Foraging for Food

Learn how to gather healthful, wild plant foods in your own countryside—the perfect picture of sustainability—with these expert tips on foraging for food.

Gone are the days when a short walk could reveal a wild harvest of earthy mushrooms, plump raspberries, or aromatic sage. Or are they? Foraging for wild food is not only possible, it’s becoming more and more popular. In fact, that’s Sharon, pictured above, collecting Miner’s Lettuce on her afternoon walk in Ojai, California. While it’s true we no longer need to forage for survival, as our ancestors did, we can choose to tap into nature’s wild pantry with a curiosity and sense of adventure that connects us to the outdoors, hiking, gardening, sustainability, and eating.

Wild mustard in a field near my home in Ojai

Wild, edible foods are all around us, from rural foothills to urban neighborhoods. To the untrained eye, they go unnoticed, hidden in the trees, shrubs and plants that blend into the everyday background. Each climate and region has its own unique varieties that grow year-round. Ancient civilizations were in tune with the many benefits of wild plants, having used them in traditional medicine and as food. Even today, many traditional diets included wild, foraged foods, from greens in Greece and berries in Scandinavia to wild fruits in the Caribbean.

Wild sacred sage in Ojai Valley

There are countless benefits of foraging wild plants! Consuming wild plants is extremely beneficial for overall health. Wild plants have been found to be just as healthy, and perhaps healthier, than conventional fruits and vegetables we purchase at the grocery stores. They are packed with essential vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, iron, calcium, fiber, and may have greater amounts of phytochemicals than cultivated produce. In general, some of these plants may have a bitter, earthy taste to them that may take some getting used to, but because they’re so versatile, there are many ways to enjoy them, like sautéed, eaten raw, as pesto, or used as an herb.

Oxalis (sorrel) is an edible plant you can commonly find in the wild

Collecting wild plants promotes a healthy, active lifestyle because you are getting fresh air, surrounding yourself with nature, and gaining the benefits of natural sunlight, all of which benefit mental, emotional, and physical health. What’s healthy for us is also healthy for our planet. Foraging wild plants is an opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing the travel time of our food, as well as fewer resources to produce it.

Picking wild blueberries in Sweden 

How to Get Started

A local expert, guidebook, community college course, or online research is necessary before a foraging quest, providing advice, tips and safety on the specific plants in your area. Once you know what to look for, the scenery suddenly comes into focus, detailed in a bountiful wild harvest.

  • Begin with familiar, easily identified foods, like dandelions, nettles, onions, or black berries. Only eat them if you are absolutely certain they are safe.
  • Have a mentor or plant identification guidebook (or two to cross reference) to determine which plant parts are edible, and to rule out look-alike plants that may not be safe.
  • Forage on public land, and only on private land with permission.
  • Don’t forage in toxic areas, such as along city streets tainted with car exhaust or near streams with an unknown water source.
  • Don’t overharvest. Take only what you’ll use, leaving plenty on the plant for animals and other foragers.
  • Harvest only healthy-looking plants, steering clear of disease, pests or pollution.
  • Wash thoroughly.
  • Cultivate wild plants in your own garden.
Dandelion is one of the most prolifically available wild edible greens

The world of wild foods is potentially as vast as one’s desire to seek them out. And there’s no better example of a green, local and sustainable way of eating. From discovery to harvest to learning to prepare and enjoy them, wild foods are guaranteed adventure.

Wild purslane in a field in Monterrey, California.

Common Edible Wild Plant Foods

Here’s a small list of some commonly available wild foods.

Wild Food What’s Edible Nutrition How to Enjoy Taste
Dandelions Flower, leaves, and roots Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Fiber Add roots to boiling water and steep to make tea; garnish with flowers, eat greens raw or cooked. Bitter, spicy (similar to arugula)
Nettles Leaves, stems, roots Vitamin A, Calcium, Fiber, Magnesium, Iron, Potassium Eat them cooked (never raw, due to stingers), as a spinach substitute; make tea from the root or from leaves. Earthy with a slight bitter edge (similar to spinach)
Purslane Leaves, stems Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Beta-Carotene, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Potassium Use fresh in salads, soups, salsas; saute in a little olive oil, garlic, and seasoning Peppery and tangy with a lemony undertone
Cattails Flowers, roots and shoots Beta-carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, vitamin C Boil or roast peeled, chopped roots, use inner shoots in stir frys or a veggie saute. Mild, slightly bitter, cucumber-like
Nasturtiums Flowers and leaves Leaves: vitamin C, iron

Flowers: vitamins B1, B2, B3, C, manganese, iron, calcium

Garnish salads, sides with peppery petals, puree leaves with nuts and oil for pesto. Mildly peppery with mustard undertones
Raspberries Bright red fruit Vitamin C, vitamins B2, B3, B5, B6, vitamin E, fiber Out of hand, on yogurt, in a smoothie Sweet and tart
Sage Leaves Vitamin K, iron, vitamin B6, calcium, manganese Flavor pastas, soups, vegetables, rice dishes, or use dried leaves to make tea. Savory, herbal, almost pine-like with a hint of citrus
Pine Nuts (Pine Cone Seeds) Nut, shelled Potassium, vitamin C, protein, fiber, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium Classic as pesto, also toast and add to salads, vegetable sides, pilafs even pizza! Mild, slightly sweet with a pine-like undertone
Mustard Seeds, roots, leaves, and flowers Fiber, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, copper Blanche or boil leaves and use just like spinach, mix ground seeds with vinegar to make a mustard condiment, flavor oils with flowers. Sharp, peppery bite

 

Written by Lori Zanteson

Images by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

 

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