Spring is just around the corner! Soon, wild greens will start to pop out of the ground, buds on trees will open, and people will head out to enjoy the warmer weather. Springtime is my favorite time of year to forage, as there are plenty of delicious plants we can gather and cook into amazing dishes. It is important to make sure we are foraging safely and ethically. Here are a few tips to make sure you are being a safe forager:
If you don't know what it is, don't eat it-
A simple statement, but an important one. If you ever THINK you know what a plant is, its best to avoid ingesting any part of that plant. There are plenty of resources to help identify wild plants. Books, apps, websites, and pictures can be useful, but nothing compares to taking a foraging CLASS with a forager. Its best to be shown the plant, in the environment it naturally grows, at the time of year that's best for harvesting. It is perfectly okay to not be able to identify every plant you come across, as that is the exciting part of learning plants. But avoid ingesting until you are absolutely sure of what the plant is.
When you first eat a plant, start by eating only a little. You never know what reaction you may have. I have noticed that when I eat evening primrose or raw cattail shoots, it feels like there's a small part of a pepper spice or popcorn kernel stuck in the back of my throat for a while. There will be new plant families your body has not digested before and its good to be careful of allergies or reactions.
Only gather what you need-
Unethical foraging unfortunately happens all too often. We see this with ostrich fern fiddleheads or wild ramps that folks gather and sell at the grocery store. They head out and gather as much as they can to sell by the pound and deplete the population where they harvested these plants. There is no general rule for how much you need to gather. Each plant has its own way it needs to be gathered and that's why I like to form a relationship with the pant and observe how it fruits, reproduces, and how big the population is in the area I want to harvest.
The 3 Rights- Part, Season, Preparation-
When you do positively identify a plant and want to harvest any part of it for food, make sure you are collecting the right part, during the right season, and are preparing (cooking) it in the right way.
Watch where you gather-
I try to avoid gathering along roadsides, contaminated soil or water, and yards or fields that were treated with some sort of chemical. Some areas may be illegal to forage as well. Always wash your greens and plants to get rid of dirt and anything else that you don't want to eat.
Get to know one or a few plants at a time-
If you take your time learning one or two plants, you will get to learn many things about those plants. Where do they grow? What part is edible, and what time of year? What foods can the plant be made into? What does the dead stem look like? How does the plant seed? What nutrients are in the plant? Where is the plant native to, or invasive to? Going out with a field guide and identifying every single plant you see on a hike can be fun and has its value, but in order to truly retain the information, go slow. Try focusing on one new plant a month and gather that plant for food when you can during the month. Try to find new spots the plant is growing. And try to help that plant spread (as long as its not invasive).
Look for the invasives-
Invasive plants are classified as non-native plants that can outcompete the native plants. Japanese knotweed, autumn olive, bittersweet, and garlic mustard are all plants that I gather a lot of. These plants seem to just keep coming back no matter how you harvest them and it is often encouraged to gather as much as you can. These plants are perfectly edible or useful in a utilitarian way (bittersweet for baskets) and can give you a lot of food.
A few book recommendations-
The Forager's Harvest, Sam Thayer
Wildflowers of New England, Timber Press (a great plant ID book)
These are only a few basic guidelines to get you started on your foraging journey. It is up to you to be safe, responsible, and ethical as you forage and gather plants/mushrooms. If you would like hands on training, consider signing up for a CLASS with Owl Eyes Wilderness Survival.
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