Are you thinking about raiding Nature’s pantry? Here are four simple reasons for why everyone should forage and the best practices to keep in mind.
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No matter how fun and exciting foraging can be, I am not an expert and am not responsible for any foraging misadventures. Always proceed with caution before consuming any of your finds, making sure to double and triple-check with different sources before sampling anything new.
WHY EVERYONE SHOULD FORAGE: THE VIDEO
If you’d rather listen in instead of reading, here’s the video! To tune into future episodes of the Kitchen, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel!
THE FORAGER’S PATH
My foraging journey began two or three years ago when I lived by a forest trail. It was a beautiful respite from busy living and I walked there frequently, delighting in the rich canopy of green. Sometime after Pokemon Go came out, I was walking through the woods trying to catch Pokemon (I am SO ashamed to admit this) when I stopped dead in my tracks and came to my senses. Why was I putting so much time and energy into imaginary critters when I didn’t even know what was growing around me? I loved the woods, but I was a stranger. Why was it that I could identify Pokemon, but not something real and tangible? Something needed to change!
When I got home, I found an app called Seek by iNaturalist. Seek is a gamified plant ID app that helps its users identify flora and fauna using image recognition technology. Empowered, I went back outside and spent the next hour “collecting” species, identifying plants left, right and centre. I was thirsty to learn, parched for plant lore. As time went on, I was able to start naming plants without needing the app, but something was still missing. Knowing what I was seeing was one thing, but what could these plants actually do?
THE POWER OF PLANTS
There are two paths to choose from at the start of one’s foraging journey: focusing on edible plants or medicinal plants. Many, if not most, edible plants have medicinal qualities that herbalists rely on, but herbalism isn’t my focus here today. While this is a fascinating field that I would love to learn more about (in fact, The Herbal Academy offers a number of beautifully crafted courses on foraging and how to build an in-home apothecary), I am mostly concerned with learning how to find free food.
Many folks are used to eating commercially grown fruits and vegetables. Some are even lucky enough to have their own modern-day victory gardens to grow our own food. I love tomatoes and cucumbers as much as the next person, but do you know what I love doing? Running outside and snipping off dandelion leaves to fix a salad or make a stirfry when I’m out of greens. That simple, common weed that some folks are determined to eliminate is SO good for us, and our livers love them! Wild greens are teeming with vitamins and minerals, making them deeply nourishing options that far too many folks snub their noses at.
THE REASONS WHY EVERYONE SHOULD FORAGE
I’ve already gotten carried away, so without any further ado, let’s dive into the reasons why everyone should forage. I’m listing FOUR major reasons and then we’ll be reviewing some best practices to keep in mind before we take off on a fabulous foraging quest
REASON #1: SELF-SUFFICIENCY
At the time of writing this post, the world is in pandemic mode. There have been headlines about temporary food shortages (which is why I wrote an article on how to prepare for a food shortage the old-fashioned way) and wherever you go, you can feel the pinch. Food prices are steadily on the rise and what choice do most people have but to pay them?
Knowing how to find your own food comes with incredible peace of mind. As long as the grass is green, we can find raw materials to work with right in our own backyards. It’s almost like a fun game for me, learning about new plants and how I can use them. I have garlic mustard pesto in my freezer, garlic mustard horseradish in my fridge, and a dozen jars of dandelion jelly in my larder. The best part? I am only getting started and learning more every day.
I might look silly to someone looking in from the outside when I’m taking pictures of plants or picking spruce tips off the trail. Maybe I will never need this knowledge to survive, and I pray that I don’t. Still, history has a habit of repeating itself and I would rather build this old-fashioned skill and not need it than be without it should times get tough. It helps me sleep better at night.
REASON #2: ANCESTRAL WISDOM
First off, we live in a marvellous age. Our life expectancy has never been better, infant mortality rates are low, and we’ve made leaps and bounds when it comes to health and sanitation. At the same time, we have never been sicker. We eat fake foods that have been processed to death and are made up of genetically modified ingredients. We’re dealing with never-before-seen rates of obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, allergies and mental illness, to name a few. At some point, we sold our health (and Nature’s) for…what, exactly?
While our ancestors faced their share of challenges, they knew how to survive. They lived through a time where the survival of the fittest ruled supreme. You either knew how to find edible food, or you went hungry and fell ill. Our ancestors were tough. Foraging is a way to tap into those ancestral roots, and the more we fall in love with this beautiful practise, the deeper we connect. When we return to the same simple practices of our ancestors, our lives change for the better.
REASON #3: FREE FOOD AND MEDICINE
This is the most obvious reason for foraging, and the one that probably brought you here. It’s stunning how much nature provides, but many of us have been so disconnected that we just didn’t see, or know. Before you get started with rooting around through Nature’s pantry, I encourage you to review the best practices you’ll find as you scroll down, because a lot can go wrong if you rush in without paying heed to what you’re doing.
I’m not going to go into detail with everything that’s out there because that would take forever, but I’ll leave you with a few examples of what you can look for. I’ve already written about foraging for wild violets and garlic mustard, but there are hundreds of resources out there at your disposal.
I’ve already brought up the online courses The Herbal Academy has to offer, but maybe there’s a local foraging meet up group in your area or guides that can help show you the ropes. Pick up a book for yourself that’s specific to your area. All I can say is…
START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW
As you begin your journey, I encourage you to start with what you know. It might seem lame to start with something like dandelions, but they’re easily identifiable and there’s so much you can do with them. Other easily identifiable plants that you might want to start learning about include…
Plantains (not to be confused with the banana-like fruit)
Stinging nettles (wear gloves when collecting these and don't eat it raw!)
REASON #4: RECONNECT WITH NATURE
When we begin to forage, we connect with nature like never before. We see all the good things Earth has to offer around every corner. The world burns brighter when we become intimate with what we eat and what we heal ourselves with. We can either walk down a forest trail with no name nature as a fuzzy background, or our surroundings can glow with growing awareness and newfound knowledge.
This might sound a bit hokey, but it’s like a communion with nature, as we learn how to prepare the wild food and medicine she has to offer. And slowly, ever so slowly, it begins to affect other areas of our lives. We start spotting garbage littered in our forests and become more mindful of what we use ourselves.
Plastic makes us shudder, as do modern agricultural practices that damage the soil and strip animals of their dignity. We become aware of the harsh chemicals we clean with and eventually switch to using gentle (and natural) cleaning ingredients. All we want to do is be respectful of the earth that bears so many wonderful gifts. Maybe this sounds ridiculous, but it happened to me when I embraced Nature’s gifts. It might happen to you, too, if it hasn’t already.
BEST PRACTICES TO CONSIDER WHEN GETTING STARTED
To avoid any foraging misadventures, it’s best to be mindful of these tips when getting started. While I’m of the opinion that everyone should forage, I also believe we need to be smart about it.
START WITH WHAT YOU KNOW
I already spoke about this, but this is the easiest way to get started with foraging. Learn how to use what you have in your backyard before going into the forest. Slow and steady wins the race here! Just like exercising, it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you bite off more than you can chew. Get comfortable with one plant, then move to the next, building up that foraging muscle with each and every species.
MAKE IT A FAMILY AFFAIR
If you have kids, get them involved with the foraging fun, or call up a friend for a unique adventure! I’m not going to lie. Foraging is a lot of work. After gathering what you need, you also need to clean it and depending on what you’re making, this can take quite a bit of effort. Many helping hands make light work, so consider inviting others to partake in this experience. Everyone should know how to forage at least one thing, so be the spark that gets others intrigued in learning a new skill!
DON’T RELY ON PLANT ID APPS
I love plant ID apps, but I don’t rely on them. They’re not always accurate and if you’re going to try something new, double and triple-check with other sources before you start sampling. These apps are terrific when you’re starting out and learning about what grows in your area. After “capturing” a new species, look it up on Wikipedia to find out whether it’s edible or medicinal, then expand your search from there. Was the ID accurate? Crack open a couple of books. Check with an online group. Run an online search. When you’re 100% certain of what the plant is, only then proceed to learn how to use it!
DON’T SAMPLE STRANGE PLANTS
This is common sense, right? But hold it. I’m guilty of this! Last year there was a plant that looked a lot like rhubarb growing by my shed. My mom said it wasn’t rhubarb, but I wasn’t convinced. I cut off a stalk and took a small nibble to see if it was tart. Mind you, I was careful about this. I didn’t swallow the sample and my tongue didn’t go numb or anything, but the last thing we want to do when foraging is make ourselves ill. The mystery plant, by the way, was burdock, an edible species. The same one that produces those pesky burrs that get matted into a dog’s fur or grips onto our shoelaces.
STAY AWAY FROM MUSHROOMS
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the idea of free mushrooms! I also know there are some easily identifiable mushrooms out there, like chanterelles and morels, but I wouldn’t start picking them unless I was absolutely sure.
Wild mushrooms can be a dangerous game to play if you don’t know what you’re doing. There are so many poisonous species that can either leave you feeling ill or worse, kill you. If this is the kind of foraging you’re interested in learning about, I highly recommend going out with a guide who can train you on what to look for, or joining a local group.
LEARN HOW TO IDENTIFY POISON IVY, POISON OAK AND POISON SUMAC
The last thing you want to do when you venture out into the woods to hunt for edible or medicinal species is to bring home a nasty itch! Actually, that might happen anyway if you don’t wear bug spray or protective gear to ward of mosquitos and black flies, but the rashes take longer to heal.
Learn what these plants look like and keep your eyes peeled. If you plan on teaching children how to forage at the same time, make sure they know what to look out for, too! This will only work in your favour for your next camping trip. Here’s a Web MD article on these three toxic plants to help get you started.
AVOID ROADSIDES, PESTICIDES AND HERBICIDES
Lastly, don’t pick anything that’s close enough to get polluted by the roadside exhaust, salt, and whatever else might be harbouring by the road. If you know that an area is sprayed with either pesticides or herbicides, avoid that area, too. Either way, always wash your harvest, just in case!
DO YOU THINK EVERYONE SHOULD FORAGE, TOO?
Thank you for dropping by the Kitchen! I hope I got you as excited about learning how to forage as I am. It’s one skill I get more and more excited about every day. I love hearing from my readers, so please stop by and say hi in the comments below! You might also be interested in one of these articles…
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Love and gratitude,