Written by Ruth Weaver
Foraging has boomed in popularity in recent years as people seek to connect with nature. This article from expert forager Ruth Weaver teaches you how to do it safely and sustainably.
With the rising energy of spring brings some of the most prolific and exciting months for gathering wild edible and medicinal plants. The plant world is about to burst into life, emerging from the hedgerows, rising from the dormancy of winter.
Many of the early spring herbs coming up at this time of year are deeply nutritive, having grown out of dormant roots or from seed out of the winter earth; that is earth (or soil) that has been enriched from the decay of autumn leaves, meaning that there is, at this time, a high concentration of important life giving minerals and microbes present in the earth.
The earth after winter is at its most potent, perfect for sustaining and nourishing the abundant plant life that will emerge throughout the seasons ahead; Spring, Summer and Autumn. Spring foraging is predominantly of leafy green vegetables, herbaceous plants and flowers.
A perfect example of how nature recycles its energy to renew life and also an example of how nature provides, in that the medicines now available can provide us with the correct nutrients and health benefits for the respective season i.e. spring herbs containing a high mineral content – improving blood quality and cellular regeneration for the more active months of the year ahead, also lymphatic herbs to clear away the stagnation of winter.
Foraging on the rise
Over the last two years we have seen a rise in popularity in foraging for food and medicine as people were spending more time outdoors and walking in nature during the pandemic. Whilst the country was forced to change from its normal routines in both work and life we witnessed a unanimous reawakening of the natural instinct to reconnect with our natural spaces.
This reawakened interest has so many benefits for us as individuals, foremost, reconnecting our relationship with the natural world. With this reconnection, comes a restored value, a sense of importance and appreciation for the offerings of nature.
With this surge of new interest however, it is important that we consider how we can learn most effectively considering our personal safety, sustainability and harvesting issues. So, let’s explore foraging through the eyes of professional foragers for some top tips on how to learn about the incredible world of foraging, creating a foundation of knowledge that can be confidently explored.
Connection to place
Many will have already become familiar with their local wild spaces and will have a good idea of the types of plants that grow in them and some will be looking to learn the about their local habitats.
Whether you live near coastal paths and beaches, woodlands or forests, hedgerows or meadows or urban parks, it is important to form a connection to the land. Of course foremost for the purpose of observing the plants that one intends to forage as they change throughout the seasons, the habitats and species that interact with them, but also for understanding the land use so to avoid harvesting contaminated material.
Observing seasonal changes
The beginning of a foragers journey should always start with a period of observation, ideally over a year to observe how the plants change with the seasons. Plants can change dramatically as they leaf, flower and fruit throughout the seasons for example, leaf size and shape can change in a period of weeks, younger leaves sometime even comparatively different in shape and texture compared to the more mature leaves of the same plant.
Knowing your plant is also very important if you’re planning on harvesting roots, because the aerial parts are often dying or have died off completely by the time root harvesting season comes around (very early spring or autumn).
Land use and contamination
It is also important to learn about land use to identify if there are any potential contaminants that may effect ones harvest, for example from mining, farming or use of pesticides and herbicides etc.
Observing an area of land or a footpath in which one intends to gather from is an essential part of foraging safety. Coming to understand the way the land is being used will enable one to avoid any potentially toxic contamination of the plants being harvested.
Through spending time in these places, looking into the use of land through investigating types of farming that are taking place, any industrial history. This will sometimes be obvious with industrial buildings or ruins in sight. Sometimes unusual mounds of earth may indicate mining waste or landfill. The best way to be sure about this would be to contact the local council or landowner (if foraging from a public right of way).
The safe way to identify edible and medicinal plants
With this surge of new interest it is important that we consider how we can learn most effectively considering our personal safety. Whilst there are many easily identifiable edible and medicinal plants, there are also a number of easily mistakable poisonous plants that anyone who is embarking on a foraging journey should be aware of.
Among the British and European flora grows some of the most deadly plants in the world, and they’re more common than many realize. So one must always begin their foraging journey learning safe practice in identification before anything is harvested or ingested.
Please note: Namely there are plants in the Carrot family (Apiaciae) that many professional foragers will warn about, therefore it is advised to avoid plants from this family if you are a beginner, taking good time to learn about them or seeking experienced guidance with regard to plants from this family.
Foragers and herbalists know the importance of learning basic botany and using a proper guide to identify plants correctly. So the first thing anyone who is interested in learning about foraging should do is get their hands on a comprehensive plant identification guide, such as a Collins guide to British and European Flora (if in UK), or any good flower guide.
These books contain a ‘key’ under which the individual botanical characteristics, such as leaf shape, flower colour, fragrance etc can be checked. Sometimes the difference between two plants can be discreet features such as having a solid or a hollow stem, number or shape of petals or sepals, presence or absence of fragrance and so on. Use of a proper key is the most accurate and effective way to confidently identify a plant.
A plant guide will contain detailed images and descriptions of all the plants found to grow in a specific region, country or continent. So after using the key one will at least know which plant family a plant specimen belongs to. Which can then be compared against a small number of similar plants in this genus to find what accurately fits the details shown in the book.
Plant identification apps
There are now a number of plant identification apps available, many are turning to these apps to help identify plants for foraging. However, can we rely on this as a way to safely advise on the edibility of a plant? If you ask any professional botanist, forager or herbalist, the answer will be no.
Unfortunately the inaccuracy of using these apps has been demonstrated time and time again, which has indeed led to serious cases of poisoning. These apps work by matching botanical characteristics of uploaded images. However, as you can see from above, often the differences between two plants are more discreet or sometimes invisible, such as fragrance, hollow stems, presence of fine hairs etc, these can not be translated through a digital image.
Plant identification apps can possibly be useful for guiding one towards a plant genus or species, just that they should never be used alone. Truthfully, the only foolproof way of identifying a plant is through proper use of a plant guide key. This invaluable knowledge is arguably the most sustainable and also the most rewarding, ultimately forging a deeper and more permanent understanding of the plant world.
You can also check out wildflowerfinder.org.uk
Sustainability in foraging
Many of the most popular edible and medicinal plants are common or well known as ‘weeds’, also plants that grow fairly abundantly in their natural habitats such as dandelion, nettle, plantain etc. However there are occasionally plants and fungi that are endangered or rare which will most likely be illegal to harvest in the UK, such as Lions Mane Mushroom, Centaury, Oak polypore etc.
Sometimes a plant is only locally endangered or uncommon i.e. not classified as rare or endangered but that it is not well established in the habitat or region. This is also something one must observe as they come to form a connection to any foraging territories.
Of course these plants should be left untouched. Alternatively, one may source through a trusted medicinal plant supplier or herbalist. It is also worth noting that there are usually other medicinal plants or combinations of, that could work effectively for the same condition or desired outcome. Again, a good herbalist would be able to offer advice or guidance here.
Even with the more common plants, we have to consider sustainability in harvesting, being mindful of the habitats and other species that are supported by them.
How much should I take?
As a rule of thumb foragers advise never to take more than one third of what is growing in a patch or area. This is because when one has harvested the required quantities for the intended purpose, it is essential that enough is left for the plant to regenerate itself in that patch.
If you need to harvest more, walk further and take smaller amounts from a number of different locations along the route, rather than all from the same place. This also ensures that there is enough left for the other species that interact with these plants.
We have a responsibility to consider all the complex processes happening in our natural spaces when we interact with them, especially where we plan to take something away, we want to ensure that we at least avoid having a negative impact, better still, we could even consider ways to benefit the environment.
Best practices for harvesting
Another rule of foraging is to always bring the book to the plant (as oppose to returning with cut specimens to identify at home). This is firstly because there are often factors about the habitat that are key for identification i.e. if the plant grows near a stream or a water source or a plant that grows in the shade as oppose to in a sunny position etc; all defining factors for identification. Bringing a book to the plant is also important because one may take a plant and later find it to be a rare or endangered specimen.
One must also pay close attention whilst harvesting, always tracing the flower to the leaf, the leaf to the stem and the stem to the ground, taking care to ensure all plant parts are observed and that they match up. It is possible otherwise to end up with the incorrect plants accidentally mixed in with a harvest i.e. harvesting elderflowers (an often shrubby tree, whose umbel like flowers can grow fairly low) among clumps of poisonous hemlock whose tall umbel flowers are up in amongst the low lying elderflowers, a mistake one would likely only make once (because hemlock is deadly!).
Therefore it is always advised to cut individual plant parts as opposed to grabbing clumps of leaves/ flowers. When taking a large harvest real attention must be taken so that everything that lands in your basket is what you had intended to forage.