Many people are interested in learning about edible wild plants, and a natural extension of this is to explore what may be growing close to home. One of the best ways to begin foraging in your backyard is to find an herbalist or forager who offers local plant walks. Having in-person instruction can be incredibly valuable — you'll be able to take pictures and notes as you go and build up a personal field guide over the course of several walks.
That may not be possible for everyone, but don’t worry; you can still teach yourself little by little with a good field guide and some input from your local county extension office. Here’s how.
1. Study with a local field guide.
To get started, you need to pick up a field guide or foraging handbook for your area. Spend some time getting to know your field guide. Learn how it’s organized and what steps to take to identify an unfamiliar plant.
Choose three plants in the guide that grow well in your area and read up on them. Study the leaf shape and growing habits of the plants, what time of year they can be found, and what habitat they like. Some of the most distinct and useful plants that grow widely are chickweed, dandelion, wild grape, cattails and oak trees.
2. Take note of harmful plants.
After you've selected a few possible candidates, it’s time to venture outside. But first, check to see if there are plants like poison ivy, poison sumac or nettles that grow in your area. Although nettle is a nutritious and useful plant, it packs an unpleasant sting if harvested incorrectly. Encountering one of these plants when you don't expect it can leave you with an unwelcome rash and would put a damper on your early foraging adventures.
3. Identify your foraged finds.
Once you're clear about any potentially unfriendly plants, take your field guide along and investigate what’s growing in your backyard. If you find one of the plants you were interested in, great! Be sure to read through the description of the plant several times and compare the pictures in the field guide to make sure you've made a correct identification. Note any poisonous lookalikes that may be mentioned in your field guide, and make sure you read and compare those descriptions as well. It’s always a good idea to identify the plant in two separate field guides.
To be extra sure about a plant when you are first learning, you should get a second opinion. Once you have a few candidates you believe you've identified correctly, make a call to your local county extension service to arrange a time to stop by with samples or to send in pictures of your plants for some expert advice. County extension offices are part of the university system and provide many great resources for gardeners and plant enthusiasts. In addition to regular staff, they also have volunteers available who have completed their Master Gardener programs, so someone is always available to help with plant-related questions.
4. Remember: Safety first!
It’s important to note that there is one thing you should absolutely NOT do when you're learning to forage. Never taste or consume a plant that you haven't identified! There are many myths that surround foraging, such as:
- You can identify edible plants because they taste good, while poisonous plants taste bad.
- It’s safe to eat what animals eat.
- It’s OK to perform “edibility tests” on plants that you are unsure about.
Unfortunately, these myths are dangerous. Some poisonous plants taste just fine, and some edible plants don’t taste all that great! Not everyone likes kohlrabi or Brussels sprouts, after all. Plus, even experienced foragers can make mistakes when identifying plants. Wild carrot and water hemlock, or goldenrod and ragweed are examples. Animals have also been known to make mistakes and eat poisonous plants accidentally — just ask anyone with pets or livestock.
Foraging safely also means you should avoid harvesting in areas that are sprayed with herbicides and pesticides; avoid trespassing; and stay at least 50 feet back from roadsides. Plants within 50 feet of busy roads may have been exposed to polluted runoff whenever it rains and the buildup of toxins from exhaust fumes.
Be sure to harvest with respect — never harvest endangered species. Even if a plant seems plentiful, don’t overharvest — leave enough plants so that the population can recover. Remember to treat your foraging adventures like a learning process and approach them with humility, patience and attention to detail. If you do, you'll build your foraging skill set and may one day be able to harvest some delicious wild foods from your very own backyard.
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