Mother nature provides the resources for we, as humans, to thrive. Farmers are the go to people for food, but you can actually find things to eat for free everywhere you look.
Foraging is a method of finding food and other resources in your natural surroundings. From a scientific perspective, foraging is about identifying and understanding characteristics of a plant to see if it is suitable to consume or be used medicinally.
If you haven’t taken a look at my experience foraging in Santa Cruz, you can see all the cool edibles we found.
While it’s much simpler to find ready-to-eat food in your local grocery store, foraging is a growing part of sustainable lifestyles.
Foraging can be very exciting as you start to realize and identify the many flora and fauna that can be foraged. In this article, I explore more about why you should begin foraging and provide some resources to help get you started!
Benefits of Foraging
Foraging is not a new concept. In fact, it’s how early humans learned to survive in nature by finding useful plants to supplement their diets. Perhaps some of these instincts are inherited and part of our natural makeup just waiting to be awakened. As critical a skill as foraging was to survival in the past, it still has benefits today that make it a trendy lifestyle choice.
Many benefits come along with foraging that makes it a good lifestyle choice. Foraging is a win-win concept that’s good for the person and the environment. A few of the major benefits to foraging are:
- Learning about nature
- Healthy food options
Learning About Nature
Foraging teaches us a great deal about the world around us. If you enjoy learning about plants and nature, you’ll be an excellent forager. You’ll do lots of reading, research, and hands-on examination of all kinds of plants.
Some people who forage do so to save money. Foraging takes advantage of what nature provides so that you won’t spend a thing. There are literally people who will stop on the side of a road to pick, what can be a bountiful harvest of some plant (though that can have other complications—see where to forage).
Healthy Food Options
It’s always a smart idea to eat healthy, and there’s nothing healthier than something growing right from the Earth. Foraging is a true ground-to-table experience as you get nutrients in the most natural form.
Types of Foraging
Foraging happens all over the world and comes in different styles. The style of foraging you use will depend on the setting—each style has its own characteristics and best practices to have the best chance at filling up your basket with foraged plants!
The primary types of foraging are:
Wild foraging is the most popular kind of foraging. It’s the kind of foraging you imagine walking through the forest searching for berries and other foods. If you’re in a natural environment, wild foraging techniques will help you find what you’re looking for safely.
Any natural setting can be considered wild foraging, whether it’s a small park or a large forest. You can also forage near coastal regions.
It’s called wild foraging because you’re looking for food in a virtually untouched landscape. As a result, everything that you see growing is wild.
Not everybody has the luxury of being out in nature. If you’re stuck in the city, urban foraging is a trendy concept that many people use to translate their skills in nature to use in the concrete jungle.
You’ll be surprised by how much vegetation actually grows in the middle of a city. Search urban parks, alleys, neighborhoods, and other public spaces.
Where to Forage
Knowing where to forage is just as important as knowing what to forage. A specific location where you’re foraging is called a bioregion. A bioregion can change from country to country or even neighborhood to neighborhood. A bioregion is defined as a cohesive region with an interworking ecosystem. The better you understand a bioregion, the better you can understand the plants that grow in it.
Foraging can be done on any public land, regardless of if you are in the wilderness or a major city.
There are several restrictions on where you can’t forage. Foraging can incur fines and other penalties if done in an unpermitted zone. It’s important to keep in mind where or not you’re foraging on private or restricted land. These grounds are owned by someone else, including everything growing on them.
Another thing to keep in mind is the condition of the site where you’re foraging. Was it a former landfill? Is it located near known chemical waste? Is the forage location next to driving cars? These are critical questions to ask yourself. Toxins in the ground can get into your body when you consume plants from contaminated areas, even if it’s typically safe to eat.
How to Start Foraging
Think you’re ready to venture into the wild and start foraging your meals? While it’s good to be excited about this new way of sourcing food, it’s important to be patient, especially if it’s your first time foraging. There’s a three-step process that can help take you from beginner to expert in no time:
- Get Out
Foraging is a skill that you can learn, just like anything else. Think back to first grade, when your brain was an open vessel for information. That’s how you should be as you start to learn about foraging.
There are two methods for learning how to forage: with a mentor or self-taught.
Learning with a mentor can give you a quick start in the world of foraging. A mentor is beneficial for taking you around to show you in-person different foraging hot spots and identifying plants. They will also share past experiences to learn from their mistakes.
It’s becoming easier to teach yourself the skill of foraging thanks to a growing number of resources readily available including mobile apps for foraging and foraging books. It’s a great option to go at your own pace. Keep reading to learn about some valuable foraging tools to use while learning or supplementing a mentor.
Personally, I would recommend finding a mentor and bouncing off personal learning with a mentor.
You can read, talk, and watch videos about foraging all you want, but nothing beats getting out into the field. Infield experience is essential to put what you’re learning to the test.
The best way to get out is to pick an area near home to start learning about the different plants that grow there. Your backyard is the best place but try not to go much further than your neighborhood so that it’s easily accessible.
While you’re out, carry guidebooks with you to help identify plants. Make a note of all details compared to the photos and descriptions. The goal is to be 100% certain of the ID to determine if it’s proper for foraging.
Keep in mind that some plants will be easier to identify than others. Most plants will look close to the images provided in guidebooks, but that doesn’t give it a conclusive ID since different species varieties can exist.
Learning to forage is a cyclical skill that always requires feedback at each stage to know how to improve for the future. For example, while you’re out, take a few samples of plants home to spend more time examining them or compare them to a more comprehensive ID guide.
Only once you’re 100% certain of a plant’s identity should you consume it.
100% means one hundred percent—not 99% or 90%. This is a big deal when it comes to foraging.
Foraging requires a deep knowledge of plants that anyone can acquire with practice. It does take practice though. The more you study plants and foraging practices, the better you will identify plants growing in the wild, even without resource guides.
Once you’re finished reviewing your in-field experience, go back to step one and start to learn more. The more you look at the images and learn about plants, the easier it is to spot them. Then, continue the cycle of getting out into nature and putting to use every new thing you pick up.
Tips for Foraging
Even the most experienced foragers still have things to learn about the wild. As you get started with foraging, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Proper Identification is Vital
This is the most crucial tip to keep foraging safe!
Nature is full of look-a-likes and plants with subtle differences in appearance. Use all of your senses when identifying a plant—how do the leaves feel, how does the plant smell, etc.?
Also, keep in mind that a plant’s appearance changes throughout the season, but sometimes it’s worth tracking a plant before you can confirm with confidence what it is. Know what you’re eating to avoid poisonous and dangerous plants.
Foraging While Traveling
As a rule of thumb, avoid foraging while traveling since you’ll be in a different bioregion. Plants require very particular conditions to grow, so a plant found in one region may be non-existent in another. That’s not to stop look-alike plants from springing up and ready to confuse beginner foragers.
When you go to a new region, consider yourself a beginner and start back with step one and learn the region’s plants before you begin to consume the plants you forage.
Companion Plant Identification
As you get better at identifying plants, you’ll realize that plants leave clues for finding other plants. Companion plants is a concept of when two plants frequently grow near each other. For example, pokeweed often has yellow dock growing nearby.
It can help with identifying a plant if you learn its companion plants and you happen to see it near the plant that you’re uncertain about. It’s also an excellent way to learn meals that require companions so that you have a simple meal to prep if you come across it.
How to be Safe
Safety is important when forage, both with that you’re consuming and where you’re foraging. It’s never worth the risk, and if you have to guess to ID a plant, just pass on it altogether.
The only way to be safe when foraging is to be 100% correct about a plant identity—and even more, knowing how to consume the plant (even safe plants can have poisonous parts when consumed).
And when you’re out foraging, be aware of your surroundings to make sure you’re not wandering in a place you shouldn’t forage, as mentioned in the section above.
How to be Sustainable
Foraging is a sustainability lifestyle hack, but only when done correctly. It takes a conscious effort for sustainable practices while out in the wild.
It’s important to take only what you need. Avoid cutting the largest plant in a cluster and know the best way to trim a plant. The plant should be able to grow back in the same place, which provides food for you and other foragers for many seasons. Ramps, for example, are commonly overharvested and take a while to grow.
Why a Foraging Journal is a Good Idea
The best foragers keep a journal. You can never have enough notes about a particular bioregion. The more you forage an area, the more you can learn about it as it changes throughout the seasons, what grows there, and even the best times to harvest plants.
Foraging journals help identify perennial plants, or plants that grow in the same place season after season.
Resources to Supplement Foraging
On your first time out foraging, don’t be discouraged if you can’t identify anything. You initially might discover two or three species, but you can find dozens in the same area with a bit of practice.
There are many resources to take advantage of to help you grow your expertise in foraging.
Books/Guides: There are two things to consider for reading material about foraging. Check out books like The Forager’s Harvest and Edible Wild Plants for information about common foraging plants and how to safely eat them. You can also read books about plants in general to grow your expertise in recognizing bioregions.
Societies: You’re not the only one thinking about foraging! In fact, there are large communities online focused on foraging and connecting locally. For example, you can search Facebook or Google for “Foraging + *city name*” to find local meetups.
Apps: In modern times, we can use technology to make foraging much easier. PlantSnap is a popular app to ID a plant just by taking a photo. Wild Edibles Forage gives specific information about plants you can forage. Forager Diary makes keeping your journal easier and in digital form.
Classes: There are several online classes to learn foraging. Skillshare and Coursera offer classes about foraging and plant studies. Consult the local community for in-person classes.
Tools: The best foraging tools are your hands. Use clippers and a knife when necessary to remove parts of plants.
Hope this guide helps you even dip your toe into foraging, or at least looking at the world around us differently. Let me know what you’ve foraged or are interested in foraging in the comments below.