Some of the top selling wild edible guides include species that the authors have not eaten themselves. This practice seems dishonest and dangerous to me. Rest assured that all of the plants, trees, and mushrooms that I claim are edible are ones I have eaten myself. If I discuss a species I have not eaten, I will be transparent about this.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be diligent in your plant identification and preparation. If you were an alien visiting a modern day grocery store and you didn’t know what anything was, you wouldn’t want to just pick a random item off the shelf and start eating it. First, you would want to learn the difference between food and non-food products, such as packaging around the food, cleaning products, soaps, detergents, notebooks, paper towels and toilet paper. Then, you might want to learn more about the food itself– can it be eaten raw or does it need to be cooked? Which parts of the food items are edible? How much can you eat without getting sick, etc.? As modern humans, we may not realize how much knowledge we have about the food in the grocery store because we’ve been learning about it our whole lives. We understand that it’s dangerous to eat raw chicken, that milk turns if left in warm air for a long time, that potato sprouts shouldn’t be consumed, that you shouldn’t eat a whole shaker of cinnamon, and that rotten mushrooms are probably best left alone. If you didn’t know these things, it would be fairly easy for you to get sick or even dangerously ill.
A majority of modern humans have an alien’s level of knowledge about the edibility of our natural areas. This is not to say that amateur foragers should be afraid; rather, they should be diligent about learning and careful about what they put in their mouths. Foraging can be a very safe activity if one puts in the time to learn. I have been foraging my whole life, constantly challenging myself and pushing my boundaries, but always doing so with a safety-first mentality. I have eaten well over 150 wild plants and mushrooms and I have never gotten sick. Well-respected wild food authors like Arthur Haines and Samuel Thayer have pushed back against our society’s prevailing notion that wild food is somehow more dangerous than cultivated food. I agree with them that it is not more dangerous, with the caveat that you know what you are doing when you forage. Ignorance kills. But, with patience, humility, and a desire to always find the truth, you will thrive.
When I lead foraging walks, I make it a point to describe the horrific ways you can die by eating the wrong plant or mushroom, so that folks develop a healthy appreciation for meticulous research. For example, eating a few bites of water hemlock can kill you in less than an hour, and the process is so horrific for some people that they end up biting their own tongue to shreds. Eating certain amanita fungi can also kill you, but over a much longer period of 5-7 days. Some deadly mushrooms reportedly taste fantastic and victims feel fine until several hours later when they begin vomiting and experience headaches and sometimes hallucinations. Days later, the victims will sometimes appear to make a full recovery, when in fact their kidneys are failing. Then, they eventually die of kidney failure.
To excel at safety, you should spend as much time studying poisonous plants as you do edible ones, so that you know exactly what they look like and where you’ll likely encounter them. I recommend purchasing The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms (2009) by Turner & von Aderkas. Although the authors are based in western Canada, they do a decent job of covering the poisonous plants and mushrooms that you’ll likely encounter in the northeast. But, don’t stop there. Read as many books as you can, and go on as many foraging walks as you can to learn from experienced practitioners. You’ll quickly realize that there is a lot of misinformation out there, so I would never rely on one source, no matter how reputable it seems. Many authors overestimate the harm of poisonous plants and mushrooms, and many authors underestimate the harm. It takes time and patience to tease out the truth, but it is worth the time to ensure your safety and to thrive in your foraging journey.
Edible Vs. Poisonous
One of the biggest disservices of most plant books is that they don’t explain how the concepts of edible and poisonous are not dichotomous most of the time. In fact, many edible plants have poisonous parts or are poisonous if they are not prepared the right way. Moreover, there are varying degrees of edibility including very palatable, somewhat palatable but not harmful, and slightly toxic. I like to think of these complex relationships with two helpful visuals. One is a spectrum where very edible and very poisonous are on opposite ends and every plant in the plant kingdom is somewhere in-between.
But, even this graph is a little misleading in the sense that plants can have many elements of edibility and toxicity depending on a range of factors. Eating the right plant, from the right place, at the right time, and preparing it the right way is perfectly safe. Eating the wrong plant, from the wrong place, at the wrong time, prepared the wrong way, is dangerous. It may be helpful to think of a complex set of related factors, all of which affect edibility and all of which have an effect on each other in relation to edibility:
I’ll give you an example for each of these scenarios. If you store a wild grain improperly, it may develop ergot, a potentially fatal fungus. Some people are allergic to staghorn sumac and will experience a severe reaction if they eat it, whereas others are fine. Acorns have an abundance of toxic tannins unless you leach them. Plants found close to roads may absorb pollutants from motor vehicles, plants growing under power lines can have high concentrations of lead, and plants found around manicured lawns may be sprayed with toxic herbicides. Perfectly edible plants like sheep sorrel or curled dock that are consumed in high quantities may overwhelm your body with calcium oxalate crystals and could cause kidney stones. Wild cherries are edible, but the seeds, bark and leaves are not. May apples are edible only when fully ripe and yellowish brown. Burdock roots are an excellent vegetable in the early spring, but if the plant flowers over the summer, the root will literally be comprised of inedible wood by fall.
Steps for Eating a Wild Edible for the First Time
Check in multiple books (never trust one guide—including this one). I recommend cross referencing with at least five sources. Pictures can look very different in different books, and sometimes authors publish completely inaccurate information. It’s more frequent than you would think. I’ve found shocking mistakes in almost all of the edible plant books I own. I will invariably make mistakes myself.
If you want to be extra safe, then I recommend going through the following steps when you eat a new plant or mushroom, but only after you are 100% sure of its identification. At each step, pay attention to how you feel and whether or not you notice any changes in your body. If you do notice a change, then it would be safe to avoid the plant for now until you can consult an expert or carry out more research.
1. Tell another person what you think you’re eating, so that if something happens to you they can tell the doctors
2. Rub on your wrist (wait five minutes)
4. Touch to your lips (wait five minutes)
5. Touch to your tongue (wait five minutes)
6. Place on your tongue but don’t chew (wait five minutes)
7. Chew and spit out (wait five minutes)
8. Chew and swallow one small bite (wait five hours for a plant or tree; wait at least a day for a mushroom)
9. Eat a small portion (wait five hours for a plant or tree; wait at least five days for a mushroom)
10. Eat in moderation (even if the plant or mushroom passes all the tests, most allergic reactions occur the second time someone eats something rather than the first. The species also might make you sick in large quantities because our bodies are not accustomed to eating many wild species; we have to slowly train our gut to accept any new type of food whether it is wild or cultivated. Moreover, some plants and mushrooms are unhealthy or hard to digest in large quantities, especially if eaten over long periods of time. Again, this is true of cultivated plants as much as it is wild edible plants.)
There are a number of issues to be aware of when harvesting in order to be a good steward of the environment. They all revolve around the idea of being respectful of the ecosystem. Some edible plants are endangered or threatened and shouldn’t be picked in many locations in the northeast, such as purple trillium. Others can be picked, but only in small quantities, or should be picked in a certain way. For example, if you pick a native species that is not abundant, then help spread some of its seeds within the area or pull out some invasive species that are blocking its access to sunlight. You might also just harvest the above-ground portion of the plant, leaving the roots intact to produce again. With some species I only harvest the leaves after the plant has flowered and produced a fruit, so that the plant has the full support of its leaves to power the flowering process. Fiddleheads and leeks, which are often subject to a “clear-cutting” approach from foragers, should only be selectively harvested so that a majority of the patch remains intact. When dealing with native species, never pick more than a third of the population in an area at a maximum. If the population seems small, then I will pick no more than 5% or 10%. If the population is only a few plants, then it’s best to not disturb them at all.
You should also be conscious of what you transfer when you move plant material over long distances. Many natural areas are inundated with invasive species and invasive species are becoming an increasingly problematic issue. Some invasives like garlic mustard in terrestrial habitats and milfoil in aquatic habitats crowd out native species and ultimately lower biodiversity. Honeysuckle and glossy buckthorn are others that are particularly troubling. In some cases, especially aquatic, invasives can prevent access to important recreational areas and lower property values. Make sure you brush off your clothing and shoes when you leave a natural area. Also, make sure any material your bring with you gets fully eaten or otherwise destroyed in such a way that it cannot re-grow. With leaves and stalks, this isn’t as important if it is a species native to the area it is traveling to. But, if it is an invasive, be extra careful to not transport seeds or destroy them. Don’t just compost them or else they may end up growing in the compost.
Extra care should be taken when dealing with trees. Several fungi, insects, and diseases have been advancing on trees in the northeast. The historical elms and chestnut trees can attest to this issue. Now, the eastern hemlock, ash, and butternut trees all have powerful foes. This is why most states and campgrounds have banned the use of firewood from out of town. This is also why I make sure to compost the scraps from butternut shells far away from any butternut trees in the area, in case the butternut tree I harvested from was infected.
Treading lightly has its inherent benefits too. Not only are you preserving a future stock of food for yourself and others, but you will have a greater chance of seeing wildlife. When I was a kid I hardly saw deer in the woods. I usually only saw them on the road, crossing at night. As I learned to travel more slowly and carefully through the woods, I began to see deer all the time. When I’m walking with friends, I often tell them to lower their voices and pause once in a while to see what’s around them. When we do this I’ll often see deer while they won’t even though we are standing beside each other. It takes a concerted effort to see things in the woods. Just looking for things isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to stop completely, take in your surroundings, be patient, and wait until the thing you’re looking for appears. The same logic applies whether you are looking for a deer lying directly in front of you or a black trumpet mushroom that looks exactly like a crinkled leaf.
Recommended Supplies for Foraging
It took me several years to learn some common sense methods to effectively harvest plants and mushrooms. My general motto is to keep yourself safe, keep your harvest safe, and avoid unnecessary frustrations.
I keep all of my field supplies in a backpack. This backpack goes with me every time I go into the woods and whenever I travel even if I’m just going to a barbecue at a friends house. You never know when you’ll find a plant or mushroom that you’ve been painstakingly searching for or find a new species that you can’t identify. In fact, this tends to happen where I least expect it to.
My back pack includes the following tools:
1. Compass to avoid getting lost
2. Small survival kit that includes first aid material, iodine tablets for purifying water, string, and matches.
3. Digital camera capable of producing high resolution photos
4. Jacknife (I actually carry two: one nice knife for cutting things I plan to eat, and one small cheap knife I use to cut open things that are likely poisonous like unknown mushrooms). You want to cut things like Japanese Knotweed shoots or mushrooms with a knife. No matter how good of a pincher you think you are with your fingernails, dirt seems to always find it’s way into the juicy bottoms of things like that.
6. Bug net for avoiding mosquitos or black flies
8. Paper bags for mushrooms (plastic bags suffocate them)
9. Empty vitamin or pill bottles for storing plants. These are great for a plethora of reasons. First, if I store new plants in a bag, they are likely to get crushed, or mixed with other plants. The bottles come in many different sizes– many are big enough for most root vegetables and many are small enough to fit a delicate spring beauty without taking up a lot of space. The bottles are super light weight since they are made of plastic, so they are easy to carry. They screw shut so they won’t mistakenly open in your bag dumping dirt or berry juice everywhere. The best part is that it is easy to shuffle through your bag if everything is in a container versus having everything in bags that easily get tangled. And lastly, they can be easily cleaned whereas plastic bags cannot.
10. Bottle of activated charcoal and a bottle of milk thistle extract (insurance policies in case you or someone else eats something they are not supposed to. These are not useful for everything and won’t necessarily save you, but if you find yourself too far away from professional care, you’ll be happy you have something to try).
11. Water bottle
13. Small notebook for writing down all of the clues for species identification. This is especially important for mushrooms given the fact that so many of them look alike, and often the most important identification features, such as adjacent trees, are easily forgotten. A notebook can also offer you paper for a spore print if you are camping and don’t have access to something so simple. I also slip a few pieces of black construction paper into the notebook in case I need to do a spore print for a mushroom that is suspected to have light colored spores.
14. Garden gloves for digging roots or harvesting prickly plants like nettle or thistle.
15. Pocket-sized Microscope