A Beginner’s Guide To Foraging

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Introduction To Foraging

There’s been a huge surge of interest in foraging lately, hardly surprising given our current situation. It is one of the many “silver linings” I’m seeing develop during this crisis; as we discover a slower pace of life and perhaps new appreciation for our food supply and our control over it.

Foraging is such a worthwhile pursuit for many reasons, as beneficial to our own health as it is to that of our environment. It is ingrained deeply in our primitive roots and as you begin to pay closer attention to the plants that surround us, you may begin to experience a connection that could be described as mystical!

Learning to forage is not something to be rushed. Indeed, it is not about the destination but the journey, and the slower the journey, the greater the reward. 
Natures pace is much slower than our usual rush of modern society and when you allow yourself to be guided, she will be your best teacher. 

"Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Safety First

DO NOT ACCIDENTALLY POISON YOURSELF PLEASE! 

I know it seems obvious and you’re probably thinking that you don’t intend to accidentally poison yourself, but nobody ever does… 

Even if you think you know a plant, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to go ahead and eat it. Do you know about all the plants that look really similar to the plant you think you know? Can you say with absolute unwavering certainty that you haven’t mixed it up with an almost identical toxic lookalike? 
No? Then open that book, click on that website, ask an expert. Check the identifying features carefully until you ARE sure beyond all doubt.

edible or deadable?
There are two plants in this picture, one is edible, the other is deadly.

DON’T TASTE UNKNOWN PLANTS.
Taste and smell can offer important identification clues, Wild Garlic is an obvious example, but some plants are very poisonous and just a nibble can land you in hospital. Mushrooms are different in that respect, they are safe to nibble as long as you spit it out and don’t ingest any.  

Arum Maculatum
Arum maculatum (Lords and Ladies) contains oxalates that cause a very unpleasant burning sensation which can lead to asphyxiation and even death.

I don’t usually like to put too much emphasis on the dangers of foraging because it’s not dangerous, provided you follow one simple rule: If in doubt, leave it out [of your mouth].
But lately I have seen an alarming number of cases of people picking deadly plants believing them to be edible. 
Particularly in the Carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae) which contains some of Britain’s deadliest plant species. And they don’t always, as you might hope, offer any warning through appearance, smell or taste; In fact, Oenanthe crocata (Hemlock Water Dropwort) is said to taste quite pleasant before enacting a very unpleasant death.
Another problem is that it does bear a resemblance to some of the familiar herbs and vegetables we are used to consuming, such as Parsley or Celery (which are of course, related).
The phrase Sardonic grin relates to this plant as it constricts the muscles, leaving victims wearing an eerie death grimace.

 

Poison Hemlock
Poison Hemlock/Conium maculatum looks very similar to edible plants such as Cow Parsley/Anthriscus sylvestris
Water Dropwort hemlock
Hemlock Water-dropwort/Oenanthe crocata; Once used as a method of execution.

Other Safety Considerations

It should go without saying to be mindful of where you are foraging with regard to possible contaminants such as pesticides, pollution or dog mess. 
As you learn about the wonderfully nutritious foods available to us in the wild, you will no doubt begin to support and encourage organic and permacultural farming methods and discourage the use of harmful chemicals both commercial and domestic use. 

So, now we have that out of the way, let’s move on to nicer topics… 

We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.

Barbara Ward

Walk Lightly

Remember that time when there was a global pandemic and people started panic-buying toilet paper and flour and then there wasn’t enough toilet paper and flour for everyone even though there was enough if people only bought what they needed? 

Yea, well Foraging is pretty much the same principle. There is enough for everyone (not just humans!) if we take only what we need and don’t strip the “shelves” bare. A good rule of thumb is the rule of thirds; Something like, one for me, one for others and one for the plant to propagate. 
That doesn’t, of course, mean that you should try to collect at least a third but it should be the maximum. Trying to collect a third of your average Wild Garlic colony would be ridiculous! 
Don’t take more than you need, a simple concept that we humans would do well to apply to all of our consumption, not just foraging. 

As far as possible, try to leave no trace. Luckily, most of the best edible plants are abundant, think Dandelions, Nettles, Brambles, Wild Garlic.  

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

John Muir

Foraging And The Law

Urgh! I hate this bit but it IS important, so here goes… 

Foraging is NOT illegal in Britain (surprisingly, considering the restrictions imposed upon those of us wanting to live harmoniously with nature) but there are some rules; The four F’s is a good way to remember, Foliage, Flowers, Fungi and Fruit are OK to gather, provided you are not trespassing (also be mindful of Sites of Special Scientific interest –SSSI). It’s illegal to uproot or destroy any wild plant without permission of the landowner.

Laws in Scotland differ slightly from England, portraying an admirable cultural value of human relationship with the land sorely missing here in England.

Some plant and fungi species are protected by law under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, these are listed in schedule 8
If you are following the principles I have mentioned above, it is very unlikely you will be unwittingly harvesting rare species. 

I’m sorry to say that writing about this bores the shit out of me so I shall move swiftly on and leave you with further comprehensive information from some trusted sources:
Fergus The Forager/The Law.
British Local Food/Is foraging legal in Britain? Know the Law.
Hedgerow Harvest/Theft of protected fungi/an overview of protected species.
The National Trust/our position on foraging for wild food.
The Association Of Foragers/Principles of practice.

“We must remember that in the end nature does not belong to us, we belong to it.”

Grey Owl

Where To Begin

Most of us already have some foraging experience, picking Blackberries as a child or nibbling the juicy, sweet inner stem from a blade of grass (I’m trying to remember, did somebody teach me to do that or is it some primal gatherer instinct?).
Try not to feel overwhelmed by how much there is to learn, there’s no final destination. Only a wonderfully endless journey of discovery! Nobody ever said “well, that’s it, now I know everything” and if they did they were definitely wrong. Indeed, even collectively as a species there is so much we still don’t know and perhaps never will, a little mystery is no bad thing.

Where do you begin to learn about foraging during a lockdown? Actually, the same place you should begin any time… On your doorstep…

I learn so much from my little garden, from allotments I’ve had or from green areas close to my home. 
I love to observe a new seedling that appears and the anticipation of waiting and watching to see what it will become; as it gradually develops features and flowers, offering clues to its identity. It’s a really great way to “meet” plants. 
But start with the plants you already know, the ones you’ve walked past (or stepped on!) day after day. I like to think those are the ones trying to get our attention, so give it to them! Examine them closely, take photos, have a go at drawing them, look them up in a wildflower book or on the internet. Learn if they are edible or have other uses. 
When you begin to pay attention to the plants around you, starting with the ones that are familiar, others will begin to grab your attention too and eventually you wont be able to go anywhere without stopping and exclaiming “ooh! What’s this?” every few steps, seriously, ask my daughter! 😄

If you’re a city-dweller without a garden, don’t despair, there are still ample foraging opportunities available, even within the confines of social distancing. Check out Robin Harford’s recent podcast with Urban Forager, John Rensten. 

In usual circumstances you can find a local foraging guide, which is a very useful way to learn. Obviously, this isn’t an option during current social distancing however many foraging teachers are offering education through online resources during this time; I will list some of them below.  

"Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there"

Thomas Fuller
edible plants spring

Reconnection

We are of the animal kingdom, though we may forget sometimes. No doubt, you have been as perplexed as I at how we can have wondered so far from our true nature that we can be so destructive as we are. 

And for what? The economy? The Earth is our home, our food, air and water. Nothing is more important! 

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed"

Mahatma Gandhi

During this time of ceased human activity, we are seeing nature effortlessly and without ceremony. reclaim the natural rhythm. Pollution levels dropping drastically, clearer skies, wild animals, birds and fish inhabiting our empty spaces… 

A unique chance to see how quickly the Earth can heal when we change our behaviour. 

When we interact with our environment we gain not only new appreciation for it but we find our place within it. We begin to see it’s true value, and will defend it with passion!
We need that passion, now more than ever… Even as I write this, whilst isolating myself from loved ones, as you all are too, our ancient woodlands are being destroyed at a cost of billions of pounds. 

Foraging is one of the ways we can rediscover our place in the world. Many of us suffer from anxiety, depression, addiction and a myriad of health problems caused by the habits of modern civilisation. I have heard many remarkable accounts from people who have experienced the incredible therapeutic effects of becoming immersed in nature as well as experiencing it for myself. 

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”

John Muir

Learning Resources

Finally, I want to introduce you to some of my teachers and the resources that I’ve found helpful. When learning about a plant or fungus I find it useful to cross reference using as many sources as possible.

Books:

Plants

While there are many excellent foraging books available, it is advisable to get a good wildflower book for learning to identify the wild plants you come across.
I inherited mine from my grandfather and it serves me very well. The plants are organised by colour of flowers, which makes it much easier to try to identify a plant that I come across. 
Here are some other recommendations I have found for you:
 1. The Concise British Flora In Colour
2. Collins Complete Guide To British Wildflowers
3.  Flora Britannica  by Richard Mabey
4. The Wild Flower Key

Mushrooms
For Mushroom identification Roger Phillip’s Mushrooms is a very popular choice, with colour photographs of over 1500 species. 

If you are a beginner just wanting to learn a few edible mushrooms, The River Cottage Handbook No. 1 by John Wright is excellent.

Foraging
A good handbook to take out with you is Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, Collins Gem.
The Foragers Calendar by John Wright is a great book that offers a month by month guide to edible plants and mushrooms that are in season.

For more book recommendations check out my Book Shelf which I’m in the process of updating.

Foraging Books

Websites:

Here are a few of my favourite websites for identification, advice, inspiration and recipes.

Wild Foods UK is a website I frequently use when identifying a plant or mushroom. It lists key features with photographs and other useful information including potential lookalikes. You can use the search function at the top of the page.

First Nature is another useful website for cross referencing. It also covers other wildlife for those who are interested.

Eatweeds, the creation of one of Britain’s best known foraging teachers, Robin Harford contains a wealth of plant knowledge, delving deep into their historical use. I like the variety of media available, you can look up recipes, read through the A-Z of plants, watch videos or listen to his podcasts with other well known plant enthusiasts.

Galloway Wild Foods, the internet abode of Scottish foraging guru Mark Williams has been a great source of inspiration to me. I simultaneously discovered his website and the concept of native Wild Spices a few years ago and have been a fan ever since. 

Julia’s Edible Weeds is another of my favourite sites. Though Julia is based in New Zealand, most of the “weeds” featured are common here in the UK too.

Wild Flower Finder though old fashioned and a little hard to navigate (I find it easier to type the plant and website name into google) is definitely deserving of a place on this list and I use it regularly for it’s detailed photos and plant info. 

There are, of course, lot’s of other websites worthy of a mention and I shall probably add to this list as they come to me. 

Please do add your own recommendations in the comments below. 

Facebook:

Believe it or not, facebook can be a really valuable learning tool. Combined with the other resources I have mentioned and actually getting out to interact with the plants, it has been really, really helpful to me.
If all you are seeing when scrolling facebook is badly recycled memes, politics and drama you are definitely not realising it’s full potential! 

Here’s how to get more from facebook in three easy steps…. 

Step one: Clear out the rubbish.
Anything that is not serving you well can be removed, whether page, group or person there are several options. Unfriend, unfollow, unlike or even “snooze” an option I find useful for testing whether I will miss certain posts before deciding whether to eliminate them for good. 

Step Two: Join lot’s of foraging/plant/mushroom groups.
I will give you a list of my favourite groups below.

Step Three: Interact.
Facebook can be annoyingly weird about controlling what you actually see on your wall. Interacting with posts on foraging groups means that you are more likely to see posts from that group. Due to the seasonal nature of foraging, I have learned so many plants and mushrooms from recognising them in the wild after seeing pictures of them on facebook (or vice versa).

There are different groups for different purposes. Some are purely for identification which is very useful if you find a plant or mushroom you would like to identify. It’s very important to take good photos which include the plant/mushroom whole in situ, as well as clear close ups of it’s features.

Some are for discussion only and ID requests will not be well received. 

There are also some general foraging groups which incorporate identification, discussion, recipes and other ways of utilising plants and mushrooms. 

It is advisable when joining a group to read the rules. Some groups forbid the discussion of medicinal use, for example and you don’t want to start off on the wrong foot. 

Identification Request Etiquette:
I do encourage you to interact with posts as it is a good way to learn. As you begin to gain some knowledge, it can be really fun and educational to try to identify pictures that you see on the groups, using books and websites but PLEASE remember if you decide to comment with your guess, make it clear that you are guessing! 
There is no harm in saying “it looks like X” or “maybe Y” or “have a look at Z”, even just the name of the plant with a question mark.

Honestly, I am often shocked and frustrated at people making wildly inaccurate suggestions with absolute insistence that it’s correct.
Also READ THE COMMENTS BEFORE COMMENTING. It is not helpful to add an answer that’s already been given, if the answer is there, “like” it to add your agreement. 

It may seem as if I’m being pedantic but these posts are a valuable learning tool for me and it is not uncommon to have to scroll through 50-200 of the same wrong answer comments to try to find the only correct ID from an expert.  

I could probably add a lot more about how to get the most out of these groups, I have covered some of it in this post I wrote when I started joining mushroom groups last year.

Here Are Some Of My Favourite Groups:

Plants
 
Mushrooms
 
Foraging

Wild Food and Hedgewitchery
UK Wild food larder
Foraging Wild UK
Mushroom foraging united kingdom
Wild Free Food in Uk
Wild Plant & Mushroom Identification & Discussion

Emergency Identification
Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants 
(this group is for emergencies ONLY. Over 200 plant and fungi experts on call to assist in the case of suspected poisoning in humans or animals)

 
 Bear in mind that unless UK is specified in the title it is an international group so not all will be relevant. You should always give location and habitat when requesting an ID.
Please add your favourite groups in the comments.

Foraging Teachers

Under normal circumstances I would advise booking a foraging course with a local guide which can really help to speed up the learning process. 
Unfortunately, these are not available during the social restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 however many teachers are offering online alternatives or continuing to provide informative posts through their websites or social media.
These are some of the teachers who have and continue to inspire and educate me…
Robin Harford – Eatweeds. (Devon/UK)
Mark Williams – Galloway Wild Foods (Scotland)
Fiona Heckels and Karen Lawton (AKA The Seed SistAs) – Sensory Solutions (UK)
Fergus Drennan – Fergus The Forager (UK)
Miles Irving – Forager (Kent)
Monica Wilde – Monica Wilde Forager (Scotland/UK)
Fred Gillam – The Wild Side Of Life (Wiltshire/UK/Ireland)
Marquis de Stowe – Marquis Wild Food (Wales/South West)

Martin Bailey – Go Foraging (Bristol)
Fern Freud – Foraged By Fern (Sussex)
Joshua Quick – Wild St Ives (Cornwall)
John Rensten – Forage London And Beyond (UK)
Lisa Cutcliffe – Edulis Wild Foods (Yorkshire/Hampshire/Cumbria)
Craig Worrall – Edible Leeds (UK)
Matt Vernon – Cornish Wild Food (Cornwall)

 

I have linked to websites where available but they are all present on social media posting regularly so I definitely advise following them on facebook and/or instagram for inspiration and updates. 
You can also check out The Association Of Foragers Directory for more foraging teachers in the UK and further. 
If you’re interested in seeing what I get up to when I’m not writing my blog you can find me at Liza Stirling – Forager.

Thanks for reading! 

I hope that you found this useful. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 
I wish you a wonderful journey of discovery, connection and gastronomic delight in your foraging adventures. 

Happy Foraging Foodies!

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