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Top 10 tips on how to forage and foraging (vegetarian)

Updated on May 28, 2013
Foraging includes finding fruit, berries, leaves, roots and bark.
Foraging includes finding fruit, berries, leaves, roots and bark. | Source

As the importance of conserving food, reducing waste and living more naturally gain pace, iTop10 looks at the Top 10 tips on how the vegetarian can forage successfully and safely.

1. Don’t pick what you don’t know

Safety first: there is a wealth of food in our gardens, yards, woodlands, forests and sea shores, however it is important to correctly identify the food before you eat it. There are numerous scare stories about eating the wrong type of plant and becoming very ill (or worse). This puts off many would-be foragers from ever trying the foraging experience.

The key really here is start with the simple stuff (dandelions, nettles, wild garlic, chickweed) then move on to the move on to the slightly more exotic.

It is a good idea – and that bit more fun – to forage with friends. An extra pair of eyes to double check your identification of a particular plant is always useful.

The bottom line is: if you are in any doubt – do not eat it.

2. The key foraging seasons are Spring and Autumn (Fall

The young, fresh leaves and greens are available to forage in the springtime (between March and May). The younger the leaves, the more tender and the least bitter they will be. As the springtime progresses, you’ll have to look harder for these tender leaves. Older, larger greens will be in abundance, however these will probably need to be blanched to take away some of their increasingly bitter taste.

The Autumn (Fall) is all about fruits and nuts. These are normally a lot easier to identify than some of the more esoteric plants, leaves and greens. Apples, crab apples, pears, rosehips, apricots, elderberry, blackberry, gooseberry, plums, figs, Japanese flowering quince and mulberries can all be found in the wild.

Available to eat all year round include pine needles (you can eat raw or boil up with water to soften them); and certain barks (see below).

3. Tools of the foraging trade: gloves, scissors and paper bags

When out foraging, it is useful to take a pair of gardening gloves or rubber gloves. If you are intending to pick stinging nettles, gloves are essential. Gardening gloves are preferable over rubber gloves if you are handling anything that has thorns or spikes.

Scissors are useful to cut leaves cleanly, or you may wish to take a pair of secateurs for thicker, woody-type plants (such as rosehips).

Paper bags are useful to keep your collected items separate. Do not use plastic bags. Not only can your collected greens not breathe when in plastic – causing them to sweat and wilt on very hot days – but accidentally dropping plastic bags in the wild may cause animal suffocation and they are not biodegradable.

4. Get permission

If you are foraging in your local municipal park or national park, make sure you seek and obtain permission from the organisation that owns / runs the park. You may be prosecuted if you are found illegally foraging without permission.

5. Not too much! Balance your foraging

It is fantastic to (re-)connect with nature and foraging highlights the wealth of food in the wild. But remember, we share our environment with other animals and plants. They depend on their ecology remaining in balance, so that they can survive and reproduce. Over foraging – that is, being greedy – means that there is less stuff left to be able to successfully reproduce. This could ultimately lead to destruction of some plants that you are foraging from.

So take what you sensibly need, do not over-forage, and this will help ensure that the ecology remains stable and the plants and animals can continue to thrive.

6. Rub / smell unknown “food” to determine whether it’s safe to eat

If you are unsure about whether the item you think might be edible is safe to eat, you can try rubbing the leaf or juices along the inside of your arm. If you get a reaction on your skin (itching, skin blemish, spots, etc.) the item may be poisonous.

Alternatively, try crushing the vegetation and smell the resulting “paste”. If it smells like peach or almonds, it could be poisonous or toxic.

These are good indicators to use, but ideally you should also use a handbook to determine unidentified plants, as a back-up and second opinion.


7. Segmented berries: good, others: not-so-good

If you are in any doubt about whether a berry is safe or not to eat – don’t go on taste alone. Sweet-tasting berries can be poisonous and bitter or sour berries can be safe.

While not always the case, berries that appear segmented are generally more likely to be safe to eat. Raspberries and blackberries have a unique structure and are easier to differentiate compared to the more deadly varieties.

8. Go slow

Because your body may not be used to eating wild food there is a potential for wild food to give you diarrhoea. Always eat a small amount to start with so that your body can adjust to the new food.

9. Most mushrooms are poisonous

Although mushrooms can be abundant in forests – and therefore tempting to eat, you should be aware that around 80% of all mushrooms are poisonous.

Mushrooms are a valuable source of potassium, copper and niacin, however the actual overall nutritional value is low.

So unless you are an accomplished mushroom picker (or are with someone who is) the safest advice is that it’s better to give mushrooms in the wild a wide berth.

10. Don’t forget to bark

Bark from certain trees can be eaten either raw, ground to flour or cooked in strips. It’s not the hard outer bark that you want to eat, but the inner, lightly-coloured cambium lay which is edible.

Look for aspen, birch, willow, maple, spruce or pine but remember: stripping the bark of a tree can damage the tree irreparably and lead to its eventual death.

So (as per the previous tip) go easy and remember the environment and ecology in which you are foraging.

Cross section of a trunk to show cambium
Cross section of a trunk to show cambium | Source

Being a vegetarian, this above guide focuses on vegetarian foraging only. However, if you eat meat there is a whole host of additional opportunities for you including fish, small and large mammals, snails, and grubs (or bugs in their larval state).

Foraging from amazon


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    • paolaenergya profile image

      Paola Bassanese 2 years ago from London

      Excellent article - safety first!

    • profile image

      oceansider 5 years ago

      Thank you - I liked your article.

    • urmilashukla23 profile image

      Urmila 5 years ago from Rancho Cucamonga,CA, USA

      Great article. Thanks for sharing it. Voted up!