Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Written by Ashlee Robbins
Foraging is an important part of my heritage. Growing up as a young girl in new england, I remember helping my grandfather load buckets into a canoe in the spring to visit islands in the river and collect fiddleheads. For those of you that have never heard of fiddleheads, they are the furled up stage of an ostrich fern just as they start to shoot through the ground in the spring. They are commonly found in the northeastern United States and Canada. Fiddleheads are only in this stage for a few weeks in the spring, so you have to know the right timing and location for your harvest. After picking buckets of these ferns the whole family would help in the arduous process of inspecting, cleaning and blanching our harvest. It was a long process, but at the end we would have fiddleheads to give away to friends, family and to freeze for eating later in the year. Why do people forage? Our ancestors survived by foraging various necessities off the land. Food might be the first thing that comes to mind, but foraging is also important for finding medicines, fuel, and building materials. Living in the modern word, foraging may not be a necessity for survival, but there are many benefits! Here is a short list of some of the benefits to foraging. Wild Edibles - Wild edibles are most common form of modern foraging. Common wild edibles include berries, mushrooms and edible weeds. Wild edibles are organic, full of nutrients and only cost your time to collect them! Medicine - Many plants around you have powerful healing properties! This is great for people who want to make their own alternative medicines or in case of a survival situation. For example, plantain weed is an incredibly common weed found on many people’s lawns that has antiseptic properties. Survival - If you are in a survival situation you may need to forage for more than food. Survival situations could call for finding for fuel, clothing, or building materials. Experienced survivalists can find everything they need out in the wild. Economics - Foraging, for edibles at least, gives you free food! As I described in the introduction, my family processed fiddleheads in order to have a supply of a seasonal vegetable throughout the year. Connecting with the environment - One of my favorite things about foraging is getting to know your surroundings. Get outside with your family and make powerful memories to last a lifetime! Things to know: Identification: Learn to identify your target species. It may be helpful to consult people who are experienced on foraging your specific target. Books can also be a great resource for learning identifying characteristics of your target. Morphology: What does your target look like? Learn the shapes and numbers of leaves for plants. Learn the stem and characteristics of mushrooms. Some species look similar to your target but are not edible. Know what they look like both in and out of season. Seeing a field of ferns in the summer let me know of a perfect place to harvest fiddleheads the next spring! Know companion plants and learn dangerous species to watch out for. If you are new to foraging, it might be good to start with some common edible weeds such as dandelion and wild onions! Sustainable foraging: Learn to forage in a way that allows you to go back for more year after year! Do not over harvest: Do not pick out a certain region so that plant will not return to that region, leave some plants behind for harvests in future years. Harvest only what you intend to use. Protect endangered species: Do not pick rare or protected wild edibles. This comes along with knowing your environment and what you would expect to find in your area. Usable plant parts: Do not harvest more of the plant than you will use. Again, using fiddleheads as an example, I only harvest the very tip of the plant, leaving the roots intact so that they can continue to grow. Safety: Understand which plants can harm you and which ones are safe. Know how to handle and process your harvest. Avoid toxic areas: it is best to avoid areas that are close to roadways and water sources that are polluted. Contaminates from roadways can be taken up by plants which may be harmful to consume. Know which parts of the plant are safe to consume. Get permission to forage. Foraging on public land may not be an issue, but landowners may be sensitive to finding other people on their land. There may be some hot spots for good foraging, and these spots are held in high regard just as much as someone’s favorite fishing hole!