Foraging sounds like a great idea, right? Get back to nature, save loads of money, get some exercise, get loads of free food, and so on. And it is – but there’s a bunch of things you need to know. So, before you go haring off to harvest anything and everything, there’s a variety of basics you need to be aware of. Please, please take the time to understand the basic essentials of foraging.
Foraging within the confines of the law is vital, otherwise you could be fined or face prosecution, so checking into the legality of your planned activities is utterly essential. For example, in the UK, it is illegal, under the 1968 Theft Act, to profit from foraging, so you can’t harvest a whole bunch of stuff and go sell it. Additionally, if you’re not in a public area, you need permission from the landowner to forage anything, even weeds. You wouldn’t want random strangers coming onto your property and helping themselves to any goodies they find. It’s theft, and is punishable under law, so make sure you get permission before you begin. You can always offer to give the landowner a portion of what you harvest in return for their consent. Walking into a farmer’s field and helping yourself to a few of his crops isn’t foraging – it’s theft – so avoid this at all costs. It’s illegal to dig or pull up certain plants, too, so make sure you don’t accidentally lift any whole plants.
This sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to proper identification, and end up making themselves unwell. There are plants and fungi that vary from making you mildly ill to being potentially lethal. Therefore, you have to know what you’re looking for. You need a thorough description of the plants you’re looking for and clear images. It takes a while to acquire enough skill and knowledge to forage independently, so do your research, take along your tablet or book for easy identification and, if possible, when you’re first starting out, tag along with a seasoned forager, or even take a foraging course. Start with a “gateway to foraging food”, like wild asparagus.
Aside from ensuring you’re not trespassing, there are numerous other location-based factors to take into consideration. Obviously, you’ll need to know where you’re most likely to find each item, which you’ll find in each item’s description. You also need to know where not to forage. Lots of other books and websites advocate urban foraging, along road verges, in carparks, and in the city in general. This is a definite no-no. Seasoned foragers never do this. If you harvest in areas of high pollution, such as by a roadside, in a carpark, or in industrial areas, you end up consuming all the chemicals and debris that coat the plants. Even if you give them a thorough wash, there’s a good chance you won’t remove it all. Additionally, these same chemicals are in the soil, and many plants will draw them up, along with water and nutrients. Therefore, only forage in quiet, lesser polluted areas. It’s also a good idea to avoid harvesting right beside a footpath, at ground level, because, even if you’re a dog lover, it’s unlikely you’ll want to eat produce that those pesky pups have tiddled on. It’s not a terribly appealing idea. And of course, it’s not just dogs. Cats, rodents, deer, and a whole host of other wildlife tend to tiddle and poop whenever the mood takes them, particularly on large leaves that grow close to the edge of the areas they frequent. So exercise your best judgement and harvest higher up when you can, or move further away from the edge of pathways, where it’s less likely you’ll encounter pee and poop.
Just like a scout, always be prepared. If you’re planning on harvesting berries or small fruit, take punnets or containers that you can close up for the journey home. You can also carefully pierce both sides of a plastic punnet and run twine through it. This lets you hang the punnet around your neck, and keep both hands free for picking. Then simply transfer the spoils of your foraging to lidded containers. Leafy plants need wide, shallow containers prevent crushing and ruining the leaves. Buckets work well for larger fruit, such as apples and pears.
Whatever you forage, you must clean it thoroughly before you cook it or eat it. You can purchase an organic vegetable wash, or simply rinse thoroughly under cold water.
6. Responsible Foraging/Sustainability
Responsible foraging is perfectly acceptable, and most definitely encouraged. Blundering around and carelessly plundering these wonderful natural resources is most definitely not. Greedily taking everything you come across is not ok. It results in putting these species at significant risk of extinction. Additionally, if you decimate the plants this year, you won’t be able to harvest them again next year, so it’s in your own best interest to be a responsible forager. Be considerate and take only what you need. And, even if you think you really, really need all of what’s right in front of you, stop. Take an absolute maximum of half the leaves or fruit from any one plant. Then move on. If you harvest all the fruit, for example, from a plant, bush, or tree, there won’t be anything left to make new plants. Similarly, if you uproot a whole plant, or strip all the leaves from a plant, it cannot continue to grow or reproduce. You’re also, of course, unfairly taking masses of food from our native wildlife, which can push these creatures to the brink of extinction. It sounds extreme, but if you upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem and remove a vital food source, you set of a chain reaction that can result in a drastic drop in numbers of multiple species in your local area. And if enough people do this right across the country, the effects can be devastating. So, please, only take what you need, and no more than half from any one plant.
Watch where you’re walking, too. Don’t just spot the plant you’re looking for and dive in like a bulldozer. Take a look around and avoid treading on other plants that humans can use to forage from or other creatures may use as a food source. Be considerate of the natural world and take a few extra seconds to tread carefully around other plants.
When you’re picking, don’t just yank. Cut your spoils gently with a pair of sharp scissors or a good pocket knife. This way, you don’t unduly damage the plants, and they have a much better chance of healthy regrowth and reproduction.