Foraging 101: What To Eat (And Avoid)

Learn how to properly identify what’s edible — and inedible — in the wild
foraging for dandelion leaves

The spring and summer seasons are the perfect time for hiking and exploring nature. But have you ever walked passed an interesting berry, plant or fungus and wondered if were edible?

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Surprisingly, edible plants can be found in many natural spaces around us. Whether it’s for your own curiosity or knowing what you can snack on during long hikes, learning how to forage plants can be a useful and fun skill to learn. Not only that, it’s a good way to grab some healthy greens and fruits straight from the source.

But there are a couple things you should know before trying to forage on your own. Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD explains what foraging is and how to be prepared and informed.

What is foraging?

Throughout history, foraging — which is the act of gathering food from the wild — ­­has been a large part of human survival. While in our modern world we’ve become used to picking things up at the grocery store or even online, nature has its own produce aisle as well.

“Nature has its own food source and a lot of the birds and deer and other wildlife live off of those things,” says Czerwony.

But you should always take the time to research, consult an expert or even take a class on foraging to make sure you know what you’re searching for. Czerwony stresses that there can be a lot of plants that might be edible for animals, but poisonous to humans.

“You should never try something if you are not for sure that it is safe,” cautions Czerwony. “The other important thing to understand is that there are parts of the plant that are edible versus some that are not.”

Where to go foraging

Your first step is to learn where you’ll be able to successfully forage, as you can’t just go anywhere with a patch of green grass. Czerwony says that many areas aren’t the optimal place for plants to grow. You want to go somewhere that’s as untouched by humans as possible, such as open fields and parks.

Czerwony recommends steering clear of areas close to parking lots. “Anything that’s going to have a high population for cars actually has exhaust and it’s going to settle into that soil and it’s going to affect those plants.”

Czerwony also points out that it’s important to make sure to ask for permission before picking plants at national parks or reservoirs that may have certain have certain restrictions. While your local metro park or state park is probably a good place to forage, there may be certain rules in place based on your location. Also, be sure to avoid private property or residences.

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What can you eat out in the wild?

So, how do you start foraging? It’s critical to know what NOT to eat in order to avoid poisonous or possibly toxic plants.

Timing is also important, as Czerwony points out that springtime is when many plants are in a good, ripe state for consumption.

“In the summer, those plants have gotten a little bit older and the leaves could be a little bit more bitter,” says Czerwony. “So you’re not going to get the most benefit out of it.”

Here are some examples of edible plants you can find in the wild:

Ramps

Also commonly known as wild onion and garlic, ramps can be identified by their flat leaves and distinct smell. When finding these, Czerwony notes it’s important to just harvest the leaves, so the bulbs can be left to regenerate.

“A lot of times, because they grow inconspicuously, people don’t see them,” says Czerwony. “You can pick up on that garlicky smell as you’re hiking, so that’s a good indicator.”

With ramps, it’s important to pay close attention to their leaf structure, as they resemble Lily of the Valley, which is a poisonous plant. Be sure you can confidently distinguish ramps from Lily of the Valley before you try foraging them.

Nettles

Nettles are a common plant that you may come across during a hike or forest walk. They’re most known for having tiny stingers that get caught on your jacket. So, it’s important to prep these plants properly before you consume them. “You can actually use them as a substitute for spinach,” says Czerwony. “You have to rinse them off, boil them and then you’ll be able to scrape those little stingers off, and then you’ll be able to enjoy them.”

Dandelions

The familiar weed can be more than just a nuisance in your garden. The leaves, root and petals of the dandelion can be used in various ways. Throw the leaves in a spring salad or even use the roots as a substitute for coffee.

“You can use almost the entire dandelion,” says Czerwony. “The only thing that you can’t is the actual stem. It has a milky, bitter taste.”

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You can recognize this plant by its bright yellow blossoms.

Wild berries

There are many different types of wild berries found in nature, but as a safety rule, it’s good to stick with the most easily distinguishable ones. Czerwony points out that while some may look similar in color, it’s better to go for the ones that you know for sure are safe to eat.

Look for the berries that are easy to identify, like:

  • Blueberries. With a blue-purple color, these berries grow on bushes in the wild. Only pick them when they come off the stem easily — that’s how you know they’re ripe.
  • Huckleberries. These red and purple berries look similar to cranberries and blueberries and are usually found in the Pacific Northwest. You can usually find them on bushes as well.
  • Raspberries. This berry’s distinct red color is hard to miss. Wild raspberry bushes usually have prickly thorns and pointy leaves.

In addition, there are also berries that you should avoid and make sure you aren’t misidentifying such as:

  • Holly berries. These tiny wild berries are poisonous and pop up throughout many regions. You can identify them by their bright red color. They grow in little bushels on thin stems that have dark gray bark. 
  • Mistletoe berries. These toxic berries usually grow during the winter months. Even small amounts of mistletoe berries can result in symptoms like nausea and vomiting.
  • Jerusalem cherries. Similar in size to a regular cherry, these berries are highly poisonous if any part of them is consumed. You can identify this plant by its dark green leaves, orange or red berries and small, white flowers in the spring.

What should you avoid completely when foraging?

There are some general plants that you should try and stay away from, especially if you’re a beginner.

  • Mushrooms. Generally, Czerwony recommends avoiding any and all mushrooms and fungi. While some are edible, the risk of picking a poisonous one is too high. “Because there are so many varieties out there, you really have to be an expert,” she says. “I tell people to avoid them, just because there are enough other options out there to forage. With mushrooms, you can get liver toxicity, which can be fatal.”
  • Lily of the Valley. Similar looking to ramps (the wild onion), Lily of the Valley is a dangerous plant that should be avoided. It can be identified by its white blossoms and long leaves. All parts of this plant are poisonous and shouldn’t be consumed.

Czerwony also recommends that as you’re foraging to keep track of the plants you come across by taking a photo. And especially if you suspect that you or someone you’re with has consumed something poisonous, be sure to bring a photo (or the plant itself) with you to the emergency room so appropriate treatment can be initiated.

Before making your way into the woods, take some time to familiarize yourself with the edible and poisonous plants in your area. Take a class in your community or seek advice from a local park ranger to ensure you’re fully informed before beginning to forage.

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