How do I learn foraging? How do you forage wild food? How do you identify edible wild plants?
If you’re interested in learning how to forage, this beginner’s guide to foraging will help you get started while avoiding newbie mistakes.
What do we mean by “foraging?” We define foraging as the harvesting of uncultivated foods that grow spontaneously in the wild. “Wild” might be the edge of your property, a nearby park, or a vast wilderness area.
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First, a foraging analogy…
What would happen if you put an 8 year old behind the wheel of a car and told them to drive through the city? That would be insanely risky, right?
For good reason, learning to drive is a slow and methodical process. You have to learn the safety rules and pass a written test. Then you get your beginners permit, start practicing, and maybe take some driver’s education classes. Finally, you pass the driving test.
After you’ve gone through all the learning and safety steps necessary to learn how to drive, there’s a whole new world you can explore that was previously outside of your reach. Driving now seems easy in hindsight, but learning to drive was very difficult — and totally worth the effort.
Learning to drive is like learning to forage!
If you walk out into a field or forest and start munching on random mushrooms and plants, you’re going to end up like the 8 year old driving a car through the city: dead or seriously injured.
Unfortunately, even once you learn how to drive a car, there’s still a decent chance you’ll get into an occasional car accident. And this is where the analogy breaks down… Because once you know the foraging rules, learn to ID nature’s “grocery store,” and gain experience foraging in your bioregion, the chances of you dying or becoming ill from foraging should be 0%.
So let’s get started!
Learning to forage: 12 rules to follow
1. Never eat anything you’re not 100% certain you’ve correctly ID’d AND you’re not 100% certain is edible.
Foragers often joke that anything is edible for at least a few minutes. You might not be alive next week, but boy did that Destroying Angel mushroom (Amanita bisporigera) taste good!
That’s why rule #1 (and perhaps the only foraging rule you need to follow) is never eat anything you’re not 100% certain you’ve correctly ID’d AND you’re not 100% certain is edible! If you follow this rule, you’ll never put yourself or anyone else at risk.
Pretty simple, right? Keep reading this article to make sure you fully understand what rule #1 means…
2. Learn from experts.
It’s incredibly helpful to learn from local foraging experts who have many years of experience foraging the unique edibles in your area. How do you find such experts?
The internet is a great place to start. Google “foraging clubs [your town/city name]” or check facebook for local foraging groups. There are bound to be some.
Another good resource: Eat the Weeds has a listing of foraging experts in each state who teach classes and/or take students out on foraging adventures. This might cost a few dollars, but so did getting your driver’s license. It’s probably worth it — and you’re guaranteed to meet some interesting characters in the process.
3. Use field guides and foraging books.
Foraging books generally break down into three categories: a) how to’s, b) recipes), and c) thoughtful & philosophical. (Often there’s some category overlap.)
These categories make perfect sense. Yes, you have to know how to ID wild foods, but that does no good if you don’t know how to cook/eat them. And none of it does any good if you don’t have knowledge, respect, and reverence for the staggeringly complex biological systems that you’ll be engaging with whilst you forage!
Below are foraging books we recommend within these three categories. (Nope, you don’t have to read them all.)
a) Foraging how to books:
- A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plants by Samuel Thayer. *We can’t recommend this book enough. This book is what first got us interested in making acorn flour.
- Incredible Wild Edibles by Samuel Thayer.
- The Skillful Forager: Essential Techniques for Responsible Foraging and Making the Most of Your Wild Edibles by Leda Meredith.
b) Foraging preparation/recipes books:
- Ugly Little Greens by Mia Wasilevich.
- Acorns & Cattails: A Modern Foraging Cookbook of Forest, Farm & Field by Rob Connoley.
- The Wildcrafting Brewer: Creating Unique Drinks and Boozy Concoctions from Nature’s Ingredients by Pascal Baudar.
c) Foraging: thoughtful & philosophical book:
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Also, be sure to search for foraging books and resources for your specific area. For instance, we live at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Upstate South Carolina. So we’d search for “edible plants of the Appalachians” or “edible plants of Upstate South Carolina.”
4. Start close to home.
By close to home, we actually mean close to home: your yard. Or the forest down the street.
As we got to learn more about foraging wild edible plants and mushrooms, we were thrilled to find that our yard was full of wild edible plants throughout the year. (Read our article 16 common edible weeds that are probably growing in your yard.)
Behind our house is a creek at the bottom of a deep ravine in a forest with multi-hundred year old trees. Depending on the season, we can walk out our back door to find chanterelles, black trumpets, bicolor boletes, blewits, oyster mushrooms, honey mushrooms, morels, wood ears, and other gourmet edible mushrooms.
When we learned to forage, the world suddenly became a giant grocery store full of free food that top chefs would kill to have on their menus.
5. Start with safe, easy-to-ID species.
As you start going on foraging adventures, it’s a good idea to play it safe at first and get some positive (and tasty) results. This means going after wild foods that are super easy to ID and seasonally abundant.
A few examples:
- American persimmons
- grapes (muscadines in our area)
- black walnuts
From there, you can start venturing out into more unusual and obscure wild foods that require more skill/experience to find and ID. Think of this stage as working on your learner’s permit in driving!
6. Know what parts of the plant are edible.
You’re out foraging and you spot a plant you’ve read about: “Oh, that’s an elderberry! Elderberries are edible!”
Not so fast… Yes, elderberry flowers are edible. Yes, ripe elderberry berries are edible too (and a potent cold and flu fighter). However, every other part of the elderberry plant is mildly poisonous, including the green/unripe berries.
Remember the first rule of foraging? “Never eat anything you’re not 100% certain you’ve correctly ID’d AND you’re not 100% certain is edible.” (Special emphasis on the second part of that rule.)
Correctly ID’ing the plant is an essential first step. Knowing for certain what part(s) of the plant are edible is just as important as a positive species ID.
7. Consider bioregions, seasonality, habitat, lookalikes, and your non-visual senses.
a. Bioregions in foraging
Now let us scare the bejesus out of you to teach you a good lesson…
In areas of Southeast Asia, there’s a delicious gourmet mushroom called the paddy-straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea). When Asian immigrants who are accustomed to foraging paddy-straws mushrooms in their home countries come to the US, they’re thrilled to see what appears to be paddy straw mushrooms growing here as well…
Unfortunately, the mushroom species they’re seeing in the US is the aptly named Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). As you might guess, eating anything with the word “death” in its name probably isn’t a good idea. Death Cap mushrooms may be responsible for the majority of mushroom illnesses and fatalities in the US (and perhaps the world).
How could this mistake be avoided given that the Southeast Asian immigrants are confident they’re ID’ing a familiar edible mushroom?
- They need to recognize the fact that they’re in a new bioregion where different poisonous lookalikes are possible.
- They need to run proper mushroom ID checks. For instance, paddy-straw mushrooms have a pink spore print, whereas Death Caps have a white spore print.
Conversely, if you go from your comfortable foraging grounds in the Rocky Mountains to the jungles of Southeast Asia, consider yourself a brand new foraging student for that bioregion and exercise extreme caution (forage with experts, use guide books, etc.).
Just like farmed foods, wild foods come and go with the seasons. Chicken of the woods mushrooms come in the summer. Morel mushrooms fruit from March – April. Chickweed is found in abundance in late winter but has long since died out by summer.
There’s a beautiful rhythm that you tune into as you start to know what wild foods are available in each season of the year. Tapping into this rhythm also helps keep you safe while foraging.
If there is something that looks like an edible species that you’re used to but is way out of season, there’s a good chance it’s a lookalike – and that lookalike may be dangerous. Tune into the seasons and the edible wild foods that come with each season.
You probably don’t go fishing in the desert. Likewise, edible wild plants and fungi tend to be particular about the habitat they grow in.
Blonde morel mushrooms (Morchella americana) thrive in low-lying flood plains in old hardwood forests (especially where old elm, ash, and sycamore trees are present). Cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis) are found exclusively around the base of conifer trees.
Knowing the preferred habitat and associations of the plants and fungi you’re foraging does two things:
- keeps you from wasting time looking for edibles in spots where they won’t grow, and
- helps you gain certainty in your species identification.
The closest call The Tyrant and I ever had to making a potentially fatal foraging mistake was years ago when we were mushroom foraging newbies…
We were out for a hike in the mountains near Asheville, NC, when we came across a bunch of beautiful blue-purple mushrooms. “Blewits!” we thought. We’d never found blewits before but we’d heard wonderful things about them and knew that the blue/purple color was a primary way to ID them.
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A sampling of some of the beautiful fall mushrooms found on a short hike in the woods today: Front right: Blewit (Clitocybe nuda). Yes, they’re actually purple-blue in color. They have a delightful lilac smell, or as The Tyrant says, “they smell purple.” Incredible flavor that goes great in pot pies and dumplings. In our opinion, not a beginner mushroom because they do look similar to certain types of Cortinarius, which can kill you. Left: maitake (Grifola frondosa), aka “hen of the woods.” Delish umami flavor and a potent medicinal mushroom as well. These two were very young, but we picked them anyway since we won’t have time to go back to this spot later this week. We were disappointed to find that our secret spot which yields about 50+ pounds of maitakes each year is no longer around – boo! Back right: one of the weirdest fungi around, basically a mushroom in a mushroom. Commonly called “shrimp of the woods” which is a much more appetizing name than aborted entoloma (Entoloma abortivum). Mycologists debate whether these are honey mushrooms parasitized by entolomas or vice versa. They are very meaty in texture and can be prepared to be virtually indistinguishable from fried shrimp. #foresttotable #fungi #mushrooms #maitake #blewits #shrimpofthewoods #foraging
We gathered a bunch of the mushrooms in our harvest basked and took them home so we could make a 100% certain ID using the magical powers of the internet. With mushrooms, this process involves analyzing the gill, cap, and veil structure and doing spore prints.
The first thing we did was google “blewit lookalikes.” That’s when we read about a potentially-deadly blewit lookalike: cortinarius. Our next steps:
- We did a spore print of our mushrooms on a glass plate: brown spores. Blewit spore prints are white to light pink.
- Our mushrooms had a defined veil. Blewits don’t have a veil.
- Our mushrooms had a typical mushroom smell. Blewits have a distinct sweet lilac smell. (The Tyrant says they “smell purple.”)
Yep, we had a nice basket full of cortinarius, a poisonous mushroom. The lessons:
- Always know what potentially poisonous lookalikes there are for any species of plant or fungi you’re foraging.
- When you’re inexperienced, always run whatever tests necessary to positively ID the species.
- If you have any doubt about your ID, don’t eat it. There’s no meal worth dying for.
Poisonous cortinarius mushrooms, a blewit lookalike. Image credit: Jimmie Veitch (jimmiev) at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images. You can contact this user here. – This image is Image Number 777115 at Mushroom Observer, a source for mycological images., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
e. Non-visual senses
Something you’ll develop with foraging experience is your non-visual senses. Sure, your eyes are your best tool for finding and ID’ing wild edible plants and mushrooms.
However, I could blindfold The Tyrant and put a blewit or chanterelle mushroom in front of her nose, and she’d be able to identify it by smell. Over time, hone and trust your sense of smell to help make positive (or negative) foraging IDs.
8. Avoid contaminated areas.
Many mushrooms (such as morels and other mycorrhizal fungi) actually pull heavy metals and other toxic substances out of the ground and away from tree roots. They store those substances in their tissue.
Environmentally persistent PFAS (chemical compounds that cause a host of medical problems) near current or existing chemical manufacturing companies and military bases are causing farmers around the country to abandon their farms and/or cull entire cattle herds due to soil and plant contamination that also works its way into the meat and milk of their animals.
The point being? We live in a society that has poisoned and/or polluted a large percentage of our water, soil, and air. Be mindful of this reality when you forage.
Areas we advise you NOT to forage in:
- old orchards
- next to busy roads (or old abandoned roads/parking lots)
- next to train tracks (new or old due to potential creosote contamination)
- near conventional farm fields where pesticide drift is likely
- near old or new factories
- near old or new brownfield sites
- near landfills
- in floodplains downstream from new or old chemical companies
- under power lines (these areas are often doused in herbicides several times a year by power companies)
On a similar note, if you live in an old house that was built before 1978, you’ll want to get your soil tested for lead BEFORE you do in-ground gardening or eat edible weeds from around the house due to potentially high soil lead levels from old lead paint. Certain plants (especially in the Brassica family) can uptake high concentrations of lead and arsenic in their cells.
9. Avoid legal problems.
“Is it legal to forage there?” you might wonder about a park or hiking trail in your area.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know given the mishmash of conflicting and confusing federal, state, and local foraging laws. As Baylen J. Linnekin notes in Food Law Gone Wild: The Law of Foraging for the Fordham University Urban Law Journal:
“Though foraging is growing in popularity, a complicated and oftentimes contradictory tangle of federal, state, and local laws and regulations in the United States poses real threats to its future… Rules can vary from park to park, and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”
Is foraging legal at your local park? At the nearby state or federal park? To know for sure, you’ll probably need to ask a park ranger or manager at the specific park you’re considering foraging in. When you do, consider politely asking for the specific written park rules/guidelines pertaining to foraging, because the person may not actually know the rules.
Also, it should go without saying that you don’t want to forage on private property with “no trespassing” signs unless you have express permission from the property owner.
10. Identify and record “perennial” spots.
We use a digital journal (mainly phone photo albums) to keep track of our best foraging spots that produce “perennial” foods. Perennial foods are foods that come back at the same spot at the same time each year.
For instance, we have a chicken of the woods spot that has produced a ~10 pound chicken of the woods mushroom every year for 6 years at roughly the same time each summer. For about 5 years, we could reliably go to the same nearby park to harvest ~20+ pounds of maitake mushrooms from the base of an old oak tree. (We were distraught when the park recently had the tree removed, which also took away the mushroom’s food!)
If necessary, add calendar reminders so you remember when it’s time to go “shopping” for these perennial wild treasures!
11. Harvest sustainably.
Nature is resilient, but it is also dynamic and sensitive to trauma (just like humans). It’s imperative that you know how to sustainably harvest whatever wild food you find.
This isn’t just for nature’s sake, it’s for yours. Even if you’re entirely self-interested, this rule makes sense. By harvesting sustainably, you’ll be able to come back and get harvests from the same spot(s) year after year, rather than only once.
A couple of examples:
If you find a good fiddlehead fern (Ostrich fern) spot, don’t harvest more than ~30% of the plant’s fiddles. This practice allows the fern to continue growing vigorously, storing energy, reproducing, and making even more fiddles the following year.
Our friend Marie Viljoen (who is also a foraging expert and fantastic author) sums up sustainable ramp harvesting perfectly:
“Ramps (Allium tricoccum) grow painfully slowly. A seed takes 6 to 18 months to germinate. A conservatively harvested (10 percent) ramp patch takes 10 years to recover. In the woods where ramps grow wall to wall, collect one mature, fat bulb from a clump. Current advice is to slice the bulb above the root to allow the ramps to recover. Better yet, pick only ramp leaves, a couple from a clump. They are arousingly flavorful. Seeds and bulbs can be ordered online (bulbs should be planted in fall, when they are dormant). Ramps need moist, humus-rich soil, spring sunshine and summer shade. Finally, if you see tons of pencil-thin ramps sold at a local emporium, holler. It’s a good indication that an entire patch has been cleaned out, for good.”
Sustainable foraging summarized:
- don’t over-harvest,
- don’t improperly harvest so as to kill the main/parent organism,
- never harvest any protected and/or endangered species,
- only harvest what you’ll actually use, nothing more.
12. Make a goal to identify one new wild edible each time you forage.
Want to become an incredibly knowledgeable forager over the course of several years? Make it a goal to learn to identify one new plant or mushroom species every time you go out foraging or hiking.
This does NOT mean you have to identify a new edible species. After all, knowing what’s not edible is just as important as knowing what is.
If you stick to this goal, you’ll eventually come to know virtually every edible and non-edible species in your bioregion. One day, years later, you’ll wake up and realize you’re a foraging expert. Then you can put on your Super Forager spandex, mask, and cape, and start taking newbies on foraging adventures, helping to pass on the knowledge to the next generation.
Other articles you might enjoy:
- 16 common edible weeds growing in your yard
- How to make acorn flour
- How to find and prepare maitake mushrooms
- Recipe: How to make hickory nut ambrosia
- The hunt for the elusive morel mushroom
…and other foraging articles from Tyrant Farms.