DISCLAIMER: All the content provided in this article is meant to provide general information regarding the topic covered herein. This should not be considered medical or professional advice as it does not explain every facet of foraging and the many foods that can or can not be eaten from nature.
With summer on its way out the door and all that time spent in nature over the past few months, I came across the idea of living in the middle of nowhere and being completely free from any of the comforts of our modern lifestyle. Living a much simpler, stress-free life away from the responsibilities of this so-called adulthood has become increasingly more appealing to me over the past couple of years. It’s not work-related stress or the idea that I can’t get enough time off to relax. I’m not stressed about work most of the time and get time off. Hence all the mountain trips I took this year. It’s simply the fact that no matter what means I try to disconnect from the realities of our timeline, I never manage to unwind. While this might be something to talk about with my psychologist, disconnecting from the modern world gives me a sort of calm.
- What is Foraging?
- Benefits of Foraging
- How to Safely Forage?
- What to Stay Away From When Foraging
- What to Forage
So, when I went mushroom picking or started looking for all sorts of berries by the side of mountain creeks or forest trails, I got to thinking. Can you actually live off of what nature provides without grocery stores or farmer’s markets? I don’t mean in a survivalist kind of way but as a more sustainable source of food. Truthfully, I am so fed up with all the plastic containers, packaging, and bags for every store-bought product from the stores that, aside from planting my own vegetable garden, I see no other way to avoid them. And while growing your own food is 100% healthier than buying it from the store, I won’t pretend and say that we can all do that. In addition to this, I have a friend who wants to test his limits and go survivalist mode in the mountains, build his own hut and deal with food in the hunter/gatherer style. I’m not sure he fully understands what that would mean, and I keep reminding him of wolves, bears, and boars to ensure he doesn’t wind up on the 5 o’clock news.
Still, for thousands of years, our ancestors have managed to get by in the hunter/gatherer kind of life, living off of what nature so graciously provided for them. That alone got me thinking about whether that’s still possible in this day and age. So, seeing as we are living in some troubling times all around – just look at the prices all around you if you’re second guessing that statement – I thought to look into the whole foraging idea and see what the whole fuss is about. So, in this article, we’ll go over the basics and give you a few tips on how to forage without causing yourself any harm. Some plants, mushrooms, and fruits can be extremely toxic, and it’s very important to actually know what you are picking before picking it, or worse, eating something you’re unsure of.
What is Foraging?
The idea of foraging isn’t new. In fact, it’s older than many other ideas, going as far back as the hunter/gatherer culture we mentioned earlier. Foraging means going into nature and looking for food sources and medicinal plants you can gather and then use. In other words, it’s using the resources of the natural world. In one way or another, chances are you probably foraged at one point in your life, even if you weren’t aware of it. Things like picking apples from a tree and picking raspberries or acorns are considered foraging if those plants don’t belong to anyone (otherwise, it might be stealing). Most foraging is done in the wilderness but can also be applied in urban settings for public green spaces.
For a growing number of people, foraging is becoming more appealing, especially since those natural resources are there whether we use them or not. The natural world creates them, and it remains our decision whether we pick them or leave them to create more life in the forests. At the same time, we can use foraging to source food most naturally without having to rely on grocery stores or plants that we can grow in our homes. However, it’s important to note that you must understand what can be foraged and shouldn’t even be touched.
If you’re like me and you’re jumping at the idea of not having to pay for plastic packaged food from the grocery store and are already planning your first organized foraging trip, some knowledge is required. In the following section, we’ll go over some of the benefits of foraging, but we’ll also look into the do’s and dont’s of foraging. Some plants are toxic, so before foraging, make sure you know what to pick. The last thing you want is to eat the wrong berry, mushroom, or plant and, if you’re lucky, wind up being sick from it.
Benefits of Foraging
I, for one, don’t find any disadvantages to foraging if you know what you are doing. How can food sourced in a sustainable and free way be considered wrong? So, I will list a few of the benefits of foraging as I eat some jam my mother made from foraged walnuts. I have to say that it is delicious. So, let’s see what makes foraging such a good idea.
Decreasing your Carbon Footprint
As an environmentalist, I can not overlook the fact that foraged food is the most carbon-neutral form of sourcing food. It is even more environmentally friendly than having your own vegetable garden to make food from. But let me explain why. Firstly, picking something that grows freely in a tree, bush, or in the ground ensures that no fossil fuels are used to get that product in your hand. Secondly, those plants, fruits, vegetables, and berries grow regardless of human desire (unlike the desire to destroy nature with another shopping mall or extractive activity). Thirdly, if done correctly, it causes no damage to the natural environment. Fourthly, it doesn’t come in a plastic bag. Fiftly, unlike a vegetable garden, the wild ecosystem is perfectly balanced and grows without any added fertilizers or nutrients, on its own, in its own time, and doesn’t need anything except our respect and to be left to its own devices to thrive. And lastly, when you forage for food, you usually take what you need and wind up consuming it, leading to a reduction in food waste.
We, as humans, tend to try to control nature, but by foraging food from nature, we simply take what nature freely gives. If you start picking dandelions for your tea, it’s not like there won’t be other dandelions to take their place. The same goes for nuts, berries, and other plants. They will remain there even if we pick the fruits. As long as we don’t destroy the root, it will give fruit again.
Getting Closer and more Respectful of Nature
It might not be easy for everyone to go out into the wilderness and forage for food. There are many reasons for this, from accessibility issues to financial. We don’t all grow up close to a mountain or a forest. Most of us probably couldn’t tell the difference between an edible and a toxic mushroom because of that. Still, seeing as we live in the age of information and foraging isn’t always limited to the wilderness (I pick horse-chestnuts, walnuts, and dandelions living in a downtown area of a small metropolis), there are ways to venture into the world of foraging if there’s enough will to do so. With the right knowledge, we can learn to understand nature and get closer to it than ever before. We grow to appreciate the resources we can gather and understand their value, even if they might be things to get rid of for others. We also learn to respect nature and protect it for the fruits it can give us and the dangers it can cause.
At the same time, foraging can help us explore the natural world with a broader perspective. Whether it’s due to our desire to spend more time in nature, live off the natural world, need to survive in extreme conditions, or a desire to regain knowledge we lost through colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization, foraging reconnects us with nature. It brings us closer to our true home, not the cement and steel world we created for ourselves, but the natural world that is a home for all of us.
Basic Survival Skills
If you know what can be foraged and what can not be foraged, that in itself is a vital survival skill. While we don’t live in the Walking Dead universe, and I am not personally one to prep for Armageddon, in extreme situations, it’s good to know what can be used for sustenance and what can not. Foraging is appealing for some as it is a handy skill for survival, but if you are in the middle of the woods and have no more food on your plate, knowing what to eat will literally save your life, regardless of how interested you are in the whole survivalist concept.
I don’t want to start talking about the end of the world, but the simplest and most likely possibility that you get lost in the woods and are left without food. Just think that the human body survives without water for three days, while most can get by without food for thirty days. Still, if worst comes to worst, it’s a good idea to be aware of the plants, berries, mushrooms, and insects that can help you push through. You’ll be much more capable of finding your way out of that mess with some sustenance in you and not faint before you get back into civilization.
How to Safely Forage?
While multiple resources can help you get started that you should look into if you want to become a true self-sufficient forager, there are a few ways to minimize the risks associated with foraging. There are different levels of preparedness when it comes to foraging, and the following depend on how invested you want to get in this area.
Simple tips for Foraging in the Wild
We’ll review the best ways to simplify, improve and maximize your foraging experience. So as you explore the wilderness, know what to look for and what to stay away from. Here are some basic ways to ensure you can forage while hiking, even if you don’t know everything about foraging.
Know your Right Berries
Whether you pick them up during a hike or buy them from the grocery store, berries are an excellent source of carbohydrates, vitamins, and fiber. Luckily there are a few simple ways to differentiate between the berries you can eat and those you should avoid. Firstly, aggregate berries that grow in tightly packed clusters (raspberries and mulberries) are around 99% edible everywhere you go in the world, so they are the safest to forage. The rest we’ll separate on color. Blue, purple and black berries are approximately 90% edible, so when unsure that you identified the berry correctly, consider an edibility test (more on that later). Red and orange berries are riskier, with only 50% of them being edible, in which case an edibility test is required. The riskiest berries come in white, yellow, and green colors, with about only 10% of them being edible, so it might be best to avoid them altogether if they don’t have a name tag or you’re unable to identify them without a shadow of a doubt.
Don’t Shy Away from Insects
While insects are an icky subject for most modern world dwellers, some are being introduced into mainstream consumption in the form of flour. However, when out in the wild, insects have astronomic quantities of protein for their small size, and they are much easier to catch than hunting for small or large game. While they don’t work as trophies, they will satiate your hunger. The safest insects to consume are crickets (you can already find cricket flour in stores), mealworms, grasshoppers (just remove the legs and wings), earthworms, and ants (avoid fire ants and boil the others before consumption).
Every vegetable we buy from grocery stores has a wild counterpart. While some may be easier to identify due to their foliage, smell, and taste, aside from the obvious vegetables and fruits you are familiar with that might also be found in the wild, many others are to be enjoyed. Some of the most common outdoor weeds are dandelions (great for tea from flower to root), chickweed, clover, cattail, wild mustard, and chicory. With a good nose, you can even find wild onions during your foraging – if it smells like an onion, tastes like an onion, and looks like an onion, then it’s an onion. Same with garlic, for that matter.
Simple Tips for Foraging in the City
Depending on where you live, you might find plenty of foraging opportunities that you can make the best of. While this may not seem like the simplest option as it deals with how people perceive you, if you want to indulge in foraging and can’t go hiking every week but have the resources nearby, and it is legal to, do so.
Understand your Limitations
As I already mentioned, there are many foraging opportunities in many public places in urban settings that we can jump on. Whether trees that give fruits or weeds that grow in every green space, it won’t be hard to forage even in a metropolis. However, make sure that you are allowed to and make sure you do it properly. For instance, if there are chestnut trees in a public park, don’t take a ladder with you and climb the tree. However, if the branches are low and can be picked or if there are fruits on the ground that are not squashed, go nuts. Trees like Chestnuts, Horse-chestnuts (for natural cleaning products – not edible), Walnuts, Linden, Apples, Plums, and even Oranges or Pomegranates can be found in many public parks in the US or other parts of the world.
In most cases, you can pick the fruits, and no one will have a problem with them. This can also be applied to fragrant herbs like sage, mint, rosemary, or lavender that are grown in public gardens or parks for design purposes. Additionally, clover and dandelions grow everywhere. We already covered those.
Follow the Law
The last thing you want when out foraging in your town is for the police to be called and fine you. When it comes to national parks, they have regulations regarding foraging, many prohibiting it, but this can be easily verified online or at their visitor centers. Also, in cities, there might be legislation concerning foraging that you should be able to check in with before you start. It’s always best to ask if you’re unsure to ensure that you follow the rules of the area where you forage. When in the wild, it is less likely that any restrictions are placed on foraging but make sure you’re not on private property. However, if you want to forage someone’s private property, talk to them and either strike a deal with them or offer them some of what your forage or the resulting produce from it. Some may be open to being paid as well.
Pro Tips for Foraging
As with any new venture, knowing how to forage goes a long way to ensure that you don’t accidentally poison yourself. Whether you’re interested in this sustainable method of gathering supplies for its survival skill or you simply want to make the most out of your outdoor experiences, the following tips will set you up for success.
Plenty of books and online content (articles and videos) teach you everything you need to know about foraging. You can also find courses and training that prepare you for what’s waiting for you in the vast outdoors. The most important thing is to know what plants, berries, mushrooms, and other resources are safe to forage and what are not. Many plants out there provide sustenance, but there are also, probably just as many, dangerous to consume.
Most of these resources come with entries on each edible, with pictures, descriptions, and means to identify them. Also, they cover what is not edible, how it can affect you, and what are the differences and similarities between edibles and inedibles. Knowing how to make that distinction could save your life. Some resources that will answer all your questions and curiosities about foraging are “Eat the Planet” – a book on plants, herbs, fungus, and edible bugs; “Forbes Wild Foods” – a cumulation of online and offline educational resources; “Edible Wild Foods” or “This is Mold” – useful foraging apps. You can also look into local community groups focusing on foraging to help you get acquainted with and help you explore your surrounding environment.
Do your own research and document your experience in a journal. This will cement your findings and help you keep track of your process while also giving you a resource you can easily cross-reference during your foraging expeditions. You will also become more familiar with what is available depending on the season, the area, and your needs. As you explore more, you will add more to your journal, which will record your progress in the field.
Stay Away from High Traffic or Toxic Areas
Pollution affects the quality and safety of nature, which is why, when it comes to foraging, it’s essential to be aware of the pollution levels in the area. While it may not always be possible to know if an area is safe from pollutants, there are a few ways to minimize the risk of foraging for resources that the by-product of human activity has tainted. This applies to urban and wild areas, and anything foraged should be thoroughly washed, especially in urban areas. Still, avoid picking anything close to car exhaust, lead, oil, or other toxic substances as they get in the surrounding brush and even affect the soil. If you know that there is a factory nearby, find another location as toxins leak into the ground and water, affecting the plants. An excellent way to verify if the area in which you are foraging is safe to forage in, healthy, and toxin-free is to assess the wildlife. Find a creak or a patch of water and try to identify if the water has rainbow shades in it and, most importantly, if there is life in it. If you find a dead frog with no visible bodily harm, move away and find another area.
What to Stay Away From When Foraging
Many of the berries, mushrooms, and plants you will find in the great outdoors are toxic. While mushrooms and berries are more tricky to identify, they have their own identifiable traits to ward off bugs, insects, and foragers. While we already covered berries and insects, mushrooms and plants have their own trait, so unless you start delving deeper into the subject and do your own research as you forage for mushrooms and plants, we’ll give you a few basic traits to keep an eye out to help you identify what could be dangerous when out foraging.
Firstly, eating a mushroom is unsafe if you can’t correctly identify it. Some mushrooms can kill you, so it’s essential to identify the fungus and be 100% you know what it is before consuming it. It’s also important to note that mushrooms can affect each other because spores from a toxic mushroom get on an edible one, so don’t pick a good one if it’s too close to a bad one. Don’t believe everything you hear and don’t follow phony rules like “if you can peal the head, it’s good”, “if it grows on wood, it’s good” or “if other animals are eating it, it’s good”. These rules do not apply to all mushrooms, and relying on them can be dangerous. For a novice, it would be better to follow the rules when foraging mushrooms to ensure safety if you can not 100% identify the fungus. And always, when picking mushrooms, do not pull them out of the ground. If you do, they won’t grow anymore. Simply rip them at the base so another can stem from the roots.
When it comes to how they look, we all have a general image of a mushroom. Still, some of those traits can signal danger. Mushrooms with white gills (the spongy surface beneath the cap), mushrooms with a ring or skirt on the stem (usually found half an inch below the cap), and mushrooms with a bulbous or sack-like base should be avoided. While some edibles have these characteristics, if you’re not sure, better stay away.
In wildlife, the colors blue and red are known to be dangerous. Even animals and insects with these colors pose a bigger threat than others. When mushrooms are concerned, the color red on the cap or the stem is a clear sign of toxicity. Again, some mushrooms can have red and be edible, but if you’re unsure, don’t pick them.
When it comes to mushrooms, being 100% able to identify them should be the only reason to pick one or the other. These fungi are highly dangerous and toxic and can cause death. Even if you’re stranded in the wild, there are other things you can eat with a much lower risk of poisoning yourself.
Identifying Poisonous Plants
While plants like poison oak, poison hemlock, poison ivy, holly berries, and poison sumac are generally known to be dangerous, there is some way to determine whether a plant is safe for consumption. The following characteristics will help you identify the good ones from the bad ones, even without a field guide.
When scratched, cracked, or broken, plants can ooze a milky or sap-like substance from their stems or branches. This substance can cause irritation, mild itchiness, severe allergic reactions, and burn-like sensations, some even causing permanent damage like killing skin pigment, making the affected area unable to sustain solar exposure at all.
Umbrella Flower Clusters
Plants with an umbrella-like cluster of tiny flowers have high toxic concentrations and should be avoided for safety. If you aren’t 100% sure you identified the plant correctly and know it to be edible, best stay away from them.
Plants with shiny or waxy leaves, also called the cuticle, can indicate that the plant is toxic and should not be consumed. This waxy surface is a protective layer for the plant, helping it retain water.
Hairs and Spines
While plants like sage have delicate, velvet-like hairs are safe, other plants with fine hairs and spines indicate that the plant has a defense mechanism that keeps away predators. These hairs can cause stinging or burning sensations when touched.
The Edibility Test
Once you cover the above-mentioned poisonous traits, you can do an edibility test if you’re still unsure. This multiple-step test will ensure that you cover all your grounds and prove the edibility of a specific plant. Firstly, do a skin test by taking a piece of the plant and rubbing it on your inner forearm. As a sensitive part of the skin, it will react if the plant is poisonous. Wait for 15 minutes. Secondly, if all is well, do a taste test without swallowing the part of the plant and wait five more minutes. Thirdly, do a bigger taste test if it doesn’t taste bitter, soapy, or feel numbing. Take about a teaspoon of that part of the plant, chew it for five minutes, spit out extra saliva regularly, swallow, and wait 8 hours. If you don’t experience any digestive issues, finally, eat a tablespoon of the same part of the plant and wait eight more hours. If all is well, then that part of the plant is edible in the manner in which you ate it. Use the same process for the other parts of the plant, other methods of preparation, and every plant you’re unsure of.
What to Forage
From the section above, it is clear that foraging from nature comes with a certain degree of risk. Still, many plants, fruits, and fungi are edible, safe, and nutritious. They can provide vitamins, minerals, protein, natural fats, and antioxidants that are highly beneficial for a healthy diet and precisely what the body needs. As foraging means going into nature and collecting fruits from shrubs and trees, fungi, and different plants, you need to be aware that even experienced foragers have died or got intoxicated by mistakenly identifying a plant or mushroom. The following are foods that can be foraged in the wild, the safest options if you don’t trust your knowledge yet, or if you are unsure of yourself.
The most common roots you can safely forage are dandelions, chicory, and burdock.
Some healthy nuts that can be foraged in the wild are pecans, hickories, hazelnuts, groundnuts, pine nuts, walnuts, and acorns.
While the dandelion already appears on this list, the root is edible, and the greenery is also suitable for consumption. Other edible greens are miner’s lettuce, wood sorrel, Japanese knotweed, stinging nettles, and lamb’s quarters.
These will be familiar to you as many can be found in grocery stores as well, but when in the wild, try these as the taste is so much better. Wild strawberries, pawpaws, mulberries, juneberries, raspberries, madrones berries, blackberries, and American persimmons are suitable for consumption.
The most popular mushrooms among foragers are maitake, chicken of the woods, chanterelles, and morels.
Foraging isn’t something you can venture in by simply reading one article online. It takes time to become familiar with all the things that nature offers that are edible and healthy for consumption. I don’t intend for anyone to read this article and use it alone for any foraging expedition, as foraging is a dangerous practice. Still, once you get accustomed to the rules, read and research the subject further and are confident enough in your ability to identify, categorize and understand specific plants, berries, mushrooms, and fruits, you should be good to go.
Take your time and choose against eating something that you’re unsure of. It’s better to be safe than sorry as, in some cases, you might not even get the chance to be sorry. Nature is a great provider, but it also uses every tool at its disposal to protect itself from pest, so respect it, and it will save your life. Don’t take more than what you need and always take care of nature by cleaning up after yourself, whether you’re in a large metropolis or the middle of nowhere.
Let us know in the comments below if you’ve ever found yourself foraging and how you found the experience. We are also curious if foraging is something you might venture in if you haven’t already. Whether you explore this subject as the last resort in case of an emergency or want to find a more financially viable source of food, Like & Share this article with friends and family that might be interested to discover the many ways in which nature can provide for us.