A Beginner’s Approach to Foraging Useful Plants – PART 2

By Mindy

Part 2 of this two part series is a practical look at what a beginner needs to do once they are ready to forage wild plants. Check out Part 1 here.

So, now that you know the rules, you are ready to start foraging for your own provisions.

First of all, decide which type of flora you are interested in learning about.  I suggest you start with wildflowers (as opposed to trees and shrubs, or alternatively mushrooms), as I think it is the easiest for beginners. For the rest of this discussion, I am going to assume you are learning wildflowers.

flowerGather up your equipment ready. For your first time out in the field, all you need to bring are your field guides.  This should be as many as you have and can comfortably carry, but no less than three different books by three different authors.  Marc’s go-to wildflower guide is here, and Mindy’s is here. We also like this one, and this one. The rest of your equipment is location and weather dependent; pack everything you would normally need to be comfortable for a few hours at your chosen location. Expect to sit on the ground – a portable chair or cushion may be handy. Food and fluids will help you maintain your patience. Bring clothing layers (a jacket, a sweater, even a hat) that are slightly warmer than you think you need; the body has a funny way of cooling off in the outdoors!

Pick a place to look for wildflowers. Don’t be fooled—nearly all of the herbs you are interested in will have a flowering phase. And don’t worry, in almost any area with green space, you can find wildflowers to identify. An ideal location would be an overgrown pasture or the edges of woodland. The parking lot of most outdoor recreational areas are prime areas for finding useful plants. If you are in the city, venture out to your local park. You should be able to find common wildflowers blooming from early-to-mid spring, to mid-to-late fall. Don’t forget that your own backyard may be the perfect place to do this!

After you have made it to your destination, set up a comfortable place to hang out for a while.  Now, go and find your wildflower. Seriously, just identify a flower that catches your fancy. If its abundant, pick it along with the majority of the stalk with leaves.

Sit back in your camp chair, and start the identification process.

To get started, relax, and just begin thumbing through your guides looking for flowers that look similar to the one you selected. You are going to be here awhile!  Marc and my favorite wildflower guides each use actual photographs of the flowers to help. Additionally, these guides segregate the plants initially by the color of the flowers.

Once you have identified a couple of potential candidates, it is time to start paying attention to the details. For instance, in Clemants and Gracie’s Wildflowers in the Field and Forest, after you have found possible matching pictures and colors of the wildflowers you wish to identify, the next identifiers are 1) leaf architecture (basal, opposite, alternate, or whorled), 2) type of leaf (simple or compound), 3) number of petals. It will take a bit of work on your part to learn what each of these means. Study your guides–most have pictures and descriptions of each of the terms (such as “alternate compound leaves”) they use.

Finally, take into consideration the location of the country that you can expect to find each plant growing in, along with what season the plant is expected to produce a flower in. Most guides include this information. Familiarity with the guides you use are essential.

Once you believe you have identified a plant based on one guide book, check it against all of the other guidebooks that you have available to you. Be careful that you do not try to “force” the plant to match a particular identification—this is a very common beginner mistake! And don’t be surprised if you spend your entire afternoon looking at a single plant.

Once you figure the first wildflower out, go on to the next. The point of this exercise is simply to start knowing the plants around you. Do this until you can catalog every wildflower you see. Keep a notebook of all of your findings. Only once you are capable of confidently and reliably identifying the plants around you, should you think about ingesting them.

You can identify the plant…should you consume it? This is a very personal decision. Do your research. Review “The Rules” in Part 1 of this post.  Foraging is exciting, practical, frugal, and just a wee bit dangerous. Have fun. Be responsible. And know your stuff!


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!