How to Forage for Wild Edible Plants

Learn how to safely forage for wild edible plants with tips on plant identification and avoiding poisonous plants.
By Sergei Boutenko
October 2013

Foraging for wild edible plants can be fun and rewarding if you do it safely. Learn how to tell if a plant is safe to consume or if you should avoid it.
Photo By Fotolia/Daisy Daisy
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In this field guide to foraging wild edible plants, explore the health benefits of wild-harvested food and how to safely identify plants. Wild Edibles (North Atlantic Books, 2013) outlines the basic rules for gathering etiquette, and author Sergei Boutenko offers more than 60 recipes to put your foraged food to use. This excerpt was taken from part 1, “The Basics of Wild Plant Foraging.”

You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Wild Edibles.

More From Wild Edibles

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The very first time you go out to forage it may seem awkward and intimidating. As a novice, you will see a wall of green vegetation and begin doubting your ability to discern what is edible and what is poisonous. This is natural; it happens to most of us when we branch out and try new things. Fear is a valuable emotion; it keeps us from doing things that could potentially harm us. If we give in to our fears completely, however, we may end up stuck in our limited comfort zone and never get to experience all that life has to offer. This chapter is aimed at easing your journey through the early stages of foraging. The following simple, commonsense guidelines are meant to keep you safe while at the same time nurturing your curiosity and challenging you to forage.

Honing Your Search Image

Your brain catalogs everything you see in images. According to Samuel Thayer, our eyes capture billions of pictures over the course of our lives. When you come in contact with an object repeatedly, such as a banana, your brain collects more banana images, and your familiarity with bananas becomes more refined. Like a computer, your brain creates a folder in which it saves the information it receives about a particular banana, as well as bananas as a whole. This folder is called a “search image” (Thayer 2010). Over time, as you continue exposing yourself to bananas, peaches, and pears, your brain makes more search images, and you become great at differentiating one fruit from another.

In the same way you learned to distinguish kale from cilantro, you can learn to differentiate wild mustard from common mallow. Through careful observation, you can learn to spot a plant’s distinguishing features and be able to identify it quickly, if not instantly. In order to progress quickly, you must expose yourself to plants often. Each time you reexamine a plant, your search image of this plant will improve, and your awareness will be heightened. If you regularly expose yourself to wild edibles, you will become a professional in no time.

Plant Awareness Exercise

Try this exercise the next time you go outside: Pick up a plant. Any plant. It could be one that you know or one that you have never seen before. Look at it for thirty seconds. Notice any striking characteristics this plant displays. Does it have any markings or discolorations? Are the edges of its leaves smooth or serrated? Are the leaf veins easily distinguishable? Does the top of the leaf have a different hue than the bottom? Crush the stem and smell it. What does it smell like? Notice how your body reacts to the aroma. Does your mouth salivate, or is the smell repulsive?

Be creative and come up with your own questions. You don’t have to be too scientific. Ask yourself the kinds of questions that will help you remember the plant you are studying. You are creating a mental map.

Finally, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, take it home for identification. For this step it is helpful to have a plant reference book, such as Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. Such books make it easy to identify unfamiliar flora by giving you the ability to search by leaf shape, flower color, the number of petals, and so forth. Once you determine the name of the plant you collected, you can then consult a book on wild edibles to determine its edibility. If you do this once a week for a year, you could learn fifty-two new plants by year’s end.

As a way of helping myself progress as a forager, at least once a week I try to allocate fifteen minutes or more toward focusing my attention on my surroundings. This practice is not super- regimented and often occurs spontaneously. Having a dog helps. My pooch, Bella, requires a walk every day. During our expeditions it’s easy to find a place or a plant that I can lose myself in for a brief moment. I try to keep up this practice throughout the seasons to get a better grasp of how plants change during their various stages of growth. I do this both at home and when I’m traveling. As a result, I am able to spot edible plants easily and have piece of mind that I am not eating something poisonous. My observations also help me feel more connected to my environment.

Simple Rules for Foraging

Did you know that donkeys kill more people than airplane crashes each year? On average, 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens annually. Texting while driving killed 6,000 people in the United States alone in 2011. About 450 Americans will die this year by falling out of bed (Jenkins 2011). Life is full of risks. Harvesting wild edibles presents some inherent dangers as well. Nature is unpredictable. Wild plants do not come with nutritional labels and should be approached with a degree of caution. But foraging is no more dangerous than the million other activities you engage in daily. If you are patient, attentive to your body, willing to educate yourself properly, and able to resist the temptation to eat everything you see, I’m confident that eating wild food will impose no major risk to you. Most of you will find foraging to be extremely pleasant, fun, and healthful. In this section, I would like to discuss a few simple guidelines that should be considered prior to eating new food, whether it is wild or not. Following these rules will greatly minimize your chances of experiencing any negative reactions.

Don’t Eat Something If You Don’t Know What It Is

Most plant poisonings occur when people make no effort to identify what’s in front of them and put unknown vegetation into their mouths (Thayer 2010). You will be surprised how often this happens. I receive emails more often than I would like from people who eat mysterious wild plants. When they complain about the stomachache they got from consuming an unidentified herb, I have to fight my urge to shout, “Don’t eat something if you don’t know what it is!” (I wrote a song about this. Search for Don’t eat something if you don’t know what it is on YouTube.) While nature is bountiful in wild edible plants, there are plants that can harm you. Every time you choose to eat a foreign food, you wager your well-being on your decision. Therefore, if you are even slightly hesitant about whether it’s edible, take the appropriate steps to double- check before you take a bite. Create a plant identification protocol that you feel comfortable with. This process may include bringing the actual plant, or a picture of plant, home for investigation, identifying it with the help of a book or a reputable website, or inquiring with a local expert. I recommend getting in the habit of cross- referencing all new plants with at least two different sources.

Engage Your Senses

When I was an undergrad in college, I learned that the majority of all communication exchanged between people happens nonverbally. Like humans, plants have the ability to convey information by how they look, feel, smell, sound, and taste. If we employ all of our senses to listen intently to every form of communication that a plant makes, we can better determine whether it is fit to eat. Engaging all your senses helps to significantly dilute your risk of experiencing an allergic reaction or being poisoned. Many poisonous plants display characteristics that communicate their lack of edibility. Some plants, or plant parts, have very strong, unpleasant odors, while others have tough leaves or sharp thorns. When we engage all of our senses, we can notice such characteristics and avoid the plants or plant parts that will make us sick. I do not recommend for people to forage relying solely on the five basic senses unless they are in an emergency situation. But even if you’re not stranded and starving in the woods, this technique — in addition to the guidance of a credible wild edible book — will help you train your observation skills and plant awareness.

Next time you go foraging, follow these five steps:

  1. Look at your surroundings. Notice if any plants appear more tender or edible than others. Even if you’re harvesting a familiar plant, study it and try to figure out which part(s) are suitable for consumption. Notice anything that is not particularly edible (i.e., leaves, sap, thorns, and so forth). Consider the environment you are in. Are there signs saying that chemical sprays have been used in the area? If no signs are posted, but you see plants that are dead or dying for no apparent reason, this could mean pesticides or herbicides may have been used. If unsure, it’s best to harvest from someplace else.
  2. Touch everything before you eat it. Sometimes what the eyes miss, the hands see. Use your sense of touch to determine if a plant would be pleasant to consume. Some plants, or plant parts, might appear to be edible, but upon further investigation, your fingers might notice little hairs that can cause irritation. Use your sense of touch as a second pair of eyes to back up your assumptions.
  3. Smell everything before eating it. You may need to crush a plant’s leaves or stem to be able to detect its odor. This is a very important step, because a putrid smell often indicates toxicity. On the other hand, some plants have a pleasant aroma that might cause you to salivate. If you notice a strong or unpleasant aroma emitted by a plant, please take extra precautions to determine its edibility.
  4. Listen to your surroundings. Become still and try to hear the plants talking to you. This may sound a little crazy, but during my six-month hike from Mexico to Canada, I became more attentive to nature and could hear plants speaking to me. For example, curly dock seeds are encased in a loosely fitting husk that rattles in the wind. There were many times when I would have walked by dock without noticing had I not heard its gentle clatter. Even if a plant doesn’t make a peep, see if you can detect any other sounds that could potentially jeopardize its edibility. Listen for automobiles, roadways, pets, people spraying chemicals, and other potential sources of contamination.
  5. Taste only a small amount of anything you pick for the first time. If you want to be even more cautious, you can rub a little piece of a plant on your lip or under your tongue prior to tasting it. Both these areas are extremely sensitive and will alarm you if the plant is toxic. Make sure you give your body time to react. Allow fifteen to twenty minutes to elapse from the moment you taste a new plant. Once you know how your body reacts to it, you can eat more of it.

Start Small

As a newbie forager, many wild edibles will be foreign to you. As adults, we rarely experiment with new foods, which is exactly what we do when we begin eating foraged fare. Just as some people are allergic to peanuts, some wild edible plants may cause allergic reactions to any individual. When I say that dandelions are completely edible, don’t just take my word for it. Conduct your own experiment to make sure. The best way to avoid suffering any unpleasant symptoms is to approach new food cautiously and in small proportions. As mentioned earlier, engaging your five basic senses when experimenting with new food is incredibly helpful.

Don’t Mix Weeds

Once, at the start of my wild edible exploration, I made a salad out of seventeen different ingredients. I chopped up wildly harvested salsify, miner’s lettuce, and wild radish, along with other greens, and dressed them with olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. I had never tried several of the edibles in my salad prior to that point. I ate the entire bowl and shortly thereafter broke out in hives. I made sure to drink lots of water to flush out whatever I was allergic to. Nevertheless, the experience shook me up. Though it was a relatively mild reaction, it is not something I’d care to repeat. On the bright side, I learned a valuable lesson that day. I understood the importance of easing new foods into my diet one by one.

I recommend not mixing newly discovered wild edible plants. If you combine too many ingredients in a recipe and have a reaction, you won’t know which plant caused it. Instead of mixing your weeds, consume one wild edible at a time until you are absolutely sure how your body will react.

Educate Yourself

Knowledge is power! The best way to stay safe is through good old-fashioned education. Reading a book, such as this one, carefully and in its entirety will help you grasp nuances that will make your foraging experience more enjoyable. Attending a hands-on wild foods workshop is a great way to learn about plants as well. The internet is also a valuable tool for plant identification, but you should never make conclusions solely on what you read on the net. Anybody with a computer can post anything, any time. It is a good idea to cross- reference any and all information about wild edibles with several other sources. After all, it’s only your life we’re talking about.

Follow the Baby Greens Rule

All greens taste best when they are young. New leaves are generally more tender than mature ones and contain higher concentrations of protein and sugar (Thayer 2010). These factors make young plants and plant parts more enjoyable and more nutritious. As a forager you will need to know how to identify meristems in order to get the maximum amount of enjoyment and health out of your meal.

The term meristem was coined by Swiss botanist Karl Wilhelm von Nägeli in 1858. Nägeli discovered that certain groups of plant cells were capable of division and called these parts meristems, from the Greek word for “divided.” Meristems are the parts of a plant where growth occurs. During cell division, the tissue of a plant will need to shift or expand, so plants supply growing parts with constant nutrients so that they will remain flexible for growth to occur. Thus the young, growing parts of plants are always more tender and taste better than the older, fibrous parts.

How do you find a meristem? When a plant is young it’s easy. New flora is likely to consist entirely of flexible, growing parts. This means that the whole plant is a meristem. As a plant develops, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify which parts are newly formed.

Generally, as a plant matures, the lower parts closest to the ground begin to harden, in order to support the growth taking place above. These hard sections are not meristems, as they no longer experience stretching or widening. It can be helpful to note such fibrous parts, as they are the exact opposite of what you’re looking for. When looking for meristems on mature vegetation, try searching near the tops and tips of the plant. For example, in late summer, the stinging nettles patch near my house reaches its peak height of about seven feet. If I try to harvest the bottom leaves from such mature nettles for a smoothie, my drink will be extremely bitter and tough to blend. On the other hand, using leaves from the top two feet of the nettles guarantees a delicious smoothie, because I am using new growth (meristematic parts).

Here are a few easy ways to spot meristems:

These parts are often a different color. Their hue is usually a lighter green than other portions of the plant.

These parts break and bend more easily.

Meristematic leaves are generally smaller than mature ones.

These parts can lack the hairs or thorns of mature plants.

These parts usually grow in tighter clusters.

These parts may be folded or curled, unlike other leaves.

Respect the Roots

Many wild edible plants have roots that are both delicious and edible. I make note of this in the field guide chapter of this book. From time to time I like to indulge in these earthy treats. However, for the majority of my harvests, I prefer to stick to fruits and greens. These parts are nutritionally superior to roots and are much easier to harvest and eat. Additionally, harvesting roots often ends a plant’s life and prevents other creatures from enjoying its bounty. Thus, I stick to what grows above the ground and on rare or special occasions eat roots.

Poisonous Plants

When you go out to forage for food, it is likely that you will at some point encounter poisonous flora. This is normal and nothing to be alarmed about. Our modern, fearful society makes it seem like picking wild foods is akin to playing a game of Russian roulette. Through movies and books such as Into the Wild, we get the false impression that weeds are evil and are trying to trick us into eating their poisonous lookalikes. Further, we are told that even experts make mistakes and that novice foragers don’t stand a chance. I don’t agree with this mindset in the slightest. I believe that if you are a rational person, capable of restraining yourself from eating unfamiliar, unidentified foliage, foraging will be nothing but fun for you. As a rational forager you will have almost zero risk of harming yourself. In this section, I would like to present several considerations about plant poisons and give you peace of mind that you can collect wild edibles safely.

Highly Poisonous Plants

Educating yourself about highly poisonous plants is a good idea. Nature produces some plants that can cause serious injury. Luckily there are relatively few of them. In this section I discuss some of the most toxic plants in North America. Study them and be aware they exist. Additionally, I recommend conducting your own research about poisonous flora in your geographical region. In this way you will be able to recognize and avoid local plants not meant for food. If you are new to foraging, the best precautionary measure you can take is to approach all unfamiliar food as though it were poisonous. This means first identifying what’s in front of you, then sampling it in a very small dose to see how your body will react. This is the best approach even with plants you know are edible. For example, if you have never tried eating dandelions, you cannot be sure how your body will react to them. For all you know, you could be allergic. By tasting a tiny amount and paying close attention to any signs your body sends you, you can figure out how to classify dandelions for yourself. This method is labor- intensive, but it’s the most effective way to keep you healthy and happy. Laziness is dangerous! According to Nancy Turner and Adam Szczawinski, most plant poisonings occur when people, particularly children, put unknown vegetation into their mouths (1991). If you resist the urge to eat wild plant life before you’re confident that it’s safe, your chances of harming your body are almost nonexistent. This may seem like common sense, yet many adults struggle with this basic concept.

From Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging, with Easy Identification of 60 Edible Plants and 67 Recipes by Sergei Boutenko, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2013 by Sergei Boutenko. Reprinted by permission of publisher. Buy this book from our store: Wild Edibles.


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