When I was a kid, we used to laugh at Euell Gibbons, the eminent forager, who seemed always to be saying, “This here is ___________________, it’s edible, you know.” The joke then was Gibbons saying, “This here’s a Volkswagen, it’s edible, you know.” And we laughed.
Well, I don’t laugh now, because I’ve become a weed-eater too. We live in southern Indiana, in a rich valley chock full of plants for good eating and good medicine. Right outside my door grow plantains, red clover, dandelions, persimmon trees, elderberries, lamb quarters, and within a short walk are a host of other edibles. Even in a city there are plenty of wild plants to harvest for eating and healthy teas.
OK, you know this. You’ve read it before. You already know dandelions, and probably lamb’s quarters and chickweed, as these commonly “infest” lawns and you‘ve probably tried your damnedest to kill them. So how do you get started on the rest of them? It can be tricky, and there are poisonous plants that look like the plant you want to harvest, so yes, you do have to be careful. But it isn’t so hard that you can’t learn some of the more common ones that grow around you. And once you see them, and have them imbedded in your mind--their appearance, smell, habitat, etc.--then you’ll recognize them from now on.
So how to start? I’ll recommend some books and websites that have been helpful to me. And let me state now that I’m a rank beginner. I make mistakes. Just a few nights ago I wanted to serve some milkweed shoots for dinner. I had gathered them, tried to carefully ID them to make sure they weren’t dogbane, but after cooking them as recommended by Sam Thayer (author of A Forager’s Harvest), they were too bitter and nasty to eat. I had not ID’d them carefully enough apparently. They must have been dogbane and not common milkweed as I thought. Mistakes happen--caution is necessary. The milkweed went to the compost heap, so it wasn’t all a bad deal.
The first thing I did to get started was to ask a local herb woman/biology teacher to take me on a walk to find some edible and medicinal plants. Mary Jo was agreeable and so off we went one morning last August. We found stinging nettles, jewelweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, horsetail, burdock, goldenseal, elderberry, wild ginger, lamb’s quarters, chicory, staghorn sumac and evening primrose. Another friend who used to wildcraft (forage) took me on another walk and we found wild yam, spicebush, pawpaw, greenbriar, wild grapes, witchhazel, mallow and comfrey. I didn’t learn to firmly ID all these plants to my satisfaction, so I’ll need my trusty books to keep working on it, but it got me started. And made me realize what a cornucopia this valley is!
If you have friends or aquaintances who go out mushrooming or foraging, enlist their help. See if your local colleges or universities are offering any variety of a “people’s university” where local folks teach classes on their hobbies--there might be some resources there.
Some good books to start you off, all of which have their pros and cons:
Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, by Steven Foster and James A. Duke (a Peterson Field Guide)--color photos and basic identifying information, as well as some lore and what part of the plants to use.
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so Wild) Places by “Wildman” Steve Brill. Terrific line drawings of the plants, tons of identifying information and a neat guide to how to cook and eat the plants.
The Forager’s Harvest: Edible Wild Plantsby Samuel Thayer--an excellent guide to some of Thayer’s favorites edibles, lots of photos and in-depth information. Thayer only discusses plants that he himself has foraged and eaten, and discusses them in detail. Photos of plants in various stages of their lifecycles.
Just Weeds: History, Myths and Uses, by Pamela Jones--a book of common weeds with entertaining stories about them all. Not great for identifying info, but full of fun and interesting information about the weeds, what they were used historically for, how to prepare, etc.
I don’t list these in order of importance--all of them have proven useful and informative. I have a lot more books on this, but these are the ones I keep and read the most. I buy them used, at garage sales, Goodwill, wherever I can find them cheap.
As I write more on foraging, I’ll get into other books and resources as well. Some of my favorite websites on foraging are:
“Wildman” Steve Brill’s foraging site--has a lot of the same info as his book, with color pictures.
Steve Brill‘s foraging pictures, with many pictures, sometimes at different times of the year--a terrific help for beginners!
Prodigal Gardens, a great website with lots of pictures, ID info, and recipes. Click on the Herbwalk for month-to-month foraging and cooking recipes.
Foraging the Edible Wild, a website dedicated to the great Euell Gibbons. Many interesting articles.
I usually pick a plant I’m interested in, say stinging nettles. I start reading about it in the books, look at the pictures, check the habitat of the plant, see if it is in my region of the country, and all of that. Then I look in the most likely places, ask valley folks if they’ve seen any, and try to find some. By this time I have a pretty good idea of what it looks like, and where it lives. Stinging nettles like creeks and riverbanks, disturbed habitats, horse barns (they like rich soil). Those are the places I looked first. When I couldn’t find any on my own, I asked local folks. They gave me suggestions, and then a friend showed me where a huge batch of them were growing. These weren’t stinging nettles (they stung alright, but the leaves were alternate rather than opposite), but they are nettles of some kind--probably slender or wood nettles. I’ve been gathering them ever since.
There are basic rules to foraging, all of which make sense. Don’t take all of them--leave enough so they can continue propagating and blessing you with future harvests. Don’t take too much from any one location. You’ll find some more guidelines here.
Pick a few easy-to-identify plants, see if they have any poisonous lookalikes--and if they do, then be extra careful. Better yet, leave a plant with poisonous lookalikes alone until you think you know what you’re doing when it comes to plant identification. I don’t take chances, but I do make mistakes as I said earlier. If it tastes bitter or nasty--then don’t eat it. Your common sense should tell you that.
Easy to ID, common, and usually prolific plants include lamb’s quarters, nettles, burdock, purslane, wintercress, red clover, and chickweed. If you’re a beginner, as I am, then look for these plants first. None of them have poisonous lookalikes, all are delicious and very nutritious.
There are many reasons to start foraging. I liked the idea of interesting free foods. I believe with modern monoculture agriculture that the soil and the plants grown on that soil lack many essential trace minerals. Plants growing wild have never been sprayed with chemicals nor has the soil they grow in been depleted by modern farming, so wild plants have great nutritional value. These are not just “survival” foods--these are life-giving, delicious foods. There is a good deal of simple joy in foraging. Try it. You won’t be sorry.