Here's How To Safely Forage Your Own Food Outdoors

Photo: Paul Schlemmer

At the age of 10, I was constantly sick and suffering everything from chest infections to tonsillitis. Once I was diagnosed with an immune deficiency, I cleaned up my routine by quitting wheat and dairy, keeping processed foods to a minimum—and taking an herbal tincture daily. I'd dilute the alcoholic extract of plant material in water three times a day, and—despite the odd looks I'd get when I pulled the dark, smelly "potion" out of my backpack in the school cafeteria—my symptoms disappeared within a month.

This opened my eyes to the power of plants and nature in general. Since then, no matter where I've lived, I’ve made it a point to forage for food, fresh herbs, and medicine.

The foraging frenzy.

At the age of 11, I began scouting the mountains of Chamonix for eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis) to help soothe my itchy eyes from hay fever and St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) in olive oil to soothe burns. The second half of my summer holidays were spent biking around collecting wild blueberries or stuffing my pockets with some wild thyme while I was out rock climbing.

Even when I lived in urban London, I found ways to pick some of my own food. On my way home from horseback riding in Hyde Park in the autumn, I'd stop to put some prickly chestnuts in my helmet to pop in the oven for a warm afternoon snack. As a volunteer at a farm in Devon, U.K., I harvested blackberries by the gallon to make fruit leather and jam and learned how to use nasturtium buds to make peppery pickles.

Foraging is more than just a fun activity; it's an amazing opportunity to get outside and gather fresh, organic food.

In my quest to learn more about my natural surroundings in a variety of climates, I volunteered on dozens of farms from Hawaii to Nicaragua to the south coast of England.

This year, I spent the entire month of June in the mountains of the French Alps, challenging myself to forage all of my greens for one whole month. I harvested fiddleheads to make "forest hash browns," wood sorrel to garnish goat cheese toast, dandelion and red clover to brighten up salads, and stinging nettles to cook soups and quiches.

Foraging is more than just a fun activity; it's an amazing opportunity to get outside and gather fresh, organic food. From seascapes, to the woods, to the jungle, Mother Nature always has something to offer. Here are a few top tips to get out there and try to find her gifts for yourself:

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1. Don't start with mushrooms.

While I’ve harvested my fair share of chanterelles, boletes, and morels, I don’t advise that you begin with mushrooms if you’re a novice. Some varieties can be deadly!

2. Read up.

Get your hands on a local foraging book, and always remember to proceed with caution and gratitude for nature’s abundance. A few titles I recommend include The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Around the World in 80 Plants, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, Backyard Foraging, Edible Wild Plants, and Nature’s Garden. (If you end up ordering these from Amazon, please remember to request brown paper packaging and zero plastic! You can do this by emailing Amazon and adding a footnote to your account.)

These books also talk in detail about areas to avoid when harvesting, as well as regulations around native species and foraging in nature preserves. A word of caution: Get to know (or avoid) plants that have poisonous look-alikes!

3. View weeds as your friends.

When I was studying at Cornell, I took a class called Weed Science. I'll always remember my professor telling me, "Weeds are plants whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Contrary to what most people think, weeds can be full of essential minerals and antioxidants. Stinging nettle is a great example. Ubiquitous in Europe, the "weed" is packed with vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. I view it as a local, organic, free superfood!

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Related Class

3. Use technology.

There are some great apps out there that can help you identify different plants. Leaf Snap, Plant Snap, and Wild Edibles are a few of my top picks. There's also the wonderful website Falling Fruit, which collects data from foragers and freegans to create a map of half a million free food sources around the world. Search your town and see what you find!

4. Find a local group.

Search your city’s calendar of events or browse Meetup to see if you can find a local group to take you on a tour. Many botanical gardens and arboretums will offer free guided walks to help you get started and get excited! Most herbalists, like my friends 7Song (United States) and Jeanne Lyse (United Kingdom), also take people out on plant walks. Find places like the NYC High Line to identify experts to guide you on this journey.

5. Know that all seaweed is edible.

Yes, you read that correctly! Though some species are more nutritional and palatable than others, you can’t poison yourself with seaweed (unless you harvest it in contaminated waters).

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6. Start simple.

Begin with what you know: Most people know what dandelions and day lilies look like. So, look them up, read about their medicinal properties, and look into some suggestions for culinary preparations.

Next up? Check out some of the best herbal remedies for your anxiety, energy, and gut health.

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