Foraging is the act and art of searching for, finding, and harvesting wild foods. Perhaps the most common foraged foods are mushrooms gathered in the woods, but foragers also enjoy wild greens, aquatic and marine plants, nuts, berries, seeds, sap, and more. The beauty of foraging is that edibles can be found almost everywhere, even in urban and suburban areas. Some of the most prolific plants – the most ubiquitous dandelion, for instance – have parts that are edible, once you know how to identify them safely.
I’m a huge fan of foraging for a few reasons. First, foraging gets our family outdoors in all seasons, connecting to the natural world and its bounty. Second, foraging fills our bellies for free (or cheap!). Hunting for wild edibles diversifies the palette of flavors we bring to the table and expands upon what we’re able to raise in the garden and pasture.
Some Common Wild Edibles
When we moved onto our homestead in 2013, the first “crops” we were able to harvest were those growing wild on the land. Wood nettles, black-capped raspberries, autumn olives, and black walnuts were among the treasures we foraged from our forest and meadows.
Foraging is an inherently place-based activity, which lends its own joys and challenges. Foraging helps you connect deeply to a particular place, enjoying the wild edibles native to a region, and is a great way to learn about bioregionalism, geography, ecology, and climate. But it can also be challenging to share foraging how-tos precisely because foraged food can be so place-specific.
To get you started, here is a list of common wild edibles from around the United States to kick-start your foraging adventures:
- Prickly Pear Cactus
- Stinging Nettle and Wood Nettle
- Autumn Olive
- Blackberry & Raspberry
- American Persimmon
- Black Walnuts & Hickories
- Oaks (Acorns)
- Tree Sap from Maples, Black Walnut, Birch
Safe and Ethical Foraging
Foraging is one of my favorite outdoor activities, but it also requires a high level of attention and care, especially when you’re just getting started. Think about the following guidelines for safe and ethical foraging:
1) Never Taste Anything Unless you are Absolutely Positive of its Identity
This is the most important starting point because wild plants and mushrooms can have poisonous lookalikes. Once you are familiar with the edible plants in your region, a good field guide will come in handy, but when begin your foraging adventures, I recommend one of two options: Go out foraging with an experienced, knowledgeable person or take an in-depth class on foraging and plant identification.
I just took a fabulous online course by Herbal Academy – their Botany and Wildcrafting course. This course focused not only on how to safely forage for wild edibles, but it gave a deep overview of botany and plant identification. The course contained three units:
Unit 1: Introduction to Plant Ecology and Biology – An overview of plants and and how they grow/reproduce/feed themselves, etc. This unit was mostly overview for me because I was a biology/ecology major in college and spent several years doing field research. However, it’s always a good idea to brush up on your biology basics!
Unit 2: Plant Identification Skills – This unit is the meat of the course, in my opinion. In fact, I am going to need to go over the materials several more times to really let it sink in. I’m most excited about the encouragement to take up botanical illustration and to begin my own Materia medica. My kids and I are going to move through this unit together, working on plant illustrations.
Unit 3: Wildcrafting Ethics and Techniques – The final unit will get you out finding wild edibles in your backyard! I appreciated that, in addition to the introduction to 25 common wild edibles, there were modules on how to dry and preserve the wild foods and herbs you find, and how to use them in simple medicinal preparations (think teas, tinctures, syrups, salves, etc.).
If, like me, you live in a rural area where there simply are not that many foraging classes or experienced guides, or if you prefer online learning, I strongly recommend the Botany and Wildcrafting class. Like everything Herbal Academy does, the level of instruction is top-notch and the printables and videos are great aids for learning. You will come away from the class feeling well-prepared to forage safely and confidently.
2) Always have Permission
Foraging in your own backyard is an amazing place to start, but as your family’s curiosity expands, you most certainly will want to seek out other foraging locations. These can range from a neighbor’s property, to a state or municipal park or national forest. However, the bottom line is to make sure you have permission before foraging. Trespassing, of course, is not a good idea, and keep in mind that certain public lands, like wilderness areas, may have a ban on foraging activities (although many public lands do permit non-commercial harvesting of small amounts).
3) Always Leave Some Behind
A good rule of thumb is to only forage up to one fifth of any stand of wild plants, leaving some for wildlife, future foragers, and the stand itself. Another guideline is to only harvest what you can reasonably make use of. Sadly, the commercial wild crafting of certain plants (notably Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)) has caused them to be endangered in the wild. Have a plan for how you will use the foraged foods you take home with you so none are wasted.
4) Choose Locations Carefully
Many communities spray herbicides along their roadways to keep down brush, and this is a common practice along railroad tracks as well. It’s better to avoid harvesting wild edibles that are growing in these areas.
Foraging is a great way to homestead, no matter where you live, so brush up on your foraging skills and start enjoying wild edibles! For more information on foraging, check out these posts and the Foraging and Wild Edibles category on my website.
Foraging with Kids
Foraging for Wood Nettles
Foraging for Autumn Olives
What are your favorite foods to forage? Would you add anything to this list of tips to get started?
Sharon Carson says
I thought I had autumn olive here but have never seen any berries in the fall .They have creamy flowers that smell like honeysuckle and are more like trees and bushes. Are there other kinds?
Teri Page says
We have the Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) on our property, but there are other plants of the same genus, for instance Russian olive. But of course it’s hard for me to say without seeing the plant, and you definitely want to make sure you have a positive id!
My sister loves foraging and is always bringing home something exciting to try.
Teri Page says
It’s so fun!