Finding and gathering wild and natural foods is called foraging. I remember watching the news about 30 years ago and it was about food shortages in Russia. It showed an old Russian woman picking dandelions to depict how hungry the people were, and I remember feeling great sympathy for her. Instead, I should have been in awe of her knowledge. Fast forward 30 years and here I am eating ‘weeds’ in my salad, not because of food shortages, but because of the nutrition they provide. Our ancestors in the UK found all their food through foraging up until a couple of thousand years ago, but now most of that knowledge and skill is lost.
We have supermarkets now where I can easily find foods to supply enough nutrition and so you may be wondering why I would bother foraging. I did start foraging about 5 years ago because I wanted to keep my food budget low (apples and blackberries), but since studying the plants that grow in my local area, I have become more aware of the medicinal qualities and how they can improve my health.
Foraging has added taste and diversity to my diet for no cost, has made me more mindful of what is around me, brought me closer to nature, and increased my nutrition. I find it hard to understand why more people do not forage, especially easily identifiable items like apples which are in abundance in my area. I can understand the fear of being poisoned and realise that some people do not know what is edible or that there is a free pantry that we can access out there. As a society we have also got used to our fruit and vegetables being washed and perfect. However, a lot of food we buy has been fertilised using chemicals, or additives have been used to increase the shelf life. I believe that it is these chemicals that contribute to disease and allergies.
I am lucky that I live on the edge of the countryside but many wild foods can still be found in cities and urban areas. I forage for cherries on the edge of a pedestrian shopping complex. Many plants that you can eat can also be found in the garden. The woods in the picture below are actually on the edge of a built up, urban area.
Is foraging lawful?
Information can be found about the legalities of foraging in the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) but in the UK it is legal to pick most plants for your own use if you have the land owner’s permission, or if you are foraging on common ground. There are some exceptions for rare plants and rules about uprooting plants. It is illegal to sell anything you have foraged, included things like jams that you have made from foraged fruit, unless you have the landowner’s permission.
Is foraging safe?
The main rule when foraging is that you should never eat anything that you are not 100% sure is safe. People think that mushrooms are a risk to forage but there are also many plants out there that can make you very ill and even kill you. Some of them are look a likes of things that you can consume, and so that is why it is really important that you do not touch or ingest anything that you are not sure about (some plants can cause burns and blisters through coming into contact with the skin ).
How do I start learning about foraging?
I started by foraging things that I could easily identify as I had foraged them as a child. These included things like blackberries, wild apples, pears, and elderflower. I did go on a foraging course which included mushrooms but found this overwhelming and came away more confused. They were trying to teach us too much in one go for my old brain and it was a group situation. I therefore started studying one plant a month. I started with what I found on my local walks and would take pictures and study them. I read plant identification books, watched YouTube videos made by professional foragers, and joined foraging groups on Facebook. I didn’t eat or pick anything for a while until I was certain of what I had found. I tested, tested and tested my knowledge again and again against reliable sources. Now that I have more knowledge I think that I would find a foraging course more useful, especially if it is in a small group or a one to one situation.
Which plants are the best to forage?
Every one will have their own favourites and what you can find depends on which part of the country you live. Besides the plants and flowers that I use in salads sometimes, the main things that I focus on are elderflowers for cordials, blackberries which provide me with omega 3 and vitamin C all winter, rosehips which provide me with a syrup to sweeten food, nettles that I use young leaves like spinach during the food gap in spring and the seeds later to add to bread and porridge, wild garlic that adds flavour to a lot of food and I use for pesto, apples and pears that I bottle or store in newspaper in a dark place that I use for desserts and to add nutrition, wild cherries for snacking or to make pies, and elderberries for a syrup rich in vitamin C. I do forage other items as I see them but these few items mentioned above are my staples that make the most difference to my budget and my health.
Some dos and don’ts when foraging .
Only take what you need for your own consumption. I am careful and I only take a bit from each plant (the guideline is no more than 30%). Although in the season I do pick quite a bit of wild garlic, I pick it at different locations so that I am leaving plenty for wild life and others, but also leaving the parent plants strong enough to grow again next year. That way I will have a sustainable supply.
Only forage where there is plenty of the plants available. Remember that plants need the flowers and seeds to reproduce.
Avoid contaminated or polluted areas, or areas that are used for dog walking. I never pick by road sides, on the edge of fields where farmers may have used pesticides, or on old industrial sites.
Be aware of all the potential look a likes of whatever you are foraging and how to tell them apart.
Do not consume anything that you have doubts about.
Run the different tests to see if you have what you think you have. The first time I thought I had found a field mushroom I did the test and found out that I had found a look a like instead, and we would have been ill if we had just eaten it.
Make sure that what you have picked is in the right kind of habitat and there at the right time of year. Odds are that if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time that you do not have what you think that you do. Get to know the seasons and what is available.
Make sure that you know which parts of the plant are safe to eat, as sometimes it may be just the flowers and not the berries, or just the leaves and not the roots.
Use all your senses when foraging and do not just go by sight.
Keep a record of where you successfully foraged as the chances are that you will find it growing in the same place the following year.
Do not harvest any protected or endangered species.
Learn from those with trusted knowledge only
Be careful not to damage areas that you are foraging
Do not uproot plants on common ground or without the landowner’s permission.
I love foraging and have learned a lot, and encourage others to try, but I am not an expert and am not responsible for any foraging disasters that people reading this article may have. I would advise everyone to triple check anything foraged with reliable resources, learn from experts and definitely don’t rely on plant identifying apps that are often wrong. What are your favourite things to forage and how did you increase your knowledge and confidence?