The earliest human beings on this planet got their food in two ways: by hunting animals, and by gathering wild plants. All the food they ate was gathered with their own hands, including berries from bushes, wild greens from fields, and mushrooms from decaying trees. Through long practice, they learned to recognize which plants were edible, which were poisonous, and what could be found at different times of year.
In the modern world, our food system is very different. In industrialized countries such as the United States, most food is grown on big farms, far away from the people who eventually eat it. For most of us, gathering food means making a trip to the supermarket; we never see it growing out of the ground. Until it reaches our kitchens, we have no personal connection to the food we eat.
But it doesn’t have to be that way – at least, not completely. Even in the modern world, it’s possible to find and pick wild plants that are not just edible, but highly nutritious as well. Of course, it’s also risky, since we no longer have the detailed knowledge of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Anyone who simply wanders out into the nearest field and starts picking and eating plants at random is asking for a bad stomachache – or worse.
It can take years to learn to identify all the different wild plants that can be eaten – and even more importantly, to recognize the ones you definitely shouldn’t eat. But there are a few common edible plants that even a beginner can easily find and identify. Tossing a handful of dandelion greens into a salad or picking and eating wild raspberries while out on a hike gives you a chance to enjoy fresh, free food and experience the connection to nature that ancient humans took for granted. And the thrill of eating something you found and picked with your own hands can give you an appetite for learning more about all the bounty nature has to offer.
Benefits of Foraging
Foraging for food is more than just a fun pastime – though it certainly can be that too. Gathering your own food offers a wide variety of benefits, including the following:
- Free Food. Foraged food costs nothing except the time you spend finding and picking it. Of course, your time is worth something, and it probably wouldn’t be worth the effort to scavenge cheap foods like potatoes – but many foods found in the wild cost a pretty penny when sold in supermarkets. For instance, fresh chanterelle mushrooms, ramps (wild leeks), and pine nuts can all cost $20 a pound or more.
- New Flavors. Many wild foods are difficult to find in ordinary grocery stores, such as the wild mushrooms prized by gourmet cooks. And there are some you can’t get in supermarkets at all, such as pawpaws, a mango-like fruit with a custard-like texture that’s too delicate to ship to stores. Foraging is often your best chance to try these unique and tasty foods.
- Great Nutrition. Edible plants found in the wild are often more nutritious than the kinds you can buy at the store. Wild-food advocate Jo Robinson, writing for The New York Times, says that wild dandelion greens have more than seven times the phytonutrients found in grocery-store spinach. A chart in the same article shows that certain edible crab apples have anywhere from 2 to 100 times the phytonutrients found in common apple varieties. As a bonus, being out in the sun to pick plants provides your body with vitamin D.
- Healthy Outdoor Exercise. Hunting for wild food gets you out in the great outdoors. Hiking to the choicest harvesting spots, stretching to pick berries, and bending to gather greens in the late-afternoon sunshine can add up to a great natural workout. And it’s a lot more pleasant and relaxing than an hour at the gym, trotting in place on a treadmill under fluorescent lighting.
- Sustainability. Wild plants you pick yourself are both organic and locally grown. They aren’t grown with harmful pesticides or other agricultural chemicals, and the only water they use is the rain that waters their patch of land. They also don’t require fossil fuels to harvest them and ship them to stores. When you go out on foot and gather a bunch of wild greens, their carbon footprint is virtually nil.
- A Connection to Nature. Picking your own food restores the connection to nature and the cycle of the seasons that’s often lost in the modern world. You can mark the progress of spring by watching for the arrival of each new wild plant: tender dandelion greens, watercress, ramps, and morel mushrooms. During the summer, you can keep your eyes peeled for the ripening of juneberries, wild raspberries, and persimmons. And by gathering these delicious wild plants with your own hands, you can feel like a part of the natural world, and not just an observer.
Hazards of Foraging
Although foraging offers many benefits, it has its pitfalls too – particularly for the inexperienced. The risks of foraging include:
- Eating Something Harmful. Although many wild plants are tasty and nutritious, some are poisonous – and many of these closely resemble edible plants. Foraging novices are particularly likely to mistake a poisonous plant for a safe one, but even experts with years of experience aren’t immune. Foraging advocate Christopher McCandless, whose writings on edibles were published posthumously in “Back to the Wild,” died in the Alaskan wilderness after being weakened by a poisonous plant. And even if you’re absolutely sure a plant is nontoxic, it can still make you sick if it’s been contaminated by pesticide residues, animal waste, or other chemicals.
- Dealing With Unfamiliar Foods. Experienced foragers know not just which plants are safe to eat, but how to eat them. Many wild plants that are technically edible are tough, bitter, or completely indigestible if you don’t prepare them properly. So inexperienced foragers can sometimes find themselves watching a basket full of fresh-picked wild “produce” go to waste because they have no idea how to use it.
- Damaging the Environment. It’s not always obvious how much of a plant you can harvest without killing it off completely. Overenthusiastic foragers can end up stripping all the native plants from an area, creating an opening for invasive species to move in and take over. Foragers can also damage a delicate environment just by tramping through it – damaging the topsoil, crushing plants, and disrupting wildlife habitats. Only the most seasoned naturalists, such as professional wardens, can always tell which areas are too vulnerable to be disturbed.
- Getting Arrested. It is likely to be illegal to forage on anyone else’s property without permission. Many federal and state parks also forbid gathering plants, unless you’re on your own without supplies and have no other way to survive. And even in places where it’s legal to forage, there are limits on how much of a given plant you’re allowed to take. To make matters more complicated, boundaries aren’t always clearly marked, so it’s not always easy to tell when you’ve wandered into an area where foraging is banned. So foragers who simply march into an open field and start grabbing plants may find themselves in the hands of the law.
Edible Wild Foods
The first step in becoming a forager is learning how to recognize the different wild plants you can eat, as well as those you can’t. Before you go out and pick your first plant, you need to know what you’re looking for, where to find it, and how to use it once you get it home. Popular foods for foraging include various types of greens, fruits, roots, nuts, and mushrooms.
Many plants that gardeners think of as useless weeds can actually make tasty salad greens. Some of the most popular greens for foragers are:
- Dandelions. Though it’s not native to North America, the dandelion can now be found in all 50 U.S. states and most Canadian provinces. It grows in nearly every habitat – deep woods, open fields, rocky hillsides – and it’s particularly common as a weed in lawns and home gardens. It’s easily recognized by its hairless, saw-toothed leaves and cheery yellow blossoms, which eventually turn into white puffballs to scatter the plant’s seeds. Dandelion leaves, which are loaded with vitamins A, C, and K, are excellent in salads and sandwiches, particularly when they’re young and tender. The flowers can be fried or made into juice or wine, and the root can be dried and roasted to make a coffee substitute.
- Stinging Nettles. Stinging nettle is a tall, prickly plant with tiny white flowers that’s commonly found along riversides and in moist wooded areas. Harvesting it requires protective clothing, because its tiny, sharp hairs can pierce the skin and release formic acid, which causes itching or burning. Once the leaves have been cooked, however, the stinging hairs fall off, and they make a good spinach substitute in soups and stews. You can also steep the leaves to make an iron-rich tea and brew the young shoots to make nettle beer.
- Miner’s Lettuce. This small, leafy plant is native to the coastal and mountain regions of the West, especially California. It got its name because miners during the California Gold Rush ate its vitamin-C-rich leaves to ward off scurvy. The plant has single, roundish leaves with a tiny white flower in the center and is most often found in damp, shady areas. The leaves have a tasty, mild, spinach-like flavor and texture and can be eaten raw or cooked.
- Japanese Knotweed. This member of the buckwheat family is native to Asia, but has become a common invasive weed in the Northeast and Midwest. It’s commonly found in low-lying areas, near water sources, and on abandoned building sites or waste areas. The plant is sometimes called Japanese bamboo because its light, hollow stalks resemble bamboo when they mature. However, it’s best to pick it before it turns woody, when its red and green shoots are less than eight inches tall. The lemony-tasting shoots can be enjoyed raw, sliced into rings, or used like rhubarb in pies, jams, and sauces. It’s a good source of vitamins A and C, iodine, and a compound called resveratrol, which is reputed to have anti-aging benefits and be beneficial for heart health.
- Wood Sorrel (Oxalis). This common weed can be identified by its clusters of three heart-shaped leaves, similar to a shamrock’s, and its five-petaled yellow flowers. It grows in moist, semi-shaded areas throughout most parts of the U.S. and Canada, and is a common part of forest undergrowth. Its leaves, flowers, and immature seed pods are all edible, with a flavor that’s described as lemony and pungent. It can be added to salads, cooked in soups and sauces, or used as a garnish for meats.
- Lamb’s Quarters. This tall weed can be recognized by the white, powdery coating on its leaves, which gives it a dusty appearance when seen from a distance. The individual leaves have a diamond or teardrop shape, and the tiny green flowers grow in clusters on top of spikes. The plant is a common garden weed in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, but it also grows near rivers and streams, in forest clearings, and on waste sites. Often referred to as wild spinach, it has an earthy flavor that’s often compared to chard and is good steamed or sautéed. The leaves are rich in calcium and protein, as well as vitamins, A, C, and K.
Fruit is particularly easy to forage, because you can pick it and eat it right off the tree or bush. Here are several kinds worth looking for:
- American Persimmons. The American persimmon is related to the more familiar Asian persimmon, but its fruits are smaller, and their skins aren’t as vivid a shade of orange. The tree is native to the hardwood forests of the eastern United States. The vitamin C-rich fruits have a bitter, astringent flavor when they’re not fully ripe, but once they ripen in late fall their flesh is sweet and juicy, with a hint of spiciness. They’re good raw, dried, or cooked in desserts such as pies and puddings. Their mashed pulp can be used as a molasses-like sweeter, and it’s possible to roast the seeds for an herbal coffee substitute.
- Pawpaws. The pawpaw is related to tropical fruits like the cherimoya, but it’s native to North America, growing wild throughout much of the eastern United States. The trees grow in dense thickets, usually along riverbanks, from northern Florida to southern Ontario and as far west as Texas. The oblong-shaped, light green fruits have a creamy texture and a flavor that’s somewhere between a banana and a mango. Pawpaws are higher in protein, minerals, and essential amino acids than popular fruits like apples and bananas, and they’re also a good source of antioxidants. Most people just eat them raw, but some micro-brewers like to use their pulp in beer.
- Brambles (Blackberries and Raspberries). Blackberries and raspberries – collectively known as brambles – are popular cultivated plants, but they also grow wild in many parts of North America. Blackberries are found in the east and the coastal west, and raspberries can be found nearly everywhere except the Deep South. Both types of berries grow on long, prickly canes – best handled with gloves – which are commonly found in sunny areas such as the edges of meadows and fields. The berries, which are actually cone-shaped clusters of tiny individual fruits, typically ripen in midsummer. Raspberries can be red or black when ripe, while blackberries go from green to red and turn black when they’re fully ripe. You can tell them apart because raspberry fruits are hollow and leave behind a cone-shaped protrusion when picked, while blackberries are solid to the stem. Both kinds of fruit are good raw, in jams, and in all kinds of baked goods; the sweet-tart flavor of raspberries also makes a good addition to a salad dressing.
- Mulberries. Mulberries look similar to raspberries and blackberries, but they grow on trees, which are found in the eastern United States stretching up into Canada. Red mulberries, which are native to North America, have the strongest flavor. Black mulberries, an Asian import that has naturalized throughout eastern North America, have a mild, sweet flavor with very little tartness. White mulberries, an East Asian species that’s considered invasive in North America, have a slightly tart flavor with a hint of vanilla. All three kinds can be eaten raw, baked into pies and tarts, or made into wines and cordials.
- Juneberries (Serviceberries). Juneberries, also known as serviceberries, are bluish-purple berries that grow on small deciduous trees. One variety grows wild on the East Coast; another, also known as the saskatoon, is found throughout the Pacific Northwest. Juneberries look and taste much like blueberries, but their larger seeds give them a slightly crunchy texture when eaten raw. They’re excellent sources of iron, with almost twice as much as blueberries, and they make very good jam.
- Madrone Berries. The madrone tree, an evergreen native to the Pacific Northwest, is sometimes called the “strawberry tree” because of its vivid red berries. However, its fruits are drier and less juicy than strawberries, and their flavor is more similar to blueberries. They taste best when they’re fully ripe and deep red in color. Because of their dry texture, many foragers prefer to enjoy them dried, blended, or in baked goods, rather than raw.
- Wild Strawberries. The wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana, can be found in every U.S. state except Hawaii. You can recognize the plants before they develop fruit by their clusters of three jagged leaves and five-petaled white flowers with yellow centers. The fruits look just like a smaller version of the strawberries found in the grocery store, but their taste and aroma is far more powerful – foragers say you’ll smell the fruits before you see them. However, don’t be misled by the false strawberry, Potentilla indica. These plants look similar, but their flowers are yellow, and their red fruits point upward instead of dangling on the vine. False strawberries are perfectly safe to eat, but they have virtually no flavor.
Wild Roots and Nuts
Wild greens and fruits are tasty, but they don’t supply a lot of calories. You can bulk up your meals by adding wild root vegetables and nuts, such as the following:
- Burdock Root (Gobo). The burdock plant, an Asian native, is a member of the thistle family that grows as a weed in all parts of the United States except the Deep South. It’s typically found along roadsides, riverbanks, and the edges of fields. It’s a biennial, which means it produces leaves in its first year, then flowers and dies in its second year. It has huge, fuzzy, long-stemmed leaves, purple flowers, and a taproot that can grow to several feet long and resembles a brown carrot. This starchy root is the edible part, with a mild, earthy flavor similar to artichokes. It’s tenderest when harvested at the end of its first growing season; after flowering the roots tend to become tough and bitter. Burdock root can be stewed, stir-fried, baked, or pureed for soups.
- Groundnuts. The groundnut isn’t really a nut, but rather is a tuber that grows on a perennial vine found in wet, low-lying regions throughout in the eastern half of North America. Groundnuts are best harvested after a hard frost, when the leaves of the plant have turned brown. It’s important to replant a few of the tubers after digging them up, since harvesting the root kills the plant. The egg-sized tubers can be used like potatoes, but their flavor and texture are more similar to turnips. Although groundnuts are safe for most people to eat, they make some people sick, so it’s best to have only a small amount the first time you try them.
- Hazelnuts. The hazelnuts found in the grocery store, also called filberts, grow on cultivated trees that are native to Europe. Native hazelnuts look and taste similar, but they’re quite a bit smaller. They grow on two different species of large shrubs, the American hazelnut and the beaked hazelnut, which grow along the edges of forests in most parts of the country except for the Southwest. The trees can be identified by their alternating, toothed, oval leaves and long brown catkins (male flowers). You should wear gloves to harvest the nuts, because they grow inside a prickly outer covering called an involucre, and its fine hairs can irritate your skin.
- Pine Nuts. Although there are many kinds of pine trees in North America, only the pinyon pines of the Southwest produce nuts large enough to be worth harvesting. These scrubby evergreen trees tend to grow in dry areas at high elevations. Harvesting pine nuts is tricky, since you need to catch them just as the cones are turning from green to brown; if you wait any longer, squirrels and chipmunks will beat you to the nuts. Old clothes and gloves are important for harvesting pine nuts, since the cones are covered in sticky sap. Once you get the cones home, you need to leave them out to dry for a few weeks, until they gradually open, and then carefully pick out the nuts and shell them by hand. It’s a labor-intensive process, but for those who love the unique, delicate flavor of these nuts, it’s worth the effort.
- Acorns. Believe it or not, the common acorn – which can be found underfoot throughout the fall months all across North America – is an edible nut. However, it has to be processed before eating, since it’s full of tannins that give it an incredibly bitter flavor (and can also damage the kidneys). Native Americans used to remove the tannins by submerging the nuts in a running stream. Modern foragers can do it by shelling the nuts, grinding the nutmeats into meal, and leaching it in a jar of fresh water that’s changed daily for three to five days. The resulting fat- and protein-rich flour has a mild, nutty, satisfying flavor and can be made into a breakfast porridge or soup, fried into griddle cakes, or used as a substitute for cornmeal in cornbread.
Mushrooms pose a dilemma for foragers. Wild mushrooms can be delicious, but they can also be incredibly dangerous, especially for novices. Many wild mushrooms contain deadly poisons, and if you mistake a toxic mushroom for a harmless one, it could be the last thing you ever eat.
So when you go mushrooming, it’s especially important to be absolutely certain what you’re harvesting. Make sure to get training from an expert before you attempt it, and always bring along a field guide to help you identify your fungi. And even if you’re absolutely sure what mushroom you’ve found, it’s best to taste just a small portion first and wait a day or two to make sure it doesn’t cause an allergic reaction.
Fortunately, some of the tastiest mushrooms in the wild are also among the easiest to identify. Popular picks for foragers include:
- Chanterelles. These large, flower-shaped, golden mushrooms are found in forest regions throughout the country during the fall months. With their firm, aromatic flesh, they’re delicious sautéed on toast and can also be dried to add flavor to soups and casseroles. Chanterelles are one of the easiest mushrooms to identify because instead of the fine “gills” found on the undersides of most mushrooms, they have blunt, shallow ridges. However, it is possible to confuse them with the poisonous Jack-o-Lantern mushroom, which has a similar shape but has finer gills and a deeper orange color. Another way to tell them apart is that Jack-o-Lantern mushrooms grow in large clusters with the stems attached together at the base, while chanterelles never do. Still, it’s important to harvest chanterelles only with an experienced guide until you’re familiar enough with them to identify them easily.
- Morels. Morel mushrooms are popular for foraging because they’re only found in the wild – they can’t be cultivated. They’re found throughout the continent during the spring months, typically in and around the edges of forested areas. They often grow around dead or dying trees, particularly elms. Morels are easy to identify by their cone-shaped, spongy brown cap, which is attached at the base of the stem. However, beginners should take care not to confuse them with two non-edible lookalikes: The false morel, which lacks the cone shape of the true morel, is mildly toxic; the half-free morel, which has a longer stem and a cap that attaches near the top, can cause digestive distress for some people. Morels are delicious in an omelet, sautéed in butter, or batter-fried, and they can be dried or frozen for later use.
- Maitake. The gill-less maitake mushroom, Grifola frondosa, is often known as “hen of the woods” because it grows in large, layered clumps that vaguely resemble a brown hen sitting on a nest. The maitake is found throughout northeastern North America during the fall, where it grows around the bases of hardwood trees, particularly oaks. Some large specimens can weigh 10 pounds or more. The mushrooms have a meaty, smoky flavor and firm texture that’s good in any recipe that calls for mushrooms.
- Chicken of the Woods. The chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, isn’t the same species as the hen of the woods, but it’s just as good to eat. These large, flat mushrooms are bright orange on top, with a yellow, gill-less underside covered with tiny pores. They’re found exclusively in the forests of eastern North America, where they grow in clusters on either living or dead hardwood trees, particularly oaks. If you find similar-looking mushrooms growing on conifers, don’t pick them; they’re a different species that can cause poisoning. When it’s young, the chicken of the woods has thick, soft flesh and a mild flavor that make it a good a substitute for chicken. Older mushrooms, however, can become tough and develop a sour taste.
Other Types of Foraging
Plants aren’t the only kinds of food you can find in the wild. True, foraging isn’t the same thing as hunting or fishing – catching and killing live animals for food. Many foragers also like to hunt and fish, but they’re different skills. The thrill of hunting and fishing comes from outwitting and overpowering your prey, while the thrill of foraging comes from finding something that’s readily available, free for the taking.
However, that doesn’t mean that plants are the only foods available to foragers. For example, shellfishing – digging for clams, oysters, and other edible shellfish – is a form of foraging. Just like hunting and fishing, shellfish digging requires a license in many areas, and there are rules about where you can dig and how much you can take. Still, for seafood lovers, it can be a less expensive way of getting shellfish such as oysters, clams, and bay scallops, which are often expensive to buy fresh.
Like foragers who harvest plants, shellfishers have to take precautions to avoid food poisoning. Many species of shellfish harbor disease-causing bacteria that multiply quickly at high temperatures. So to keep your catch safe, you should always stow them in an ice-filled cooler, keep them out of direct sun and hot spaces such as an enclosed car trunk, and eat them promptly. Also, anyone who has any kind of immune disorder, such as cancer, diabetes, or liver disease, should not eat shellfish raw.
It’s also legal in many areas to forage for meat by saving and eating roadkill. However, it’s very dangerous to do this if the carcass isn’t fresh, so you shouldn’t attempt to scavenge roadkill unless you hit it yourself or saw the accident. You should also call the local highway patrol before picking up a freshly killed critter, since it’s illegal in some areas to move a dead animal without a permit. And once you get it home and dressed, you should make sure to cook it well to kill any bacteria.
However, as long as it’s both safe and legal to gather, a single roadkill deer can yield over 50 pounds of lean, flavorful venison, which costs a minimum of $10 a pound to buy retail. The deer’s legs and buttocks can be smoked to create wild, free-range versions of ham and prosciutto.
Poisonous Plants to Avoid
Newcomers to foraging can easily get carried away, wanting to pick and taste every plant they see. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of plants – 93%, according to experienced forager Green Deane on Eat The Weeds – are not edible.
Here are some common plants that Deane warns people not to eat:
- Mexican Poppy (Argemone mexicana). This yellow or white flower with sharp, spiny leaves grows in much of the eastern United States, blooming mostly in the wintertime. Though it’s often used in herbal medicine, it’s not safe to eat.
- Harlequin Glorybower (Clerodendrum Trichotomum). This shrub produces bright blue berries in autumn, each set off by a vivid, pinkish-red structure called a calyx. It grows in moderate to warm climates. The seeds and parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested, and handling it may cause a skin rash.
- Rattlebox (Crotalaria spectabilis). This green plant with yellow flowers grows throughout the southeastern U.S. It gets its name from the rattling sound its seeds make in the pod. All parts of the plant are toxic to both humans and animals.
- Honeyvine (Cynanchum laeve). This vine, native to the eastern U.S., vaguely resembles edible milkweed vine, but it’s quite the contrary. Its sap can damage the eyes and mucus membranes and, if swallowed, can stop your heart.
- Mulberry Weed (Fatoua villosa). Also known as hairy crabweed, this invasive plant grows everywhere east of the Mississippi. It has prominent hairs on its leaves and stems, which cause mild itching.
- Earth Smoke (Fumaria officinalis). Also called ground smoke or common fumitory, this member of the poppy family gets its name from the hazy, slightly gray-blue color of its leaves. In North America, it’s found mainly in the southern states and on the West Coast. It can be used in medicines and the flowers produce a yellow dye; however, it is poisonous when eaten.
- Tahitian Bridal Veil (Gibasis geniculata). This white-flowering tropical plant vaguely resembles the edible spiderwort plant. However, it’s poisonous to cats and dogs, as well as humans.
- Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). This huge, white-flowering plant – up to 14 feet tall – is one of the most toxic in existence. Its sap makes the skin extremely sensitive to sunlight, causing almost instant swelling and blisters that can lead to permanent scarring. Contact with the eyes can cause temporary or permanent blindness. If you touch this plant, you should immediately wash the area thoroughly, keep it out of the sun for at least two days, and see a doctor. This invasive species can be found in the Northeast from Maine through Virginia, as well as in the Pacific Northwest and the region around Lake Superior.
- Waxy or Glossy Privet (Ligustrum lucidum). This flowering evergreen tree is native to China, but can be found in southern states from Maryland to Texas, as well as in parts of California and Arizona. Its seeds have been used in traditional Chinese medicine, but its fruits are mildly toxic and its shoots are suspected to be the same.
- Spreading Lupine (Lupinus diffusus). This blue-flowered perennial, also called Oak Ridge lupine or sky-blue lupine, grows in dry areas throughout the southeastern U.S. Though it makes an attractive ornamental plant, its seeds are poisonous.
- Wavyleaf Basket Grass (Oplismenus hirtellus ssp. undulatifolius). This low-growing Asian native has become an invasive plant in many parts of the South. It is harmful to humans but not to animals.
- Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum). This parasitic evergreen vine with its white berries is best known for its use in Christmas celebrations. Eating any part of it can cause a range of symptoms, including drowsiness, blurred vision, weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.
- Castor Bean (Ricinus communis). This tropical plant is grown for its seed, the castor bean, which is the source of castor oil. However, these seeds are extremely deadly when eaten raw because they contain the poison ricin. Even a tiny amount of this can kill an adult within three to five days without treatment.
- Scarlet Sage (Salvia cocinnea). This native plant, also called Texas sage or hummingbird sage, grows throughout sandy coastal areas of the American South. It can be recognized by its square stem, whorls of red flowers along a spike, and a sage-like aroma. It vaguely resembles the edible pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), also called tangerine sage, whose leaves give off a fruity smell when crushed. However, eating even small amounts of scarlet sage flowers can cause serious intestinal distress.
- Butterweed (Senecio glabellus). From a distance, this yellow-flowered weed, which grows throughout the southern and eastern U.S., resembles the edible wild mustard (part of the genus Brassica) or wild radish (Raphanus Raphanistrum). However, unlike these plants, it does not have a cross-shaped blossom or sandpapery leaves. It contains a poisonous alkaloid that can damage the liver.
- Horse Nettle (genus Solanum). Several plants of the genus Solanum share the name of horse nettle or tropical soda apple. Solanum viarum and Solanum ciliatum grow mainly in the South, while Solanum carolinense can be found in nearly all states. All three have mottled green fruits that ripen to red or yellow. Some of them are toxic when they’re green, others when they’re ripe. The safest thing is to avoid all of them at all times.
Rules for Foraging
It should be clear by now that foraging is one of those things you should only do if you’re prepared to do it right. To be a successful forager, you need to know how to protect your own safety by identifying both safe plants and harmful ones with no possibility of error. You also need to know how to protect the environment, so the wild plants you eat today will still be there for other foragers in the future.
Before eating any wild plant, there are four important steps you need to take. Deane’s system for remembering the four steps, outlined on Eat the Weeds, uses the acronym ITEM: Identification, Time, Environment, and Method.
- Identification. The first rule of foraging safely is that you should never, ever eat any plant you can’t identify beyond all possibility of doubt. Deane stresses that you should never rely on pictures from guidebooks or from the web for identification, because plants don’t always look just like their pictures. The same plant can look different in different climates, and many edible plants have non-edible relatives that look very similar. So to be sure a plant is safe to eat, you should always check with a local expert – someone who knows not just which plants are edible, but what those plants look like in your specific area of the country. Over time, as you develop your foraging skills, you’ll learn to recognize plants on your own – but even experts should take the time to check a plant carefully every time they encounter it and make sure it’s the one they think it is.
- Time of Year. Part of identifying a plant is to make sure it’s growing or producing fruit at the proper time of year. If the plant you have in mind normally flowers in June, but the one you’ve just found is blooming in September, that could mean you’re actually looking at a different plant that’s a close look-alike. On the other hand, it could mean there’s something about the plant that you don’t know. For instance, the firethorn bush, Pyracantha coccinea, blooms and produces fruit only once a year in northern regions, but in Florida it blooms twice a year, in the spring and fall. So if a plant isn’t doing what you expect it to be doing for the time of year, you need to consult an expert to find out why before you eat from it.
- Environment. There are two reasons to check out a plant’s environment. First, the environment can help you identify the plant, because most plants have definite preferences in terms of water, soil, sun, and temperature. Second, it’s important to make sure the water and soil surrounding the plant aren’t polluted. For instance, a plant growing downhill from a major highway is likely to be watered with runoff from the road, which can contain traces of gasoline and other chemicals that could make the plant unsafe to eat. Plants growing on golf courses, in city parks, or even on a neighbor’s lawn could be treated with toxic pesticides that could make them unsafe. Identifying possible pollutants in a plant’s environment is often trickier than identifying the plant itself, but it’s just as important for making sure the plant is safe to eat.
- Method of Preparation. Many wild plants that are technically edible need to be carefully prepared to make them fit to eat. Acorns, discussed above, are one example. Others plants need to be peeled, soaked in salty water, or cooked multiple times. So before eating any wild plant, you need to know not only that it’s edible, but what you have to do to it to make it edible.
Deane stresses that even after you’ve followed his “itemizing” process, it’s still best to try only a little bit of a wild plant the first time you eat it. Even a plant that’s known to be safe for most people can trigger allergies or food intolerance for a few – and if you’ve never tried it before, you have no way of knowing whether you’re one of them.
Experts recommend exposing yourself to only one new plant at a time – ideally, no more than one per day – so that if you do have a reaction, you can be sure what caused it. Start by rubbing the plant against your skin to see if it causes a rash. If it doesn’t, rub it against your lips and see if there’s any reaction. If there’s still no problem, you can proceed to tasting a bit of the plant – just a few bites to start with – and see whether it causes any ill effects over the next day or two.
Even if you don’t have any reaction the first time you try a plant, Deane recommends limiting yourself to small portions the first few times you eat it. Sometimes an allergic reaction doesn’t show up until your body has been exposed to a substance once before. If you’ve eaten a few bites without ill effects two or three times in a row, you can feel confident about making this wild plant a regular part of your diet.
When you forage, it’s not just important to protect yourself from harmful plants – it’s also important to protect the environment those plants grew in. By foraging ethically, you can help ensure that both you and other foragers will be able to harvest from the same spot for years to come.
Foraging ethics basically come down to respect, in four different ways:
- Respect for the Law. Foraging without permission is a form of theft, and you can be arrested for it. Foraging is often prohibited on state or federal land, unless it’s your only way of surviving. Nature preserves, even if they’re not owned by the state, are also off limits, since their purpose is to protect wild species. So before you start foraging, you need to learn where it’s allowed and where it’s prohibited – and then follow those rules. If you’re in any doubt, find out who owns the property and ask them.
- Respect for Future Visitors. Unless you’re foraging in your own backyard, the land you’re on isn’t your private playground. Other foragers and nature lovers will visit it in the future, so leave the land looking as nice for them as you’d hope to find it on your next trip. Don’t leave litter behind, and consider bringing a bag with you to pick up and dispose of litter left by previous visitors. If you have to dig a hole to harvest a plant, fill it in when you’re done. And especially, never strip all the plants – or all of one kind of plant – from an area. Take only as much as you need so there will be some left for others to enjoy.
- Respect for the Plant. Learn how to harvest sustainably, so that the plant growth in an area stays healthy. For starters, find out which plants in your area are rare or endangered, and leave them strictly alone. Picking plants that are classified as endangered species is not only unethical, it’s illegal. But even if a plant is plentiful, you should harvest it in a way that does as little damage as possible. Instead of stripping all the leaves from a plant, take just one shoot or two to three leaves from several different plants. To avoid damaging the plant, cut the leaves with a sharp knife or shears rather than tearing them off – and sterilize your tools to avoid spreading diseases. Digging up a plant to harvest the roots usually kills it, so don’t do it unless you’re sure there are plenty of plants in the area and killing a couple won’t kill off the whole colony. If you want to make sure a particular species survives and stays plentiful, save some of its seeds and scatter them in the area the next time you return.
- Respect for the Ecosystem. Get to know the weeds, herbs, bushes, and trees in your area, and what role each one of them plays in the ecosystem. Find out which ones are native plants and which are invasive, as well as which ones add nutrients to the ground and which deplete it. Learn about the ways in which a given plant forms mutually beneficial relationships with other plants, with insects, and with animals. The more you know about a plant’s role in its ecosystem, the better you can understand when it’s reasonable to harvest it, and when it’s best to leave it alone.
Learning More About Foraging
The only way to forage safely is to learn from an expert – so the question is, where can you find one? A good place to start is on Foraging.com. This site has a huge list of links to foraging groups in different parts of the country, offering everything from informal walking tours, to full-scale classes – and even foraging camps for kids. The site can also help you find a huge variety of other resources for learning more about foraging, including books, websites, mailing lists, and apps.
For city dwellers, another possible resource is an urban foraging guild. Many homeowners with fruit trees in their yards can’t eat all they produce, so the extra fruit just falls to the ground and rots. In many cities, organized groups of foragers gather up the excess fruit – with permission – and put it to good use. Some of the more established groups hold weekly harvesting meetups and provide waivers for both foragers and property owners to ensure that nobody gets sued over an accident, such as falling from a ladder or being stung by bees.
Some urban foragers make a profit from their gleaning. For example, the owners of the Urban Forage Winery in Minneapolis, Minnesota, turn foraged plants into handcrafted wines and ciders that they sell in their shop. Others, such as the Urban Farmers of San Francisco and the Urban Gleaners of Portland, Oregon, donate the food they scavenge to local food banks.
Another great resource for urban foragers is Falling Fruit, an interactive map that shows where to find fruit trees and other edible plants that are available for harvesting. Its creators, foragers Caleb Philips and Ethan Welty, built the map using information from municipal databases, foraging guilds, and urban gardening groups. You can zoom in and click on a particular spot to get a description of the plant available there, often with details such as when it should be harvested and whether you need to ask permission of the owner. Individual users can edit the map to add other plants they know about in their neighborhoods.
The Falling Fruit site isn’t limited to wild plants. There are entries for beehives, public water sources, and even dumpsters where you can find discarded canned goods. In an interview on the public radio show The Salt, Welty says one user even posted a location for hunting gray squirrels – an invasive species – and a recipe for preparing them.
Foraging isn’t for everyone. It takes time, effort, and training to learn all you need to know about how to harvest wild plants safely. You need to find a local expert who can teach you, and you also need to have access to legal places to forage – either on your own land, in public spaces, or on private land where the owners allow it. To some people, it’s just not worth the effort when it’s so easy to go and buy fresh fruits and vegetables at the supermarket.
For others, though, the thrill of eating food you found and picked yourself – for free – makes all the hard work worthwhile. And in addition to the money you can save, foraging offers a chance to try new foods and experience a hands-on connection to nature that grocery-store produce just can’t supply.
Have you ever eaten wild plants?