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Eat Wild Plants: Forage to Save Money

Wild blackberries collected in the hills of Northern California.
Wild blackberries collected in the hills of Northern California. | Source

What Are Wild Plants and What is Foraging?

A wild plant is any plant that has not been specifically planted by someone. It has germinated naturally without human intervention; its seeds having been blown or deposited by an animal onto fertile soil.

Foraging (UK) or wild-crafting (US) is the act of gathering and using plants growing wild as a source of free food. There are many edible plants growing wild that are found in both country and urban areas once you know where to look. They can include stems, roots, leaves, flowers, nuts, berries and fungi. Some of them can be eaten raw, but others need to be cooked before eating.

Wild-crafting and foraging are fun but should be done in a responsible manner. This article contains some good practice guidelines to follow when harvesting edible free food. They relate to the sustainability of wildlife and to ensuring the gathered plants are not poisonous.

Buds and flowers of Wild Garlic Allium ursinum, sometimes known as Ramsons, Wood Garlic or Bear's Garlic amongst other names. It is common in damp woodlands and hedge banks. All parts of the plant are edible.
Buds and flowers of Wild Garlic Allium ursinum, sometimes known as Ramsons, Wood Garlic or Bear's Garlic amongst other names. It is common in damp woodlands and hedge banks. All parts of the plant are edible. | Source

Foraging Guidelines

 
1. Learn to identify edible wild plants.
2. Buy an illustrated reference book or field guide.
3. Go on a wild-crafting course.
4. Get the landowner’s permission
5. Think like a wild animal and crop sustainably
Sambucus nigra, Adoxaceae, Elder, Elderberry, Black Elder, European Elder, European Elderberry, European Black Elderberry, Common Elder, Elder Bush, infrutescence.
Sambucus nigra, Adoxaceae, Elder, Elderberry, Black Elder, European Elder, European Elderberry, European Black Elderberry, Common Elder, Elder Bush, infrutescence. | Source

Elderberries are rich in vitamin C and ready in autumn. Use in cooked pies, jams, or wine. In spring, the young shoots can be steamed or boiled for 20 minutes or until tender as a kind of asparagus. In summer, the flowers can be deep fried in tempura (previously soaked for an hour in sherry or cognac, by preference, then drained) and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. They can also be tossed in salads, made into wine, or infused to serve when chilled and mixed with honey as a refreshing drink.

— Self Reliance: A Recipe for the New Millennium by John Yeoman

1. Learn to Identify Edible Wild Plants

The key to successful foraging is you learning to recognize plants that are edible. Urban areas can be just as good hunting places for edible wild plants as wilderness or country areas. Plants that are “just” weeds can turn out to be your next tasty meal. For example, dandelions and brambles grow in abundance on vacant building lots. You can make dandelion wine and bramble jam from them.

The crop you are looking for depends on the season. In spring you can find young green shoots and leaves of edible plants to make a fresh green salad. In summer look out for wild fruit and edible flowers. In the autumn there will be rosehips and berries growing wild in overgrown hedges as well as fungi in woods and fields. Winter pickings are more sparse but could include nuts and seeds. Remember to wash your harvested items well before eating. Unwanted contaminants can include pollution from cars or fecal matter from birds and passing animals.

Start by learning to identify the wild plants that are poisonous. Then learn about the good plants that will provide you with a tasty meal. The best way to do this is to learn from a wild-crafting expert in the field and ask them lots of questions. Or you could learn about foraging and edible wild plants by reading a good reference book. Choose one that is specific to your location and has color photos of the plants likely to be found in your area.

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2. Buy an Illustrated Reference Book or Field Guide

Expand your knowledge of foraging and edible wild plants by studying a good reference book or field guide. Choose one specific to your locality. A well-illustrated field guide to edible wild plants is essential if you are going to become a regular forager. Color photographs can help you identify dangerous plants. The best field guides have illustrations showing each plant at different stages of its life cycle. Plants change their appearance depending on the season and weather conditions. If you are ever unsure about the identity of a plant then it’s better to leave it unpicked. You can always revisit another day with someone more experienced for a second opinion.

For foraging in the United Kingdom, I recommend "Food for Free" by Richard Mabey. It’s an easy-to-use reference guide with clear illustrations. There’s a small pocket sized edition that you can take with you into the field, as well as a larger more detailed edition that’s great for more in-depth study. If you are wild-crafting in the United States I recommend the Peterson "Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants".

Rosehips are a good source of Vitamin C and are used to make jam or syrup.
Rosehips are a good source of Vitamin C and are used to make jam or syrup. | Source

3. Go on a Wild-crafting Course

The best way to learn to identify edible wild plants is to learn from a wild-crafting expert in person. There are lots of wild-crafting schools that run weekend and longer courses based in US, UK and Europe. There are also many local wildlife non-profit groups that run similar classes. Attending a foraging course will enable you to see and handle plants that are local to you. The tutor will also tell you how to cook the edible plants you collect.

A good example of the need for specialist knowledge is wild mushrooms. There are many varieties of these fungi. Most are edible and perfectly safe for humans. However, there are a few that cause vomiting and even death. Their names give an indication of their true nature; destroying angels, false morels and death cap.

A Guide to Gathering Edible Mushrooms

4. Get the Landowner’s Permission

In urban areas, there’s usually a clear marker between private and public land. In rural areas the property boundaries may not be so obvious. Don’t assume that anything that looks like wild uncultivated land is open access for all-comers. Before you start foraging make sure you have the landowner’s permission. If in doubt, don’t pick or dig up anything. A plant that looks like a weed to you could be someone else’s valuable crop.

If you intend to sell the free food you’re taking, make sure you inform the landowner. Many don’t mind you cropping wild plants for your own use, but they may object if you’re going to be making money from your harvest.

5. Think Like a Wild Animal and Crop Sustainably

Once you’ve learned the best places to find wild mushrooms, wild plums, dandelions, wild sorrel etc. you’ll be able to return year after year if you pick sensibly. Sustainable cropping means leaving plenty of fruit on each plant so that birds and other wild animals are able to have a share too. Never pick the whole crop, leave some for the next forager. If you’re harvesting a root crop like horse-radish, never dig up all the roots of the plant. Leave enough root for the plant to be able to continue to grow and thrive.

Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) growing wild.
Sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella) growing wild. | Source

Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)

Also known as sheep sorrel or dock, this wild plant is a tart, lemony green found all over North America and Europe. It slightly resembles Swiss chard, with thin, triangularly shaped leaves. Use the young leaves in salads for an interesting citrus flavor, or cook older, tougher greens in soups, omelets, or stir-fry’s. Wood sorrel is another variety that can be eaten; however, it looks more like clover, with three double egg-shaped leaves.

— Aaron Munzer in Good Housekeeping July 2015

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