Last modified: 24/07/2018

When you eat a diet rich in locally foraged wild foods, you experience benefits well beyond their attractive price. Foraged wild plants are not genetically manipulated and they are not sprayed with pesticides or preservatives. A diet rich in wild foods is often higher in fibre, minerals and vitamins. You don’t have to worry about high levels of saturated fats and sugar content.

Where should you go foraging?

The natural environment contains not only edible plants but also some inedible ones too. Even worse, some edible plants have a couple of deadly toxic parts, others are deadly poisonous. Being able to distinguish wild edible plants in their natural environment is an enviable achievement in wilderness living skills that requires serious care and attention to detail.

Be A Law Abiding Forager

Plants within Provincial Parks, National Parks and Nature Reserves are protected by law. Anyone caught picking, damaging or transplanting plants within their boundaries can be apprehended or fined. Some municipalities also have laws about foraging near roadways which need to be respected.

Do Not Forage in Places Where Picking is Unethical or Inconsiderate

Do not gather plants in place where they are serving to educate the public about biodiversity and the natural environment such as along public trails, nature walks, boardwalks or school yards. Respect private property and do not trespass when foraging.

Stay Safe While You’re Out Foraging 

Avoid areas that might be dangerous such as animal dens, avalanche zones, regions prone to mudslides or flooding. Carry a bear spray when foraging in bear country and keep your wits about you- look up frequently and listen carefully to what is going on around you. Always carry a map and compass in case you become disoriented when hunting for wild plants.

Pay attention to the soil quality in areas where you’re foraging.

Wild plants growing near roads, farms, orchards, railroads, power-line right-of-ways can be dangerously high in chemicals such as lead, benzene, oil and herbicides.

Also be aware that droppings from pets and wild animals can get into the water system spreading bacteria, viruses, worms, Giardia and ameobas onto wild plants. Washing and cooking wild foraged plants can help prevent disease and infection.

What should you forage?

Forage For Plants That Are Abundant and Thriving

You should have some idea of the effect your harvesting will have on your target plant population. Is the plant common enough to be gathered? Is the plant well established in this region or struggling to survive? Favour aggressive, quickly reproducing, invasive, introduced species in your foraging diet.

Protect Endangered Species

Certain edible wild plants are protected by law, regardless of where they grow. Get informed about endangered or protected species in your area. Mark them in your favourite plant identification books.

Protect Plants That Are Of Cultural Importance To Indiginous Peoples

Many native plants are of great cultural importance to indiginous people for their spiritual or medicinal ceremonies and practices. Even though they may not yet be protected by law, it’s worthy of consideration and good practice to mark them in your favourite plant identification books.

Forage Only For Species You Are Absolutely Certain You Can Correctly Identify

You need to be absolutely certain about the identification of the plants that you plant to consume. Always cross-reference with two or more field guides. Make sure that you have seen at least two coloured photos of the plant in a publication. Black and white photos and botanical illustrations can be helpful but they are not sufficient for identification.

If you have any doubts, get a second opinion from an expert. The expert may want to know information about where the plant was growing and see a complete specimen.

It can be helpful to watch a plant through its entire growth cycle before eating it. This is helpful because many wild plants taste best when they are small furled and difficult to identry. By examining them frequently and knowing where they grow, you will know better what you’re looking for next year and where to find it.

Get Familiar With the Scientific Names of Edible Wild Plants

In this regard, the scientific names of the plant you are planning to harvest can be very important. A plant can have many common names and many different plants often share the same common name. The common name is like a nickname, while the scientific name is the real name given exclusively to one and only one plant no matter where it is found in the world.

A scientific name has two parts:

  1. The name of the genus which normally comes first and is usually capitalized
  2. The species name which comes second and is usually all lower case letters

Unless you learn to use the scientific name of the plant, there may be instances when others may not be sure which plant you are talking about when seeking help in identification.

Occasionally, you may encounter a statement such as “the Viola species are all edible.” This statement means that all the plants of the genus Viola are edible. Be very careful to critically evaluate the accuracy of blanket statements such as these when dealing with information given verbally or written on the internet. Always verify using printed information in published reference texts which have been carefully edited and reviewed by experts.

Check to make sure that the part of the plant you plan to consume is truly edible.

You need to be absolutely certain that the part of the plant you plant to consume is truly edible. Some plants are considered edible because ONE of the parts of the plant is edible. Never assume that the whole plant is edible.

Before eating a plant raw, check to make sure that it is safe to do so.

Some wild plants are only edible when cooked. They can contain toxins

What’s the best way to forage?

responsible management of natural resources means ensuring a sustainable harvest, not just its exploitation.

Best practice: Collect Only What You Can Reasonably Hope to Process and Consume

Sometimes, the limiting factor is not your appetite but the time you have available for collecting, harvesting and processing your bounty.

Best practice: Leave Plants With A Reasonable Chance At A Full Life Cycle

Harvest only what you intend to eat- leaving the rest of the plant as uninjured as possible so it can heal. This means carefully inspecting the leaves and picking only the usable ones. You will find that some plants can be sheared off completely- like being eaten by a rodent or an ungulate while others may prefer pruning with scissors or sheers.

Best practice: Minimize The Impact of Your Root Harvesting

When harvesting roots, try to leave a small piece of the root in the ground if you are harvesting a species that can regrow from root stock. When digging for roots, minimize the disturbance to soil and surrounding vegetation to prevent erosion.

Best practice: Pick Over-Crowded Plants First

Thinning out crowded plants can help the surrounding plants grow more successfully. Start your picking by taking a moment to evaluate the concentration and distribution of your target species in the area you intend to pick.

Picking:Leaving Ratio of 1:5 for Common Plants, 1:10 for Less Common Plants and 1:20 for Scarce Plants

If you over-pick an single area, the local wildlife may suffer from food shortages or a lack of habitat. Not to mention, if you fail to leave enough plants to ensure the reproduction of the species and you will have to waste countless hours of your time looking for a new patch next year.

Cooking and Preserving Wild Plants For Future Consumption

Best Practice: Never assume that it is safe to eat edible wild plants raw. 

Some edible wild plants, like the Chokecherry and Marsh Marigold, contain toxins in their raw form that have to be denatured through cooking in order for the plant to be safe for human consumption. Always read the complete description of a plant’s edibility before snacking on raw parts of the plant.

As a general rule, it is always better to cook edible wild plants to mitigate potential environmental health risks such as contamination from pets or wildlife.

Best Practice: Carefully Label Your Specimens With Their Name, Date and The Place You Collected Them

In the event of indigestion, accidental poisoning or doubt, you will know exactly which batch to throw out.

Know How To Safely Preserve and Store The Specimens You Are Collecting

Some wild plants do not freeze and thaw like store-bought plants. Make sure you research species specific information about safe preservation techniques.

Serving Wild Plants At The Dinner Table

Practice Informed Consent

Do not surprise guests by telling them that the meal they just ate contains wild edible plants. People deserve to be informed about the potential risks of your foraging lifestyle and dinner ingredients because they may have a known allergy. If you want to share your passion for foraging, involve them in the process of identifying the plant and preparation of the food so they can fully enjoy the meal.