One of the main ways that I connect with the natural world is by gathering, processing, and consuming wild edible plants. Foraging is an ancient human practice, and opportunities still exist for those interested in gathering some portion of their nutrition from the wild. In this article, I present you with the foraging guidelines that I find essential to beginning and sustaining a safe and respectful wild foods journey. I advise you, in addition to considering my recommendations, to gather other perspectives by reading several foraging books, attending classes, and consulting a local and trusted forager. But remember, regardless of my or other people's advice, you alone are responsible for the foraging choices you make.
I only gather plants who I recognize with absolute certainty, and I recommend that you do the same. It's important to be aware that some wild plants are poisonous (including some species who have edible parts). In rare cases, consuming a toxic plant or plant part can prove fatal. To the untrained eye, an edible plant may look convincingly similar to a poisonous plant, but, as Sam Thayer explains in his books, once you’ve learned to look closely and notice distinct details, you find that plants can be reliably told apart from one another. When done with care, foraging is not a game of chance but rather a deliberate, safe activity.
Forage in safe places.
In deciding where to gather wild foods, it’s important to be judicious in order to avoid exposure to pollutants and pathogens. It's best to avoid the edges of well-traveled roads, areas where pesticides, herbicides or other toxic chemicals have been applied, and places where domestic dogs may be marking regularly. Also, be aware that plants growing in water may be contaminated with waterborne pathogens. I recommend you gather from places that you know well, where you are aware of both current and past land management strategies – your own backyard and a local organic farm may be good starting points.
Obtain permission from the landowner ...
Once you've identified a safe gathering site, it's important to obtain permission from the landowner before you gather. If you are focusing primarily on weedy species, you may find landowners more than happy to let you gather on their land. Additionally, obtaining permission to gather ripe, unwanted fruit and nuts from neighborhood trees and returning later with a gift of fruit leather or another preparation can nurture community connections.
... and from the plants.
Also, remember to ask permission from the plants themselves. A scarce or stressed plant is often best left alone, but sometimes plants become scarce or stressed precisely because they are not being interacted with. Wild plants and the other creatures who rely on them for food and shelter deserve respect, so please gather mindfully. If gathering a certain plant doesn’t feel right, it’s best to hold off.
Gather the proper part ...
The next step is to determine which plant part to gather. Just because a plant has one edible part (a tender shoot, for instance), doesn’t mean other parts of the same plant (a root or fruit, for instance) are also edible – in fact, these parts may be quite toxic.
... at the proper stage of growth ...
Then, determine whether that part is ready (or ripe) for harvest. Some plant parts are only safe to eat during a certain stage of growth; others are available and safe to eat throughout the growing season or even year-round. My Wild Edibles Monthly Guide gives a sense of the seasonality of some New England wild edibles.
... and prepare properly.
While many wild edibles can be eaten raw on the spot, others need to be processed in specific ways in order to be rendered safe. Even those that aren’t dangerous when consumed in their raw form may have an improved flavor or texture or be more digestible after being boiled, roasted, dried, juiced, or fermented. When doing your background research, be sure to note any specific preparation requirements that are mentioned. Also, don't forget to rinse off dirt, sand and dust.
Consume the right amount for you.
When consuming a wild food for the first time, start with a small amount to make sure that you are not allergic or otherwise intolerant. Also, be aware that children and pregnant or nursing women may have extra considerations. Just like cultivated foods, some wild foods can be eaten frequently and in large quantities and others are best eaten less frequently and in smaller quantities. Respect your body's inner warning system – if something doesn't taste or look or otherwise seem right, then stop eating.