Foraging for Food in the Wild
Overharvesting, particularly due to commercial collection of medicinal plants has brought many once plentiful plant species to the brink of extinction. As foragers we should adopt an attitude of green guardianship for our planet.
Here are some rules that every forager should live and breathe by:
- Familiarize yourself with the weeds, herbs, bushes and trees in your neighborhood, try to learn as much as possible about the ecosystem of which you are a part.
- Learn to identify them correctly and investigate all their uses. Try to understand it as part of a larger ecosystem. With which other plants does it form communities? Is it native or invasive? Does it protect the ground or deplete it of any of its nutrients? Building this kind of holistic knowledge base will give you a much deeper insight into the nature of a plant and its role within the ecosystem.
- Learn to identify the poisonous plants you are likely to encounter. DO NOT EAT ANYTHING YOU CANNOT POSITIVELY IDENTIFY AND DEEM SAFE.
- When you think you know a plant, always cross reference to be 100 percent sure because non-edible look-alikes can fool you.
- Don't be greedy! Familiarize yourself with the plants that are listed on the endangered species list for your area. Apart from being unethical, it is also illegal to pick endangered plant species. Instead of taking rare plants, consider sowing their seeds in the wild.
- Only pick as much as you need and never take ALL the plants of any one kind in a given patch. After harvesting an area give the plants plenty of time to recover before returning to the same patch. Be very careful when it comes to harvesting roots. Remember that often harvesting roots means the death of the plant, so before you start digging ask yourself if this plant is really plentiful and if it can sustain a harvest of its roots. If in doubt, don't collect.
- However tempting it may look, never pick in places that are subject to pollution, roadsides, industry or heavy spraying of farm chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers etc.).
- Collecting wild edibles growing in soil that was brought in from another area may not be desirable. It could be soil that was contaminated with pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
- Don't collect from nature reserves - these are areas set up to protect wild species, so give them their space and let them be!
- Cast seeds of native species to the earth and to the winds once in a while - as a way of giving something back. Consider adopting a little patch that you are particularly fond of.
- When you are out and about, never leave any litter behind.
Once you have collected your wild edibles make sure your body will not reject this new food:
- First, rinse or wash the parts of the plant you are using.
- Test one plant at a time – preferably only one new plant per day.
- Test the plant first by rubbing it on your skin. If there is no reaction, then rub part of the plant on your lips. If there is no reaction there then eat a small portion of the plant. If you experience no reaction at all, then all should be well.
When to Harvest Edible Wild Food
Wild edibles should be harvested when the oils responsible for flavour and aroma are at their peak. Proper timing depends on the plant part you are harvesting and the intended use.
If you are collecting wild edible weeds for their foliage then to maximize the nutritional content, they should be harvested before they flower. After flowering they are still good for you and they still contain vitamins, minerals and nutrients, just not as plentiful.
Optimal time for collecting flowers such as chamomile should be done just before it reaches its maximum size.
Harvest roots, such as burdock, chicory or goldenseal is best in the autumn after the foliage fades.
Some general guidelines are:
- Begin harvesting when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth.
- Harvest early in the morning, after the dew dries, but before the heat of the day.
- Harvest the wild edible before flowering, otherwise, leaf production declines.
- Most flowers have their most intense oil concentration and flavour when harvested after flower buds appear but before they open.
Please see preserving wild food for information on how to store the edible plants you forage.