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.
Gather 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!