Foraging is the art of searching out, identifying, and harvesting foods directly from wild places.
Foraging is a way of reconnecting with nature. Interacting with nature this way creates a strong bond with your local environment. Plus, a desire to protect it. It can be daunting to a beginner, but it doesn’t take long to recognize the main plant families.
It can help to take a practical course with someone who teaches foraging. It’s important to be able to smell and feel the plants as well as see them!
Foraging has been practiced by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. It was how we survived before farming and settling in one place. Australian Aborigines, San Bushmen of the Kalahari, and First Nation peoples of America are all masters of foraging.
In pretty much any culture with access to plants, there are links to ancestral knowledge of edible plants and fungi. You just need to find it.
Once these skills have been learned, it can be difficult to walk at any pace. You will constantly stop to bother bushes and trees for berries, leaves, nuts, and seeds along the way. It’s an empowering survival skill to have.
You could survive if an apocalypse wiped out our food supply chain!
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There’s no point searching for roots in Spring or seeds in winter!
When you get to know plants throughout the year, you will realize which parts are available in which season.
Spring is great for fresh shoots and tender new leaves. These give us essential vitamins and minerals after the harshness of winter.
Young beech leaves (Fagus sylvatica) are tender and delicious in a salad. That’s why deer love them! They can also be used to make noyau, a popular alcoholic drink.
Summer produces stone fruits and berries for us, as well as flowers.
The Daylily (Hemerocallis sps) is an edible flower that we can forage in gardens and parks. With the permission of the garden’s owner, of course! You can stuff it with cream cheese or use it to dress drinks and salads.
In autumn, we find carbohydrate, protein, and fat-rich seeds and nuts.
Try collecting Himalayan balsam seeds. The pods explode into your waiting carrier bag! Fun for all ages and completely free. These attractive pink-flowered plants are close relatives of Busy Lizzie garden flowers. Plus, you are helping to control the spread of this invasive plant. They taste like tiny walnuts.
In winter, we can dig down for energy-filled roots.
I dig pieces of burdock root from my allotment and make them into burgers. You must have the permission of the landowner (or be the landowner!) before harvesting roots.
Get to know the land you live in. Observe the plants and where they grow all year round.
Leave some behind
The idea is to allow the plants that have gifted you so much to regenerate. Some foragers will only harvest if there are more than seven plants in one area. Some foragers will only take a third to a half of the aerial (above ground) parts of each plant.
When harvesting roots, a forager should be aware that this will kill off the plant, and no more will grow from that area. With this in mind, it is good practice to leave part of the root in the ground.
This is all too easy with a plant like a burdock or horseradish, as these plants have a deep tap root that can be over a meter deep underground!
Something many gardeners will attest to after trying to get these plants out of their garden…
Choose your plants wisely
Some plants are invasive, which means they are very plentiful and can even smother out other species of plant from a habitat.
A great example of this is Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), which also happens to be edible when very young! Other examples are Nettles, Reedmace (Typha sps), Dock, and Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera).
Harvest invasive plants whenever you have the choice. There will be plenty of them left, and you are playing an important part in the control of these species.
Yes, you are now part of your local habitat’s food chain! It feels good, doesn’t it?
Good foraging guides and resources
- ‘Food For Free’ by Richard Mabey: this is a nice beginner’s foraging guide. It’s small and concentrates on more easily recognizable wild foods. It has recipes too! Just remember to check the identity of plants you find with a good scientific field guide. Or professional forager!) This book doesn’t go into much detail about plant botany.
- Collins Wild Flower Guide/Collins British Trees Guide: These guides are useful for identifying plants by families. They fit in a day sack easily. The pictures can be a bit on the small side. They only show one part of a plant. Check against another guide. Or on a reputable internet site.
- Edible Wild Plants: a North American Field Guide: This guide is specific to plants found in the US.
- Botanical resources, University Of Connecticut: This includes a Modern Herbal and the USDA plants database. You can search the database using a picture, characteristics, and growth habits of the plant you want to identify. It doesn’t give you any idea how to prepare and eat them, though!
- ‘Wild Food’ by Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman: This easy-to-digest guide is full of lovely pictures showing edible parts of plants. Plus, how to prepare them. It is only a snapshot of the full range of edible Western hemisphere plants. A great place to start, however! Ray and Gordon know what they are talking about!
- Plants For A Future: This website has detailed info on how to eat and use over 7000 plants. I have visited their forest garden project, which is the biggest in the British Isles. They can also tell you whether you can use a plant for fiber, dye, or timber.
- Foraging Apps: you can now download apps to help identify wild plants and mushrooms. People have brought these to my forages, and I have been quite impressed. However, a picture can only tell you so much. It is still much better to go on a physical course.
Is foraging just about plants?
Not at all. Though most people view foraging as picking leaves or berries off plants, it includes anything that stays still. (If the thing you are after moves, it goes into the ‘hunting’ category!)
Fungi (or mushrooms)
Fungi are weird. They are neither a plant nor an animal! They don’t get food from sunlight as plants do. Instead, they make digestive enzymes from their mycorrhiza (root system) that break down their host.
Fungi are a popular item on the forager’s menu. They can taste and smell amazing. Some taste of apricots, like Chanterelles. Some taste of a full roast dinner, as the Cep does. They can be very filling in soups, stir-fries, and sauces or on toast with garlic butter. Mmm.
World-famous chefs go crazy about fungi.
They are also the most likely item to kill you if you do not know what you are doing!
It really is worth going on a physical course where you will learn to identify wild mushrooms using your senses of smell and touch as well as sight. Plus, note under what trees you found them, their height and cap diameter, and what they are growing out of. Etc! Some great edible mushrooms have poisonous look-alikes.
Ok, so they are animals, but we gather them rather than hunt them! They stay fixed in one place or move only slowly. They include such tasty treats as mussels, periwinkles, cockles, and limpets. As well as more exotic species like abalones (from New Zealand and the Pacific).
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have eaten a lot of shellfish. The first peoples lived near coasts and rivers. This was (and still is) the best place to find wild edibles, including plants. Most seaweeds are edible and a great source of iodine.
Of course, thousands of years ago, we didn’t have to worry about shellfish poisoning from sewage runoff!
This can be worse in the case of filter-feeding shellfish such as mussels. This is because they feed by sucking in a lot of tiny animals from the surrounding water. This can build up in their body (and nuke the stomach of an unwary forager).
Be aware of warm water temperatures and sewage outfalls nearby if you are planning on foraging for mussels. It is safer to eat a shellfish that is vegetarian.
A good go-to in this case is limpets, which feed by rasping algae off rocks. I have eaten these baked on their backs on a campfire with a blob of garlic butter on top… delicious on a bed of seaweed pasta!
Which animals forage?
There is a lot we can learn from animals that forage. Here are just a few of them.
Squirrels gather nuts and store them in caches throughout the cold months. Researchers have found that Eastern Grey squirrels sort different nuts and seeds into different piles. They keep similar nuts together. They also make fake caches to trick would-be thieves! They even break open nuts on purpose to stop them from germinating.
Pigs are masters of foraging. They use their excellent sense of smell to root out buried nuts, fungi insects, and roots! This is why they’re used to locate Black & European White Truffles. Some of the most expensive mushrooms in the world.
Dogs are often used instead, as they are much less likely to eat the truffles!
The 2020 movie ‘The Truffle Hunters’ won several awards. It is a great watch if you are interested in how elderly Italians and their pigs do truffle hunting.
Ants work together to move foodstuffs that are many times their weight.
Leafcutter ants clip off pieces of plants and take them back to their nest. They then do something amazing. They don’t actually eat these plants. They use them to grow fungi, which they then use as a food source!
So these foragers are also farmers. We could learn a lot from their hard work and organization. They even change the type of vegetation they forage depending on the needs of the fungus.
So what do we mean by ‘foraging behavior’ in animal behavioral science?
This is the study of how animals adapt and change their behaviors to find food the easiest way where they live. Clever animals like monkeys and elephants quickly change their foraging behaviors to suit new situations. Check out the story of the drunken monkeys!
Monkeys and elephants will seek out fermented fruits and prefer them to fruits that haven’t ‘gone off’! We can see this behavior in many other species, such as blind cavefish. The fish change their foraging positions in dark watery caves.
What does the law say about foraging?
In the UK, where I live, the law states that:
“It is illegal to uproot any plant without permission of the landowner. Some plants are protected even so, like rare orchids). It’s legal to harvest the top parts of wild plants for non-commercial purposes. Unless the site is a protected nature reserve.”
So don’t try and sell what you forage. There isn’t enough wilderness.
Historically, common people had the ‘Right of Pannage’ and foraging rights for food and timber. As well as small game hunting, even in a lord’s forests. We had to eat something, after all!
In the US, foraging laws vary from state to state, so check your local state laws. Some people have been prosecuted for harvesting berries from a park in certain states.
Check the foraging laws for your country on your government’s website. These may be under land rights or ownership.
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So what tools do I need to bring while foraging?
Here’s a short list. This will change depending on where you are in the world. If you are living in a desert or arid landscape, a digging tool would be a good idea. If you are after freshwater clams in a temperate area, a net will be useful.
I tend to carry these things:
- Scissors or small knife – there will always be that stem or leaf that is tough to snap off, and cutting doesn’t damage the plant as much.
- Basket – my favorite is my willow basket with a big base and small top. Great for collecting mushrooms and plants as the air can still get to them, stopping them from going slimy and keeping them cool.
- Gardening gloves – many wild plants have evolved to defend themselves against foragers! They may have spines, stings, or irritating hairs.
- Brown paper bags – for separating different types of fungi, especially if you are not sure about some of them.
- Plastic bags – they may not be glamorous, but they fold up small, so you can have one with you all the time. Plus, they separate plants and fungi that you want to identify at home.
- Screw top jars or containers – good for berries that otherwise squish all over your nice new bag and clothes!
As for yourself, wear the right clothes for the situation. A ‘Pac A Mac’ in a bag is always handy in case of rainstorms.
A sunhat with a wide brim and sunscreen is important if you are spending a long time harvesting in the hot sun. Bring a bottle of water.
Sensible shoes with grippy treads are a must. It’s easy to twist an ankle on slippery mud and thick undergrowth. Don’t follow the example of the lady from the BBC that came foraging with me. She was dressed in a brown silk trouser suit, full makeup, and heels!
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Where should I forage and not forage?
This will also depend on where in the world you live, but here are the places I go to forage.
Good Foraging Places
River/stream banks: In many places, there are laws protecting water from being sprayed with chemicals. These would leach into the water table. There are lots of edible plants that like to grow near water.
Coasts: An excellent place to forage. Many seaweeds are edible, as are shellfish. Check the water quality of the beach beforehand.
Hedgerows: The many species of native plants are not only a great habitat for animals but a good food source for foragers. You can find berries like hawthorn and wild plums.
Gardens: As long as you know whether the plants have been sprayed with any chemicals. If they have, avoid them.
Allotments: As these are food-growing areas, the wild plants found on an allotment are usually safe to eat. The soil is very likely to be safe from contaminants! Check with plot holders whether their vegetables are being grown organically. They are usually more than happy for you to harvest their weeds!
Don’t Forage Here!
Graveyards: There are a lot of poisonous metals (like lead) in graveyard soil because of the coffins that were buried there over many years.
Next to busy roads: Traffic fumes contain all sorts of horrible nasties. They will have coated all the plants growing near them. Plus, the same chemicals will have run into the soil.
Industrial land: This is often contaminated, with all sorts of awful things lurking in the soil, like aniline dye or arsenic.
Next to farmer’s crops: Farmers often spray their crops with insecticides, weedkillers, and pesticides. None of which you want to be eating.
The Health & Safety Bit!
What, more safety tips! I’m afraid so!
Don’t be put off by this, as it’s quite unlikely any of these things will happen to you. Still, I do enjoy scaring everyone with a bit of drama. It always pays to be careful.
- Pick plant parts above 20cm in height, unless you are going to cook them. This is because you can catch Weil’s disease from uncooked plants close to the ground. This horrible illness is caused by bacteria in rat wee. So, also…
- Avoid foraging close to food shops, bins, and anywhere there are likely to be rats.
- Choose only healthy, vibrant plants to eat.
- Rinse your finds well and cook where possible.
- Get to know your plant families, fungi families, and local poisonous plants. Know your enemy!
- Find out what the land you plan to forage on was used for in the past. Local councils and Land Registry are good sources of information. As are landowners.
This is the science bit. Aargh!
Why should we have to learn about what family a plant is in? Why does it matter? Can’t we just use common names?
It does pay to learn these things. People have become ill from eating a plant in another country that was called the same name as an edible in their own country. This is true in the case of Harebells and Bluebells in England and Scotland.
One is poisonous, and the other is edible, but their common names swap around in the two places!
Also, it means you can locate a plant much more easily in a scientific field guide if you know what family it is in.
Scientific (Latin) names never change, wherever you are in the world. (Until some scientists decide to update them, just for fun!)
So that’s why botanists classified all plants into plant families using Latin names.
It will help to learn the most common plant families and their characteristics, even if you stick with the English version of the name.
Without further ado, these are;
TOMATO FAMILY – SOLANACEAE
This venerable family includes tomato, eggplant, and potato. Also, lethal cousins such as Deadly Nightshade and hallucinogenic witch herb Datura. Their 5 petalled flowers are usually trumpet or star-shaped. They have male parts (stamens) that are fused to the female parts. Or forming a cone shape over them.
They all have leaves that grow alternately (in a zig zag fashion) up the stem. They often have a strong, pungent smell and are hairy. They all have fleshy fruits with many seeds inside.
Do your homework and make sure you have 100% positively identified plants in this family.
CABBAGE FAMILY – BRASSICACEAE
Cabbage family plants are one of the best places to start if you are new to foraging. Once you can identify that a plant is in the cabbage family, it is very likely to at least be edible, if not tasty!
Cabbage family flowers have 4 petals and are usually white or yellow. Some of them are pink. They look like a cross, hence the old name ‘Cruciferae.’ They have six stamens (sticking up parts in the center of the flower) in each flower. Two of these are longer than the other four.
Many cabbage family plants have a distinct cabbage-y, mustardy smell and taste. Their seeds are in a pod.
CARROT FAMILY – UMBELLIFERAE
This family includes our humble, harmless carrot.
It also includes some of the most lethal plants known to humanity, like the deadly Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and Hemlock Water Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata).
Either of which can have you pushing up daisies 30 minutes after eating. Hemlock was even used to execute Socrates in ancient Greece!
The plants in the carrot family can have very similar-looking leaves and general appearance. Especially when young. This is a family to avoid until you are more experienced in foraging.
I started learning carrot family plants after foraging for about 5 years. I drew parts of each plant, taking leaf rubbings where I could. I looked at the small differences in the umbrella-shaped flowers. I noted down the different growing seasons of cow parsley and hemlock.
The first picture shows edible Cow Parsley. The second shows Poison Hemlock. Could you tell the difference?
Cow parsley has no purple spots on the base of the stem, and a fine line of downy hairs on its stem, which has ridges. Hemlock has a smooth hairless stem with purple spots and more divided leaves.
I took care to check the colors of the base rosette and stem of each carrot family plant and felt the texture of the stem and leaves.
I smelt the juices of each plant. Common Hogweed (Heracleum spondylum) has a lovely aniseed scent (and is edible). Hemlock Water Dropwort smells of bleach. It is trying to tell us not to eat it!
Use all your senses.
PEA FAMILY – FABACEAE
Peas are delicious! However, you can’t eat all the pea family plants.
They are also known as Legumes.
This family includes Clovers (Trifolium sps) and Vetches (Vicia/Lathyrus). Also Laburnum (Laburnum waterii). You can eat Clovers as part of a healthy iron-rich salad or tea. Laburnum pods are poisonous.
Pea family plants can absorb nitrogen from the soil using special nodules on their roots. The best way to identify them is by their lovely flowers, which to me look like fancy orchid flowers. The flowers are bi-symmetrical. This means if you cut them in half with a mirror one way, they look the same.
They actually have 5 petals, but we usually only notice the two large ones on the top and bottom.
Their seeds are in pods.
There are lots of other plant families, but it would be far too overwhelming to go into them all here. So start with the four most common.
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Want to follow in famous foragers’ footsteps?
Here are some well-known names in the field. These people all got their skills from indigenous peoples sound the world. Expert advice may be closer than you think, wherever you are.
Look up local Bushcraft organizations to find experts near you.
Who hasn’t heard of Ray? Ray Mears grew up on the North Downs, in England. He founded Woodlore, his bushcraft company, in 1983.
He went on to broadcast many films about foraging and bushcraft, even trekking with Ewan McGregor into the deep jungle. He has a deep knowledge from learning with First Nations and indigenous people all over the world.
LES HIDDINS (BUSH TUCKER MAN)
Ethnobotanist Les Hiddins is famous for his dedicated study of Australian Aboriginal plant lore. He has lived in the field with indigenous Australians for many years. Check out his detailed series ‘Bush Tucker Man’!
FERGUS THE FORAGER
Fergus teaches full-day 12-hour bushcraft courses with fun and charisma! He is often completely vegan and has made a good attempt at surviving for a whole year just on foraged vegan food. Very difficult!
He has some innovative ideas on how to prepare such things as star candied bramble shoots and ground his own bread out of wild seeds.