Our early hunter-gatherer ancestors were foraging their way out of Africa as far back as 2 million years ago! Foraging allowed our ancestors to both better understand the natural world they lived in but also to expand, travel, and learn how to survive in new lands.
This is a skill that followed us all the way to the pioneering days here in America. Families that carved their own path west had to know what they could pick to eat and even what plants could become medicine.
In a very short time, 100 years, Americans have lost touch with the plants and trees that have nurtured our species since the beginning. Foraging is the quickest and most ethical way to make that connection again.
Yes, it’s a legitimate survival skill but foraging is so much more.
Why Start Foraging?
I found my way into foraging because I was into wilderness survival. I wanted to be able to find food in the woods. I didn’t realize that foraging was not just about finding food but about knowing the world we inhabit beyond the drywall and pavement.
What Foraging Is
Foraging is a reason to spend more time in the woods and a means of learning much more about the natural world around you. As the culture drags us deeper into the electronic world “we need the tonic of the wilderness.” That’s how Henry David Thoreau put it.
Foraging is about walking through a stand of woods and being able to recognize the different types of trees, the beneficial and medicinal trees, the plants that hide tasty tubers underground, and also some of the most dangerous plants on the planet.
Foraging is a food source. It’s most certainly a way to both enjoy wild food in the woods and to bring wild plants into your home for dinner! Depending on the time of the year there are some real gems out there that mostly go unnoticed.
You should know more about the plants and trees you walk by. This planet is your home and foraging literally puts you back in touch with it.
What Foraging Isn’t
Take it from me, a guy who has spent years foraging, you do not wanna live off the land exclusively on foraged foods. In fact, you couldn’t! Without some ability to preserve the wild edibles of late Spring, Summer and Fall you would be left chewing tree bark in the winter.
Foraging is great but it can never be a means of sustaining life all four seasons out of the year. There are simply not enough calories through all the seasons. Just read about the starving spring.
The Field Guide
Since our culture doesn’t have shamans or elders to teach us about plants, a modern forager’s journey begins with a high-quality field guide. These field guides are books full of plants and how to easily identify them. Some even have great color pictures to help you along your way.
Choosing the right field guide and taking it into the woods will be the very best way for you to start developing a repertoire of wild plants that you might pluck and eat. Below I am going to give you three field guides that really hit the mark.
Peterson’s Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants
This is the book that started it all for me. It just happened to be the only foraging book that was available at my local library so I sank my teeth into it and for a long time I would take it out over and over. I read this book in most of my downtime and was just trying to commit as much of it to memory as possible.
The color palettes in the book were my best resource for getting to know new wild edible plants. I would take this book into the woods and, slowly, I began to develop an understanding of what was close by that I could eat.
I am still learning today, almost a decade later, but it has been such a wonderful journey and this book started it all.
The Skillful Forager
This field guide is a more aesthetically pleasing field guide than the one I started with. There are lots of pictures and some great information on foraging, tools, what and how to forage. It is also full of beautiful pictures.
The author is fun and this can be an easier read than Peterson’s guide because of that. If you are after more than a reference book, this is the guide for you.
The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants for Beginners
This book is near textbook level when it comes to the beginning stages of foraging. It breaks down all the basic parts in great detail and does so in lamens terms. It’s a great guide for any new forager.
The wild edibles themselves are broken down by type. So, there is a section for fruits and one for nuts, and one for flowers. It is one of the more unique ways that I have seen wild foods broken down in a book like this.
I think seasonally and alphabetically are the best ways to break down wild edibles in a book but this is an interesting way, too.
THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO EDIBLE WILD PLANTS FOR BEGINNERS: A Guidebook to Foraging, Harvesting, Identifying and Cooking Essential Wild Food, Herbals, … Wild Plants (Long-Term Cheap Storage Pantry): Richards, Geoffrey: 9798770292763: Amazon.com: Books
One of the best skills that you can start to develop is an understanding of habitat. Just by learning how to identify simple habitats, you can easily understand what wild edibles might be there. Knowing these habitats can make finding certain wild edibles easier.
EXAMPLE: If you were foraging a wetland then you would not expect to find a cactus.
This is a silly example but when you know the wild edibles that exist in the highlands compared to the wetlands or the prairies then you can hone in on a handful that should be in that habitat, rather than paging through an entire field guide.
Here are the most common habitats for the forager.
If there is a body of water close by then these are considered to be wetlands. These wetlands are some of my favorite areas to forage because they produce so much. Look for creeks, streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. The areas around these bodies of water are wetlands.
Wetlands often give way to forests. Now, there is a lot of variety in forests and that can affect the types of wild foods you find there. There are deciduous forests, pine forests, mixed stands, old-growth forests (with big old trees), and the opposite with small younger trees. Forests are great places to forage.
Prairies & Fields
If you walk through forests long enough you will often come to a clearing that is either a natural prairie or farm. These fields are dominated by tall grasses and wildflowers in the spring. These can be great places to forage. They make for one of the most beautiful settings in the late spring and early summer.
Disturbed Areas & Yards
Wherever people have come and dug up, turned over, drove over, or changed the landscape of the ground certain types of seeds and plants favor these areas. Lots of them are edible. Areas like your own yard are often full of wild edibles like common plantain and dandelion!
Sometimes we are surrounded by food and just don’t know it.
There are some great plants like blueberries and cranberries that really like to grow in colder temperatures and highlands. Mountainous regions can be desolate in some areas but plentiful in others. Highland plateaus can be a great place to forage wild mushrooms, too.
The coastal regions are very unique and have lots to offer if you know what you are looking for. They are also home to easy to forage proteins like clams and mussels. Most people consider foraging just about plants and trees but if you can harvest some clams from the sand it’s as much foraging as anything else.
There are many types of foraging and different foraging techniques but none of it matters if you do not make a promise to be an ethical forager. We are going to discuss the responsibility of the forager in this short section so you understand that every time you step into the woods you have an effect.
When you take from the wild places you must be careful so that you can create sustainable foraging opportunities.
NEVER TAKE MORE THAN 75% OF THE PLANTS IN A SINGLE LOCATION
When you leave behind 25% of the plant in a location you are allowing these plants the chance to come back for another year. They can drop seed and continue to propagate for many years.
As a forager, your goal should be to assure that you can come back to a location for years to come and harvest those great wild edibles.
The Foragers’ Toolkit
The forager’s tool kit is essential to having a good outing. Once you identify a plant properly you are going to want to harvest it and having the right tool for the job makes it easy.
These seem kind of silly but they are perfect for snipping herbs, flowers, and delicate plants. These will get a tremendous amount of use in your foraging adventures.
A smaller pair of pruning shears is another essential for your toolkit. Pruners are great for cutting branches, thick stalks, and larger plants.
This is a very interesting tool that you can buy at your local gardening or hardware store. The Hori Hori is like a small shovel but also a knife with serrated edges on either side. It’s the perfect tool for digging out a whole plant or a tuber.
If you are really digging out lots of tubers in a small area, something like sunchokes, then having a bedding fork makes the job easier. These tools are mission-specific. If you are harvesting wildflowers and spring herbs you can leave the heavy-duty bedding fork at home.
You gotta have something to bring your foraged foods home in. That is where these baskets come into play. Pile your foraged foods into your baskets and carry them home. Just be sure not to crush delicate plants under heavy ones.
How to Start Foraging Consistently
What you do consistently is what you are. It’s really that simple.
When I started my journey in foraging I realized that I was going to have to do this a lot to get good at it. So, I began to integrate it into my lifestyle. You should carry your field guide every time you are near an area where foraging is possible. Even on your lunch break you can take a walk and find some wild edibles.
Here are some things that you can do in tandem with foraging to start to build your resume as a forager:
- A Walk through the Neighborhood
- Walking a Local Park
- Lunch Break
- Cutting the Grass! (There are wild edibles in your yard and around your yard)
- While doing any other outdoor activity i.e fishing, hunting, trapping, scouting
The more you do it the better you will be at it. It’s a great way to integrate daily walks and fitness into your life, too. Go for a foraging walk!
Foraging with the Seasons
In the same way that you are looking at habitats to find certain types of wild foods, you are also going to use the seasons to tell you, as well. This culmination of season and habitat is the basis of optimal foraging theory.
That sounds intimidating but I always look at it as a game of Guess Who. If I have a bunch of plants in my book or in my mind then I use habitat and I use the season to start taking plants off the game board.
Every wild edible has a peak of edibility. If you are harvesting fruits you do not want them to be underripe, if you are harvesting greens then you want to cut them before they flower as the plants get much more bitter.
Rosehips don’t even get sweet till after the first freeze. Some spring edibles are only tasty for a short time. Seasonality plays a huge role in what you can forage for. No matter where you look you cannot find wild strawberries in the fall. Their time is spring.
For me, it has been very effective to create a sort of seasonal list of local wild edibles and to build my foraging adventures around those. This way if its summer then I know just what foods I should go after or if it is winter then I have my shortlist, too.
Finding Your Favorites
It will be your favorite foraged foods that get you going and keep you focused as a forager. You will quickly find several plants that you look forward to harvesting each year. That might be blackberries in the summer or garlic mustard in the spring but you will find favorites.
Living in Virginia some of my favorite wild edibles are things like:
- Paw Paw Fruit
- Stinging Nettle
- Black Walnut
- Rose Hips
Find some of your favorites and fall in love with foraging. I would say start with fruits and nuts because they are easy to find and most people can find a fruit or a type of nut that they love to eat.
Preservng Wild Foods
If you head out for a day of foraging you might enjoy your harvest in the woods, on the way home, or you might include it in the night’s dinner. However, if you harvest something like a bunch of herbs, a basket full of paw paw fruit, or a bunch of tubers, you need are on the clock. In a matter of days, the wild food will spoil, just like any other kind of food.
Wild foods are not like the foods you buy at the supermarket. They have not been covered in wax or hybridized to last for weeks.
So, the key is to have methods of preservation. Now, these things vary. If you have a lot of herbs and flowers on the stem, you can simply hang them upside down in your home or outside in the sun and they will dry up perfectly on their own in less than a week! Simple.
Knowing how to make jellies and preserves is a great way to preserve the wild fruits that you harvest. Canning is another great way to preserve a wild harvest. If you cook up a bunch of stinging nettles, the most nutritious wild edible on the planet, then you can up all the cooked nettles you didn’t eat and save them for later.
Another preservation method for wild foods is to make wine. Dandelion wine is popular in the foraging community and is a great way to take advantage of all those pretty flowers.
Preservation is an essential part of the foraging process. This gives you the ability to harvest more than you are going to eat that day and bring it home to process it. In the winter you will be glad you preserved all that blackberry jam!
Foraging: An Incredible Survival Skill
Foraging is an experience. It’s a lifestyle that leads you towards increased health and it puts you in touch with a skill that was utilized for millions of years by our species! This is what makes it such an incredible survival skill.
With an understanding of seasonality, habitat, the right tools, and a good field guide, you will come to better understand the natural world around you. You will look out the window and see the world differently because you will know all that it offers.
The rest is up to you. Get your field guide and get in the woods!