Person holding orange mushrooms in a forest

Photo courtesy of Nico Benedickt/​Unsplash

When you walk through a neighborhood, wooded area, or even in your own backyard, you might not notice the edible mushrooms growing or the flowers just begging to be placed in a bouquet. When foragers go for a walk, they notice all those little things, the edibles and decorative plants that they can bring into their homes. 

Foraging is a hobby that’s growing in popularity, from those who live in the country to urban adventurers. It might be pastime that interests you, but perhaps you don’t know where to start. 

Natalie Evans is a Wild Edible Foods Instructor who discovered foraging several years ago when she learned that her parents both had cancer. I’ve always loved being outside, and I decided that taking frequent walks in the woods would help to keep me from unraveling,” she says.

During these walks, she took a great interest in what was growing all around her, and she connected with a local survivalist who taught people how to forage. That’s when her love of foraging began, and since then, she has received her Wild Edible Foods Instructor certification from The Resiliency Institute in Chicago. 

Since Natalie is based in a big city, she turns to a large nearby park for foraging and neighbors also permit her to forage in their yards. Right now, I’m foraging dandelions, violets, and garlic mustard,” she says. 

Here, Natalie shares her five tips for beginner foragers who want to connect with nature and experience living off the land. 

1. Know the plant. 

A big part of foraging is being able to identify plants and have the ability to tell the difference between edibles and non-edibles. 

Natalie says, The best way to learn about wild edible plants is go out and meet the plants in person. In the beginning, foraging can feel overwhelming, like you are looking into a sea of green and unsure of where to start. Go foraging or on a plant walk with someone who knows the plants well. Observing, touching, and harvesting the plant over and over is the best way to learn. Focus on learning and harvesting no more than two or three plants at once. If you do this, you’ll find that the plants will start to catch your eye immediately.” 

She adds that if you’re uncertain about a plant, check with three sources to be sure — a fellow forager, a reference book, and an online plant identification forum.

2. Respect the plant.

Natalie advises that new foragers should educate themselves on the life cycles of plants and what animals and insects depend on for food. Find out if the plant is over-harvested or possibly endangered in your area. Learn the best way to harvest the plant without harming future harvests so that the plant can remain a food source for you and other critters,” she says. 

3. Know the soil.

Soil can contain some not-so-great things for your body, which can carry into the plants. To stay safe, Natalie says, Think about where you are foraging. If you find edible plants along a busy road or in an industrial area, there’s good chance the plant has high levels of lead or other pollutants.” 

She also says that if you are foraging in a yard or on land where pesticides have been used, it’s best to avoid the wild foods that grow there. Natalie notes, If you are foraging for foods on your own property, you can have the soil tested.” 

4. Don’t take more than you need.

Natalie shares a thought-provoking metaphor, saying, What would happen if you went into the grocery store, spotted apples in the produce isle, felt a zip of excitement because you love apples, then took all the apples home with you? No one else would be able to enjoy the apples and there’s a good chance that many of the apples would end up rotting at your place because you took more than you could use.” 

The same applies to foraging, and Natalie urges caution and thoughtfulness when harvesting wild foods. She says, Ask yourself, What will I use this for?’ If you don’t have an answer to that question, leave the plant be.”

5. Tend to the land you harvest from.

Foraging also requires a sizeable amount of respect for the land where you’re harvesting. Natalie shares, Humans can participate in nature in a balanced way if they show respect and protect the land that nourishes them. If the land is a place you can return to often, take the time to watch it and see how things grow. Pick up trash and litter in that area and weed — and then in many cases eat — invasive species by hand if needed.”

Natalie also says that foragers should always ask permission before harvesting on private property and stay away from forest preserves, which work hard to restore ecosystems and study plants. Natalie says, Start slow and enjoy the process of learning about wild foods. You will end up developing a deep relationship with the plants as you watch them change over the seasons.”

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.