You’re in the backcountry and things go south. Suddenly, you need to forage to survive. If you’re relying on a pocket guide to distinguish edible plants from toxic flora, you’re screwed. Sorry.
It’s easy to identify the plants we can stomach, but it takes practice. Before trekking into the wilderness you have to become “ecosystem literate,” says Dina Falconi, a clinical herbalist and author of Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook.
“You need skills before you get lost, but people want fast, quick, simple rules. The truth is, foraging is super high risk, however, it’s really accessible and easy to learn.”
You can’t learn to forage on-the-fly, so it’s a good thing you’re sitting at your computer and not shitting your pants in the forest right now. Follow Falconi’s four tips to learn how to forage and, as a result, get more connected with nature and maybe survive a Bear Grylls scenario.
Use Your Eyes
The first step to becoming an expert forager is opening your eyes to the range of plants in that area. Without setting a mileage goal or timeline, allow yourself the freedom to wander and watch. “To develop your skill of observation, spend time looking at the plant kingdom … your ability to distinguish plants will be based on this skill. How do you differentiate one plant from another? Even if you can’t name them, that’s foraging. Spending that slow time Americans don’t want to do,” Falconi says.
She suggests leaving your grown-up self at basecamp and bringing a child-like wonderment to observation. Marvel in the architectural detail of each plant — the flowers, leaves, color, leaf arrangement, ridges, spikes, hairs, shape, and height.
If it helps, pretend you’re a plant detective. Once you upgrade to the next steps in mastering foraging, the distinct visual characteristics of each plant will act as your “clues” by which you can match the plant to its edible (or inedible) variety.
Do this as much as possible and, if possible, across seasons. This will allow you to understand the lifecycle of plants, as they can look different, flower, grow, and shrink over time. Your pocket field guide will only depict the plant at the peak of its edibility, but you might get lost during the other 11 months of the year.
Consult a Foraging Expert
The quickest way to learn how to forage is by going out with an expert. Google local pros or find a foraging expedition in your area and join in after you’ve done preliminary observation work.
Falconi says an expert can fast-track your arsenal of five to 10 edibles that otherwise could take a year to identify (safely) alone. The expert will also teach you how to identify plants based on your other senses, like smell and touch. “Plant by plant, you’ll start to differentiate and see them distinctly.”
Reinforce Your Clues with Books and Sketches
Once you get a gold star from your foraging expert or become comfortable with distinguishing plant characteristics, grab a book that will verify your observations and teach you which part of the plant to eat and how it needs to be prepared.
Falconi spent 30 years creating Foraging & Feasting, the ultimate foraging manual and cookbook, which should give you context to how extensive a guide should be.
She suggests making your own sketches during observation hikes, bringing back the drawings, and confirming with other books and online resources. Falconi brought illustrator Wendy Hollender along during the creation of her book. You can also follow foraging Instagrams, join chat groups, and practice, practice, practice.
Confirm the Identification
The last step to foraging is eating. Taste is the very last identifying clue and the riskiest. Get down five to 15 edible plants that you can easily match with physical characteristics, then venture into the big bad wild knowing you could easily build your own lunch from the ground-up if you needed. Bring a cloth sack and collect as you go. You could add things like wild raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, chickweed, and mints to your dinner.
“If you put in the time to learn foraging, you’ll get a big return,” Falconi says. “It’s not hard; children can do this, but it takes time.”
Avoiding Dangerous Situations
If you are diligently connecting the architectural clues of a plant, you should never run into eating something that is toxic (or worse, deadly). “I’ve had people freak themselves out when it’s totally safe,” Falconi says, adding that she has never ingested a deadly plant.
Falconi suggests staying away from mushrooms. “There are few plants that will kill us,” Falconi says. “In the Northeast, there are maybe five to six species. The rest might make you sick, but that’s it. With mushrooms, however, a high percentage can kill you or make you extremely sick. The compounds in the fungal realm are much more toxic.”
Mushrooms are also much more difficult to key out. “There aren’t many lookalikes with plants, but with wild mushrooms, you have ones that look a lot like the ones that are edible.”
Be prepared for a worst-case scenario: make yourself throw up and down some charcoal pills.