Foraging is a great way to enjoy a walk in nature, (or anywhere) learn more about the abundant diversity of plant life around us and maybe find something delicious to eat.
Here is a way into it using some of Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles...
Observe and Interact
We always begin with observation. Where do we have plants growing around us? Where would we like to begin the journey? You may have walked past so many interesting and edible plants already, but now you have a mission, you will start to notice things everywhere and build up a relationship with your surroundings. Not just blackberries at the edge of a field but plantain in the cracks in the pavement, purslane in the park....
The first foraging is visual foraging. Just look at what is around you and become familiar with the most common plants, which niches do they fill, what is their life cycle, which parts are edible?
Work from Patterns to Details
Using a plant ID book (see list below) you can learn the patterns of the main plant families. For example Lamiaceae, the mint family, contains many aromatic culinary and medicinal plants you can find growing wild (hyssop, lemon balm, nettle). They are characterised by square stems, paired and simple leaves, and two-lipped open-mouthed tubular flowers.
Rather than learning each one individually, once you know the pattern of appearance and habitat you will see them everywhere and can start to learn their individual properties and tastes.
Obtain Yourself a Yield
Wild plants and Fungi can be used in large quantities as food (berries, nuts, tubers, leaves, seeds) or culinary herbs (those with a strong taste may be used sparingly as a flavouring). They can also have powerful medicinal properties when eaten or used in infusions, decoctions, tinctures, compresses, creams and balms. Once you have basic knowledge you will notice the first aid kit growing around you.
This is a great way to find fresh nutritious food wherever you are, and notice when there are abundant harvests at certain times to collect and preserve (elder-flowers for cordial or tea, nettles for pesto, berries for jam, crab apples for vinegar).
There is a spectrum of styles- from survival foraging, where you would need to find large quantities of palatable food that is easy to prepare; to casual foraging- just picking a bit of what you find and enjoying a nibble as you walk; to gourmet foraging, where you can find high value foods to combine with bought products in creative recipes.
Enjoy and experiment in a way that gives you a meaningful yield.
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
The edge between different systems is a special niche where we can find diversity and stability, where plants can take advantage of the best of both systems. Many of these spaces are considered ‘marginal’ in a negative sense when on the edges on human made systems, but there are amazing things to find in local parks, cemeteries, footpaths, marsh lands, hedgerows, scrub lands. All kinds of places where no-one would consider planting a garden, but that are full of food.
There are also many marginal crops to be found that are not really wild but untapped. Such as fruit or nut trees that no-one harvests, abandoned gardens or allotments....
Just think about the safety of where you’re harvesting (more about safety in People Care) and ask first if the land belongs to someone.
Be an ethical Forager:
To be safe, always identify unusual plants in two books before picking and consuming them. Consult with an experienced forager who is familiar with them, or join a guided walk in your area. This is especially important with fungi, which can be extremely poisonous even in small doses.
Even once you have confirmed that wild plants are edible, eat a little at first to see how they interact with your unique biochemistry. If something tastes strange or unpleasant, it may be that you are not used to this kind of natural taste (the common diet is lacking in bitter or astringent tastes which can be healthy and healing) or it may be feedback from your body that its not good for you! Most wild plants have a much higher nutrient density than domesticated crops and you will be nourished and sated by a smaller quantity.
Young children love to put things in their mouths and try everything! Even touching poisonous mushrooms can be dangerous. Have a clear idea of what is safe or not before taking them foraging, and explain what is for the birds or the nature table and what is for eating. Once they recognise a few tasty plants they are usually very dedicated foragers! (and it’s a great way to encourage them out on a walk)
Earth Care/ Fair Share
Be aware of the ecosystem in which you are foraging. Is this a clean place? Read the landscape around you, is there agricultural or industrial run-off? Many wild plants (and Fungi) flourish on disturbed or damaged land. Leave them to get on with their bio remediation and find a cleaner place to collect.
Through observation you should know how plentiful is each species. Take within the limits of the systems ability to regenerate . Pick the parts you need without damaging or uprooting the whole plant. Leave something for the other people and creatures who may rely on this food.
Botany in a Day by Thomas J. Elpel
Shanleya's Quest: Patterns in Plants Card Game By Thomas J. Elpel. Illustrated by Gloria Brown
Fantastic book (and card set) for recognising patterns in plant families and understanding botanical taxonomies. Learn from pattern to details and increase your plant knowledge in a fast and fun way.
Just be aware that this is an American book and it uses the American common names.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1DePlU15z4 (great explanation from Thomas Elpel)
Food For Free by Richard Mabey (Collins Gem pocket edition)
Convenient pocket sized book you can take with you to identify common plants. A British book, but many plants are found all over Europe. There are also guides to trees and mushrooms in the same series.
Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers by Roger Phillips
Another classic British book, covering plants, mushrooms and seaweeds. Lots of photos and recipes.
The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival by Katrina Blair
Wide ranging book, focusing on 13 plants which grow around the world (mainly Temperate climate). Details of how to prepare, preserve and use as food and medicine as well her experiences and livelihood with wild plants.
Learn all about: Amaranth, Chickweed, Clover, Dandelion, Dock, Grass, Knotweed, Lambs-quarter, Mallow, Mustard, Plantain, Purslane, Thistle.
Natures garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plants
The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plants
by Samuel Thayer
Two very detailed books ( with lots of drawings and photos) to identify wild plants from North America, many of which are also found in Europe and the UK.
The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
Amazing resource about using and making herbal remedies, their actions and contra-indications. Should be used in conjunction with a field guide for identifying plants.
The best book for you is going to be one specific to your climate and local plants and Fungi.
What are your experiences with Foraging? Do you have any recommendations for useful books / sites / films? Please share in the comments below.
By Sophie Rostas Reeve