging will be.
How to get started
Depending on what you’re foraging for—and whether classes are available in your area—it might be wise to start with a class. Many community centers, community colleges and local businesses offer hands-on foraging classes to help people get started under supervision. This is especially important if you’re harvesting foods like mushrooms or berries, which can have a significant risk-to-reward ratio.
It's often wise to pick up a good book, whether you take it with you or wait until you get back home to identify your haul.
Next, research your local area. What grows wild? What’s endangered? What is invasive? Find one or two plants that fit the bill, then go out hunting for them. Don’t forget to find out if there are any local laws which may affect your foraging.
When you’re learning about edible plants, be sure to research any lookalikes, and how to tell them apart. For instance, the BBC notes that “wild chervil is a delicious herb, but it also looks almost identical to hemlock, a deadly plant that will dispatch you into the realm of 'rookie ex-forager' with an alarming degree of haste.” (Carrots, too, can look very similar to hemlock.)
Discover foraging for yourself
Whether you want a new adventure, a new flavor or to save money on pricey chanterelles and morels, foraging is a great way to eat better food and get in touch with your local wildlife. You never know—you might just find your new favorite foods.