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Lessons Learned by a Novice Forager

Lessons Learned by a Novice Forager

A man holds ramps after picking them.

Following his first foraging season, the author shares tips he learned along the way

As a hunter, angler, and lifelong practitioner of difficult-to-do things, I should know by now that wrestling food from Mother Nature isn’t easy. But here I am, reflecting months after a very hot and very buggy summer, and I find myself surprised at what should have been self-evident: foraging is hard. 

I’ve flirted with foraging for a long time—picking leaks and fiddleheads here and there as I pursued some other wilderness obsession—but I’ve never taken the time to do the thing properly. This season, with the extra drive that came from a winter in lockdown, I decided to change that.

As with any new skill, though, my journey as a beginner forager has been wrought with lessons learned the hard way. 

Read foraging resources

Just as the snow began to melt, I ordered two books: one on foraging plants, the other on mushrooms. Almost immediately, I discovered this wouldn’t cut it. Thanks to the singular importance of correct identification in foraging, most wild edible guides recommend looking elsewhere for assurance, or at least that you cross-reference their information with a minimum of one other resource before taking a bite.

It may sound obvious, too, but It’s important to read these resources. For some wild veggies, it can be very tempting just to squint at a few photos, stuff your bag, and be on your merry way. 

This is, obviously, not a good idea. 

I can’t speak for the seasoned forager—although I can guess what they’d say—but for the Average Joe with a budding interest in wild foods, an over-confident or lazy attitude is sure to go bad. 

Your due diligence means reading the entire ID, including details on habitat, occurrence, and comments, before heading to the kitchen with anything. During my first season alone, there were several occasions where a closer read (i.e. Just how spaced out are the gills? What texture is the stem supposed to be?) turned an ID on its head, and avoided the same for my stomach. 

Don’t get hung up on the efficiency of foraging

If you want to be efficient, go to the grocery store.

Some wild edibles just don’t come in great numbers, while others are a lot of work with little to show for it. Don’t turn your nose up at these. Sure, it would be nice to tromp into the bush for an hour and come out with a meal’s worth of munchies every time, but the experience of foraging is about more than filling your fridge. There are entire palates you have yet to experience, textures you haven’t felt, not to mention organisms you’ve simply never taken the time to notice. 

Maven's logo over a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

Take the aptly named spring beauty (claytonia virginica) for example. These little flowering plants sprout from a small underground tuber that, when cooked, tastes something like a tiny beet, and they often pop-up in vast numbers. The trouble is, these tubers are deceptively small. You can spend a lot of time digging through the soil to produce a mere half cup of the things, and that’s sure to discourage some people.  

Still, these starchy little nuggets are worth the effort. Not only do they taste great, but their size and texture make the tubers a wonderfully versatile ingredient and ready to join almost any meal, from salad to couscous.

Get help with foraging, you need it

OK, a little efficiency would be nice. 

Although not everyone is apt to take up the hobby, the experience of gathering wild food seems to produce an almost universal excitement in people, regardless of their background. Harness this innate curiosity in all things edible and bring some friends along while you’re out. Believe me, for a beginner forager, spotting prospective edibles among the greenery can be a real challenge. 

Still, you’ll need all the help you can get. You can also find help in the wonderful world of tech. Apps and websites like iNaturalist were designed to allow users easy access to peer and often expert identification. It should be noted, of course, that resources like this are not sufficient for identifying wild foods on their own, but they can help to get you on the right track. Plus, they can be a great way to meet local foragers.

Make foraged foods last

Thankfully, even beginners are bound to stumble across a good spread of edibles every once in a while. Take the time to learn a few simple preservation techniques before you hit the woods, and you’ll be enjoying the bounties of spring and summer well into the colder months. 

  • Canning can be applied to pretty much anything, from savory meats and mushrooms to the sweet stuff, like berries and fruit.
  • Pickling is great for most tubers and green edibles, including fiddleheads, dandelion buds, burdock, and, of course, ramps.
  • Drying is a great option for mushrooms, herbs, and berries, and can be accomplished with the help of a dehydrator, the oven, or, in many cases, simply by laying edibles out in a space with good air circulation. 
  • Vacuum sealers take your freezer game to the next level by virtually eliminating freezer burn and creating a small, efficient package for ease of storage. Everything from berries to greens and even some mushrooms can be frozen successfully.

Live and learn with foraging

I expect that, in the eyes of an experienced forager, this list is woefully incomplete. If becoming a collector of wild foods is anything like learning to hunt, I still haven’t the faintest idea of what’s in store. 

But that’s part of the fun of it all. We don’t generally explore these old and unconventional ways of acquiring food because we’re looking for an easy, lesson-free meal. We do it, at least in part, out of a desire to learn. 

So, if your appetite for the impractical has led you to the doorstep of foraging, as it did for me, take a step inside. Just remember, you’ve got a lot to learn.

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