There’s an abundance of wild food to be found out there in the natural world. And while it might seem scary at first, foraging is an incredibly rewarding and sustainable way to eat when you know what you’re looking for. By starting small and only searching for easily identifiable produce, feeding off the land can add an exciting and fulfilling element to any time spent outside.
To help you get started, we’ve compiled this quick introduction to all things foraging: how to do it, where to look, and what to search for when you’re out there. Fresh fruit, wild foliage and forest-floor fungi all await you.
You don’t have to base entire meals on foraged food. The natural world is packed with edible plants and fruits that make for excellent accompaniments to all kinds of dishes, so why not start by simply adding to your existing recipes. Take redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) for example: it’s a low-growing evergreen perennial that’s found in moist Douglas-fir and coastal redwood forests across western North America. Its clover-like leaves have a tangy, lemony flavor, and go great with salads. Treat more as a garnish than salad leaf however, as its oxalic acid content can disrupt digestion in large amounts.
A great way to enjoy the benefits of foraging is with a brew—and your options are vast. For a refreshing trail-side tea, pick a couple of young birch (Betula) twigs and leaves, place in your mug, then pour over hot water and allow to steep for 2-3 minutes. Birch also contains anti-inflammatory compounds, so a birch branch brew once you’ve set up camp is the perfect way to ease those aching legs on a multi-day hike. Other wild brew ingredients include pine (Pinus) needles which are rich in vitamin C; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) seed heads from which ‘sumac-ade’ can be made; and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Brew all of the above using the same method as birch branch brew.
The foundations of foraging are often medicinal—with many edible plants possessing a number of properties beneficial to health, too. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is found throughout the northern hemisphere, and can be identified by its small feathery foliage and little white flowers. Thanks to its ability to clot blood, it has been used for centuries in the treatment of wounds, and is well worth memorizing for use in emergencies when you’re out in the wild. Yarrow leaves also make an excellent addition to salads.
A wealth of information exists for anyone looking to get into foraging—so take advantage of it. Falling Fruit is a global database of free-to-pick produce, all handily displayed on a map. And with almost one million entries for North America alone, there’s no excuse not to get out there and search. Your local library is also well worth a visit. Check out a couple of foraging books, then pack them in your bag next time you head outside. Before picking things to eat, get used to the practice of identification—pulling out your books to cross-reference anything you recognize that might be edible.
While foraged food is free and often abundant, it’s important to remember that wild edibles are a precious resource, and one that needs careful protection if they are to remain available for future generations. Only pick what you intend to eat, and never completely clear a patch of its produce. If you’re planning on foraging in a National Park, check the permissions online first. Out of the 59 parks in America, 13 ban all foraging, while many others have specific rules and restrictions in place. Visit nps.gov , select a location, and click on “learn about the park.” From there you can access the specific laws and policies for a particular park.
Foraging is an activity best enjoyed with others. You’ll find a wider variety of produce when picking in a group, and you can share in each other’s successes. But most importantly of all, you can share knowledge. Foraging can be dangerous if you don’t correctly identify what you pick—especially if you’re picking mushrooms—so consider joining a local club to make sure you’re picking safely. The North American Mycological Association lists all their affiliated mushroom clubs here.