I have been foraging for a long time without really calling it that or understanding the intrigue around it. The presence of wild food growing all around you is a benefit of living in a rural area. Growing up, your parents or grandparents just ask you to go collect things for pies, wines or to eat fresh for dinner. You don’t think of it any different than collecting food from the garden.
As an adult, teaching my daughter about foraging and expanding my knowledge to match her intrigue, I’ve realized there’s a lot more to it. For some, it’s a novelty. For others, it’s a hobby. And for the most devoted, it’s a lifestyle.
Vayda and I forage on a hobby level. We have a few good field guides. We’ve taken the time to familiarize ourselves with some of the most popular foraging seasons in Ohio. We’ve had some culinary success, but blackberry pies aren’t exactly out-of-the-ordinary.
Regardless, of our level of experience, we’ve learned some things along the way. If you’re considering foraging as a hobby or even a lifestyle, use these tips to get started.
Take stock of the wild plants around your home
If you want to start foraging, you need to get to know the wild plants around your home. In a rural setting, that could mean exploring the woods behind your home or examining the ditches along the roadside. In a more suburban setting, you could take stock of what’s growing along bike trails, in parks and near other shared outdoor spaces. Familiarizing yourself with what’s around you will provide a starting point.
As seasons change, you’ll notice the plants in the areas you visit are changing too. Recognizing these changes is the second step to becoming a successful forager. Understanding plant cycles not only tells you what’s available during different seasons, but it can also help you harvest before birds and other animals beat you to the bounty.
When you start considering nuts, berries, mushrooms and other goodies to potentially harvest, you’ll need to invest in a field guide to make sure you’re properly identifying them. Never pick or eat anything you can’t correctly identify.
In addition to helping you properly identify things, a field guide can also help you recognize new things in your area that can be harvested and help you find plants you haven’t come across yet. A good field guide will not only tell you what plants look like, but where they grow and when to harvest them.
Learn to recognize poisonous plants, too
Just as you spent time learning to recognize different plants, fruits and fungi to harvest, you need to spend time learning which poisonous plants are prevalent in your area. That may mean learning to avoid poison ivy when you’re blackberry picking, so you’re not miserable with a rash for a week after. It could also mean learning to identify look-alike plants to ones your regularly harvest. And it definitely means learning to identify the most poisonous plant varieties that grow near you.
Properly identifying plants means being absolutely sure on the details — recognizing leaf patterns and shapes, the basic shape of the plant, the fruit or flowers, the stem and any other distinguishing characteristics. For mushrooms, be sure to examine the color, stems, caps and underside of the cap. Only when you’re absolutely sure should you harvest and eat anything you’ve collected outdoors.
Putting together a harvesting kit
As you gain experience and learn more about what you like to harvest, you’ll be able to tailor your tool kit to what you’re harvesting. Here’s a general list to get started:
- Hand tools – digging forks, small hand trowels, loppers, hori-hori knife, kitchen shears, pruners, handsaw and leather gloves.
- Containers – berry baskets, shallow trays, buckets, burlap sacks, cotton market bags of various sizes or paper lunch sacks.
- Identification materials – a field guide, camera, sketch pad, pencil, magnifying glass, ruler, scissors and small plastic or paper bags to gather samples of plants you’ll later identify.
Preparing to forage
As mentioned above, foraging can expose you to unpleasant weather, poisonous plants and parasitic insects/arachnids. That’s why it’s important to dress for this occasion.
- Dress in layers. From light-weight layers in the summer to heavier layers in the winter, long sleeves and pants can protect you from scrapes, poison ivy and other rash-causing plants, ticks, mosquitos, horse flies, deer flies and other nuisance insects.
- Wear comfortable footwear. For me, that means hiking boots, for some that may be tennis shoes, hiking sandals or muck boots. Knowing the area you’ll be foraging in can help you determine what type of footwear makes the most sense.
- Bring water and a snack. It’s always good to bring water to stay hydrated and if you’re unsure how long you’re going to be foraging, a snack, too.
- Pack a first aid kit. If you’re planning a longer foraging trip to somewhere more expansive than your neighborhood, it’s a good idea to have a first aid kit and some bug spray.
- Plan ahead. If you’re going on a day hike in an unfamiliar area, make sure you have any needed trail and topography maps ahead of time. Additionally, let someone know your planned route, when you plan to leave and when you plan to return.
- Midwest Foraging
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