An Introduction to Foraging

Foraging for wild edibles has been a part of being human since prehistory, and is vital for the survival of many people to this day. While foraging has been a basic human action, being traditionally taught in many indigenous communities, many civilized individuals do not know where to begin, especially if currently residing in an urban area.

Why forage? The natural human diet is to eat what is around you, for obvious purposes. Foraging reduces the pollution required in the manufacturing and use of vehicles used for transportation of plants, especially overseas. Wild edibles, depending on how industrial your area is, are typically healthier, cleaner, and organic. For those of you who like to know the origins of your food, it is much easier when you are finding it yourself rather than relying on another party. Other benefits include that foraging for local, wild edibles does not require destruction of the habitat, as you are not uprooting native species in order to plant and harvest non-native species and therefore preserves the diversity of an ecosystem, due to enjoying what is already there around you. Depending on who you are as an individual, foraging can also be a quite spiritual experience as you connect with nature,the plant as a fellow organism, “god’s creation,” your ancestors (as you emulate their natural behaviors), a theriotype or animal energy to be channeled, etc.

Before wandering off into your backyard and eating your lawn, you first need some basic knowledge of botany. This can be acquired most optimally by a combination of reading, hands-on experience with plants, and guidance by an experienced local who already has the necessary knowledge. Any gardening clubs, local landscaping organizations,native plant conservation centers, etc would also be useful.

Here is a basic outline of things to keep in mind when foraging.

  • Toxicity and Allergies: If you have come across a plant that closely resembles one you know to be edible, but the plant in question has many look-alikes that might be toxic, it is important to perform an edibility test. This is done by first crushing the plant and rubbing it on a small patch of skin on your inner arm or back of hand for 10-15 minutes. After this, wait a few hours to see if any reaction has occurred (rash, swelling, itching, etc). Next, if there has been no negative reaction, place the plant to your closed lips for 3-5 minutes. If there is any tingling, itching, or otherwise unusual sensation, discard the plant. If there has been no reaction thus far, you may chew the plant. Hold the chewed plant in your mouth, without swallowing, for about 10 minutes and wait for any reaction. After this, you may swallow the plant and wait a few hours for a reaction. If none occurs, eat 1/4 of the plant and wait a few hours. If you have no suffered from any ill effects thus far, the plant is probably the edible one which you have thought to have identified.
  • Trespassing and Location:  When foraging, it is safest to keep it to public areas like parks, or your own property. It is also best to avoid heavily industrialized areas, the roadside, or places that might be contaminated with chemicals (including insect repellents or herbicides).
  • Dosage or Quantity: Many plants are edible, and healthy…but only in the right amount. Too much of a good thing can be a dangerous thing, so keep your diet of wild edibles varied, only consuming small amounts of a greater variety of plants (if possible.)
  • Warning Signs: If you have already started a basic study of botany, this should be knowledge you already have. If not, I can assure you that you will learn it again soon. But all in all, plants that have a milky sap, spines or fine hairs, glossy leaves, or an “almond-like” scent are best to be avoided, especially if you cannot or are unsure of how to identify them. If you are new to foraging, it is best to avoid mushrooms and fungi altogether.
  • Age: Some plants, or parts of a plant, are only safe to eat when they are at a certain level of maturity. This is most often when it is only safe to consume young leaves,  sprouts, or an otherwise young plant. Most wild edibles tend to become more bitter with age.
  • Preparation: Different plants require different means of preparation before they can be safely consumed. I personally prefer putting a higher priority on those that can be consumed raw, as in times of desperation, I will know where to turn first and it is generally convenient. Some plants need a different mode of preperation for different parts of it, as well.