To walk into the woods and harvest your own food and medicine is a truly empowering experience. When I do this, I feel deeply connected to the land, my ancient ancestors, and all the other creatures with whom we share this incredible planet. To have a conscientious relationship with the give and take of the web of life and to knowingly re-enter the food chain feels like one of the simplest yet most profound ways to interact with the natural world.
It is the middle of May as I write this post. The birds are busy building nests and the spring ephemerals — the first plants to pop up under the forest canopy before the trees begin to leaf out — are all in full bloom. This past week, I have eaten wild leeks (also known as ramps), Spring Beauties, Trout Lilies, fiddleheads, Basswood and Beech leaves, Dandelion greens, Violet flowers, and yesterday, I ate my first handful of succulent young spruce tips. I love springtime!
With the start of the foraging season, there are often a few scares and some disappointments when we find the ecosystems and plant species being affected in negative ways by foragers. In those cases. In most cases, I believe the foragers have good intentions, but there is a lot to know if you want to harvest from the land in a safe and sustainable way.
Three times already this season, my wife and I have witnessed people misidentifying supposedly edible plants and sharing them on social media, or even in real life, as food. Last week, my wife saw a picture on Instagram that someone proclaimed to be wild leeks, a spring delicacy. The picture was actually of Lily of the Valley, a plant that is toxic and can make you quite ill. By posting this on Instagram, not only was the person putting their own health at risk (if consumed), but they could have been putting the health of others at risk, who may have looked to this person as a reliable expert in the field and perpetuated the misidentification.
On another day that same week, we witnessed what were proclaimed to be “fiddleheads” passed around our community and consumed by trusting and excited bystanders. The only problem? These “fiddleheads” were covered in white fuzz, not the brown papery sheath that the Ostrich Fern is covered in. Many people have at least heard of fiddleheads, but most are unaware that only one species of fern produces an edible fiddlehead. Now, there is some controversy around this, and I have met people who have been harvesting other species of fern for many years and claim no ill effects; and I respect their personal choice. But to sell or even share other species of ferns with people unaware of the controversy seems like an unethical practice to me. Eating the wrong species is unlikely to have immediately noticeable side effects, but some literature and studies suggest that other species have known carcinogens that can accumulate in your system if consumed over time and potentially be cancer causing.
I once witnessed a young man at a potluck brewing cedar tea to share at the feast. The problem here was that he had a VERY large amount of cedar in the pot and had been boiling it for over 20 minutes. When I asked him how often he drank cedar tea, he replied, “This is my first time. I just read about it in a book.” The concentration of the tea he brewed was very likely to have made everyone at the potluck quite sick if they were even able to palate it. Is this a good way to bring foraging to your friends and build relationships with plants?
More than once, I have had people offer me a wild plant to eat, only to find out that they just learned about it a few days earlier on a plant walk. If you have had something shown to you once, even by an expert, how well do you really know that plant? What kind of a relationship do you have with it? Is it an acquaintance or an old friend?
Starting to forage is exciting, but please move slowly and be 120% confident of your identification before consuming, posting pictures or sharing with others. Sharing your excitement comes with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of all you share with and the health of the ecosystems you harvest from.
Here are a few questions to consider before harvesting a wild plant:
– Do you know what it looks like at every stage of its life cycle and in every season?
– Can it look different if grown in different habitats?
– What habitat is it “supposed” to grow in, and is this the correct habitat?
– How easily does this plant accumulate toxins from the environment? Is this environment clean?
– Does it have poisonous lookalikes?
– Can you harvest it year-round or just in certain seasons?
– Can you eat the entire plant, or are some parts edible and other parts are toxic?
– Is there a certain way to prepare it to make it safe to consume?
– Could some people be allergic to the plant?
– “How well do I know this plant? Have I considered all these questions?”
These are just some of the things to think about before consuming any wild food, ESPECIALLY before serving it to someone else. The human relationship with plants has developed over a hundred thousand years. There is no need to rush. Get to know them like you know a good friend, and you are much more likely to harvest them in a safe and sustainable manner.
On top of personal safety, there is also the issue of sustainability: the long-term health of the plants themselves and the beautiful places we go to harvest them. There are no cut-and-dry rules on exactly how to sustainably harvest all plants. Every single species is a unique organism in a unique ecosystem. But there are some general factors that need to be taken into account, such as:
– Their unique life cycle
– Do they propagate and spread quickly or slowly?
– Are they common or rare?
– What kinds of other pressures do they face?
– How healthy is the ecosystem?
– Who also harvests there, human or otherwise?
– Will harvesting impact the land in a positive or a negative way?
– How much of each part of the plant can I sustainably harvest?
– Are there local bylaws or regulations regarding plant harvesting here?
With knowledge and action come responsibility — a responsibility to ourselves, our friends and our family, a responsibility to the land and all we share it with, to forage safely and to act in a way that does not cause harm to the areas we love or to the future generations that will rely on them as well.
If you are interested in the ancient practice of foraging for food and medicine, here are a few tips to help you do so safely and ethically:
1) Develop Relationships Over Time
A good friend is often someone with whom you spend years developing a relationship. You know what their lives have looked like throughout the seasons and the years. You know them well and can support their health and well-being because of this. Look at plants the same way, as unique beings with whom you need to grow a relationship. The better you know them, the richer your experience will be and the more likely you are to harvest in a safe and sustainable manner.
2) Reference Multiple Sources and Find a Qualified Mentor
Getting out into the woods with an experienced ecologist or forager is a great way to learn. There are also many great books and internet sources on foraging (although there is a lot of incorrect and conflicting information out there as well). I recommend cross-referencing as many different sources as possible. Look a plant up in three or more books and compare what the “experts” tell you (including myself) with other sources of information. Be 120% confident you have the right plant before ever consuming it. And please, never feed a wild plant that you are just getting to know to someone else. Know it like a good friend before you introduce it to others.
3) Put the Health of the Forest and the Plants before your Own Excitement to Harvest
There is a lot to know about an individual species or a specific ecosystem before you can harvest in a way that leaves the world better than you found it. Spend time understanding the life cycle of the plant and know the answers to all of the questions listed above with regards to harvesting sustainably before you begin to forage.
In a world where we can sometimes pretend nature is not even here, and that we are no longer dependent on it like our all our ancestors were before, wild foraging helps us form a deep connection to the web of life. It allows us to understand ecology and the intricate interactions that make the world go round. It enables our self-sufficiency and the empowerment that comes along with it. It can contribute to the health of our body, mind, and spirit, and if done in a good way, can even contribute to the health of the forest.
Re-learning this ancient practice has changed who I am as a human. It keeps a wild candle lit inside of me. I hope this article helps plant seeds of inspiration and healthy harvesting practices in all who read it.
Check out these videos on how to harvest wild leeks which include more information on sustainable harvesting and wildcrafting practices as well.