Saturday, September 26, 2015

Foraging: It's More Than Just Berries

There have always been groups of people that have been considered a little on the weird side. Homesteaders and preppers are on this list right along with goths and punks. It is strange to think about it, but to the society at large,  preppers are as far out on the fringe as any group can be. There is a group however that even the majority of preppers and homesteaders consider to be "out there". What group could be so strange that the people who are considered strange avoid them? Foragers. I know this isn't true of all, but if you talk to 100 people about foraging, 75 to 80 will look at you like you have grown another head. The ones that do not automatically think you are nuts usually think some type of berries like blackberries, blueberries, and the like. Once you tell them there is a lot more to it a large portion of these folks get the look. Some even find the topic interesting, but say they could never do that. I have friends that say I am the only one they know that can graze like a cow. They are exaggerating but I love foraging.

Like so many things, my love of foraging started with my grandfather. We would be out hunting or fishing or whatever and he would see a plant and would pick it and say "Here boy eat this." I would and then he would tell me about the plant. I honestly thought everyone had this kind of childhood for a while, but then I realized that my grandfather had given me something very special. He had given me a thirst for knowledge and a love for nature and the outdoors.

What is Foraging?

Forage is one of those words that can either be a noun or a verb.  Foraging can be a noun or an adjective. When I looked for the dictionary definition I was surprised by something that was clearly stated on the first site I went to. It clearly said that some English speaking people would know this word.

According to

1. food for horses or cattle; fodder; provender.
2. the seeking or obtaining of such food.
3. the act of searching for provisions of any kind.
4. a raid.
verb (used without object), foraged, foraging.
5. to wander or go in search of provisions.
6. to search about; seek; rummage; hunt:

He went foraging in the attic for old mementos.
7. to make a raid.
verb (used with object), foraged, foraging.
8. to collect forage from; strip of supplies; plunder:

to forage the countryside.
9. to supply with forage.
10. to obtain by foraging.

This definition almost makes it look like foraging is just for animals and thieves.  Another site was even less flattering. It included most of the above and the following.

Forage - raid, pillage, plunder,  loot, or scavenge.

Wow, I would have never thought of the word forage being used in that way. If the right person saw that and was offended they would have to take that down. 

A Rural Economist Definition

Forage - The art or skill of being able to find food and/or medicine where there appears to be none, using of the natural resources for provision.   

Now I will admit that I love foraging. I mean that. There are few things in the world as satisfying as seeing something growing in the wild and being able to use a resource that others think is useless. 

History of Foraging


There is really no way to adequately cover the history of foraging in anything less than a massive textbook.

Foraging has been an active part of the human condition for as long as there have been humans and it doesn't matter what your thoughts are on creation. If you are an evolutionist, foraging should be obvious. If you believe in a Divine Creation as written of in the Bible, then the Garden of Eden would have been foraging at its best. 

There are still tribes of people in this world that primarily support themselves through the acts of hunting/gathering. Even after what we would now consider agriculture started, people didn't abandon foraging.  It did shift a little, but not much. When a person was walking through a field or the woods and they found something that was edible, especially if it tasted good, they harvested it, no question. Many plants were harvested and dried because of their ability to make other things taste better. We now call those seasonings or herbs. 

There have always been at least one person in a group of any size that has specialized in medicinal herbs. In Native American cultures these were called Medicine Men or even Shaman. In the European culture these people were called either physicians or apothecaries. 

Foraging was not abandoned by the majority of people until the last couple of generations. 

How to Learn Foraging

Foraging is not one of those things that you want to learn by trial and error. There are some plants that taste bad that are edible, willow comes to mind because it is very bitter, and there are plants that I have been told actually taste pretty good that will make you very sick or even kill you. I have often wondered how someone figured out how to prepare American Poke weed. In my imagination I see a conversation going something like this.

Friend:"Joe are you okay?"

Joe:"Yeah, I'm fine, just got really sick after I ate that plant."

Friend:"Well don't eat it anymore."

Joe:"I wonder if it would be okay after I cook it?"

Friend:"Joe, are you serious?"


It had to be something along those lines because pokeweed leaves can make you very sick, but they were a Depression mainstay for many in the Southeastern United States. Not only do you have to cook it by par boiling, but it is suggested that you do so twice and dispose of the water each time. So how would someone who is interested in learning do so?

 Get a Good Book

A good field guide is worth its weight in gold when it comes to foraging. You can start with a general foraging book. These will give you a lot of plants, some of which will be in your area and some will not. Things to look for are good quality pictures and a listing of toxic look a likes. If a book lacks either, find another book.



Find a Mentor


Even though about 75% of the people you run into will think foraging is weird that means about 25% don't and at least of few of those will have knowledge you don't. Thus far I have managed to find someone in every community that has some knowledge about foraging. I know this sounds too easy and just as it is written it kinda is. When you find someone who knows a thing or two about foraging ask them who they learned from. Sometimes they will be able to refer you to a mentor, sometimes they will be like I am and will have learned some from an ancestor and have self taught the rest, or you may find they taught themselves with a book. Either way it is always easier to learn when you have someone with you who is more experienced. But there are some guidelines that you should consider when choosing a mentor.
  1. They should encourage you to bring your field guide with you.
  2. They should be willing to answer questions.
  3. They should eat everything they show you first.
  4. They should be confident outside.

Join a Foraging Group

Foraging is actually as one article put it "on the cutting edge of modern culinary culture" needless to say foraging is suddenly back in style. Foraging groups are popping up around the world. Larger cities will be more likely to have a foraging group. I have even heard that there is an active foraging group in New York city. I hope they don't get caught eating plants in Central Park.

There is a lot to be said for being a part of a learning group. Someone may think of a question that you didn't, but as soon as you hear it, you really want to know the answer. There is safety in groups and more eyes means more success.

Watch Videos on Wild Edible and Medicinal plants

Not to toot my own horn, but as of now I have 18 videos each of which cover an edible or medicinal plant and have several more in the works, and I am not the only one. You can check out and subscribe to my Youtube channel HERE.  There are dozens of people out there that will help you learn. I personally like learning from videos, they give me a better understanding of the surrounding areas, what to look for, and even the textures of a plant than any book really can.

The Best Way is a Mixture

For anyone and everyone starting out I always suggest getting a book that is based on your area. When you take this in conjunction with videos, and either a foraging group or a mentor, it will make things so much easier.

One Word of Warning

I have had people ask where they could take a couple day course to become proficient at foraging and the answer is nowhere. If you find an instructor that tells you, you can effectively learn to forage in just a couple of days they are just out for your money and if you take their advice and actively start foraging you will get very sick or worse.

So get a friend and buy a book, watch some videos, find a mentor, or a combination and get out there and learn about all of the wonderful things that God has provided for us in nature.

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