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A Beginner's Guide to Foraging for Food

by David DeFranza May 6, 2009
David DeFranza digs into the basics of how to find food that is right under our noses.

Foraging, or searching for food, is one of the oldest of human activities. Though we have found more complex ways to assemble a meal, foraging remains relevant today for anyone interested in cheap, locally-sourced, food.

Warning: Foraging Can Be Dangerous

You should not eat any plant, nut, or mushroom you find while foraging unless you are 100% certain of the item’s identification. It’s a good idea to compare your specimen to all similar plants, especially toxic varieties, as well. With that said, foraging can be a perfectly safe and enjoyable activity if you take the time to learn the basics.

Get to Know Your Flora

The first step to foraging is also one of its greatest benefits: You must develop an intimate knowledge of your local flora. Picking up a field guide specific to your area, like one of the Peterson Field Guide series, is a good place to begin. Study what edible plants grow naturally in your area and during what seasons. Once you know what’s out there, you can begin studying the unique characteristics of each plant so you will be able to identify them in the field.

This is not as easy at it may seem. It’s a good idea to seek assistance from someone with experience. Getting started with a mentor is the fastest, safest, way to begin foraging.

Once you’ve done some research, it’s time to search for food.

Head Into the Field

Depending on the season and where you are looking, there is a wide range of edible plants waiting to be discovered. One important thing to remember is that many edible and medicinal plants taste bitter or otherwise unappealing and are only meant to be eaten in emergency and survival situations. Instead of heading out in search of anything and everything you have studied in your field guide, pick one or two things you really want to find.

When looking for plants, remember to stay away from places that are frequently sprayed with pesticides, like railroad tracks and roads, and always wash what you find before eating. When you find something, don’t be greedy: Leave some behind for the animals, birds, and other foragers.

Head Into the Neighborhood

Foraging is not limited to wild and rural areas. Many urban neighborhoods have fruit, nuts, and other edibles literally waiting to be plucked by pedestrians. Fallen Fruit is an organization that advocates planting an edible urban landscape. They also maintain maps of “public fruit,” or trees whose branches extend off of public property to overhang sidewalks, parks, and other public areas. The fruit growing on these branches can be harvested by anyone so its just a matter of finding the trees.

Find out more about urban foraging and the Fallen Fruit project in this video.

Further Reading

Foraging and plant identification is an art that takes years to master. For a more thorough introduction, try When Technology Fails, Revised and Expanded, by Matthew Stein . Some other classic books about foraging and plant identification include Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, by Steve Brill, and The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, by Samual Thayer.

A world of free, local, food is waiting just outside your doors, so don’t wait: Reap the harvest today.

Community Connection

Interested in other ways you can be doing things DIY? Check out our Life interview with Matthew Stein to learn more about preparedness.

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