The idea of free food is compelling for any parent. As children grow, they become living vacuums that can be expensive to feed, even if you’re growing a good deal of your own food. Perhaps that’s why foraging for wild, edible plants is appealing to me. Plus, knowing what edible plants are growing wild around us is simply good information to have.
To understand the basics of foraging I asked my friend Janet Pesaturo, writer and photographer of the blog “One Acre Farm” for help. I especially wanted to get some ideas on involving my children and properly educating them on how and what to harvest from the wild. With many thanks to her, here’s what I learned.
What to Forage?
When we started reading about foraging, the kids and I thought we’d mostly be harvesting weeds to eat. I guess that’s partly true. Plants that grow wild and free like weeds are able to scavenge nutrients in the soil very efficiently, so they have the energy to reproduce rapidly and grow everywhere. We’ve made friends with the weeds in our yard, harvesting them for both the livestock and us humans to eat. We were surprised, though, to realize that people forage for all kinds of wild foods: mushrooms, berries and other fruits, roots, tubers, leaves, flowers, and herbs—there are so many things to eat all around us!
Janet pointed out that Native Americans knew how to find, harvest and use each part of several thousand different plants. “They were as sophisticated as we are with preparation and cooking,” she says. “For example, some tribes used spicebush to flavor certain meats … just like we modern humans have developed traditional meat and herb/spice associations, such as lamb and mint.”
Janet’s favorite things to forage are hazelnuts and hickory nuts. She discovered she liked hazelnuts so much that she planted some in her yard and doesn’t need to forage them anymore. We did that with lamb’s quarter: We tasted some at a friend’s house and liked them so much that we let the plants we already had, reseed in our backyard.
People experienced in foraging say to get a couple guidebooks for your area and study them. Take the books with you on mountain hikes or camping trips so that you can identify edible plants along the way. Knowing what a plant looks like at different times of the year is important because some poisonous plants mimic edible plants. We’ve even found various flash cards and playing cards that help us learn wild edibles.
It’s important to find wild edible books specific to your region, but Janet and I both recommend Samuel Thayer’s books, Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plant (Forager’s Harves, 2010) and The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Wild Edible Plants (Foragers Harvest Press, 2006). Both books have excellent pictures and quality information. Janet also likes Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany (Timber Press, 1998).
Knowing that we’re moving to Missouri soon, I bought some field guides specifically for that area, which is very different from where I’m living now in Utah. Even the same species, in different habitats, can look different from what you may be used to, so carry a good book and find a local foraging mentor who can advise you.
In addition to the books, I got each of my children gloves to wear to keep their hands from getting banged up when foraging, as well as some baskets and some clippers or a good pocket knife. Janet reminded that I might want to have some tools on hand to process all this free food. She suggested a good nutcracker, food mill and canning supplies to preserve the bounty. She also mentioned a food processor would be nice to make nut butters from foraged nuts.
How Much to Take
One thing I consistently read about foraging is to be responsible with how much you take from any one plant or group of plants. Any gardener will be familiar with this concept: If you take too much away from a plant, you can inhibit its ability to thrive and reproduce. With a lot of wild plants, once we learn to grow them in our gardens, we don’t need to forage them anymore and leave the ones in nature alone.
“I never harvest anything from a plant that is uncommon in the area I’m foraging,” Janet says. “If leaves or twigs are just as useful as berries, I take the leaves or twigs and leave the berries, which are important for plant reproduction and sometimes not produced in abundance. This is true for spicebush and wintergreen, for example. If it’s a bad mast year for a certain crop, I leave it for wildlife and don’t harvest that year. I never strip a wild plant clean.”
This is an important concept to keep in our minds as we set off on our foraging adventures with children. Kids, especially young ones, struggle with proportions, and telling them “Just don’t take too much” is not going to be enough direction. As you learn this skill together, stay close to your children when foraging and train them to ask you first before they pick anything. If someone finds something that looks useful, have everyone gather around to examine it. Put an older child in charge of the guidebook: This will give them an important job and will make them learn to identify plants correctly.
One time we were up in our mountains and smelled mint. I instantly recognized it as the forceful aroma as pennyroyal, but I kept that knowledge to myself. Instead, I encouraged the kids to use their noses and guidebook to figure out which plant was producing the smell. My son with the sensitive nose found the plant first, and then we all checked it against one of our books. It was fun to find it together!
Foraging is a great activity for families to do together. You can forage items for nature crafts, experiments and school projects, and certainly finding food provides a big reward; however, prepare yourself for certain issues that can arise. Kids fall down and fight. They get cut by berry thorns, and their noses run when the pollen is on. They can get lost or bored. Janet observes that her teenage sons aren’t interested in foraging for anything that doesn’t provide immediate gratification, which means they stick to berries, but are disinterested in nuts or food that must be cooked.
Moms and dads, keep at it even though it’s work and can be hard to concentrate. Useful skills come with training, and the training will engage your children and speak to their hearts. After all, as Mary Hodgson Burnett wrote in her classic, The Secret Garden: “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.” So keep calm and forage on.
Find more foraging help on HobbyFarms.com:
- Eat This: Safe Foraged Foods Guide
- Edible Weeds
- 8 Healing Uses for Farm-Grown Herbs
- 12 Pollinator-Friendly Flowers You Can Eat
- My 5 Favorite Weeds: If You Can Beat ‘Em …