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In a world where we are trying to be more sustainable, consumers are actively looking for ways to use natural resources more readily. Couple this with the advantage of being able to get out into the wild and get some exercise, foraging could be your new weekend leisure activity.
What is Foraging?
In the simplest terms, foraging is where you go out into nature and search for wild plants that you can gather and harvest for your own use. What’s great about it is that it gives you a food source that’s totally free.
Many people forage without even thinking about it. Do you go up to the woods to pick blackberries, or perhaps you search for wild (non-toxic) mushrooms for that stew you’re planning to make for dinner?
Our ancestors relied on these basic skills to gather food, and it’s something that many of us still enjoy today.
What Can You Forage For?
If you thought that there was a large selection of foods at your local grocery store, then you’ll be amazed at what the wild has in store for you. Where you are located will depend on what you will be able to forage but with everything from crustaceans to berries, fungi to nuts, and everything in between, your options are very broad.
Before picking any wild plant, make 100% sure it is not poisonous. If in any doubt, do not pick it!
Fruits & Berries
You must be mindful when collecting berries and fruits as not all of them are safe for human consumption. However, things like hawthorn, crab apple, blackberries, and rosehip are all perfect and in abundance across the country. You might also look for elderberries, whitebeam, and wild raspberries or strawberries.
However, do avoid things like the wayfaring tree, honeysuckle, and tutsan, as these are toxic.
Nuts provide some serious nutrition, but there’s no need to buy them from the store when nature has a wealth of nuts just waiting to be harvested. Winter is a great time to forage for nuts as there will be plenty of them before fruits and berries have started to grow.
Try looking for things like wild chestnuts, beechnuts, pine nuts, and hazelnuts. A lot of people don’t realize that the acorn is actually edible and since there are plenty of these around, it’s one of the most popular foods for foragers.
Never pick mushrooms or fungi if you are not 100% certain that they are safe. There are some species out there that can be fatal if eaten by humans, so it simply isn’t worth the risk.
But don’t let that notion put you off; there are still plenty of mushroom types that grow across the United States that are great as a food source. Things like chicken of the woods and penny buns are perfect for foraging. You might also go in search of scarlet elf cups which will give any meal a dash of color.
Plants & Flowers
It is thought that there are 17,000 native species of plant in the USA plus many others that have been introduced. So, it goes without saying that foragers are truly spoiled for choice. But which ones are safe?
There are many species of edible wildflower if you fancy something a little different. This includes things like the viola flower, dandelions, wisteria flowers, wild roses, and mustard flowers. Be careful to ID the flower 100% before eating as some can be toxic.
Nettles and ground ivy are great plants for foragers. Not only can they be included as part of your diet, but they’re incredibly easy to identify, so come with very few risks.
Of course, nettles are a little prickly so you could be fooled into thinking they’re not safe but it’s all about how you harvest and eat them. Make sure to pick the nettle by holding it at the base and heat it over a fire to remove the sting. It’s then good to eat and is bursting with nutrients like folic acid and iron.
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There are many types of seaweed that are edible, and it’s a great choice for vegetarians or vegans who want something a little different. One of the most popular seaweeds to forage is dulce which is a deep red color and offers some amazing health benefits.
Mollusks & Crustaceans
If you live along the coast then there are some truly unique foraging opportunities in the form of mollusks and crustaceans.
Looking for clams is a great experience, and there are several different types to keep your eyes peeled for. Razor clams and cockles can be found in many places, and you might even have a beachside BBQ to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
When foraging along the coast, you’ll also come across things like mussels and limpets. These are all edible and are high in Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin B12.
Where to Forage for Wild Food?
No matter where you live, whether it is in the depths of one of the most remote places in the country or the middle of a city, there’s always an opportunity to forage. Of course, where you live will determine the kinds of foods you’ll be able to get your hands on but don’t ever think that there are no options at all.
That said, you should keep in mind that there are some areas that are off limits. There was one guy who was once arrested in Central Park for foraging but after the case was dropped, local authorities actually hired him to give foraging tours. Seems it was a win-win for both him and the city!
You should never forage on private land because, as minor as it may seem, it’s still theft. There may also be local foraging laws so it’s worth checking these out before getting started and if you’re lucky enough to have a local foraging guide, it’s worth having a chat with them.
But for most public areas, you should be good to go. Places like your local park or public garden are a great place to start. Again, you will need to check out local regulations. Here you may find various types of nuts, fruits, and fungi. However, do be mindful that these maintained areas may have been treated with chemical pesticides and the like, so you should proceed with caution.
If you are fortunate enough to live close to a wooded area or forest, then this is a prime location for foraging, and you’ll have access to a whole host of plants, flowers, fruits, and much more. Check to make sure that the woodland is not privately owned and if it is, be sure to seek express permission from the landowner before you start. Finally, you might decide to forage around the coast. You’ll find that the same restrictions and laws apply here so if it’s private land, don’t do anything without permission. What’s great about heading to the coast is that there are lots of areas to search and your harvest will be much different to anywhere else. Check out inlets, estuaries, rocks, and cliffs as well as rock pools and dunes.
Foraging Tips & Advice
While foraging can be done by anyone, this isn’t something that you can just go out and do without careful thinking and planning. There are lots of things you should keep in mind when foraging, not only to keep yourself safe but also to respect others and local wildlife. Here are our top tips for successful and responsible foraging.
1. Make Sure You Know What You’re Picking
It can be all too easy to become complacent and start picking plants and foods that might do you more harm than good. But you may end up happening across something that is poisonous and the results could be anything from mild irritation to death. It’s not worth the risk, so make sure that you always know what you’re picking.
Foraging experts recommend being able to confidently identify a plant as easily as you would when looking at a product on the supermarket shelf. If you can’t, then just don’t take it.
In order to get to this point, you will need to educate yourself. Fortunately, there are a whole host of books and smartphone apps that you can use to identify plants and find out if they’re safe. But don’t rely on just one resource, cross reference everything to make sure that the information you have is 100% reliable.
2. Forage Responsibly
More of us should start foraging, but if we all do this and take more than our fair share, it won’t be long before there’s not enough left to go around. Nature is abundant, and there’s plenty for everyone, including wildlife and humans, but that’s only if we forage responsibility.
You must keep in mind that local birds and other animals rely heavily on the food available in the wild such as berries and fruits. They don’t have the luxury of being able to pop to the store if there isn’t anything growing, so if you take more than you should, this has a knock-on effect. Consider this even more carefully during autumn and winter, where natural food sources are even more scarce. Furthermore, during springtime, birds and other animals may be gathering food for their young, so you must make sure to leave an ample supply.
Many experts suggest sticking to the 10% rule. This means only taking 10% of any food from any given plant or group of plants. Not only will this leave enough behind for others, but it will also mean that the plant can reproduce, so there’s more next time around. Keep moving between locations and spread out your search.
Where plant reproduction is concerned, you will also need to make sure that you leave flora in a fit state to recover. This means avoiding uprooting a plant but rather taking cuttings using a knife or scissors. When you have taken what you need, you might also consider using this to grow your own plants at home.
3. Respect Local Habitats
Don’t forget that when you are foraging, you will be entering into local wildlife habitats, so you must show respect for these. The best thing to do is to leave little to no trace that you were ever there. Be careful not to trample on ground plants and vegetation and if you move anything, make sure that you put it back where you found it.
You should make sure to stick to areas that are intended for people to use. For example, if there is a path through the woods then use this rather than wandering aimlessly through the trees. If you come across gates, close them when you’re finished to avoid allowing anything into an area that shouldn’t be there.
4. Stay Clear of Contaminated Areas
While there is a lot that nature has to offer, humans have, unfortunately, contaminated a lot of it. There are certain things like car fumes, chemicals and even sewage that could affect the quality of the plants and their suitability for eating.
Try to steer clear of roads and areas close to highways as there will be a lot of car fumes. In industrial areas, local plant life may be at risk of being contaminated by chemicals, so it’s wise to stay away from places like this.
You should also make sure to be mindful when collecting food from verges, as this is where dogs may have urinated. Generally speaking, avoid plants that are lower than knee height, or if you are going to harvest these, make sure you thoroughly wash them before consuming.
Many farms and agricultural locations use chemicals like pesticides and it is possible for these to be sprayed onto neighbouring land. For this reason, we would always suggest foraging away from such places.
If you are foraging near the coast, then keep in mind that the water quality may have been affected by sewage runoff and other types of pollution. Check the quality of the water before proceeding.
5. Avoid Picking Rare Species
There’s a heavy focus on protecting endangered species both where animals and plants are concerned. If you come across a rare species, while it may be tempting to give it a try, it’s much better to leave it where it is.
There are many different rare and unusual species in the USA, and this will differ from place to place. Before you go foraging, be sure to check out which species are considered rare and avoid picking these.
6. Make Sure You Have Permission to Forage
You wouldn’t want anyone coming onto your property and taking plants, fruits, or fungi that didn’t belong to them, so it’s only respectful to make sure that you always have permission to forage. There may be some areas that appear to be public, but this can be deceptive, so if you have any doubt at all as to whether you should be there, just ask.
The laws surrounding where you can and cannot forage will differ depending on your location so it is definitely worth looking into before you go out. The last thing you want is to end up with a trespassing charge.
If you do have permission, whether it is for public or private property, there may be limits on what you can take. This is something else you should make yourself aware of before foraging.
Useful Foraging Equipment
It’s no good heading out with just a pair of boots on your feet and some good intentions. The best foragers know that you need a wealth of equipment if you want to do it right. Not only will these items make foraging easier and more efficient, but they will also make it much safer and more enjoyable.
You will need to make sure that you have something to put your harvest in. A lot of people think that a plastic bag will suffice, but the problem with this is that it can make the food sweat. Once you’re done, the food will be mushy and not fit for eating.
Using baskets and containers made from natural materials ensures good airflow so that your harvest will remain in tip-top condition. What’s more, there’s less chance of items getting squashed by other things you have collected.
Handwoven Willow Basket
This handmade willow basket is breathable and will allow any heat or moisture to escape, helping to prevent foraged food from sweating and spoiling. It also features a strap that allows you to carry the basket over your shoulders, making it ideal for hands-free harvesting.
If you want to keep foods separate, then you might use brown paper bags within a wicker basket.
Scissors or Pruning Shears
A good pair of pruning shears or scissors will help you easily remove berries and fruits, especially on more stubborn plants.
We all know that there are several toxic plants out there, and while you may not touch one on purpose, it’s always possible to brush up against something like giant hogweed while you’re foraging. If you do, believe us, you’ll know about it as the sap from this plant can burn the skin. While they are normally found growing near water, there have been more and more giant hogweeds popping up in non-native areas.
Wearing a protective pair of gloves will prevent such problems and it will also help you to avoid cuts and scrapes from twigs, nettles, and thorny plants. Not to mention, your hands will be kept much cleaner because let’s face it, foraging is a dirty job!
When taking food from plants or if you are cutting mushrooms, you will need a good quality knife or at the very least a pair of scissors. Not only will this make removal easier, but it will also prevent damage to the plant, meaning it will be able to continue reproducing for years to come.
Folding Mushroom Knife
This curved mushroom knife with an integrated cleaning brush is a good addition to any mushroom hunter’s kit. The knife is foldable and comes with a handy neoprene pouch for easy storage.
Some plants have edible roots and these are great for foragers, but to get them out, you’ll need the right equipment. That comes in the form of a digging stick. This is a simple tool that is easy to use and is far preferable to using a knife which could become damaged when trying to uproot plants.
You only need to take a piece of wood from a tree and fashion a point or a wedge at one end using your knife. This can then be used to dig and uproot your chosen plants.
Keep in mind that it is not legal to uproot anything on private land without permission, and there are some protected plants that you cannot uproot, so be sure to check this first.
Want to make collecting berries much less messy and far easier? Then you might want to pack a berry picker to take on your foraging adventures.
These tools feature a scoop-like comb that helps to remove berries from the trees and plants, and there’s also a handy storage compartment so it’s a two in one accessory!
A foraging handbook is an incredibly useful resource. There are even apps you can use on your cell phone, which is much easier than taking a physical book.
The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts Guide
Whether you are looking to forage for mushrooms, fruits, flowers, herbs, or nuts, this guidebook will help you to identify edible plants. The guidebook contains clear photos and illustrations, and it also comes with easy-to-follow recipes for each plant.
These books and apps have a wide range of plants and species, which allow you to easily identify what you’re looking at. Just be sure to cross-reference everything, as this will give you peace of mind that you’re 100% certain.