Perusing the aisles of the grocery store, it’s easy to disconnect from where our food comes from, and forget the processes that bring it to our plate.
Throughout history, 30,000 different plants have been used by humans for food and medicine, but now, only three plants – maize, rice, and wheat – account for half of all calories we consume. In recent decades, Western countries have had a renewed interest in foraging – the act of collecting food resources from the wild – although many non-Western cultures have engaged in the practice for centuries. Accomplished chefs too are going back to the basics and cooking with foraged materials.
Instead of picking packaged groceries off the shelf, foraging implores us to consider the sources of our food as we slow down and look at our local ecosystems and what they can yield to us. As grocery prices rise, why not turn to our own yards and neighborhoods for sustenance?
The Roots of Foraging
The practice of foraging harkens back to our roots as hunter-gatherers. While it’s become more popular in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – while consumers were apprehensive to enter public spaces and sought to become more self-reliant – the practice has deep roots in Black and Native cultures.
But, the history of foraging is fraught. Native tribes that subsisted on foraged foods were forced from their lands by white settlers; the territory of the Powhatan tribe, for one, was stolen in the 17th century by English colonists settling in what is now Virginia. Forcing Indigenous people to live on reservations also took away their ability to forage for food as they had before. Enslaved Black people in the United States also foraged for food to survive, but Southern states reversed laws permitting public access to unfenced lands during Reconstruction, reports the Sierra Club, which kept newly-freed slaves from providing for themselves. Many cities still uphold anti-foraging laws, especially in places with low-income and majority Black and POC neighborhoods; New York City, for example, prohibits “destruction or abuse” of plants in city parks.
Activists and experts within the foraging community, however, are advocating for greater acceptance of the practice. Modern forager like Alexis Nikole Nelson (@blackforager on Instagram), Lady Danni Morinich, and “Wildman” Steve Brill share their expertise and tips for living off the land with their followers, and teach about the cultural and historic importance of the practice.
When foraging for food in the wild (where it doesn’t come with nutrition labels), knowing what’s safe to eat is imperative. Before heading out on your first excursion, start by researching both edible and poisonous foods in your area, including lookalikes that are easily misidentified. Read up with books like The Forager Handbook by Miles Irving, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, or regional- and species-specific guidebooks and blogs by experts. Better yet, join a club, learn from someone in your community that knows the area and species well, or take an online or in-person course with a naturalist, foraging expert, or group.
However you educate yourself, be 100% certain of your identification before eating anything, and always carry a guidebook or other information on your escapades. It’s best to eat a small amount of something before digging into a whole meal, but if you have any uncertainty, leave it be.
Consider also whether your foraging location might be contaminated. Avoid areas where dogs tend to relieve themselves (public sidewalks, popular hiking trails, etc.), cultivated lawns or other areas treated with pesticides, busy roads where plants are exposed to exhaust or litter, and anywhere else that might be subject to environmental contamination (alongside rivers downstream from factories, for one).
Beyond personal safety, always protect the land and ecosystems you are entering. Keep LNT (leave no trace) principals in mind: will getting to the plant impact the protected land? Will these resources to be able to replenish themselves? Are these endangered species, or a food source for threatened wildlife? Taking no more than 5% of what is available is a good rule of thumb when foraging.
Plants and Flowers
Even in your own backyard, you might find a wealth of edible items you’d never thought of as more than weeds.
In late March, wild garlic (also called ramsons) is abundant. Crush the young leaves in your hard to identify its iconic garlicky smell, then use to make pesto or other recipes that call for traditional garlic cloves. Harvesting dandelions – which are invasive in the United States – is actually beneficial to the ecosystem. Eat the young leaves and flowers raw in salads, or cook the less-tender leaves in a stir fry. In the late spring, look out for lamb’s quarters (or “wild spinach), which is found in all 50 U.S. states and can replace plastic containers of store-bought greens for cooking.
In the early spring, harvest elderflower blossoms, and later, their black and blue berries for a homemade cordial or jam. Mint can be found in lots of places, but look especially in shady areas along the borders of woodland or alongside bodies of water. Brew the leaves in a tea to help with digestion, stir in to cocktails, or use to add some brightness to a summer pasta recipe.
Identifiable by its small, star-shaped white flowers, chickweed grows practically all year round, but is best in the early spring and mid-fall. The whole plant (expect the roots) is edible, and perfect for soups, salads, and sandwiches. Another common backyard resident is the plantain weed. The low-lying leaves – from which rise a long spike adorned with small flowers – are slightly bitter, which can be solved by blanching. Plantain has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties as well, and can be applied to scrapes and bug bites for some relief.
Check out your garden for amaranth (or pigweed), which was once a part of the Aztec diet. The seeds can be used to make gluten-free amaranth flour, but the leaves are easier for a beginner to forage. The plants can grow to over six feet tall, and the smaller leaves are tender and packed with nutrients.
Hit the trail to find nettles (also called “stinging” nettles for their painful prick). Use gloves to collect the plants in the early spring when they are young with pale green tops and the plant is less than a foot tall, before they get too tough or grow flowers. Eat them just like spinach: sauté for a side, or add to a pasta dish or soup. Fiddleheads are a common goal for foragers as well. These early-spring, coiled fern tops are tender with a mild flavor, and are very expensive in grocery stores. They only emerge for a short period in the mid- to late spring or early summer, depending on location. Only pick fiddleheads from ostrich ferns when they’re still tightly coiled. Fiddleheads are considered toxic when uncooked, so blanch the coils before eating by putting them in boiling water for a few minutes, then transferring to an ice bath, which will keep them a little crisp.
While deaths from toxic mushrooms are rare – only about three per year – incorrect identification could easily result in sickness, so it’s important to be extremely careful and knowledgeable before collecting. Varieties vary widely by region, so in addition to courses and community knowledge, consult a region-specific guidebook for instruction. Apps like iNaturalist are also helpful and crowdsource information from other users. Rather than pull up a mushroom by the roots, cut it from the base with a sharp knife so it can regrow, then remove the dirt with a small brush before placing in a basket to carry home.
Boletes are relatively common, and are identifiable by their spongy, gill-less undersides. Know how to identify edible varieties before picking, but automatically ignore those growing on wood or displaying a red hue. Chicken of the woods (also known as maitake) is easy for beginners to identify with its iconic yellowish-orange color. The caps grow on trees or wood, arranged in tiers like a shelf, and are loved for their meaty texture. Advanced foragers might look for fuzzy lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms. Morels too are a prized find, costing upwards of $30 per pound at the grocery store. They’re distinctive for their wrinkly skin and conical shape, and are found on the edge of woodlands in the spring, especially on south-facing slopes.
While many mushrooms can be eaten raw, it’s best to cook them. Sauté in butter and garlic, or add to your favorite mushroom dishes.
Nuts and Berries
From late spring to early fall, berries are abundant: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants, cranberries, lingonberries, and cloudberries, to name a few. Many berries are pretty distinctive, but make sure you identify them thoroughly, as there are lookalikes abound. Rosehips – the small red or orange fruits growing on some rose plants – are easy to identify, but lesser known. Don’t miss the chance to brew fresh rosehip tea or jam!
Nuts are also relatively easy to find and identify. Pecans, hazelnuts, black walnuts, and beechnuts are all found in the US. Pine nuts also hide inside the pinecones of the pinyon pine, and while American chestnuts are less common after the blight of the early 20th century, chestnuts fall from their clusters in the autumn months. Gather up the fallen nuts and remove them from their burs to make Thanksgiving stuffing, pesto, or to roast and eat them on their own (horse chestnuts, however, are poisonous, so be sure to identify correctly). Acorns too are edible and surprisingly versatile; just check out Alexis Nikole Nelson’s acorn bacon to see their many uses.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.
Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.