I’m not much of a couponer but I must admit I have a penchant for free food – especially when it’s on the wild side. Have you learned to forage yet? Are you maybe even unsure what that means? No worries! Come along while I chat with experienced homesteaders, herbalists and foragers on how to gather the free food Mother Nature offers us in abundance.
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Wild Free Food
I guess “free” is a bit of a misnomer since Mother Nature works hard to produce this wild free food. All the same, I’ve been interested in learning more about edible, nourishing food sources that won’t cost me a dime to consume – in other words, foraged foods.
Not having much experience with foraging, apart from the weeds and herbs in my yard, I reached out to several foragers I know for some advice. I was curious to know more about the ins and outs of responsibly collecting wild food.
What is wild food?
I know that wild animals forage for their meals but I was curious to know more about the kinds of food humans could forage. The kids and I really enjoying pulling lambs quarter out of our yard this time of year – it tastes a lot like spinach, only nuttier.
As I said, though, I’ve only ever really done this in my yard and an occasional herb gathering foray in the mountains. I asked my friends what they usually forage for and got a great list.
What are some favorite things to forage, you might ask?
Here are some suggestions from seasoned foragers:
- Beach asparagus, clover, spruce tips for tea, mussels and clams if you’re on the beach! – LeAnn
- Blackberries for jams, jellies, juice and wine making; also wood sorrel for salads and making a lemonade substitute. – Gregg
- Lamb’s Quarter would be my favorite! – Karen
- Humans can forage for many different types of edible and medicinal plants! Wild greens, flowers, herbs, roots, shoots, nuts, berries and mushrooms are the most common items that are foraged. Examples of these are miner’s lettuce, nasturtium flowers, wild green onions, wild carrots and parsnips, cattail shoots, hickory and black walnuts, wild blackberry and chanterelle mushrooms. Of course this is only scratching the surface! I have a lot of personal favorites when it comes to foraging in my area (Southern Oregon), but finding edible mushrooms is always exciting! I love chanterelles, morels and boletes! – Colleen
- Elder berry, stinging nettle (really!), and the herbaceous plants and berries used in our herbal remedies. – Jane
- I eat all sorts of wild things, whatever’s in season, from garden weeds to wild berries, mushrooms, fish and game. – Laurie
- We have an amazing public walking path that the state put in a few years ago. It runs right near my home and the edges of the path contain some fabulous wild edibles. We have an abundance of Lamb’s Quarters and Purslane, but my favorite foraging “score” is Fiddleheads. – Jessica
- Dewberries and mustang grapes are or favorite foraged items. Dewberries are small wild blackberries that grow along the railroad tracks and fence lines just outside the city (although there are some patches inside the city). We try to forage enough to freeze for the year and enough to make jam for the year. Mustang grapes are wild grapes that have a lot of tannins in them. They are not good for eating but make an incredible jelly and juice. We try to forage enough to make jelly and juice for the year. Mustang grapes also grow along property fence lines. – Angi
What tools should you have on hand?
- Always be sure you properly identify any wild edible, cross referencing in at least two reputable sources, and make sure the plants you are harvesting are not endangered or at risk of becoming endangered. Bring along a couple of good plant identification books when heading out to forage. Gloves, scissors, and a canvas bag or basket are also good tools for the forager. – Jane
- Trowel, cutters, multi-purpose tool, first aid kit. – Karen
- The big thing for us is rubber boots since we’re foraging in areas (along the roadside) that are not usually mowed. We also need buckets of various sizes. A good attitude is imperative. It gets hot foraging for several hours but we just keep telling ourselves how good those berries will taste this winter. It’s also important to know your child’s limits if you are foraging with children. It’s ok if they eat more than they pick. – Angi
A Mentor is someone who can teach you about finding all this wild, free food. A book is an important tool, but a foraging friend to sit and talk with you is such a boon.
Meetup is becoming an excellent tool for finding local experts in a large array of fields! Even at the Herbal Academy, we have our own Meetup page. It’s a great place to connect with all sorts of wonderful people, local events and classes. – Jane
My mentor was my grandfather, I have since become a mentor and there are classes that are help at a few state parks here in Alabama. I would suggest anyone start with their state parks. For the most part the parks like to attention they get from this sort of education. – Gregg
I’m sure there are plenty of foraging option available in the winter, but I tend to be a seasonal forager (spring to fall). I actually don’t forage as much in the summer as I should because I have an abundance of food right in my gardens. – Jessica
Absolutely, even in places with cold winter climates. After all, the animals forage year round, so why can’t we? Rose hips and conifer leaves such as pine and hemlock both make a nice tea high in vitamin C. White pine also offers pine nuts and in a survival situation, the inner bark. Sumac and watercress are also possibilities, and there are many others. – Jane
We live in a temperate rainforest. There are all sorts of stuff you can get from the beach, even in winter. (Seaweed, kelp, etc) – LeAnn
How much of any plant should I forage?
- NEVER EVER take everything. We either take what we need or leave 1/3rd untouched. Usually though, we get what we need before getting even halfway through what is available. The only exception to this would be berries. We strips the branches clean (but never use a berry picker because they damage the plants). – LeAnn
- At the Herbal Academy we aim to never harvest more than 10% from a plant itself or from a plant grouping, so there is plenty left to maintain growth and reproduction of the plant or plant colony. If you are collecting roots, try to minimize the damage you are causing by digging and restore it as best you can before you leave the area. Just as importantly, use what you pick – don’t let wild foods go to waste! – Jane
- You should get to know the life cycle of the plant/animal/fungi or other edible that you’re harvesting and gather as appropriate. Annual weed seeds persist in the soil for decades, so it’s nearly impossible to harvest too many. Some perennials are much more sensitive, and mushrooms should be gathered in a mesh bag to spread the spores and not be overharvested. Wildlife should also not be overharvested. – Laurie
- If you have recipe to work with then you know exactly how much of any one item you need to forage. For example, here’s Learning and Yearning’s recipe for foraged Black Walnut Pie – oh, this is such a good reason to go foraging this fall!
It’s important to make sure that the wild, free food you forage is free of pesticides and other potentially harmful elements.
- Thankfully, we don’t have crop dusting here or high levels of pollution but we always rinse our foraged food…minus the berries that may have been consumed while picking haha! All joking aside, never skip at least a good rinse before consuming anything foraged. – LeAnn
- We forage in the same areas each year so during the year we try to keep an eye on the areas and make sure that people are not dumping things along the road that would contaminate the food. Most of the areas we forage are along pasture fence lines so pollution and contamination hasn’t been a problem. – Angi
- If I am foraging say a park, I will ask the grounds keeper if they use any chemicals in their lawn maintenance. If chemicals are used, I don’t forage there. – Gregg
- Yes, it is important to ensure that your edibles haven’t been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides or are affected by road runoff (which may contain petroleum products and de-icing chemicals or salt)! When foraging for herbs, choose locations that are set well back from the road. I like to harvest no closer than 50 feet from the roadside. Also, many lawns, parks, and gardens are treated with herbicides and pesticides, so it is important to know the maintenance regimen of these land areas. Finally, it is important to understand the historical use of lands on which you forage, particularly important in the case of industrial waste sites or closed landfills. Follow the 50-foot rule along railroad corridors as well, which are likely impacted by historical use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical compounds found in the railroad ties. – Jane
How can I learn more about foraging wild, free food?
Generally speaking, local universities and your agricultural extension office will have some kind of publication about foraging wild edibles in your area. My favorite one is a book put out by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). – LeAnn
My current favorites listed here – https://commonsensehome.com/wednesday-weekly-weeder-1/ – Laurie
There are many field guides for identifying edible plants, and four that are particularly helpful are:
- Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb
- Peterson Field Guide to Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
- The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
- Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer. – Jane
I have several books that I absolutely love…[A]really good one is Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places by “Wildman” Steve Brill. He also has a great website, https://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/ For mushroom hunting I highly recommend All That the Rain Promises and More by David Arora. Look into getting local guides for your particular area as well. The website https://www.foraging.com also has a lot of great info, broken down into particular regions. There are also numerous Facebook groups that are really helpful with identification and general foraging questions. – Colleen
Foraging isn’t just for foods! Here are some crafting activities you can try you hand at with wild, free foods.
When hosting dinner parties and gatherings, I often like to forage for my own floral arrangements and table centerpieces. From Queen Anne’s lace in the summer to pine cones and berries in the fall, the options are limitless. Think outside the box – moss, stones, branches, and vines! – Jane
We cut a ton of wild grapevines from my fenceline to use as wedding decorations. I sometimes use various wild plants for home décor inside and out. When the boys were little, we did berry smudges and leaf prints – the usual kids craft projects. The boys have a collection of odd bits gathered for study (we homeschool) – snake skins, an opossum skull, bugs, rocks, etc. I have made wild wines. – Laurie
For me, the other main use for foraged plants is medicinal. So many plants that are considered weeds have wonderful healing properties. There are many ways to prepare them depending on the particular plant, but teas, tinctures, oils (which can then be made into salves, lotions, etc.) and poultices are common. Of course wild flowers are gorgeous in a vase on your table. I’m not super crafty, but when the holidays come I typically make my own centerpieces and wreaths with foraged tree branches, pine cones, dried berries, etc. You can also do really cool things with willow, like making living structures and fences. I would also love to learn how to weave baskets, but I’m not quite there yet! – Colleen
My husband found some wild gourds and he and our 5 yr old made Christmas gifts with them. – Angi
Foraging with Kids
Can I take my kids with me when I forage? If so, what can they forage safely?
Fruits are always a winner with the kids. They also enjoy harvesting dandelions and it’s a plant even the little ones can identify. – Jess
- I love teaching children. The first thing I introduce children to is wood sorrel. It is sour and tastes a little like lemons, it has no toxic look-a-likes. Then berries, but only certain ones. There are berries that can kill you. Blackberries and wild strawberries are safest. – Gregg
- Absolutely! Wild berries are an obvious and delicious choice to start with. Red clover flowers are fun because kids can pull out the individual blossoms on the flower head and sip the sweet nectar from their tips. New spring growth on spruce and hemlock trees are a tangy and novel way to get some vitamin C. Rosehips are fat and easy to pick (but be careful of thorns)! Chickweed is mild, juicy, and delicious! – Jane
- My boys have been by my side working outside since they were little. Yes, they certainly enjoy wild berries when we can find them, but they are also game to sample different sorts of green bits that we find in the garden. We quite regularly nibble as we’re weeding, or pull a long grass stem and nibble on the tender white tip. – Laurie
- Foraging is an amazing thing to do with children! It gets them outside and into nature first and foremost, collecting food is just an extra bonus! It makes the kids much more apt to eat the wild food when they have collected it themselves. Just forage for things that are not questionable, preferably something that you’ve collected before and can 100% identify. Besides berries which are obviously great, edible flowers such as dandelions and their greens, wild mint, seaweed (if you’re on the coast – did you know that all seaweed is edible?), wild asparagus and even mushrooms, although stick to the easily identifiable ones. – Colleen
For more thoughts on foraging with children, please visit our Hobby Farms post by clicking here.
How The Do It Yourself Homestead Can Help
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A big thank you for all my foraging experts!
Please visit them at their own digs:
Gregg Carter blogs at The Rural Economist where he promotes homesteading, self sufficiency and being prepared.
Colleen Codekas at Grow Forage Cook Ferment where she teaches you about all types of homesteading endeavors, particularly related to food, permaculture, health and survival.
LeAnn Edmondson blogs at Homestead Dreamer where she shares her vision of a self sufficient lifestyle.
Jessica Lane blogs over at The 104 Homestead where she teaches people to homestead wherever they are.
Laurie Neverman blogs at Common Sense Homesteading where she inspires people to use sound judgment to be more self reliant.
Angi Schneider blogs at Schneider Peeps where she share her journey towards simple living.
Karen Stephenson blogs at Edible Wild Food where she shares information on edible plants, foraging and recipes.
Jane Metzger is a folk herbalist and the Assistant Director at the Herbal Academy of New England, home of their online herbal courses which I recommend:
If you’re on Pinterest and you’d like more information on foraging, please visit our board devoted to the topic by clicking this link.