Foraging 101: How to get started (plus some of my favorite resources)
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When the topic of foraging comes up, I often hear expressions of intimidation and fear: "I"m too scared to go foraging because I don't feel confident in identifying anything." I remember that feeling as it’s definitely how I felt early on in my foraging journey too! That fear is good; it’s true that mis-identifying something you consume could lead to illness or worse. That said, foraging is a hobby like any other, and like any other, it takes learning and practice. You wouldn’t go down a steep rocky grade your first time learning to ride a bike, right? Start small and safe, and then build on it. Here are my recommendations on how to get into foraging but before we do, a few important guidelines:
Be safe - make sure you are 100% confident in your identification of wild plants. Know which parts are safe to eat and how to process them. Use common sense safety when out in the woods - carry a basic first aid kit, plenty of water, extra snacks, and be aware of your surroundings and location. As you harvest, be aware of areas that may have been exposed to toxins - pesticides, herbicides, etc. and avoid those areas.
Be respectful - Know who’s land you are foraging on and obtain permission first. (Offering up some of your bounty or some beer is a great way to get that permission.) Don’t harvest in National Parks or any other areas with specific no-picking rules. Be a good steward to the land by picking up any trash you find and packing it out along with your own. Fill in holes left from digging roots and try to leave the land as healthy as you found it. Also, use everything you gather. It’s disrespectful to let foraged foods go to waste.
Be sustainable - With few exceptions, never take more than 1/4 of anything. Learn about each plant’s reproductive patterns and how to harvest them sustainably. Invasive species are fair game and you can take as much as you want; other plants like ramps and white sage are critically over-harvested each year. Never take the only plant you see, and never take the “mother” or biggest plant in the middle. With fruits and berries, leave some for other foragers and the animals that rely on them.
Getting Started Foraging:
Learn in Person:
The best way to learn is in person by taking a class or studying under someone more experienced. That way you can learn in a more holistic way, seeing the plants in their native environments and using other senses to help identify them (such as smell.) Check your local area for herbalists and wild crafters that offer identification courses. (If you have a local university extension office, that is often a good place to begin.) I am so grateful I was able to learn under a fantastic local herbalist, Darcy Williamson. While she’s ended her apprentice program, she still teaches weekend workshops from time-to-time at her teaching center near Riggins, Idaho. Another favorite teacher is John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures, who is based in Portland, OR and teaches classes in that general area. I’ve only taken one class from him but I really enjoyed his thorough teaching style with lots of hands-on activities. I’m definitely hoping to take more of his classes in the future!
The next best way to learn about wild plants, in my opinion, is to pick a plant and learn everything you can about it. Learn how to identify it, where it grows, what parts are edible, if it needs to be processed in any particular way, what its look-alikes are and how to identify it, etc. I’ll be posting some longer details on this below!
My Favorite Resources:
While there are many wild plants guidebooks out there, I thought I’d share some of my personal favorites. Remember that you’ll want to look for ones that are local to your specific area. My Pacific Northwest guides won’t be very helpful in Arizona’s desert ;)
Take an Herbalism Course:
For those that want to dive in deeper, there are some great online herbal courses you can take. I don’t have any experience with them myself, but these two have stood out to me as great options for the novice forager hoping to up their game with some extended study:
The Herbal Academy - Has a variety of classes for every knowledge level. I’ve found their blog to be an awesome resource for self-learning, so I’d imagine their herbal programs have the same level of detail!
The Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine: Also offers a great selection of online courses. And, like the Herbal Academy, their website is definitely worth perusing for all of the free resources available there! (Like this blog post about the best wild foods for beginners!)
Now that you’ve seen some of my favorite resources, I thought I’d share my particular way of working with them and learning about new plants:
Creating A Wild Plant Community
Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for a while, it can be easy to forget where you started. Every now and then, someone comes to me excited about getting in to working with wild plants, but unsure where to begin. My advice: get to know them first.
I think about my knowledge of wild plants and fungi as a sort of community; there are those that are loud and energetic that greet you as you walk through the door, the quieter conversations tucked into the corners, and those shy wallflowers that I’m still just barely getting to know after many years spent around them. Each plant that I’ve worked with deserves a relationship and a conversation. And funnily enough, that’s often how my knowledge of them seems to progress!
It starts with a crush. I start noticing a particular plant more and more, start seeing articles about it or recipes pop up, start thinking about it a lot. I get distracted on hikes or drives and feel called to spend more time around it. I begin with research: where does this plant grow? What parts are edible? Are there any safety considerations or specific ways it should be processed? Any poisonous look-alikes to be aware of? How do indigenous people use it? What about herbalists?
Then, I harvest a bunch and get to know it. Time to develop a more personal relationship. I might brew up an infusion with just that plant and pay attention to the flavors, the smells, the overall feeling, the way it sits in my body. It’s always good to start low and slow when introducing a new plant to your body; just like any other food, there is the possibility of allergy or intolerance. I might then start thinking about flavors: what if I paired this with something acidic? Something sweet? Something salty? (Some of my most successful experiments often result from unexpected combinations, such as candied chanterelle mushrooms or pickled walnuts.) I often make a variety of infusions: vinegar, oil, syrup, and tea, and taste test each individually before adding them to dishes.
Once I understand the depth of flavor of the plant, I start to compare it to more common food items. This gives me a basis to start brainstorming recipes and researching options. For example, curly dock seed flour is similar to buckwheat, so I might look up buckwheat recipes to adapt. It’s at this point that the infatuation really begins as I start thinking about all of the wide possibilities for that particular plant. I do a lot of open-ended experimenting in the kitchen, knowing that some tests will be great and others awful. That’s how we learn. As I become more and more acquainted with each plant, they become comfortable friends, something I can reach for when I’m looking for a particular flavor profile or texture.
And so begins a beautiful intimacy with the wild plants around my home. I understand rose hips as deeply as I understand tomatoes; I know fir tips like I know basil. It’s through curiosity-driven explorations that I’ve come to develop the knowledge I hold. And just like human friends, I know that I will always have something to learn from each plant, will always be discovering more complexities and curiosities as I continue to explore and converse.
So if you are new to foraging or simply want a way to engage a little bit more deeply, I encourage you to proceed with wonder and curiosity leading the way. Let yourself become infatuated with the plants that you feel drawn to. Explore the depth and beauty they offer. Get to know each one. Then, and only then, will blending and seasoning with them come as naturally as it does with salt and pepper.
I hope this post has been helpful in encouraging you to safely get into the beautiful hobby of foraging for food and medicine! Please feel free to tell me about your favorite resources in the comments below. :)
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