A Beginner’s Approach to Foraging Useful Plants – PART 1

By Mindy

Part 1 of this two part series introduces the challenge of foraging wild foods and medicinal plants, as well as non-negotiable rules to adhere to on your journey to partake in nature’s smorgasbord. 

Intrigued by the possibility of snagging medically and gastronomically useful plants from your surroundings? Does the idea of reaching down and picking a botanical treat from the side of a trail captivate your wild self? Do you let your mind explore this fleeting idea, only to shrink back into the safety of daily modern life? You know, the mundane place where everything we deem okay for consumption is purchased at a store?

Of course, there is nothing new about foraging. Every generation preceding the last couple of ours collected valuable plants from the environs as a method of survival.  Since the knowledge of wild plants is no longer a requirement for our well-being, we have let foraging slip into obscurity, becoming a curious habit of a handful of odd people. For most, finding provisions within nature’s bounty is a superfluous, contemporaneously unnecessary skill.

But for others…

While learning how to forage is easy, there are a few rules to follow:

1) For podcast listeners, remember the Walking Herbalist disclaimer: PLANTS ARE DANGEROUS!  This means that there are plants in this world that will cause you harm (poison ivy is one example, poison hemlock is another). Learn what these dangerous plants are and avoid them.  Even if a plant is not known to be poisonous, it may still be harmful TO YOU! You may be allergic to a particular plant and have a bad reaction from your encounter with it. Talk to your health care provider if you need more information on this, including strategies to treat a potential allergic reaction in the field.

2) DO NOT EAT A PLANT UNTIL YOU ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY KNOW WHAT IT IS!  Proper identification of every plant that you are considering ingesting is essential.  Do not rely on any one source for information when identifying plants. This means: do not rely on any one person, any one book, any one cell phone app, any one online picture. Do not rely on your own memory until you thoroughly have learned the plant.  The best approach is to acquire a minimum of three reputable floral field guides (real books, not internet references) and crosscheck any plant you are thinking of consuming against all of these guidebooks. Pay attention to the fine details. Also, remember, not all “experts” (including us here at The Walking Herbalist) know what we are talking about. “Trust, but Verify”.

3) DO YOUR HOMEWORK! Once a plant of interest has been properly identified, you may now be considering ingesting it. First of all, make sure you know what parts of the plant are to be used. Is the useful part the aerial parts (leaves, stems, flowers)? Just one of the aerial parts? Is it the roots? Also, find out how to prepare the plant safely: can you consume the plant raw? Do you need to cook it prior to ingesting?  If you are making medicines, do you have appropriate recipes to follow?

4) Finally! You are convinced you have positively identified the plant.  You know what part of the plant is of interest. You know how to prepare the plant prior to consumption. Now what? TRY IT! But! Remember, you may have a reaction (allergic or otherwise) to this newly ingested material. It is best to make sure that you have access to health care in case something goes amiss when you do this. This means, make sure you are near civilization (backwoods experimenting is a no-no), have access to a phone, and have someone nearby to monitor you. Also, if you had that conversation about foraging with your health care provider and they suggested possible medications, have those handy!  Start small. Rub the plant on your skin and wait 24 hours. Any reactions? If not put a little bit in your mouth, chew it, spit it out, and again wait 24 hours. Any reactions? Next day, swallow a little bit, and again wait 24 hours. Any reactions? This is one approach to adding wild foods to your diet safely–make sure you do your research and find out what will work best for you!

5) DO NOT TAKE IT ALL! Make sure you know enough about the plant, its environment, and the ecosystem that depends on it before harvesting. Is the plant scarce or endangered? Does it have a long and arduous growth cycle? Do animals rely on its presence?  Be mindful of the impact you may be having when you decide to take from nature. If you are careful, you can approach harvesting wild plants in a way that actually makes the plant grow better (like pruning shrubs to encourage more and fuller growth). Think of it as gardening the wild!  Furthermore, remember that taking plant material may not be legal, so make sure you know the rules and get proper permission if the land is not yours.

Part 2 will discuss what approach to take once you are ready to go out and forage!


  • Kristi @HomesteadWishing

    February 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm Reply

    This is a great article about foraging. We enjoy identifying plants. It can be very tricky business. It requires so much research. Another thing to consider adding to your knowledge of a plant is when it should be harvested. Knowing what you can get from a plant whether it be food or medicine and what time of year it is available is the key. That is a lot of information to take in, and takes a lot of practice, memory, and research!

    • The Walking Herbalist

      February 25, 2016 at 4:39 pm Reply

      Kristi: Thanks for the note and sage advice! Agreed that the learning curve can be steep initially. We are “relearning” these lessons as we venture down the mushroom path this year. We think setting a modest achievable goal helps–for instance, we simply want to find, harvest, and eat chicken-of-the-woods (mushroom) this year. Very good points too about knowing when to harvest, sometimes we are lax on this, collecting as found (without hurting the plant population of course!) Thanks again for your helpful tips!

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