Introduction to Foraging
These are guidelines that I follow whenever I go foraging to make sure that the wildcrafting that I do is safe and sustainable. You should be 100% confident in being able to answer the following questions to yourself. If you don't know, gather more information before you start gathering plants or mushrooms.
Are you in the Right Place?
It's important you understand from a legal perspective where you are allowed to forage legally. The information below applies to Ontario, Canada.
It's is illegal to: "disturb, cut, kill, remove or harm any plant, tree or natural object in a provincial park or conservation area". Please be aware of this when using all public trails and parks unless they specify you can in their park by-laws or you apply for a Harvesting Permit. Apply the Naturalists rule to take only photos, leave only footprints.
You are allowed to harvest what is identified as non-timber forest products on Crown Land.
I personally focus my harvesting on private land that I have permission to be on. That way I can ask questions about the land history, if anyone else harvests the land, how the soil is/was treated, the water quality etc.
Wild plants and mushroom are known bio-accumulators for contaminants in the soil. Therefore, it is important to harvest from soils that are clean. This means avoiding roadsides, railway tracks, some hydro corridors, old landfill sites, etc.
Do you have the Right Plant?
You should be able to identify at least 3 characteristics of the plant ie. individual parts; leaf, flower, seeds. Other important identification features are habitat, flowering time of year, as well as use at least 3 resources to verify each plant, such as field books, ‘experts’ & internet. Here are some great online resources:
Identify the patch when all characteristics are present - before and after they are harvestable, to understand where they grow and how they change throughout the season. Generally, late summer is a good time to identify plants. Ie. Fiddleheads (Ostrich Fern) are easiest to find and identify when they are fully grown in the summer. Find these locations and then plan to return in the early spring to harvest.
Understand what grows together, trees are generally the main ways to identify different community types, especially for mushrooms. Recommend getting to know trees first– this will allow you to understand the habitat and therefore make it easier to identify where each plant grows.
Understand the different families of plants – some plants in the carrot family can be deadly, but every plant in the mustard family is edible. Botany in a Day is a great place to start.
Do you know you have the Right Part?
Not every part of known edible plants is edible. Take the tomato, for example, we all know that its fruit is edible, but what about the leaves? Many folks don't realize that they are quite toxic. You should know for certain which parts of your edible plants are edible.
When foraging, pick like you are at the grocery store – leaves, roots and fruits should look nice, healthy and vibrant.
Are You In The Right Season?
Once you know what part of the plant is edible you need to know the season for harvesting. Eating foods outside of the proper time may make you ill. Ie. Unripe berries can make you sick or if you harvest roots at the wrong time of year, the roots are woody and not tasty.
- Spring: roots, shoots, leaves
- Summer: leaves, fruits
- Fall: roots, fruits, seeds
By following the plant's growth throughout the season as recommended above you will get to know when the different parts become ripe.You want to harvest when the vitality of the plant is in that part.
Do You Know The Right Preparation?
Wild foods are very concentrated – try to limit portion size to what fits in the palm of your hand. The preparation is different for all species. Some can be eaten raw, some need to be cooked, some need to be cooked in several changes of water before they are edible. Certain foods require special leeching such as what is needed to process acorns. All wild mushrooms should be cooked very well. Before you harvest any wild foods make sure you understand the preparation so you know what it takes and you do not over harvest foods and then let them go to waste because you were unprepared for the post-harvesting work. I often find the foraging is the easy part. Many wild foods take as much time or longer to process after the fact.
Knowing how much you can sustainably harvest is very particular to the species. Getting to know the individual plant or mushroom is important. Focus on harvesting a light amount in an abundant area. My own personal philosophy is that it shouldn't look like I was harvesting in the area after I have left. Also, always think about who else needs this plant – what animals rely on this plant for food. For example, berries – the plant wants all the berries harvested and thus is does not harm the plant to harvest all their fruits, but animals also eat berries and its through them the seeds are spread. Your impact as a forager is on the entire ecosystem, not just the species you are harvesting.
Wild foraging is a wonderful way to connect with nature, eat locally, eat sustainably and add amazing new flavors and nutrition to our modern diets. These guidelines shoud help you to make safe and sustainable harvesting choices to you can enjoy wild foods far into the future.