Learning to Forage for Food!

This is an entry in our current non-fiction writing contest by Trina Schmidt, Ed.D.

Learning to Forage for Food!

Crab apples from behind target...

Crab apples from behind target…

Being able to go outdoors and see a plant and know that it is edible is a valuable survival skill.  However, for many, eating wild plants sounds unthinkable and even a bit crazy. A few years ago I might have even said the same thing. I grew up in the suburbs during the eighties where food only came from a grocery store and anything growing wild would be met with severe suspicion.  No one questioned where food came from or what was in it.  A farmer’s market was a dirty, smelly place downtown that you visited maybe once a year for the experience.  Genetically modified food was something from a science fiction novel and intolerance to whole classes of food like grain was unheard of.

Pine Needle Tea

Pine Needle Tea

Fast forward to today’s world where pesticides are built into the genetics of some of our most basic foods and the prices of products noticeably increase weekly.  Is it any wonder with the uncertainty of our food quality and the increasing dire economic situation of our nation that a new interest in foraging for wild food has taken the United States by storm?  You can find hotbeds of foraging groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.  Gourmet chefs are finding new and unusual uses for what was once considered weeds.  Unfortunately, foraging skills are all but lost domestic art forms to most of the population.

How do you begin to learn these skills?  This article will discuss the steps to learning how to forage.

Be Safe

Safety is the first rule when foraging.  Imagine a banana.  You know what a banana looks like.  You would not hesitate to pick it up and eat it.  That is how sure you need to be that what you are eating is safe.  For any new plant that you forage you should confirm from at least three sources that what you have is what you believe it to be.

Learning to Forage for Food

Crab apple tree that began my foraging.

Also keep in mind that you may have an allergy to certain plants that you do not know about.  Always try just a small amount first to see if you have a reaction.  These wild cousins of the grocery store vegetables did not make it to the produce aisle for a reason.  What you see at the store is the milk toast of vegetables, least likely to cause reactions in people and chosen for the monetary benefit of the producer not the consumer.  Unfortunately you also trade nutrition for over bred easily digestible vegetables.  For instance, while we consider spinach to be a powerhouse of nutrition, dandelions have seven times more phytonutrients [1].  However, because dandelions are so easily available, there is no money in its addition to the grocery store shelf.  Unless of course, you are Whole Foods and import it from California to a clientele who would never even associate this vegetable with the plant that actually grows in the parking lot!  This example is far from being unique.

Learning to Forage for Food

White Clover flour.

Safety is not only in what you consume but in how you acquire your wild edible.  Make sure you wear bug spray or you might just bring home a nasty collection of chigger bites and ticks.  If you are on private property, be sure and ask permission.  Be prepared for hot weather and bring a lot of water.  Always tell someone where you are going.

Evaluate What You Do Know

Did your grandmother ever pick Poke plant growing up?  Do you know what a blackberry looks like?  Often you will have knowledge of plants that if just connected to their edibility will open a new world to you.  For instance, as a child did you ever pick the clover flowers and make chains?  These flowers are edible and can even be dried and ground into flour.  Do you have roses growing in your yard?  The petals can be used for jellies, syrups, candy and in bread.  Do you know what a pine tree looks like?  The pine needles of many pine trees can be used to make a delicious tea which has 4-5 times the vitamin C of fresh squeezed orange juice and is high in vitamin A.  It has been used throughout history to treat scurvy [2]. Did you ever enjoy the sweet nectar of the honeysuckle as a child?  Honeysuckle makes an excellent jelly.

Learning to Forage for Food

Whole foods dandelions for sale.

Be Inquisitive

Look around you.  What is currently blooming?  Throughout the growing season there will be waves of plants showing up.  Here is the South, there is a time where thistles will be prolific.  Their purple spikey flowers will show up everywhere.  It turns out that thistle is edible and if you remove the prickly edges, the center of the stem is quite tasty.  Research has also suggested that thistle has anti-cancer effects by reducing the blood supply to tumors and preventing cancer cells from dividing and reproducing [3]. Take the time to identify your currently blooming plants.  If there is a field of flowers, stop and photograph that plant and research it until you know what it is.

Learning to Forage for Food

Wild Blackberries

I began foraging three years ago all due to a tree that I had obliviously passed for six years.  One day I realized that it had small green balls of fruit growing on it.  It was next to a stop sign at my kids’ school.  I finally stopped and took a sample to a local plant nursery.  The young employee thought it was a cherry, but I knew that was wrong.  It had multiple small seeds not a single seed.  I kept searching until I found a match online and discovered it was a crab apple.  I then began experimenting with recipes, and I was hooked.  This tree was abundant, and I could make jelly all summer long.  I was always into saving money and to discover all this potential free healthy food everywhere was exciting.

Because of this experience I began to look around me more closely.  Suddenly I was seeing wild grapes at Home Depot, blackberries at the Post Office and mulberries in my local park.  They were always there, I had just not paid attention.

Look in unusual places.  I have found some of the best wild edibles in the growth behind grocery stores and in business parking lots.  Some of the prettiest blooming trees are fruit trees and often business parks will plant them.  Pay attention the next time you go to your dentist or pediatrician’s office.  Our local post office has the most amazing field of blackberries next to it.  Our local Target has twenty beautiful large crab apple trees behind it.  Some foragers will even volunteer where these trees are.  Check out Fallingfruit.org to see if your local area foragers have mapped some of these wild trees.

Connect With Other People with Similar Interests

The internet is an amazing tool for foragers.  If you belong to Facebook, join the Plant Identification group.  It is always helpful to have others look at your finds and help you identify them.  At the very least it will reassure you that you made the right determination.  Also by reading the other requests, you gain knowledge as well.  There are also Facebook groups for Wild Edibles Plants that you can join where people share their finds and recipes.  Pinterest has a huge collection of wild edible links.  You can also use the search tool on Pinterest for specific plants.

Learning to Forage for Food

Wild grapes

Find out who in your local area is knowledgeable on foraging and take a class.  I have taken several classes with our local naturalist.  It was a fantastic way to jump start my knowledge. Photograph and write everything down that is discussed and research it when you get home so that you will remember it.  Try searching Meetup.com to see if there are any local teachers or groups available in your area.

Acquire a Good Selection of Reference Material

Thrift store book sections are great places to look for reference material.  I have found many books on herbs, mushrooms and several on wild edible plants.  Try your local bookstore for relevant material.  My local book store has a small section on wild edible plants in the “nature” section (not usually found in gardening).  It even has one or two wild edible cookbooks!

Amazon has a large collection of wild edible books.  Some of my favorites include Edible Wild Plants; Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate by John Kallas, The Forager’s Harvest; A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samual Thayer, Mushrooming without Fear; A Beginners Guide to Collecting Safe and Delicious Mushrooms by Alexander Schwab, and one of the foraging classics, Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons.

Your local library may be a great resource.  See if there is anything in the nature section and also in the cookbook section.  I have found that some of the cookbooks with antique recipes in them (like founding fathers, old South, and Civil War cookbooks) contain wild edible recipes.

Watch Videos

YouTube has a large collection of foraging videos.  Green Deane is one of my favorites. You can find his site at Eattheweeds.com.  He has over a hundred videos and is very knowledgeable.  He will even answer your questions.  While photographs of plants are a great resource, seeing the plant being used gives you a much better understanding.  Just knowing how big a certain plant is will be very helpful in looking for it.

Keep Track of Your Information

Write down what you learn.  A simple notebook will work.  When you visit an area, write down the location, date and what you find.  What you find will change throughout the year.  This way you will know where and when to find your treasures!  I also use it to store my research on the plant and recipes for its use.

Add your finds and locations to an online calendar.  Set it up so that it repeats every year.  That way you easily know when to go hunt for those Mulberries or pick that Plantain.  I use Cozi.com which is a free service and my whole family has access to it.  It sends you weekly emails letting you know what is coming up.

Be Courageous

It takes courage to try a new plant.  However, I guarantee that after you try it the first time, the fear will disappear and you will look forward to finding that plant next year.  This year I cannot wait for the milkweed flower pods to begin forming because last year I tried it for the first time, and they taste just like asparagus.

If you are still hesitant, try growing some of the wild edibles for confidence.  Many of the wild edible plant seeds can be found online.  It is a slower path but you will become intimately knowledgeable about all stages of the plant.  Try Rareseeds.com for a nice collection of seeds, some of which can be found in the wild.  I have done this with plants that I just cannot find locally but really want to see.

Foraging is a wonderful hobby and life skill.  It is a treasure hunt that can benefit you financially and nutritionally.  It is a great skill to teach to your children as well!  While your kids may complain (mine do), I can pull up to a stop light and point to the grassy medium and my nine year old daughter can usually name at least two wild edibles available.  In these uncertain times, that skill may become priceless!  Happy hunting!


 [1] Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food (The New York Times)

By: Robinson, Jo. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/opinion/sunday/breeding-the-nutrition-out-of-our-food.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] “Pine Needle Tea is Cure for Scurvy.” Toledo Blade 26 Nov. 1943. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19431126&id=0thOAAAAIBAJ&sjid=uf8DAAAAIBAJ&pg=7201,3982067

[3] Scientific Evidence Of The Significant Anti-cancer Effect Of Milk Thistle (ScienceDaily) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071114111149.htm


Prizes for this round (ends August 11 2014) in our non fiction writing contest include…

  1. First place winner will receive –  A $150 gift certificate for Fiocchi Ammo courtesy of LuckyGunner, and a Wonder Junior Deluxe grain mill courtesy of Kitchen Neads.
  2. Second place winner will receive – 15 Live Fire Original – Emergency Fire Starters courtesy of LPC Survival and a Survival Puck  courtesy of Innovation Industries.
  3. Third place winner will receive – a copy of my book ”31 Days to Survival: A Complete Plan for Emergency Preparedness“ and “Dirt Cheap Survival Retreat” courtesy of  TheSurvivalistBlog.net and copy of “The Survival Medicine Handbook” courtesy of www.doomandbloom.net.


  1. Spudweb says:

    excellent article. Well written and very informative, Thank you.

  2. I grew up eating like this so I think nothing of it,because It was a of life for me. But I think your blog is good and I enjoyed it. I also liked how you pushed safety for those don’t know.

  3. jamullins says:

    a plastic 5 gallon bucket, a small garden trowel, a sharp pocket knife, and a good field guide can turn several hours a week into a tremendous resource.

    Learn to trap and brush hunt as well. Through in a .22 pistol, a forked stick, and some trap line to set or repair traps and you can bring in a lot of food routinely.

    Keep large insects like grass hoppers and grubs for fishing bait, check the berry bushes for snakes, and be on the lookout for animal runs near the plants you forage and set out snares.

    Rabbits, squirrels, and the like make a great cook pot opportunity while foraging.

    Don’t forget to trail-blaze the path you used and make notes of where you foraged. It makes it easier to return to those areas. Don’t over forage, it can ruin the hunting in an area sometimes.

  4. I used to pick wild blackberries and rasberries when I was a kid, grapes too.I had neighbors who would pick dandelions for salad,tea, and wine. We had a couple of crab-apple trees in our yard that seemed to be wild, we domesticated them over the years, and made apple sauce and pies.

  5. Very good article. The referenced books are good too. My yard and just into adjoining woods has some edible stuff — blueberries, oxalis, pine (gives me heartburn, though), 2-color bolette mushrooms, thistle, clover, acorns, hickory nuts, dandelion, wild black cherry (for the inner bark), violets, sorrel, wild onion, and probably more that I’m not thinking of right now.

  6. Summer is the time to explore your options for foraging in the wild and using palatable recipies. I will be trying to make homesteader’s honey with fireweed, clover and sugar. I already tried newly sprouted birch leaves in my salad and they were delicious and tender. Wild rose petals, lambs quarters, columbine flowers, and cattail shoots will be added this week to my salad. I combine crab apple with wild grape for jelly and will do this in the fall, now I found the crab apple trees growing in the national forest of all places.

    With the coming inflation due to food shortages, drought, and war, there are a number of ways to add to your food without paying those high prices. Iraq is the second exporter of oil in the world, and that will stop with their new war so expect everything from food and transportation to increase because gas prices will rise.

  7. JP in MT says:


  8. Wow I should not type when I first wake up. But like I said loved the blog and liked how you talked about safety. There has been alot of people who have eaten the wrong plants over the years. Nice job

  9. mom of three says:

    My parent’s have blackberrys up the wazzu, huckleberrys too. I will need to see what they look like to make sure they are o.k. to eat. Clover, is all over I should pick some this year. It’s amazing what is growing in plain sight.

  10. Hunker-Down says:

    We had a few families who annually harvested wild asparagus on the sides of a two lane highway. I think they competed to be the first to be ‘out there’ just as the spears were the right size. Knowing where to look, and when, is an acquired skill.
    Last year the state replaced the roads blacktop, and re-graded the drainage slopes. No more asparagus.

    We like to hint for morel mushrooms in the spring, but having lived here only 12 years, the native hunters will not reveal the location of their hunting grounds to us newbies. Most will deny it if you ask if they hunt morels, but sometimes their body language reveals that they lie.

  11. Nice article. Would include looking at plantings of neighbors -tulip bulbs, willow. Birch etc.

  12. tommy2rs says:

    Be careful with the poke salat. It has to be boiled in 3 waters before it’s safe to eat and it’s better to pick it with gloves on.

    I’m lucky in that we have wild blackberry everywhere, wild plum thickets, wild persimmons, wild grapes, black walnut, oaks, pines, plenty of clover (white and red), red sumac, sassafras, wild onion, wild garlic and tons of wild greens for the picking on the property. Only things I haven’t found that I wanted to find are wild ginseng and yellowroot.

  13. very good article and thanks for the book reference.

  14. I love wild foods! My gramma taught me to forage when I was little, and I’ve done it all my life. My favorites are Lamb’s Quarter and Mustard. I didn’t have either one growing on my property, so I wild-gathered some of both after they went to seed. I spread the branches in areas where I wanted it to grow, and now I have several ‘wild’ stands of greens here and there.
    My husband didn’t know what to think the first time he saw me come home with a trunk full of weeds. But he loves them now too.
    Foraging can keep your food bill under control, and even your livestock feed can be supplemented this way. I almost never have to buy chicken or goat feed, they love wild food too.

  15. Thomas The Tinker says:

    I lived in Bowling Green Ohio for a number of years. I began to ride the Slippery Elm bike trail south out of town in July of 1995. It goes from BG to North Baltimore Ohio. I started with planting garlic cloves along the trail then oats and onions. When I moved out of BG I was putting in berry and grapes around the old Quarries and trees around Rudolph. These were very ‘cheap’… seeds, old bulbs, hardware store berry and grape shoots. TOOT toot.

    The BG ‘Pantry’ is kinda hard to get to now but I have been doing the same Gorilla gardening here in Toledo since Y2k and out in Wauseon around the range since 2009. This is downright ‘cheap’ and easy. It gives, me at least, something to drop by on and clip and pick as the whim moves me & gives me an excuse to hit the range more than I need to. I enjoy the fertive seedings and vine plantings and its kinda nice to get away with it.

    ??? Just thinking on what could be out there if just 1 in 10 of the prepping culture tried this ??

    End of Ego Trip……….

    • D in MN says:

      I have spread wild food seeds in places I want to harvest on public property, and taking plants that would never reproduce or live long where they are and transplanting them to better locations. I have now many blueberry plants, raspberries, juneberries, blackberries, and wild cherry trees producing more than I can use.

      Being Johnny appleseed may be the wave of the future when shtf and domestic seeds cannot be found anymore, and what harvest can be done on public property benefits the whole community so they aren’t raiding your stash.

  16. patientmomma says:

    Thanks, I’m a fan!! A great introduction to foraging! It does take some time to learn which plants are usable and some experience in gathering the correct amounts. Wild clover flour takes a bunch of blossoms-even to mix with other flour!

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