Yes, we are finally fully in the warm embrace of summer. Our walks are colored by nature’s bright palette and the monochrome of winter is a cold, distant memory. Now is the time to selectively harvest some of the wild edibles close to home. Foraging is a timeless skill passed from parent to child, shared among friends, acquired in the classroom and field lab, or sleuthed through internet searches. Among the epicurious, being able to identify which “weeds” are welcome at the table adds layers of new flavor to the meal and extends the ever-tightening food budget.
But before you go out and start grazing in the neighborhood park, here are some tips I have gained through the years as an urban and suburban forager:
- Be curious, but also be cautious. Do not run out to the meadows with your newly purchased field guide with the ill-advised notion that all plants are edible, medicinal, or useful. To put it bluntly, some of those plants are weeds to us. To an animal part of the plant may be food, shelter, or even protection. Take the time to learn one plant at a time.
- Be aware of your surroundings. If the chicory you are harvesting grows alongside a well-traveled walking trail used by pet owners, the chicory coffee you brew may have overtones of Fido in your morning cup of pick-me-up. The same can be said about harvesting along a road. It is difficult to say how many different pollutants the plants may have been exposed to over time. There are many pristine areas still waiting to be thinned out - get off the trail and find them.
- Observe how the plants grow. Strawberry and blackberry leaves are useful for tea infusions long before the plants bear fruit. Lambs quarter leaves become bitter as the plant gets older and other plants become unpalatable or tough with age.
- Invest in a good field guide with high-definition photos. Line drawings and watercolor paintings of plants are beautiful works of art, but not very useful when identifying a plant in the wild. Many field guides are regional. If the guide you have purchased identifies plants of the western desert, its usefulness in the northern boreal forest will be limited.
- Take only what you need. By leaving more for the future you are ensuring that what you are doing will sustain the plants for future use. Invasive species are a different story. These plants are a pest, and you can take as much as you like. So, feel free to gobble up all the garlic mustard you come upon.
- Before trespassing on private lands, try to get permission from the landowner. Some are very open to sharing nature’s bounty, others are not. Be polite and ask first.
GROWING INTEREST IN EDIBLE WILD PLANTS
Everyone has been confronted with the rising cost of groceries. In addition to finding stress relief by wiling away the hours in the woods, foraging for wild edible plants offers free additions to mealtime. You will quickly see the savings when sitting down to a free dandelion, nettle and wintercress salad when the price of a pre-packaged salad is over $4.00. When the mulberries start ripening, the comparison to a pint of raspberries will make you smile.
You can find all kinds of information through online foraging groups and websites. Digital photos provide a handy reference while in the field and there are always more experienced foragers willing to offer advice in identifying unknown plants. You may even find classes or schedules for group outings online.
WHERE CAN I FORAGE LOCALLY?
Wisconsin is a wonderful state to start learning about edible wild plants. The state offers many different areas, from Federal lands to State lands to County lands to Municipal lands and finally to private land. Each area has different rules depending on who owns the property.
- Federal lands: Foraging is allowed in the Nicolet, Chequamegon National Forests, and the Apostle Islands; however, the rules are different at each. For instance, you may be able to forage wild mushrooms in Nicolet but not on the Apostle Islands. You may also find foraging limits, check with the Park Manager of federal lands before wandering off looking for blueberries.
- State lands: Foraging is allowed on state properties. Check the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for specifics on what kinds of foraging are permitted.
- County lands: Counties can set their own rules for foraging. Foraging is not allowed in Milwaukee County Parks (but you can stroll through the park with your dog taking photos of wild plants to aid in future identification), for instance, but foraging is allowed in Racine County Parks (though dogs are not allowed).
- Municipal (neighborhood) properties: These also can set guidelines and restrictions on what can and cannot be harvested. Call your local parks department to find out what restrictions may apply in your area.
As you can see, you don’t have to live in the wilderness to enjoy learning the art of foraging. You can shop the wild pantry right in your area.
WHEN IS FORAGING SEASON?
Like many of us raised in Wisconsin, we are used to specific start dates for our seasons; there are specific start dates for the Brewers, Bucks, Admirals, and Packers. You know in advance that in early May you need to go through your tackle box and in November hang out the Orange. The dates for our foraging Season are non-specific. When the first fiddlehead breaks through the forest litter to when the last acorn falls is dependent primarily on the weather. A long winter, a dry summer, a wet spring will all impact the course of the foraging season.
Remember, foraging is a cumulative skill that is built up over years. You do not have to memorize all of the plants in the fields and meadows, just start with a couple and build your repertoire from there. Happy hunting!
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