Beginner Foraging

Stinging Nettle just emerging from the leftover leaf litter of autumn.
Be still my heart- this right here is my favorite wild edible plant. Stinging Nettle gets a bad rap but once you taste it you’ll never see it the same way again.

We’re just waking up to Spring here in north east Ohio and with that foraging season is upon us. A few of you have asked for this, so I figured I’d put together some tips for beginning foragers. Or maybe you don’t even know if you’re ready to start down this path and need some guidance to make that decision. Hopefully you find this beginners foraging guide helpful.

Things to keep in mind

First of all, foraging doesn’t need to be intimidating. You do not need to know every single plant and fungus to go out there and safely find something to eat. I think this idea that you have to be some kind of a professional or you’re going to poison yourself is silly.

Secondly, we are all foragers at heart. We descended from hunters and gatherers, and if they could do it without field guides and blogs, you’re going to do just fine. 

And lastly, nature is for everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never so much as walked through a park before. You have just as much right to get out there and experience it as the next person. You don’t need any special tools or gear. There is nothing to reasonably keep you from giving foraging a try. Worst case scenario you might get poison ivy- maybe do yourself a favor and make that the first plant you learn!

Chickweed doing its thing in my garden.
Chickweed, a common and easily identifiable spring plant. It is commonly used in pesto, I also found a good recipe for chickweed pie that I make every spring.

How to get started foraging

Now I’m going to go ahead and assume for the sake of keeping this as beginner friendly as possible that you have zero knowledge of wild plants and fungi. A good starting place is the internet. Just type in something like “spring foraging” or “edible Ohio plants” (or obviously whatever state you will be foraging in) and go from there.

Oyster mushrooms chilling on a branch.
If you aren’t feeling up to foraging for mushrooms like these oysters just yet, don’t worry. Start where you feel comfortable!

Go ahead and click on whatever looks interesting to you and look through the pictures. See if anything stands out or maybe looks familiar to you. Heck, even a dandelion is a good edible and an easy find! Start with something you feel like you can comfortably identify.

If you’re not sure what to choose pick something that has been said to be common in your area, or has at least one distinctive feature, and ideally something for which there are no toxic lookalikes. There’s no need to go balls to the wall here and commit to finding Morel Mushrooms, just begin with something you think is manageable.

An uprooted Canada thistle held gingerly in my hands.
Yes, even this prickly bastard is edible. Canada thistle is easy to recognize, and tends to be very plentiful once you’ve found a patch. The roots can be eaten raw or cooked and have a mildly sweet flavor similar to bean sprouts. Very young leaves can also be eaten since the spines are still soft.

By distinctive features I mean qualities that make it stand out from other plants- like the strong garlicky scent of garlic mustard. Or a unique leaf shape like dandelion. Or a soft texture like burdock. Or an unusual color like a violet. Or an interesting texture like amber jelly fungus. You catch my drift? Pick something that has a quality that stands out to you.

Oh you know, just a hand full of spring onions destined for some chicken soup.
As a kid I used to snack on spring onions while playing in the woods. At some point I transplanted a few closer to my house where I now have a ton of them.

Once you choose a plant or mushroom learn more about it. Type it into your search bar and get familiar with where it likes to grow, when it can be found, if there are any lookalikes, etc. You’ll be surprised how quickly some knowledge will embolden you- after all, fear usually stems from a lack of understanding something.

Don’t forget that once you’re actually out there in the field you have much more to work with than just visuals. You have all of your other senses to help you determine if you have found your target. And as you forage remember to keep those senses engaged- feel the leaves, rub them between your fingers- is it waxy, fuzzy, rough? Does it tear easily or is it fibrous? Is the smell peppery, sweet, nutty? Even take a nibble and spit it out to experience the flavor. Be really present in your time spent foraging and you will learn more readily.

Holding a small Garlic Mustard plant which I freshly uprooted.
Garlic Mustard is another early spring plant that is simple to identify. From the leaf shape, to the stem color (purplish), to the garlicky odor (which is more pronounced in the roots).

Where to forage

Another issue people bump into is wondering where they can forage. There are a few answers to that, some straight forward, some based more on your personal take on the law. You do you boo.

Your own yard can be a great place to start so long as it is untreated. In my yard I have found dandelions, plantain, purple violets, bitter cress, wood sorrel, and yarrow- all of which can be added to a salad.

A generous handful of lush green Bitter Cress just waiting to end up in pesto.
If you’ve tried watercress this bitter cress is similar in flavor and easier to come by. It likes disturbed soil and can be found in garden beds or untreated lawns. While young it is sweet and peppery, as it ages it becomes more bitter.

If you do not have a yard or woods ask friends or family if you can poke around in theirs. Most people don’t mind and may even encourage it if you share some of what you find.

Now as for parks, that’s up to you. My only personal rule about parks is I don’t know who else forages there, so I do not take things like trout lilies or ramps because taking more than 5% of their population per season is enough to seriously imperil them.

A small patch of ramps which will be left to grow.
Probably one of the most controversial spring edibles. Ramps take 5-7 years to mature and do not go to seed or create new bulbs until then. As a result they spread very very slowly, and taking more than 5% of a stand can be enough to cause it to start shrinking. If you do not have access to a private patch to ensure it isn’t being over harvested it is okay to take a single leaf from the plant instead of harvesting the entire thing. Still in a public area it is best to leave them be as they are already subject to greedy foragers who would sooner make a buck than protect them.

Legally speaking you’re kind of on your own, weigh the risks and morality, and make your own choice. If you go for it maybe don’t be whistling as you frolic around with a basket full of pheasant back mushrooms.
Urban foraging has become more popular but I would caution people against that. You don’t always know if the area has been sprayed or what might have been dumped in that old abandoned lot. It can still be a great opportunity to brush up on your identification though.

What to do with your finds

So you learned some things, went out there on the hunt, actually found what you were looking for, and now you’re like um what do I do with this?

A foraged mix of ramps, spring onions, garlic mustard, bitter dock, dandelion, chickweed, bitter cress, Canada thistle, and trout lily- soon to be pesto!
A foraged mix of ramps, spring onions, garlic mustard, bitter dock, dandelion, chickweed, bitter cress, Canada thistle, and trout lily- soon to be pesto! Just add olive oil, and nuts and cheese of your liking. I also like a squeeze of lime.

Sometimes in our excitement it’s easy to over estimate how much of something we will practically use or how much we will like whatever this new thing is. If you end up going ham and picking a sack full of garlic mustard (go for it, it’s an invasive plant!) you’ll have lots of opportunities to try different recipes and preservation methods.

Pesto complete and ready to go into jars.
Once pulverized you can add more olive oil to change the consistency. Or more nuts, cheese, or salt and pepper, and lime to adjust the flavor. Go easy on the bitter dock and dandelion unless you like bitter flavors.

Again, use your trusty friend the internet to dig up some recipes and preservation methods (forager chef) and (Practiacl Self Reliance) have some interesting recipes. Most greens can be made into pesto and excess can be frozen in jars. Greens can also be dehydrated for later use. Mushrooms can be sauteed and vacuum sealed for the freezer.

My point is, if you do pick more than you can reasonably use don’t let it go to waste. Share with a friend, preserve it somehow, or befriend some chickens. Part of learning about what nature has to offer is then respecting it and not wasting what you have taken.

Crispy breaded mushrooms and plants on a plate.
That very first picture at the top? Here it is all fried up into some kind of heavenly combination of lightly breaded crispy goodness.

I love it, now what?

You’re hooked and there’s no going back you say? Great! There are countless resources and people who will happily help and encourage you on your foraging journey. Instagram actually has a fantastic community of foragers, mushroom hunters, and chefs who all love working with wild ingredients. A few hashtags to follow are #wildfoodlove #foragedfood #wildfermentation

As you become more knowledgeable you can expand into really interesting ferments, medicinal uses, dyes, crafting materials, the list goes on and on. Just remember knowledge is power, but don’t get cocky. Learn as you go, respect nature, and when you can always teach others who are looking to learn.

Garlic Mustard growing in the leaves.
Oh, you’re still here. What are you doing? Why aren’t you out foraging? Go find some wild food and make something tasty! Doesn’t this Garlic Mustard look enticing?