Do you want to start foraging, but are nervous about it? Well, with the proper know-how, you shouldn’t be nervous! Foraging is a fun outdoor activity that can net you some free food or medicine.
With people’s minds on food security right now, foraging is a perfect tool to have in your toolbox. Sure, gardening is great, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some food from your backyard, that you haven’t had to tend to, at all? Or take a little trip to the countryside and gather some food from a beautiful prairie? Or how about a venture into the woods to enjoying the fresh mountain air, while getting some food for a nice picnic?
That, my friend, is the joy of foraging! But where do you start?
Get a foraging book and/or plant ID app
In order to do your own foraging, you have to know what plant you’re foraging. Don’t ever eat something that you’re not 100% certain of what it is!
I suggest finding a good plant identification app to download on your phone. I use Picture This on my Android phone, and I’m very happy with it. It is super helpful to be able to take a picture of a plant and have it identify it. Keep in mind, that if you go into remote areas, you may not have cell phone service to use a phone app. So make sure you have backups!
In addition to having an app, it’s also a good idea to have a field guide for your area, and a foraging book. A field guide is beneficial, as it will list the plants that are in your area. These are usually small books that you can easily take with you whenever you go out. A foraging book gives you lots of information, but may not list things that grow near you.
I actually have two copies of this book, The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer. If you’re wondering why two copies, I got both as a gift from two different people when I started getting serious about foraging. It’s a wonderful book, that I definitely recommend, but the author lives on the east coast so it doesn’t have a lot of the plants that grow near me, in the northwest. I keep one at home, and one in our camp trailer for easy reference.
Gather your tools
Though not totally necessary, there are several tools that make foraging easier. The Hubs made me a foraging bucket that we take on road and camping trips. It’s a 5-gallon bucket that has a basic tool bag on it. It has several pockets that I can put my foraging tools in. I also keep some ziploc bags and plastic grocery bags in it to store my goodies in.
Before I got my foraging bucket, I used a messenger bag when I did my foraging. I kept a couple tools in there, and a bunch of bags. Both options have worked really well. The bucket is easier to gather large amounts of wild food, but the messenger bag is less bulky.
Here are some of the foraging tools I recommend:
Compact pruning shears
Pruning shears are helpful for snipping off leaves or branches. It’s best not to just tear off the leaves, as you can damage the plant. Shears make it easy to harvest without harming the rest of the plant.
A garden knife is a great multi-purpose tool. The teeth can help you saw through branches, and the forked tip is great to dig up roots. It’s especially good for digging up long taproots like burdock.
A weeder is another helpful foraging tool. Makes sense when you’re mostly pulling weeds, right? This type of weeder easily pops up weeds with shorter roots, as it’s actually called a “dandelion weeder”.
- Harvest the leaves in the spring. Leaves are usually the most tender and sweet in the spring, when the new growth starts. After the plant goes to seed, the leaves are typically bitter. Some species do get sweeter after a frost, though.
- Harvest the berries in the summer or early fall. Berries and fruit from wild plants are usually ripe in the summer to early fall. However, some fruits, like rose hips and autumn olives, should be harvested after a frost or two.
- Harvest the roots in the fall. Before winter comes, plants focus more of their energy into developing a strong root system, to protect them from winter. This means that the roots have the most nutrient and medicinal content in the fall.
- Never eat anything you can’t 100% identify. There are some edible plants that have deathly poisonous lookalikes, so proper identification is crucial.
- Forage only the “active” parts of the plant, based on the season (see foraging guidelines above). It’s important to use the right parts of the plant at the right time.
- Never harvest more than 1/3 of the plant. In order to avoid permanently damaging the plant, you shouldn’t harvest all of the leaves, or all of the berries, or all of the roots of each individual plant.
- Never harvest more than 1/3 of the plants in any given area. Make sure that you don’t totally wipe out the population of the plant in an area, so it can replenish itself.
- Leave no trace. Pack it in, pack it out. Don’t leave trash in your foraging area, and don’t damage the surrounding areas in any way.
- Don’t trespass to forage. Make sure you don’t forage on private property, unless you have asked permission first. Around here, orange fence posts mean no trespassing.
- Don’t forage near pollution. Roadways can leave pollution on the surrounding plants. You don’t want those chemicals on your food!
- Leave endangered species alone. There are many endangered plant species in the world. Please familiarize yourself with the ones in your area, so you don’t contribute to their demise.
- Don’t take more than you can use. Be a good steward of the plants you want to use. Don’t be wasteful with them, and use them to their full potential.
- Save some for the bees. Please keep in mind, early spring flowers can be an important first food for the bees. Make sure that they have plenty to eat. The bees need our help!
Go forage some free food!
Now that you’ve learned how to forage properly, I hope you’ll get out and do some of your own. It’s easy, fun, and frugal. What better way to get a good dose of Vitamin D! I have a few other foraging posts to help you out, from spring foraging, fall foraging, foraging for medicine, and foraging common mallow. What are you most excited to forage for?
If you’re also interested in foraging for your own medicine and other home remedies, you need this book! The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies has lots of plants you can forage in your own backyard to make healing medicine for your family.
I want to learn more about foraging. Where I live there are lots of blackberries, and some old homesteads have apple trees. We have lots of mushrooms in the backcountry but I don’t know enough to be safe for those. Local classes always fill up fast. – Margy
I’ve had a hard time with mushrooms, too. The Hubs got me a mushroom identification pamphlet, but it’s so hard for me to be sure, and I won’t eat it unless I’m absolutely sure it’s safe. You might be able to find a Facebook group on mushrooms, where you could post pics and the members might be able to help you identify them.