I’ve talked about our foraging adventures in the past but that’s usually something specific with recipes or techniques. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the concept of foraging. People have a tendency to give me weird looks when I talk about finding plants to eat. Some feel I am braver or smarter than they are while others just think I am nuts. I must be one of “those” people.
Foraging does several things for me. It does provide food. It brings me closer to nature. It lets me in on a secret that brings me joy and excitement. I, always, learn something new when it comes to foraging. I learn new places, new plants, new techniques. It tells me that no matter what, I will always have food for my family. And it has opened my eyes like I couldn’t believe.
My mom talks about walking in the woods. Before she started foraging, the surface of the woods was just there. It lacked color or anything interesting. As she learned about the plants there, suddenly, the forest floor came alive. She could see the diversity, the color, the wonder. Trees no longer are trees – they are firs, cedars, and so much more.
For me, I love that I can identify so many plants as we drive in the car. I can, almost, identify trees as we zoom past them. This past Monday, we drove my son to Moses Lake to bring him back to school. I couldn’t help but watch the vegetation as we drove. I noticed some daisy-looking plants along the highway. Not only did I see their beauty and wonder, I came across something I would have never noticed. They only existed in a very specific area. Once we had passed a particular town, those flowers were nowhere to be seen.
We stopped on the way back and got some samples so I could identify them. Turns out they are sunflowers. Much different from the versions we grow in gardens. They are edible and will be there until the end of summer. If I were lost and I saw those flowers, I’d know what the neighboring towns were. Imagine, I could tell where I was based on those flowers. To me, that’s amazing.
Foraging is usually about finding food. I think of it as gathering knowledge. We not only learn what is edible or not but what is medicinal or beautiful or just interesting. Some of my favorite plants I have learned to identify have nothing to do with plants we can consume. Our last trip to the woods we discovered a rare red stalk. It’s not edible at all and it’s an endangered plant. A plant that may only exist in that area, who knows, and we saw it. Not only did we see it with our eyes, we acknowledged it’s wonder and beauty.
So, enough of that – I get poetic when I start talking about plants. I haven’t been able to get my family as enthusiastic so I don’t expect you to have that same feeling as I do. It will come.
How do you start foraging or plant identification? Honestly, I read blogs, books and what not but my favorite way is to just go where the plants are. I love walking with the plants and just finding a few that interest me. The best way to take information back with you is to take a picture. Some plants wilt and look completely different once you get them home. After that, I collect a leaf or two and a flower – if there are lots of that plant in the area. You never want to collect the only one.
In the beginning, you may want to just start with pictures. I was just thinking that some plants have defenses that can irritate skin so you may not be excited to continue if that first plant is rather unpleasant.
Once you have your “samples”, then turn to the internet. There are foraging groups online that are great for sharing pictures and learning about the plants. There are, also, databases. None of these are perfect. It takes time and I find that I am only partially successful. I would be surprised if I have correctly identified half my samples.
Another way to do this is to do the opposite, discover a plant online and then try to find it outside. I’m more successful that way.
I want to share a few websites. Don’t let locations of experts scare you. Some plants are all over. Some are regional. But you never know where information will come from or where it will lead you.
Green Deane – a foraging expert in Florida.
List of North American Trees – I just discovered this site and it’s not perfect but I think it will be useful once I start discovering the names of trees.
Plants of Washington – this is a washington database but you can do searches for plants based on some criteria. There are many plants that are universal in this database.
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook – I love Hanks enthusiasm. He’s a complete outdoorsman when it comes to food – he forages, hunts, etc. He’s where I go once I have a plant identified for ways to cook them.
Someday, I hope that foraging becomes as spiritual experience as it is for me. You don’t have to spend your days hunting for food or even pick enough to take home. Sometimes it’s just nice to know what is at your feet.