Tips For Foraging
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
I love foraging. I love the slow mindful mission based walks to collect something seasonal. The natural pressure of collecting whilst I can, before the next season rolls in and ends the bloom. Bringing home bounties for sorting, and sitting, picking and processing, is truly a kind of meditation for me. Plus not all foraging is done for food, sometimes I forage for house decorations (pine cones and eucalyptus are favourites).
Foraging is magical, a reach into my ancestral strings. But it’s not just the act of foraging that’s great. Eating your bounty is for some, the best part. Sticky sweet jams filled with goodness, wild brews to see out the long summer nights, chutneys, pies and more! Putting aside the personal pleasures of foraging, delving into the benefits for us and the environment- we discover more benefits... Seasonal, local food sources grown without any input whatsoever, can be a great win. Grown on its own, in the right spot in an ecosystem (normally) being wild, and if you follow the foraging tips set out below you will also leave most of natural bounties for the ecosystem.
Foraged food can also have health benefits, not just for the walking to collect! Whether it’s high vitamin content, high fibre, sugar, yeasts in the plant, minerals and MORE, when experienced after many years, the wise old forager (think, years in!) skips the vitamins when they get a sniffle and heads to a hedge! (A forager will also enjoy the benefits of Western medicine when needed, but that's a discussion for another time....)
So we’ve seen there are health, environmental, social, cultural and also obviously economic (free food) reasons for foraging. I believe foraging food has the power to be sustainable! However, does it have the power to sustain entire populations? I don’t know, but with it’s rapidly rising popularity and in response to the questions I get, I have decided to write up some tips for how to get into foraging and be sustainable whilst doing it, from my foraging/ ecological background.
Don’t start on your own.
Many plants that are edible, look like toxic plants that will kill you. Many plants that look edible, may be toxic.
Never start foraging on your own, always start foraging with a guide, expert, or a very well seasoned forager. There are some great tips and tricks that they can show you in person that will help you identify plants properly in the future. It is a vital investment to start out with a somebody who knows about wild food, in person. I know it's tempting to see photos of people picking berries excitedly and wanting to join in, but be patient and do it properly. Never ever pick and eat something you don’t know.
Learning to forage takes time- think decades. Learning to properly identify species should take a while. Building your knowledge will be a joyful lifelong task. Rushing is when mistakes will happen. I still make mistakes now, but I never ever even think about eating something I am not sure about. I will research a new plant heavily and check with experts before picking until I am certain. Doing this process for each new species will bring years of joy and produce, instead of (potentially fateful) mistakes.
If you've learnt the way I suggest, with an expert, you will have an understanding of legalities and conservation aspect of collecting species. This is really important, as some species are protected, some you can only collect in certain ways and some are illegal to spread. Always read up about the legalities of what you're picking and eating. For example, it is an offence to willingly spread Himalayan Balsam, yet it's seeds are very popular with some foragers, risking spreading the invasive species. The law on this species is a bit murky, even more reason to fully understand what the law is and make judgements of what you are not willing to do to risk damaging the environment. Some species are extremely rare and best left, so again, please check the legalities and conservation protections.
Also, check the legalities of where you plan to pick too.
Only pick what you need & use what you pick.
Wild food like mushrooms, berries, flowers etc are not just sometimes delicious sources of food for us, they can be the sole food sources for other wildlife. When you pick more than you will use, it means that wild food is wasted. Wildlife will often wait to eat berries until long into winter, where they become and invaluable food source (such as Hawthorns which stay fresh long into winter, a good pantry for birds). Respect the wild foods you collect and only take what you need and will use. Make sure you compost any leftovers from processing if you can.
Don’t pick a bush/ tree clean
Make sure if you're collecting something, you collect from multiple sources. Don't pick areas/ bushes/ trees clean of food. They may be a vital food source for territorial animals and an area picked clean could spell dire consequences for wildlife. Putting time into your foraging is very rewarding, head out and pick from many hedgerows.
Don't rely on plant ID apps, or facebook groups.
Plant ID apps are interesting for gardeners who would like more information on plants they plan to look at and simply would like to know the potential name of the plant out of interest...
However plant ID apps can obviously get it wrong and often do. Never ever rely on them for plants you plan to eat. I have seen a plant ID apps identify plants as edible when they are toxic, only for an expert to step in quickly and correct the mistake before consumed and injury occurring. If you want to eat what you ID (firstly you shouldn't be eating something without you knowing the specific details of the plant to correctly ID 100%, as said above) do not use plant ID apps.
Also a word of warning about facebook groups. There are some great ID groups with foraging experts in. One particular group is primarily focussed on poisonings and is even used by hospital staff. This group is rigorously regulated and only verified experts are allowed to ID specimens. However there are also some groups with lots of amateurs, who will do their best to ID something. These guesses are often wrong (we all make mistakes and it's hard to ID online) and so you should never fully trust the replies you get from people you do not know online. They may be guessing themselves. Again, invest in a guided walk with an expert to learn how to properly ID species and grow your knowledge.
These facebook groups can also gatekeep. Do not be put off my negative comments or making mistakes. As long as you are being ethical in how you forage, like not picking a huge quantity of something you don't know yet, you've done research beforehand and following the advice above, do not let a group gatekeep. Keep learning!
Invest in good books
These will be invaluable when learning. They have the very important details that are vital when identifying with certainty. I love Free for Free by Richard Mabey.
Only eat a little to start with.
So, you are 100% sure on what you've picked. You've learnt from an expert and checked for all the ID'ing qualities, they match, you've ethically picked something, left a lot for wildlife and finally, you have your foraged treasure. I really recommend only consuming a small amount to start with. Like with any foods, we could have an allergy that we don't know about. Consume a small amount and wait a few days. Some edible mushrooms do not effect others and cause stomach aches for some. This is completely normal and everyone reacts differently. It also makes sense to then only pick a very small amount to start with and only go back for more when you know you can eat it without side effects.
On a side note, be mindful of what you share online.
I find this really tricky. I love people being interested in wild food. However I try hard to share ethically about foraging (this is a really hard balance). Unfortunately many don't follow guidelines, causing all sort of problems. If you're sharing about foraging online please try share guidelines to help all. I often get asked what I'm picking and always make sure I tell people not to copy me until they've checked, in person with an expert).
I hope this little guide has helped you a little bit. It might sound scary or daunting, but I promise you, when you start your foraging journey properly and take your time to learn fully, it will be much more fun and engaging over time! I absolutely adore foraging and although this guide isn't "fluffy" I truly hope that it provides you with the tools you genuinely become an epic forager for the long term.
Foraging has so many benefits, good luck and many happy meals!
Photos taken by Alice & Lee Hankinson