Foraging keeps me grounded. It’s a way to connect with the earth through the soles of my feet and the nourishment it provides. It’s something I like to do throughout the year, as each season has its own unique offering of wild food.
My first memories of foraging were pulling sassafras saplings for my grandmother. I vividly remember the pungent scent of root beer wafting through the house while I waited impatiently for that delicious red decoction. It’s a sensation I’ll always associate with being a wild and free kid — a memory as sweet as the tea.
I spent my summers with my grandmother when I was young, tromping through the woods, nibbling on wild plums, and picking blackberries on the brambly edges and fencerows of her south Georgia farm.
It was a different world than the suburban life I lived the rest of the year. Those summers instilled my love of nature and laid the foundation for my lifelong journey into foraging.
For all I learned from my grandmother about wild food, though, there’s so much I never knew to ask. I never got to eat poke sallet with her, or any of the foraged fare she would’ve cooked for her family as a matter of subsistence before I came along.
As I cultivated my interest in wild edibles after she was gone, I wanted to know more. My curiosity went beyond those common fruits of summer in the South. I wanted to learn about the wild spring greens, the fall nuts, and the winter roots.
The internet wasn’t so ubiquitous in those days, so I learned what I could from books, plant walks, and like-minded friends.
I made it a point to familiarize myself with new edible wild plants every year through all of the seasons. I have found that learning new plants gives me more confidence in my foraging abilities and incites me to branch out and learn even more. It also gives me more options for putting together a foraged meal.
If you’re just getting started foraging, here are a some simple guidelines that have helped me to stay safe and expand my foraging knowledge.
• Make positive identification before you eat anything wild, i.e., be 100% sure you’re not eating something that’s poisonous.
• Take a class or find a teacher. Learning from an expert can save countless hours and give you more confidence.
• Get a reliable wild edibles book or field guide. A book will not only help with identification, but it will also help you discover new plants.
• Don’t harvest in toxic areas. Places where pesticide has been sprayed, roadsides where exhaust settles, and similarly toxic areas should be avoided.
• Don’t over-harvest. I try not to take more than 10% or less, depending on the habitat, sensitivity of the plant, etc. Responsible harvest will ensure that you and the wildlife that depends on wild food will always be able to come back for more.
I think it’s also important to keep in mind that there’s a difference between “palatable” and “edible” — not all wild foods taste that great. The produce we’re accustomed to getting at the grocery store has been selected for its superior texture and flavor over the course of hundreds of years. Wild plants, on the other hand, have selected themselves, so to speak, for their ability to thrive. In most cases, that means they’re more bitter than we would like.
For me, the allure of foraging has as much to do with enjoying my meals as it does with knowing I’m eating what I harvested from the wild. So, I usually combine wild food with something more domesticated. For instance, I might make a salad with cultivated lettuce, foraged wood sorrel, and clover flowers picked from my backyard. Or spring rolls with rice noodles, basil, cilantro, chickweed, and redbud blossoms.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some wild edibles that rival any cultivated crop for flavor. But I wouldn’t say it’s the norm and my meals rarely consist of 100% foraged ingredients.
If you’re just starting to familiarize yourself with wild food, try to target common, easy-to-identify plants that actually taste good. It will make your experience much more enjoyable, which means you’ll be more likely to keep foraging and keep learning.
Here’s a list of a few relatively easy-to-find plants to look for through each season.
Chickweed. This is one of my favorites. It grows in backyards and gardens everywhere, so it’s easy to find, and it’s one of the better-tasting wild greens. Chickweed is really good raw or cooked like spinach. You could even use it as a base for salad, since it has such a pleasant, mild flavor and tender texture.
Chickweed is a cooler-weather plant, so in some areas, you can find it all winter. In others, you can find it all summer.
Sassafras. Sassafras tea is what comes to mind for most folks when they think of this tree. But what’s not as well-known is that the slightly lemony, young, tender, raw leaves of sassafras are great in salads. It’s something you can eat through any part of its growing season and, of course, you can use the roots for tea any time of year.
Lamb’s quarters. Another excellent wild green, lamb’s quarters can also be cooked like spinach or added to soups and stews. Young leaves are tender enough to eat raw, but they’re high in oxalic acid, so eat in moderation or cook to destroy (most of) the acid. Lamb’s quarters can be eaten in spring, summer, or fall — whenever it has leaves.
Daylily. I’m talking about the Asian variety that has naturalized throughout most of North America. Stay away from true lilies, which have bulbs — they’re toxic. Daylilies (hemerocallis fulva), on the other hand, have tubers that resemble fingerling potatoes. The flower buds are excellent raw or cooked. Flowers, buds, young stalks, and tubers are all edible. Eat the newer, white tubers any time of year.
One caveat regarding daylilies: A small percentage of the population is allergic and suffers nausea after ingesting. If you’re not sure, try a small amount before digging in.
Hickory nuts. I think hickory nuts are one of the most overlooked native nuts. They’re a bit of work to get into, but if you’re willing to put in the time with a hammer or a heavy-duty nutcracker, they’re worth the effort. Eat them raw or roasted. Try to get them before the worms do.
Persimmons. One of my favorite fruits, persimmon ripens in the cool of fall, often clinging to the tree to remain through winter. Even after they’ve dried and shriveled on the branch, they’re usually still good. Conventional wisdom tells us that persimmons don’t ripen until the first frost, but that’s actually a myth. Just make sure they are completely ripe before eating or you’ll end up with an unpleasantly puckered mouth from the astringent tannins.
Wild onion. Truly a cold-weather plant, the wild onion thrives in winter and the greens can sometimes be seen peeking up through snow. Use the leaves just as you would cultivated green onions — they’re every bit as tasty. Eat the bulbs, too, although they’re much smaller than their domesticated counterparts.
Pine needles. Pour boiling water over white pine needles to make a refreshing hot drink that’s full of vitamin C. In days past, when fresh fruit and greens were scarce or non-existent during the colder months, indigenous peoples relied on pine needle tea to stave off scurvy and other maladies. Make sure to look for white pine, because it has a milder flavor than other pines. And stay away from “pines” that aren’t really pines, like yew, which is extremely toxic.
As you learn more and more wild edibles, you’ll become more receptive to the edible gifts of nature, and you’ll approach foraging with more of an open mind.
When you walk into the woods, instead of asking, “Where can I find a few dandelions?” you’ll ask, “What do the woods have to offer me today?”
Eric Orr is an avid gardener, subsistence hunter, primitive skills enthusiast, and amateur green woodworker. He lives on a rural homestead in the southern Appalachians with his wife, Cindy, where they write about wild food, lead edible plant walks, and supplement their food supply by foraging. Find Eric at Wild Edible and Camp Woodsmoke, and connect with him on Facebook.
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