Foraging for wild edible plants became popular last spring as more and more folks were concerned with food security during the coronavirus pandemic. Identifying and utilizing wild edible plants is an ancient skill set that in modern times is a fun outdoor activity that provides food and solace away from everyday life. For many reasons, this can be a productive and fulfilling pursuit, but don’t jump to the conclusion that foraging is a risk-free outdoor activity (especially if you are a beginner). There are plenty of skills that you can learn the hard way, but foraging should not be one of them. Let us guide the way, so you can avoid these novice mistakes.
Miscommunicate Plant Names
The common names that we use for our local wild plants are sometimes colorful and memorable; but these names can also be vague, confusing, and misleading. When chatting with other foragers and discussing plant uses, it’s vital that you make sure you’re talking about the same plant. You might end up collecting some bad information otherwise. For example, two different edible plants can have the same common name. Both may have edible parts, but the uses are not interchangeable. So how do find out if you are talking about the same plant or two different ones? The best way is to go find the plant to make sure you’re both on the same page, but that isn’t always possible. Option two is to use the plant’s scientific name. The scientific names of plants (and all other life forms) may seem boring and nerdy – but there is no better way to properly discuss plants. Unless you’re using an outdated book or resource, the names used today will be consistent and provide you with a powerful tool for cross referencing and research. Don’t worry about pronouncing them perfectly.
Read Next: 5 Edible Plants for Urban Foragers
Don’t Bring the Best Foraging Books
There are many different ways to divide plants for categorization. You could lump them into groupings of monocots and dicots, which has a lot to do with the seeds (but also the types of plants). You could divide them by edible and poisonous, which is certainly good information to know. When you’re grabbing a few books from your bookshelf or local library to carry into the field, there’s a big different between a woody plant guide and a herbaceous plant book. Herbaceous plants are often annuals (plants that live only one year) and biennials (plants that live only two years). Herbaceous plants can also be plants that live for a few years, but lack woody growth above ground. True woody plants include shrubs, trees, and many vines. These produce wood as one of their structural tissues. They are typically perennial plants (living more than a few years). The stems, branches and larger roots of these plants are reinforced with wood produced from secondary xylem. Those structures usually have a bark covering, which is built up from a corky material. Woody growth allows these plants to keep growing, year after year, making woody plants the largest and tallest terrestrial plants. Long story short, bring a wildflower guide if you plan to study herbaceous plants and bring a tree and shrub book if you’d like to identify the local woody plants. A good field guide (like Peterson’s guide to Wild Edible Plants) will contain both woody plants and herbaceous ones, but it doesn’t have enough room to show you every possible plant you could encounter. In fact, most plants aren’t edible. They’re just random wildflowers and woody species.
Eat a Bunch of Wild Plants and Nuts All at Once
I highly recommend that new foragers only eat a small amount of each new plant (servings under one ounce). It’s also wise to try only one new plant per day. Trying lots of new things can be exciting, but ambulance rides are also exciting. You’ll want to eat a small amount, for starters, just in case you had an unusual reaction to a common edible plant. For just one example, I met someone a few years ago who had a food allergy to acorns. How did she find out? She ate some and broke out in hives. This is why you only have one per day. If you sample five new plants in one meal and one of them made you sick, you’d have no idea which one it was. Your food may be wild, but that’s no reason for you to go wild. If you’re a beginner (and especially if you have a lot of food allergies), limit your servings of new edibles and just try one at a time.
Don’t Watch Out For Deadly Plants and Close Neighbors
If you prowl through the swamps, fields and forests enough, you’ll encounter this bewildering situation. You’ll spot a familiar flower, but the leaves aren’t right. After thumbing through several books, the plant is still eluding you. It is so familiar looking, but it’s still not quite right. If this happens, check to see if you are really looking at one plant (or two separate plants). When different species grow closely together, we might think that the flowers and leaves belong to the same plant. And if we base our harvesting on the flower alone, we might collect leaves that aren’t edible at all.
Fortunately, the list of deadly plants is a short one in any given area. Plants like poison hemlock are fatal if consumed, and this species is extra tricky, since it closely resembles wild carrot when young (carrots have hairs on their stems, while hemlock is smooth stalked). Take the time to learn about the dangerous and deadly plants that you might encounter on your local foraging adventures, and make sure these plants and plant parts don’t end up in your collecting bag. It’s a short list to learn and you’ve got some skin in the game. If you grab any of them for your stew pot or berry bucket, you’ll end up in a world of hurt. Check out Peterson’s Field Guide for Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants.
Ignore Plant Families
When it comes to learning plants, there’s more to learn than just genus and species. Plants are lumped into families, just like people. These families can contain many diverse members, some closely related and others being a bit of a stretch. Family relationships in the plant kingdom can tell us a lot about a plant, and they can also give us some features that help with identification. The mint family, for example, is full of square stemmed and opposite branching plants. Not every mint is edible to humans, but these family features can help us determine if we’re looking at a mint or something else. Family relationships also matter when it comes to food allergies. If you’re deathly allergic to pecans, black walnuts or English walnuts, you might want to skip your first taste of hickory nuts. All of the trees mentioned here are in the walnut family, and you may be allergic to every member of it. This isn’t something you’ll want to discover the hard way, especially while foraging in a remote area or during a survival situation.
Assume That “Close” is Good Enough for Foraging
There is no cheat code in the game of foraging. I frequently have students asking for some kind of shortcut to knowledge. For instance, if I show them red edible red berries in a row, someone starts asking “are all of the local red berries edible?” And if one person asks it, I’m sure many others are thinking it. But just because something looks like familiar, that doesn’t mean that it’s actually related to the food plant or that is safe to eat. Many wild plant parts can resemble edible vegetables, but that doesn’t mean it should go in the stew pot. Many plants grow parts that resemble turnips, green beans, tomatoes and grapes, but sadly, these “look-a-like” plants aren’t safe to eat. Never assume that something is edible. Find out exactly what it is, genus and species, before you ever take a bite. If you don’t have 100 percent positive identification of the species, and trustworthy confirmation that it’s edible, don’t eat it.
Read Next: 7 Ways to Identify Edible Fruits and Berries
You’ll need to have positive identification of each potential plant food, with each and every feature being present on the specimen you’re about to harvest. There can be zero doubt about the plant’s identity. If it’s only “close” to the thing you learned in your local foraging class, it’s not close enough for safe collection. Even if it seems “meant to be” (i.e., you’re hungry and a thing that looks like food is right there), you can’t afford to ignore the finer features and details of a plant. Even if there’s just one feature that seems wrong, look for another wild food to collect.