How to Find Wild Foods
You may have found this article by searching the internet for information on how to find wild foods. There's a lot of information about wild food, but too many people try to jump into searching for edible plants and mushrooms without being positive of the identification. Before we get started on the how to find, let's talk about the 'how to stay alive'.
Natural doesn't mean safe. If nothing else sticks from this lesson, I sincerely hope that you take that one phrase with you. One mistake can kill you. While foraging for foods and medicinal plants is thrilling, never place even one leaf in your mouth if you are not positive of the plant. Wait until you have reached your home and can compare the plant to those in a field guide. The best field guides or identification sites will have color photographs.
Never base your identification on line drawings. Ever. Do not allow children to pick and eat wild foods without adult, expert supervision. Many plants are just as toxic as the chemicals we lock away from them at home. Do not perform a toxicity test in front of children (more on determining toxic plants later).
Where to Look
While edible and medicinal plants are all around us, some plants grow better in certain environments. Certain plants prefer to grow in disturbed land – this is land that has been previously plowed, abandoned, had an old home, or trees were removed. Others prefer meadows – a meadow loving plant will grow well in natural meadows or in fields and pastures. Marsh plants like salty, wet land such as that near oceans. Swamp and wetland plants like water. Forest plants grow well in shade, though a mixture of plants will inhabit forests – from meadow flowers to swamp plants.
Begin looking for wild food in your own yard. You may not believe it, but almost every lawn has edible plants. The most common edible is the common dandelion. This plant is entirely edible from root to flower. It is perfect for a a new forager. Dandelion laves are easy to identify, even for children (my own children, including my child with autism can identify dandelion leaves).
Where NOT to Look
Once you have learned to identify plants you can eat in your own lawn, you may want to begin exploring your neighborhood. Foraging for plants away from home brings some challenges. You must be sure that you gather plants from lawns that have not been sprayed with toxic chemicals. Some guides specify to gather plants far away from roadsides, others state that the airborne toxins are filtered by the plant. Only forage on private land if you have permission from the landowner. Public land, such as a state forest will require a permit for gathering plants.
There is a test for determining the toxic properties of a plant. Before starting the test you should not eat for 8 hours before – this test should only be used if you are in a survival situation. Test several parts of the plant – some plants may have edible roots, but toxic leaves. When you move to the tasting/swallowing part of the test, have two samples - one cooked, one raw. Some plants are not edible until cooked.
The safest method is to rub a small amount of juice from a plant on your arm. Allow that to remain undisturbed for 8 hours or overnight. If there is any reaction, do not continue the test, the plant is not safe. If no reaction is noted – place some of the juice on your lips for 15 minutes. If no reaction, proceed to the next step but if there is irritation of any kind, do not continue. Chew a small amount of the plant and hold it in your mouth for 15 minutes. If it is unbearably bitter, spit it out and do not continue – the plant is not readily edible. Burning, stinging, or any swelling – spit it out and rinse your mouth well with copious amounts of water, do not swallow until all juice and plant parts have been rinsed away.
If there is no bad reaction or taste, proceed to the next step. Chew and swallow a small amount of the plant. Do not eat anything else for 8 hours. The next day, eat ¼ cup of the plant if you had no ill reaction. If after another 8 hours you have had no bad reaction, that part of the plant is edible, but only that exact part and in the way it was tested (cooked or raw).
You should be aware that this method of testing should only be used if you are in dire need and there is no other way to obtain food. Even following the guidelines exactly can kill you as some plants are so toxic that you can become ill just by harvesting them. One example of this type of plant is False Hellbore which I have covered in another Hub.
Be safe, be aware, and always study the plants of your area if you plan to forage.