As a food nut I’m often asked to recall a favorite meal. Instead of raving about a famous chef or chic restaurant, I usually think back to the occasions I’ve foraged for my food: the wild leeks I dug up from the wet earth of a Great Lakes forest, the blackberries I spotted on a fog-encased gravel road in the Pacific Northwest, the handful of pea-sized strawberries I painstakingly collected from an 11,000-foot Rocky Mountain meadow, or the peppermint leaves snapped off a steep Hudson Valley riverbank.
These foraged foods stick in my mind because I handpicked them at the peak of their season: The berries were tiny explosions of sweetness; the smallest wild leek (also known as ramps) tasted of a strong sweet onion; and just one leaf of the mint—dense and chewy in my mouth—was sharper and more bracing than anything I’d ever bought in a store.
HARDY HARVEST. Plants that grow in the wild have higher levels of phytochemicals and antioxidants than domesticated plants because they have to defend themselves against pests and disease. “Because wild plants tend to go ‘from earth to mouth’ more quickly than supermarket produce, they maintain more of those nutrients,” says Lona Sandon, ME.d., R.D., L.D., of the American Dietetic Association. For instance, Sandon explains, wild edibles that appear in the spring—ramps, mint, dandelion greens—are all high in magnesium, which many people don’t get enough of during the winter months when fresh local produce grows scarcer.
ECO EATS. Harvesting wild plants is also easier on the earth. They require no plowing, planting, irrigation, pesticides, or herbicides. In short, wild edibles aren’t just low impact—they’re no-impact farming.
How to forage
Steve Brill, a renowned foraging guide and author of The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2002), shares his strategies for learning to forage successfully—and significantly diminish your risk of eating a plant that could make you sick.
START WITH A PRO. Don’t try to forage on your own for the first time. Take a tour or go with an experienced guide. None of the health benefits of wild food will mean much if you accidentally eat a poisonous look-alike.
Resource: Foraging.com provides links to regional foraging tours across the U.S.
CARRY A RESOURCE GUIDE. Once you’ve had a few guided foraging outings, try one on your own but take a book that identifies wild edibles from sprout to mature plant, and the inedible look-alike plants to avoid.
Resource: Check out Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so Wild) Places (Harper-Collins, 1994).
LEARN THE LIFE SPAN. It’s important to follow edible plants through every phase of their lives so you know when they’re ripe and safe to eat. Some plants, such as fiddlehead ferns, are edible as young shoots, but poisonous at maturity.
Resource: Read Sam Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest (Forager’s Harvest Press, 2006).
JOIN A FORAGING CLUB. Many areas of the U.S. have mycological societies or other foraging clubs worth joining.
Resource: Go to the North American Mycological Association’s website to find an affiliated club near you.