July 4, 2022 by Jeanette Rueb (Peachy00Keen)

A Beginner's Guide to Foraging

What is foraging? Why do people do it? How can you get involved?

In its most general sense, foraging is the act of identifying and gathering wild plants for any number of purposes, including eating, crafts, and medicine. In this guide, we’ll discuss foraging as it applies to edible plants. For those who are curious, there will be a link in the resources section to the social media page of someone who forages natural fibers for weaving. For safety purposes, this guide will not provide any information on how to forage mushrooms or wild medicines.

There are plenty of reasons to forage besides finding snacks on a long hike. While trailside delicacies are certainly a plus, foraging also provides an excellent opportunity to get to know your local ecosystem, identify plants, and understand how nature adapts to different environmental conditions. Foragers learn to recognize where certain plants will and won’t grow and how the plants present in an area provide clues to other, less apparent details about the surrounding area, such as soil fertility, nearby water, or other forageable goods nearby.

If you’d like to learn how to “read” the land, identify different types of plants, and potentially find a tasty treat along the way, this guide can help you get started. Before you head out with your basket and shears, there are some basic rules you’ll need to know to ensure that you’re foraging in a way that’s respectful of the environment and other people who may want to gather in your area. Remember that this guide is not intended to be a comprehensive collection of knowledge presented by an expert. Always cross-reference your sources and give yourself a refresher on relevant information (laws, trails, identification, uses, etc.) on a regular basis.

Fizzy lilac cordial made from foraged Syringa vulgaris.
Photo by Jeanette Rueb.

The Basic Rules of Foraging

Chances are good that you’re not the only person in your area interested in foraging. If you aren’t counting humans, it’s a guaranteed fact that you’re not the only one heading out to the woods to browse for something snackable. Deer, birds, butterflies, bees, and innumerable other critters rely exclusively on what nature can provide in order to survive. Your actions will almost certainly directly impact another living thing. Here are some rules to follow when out foraging to ensure that your hobby is in harmony with the ecosystems from which you gather your bounties.

Stay on Trails

Wherever you wander, make sure you stay on or near designated trails. Wandering off of them could land you in any number of troubles, from poison ivy to some poor critter’s home. Even if the off-trail area looks safe, traveling off the beaten path can crush young plants, contribute to erosion, and otherwise damage the natural area. If something you’re looking to gather is not along a designated path, tread carefully, try to follow other tributary trails (such as deer trails), and never disobey signs that ask you to stay out of certain areas for any reason. It doesn’t matter what you’re foraging, respect for nature and those who are protecting it always comes first.

Gather Mindfully

You aren’t the only snack-seeker on the trails! Remember that other animals, including those of the hominid persuasion, also may want to pick what you’re gathering. Forage only from abundant patches, gather sparingly from each plant, and leave plenty of whatever you’re after for the next forager to come along. Research the reproductive habits of whatever plant you’re harvesting before you gather it, too. Some plants, like ramps (Allium tricoccum), take years to mature and propagate. Overgathering a plant like that can easily and rapidly deplete an area or drive the plant to extinction in your gathering zone. Other plants, like mullein (Verbascum thapsus), produce massive leaves. Gather no more than one from each plant to avoid stressing the plant. No matter what you’re picking, always gather only what you know you need. Have a plan to prepare your foraged goods when you get home, and if you run out, you can always go back for more.

Western yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis), great mullein (Verbascum thapsus), common mallow (Malva neglecta) and sweetbrier rose (Rosa eglanteria) gathered between the foothills and my backyard..
Photo by Jeanette Rueb.

Check Thrice, Gather Once

A plant that’s good picking in spring may be too tough or toxic to pick in midsummer. A leaf that you swear you’ve seen hundreds of times before might be a poisonous lookalike. An area where you gathered in abundance last year may not be doing so well this year. It never hurts to verify your knowledge before setting out to gather. Know what time of year is best to forage your target plants (nettles (Urtica dioica), for example, are only good to gather in early spring), and. check the land where you’re foraging for signs of stress (only forage where the plants are flourishing and abundant). Perhaps most importantly of all, be absolutely certain that you’re picking what you think you’re picking. There are some sneaky lookalike plants out there, and knowing one from the other can mean the difference between picking some nice herbal greens and sending yourself to the hospital for poisoning (wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) look almost identical).

Gobble Up Invasive Species

When researching edible plant species in your area, keep an eye out for the invasive species on the list. Whether you live in the southern United States and are heading out to gather kudzu (Pueraria montana), the Great Lakes region and have a hankering for wild garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), or if you live in a woody area and find yourself wading through cleavers (Galium aparine) every summer, harvesting invasive species can be a foraging a free-for-all. Invasive plants were introduced to an area at some point and allowed to naturalize. Conditions far more favorable than their native environments meant that these plants took to their new homes with zeal and are now considered a threat to native species because they grow at a far faster and more vigorous rate than the indigenous plant life. By harvesting invasive species, you’re helping native plants reclaim their space and resources, and you’re doing your part in controlling the spread of these noxious plants.

Avoid Contaminated Areas

If you’re gathering in a local park, verify whether or where they spray chemical insecticides or herbicides. Your dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) salad isn’t going to taste so great with RoundUp dressing on it. Similarly, while urine does wash off (and you should always wash your wild goods before using them), if you have the option to pick wild plantain (Plantago major) that’s been used as a lavatory on versus some that hasn’t, you’ll probably want to go with the latter option. Gathering plants near the roadside poses a similar conundrum. You can wash road grime and emissions off of most things, but do you really want to? Forage in clean, untreated areas whenever possible, especially if you plan on eating what you gather while it’s fresh.

Use Multiple Forms of ID

Field guides are excellent for getting your bearings when you’re just starting out, but when you’re out in the field trying to identify imperfect leaves and plants in odd surroundings, it’s helpful to have backup methods of identifying plants. As you’ll find stated multiple times in this guide, never consume a plant you’re not absolutely 100% certain you have identified correctly. What better way to bolster your confidence than to check, double-check, and triple-check your identification than with multiple sources? Google the name of the plant you’re picking (ideally, the scientific name and not just the common name), use a plant identification app, and compare against a field guide to make sure that what’s growing is what you expect. If you’re gathering something for the first time, sample a small amount of it first to make sure there are no adverse reactions (as much as accidental poisonings are a significant concern, remember that food allergies are also a thing), and be certain you know how to properly prepare what you’re about to eat. Certain plants, like pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) shoots, are edible only if they’ve been cooked long enough to break down the poisonous compounds. When in doubt, just leave it.

Know Your Local Laws

It should hopefully go without saying that you can’t pick plants just anywhere. Walking up to your neighbor’s garden and plucking their lilac buds without their permission is both trespassing and stealing. If you live in the province of Ontario, Canada, picking red trillium (Trillium erectum) leaves for your salad could set you back a few loonies. Know these things before you head out to gather what your area has to offer.

Where to Gather

In the United States, most Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is fair game for plant-picking. Some state parks allow foraging while some might not. Many national parks do not allow foraging. Farmers' fields are private property, and if they are growing patented crops, picking without authorization could land you with a nasty felony. Be sure to look up what your local laws are regarding gathering on public lands. If you intend to pick on private property, get permission from the landowner first.

What to Gather

Some plants are protected species, and gathering them could leave you saddled with a hefty fine or facing jail time. Know your area’s protected species and take extra care not to trample them underfoot while trekking, and know how to identify them so you don’t pick them by accident.

Be Mindful and Be Aware

There are so many edible plants just waiting for you to find them and discover the history behind their wild flavors. As with any hobby, foraging is a skill that requires practice, training, patience, and an understanding that you aren’t going to be able to do everything right from the start. You’ll quickly find that there are considerably more edible plants out there than you could have ever imagined, you’ll also find that there are a lot of things you really don’t want anywhere near your mouth. Familiarize yourself with your local poisons, get to know lookalike plants, and remember, if you’re not certain about your identification, don’t eat it.

Some plants, like cow parsnips (Heracleum maximum), require special tools to gather them without getting hurt. Other plants have similar-sounding common names, like the edible sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) and the poisonous horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). Identifying a plant by its scientific name helps avoid mixups. Certain plants are only edible at specific times of the year, such as pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra). Many plants contain both edible and inedible (and sometimes poisonous) parts. Make sure you know exactly which parts you can eat and what preparations may be necessary before you can eat them (rhubarb is a great garden example for this point — rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) stems are delicious, but the greens will make you agonizingly sick).

The best way to learn how to forage is to learn directly from someone who knows what they’re doing. Take a class, find a mentor, look up your local botanist and take them out for coffee. If you don’t have access to an in-person teacher, the best thing you can do is take things slowly. Start by foraging easy things like dandelion roots (Taraxacum offiniale), black thimbleberries (Rubus occidentalis), and magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) blossoms. Eventually, you can work your way up to more difficult forages. Or don’t! There’s nothing wrong with sticking with what’s safe and comfortable. You can never learn too much about a subject, and even if you think you know everything there is about a particular forage, you can always find new recipes.

Dandelion roots harvested at the community garden.
Photo by Jeanette Rueb.

A note about mushroom foraging — don’t. Unless you have a guide to take you out mushroom hunting and teach you how to identify mushrooms precisely, do not attempt to forage them. All it takes is one young death cap (Amanita phalloides) mistaken for a puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) to bring your foraging days to an end. Don’t chance it. Just buy them at the store or find yourself an in-person guide after you’ve had practice with beginner-level foraging.

Likewise, a note about foraging for medicinal plants — unless you have training in medicinal botany, stick to foraging foods. There are tons of plants out there that can be used to treat mild symptoms of medical ailments. They are not cures, and unless you are a doctor or are trained in medicinal botany, you should not be trying to treat yourself with plants you find outside. Medicinal botany is an absolutely fascinating field that you can take certification courses for, but no beginner forager should be attempting anything of the sort. For some plants, such as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), there’s a fine line between medicinal dosages and dosages that can make you very unwell. Don’t mess with medicinal plants (or any foraged plant with medical intentions) without proper training and experience.

Getting Started

Anytime you head out to forage or explore a new area, make sure you know where you’re going. If you’re going to be navigating a series of wilderness trails, it’s a good idea to take a map and a compass. Remember to stay on trails at all times, and a foraging expedition is not a failure if it does not result in you bringing home plants! Wherever you wander, make sure you verify that the land you’ll be traversing is a place where you can legally pick plants (a quick Google search should be able to verify that for you).

Start small. Pick a neighborhood park, a local nature trail, or some other easily accessible location to look for plants. Check out a few foraging guides to see what’s good for picking in your area at the present time of year. If it’s early spring, just about anywhere you go in North America, you can count on harvesting dandelions (Taraxacum officinale). They’re easy to identify, and chances are good that you can find some in your own yard. If you’re gathering them from a public place, verify that they haven’t been spray treated before picking them.

Remember that, wherever you’re harvesting, the second most important thing to check besides whether or not it’s legal to forage in that area is whether or not the area has been spray treated with insecticide or pesticide. Do not forage in areas where chemical sprays have been used or you are uncertain whether or not they have been used. Even after you wash the plants you harvest, if certain chemical treatments have been used, it could render your foraged goods unusable and toxic to consume.

Pre-Forage Preparations

  1. Make sure you have appropriate clothes for the weather/location. Wear sunscreen and appropriate footwear, and bring/wear bug spray if you’re heading into areas with ticks or mosquitoes.

  2. Bring something to put your foraged goods in (canvas bags, jars, and pockets all are excellent options).

  3. Bring a pair of gloves and a pair of scissors or shears with you to help make clean cuts to the plant. If you’re going to be taking a plant up by the roots, bring a trowel, gardening knife, or weed fork.

  4. Know the plants you are foraging for. Start simple and work your way up in complexity when it comes to finding and identifying your plants. Remember, if you are not absolutely 100% certain that the plant you’re looking at is the one you’re looking for, don’t pick it!

  5. Bring water! It’s important to stay hydrated, but you may also want to wash off your hands, especially if you’re foraging something like black walnuts, which are super sticky.

  6. Scope out your local area. See what’s where. Taking multiple attentive nature walks is both a prerequisite and a key active element of foraging. It’s hard to gather plants if you don’t know where they are, and what better way to learn where your local forageable goods are than to go on lots of walks? Pay attention to the plants around you whenever you’re walking outside and see how many you can identify as you pass by. It’s excellent practice, and it gets your brain in the habit of paying attention to the world beneath your feet (or growing overhead).

Easy First-Forage Plants

There have been multiple cautionary statements in this guide on what not to gather. While it’s important to know your limits and take things as a reasonable pace, it’s arguably more helpful to have a starting point for what you can do. So, why not both? Below is a list of some easy-to-find forages that are perfect for beginners and are available across most of North America. The common and taxonomical names link to an identification page, and each entry is followed by a brief note on how you can use the plants. Starting in early spring and ending in the fall, these plants are listed in more or less chronological order for when you can forage them.

Wild Violet (Viola sororia)

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with healthy woodland areas, chances are good that you’ll be able to find some wild violets in the springtime. These tiny purple flowers can be gathered and be candied or used to create infused syrups, jellies, or tea. Both the flowers and the leaves can be enjoyed raw in salads. The leaves are also tasty sautéed and served as a wilted green.

Viola sororia and Taraxicum officinale, common violets and dandelions.
Photo by cultivar413 licensed under CC BY 2.0..

Lilac (Syringa vulgaris)

The fragrant flowers of lilac bushes can be used in confections. They can be added to a simple syrup and vodka mix to make a cordial, incorporated into salads, or crushed and combined with sugar to make a sweet, flavored addition to some spring sugar cookies.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

All parts of the plant are edible. The flowers can be fried into fritters or used to make dandelion wine. The un-sprouted buds can be harvested while they’re still stalkless and tucked into the heart of the leaves and pickled like capers. The young, tender leaves can be gathered and eaten as salad greens. With a bit of finesse, the taproots can be dug up, washed, cut, and roasted to be used for tea. The tea tastes rich and earthy (some people like to drink it as a caffeine-free coffee substitute).

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)

This is one of those invasive species you can forage freely. The leaves can be picked early in the season and used as a potherb (a spice, like basil or chives), but once the weather gets hot, the flavor tends to turn a little bitter. The flowers can be added to salads for a little extra kick (much like arugula flowers), and in the fall, once the stalks have died back, the roots can be harvested and processed like horseradish to yield a similar condiment.

Alliaria petiolata
Photo by Joshua Mayer licensed under CC BY 2.0..

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)

Black walnut trees are fairly ubiquitous, and their bounties can be collected either in the spring, just as the green fruits begin to emerge, or in the fall, when the ripened fruits can be gathered and enjoyed for the nutmeat. These nuts will dye your hands (and anything else they touch) black, even in their immature green form. Either wear gloves (they’re also super sticky when they’re green, so gloves would be a good idea to avoid that mess) or be prepared for a lot of hand washing.

Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)

These mid to late summer fruits can be found growing on their brambles in rich forests and along riverbanks from coast to coast. The fruits are ripe when they easily pop off the vine and into your hands, and they can be enjoyed however you enjoy blackberries or raspberries. The leaves of the plant can also be snipped (carefully — they have thorns!) and dried to be used for tea. Tea made from the leaves is similar to fruity black tea.

European Crabapple (Malus sylvestris)

These trees are popular elements of modern landscaping, and chances are good that you either have on in your yard or know someone who does. Relatives of the apples you can buy at the grocery store, these trees also yield edible fruits (though they don’t make for great lunchbox snacking). The fruits can be harvested in the fall and processed into fruit preserves. The link for this identification also includes IDs for similar fruiting trees whose fruits you can process in much the same way.

Malus sylvestris
Photo by hedera.baltica licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0..

Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana)

If you live anywhere in the United States, chances are good that you’ve had the misfortune of smelling one of these trees. The fragrance of the Bradford Pear’s white blossoms has been compared to everything from dirty gym socks to dead fish. Fortunately for you, that makes them easy to scope out during their flowering period in the spring. Also fortunately for you, it’s not the flowers you’re after. The tiny fruits that these trees produce in the autumn can be processed like crabapples or fermented into cider. These trees are an introduced species, which means that you’ll likely be harvesting them from private (ask permission first) or city property. As a result, when you gain permission to harvest them, verify that they haven’t been spray treated.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina/Rhus hirta)

Not to be confused with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which has completely different fruiting bodies, staghorn sumac is a sneaky citrus taste-alike that grows all over North America. The bright red seed cones should be harvested from areas free from road pollution because they cannot be washed before they are used or they’ll lose their coating of malic acid. For this same reason, don’t go harvesting sumac berries right after it rains. The best way to verify a good cone before picking it is to taste one of the seeds in the field. Once you’ve found a tart one, pick it and bring it home to dry the seeds and either use them as a citrusy spice or to make sumac lemonade.

Rhus typhina
Photo by Photo by Sharon Mollerus licensed under CC BY 2.0..

Resources

Here are some resources to get you well on your way to becoming a foraging ace. From identification apps to get you started to savvy content creators to get you excited to get out there and gather, these lists should give you plenty of content to get going with your new hobby. Remember: Google is your friend when it comes to identifying plants on the fly. Use a plant identification app, field guide, or tips from another forager to use as a starting point when identifying a new plant. Learn to navigate descriptive terms that will help you tell Google what you’re looking at, and focus on mature foliage and flowers (and fruit, where applicable).

Plant Identification Programs

These apps can help you identify on the fly by uploading a photo of the plant in question. No AI is perfect, so don’t rely on any of these to completely confirm what you’re looking at, but rather use them as a learning tool to point you in the right direction when first learning to identify something you find growing out in the wild.

  1. LinnaeusBot on Garden Revival’s Discord Server

  2. PlantSnap

  3. LeafSnap

  4. What’s That Flower?

  5. [email protected]

  6. iNaturalist

Mentors and Content Creators

There are some wonderfully creative people out in the world who are taking to the internet to share their enthusiasm and knowledge when it comes to foraging. These folks are willing to share their experience with the rest of us so that we can learn and grow along with them. Some communities may also offer foraging classes through their local community gardens or public colleges.

  1. A list of foraging instructors across the United States (it’s kind of an old list so some of the information might not be current)

  2. United States Foraging YouTubers by region (given how geography works, there’s some crossover for foraging in nearby regions of Canada)

  3. Alexis Nikole (@blackforager)

  4. Tim Clemens (@mnforager)

  5. Dina Falconi (@foragingandfeasting)

  6. One Wildcrafter (based out of North Bay, Ontario)

Online Foraging Field Guides

As long as you have internet access, you can’t really argue with the convenience of carrying a world of knowledge in your pocket as opposed to a bag full of field guides. There’s no replacement for good old-fashioned paper and ink, but online guides are pretty handy.

  1. Galloway Wild Foods

  2. USDA Plant Database

  3. CanPlant (a guide specifically for those north of the border, eh)

  4. Weed Identification (includes some forageable plants)

  5. Native Plant Database (you’ll need to have a plant name ready for this one)

  6. Horticulture Basics and Plant Identification (this one’s a bit of information vomit, but there’s a lot here to work with)

Physical Manuals and Field Guides

For the bibliophiles and classic hobbyists among us, here’s a list of some foraging guides you can pick up from your local bookstore or a secondhand bookseller (like ThriftBooks, which is where most of these links lead).

  1. North American Wildland Plants — James Stubbendiak et. al

  2. Nature’s Garden, The Forager’s Harvest, Incredible Wild Edibles — Samuel Thayer

  3. Edible Wild Plants — Peter Dykeman and Thomas Elias

  4. The Skillful Forager — Leda Meredith

  5. Forage, Harvest, Feast — Marie Viljoen

  6. The Forager’s Calendar — John Wright