Foraging for Wild Edibles and Herbs: Sustainable and Safe Gathering Practices
Text and photography by Juliet Blankespoor
The following article is a sneak peek into our 375-hour Online Foraging Course: Edible and Medicinal Wild Herbs, which begins in early 2018! This groundbreaking program is shaping up to be THE most comprehensive online course on the topic of harvesting wild medicinals and edible weeds. The course begins with the basic ground rules of foraging safety and ethics, and then moves on to botany and plant identification. Before you know it, you’ll have the skills and confidence to safely identify and harvest wild plants.
You’ll befriend THE most common edible and medicinal wayside plants, including dandelion, stinging nettles, violet, yarrow, burdock, rose, goldenrod, and many others. The printable manual is hundreds of pages long and filled with close-up photos for identification, medicinal uses, and loads of easy-to-follow recipes. In fact, most of our plant profiles contain more detail than you’ll find in any book on wild foods and herbs.
We herbalists have a unique take on the commonest of herbs: instead of dismissing them as mundane or maddening, we choose to embrace wily botanicals with enchantment and enterprise. These medicinal and edible weeds—vulgar villains to most—are the herbalists’ beloveds. This alchemical perspective, transforming the unplanned and uninvited into a veritable treasure, is a handy approach in life that needn’t be limited to weeds.
But before I start waxing weedy, let me share a story. When I was in my twenties, I spent a good bit of time living in the woods, traveling and picking weeds, and growing food and medicine. Yes, I was a total hippie (of the back-to-the-land variety)! During that time, one of my home bases was a little organic farm community in New England. We grew lots of veggies and garlic and sold prepared foods from our crops at the farmer’s market, including fresh salsa, pesto, and garlic sauce. Over the years, in my travels through Mexico and Guatemala, I noticed how people sold edible weeds at markets and, being an enterprising sort, endeavored to do the same back home.
Overjoyed to spread the good word of weedivory, I set out at market pretty baskets filled with tidy bundles of pigweed, purslane, and lamb’s quarters, accompanied by little handwritten signs that explained the preparation and nutritional value for each of the wild greens. I offered a yummy sample of wild greens pâté to inspire people to move beyond any fears of eating an unknown vegetable, especially a “weed.” As it turns out, we didn’t develop a wild following—or even a tiny demand for our weeds—but people went crazy for the sample. Wild greens pâté sold just as quickly as our fresh salsa and pesto and became a stable source of income for our farm for many years.
Edible and Medicinal Weeds: Rising Stars of the Local Foods Movement
That story is just one example of how edible and medicinal weeds can play an important role in the local foods movement. These useful herbs can be incorporated into herbal and vegetable CSA shares and sold at market, alongside their cultivated kin. Feral greens deserve their rightful spot on the menus of farm-to-table restaurants, right next to wild mushrooms. Many adventurous chefs are hungry for new foods, especially if they’re familiar with their local history and importance. Tapping into the vast resource of local wild weeds also reduces the environmental impact of packaging and transportation.
Mistaking Foraging for Plundering
Which brings us to an important topic that is especially dear to my heart. I’ve seen more than one herbalist make blanket statements about moratoriums on wildcrafting, which stem, in part, from concern about wild plant populations. Overharvesting plants is a serious issue of our times, along with habitat loss and the pressures plants face with climate change. We introduce our Herbal Immersion students to the work of medicinal plant preservation by giving them complimentary memberships to the United Plant Savers organization and teaching them how to cultivate rare woodland medicinals. (Here’s an article I wrote on the subject.) This is to say that I too share the deepest regard for the future of native plants, including medicinals, but I think it’s a mistake to lump rare woodland medicinals together with opportunistic plants that have a worldwide distribution.
What if a well-meaning herbal newbie reads a “NO WILDCRAFTING” meme on social media and starts to think she shouldn’t be harvesting any wild plants (including seriously invasive weeds) because it’s bad for the earth or hurting the plants? Perhaps she’ll decide that instead of harvesting the nonnative, invasive roses growing as a brambly mess in her backyard, it is ethical to purchase dried rosebuds in the herbal bulk bins from her local food co-op. The co-op procures its dried roses from a large, reputable herbal distributor, which happens to purchase its organic roses from Turkey. Those rosebuds came across the sea in barrels on a gigantic barge and then were shipped across the country. Maybe even back again for delivery! Meanwhile, those petals weren’t getting any perkier. This isn’t to say that the co-op or the herb distributor wouldn’t carry local dried roses if they were available. Problem is, they aren’t available because there aren’t enough domestic growers. And many people don’t want to pay the higher price for domestically grown herbs. In the United States, domestic herb production doesn’t even come close to filling the demand for raw herbs.
MOST OF THE HERBS CONSUMED IN THIS COUNTRY ARE GROWN ABROAD AND MAY HAVE BEEN SPRAYED, ADULTERATED, CONTAMINATED, OR GROWN AND HARVESTED BY SOMEONE WHO
WASN’T FAIRLY COMPENSATED.
Learning how to use abundant weeds as medicine can lessen the demand for herbs grown overseas, which means less waste and lower fossil fuel use and higher herbal quality. Another consideration when comparing cultivated versus wild medicinals is the farmland it takes to grow herbs. Where did the farmland come from? From land that was once a forest, a prairie, or a floodplain. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be growing herbs. On the contrary! It’s just to say the issue isn’t so simple as “No Wildcrafting.”
Foragers as Stewards
Learning how to forage is a major game changer for any human. These skills are our birthright, but sadly most of us didn’t grow up learning them. Gathering medicine and food from the wild connects us to the natural world, our ancestral heritage, and our wild animal selves. When we are more personally involved with our foods and medicines (by growing or gathering), we can be assured that they are fresh, of high quality, and harvested in a sustainable fashion. We also weave ourselves indelibly into the great food chain of life, which instinctively encourages us to steward and tend our sources of sustenance.
In my mind, the most sustainable way to gather food and medicine from wild places is to hone in on a particular array of plentiful, generous, and nourishing plants. These herbs are the wild weeds, the common flora, the invasives—the prolific volunteers that are often tossed into the compost pile. These are also some of our most superb medicinal allies and nutrient-rich wild foods! I’m talking about plants like chickweed (Stellaria media), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), wild rose (Rosa spp.), burdock (Arctium minus, A. lappa), cleavers (Galium aparine), violet (Viola spp.), blackberry (Rubus spp.), and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica). Believe me, getting to know these plants is a bit like working a magic spell—the ordinary suddenly becomes extraordinary, astounding, beloved.
The New (Old-School) Superfoods
And here’s a fact to put in your pocket: wild weeds, in general, are significantly more concentrated in nutrients, minerals, and antioxidants than their cultivated cousins. This means that everyone, especially folks who don’t typically have access to high-quality produce, can revitalize their diets.
Tending these weedy plants is even in our blood: most of our indigenous ancestors sustainably managed wild ecosystems to provide nutritious, abundant sources of food throughout the year. So how do we echo their practices in the modern world?
Sustainable Foraging Guidelines
1. Only forage abundant plants with a large, widespread population.
In my practice, I favor plant species with a sizable population—preferably widespread over a large geographical area—and avoid using rare or less populous species. I won’t harvest rare plants from the wild at all, and I teach my students the same. Along these lines, you can start by avoiding the harvest of woodland medicinals and instead favor the weedy medicines of field and pasture. If you’re unsure whether a food or medicine is abundant in your area, you can consult resources like the United Plant Savers and state and federal listings of endangered and at-risk species.
Never harvest a plant without first assessing its population and the pressures it might face from habitat loss or commercial demand. For example, a plant may be locally abundant, but if there’s a widespread demand, it can quickly disappear, its population decimated from overharvesting.
2. Favor harvesting plants that are nonnative.
One of the first things I consider when choosing which plants to forage is whether a plant is native and tied into local food webs or is an escapee from other lands. Nonnatives displace native species by competing with them for natural resources. These opportunistic plants haven’t evolved locally with the same checks and balances that native plants have experienced, and so they often flourish. This makes them prime forage for us humans, especially because they stick close to places we inhabit, thriving in cities, gardens, fields, and the like. In the southeastern United States, many of our most common wild weedy medicinals are nonnatives, including multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), burdock (Arctium minus), and many species of blackberry and raspberry (Rubus spp.).
3. Tend the spaces “in between.”
For those of you who grow a garden, wild weeds will naturally come and make themselves at home—and can peacefully cohabitate with planted veggies and herbs. You can employ plenty of tricks to help them play nice, and, as a reward for acting as a botanical referee, you’ll harvest even more food and medicine from your garden! This is the bounty that grows in between: the medicine and food that you didn’t plant yet still get to reap. My plant friend Frank Cook, who has passed on, used to teach in his classes that more than half the bounty of a garden could be found in the “in between” in the form of useful opportunistic plants. People all around the world capitalize on this abundant resource, casually “cultivating” weeds in the in-between spaces.
Let’s take lamb’s quarters as an example of this useful-weed-and-planted-crop-polyculture method. Lamb’s quarters—also called wild spinach—has more fiber, beta-carotene, vitamin C, zinc, and calcium than cultivated spinach. Why would you weed out such a nutritious plant that doesn’t need special care or insect control to make room for less nutritious vegetables that are harder to grow?
In my garden, I leave the wild spinach that comes up between recently planted vegetable and herb crops. After harvesting the wild spinach for a few weeks or a month, the veggies fill out, and then I pull out the lamb’s quarters and use them as mulch for the planted crops. Wild spinach requires no cultivation after it finds its way into the garden and is relatively disease and insect free.
4. Be a steward.
Even when you gather plentiful (possibly pesky) plants, attune to a code of ethics. You’re interacting with living, breathing beings, after all. Take only what you need, leave beauty in your wake (leave no trace), and bring an offering to make before you go—a song, some water, your hair, a handful of grain. An offering invites a feeling of gratitude, reciprocity, and reverence. If you’re more science-minded, perhaps you’ll take a moment to breathe intentionally, meditating on the reciprocity of plant-human gas exchange, cellular respiration and photosynthesis. You might feel silly at first, but allow yourself the opportunity to be surprised. This is how we participate in the ancient plant-human dance of mutual connection, communication, and care.
If the plant you’re harvesting is native—and you’ve already assessed that it’s abundant enough to harvest—be extra conscientious about not overharvesting. If you’re harvesting an herbaceous plant with multiple stems, take only a stem or two from each plant. Spread your harvest out over a larger area and be sure to leave plenty of flowers and fruit for the plants to reproduce. If you’re harvesting roots, replant the root crown or take only a portion of each plant’s root system. When digging up roots, be sure to cut back the aboveground parts so the plant doesn’t become stressed for water with a root system that no longer matches its aboveground growth. These regenerative practices don’t necessarily need to be followed for invasive weeds with global distribution.
5. Harvest in areas where you know nobody has sprayed herbicide.
It’s important to avoid gathering plants near roads, railroads, and power lines, as the surrounding soil is typically contaminated with lead, herbicides, and other toxins. Always harvest at least 30 feet from the road and make sure you are not harvesting in an area with environmental toxicity (such as the flood banks of a polluted river). Even hay fields that appear to be untended might be sprayed with herbicides.
The foundations of older homes are also problematic, as they are typically sprayed for insect control or weeds. If you live in the city, consider visiting a local organic urban farm or community garden, where you’re likely to find an abundance of yummy weeds, along with gardeners who are happy to share the bounty.
6. It’s essential to properly identify any plant before you harvest it for food or medicine.
If in doubt, do NOT harvest! Consult your local extension agent, master gardener, or trusted herbalist if you need help with identification. If someone else shows you a plant, do your own homework and make sure that they are right before you harvest! Spend time with plants over the seasons—double-checking both photographs and written descriptions—before you make your move. Learn the poisonous species in your region. Chant to self: COMBINATION OF CHARACTERISTICS FOR PROPER IDENTIFICATION. This is crucial. Identifying plants requires that you look at a combination of specific traits (rather than one or two traits alone), essentially differentiating your plant from the herd.
I’ve learned from teaching wild foods classes over the years that the beginners are often the ones who are appropriately cautious, whereas the folks who know a little more can get bold, lose their cautiousness, and make the wrong move. One wrong move can end up being your last move! There are over a thousand species of poisonous plants in the world, some of which are so poisonous that one to two bites are enough to kill an adult.
Here are a few poisonous plants to learn before you start foraging. This is not a comprehensive list of poisonous plants, which will vary depending on your bioregion. Consult local field guides, governmental websites, and extension offices.
Oleander (Nerium oleander) (if you live in a warm climate)
Foxglove, or digitalis (Digitalis purpurea) (looks a lot like comfrey, borage, and mullein)
Here are some resources for helping with plant identification:
USDA Plant Database You can search by common name or scientific name for plants. The database shows photos of the plant, its current range, and sometimes illustrations.
The Chestnut School’s link page has some great resources on the subject, listed under botany and wild foods.
The Chestnut School’s Pinterest page has two boards you might find helpful: botany and wild foods.
Not a laughing matter? Here’s a Really Silly Video Driving the Point Home!
7. Legal and neighborly considerations
Always ask for permission from the landowner if harvesting on private land. If you want to harvest on governmental land, you can check with the managing agency for regulations and permits. Be aware of the different classifications of land management. In the United States, national parks are often visited for their natural beauty and are not generally logged or leased for grazing cattle. The U.S. National Forests are often managed for resources and may be clear-cut and grazed by cattle. You can often obtain permits to gather wild plants for personal use from your local U.S. Forest Service.
Now, before you grab your foraging basket and pruners, keep in mind that there are other things to consider. In addition to an understanding of plant identification and how to safely forage in appropriate places, you’ll also want to know when and how to gather each wild food and herb. We’ve created an engaging online Foraging Course that will provide you with all the know-how you need to safely and artfully gather sustenance from the world around you. The course releases early in 2018, so sign up for our newsletter to stay in the loop!
In the meanwhile, we’ve got some exciting articles coming down the pike this season: The Ten Best Books on Foraging Wild Foods and Herbs, The Best Regional Books on Plant Identification and Foraging Wild Foods and Herbs, and The Best Free Resources for Learning About Foraging for Wild Foods and Herbs.
Here are some of my articles on wild foods, including on sochan and lamb’s-quarters.
My friend Frank Cook used to say, “Eat something wild every day!” I think it’s a reasonable goal, even if it’s just a little nibble. It brings us outdoors and closer to the heart of our sustenance—the elements and the plants that sustain each of us with every breath we take.
Happy Foraging! May your baskets be full and your pantries plump with the bounty and beauty of weeds!
This article is a sneak peek into our 375-hour Online Foraging Course: Edible and Medicinal Wild Herbs, which begins in early 2018!
This groundbreaking program is shaping up to be THE most comprehensive online course on the topic of harvesting wild medicinals and edible weeds.