18 Simple Rules When Foraging For Wild Foods (Video)

Note: This article may contain commentary or the author's opinion.

Nature surrounds every single one of us and in nature we can find wild foods. Foraging wild foods can not only be a fun afternoon hiking and gardening at the same time but it can be a sustainable way to supplement your current grocery bill. Just follow these 10 simple rules to make your foraging experience a profitable, safe, and fun one.

  1. Find a local mentor that knows the local fauna. Nothing boosts our confidence about what’s safe to eat and not in the wilderness then having an experienced guide to lead us along the way.
  2. Bring along a good book that can help show you your local wild edibles. While this is not a good substitute for a mentor, it can be a close second and a great reference when you go out on your own after working with a mentor. If you can’t find a suitable book and you have a cell phone with a data plan you can find a free app that will help you identify plants on your journey. PlantNet is the number one pick for a totally free plant identification application and is based on citizen science.
  3. Be aware of the dangerous species in your area and avoid them. This is where having a mentor comes in very handy.
  4. Don’t rely on common names when referring to plants. Plants have common names and Latin names. The Latin names are diverse and aren’t confusing around the world, whereas common names can describe multiple different kinds of plants. A Latin name for a plant is like its own personal ID number.
  5. Make sure to use all of your senses when identifying a plant. Don’t just look at the plant and try to identify it. Some plants can only be determined safe if they smell a certain way or behave a certain way when touched. There are certain alliums that can only be determined from poisonous plants by their smell. In most cases a poisonous plant will smell bad. This is not a hard and fast rule.
  6. Make sure you learn the habitat of the plants you’re looking for. You won’t find cattails on a high slope, and you won’t find ramps inside of a swamp.
  7. Learn the plants that are companions to the species you’re looking for. Yellow dock is commonly found with pokeweed for example.
  8. Make sure to look for a wild edible plants throughout the seasons as they look different depending on if it is spring, summer, or fall. For example, white snakeroot can look like wood nettle until it blooms in July. Make a notation of where poisonous plants are so that you don’t forage them.
  9. Learn which parts of wild edible plants are safe to use. Elderberries are safe to eat if they have been properly prepared, but the bark, stem, and roots are considered poisonous. Additionally, some plants are only edible at certain times of the year, for example stinging nettle shouldn’t be used after it has gone to seed.
  10. Keep forging journals and maps. These are important for developing of sense of what is available and where in your area. When combined with a calendar noting when flowering or fruiting, it will give you a good indicator of when you can harvest.
  11. Don’t over harvest wild edibles. A general rule of thumb is to take only up to 1/3 of the wild edibles if in a life-threatening situation. When just trying to supplement your grocery bill taking 10% is much more sustainable. Don’t take more than you will actually use.
  12. Avoid foraging rare or protected wild plants. Some states require permits to harvest ginseng or goldenseal because they are rare and protected.
  13. Only collect the part of the plant you intend to use. If you intend to make a powder from sassafras leaves, there is no need to uproot the entire sapling. Just take what you need and leave the rest for the plant to continue to thrive. A good rule of thumb is to harvest no more than 25% of a whole plant.
  14. Consider cultivating wild edible plants in your garden. Many wild plants that are edible are easy to transplant and propagate like ramps. Research the growing conditions of rare plants in your area and grow them yourself.
  15. Avoid harvesting from toxic areas. Never forage for wild edibles near a busy highway. Most plants will absorb lead and other heavy metals.
  16. When foraging wild water plants make sure you know the water source. Eating plants that have been grown in contaminated water is almost the same as drinking contaminated water. Chemical and/or heavy metal pollution cannot be removed by cooking.
  17. Only forage from plants which appear healthy.
  18. Make sure to get permission to forage as not doing so could result in some unpleasant consequences legally.


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