Foraging for Nature's Bounty
How to safely find a free lunch out in the woods
Have you ever looked at a plant growing in your yard and thought, "I wonder if I could eat that?" Apart from grabbing the odd mulberry from the overhanging branches of my neighbor's tree, the thought had never really entered my mind until last spring, when my wife and I moved onto three acres in Minnesota's Chippewa National Forest.
Bitten By The Foraging Bug
It was the early, terrifying days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was surrounded by hundreds of miles of wild land and I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. That combination sparked a keen interest in what I might be able to "survive on" in those surrounding woods.
Besides the free food, foraging is a low-key activity, well suited for people of all ages.
I ordered a small library of books and began binge-watching YouTube videos on the topic. A couple of weeks into my new obsession, I positively identified my first wild food, the tree fungus chaga, growing on a dying birch tree near our house.
I promptly cut a small piece off, grated it to a fine powder with a wood rasp and made myself a cup of tea. "Mmmm, pretty good!" I offered a sip to my wife. The look on her face told me what I'd begun to suspect already: she was living with a crazy person.
Luckily, the global food supply chain held up and we didn't need to survive on what I could find in the forest. But I remained smitten with foraging, to the point that it has transcended the realm of passing obsession and become what I expect will be a lifelong pursuit. From what I gather (pun intended) via online chat groups and forums, the same is true of most who try it.
Foraging His Way to a Healthier Lifestyle
That was the case for Ron Griffin, 56, of West Linn, Ore., though he got started foraging for very different reasons than I did. Six or seven years ago, he had been diagnosed with pre-diabetes. "So I wanted to change my diet anyway," he recalls, "but I found John's wild edibles website online, took one of his workshops and it's changed my whole lifestyle!"
Griffin was referring to John Kallas, an expert in wild edibles and proprietor of Wild Food Adventures, in Portland, Ore. "[Kallas] introduced me to all the food around me that's basically free," Griffin explained. "The knowledge of foraging foods — and just of different types of foods in general — has been huge. I knocked [the pre-diabetes] totally back. I haven't been in that range for six or seven years now."
Foraging: The Perfect Outdoor Activity for All Ages
Although foraging played a key role in changing his lifestyle and improving his health, Griffin keeps doing it for the food.
"I like to go just to sample all the different plants," he said excitedly. His favorites? "Wild fennel, dandelion, lambs quarters and I'm particularly fond of green amaranth," he said. He described walking around his neighborhood, gathering a variety of different leafy greens, nuts and fruit and combining it all into a vibrant, healthy and delicious free lunch.
Besides the free food, foraging is a low-key activity, well-suited for people of all ages.
"Terrain depending, foraging is great for anyone who can walk," Griffin said. And, indeed, you're more likely to find many of the best edible greens popping up in your yard than in the forest. Once you know what to look for, it's hard to go outside without catching sight of something edible.
But Isn't Foraging Dangerous?
When I first started foraging, I was really, really leery about it. Stories of people who died after eating a single mushroom, and the slow, agonizing death scene from the film "Into the Wild" almost kept me from even trying it.
But armed with a sense of adventure, four books and dozens of hours of online research, I headed out into my backyard and began harvesting nature's bounty. I'm happy to say that I have not had a toxic reaction to anything I have foraged, and I credit that initial healthy dose of fear, along with a promise I made to myself (and my wife) to NEVER eat ANYTHING I hadn't positively identified with 100% accuracy.
Here's what my process looks like:
Whenever I find a new plant I think might be edible, I snap a photo and do a search via Google Lens to give me an idea of what it might be. Then I consult all my foraging books, reading specific details about the subject specimen.
After that, I scour the internet for related blog posts and videos. I've found it's particularly important to input "[plant name] toxic look-alike" into your search engine, because that's been instrumental in finding any similar plants I definitely don't want to eat.
If all of this assures me that I have 100% positively identified the specimen as a wild edible, I try a very small amount, either raw or cooked depending on what the research says is best and safest, and then I wait.
If I feel no ill effects within 24 hours (and if the thing tastes good in the first place), I go back and harvest more of it. So far, this method has worked for me, but a couple of experts I spoke with said there's an even better way to safely forage.
Top Tips for Foraging Safely
"There's nothing like live learning," said Kallas, who holds degrees in nutrition, biology, zoology and education. "Seek out a local expert and make sure they're actually knowledgeable and experienced. That's way more helpful than ten books on wild foods."
That's a pretty serious statement coming from the author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt to Plate," a guide on not only what, but how to forage. Kallas suggests seeking out classes offered by your local university extension, community education or any in-person activities offered by the federal, state or local park service in your area.
"If you're not one hundred percent sure, don't eat it!"
Adam Haritan, creator of the popular website and YouTube channel "Learn Your Land," is a self-taught expert who's been foraging near his home of Allison Park, Pa., for over 10 years. He agreed that having an experienced forager (or a group of them) at your side early on is indispensable.
"I found a community of people who were into this," he said. "Back in the day, that meant I was connecting with people on Meetup.com, but now there are Facebook groups and other social media platforms people are using."
Apart from finding a seasoned forager to show you the ropes, Haritan, who forages for mushrooms as well as edible greens, nuts and berries, had five more tips for foraging safely:
- “If you’re not one hundred percent sure, don’t eat it! It sounds obvious, but I know people who have gotten really sick because they were ninety eight percent sure and took a chance.”
- “Don’t forage in areas that are contaminated. Get as far away from roads that are even a little bit busy. Plants — and mushrooms especially — take up heavy metals from the soil.”
- “A good general rule of thumb is to always cook your wild mushrooms, for many reasons. Morels, for example, are toxic raw, but the toxin is destroyed when you cook it. For nutritional absorption, it’s also better to cook most mushrooms.”
- “If it’s a new species to you, try a very small amount. Cook it, eat it, wait twenty-four to forty-eight hours, and keep the rest in case you have a reaction and someone needs to identify it.”
- “Always consult at least two sources if you’re foraging on your own. Use two field guides; post photos on your Facebook group; watch multiple videos. The more sources the better, and be very discerning. Find books, websites and videos that look reputable.”
Foraging is incredibly fun. It gets you moving out in nature and is an ideal activity for families spanning multiple generations. Plus, by following a few unbreakable safety rules, it's the only way I've found for getting a free lunch.