Category Archives: Foraging Tips

Josh’s Foraging Tip #7

Make It a Habit

A practice I've taken on in 2017 is to focus on one wild edible each week. During the week, I typically consult various written and online resources and visit a local patch that can tolerate (or, better yet, benefit from) light collection. I then properly prepare (if needed) and consume the food at least three times (when possible), and complete my week by writing about my experience in my weekly Nature Notes.

Photo of Collecting Red Maple sap
Red Maple sap collection

If one of your goals is to improve your wild food foraging skill set, consider taking on a similar practice. If you're not 100% confident in your plant identification skills, you may wish to skip the actual sampling for now and simply locate and properly identify one species each week and consult some reliable references, as training for future harvests. If you're ready for sampling, you could commit to adding a wild component to your diet every week, every day, or every meal. (With the green season just around the corner, now is also a great time to plan a Wild Food Moon Challenge.)

By adopting a wild food habit, you can kick-start or reinvigorate your adventures as a modern forager.

Josh’s Foraging Tip #6

Borrow or Buy a Book

If, like me, you didn't grow up surrounded by foragers, eating wild food at every meal, you may be hesitant to start nibbling the landscape. Maybe you've dabbled with some easy to recognize edibles like Red Raspberry and Highbush Blueberry, but you're needing some assistance before dipping more than your toes into the ocean of wild foods. Luckily, there are experienced foragers who've written excellent books that you can borrow from a library or friend or purchase to serve as in-home foraging mentors.

Wisconsin forager Samuel Thayer is the author of The Forager’s Harvest (2006) and Nature’s Garden (2010). Each book is subtitled A guide to identifying, harvesting, and preparing edible wild plants and covers over 30 species, most but not all of which are present in New England. Thayer spends a great deal of time in fields and forests gathering the foods he writes about, and his books are filled with tested techniques for increasing your foraging success. I give these two books my highest recommendation.

Photo of Ancestral Plants by Arthur HainesAdditional recommendations include:

Ancestral Plants: A primitive skills guide to important edible, medicinal, and useful plants of the northeast (v. 1, 2010) by Arthur Haines. Though individual entries are not as lengthy and image-rich as Thayer's species accounts, Haines' work is valuable for a number of reasons. First, Haines lives and forages in Maine, so the plants he covers are all found in New England. Second, he goes beyond edible uses, to discuss medicinal, craft, and other survival uses of the 50 species he covers. Third, Haines is a research botanist who utilizes precise botanical terminology without being overly technical. According to Haines' website, a second volume of Ancestral Plants is currently in preparation.

Edible Wild Plants: Wild foods from dirt to plate (2010) by John Kallas covers wild greens in exhaustive detail with countless photographs.

Backyard Foraging: 65 familiar plants you didn’t know you could eat (2013) by Ellen Zachos is an accessible guide to suburban species with brief, but useful, entries.

Steve Brill's classic text Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places (1994) is printed on non-glossy paper, features line drawings instead of photographs, and covers a large number of wild foods.

Abundantly Wild: Collecting and cooking wild edibles in the upper midwest (2004) by Teresa Marrone includes many recipes starring wild foods. This title is currently out of print, so you'll have check with a used book seller or lending library to secure a copy.

Finally, if you want an introduction to foraging fungi, take a look at David Spahr's book: Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada (2009). Spahr's book is large enough to cover many well-known species, but not so technical as to overwhelm a lay-person. As with plants, I recommend careful study and consultation with a knowledgeable mushroom forager before sampling wild fungi for yourself.

Even the best foraging guides cannot stand alone. A comprehensive, regional plant identification guide (like Newcomb's Wildflower Guide) is a crucial companion to any collection of foraging books. With the appropriate resources in hand and hours of careful study (and perhaps attending a wild edibles walk or foraging workshop), you'll be well on your way to foraging your own wild foods. Happy reading!

This post is part of a series of tips for foragers of wild plant foods.  For my core gathering practices, see Josh’s Guidelines for Foraging.

Josh’s Foraging Tip #5

Keep a Foraging Journal

The practice is simple: whenever you gather a wild food, make a note of what, where, and when you gather (e.g., first Common Dandelion leaves, backyard, 4/15/14). You might also note other plants who are almost ready to harvest or who've gone by.

I've kept records in a spreadsheet document (sample below), with columns for the plant name (both common and scientific), location (if I primarily gather the plant in a particular place), and edible part (in case the plant has another part with a different season of availability), and one column for every two weeks of the growing season. Once a day, I went through the list and place an X in the appropriate column to denote which wild edibles were available.

Screenshot of Foraging spreadsheet file

Another option is to dedicate a calendar -- a wall, desk or pocket-sized daily or weekly planner will work -- and once a day jot down your foraging activities and/or observations.

Maintaining a foraging log, however simple or complex, can pay dividends in future years by reminding you of when various foods are available in your area. Over time, you'll likely internalize many of the natural cycles and come to anticipate the availability of your favorite edibles without consulting your written record.

Do you keep a record of your foraging activities? If so, what method do you use?

This post is part of a series of tips for foragers of wild plant foods.  For my core gathering practices, see Josh’s Guidelines for Foraging.

Josh’s Foraging Tip #4

Embrace Scientific Names

Knowing how to positively identify a plant is an essential foraging practice, and being able to name a plant precisely is a natural extension of this practice. As the common name of a plant can vary from region to region or even among people in a given area, utilizing the scientific names of plants can greatly assist you when conducting research* or conversing with others about a plant.

Photo of American Trout-lily
Erythronium americanum or American Trout-lily

My go-to source for both scientific and common names is the New England Wild Flower Society’s Flora Novae Angliae (2011) by Arthur HainesGo Botany is essentially a free, online version of this regional plant manual and features photographs of nearly every plant found in New England.

*As taxonomists receive new information about how plants are related, they update scientific names accordingly (e.g., switching a species to a different genus or family, splitting a species into two species, lumping formerly separate species together, etc.). Therefore, some field guides and resources may reference out-dated scientific names.

This post is part of a series of tips for foragers of wild plant foods.  For my core gathering practices, see Josh’s Guidelines for Foraging.

Josh’s Foraging Tip #3

Attend a Wild Edibles Walk

When I began my wild foods journey about a decade ago, I attended several walks in Massachusetts led by longtime forager and teacher Russ Cohen. Russ gifted me my first taste of Autumn-olive fruit leather, introduced me to dozens of low-growing lawn plants with edible parts, and inspired me to dine more often on the wild.  In those early years, I also attended weekend foraging classes taught by Arthur Haines (author of Ancestral Plants) of the Delta Institute and Mike Douglas of the Maine Primitive Skills School.

Photo of Dandelion taproots

Much more than just a stroll through a field, these hands-on classes got me gathering, processing, and eating wild plants alongside other wild food enthusiasts. During those weekend-long courses, I gathered my first Wild Leeks, Ostrich Fern fiddleheads, and Sweet-flag rhizomes, helped harvest trays full of Dandelion taproots (pictured), and prepared herbal salves, infusions, and decoctions using (at least in part) wild-harvested ingredients.

Don't get me wrong, reading books and watching videos of experienced foragers is a great way to learn. But, as with so many earth skills, the real magic happens when you go outside. If you're new at foraging, or if you're looking for new ideas, I recommend finding someone near you who offers walks. Many foragers (Russ Cohen and myself included) offer walks free of charge and love to pass on their knowledge.

Green Deane, of EatTheWeeds fame, maintains a list of foraging instructors on his website. If his list doesn't lead you to a nearby forager, look up primitive skills schools in your area.  Often they will have a wild foods enthusiast on staff.

Have you ever attended a foraging walk or talk?  Share your experiences below.

This post is part of a series of tips for foragers of wild plant foods.  For my core gathering practices, see Josh’s Guidelines for Foraging.