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Dewayne Allday

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An Explication on the Art of Foraging

This is a guest post from one of our awesome community members, Dewayne Allday, author and creator of The Dewberry Blog .Thank you Dewayne!

An Explication on the Art of Foraging

If you ask people what foraging is, many will say that they do not know.  Others will say that foraging is what wild animals do in order to survive by eating various grasses and plant materials while they walk through the wilderness.  Matter of fact, there are still official dictionaries that define it as such.


When I first started foraging around 25 years ago, it was pre-internet age and I had never heard the word “forage”, but that didn’t stop me.

My first foraging guide was an Army Survival Manual which had a color section towards the back on edible wild plants.  To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I was drawn towards edible wild plants, but I was.

I still remember flipping through those color images and being mesmerized by the concept of finding free food that didn’t require planting in a garden, going to the grocery store or digging in that old rusty deep freezer on the back porch.  Maybe it was a form of rebellion.

Maybe it was a stitch of anarchy.

Maybe it was something hidden deep in my DNA left over from thousands of years of my ancestors.  Whatever the reason, I started foraging plants in the wild before I even knew the word “foraging” was and I have never regretted it and you won’t either.

There are four basic paths to take when learning to forage wild plants; the fast path, the slow path, the smart path and the dumb path.  You can be on two paths at the same time, but you never want to be on the dumb path because that’s the path where you eat something that kills you or makes you feel so bad that you wish you were dead.


The Fast and Smart Path

The fastest path you can get on to learn which plants are edible and how to spot them in the field is to do some research and find an experienced forager within driving distance who takes students on plant walks.  There is simply no quicker and safer way to learn wild plants and what to safely forage.  I highly recommend this path to everyone as it’s the fastest and safest path.  However for the very patient and careful student, there is another, yet slower, way.

The Slow and Smart Path

This is the path I began on, but drifted off of in recent years.

This path consists of many hours of self study by of obtaining multiple reference books on edible wild plants, studying on your own, and foraging alone in the field.

For most of my life, this was the case; foraging alone.

The internet did not exist during my early foraging career, but now that we’ve entered the information age (what I sometimes call the misinformation age) the internet has been opened up to us as a research tool, although research on the internet comes with its own dangers.

The reason I say that is because published books are the most credible sources, but even books come with errors.  The main dangers with books to the inexperienced forager are the lack of good identifying pictures, not the content of the subject matter.

The slow yet smart path means that you study your plants and take great care looking at multiple pictures from multiple references and insure to yourself there are no toxic look a likes concerning the plant in question.

You study your books and then you study your plant in the field.  You make absolutely positive that you have the correct plant before eating it and you only prepare it the way your reference books describe.

In other words, if the book says cook it, then you cook it.  If the book says boil and change out the water twice, then you boil and change out the water twice.

The Slow and Dumb Path and the Fast and Dumb Path

These two paths all lead to the same destinations;  sickness, permanent internal organ damage or death.  These paths are taken most often by people with risky personalities or people who just aren’t very smart.

Even  very intelligent people with risk taking personalities need to be aware of this weakness.

They are the ones that pick up on plants quickly, but possibly are impatient and gamble that they have the right plant even though they haven’t really checked all of their references.  These people think a little knowledge goes a long way and in their excitement they eat something without the proper knowledge and verification.

They may be out in a field and see a plant that resembles something they have been reading and studying about, so they decide to eat it.

They very well may safely do this numerous times without getting ill, but it’s like playing Russian Roulette.

Foraging Wild Plants vs. Foraging Wild Mushrooms

I almost feel guilty about mentioning the dangers of foraging, but I wouldn’t be doing you justice if I didn’t.

I can assure you that foraging is worth the risk, and that risk in the grand scheme of things if you know your plants, is extremely small to virtually non-existent.

That said, there are very few plants  in the United States that will kill you.  Learning the deadly ones will quickly reduce your risk.  Even if you do that, never gamble on a plant you do not know.

Mushrooms on the other hand are much harder to learn and there are many more mushrooms that will either kill you and permanently harm you than edible wild plants.

With wild mushrooms, it’s much better to learn the choice mushrooms and know exactly how to distinguish any toxic or poisonous look-a-likes.

For example, chanterelle’s are a very choice edible mushroom and very easy to distinguish from a poisonous look-a-like called Jack-o-Lanterns.  Also the common misused psilocybin mushroom somewhat resembles the deadly galerina mushroom which will kill you dead.

To the experienced mushroom forager, it’s very easy to tell the difference, but to someone not familiar and not paying attention, accidents can happen.

The Universal Edibility Test

This was a test mentioned in my old Army Survival Manual.  The information has also been copied in many other foraging books and many websites over the years.

Ignore it because there is no need to risk it.

Hemlock for example will pass the test and then kill you dead.  It is said that a piece of hemlock leaf the size of your fingernail could kill you.

There were even those who ate the deadly toxic root who were said to say that it had a good taste before dying.

There are other plants that cause gastric distress and others that can raise blisters.

Even eating a sample and waiting 24 hours isn’t good enough for some plants or mushrooms because the toxic or deadly effects may not show up for days.

I do not recommend the Universal Edibility Test for these reasons and those promoting the test are wrong.  There are simply no shortcuts in foraging wild plants.  Knowledge is key.

Other Miscellaneous Things to Watch out For

I just happened to be out surveying today.  I

t’s not uncommon for me to see something edible, pick it and ask whoever is with me if they’d like to try it.  Usually people just look at me funny and abstain, but occasionally there are the risk takers who will try anything, and then there are the ones who are way more trusting than they should be.

I stepped into the woods and saw a nice looking smilax tip which I broke off and offered to my friend.  He partook in the trail nibble and enjoyed it.

There we were surveying an area that had been cleared and there were scattered smilax shoots everywhere.  I noticed there were quite a few smilax (bull brier) vines growing, but the tips looked sickly as they were limping over and shrunken as if dehydrated.

I asked myself what could have caused it and then I suspected herbicide and I was right.

It was only a couple of hours later the yard man came out with a sprayer hitting every weed he could find.  Fortunately the smilax tip I had acquired for my friend came out of the woods and was not affected in the spraying area.

This is just one hazard you must watch out for.

Pollution is another problem whether it’s polluted water, earth or foraging near major highways.

It’s not just the potential of government sprayed herbicides on public right-of-ways, but also vehicle exhaust which can build up over time on the plants near the roads; the more the traffic, the more the pollution.

Other things to look out for are snakes, but if you’re already an avid outdoorsman, you already knew that.  Wear snake chaps when walking in tall grass, wear a bell in bear country and store your plants in breathable bags and not plastic if possible.

Yet another thing to look out for, particularly spring through summer, is ticks.

Consider wearing wearing gear that makes it harder to pick up these nasty critters and also find a good bug repellent with Deet or some other natural and safer spray that is as effective.

Don’t underestimate ticks. 

I did for years think I was pretty much immune to such things as Lyme’s disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, being bitten by hundreds of times since childhood, but that luck ran out last summer when I contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and it’s now May and I’m still recovering, yet I feel very lucky compared to others who suffered permanent damage or even death from the disease.

The last thing I can think of is that if you already have sensitivity to foods (allergic reactions), then anytime trying a new food, eat small portions at first to make sure it is agreeable to you.

Wild plants open a new and vast array of flavors that were previously unknown to your senses, so if you’re a food lover, this is something that you will truly enjoy.

That said, if you’re already allergic to corn, peanuts, almonds, coconut or shellfish, you might want to take extra precautions when trying any new food, either tame or wild.

Know the Plants and the Time of Year

I really don’t know what better tips to give than the ones I have already.

Some would describe different types of plants that are edible and that’s fine, but to me, the best tips are a guide to put you in the right direction for success.

It would take a book to give you tips for all the wild plants but the truth is, there just aren’t any books out there that beat experience, hours in the field and hours in the kitchen.

For example, many books will tell you that smilax (bull briar/catbrier) tips are edible but only to be considered a trail nibble.

However, if you know the right time of year and where to look, you can collect them in bulk and in a matter of an hour of foraging have enough collected for days or even a week’s worth of food.  That’s not what I consider a trail nibble.

I consider a trail nibble something that you might run across a bite one to three times while hiking on a trail.

Another point is you need to learn what time of year the plant is in its prime for your location.

Two weeks too early and food will be wasted and a few weeks too late and it may be too hard, bitter and otherwise unpalatable.

Experience is your best friend when it comes to foraging and just reading books is simply not enough, although it’s plenty when just starting out.

If foraging on your own without an expert I’d recommend one year to three years of solid study before getting too deep into eating wild plants.

I must admit I broke that rule as a teenager, but I was one of those lucky risk takers and now that I’m older I have the story to tell about all the crazy things I did as a young man that should have killed me, yet I survived.

You will survive too, and good luck and many happy years of foraging to you.