Foraging has been a favorite outdoor activity for as long as humans have been around. It was, of course, very popular before modern grocery stores were around. However, it’s stuck around in some form even since then. In fact, we are now seeing increased interest in foraging, especially among outdoor enthusiasts such as campers.
If you are an outdoor enthusiast yourself and you’d like to dive into the world of wild food foraging, you may be wondering how to get started. In this article, we will give you all the info you need to begin your foraging adventures with safety, sustainability, and common courtesy in mind.
What is Foraging?
The first thing you may be wondering is what exactly foraging is. The answer? Wild foraging is just what you would think it might be: collecting food—specifically edible plants—in the wild. Some people do this in their own backyards. However, there are some campgrounds and boondocking locations where foraging might be available and allowed.
How Do You Start Foraging?
The next question is, of course, how to forage. Obviously, you can’t go out and collect and consume every plant you see, so how do you know what’s edible and what isn’t, and what exactly are the rules of foraging?
The first thing you’ll want to do when learning how to forage for food is invest in a quality foraging app or book with excellent photos. This is what you will reference when you’re unsure about a particular plant, so make sure the information provided is crystal clear.
In terms of apps, we recommend PictureThis. We like using this in conjunction with the book, The Forager’s Harvest.
- Choose two — To get started, pick a couple of plants that you know well and look only for those. Add new plants to the mix only when you feel 100% comfortable with the ones you already gather.
- Cross check — Use multiple sources (such as the app and book mentioned above) in order to be sure you know what you’re collecting.
- Know the area — Know that you won’t be able to find everything listed in a book in a particular area.
- Be observant — Pay attention to your surroundings when collecting. This will help you get to know the type of environment each plant likes, something that will help you find those same plants in the future.
Benefits of Foraging
There are many benefits to wild foraging. The first and most obvious is free fresh food that you don’t have to grow yourself. However this is far from the only benefit.
Below are some of the other fantastic rewards you reel when you forage for food:
- More time outdoors — Most of us spend far too little time in the great outdoors. Foraging gives you a reason to head outside.
- Tons of nutrients — We all know fruits and vegetables contain lots of important nutrients. This is just as true for wild foods as it is for cultivated plants.
- Can be done anywhere — Some people believe you have to go out into the middle of nowhere to forage. However, this isn’t true. You can forage anywhere.
- Find new foods — Foraging gives you the opportunity to try new foods you might never have found otherwise. This keeps cooking and eating interesting and healthy.
- Learn a new skill — Foraging is a great skill to have, and it’s one you can learn on your own without attending a class.
- Slow down — In order to forage effectively, you have to slow down and look around. This is something many of us forget to do, and can really help us de-stress and learn to appreciate the world around us.
Hazards of Foraging
There are a few hazards that come along with all those fabulous benefits. The biggest of these hazards is the possibility of collecting plants that are harmful to humans. Fortunately, there are ways to ensure you avoid collecting poisonous or contaminated plants.
- Double check — As we suggested before, it’s a good idea to carry two references and double check each plant you collect, so you’re certain you know what you have and that it is edible.
- Know when ripe — Know what each type of plant looks like ripe and unripe, and collect plants only when fully ripened. Unripe plants can actually be dangerous to eat.
- Choose locations wisely — You’ll want to forage in healthy areas. Plants for areas that are contaminated by chemicals or sewage are likely to make you ill.
- Properly prepare — Some wild foods are edible but must be prepared a specific way before they are suitable for human consumption. Make sure you know how to prepare the foods you collect.
Other potential hazards of foraging include:
- Damaging the environment — When foraging wild edibles, it’s possible to take too much of a plant and wipe it out, leaving room for invasive species to move in and disrupt the delicate ecosystem. For this reason, it’s important that you never take more than 25% of any cluster you find.
- Breaking the law — There are some places where foraging is illegal. Private property is one example of this. Other examples include state and national parks. Make sure you know the rules wherever you plan to go foraging in order to avoid getting yourself into trouble.
- Hunters — Make sure to wear bright-colored clothing in order to be easily visible to hunters. Additionally, it’s a good idea to always keep tabs on hunting seasons.
Common Foraging Wild Edibles
Knowing some of the more common wild edibles might help you learn to forage more effectively. The plants listed in this section are relatively easy to find and identify, making it a cinch to jump in and start foraging right away, learning about new plants as you go.
Dandelions — Those bright yellow flower-like weeds that grow in everyone’s yard are actually edible. Pick some, clean them, and add them to your next salad!
Miner’s Lettuce — Miner’s lettuce is usually found in the coastal and mountain regions of the West. It has single, round leaves with an itty-bitty white flower in the center. They taste similar to spinach and can be used just as you would normally use spinach.
Wood Sorrel — A weed, Wood Sorrel is also known as Oxalis. It can be found in clusters of three heart-shaped leaves and has five-petaled yellow flowers. It likes moist, shady spots, and the leaves, flowers and immature seed pods can all be eaten raw or cooked.
Lamb’s Quarters — Lamb’s quarters is odd in that it has a white powdery coating on its diamond- or teardrop-shaped leaves. It also boasts clusters of tiny green flowers. This weed can be found in gardens as well as near rivers and streams. It tastes a bit like chard and is tasty steamed or sautéed.
American Persimmons — Similar to Asian persimmons, American persimmons are a small, orangish fruit and can be found on trees in the hardwood forests of the eastern US. They’re very bitter before they’re ripe, but become sweet and delicious in the fall. They can be eaten raw, dried or cooked.
Pawpaws — Pawpaws can be found in thickets along riverbanks on the east side of the country. These are green, oblong-shaped fruits that are creamy and taste something like a mixture of banana and mango. For the most part, people enjoy these fruits raw.
Blackberries — Found in many parts of the US, blackberries tend to grow in sunny areas such as the edges of meadows and fields. Blackberry plants are quite thorny, so gloves are recommended when collecting them. These berries can be eaten raw, in baked goods, or in jams.
Raspberries — Raspberries are similar to blackberries in terms of where they grow and the prickly plants they grow on. They are a bit more tart than blackberries, but can be used in all the same ways.
Mulberries — Although mulberries look a lot like blackberries and raspberries, they are different in that they grow on trees (contrary to popular belief and that one nursery rhyme). There are different kinds of mulberries, but all are sweet and delicious, and good eaten any way you would normally enjoy a berry.
Wild Strawberries — Did you know strawberries grow in the wild? They do, and their fragrance is so strong, you might just smell these yummy fruits before you see them. When you do see them, you’ll notice they look exactly like their storebought counterparts, only smaller. You will want to be careful not to mix these up with the false strawberry plant, which looks similar but has fruits growing upward rather than dangling down. Fortunately, false strawberries won’t hurt you if eaten.
Hazelnuts — Wild hazelnuts look and taste similar to the storebought version. That said, they are a bit smaller. These nuts grow on shrubs along the edges of forests in all parts of the country except the southwest. These shrubs have alternating, toothed, oval leaves. They also sport long brown catkins, and the nuts themselves grow inside of a prickly outer covering. For this reason, you’ll want to wear gloves when collecting hazelnuts.
Acorns — Most people don’t realize that acorns are actually edible when processed properly. To get them ready for consumption, you will want to shell the nuts, grind the nutmeats into a meal, and leach that meal in a jar of freshwater, changing the water daily for 3–5 days. This meal can be used to make hot breakfast cereal, pancakes, or some types of bread.
Chanterelles — Some of the most popular mushrooms in the foraging community, chanterelles are large, flower-shaped mushrooms that are golden in color. They can be found in forests across the country during the fall months, and are delicious when sautéed or dried for later use.
Morels — Another popular mushroom, morels are actually only found in the wild, making them a valuable find. You can find them all over America during the springtime, and they tend to grow around the edges of forests near dead and dying trees. They can be identified by their cone-shaped brown cap. You can eat them cooked any way you like and they can be frozen or dried.
Note: You will want to watch out for the false morel, as well as the half-free morel. Both look similar, but the false morel is mildly toxic and the half-free morel can cause digestive issues.
Poisonous Plants to Avoid
Wondering what kinds of plants you should be avoiding? In this section we will discuss a few of the most common poisonous plants that you could come across during your foraging adventures.
Use a book or an app to familiarize yourself with these plants so you can be sure to avoid them during your foraging walks:
- Mexican Poppy
- Harlequin Glorybower
- Mulberry Weed
- Earth Smoke
- Tahitian Bridal Veil
- Giant Hogweed
- Waxy or Glossy Privet
- Spreading Lupine
- Wavy leaf Basket Grass
- Castor Bean
- Scarlet Sage
- Horse Nettle
Of course, these are far from the only poison plants out there, so make sure you’re taking all the precautions discussed earlier in this article in order to avoid harmful plants that may not have made it onto our list.
More Rules for Foraging
No foraging guide would be complete without a list of general rules for foraging. We’ve already discussed some of the most important rules, but there are a few others that we will include in this section:
- Don’t wait around — Foraging can be done year-round. Therefore, you won’t want to wait for spring or summer to roll around. Get out there right away and enjoy what the season has to offer!
- Use a breathable sack — If you’re looking for mushrooms, keep your findings in a breathable sack. Doing this allows spores to be planted as you move, ensuring the mushroom population continues to thrive.
- Avoid endangered species — When foraging, you should know exactly what you’re picking. Therefore, it should be easy enough to avoid picking endangered plants, allowing them to repopulate.
- Leave no trace — When walking through a natural area, you want to leave the place just as you found it. Leaving behind trash or other items is never okay.
- Use tools — A knife or a pair of scissors can be extremely helpful, allowing you to collect wild foods without damaging or uprooting plants.
Foraging is a fabulous camping activity. Ready to try your hand at gathering your own food? Renting an RV and heading out into the wilderness will give you the perfect opportunity to do just that!
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