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Getting started with foraging: A guide for absolute beginners

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Wild food is our past - and it's our present and our future too. It's easier than you think to get started.

Pestos, salads, spices, sodas; teas, tinctures, salves - our garden weeds, urban parks, and nearby forests are filled to bursting with food and medicine. Learning to gather and use this abundance isn't just delicious and satisfying, it also helps us build roots in the living land. But if you've never foraged before, it can be overwhelming to know where to start.

But it's easier than you might think to learn the basics. A lot of folks think you have to be born into some naturey family to have any hope in the wild, but I didn't learn this stuff as a kid! I went on my very first mushroom foraging outing five years ago, and expanded to plant foraging three years later. Now I teach foraging workshops. If I can do it, so can you.

Read on for my best tips!

Tip #1 - Start with what you already know.

You don't have to go chasing down elusive, hard-to-identify plants and mushrooms to be a forager. You also don't have to know dozens of species to have fun working with wild food.

Get yourself a foraging guide for your area and flip through it to find a handful of plants you already know. Start there.

For example, I'm guessing you can imagine a dandelion with no trouble at all, right? But did you know dandelions are edible?

In fact, they are superfoods! Dandelion leaves, flowers, and roots are all edible, and are incredible sources of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as numerous minerals, and they are chock full of antioxidants. Dandelions are also diuretics, which means they are great allies for water retention and UTIs. (Read more about dandelions' amazing properties here.)

A huge proportion of what we usually consider "weeds" are in fact fantastic edibles and/or medicinals.

Stinging nettles, daisies, red clover, and wild garlic are also great places to start that you might well already be able to identify!

Of course, rule #1 of foraging is don't munch on a hunch. You need to be 100% sure of the ID of any plant you plan to consume. So make sure the plants you're looking for don't have any false friends.

Starting with what you already know will help you keep yourself safe while still being able to get great harvests right away.

Tip #2 - Get curious.

So much of foraging is about awareness.

You often need all your senses to identify a plant or mushroom - not just sight, but smell and texture too. Even how a plant sounds when you roll it between your fingers can be a useful part of identification.

So get curious. Get to know your local area. Explore it in different seasons. Go slow. Take in the details of the growing things around you - the hairs on a stem, the thickness of flower petals, the smell of a leaf when you crush it, the fibrousness of a stalk.

The more you practice open curiosity to nature, the more the details will pop out to you, and the easier it will be to differentiate the greenery into different species with unmistakable characteristics!

Can you imagine what this plant smells like?

Tip #3 - Know what you're looking for - and its look-alikes.

I'll say it again: Rule #1 of foraging is don't munch on a hunch. Never consume any wild food that you can't identify with 100% certainty, or any part of a plant that you don't already know is edible. Mistakes can be deadly.

You're probably already aware of that. But have you ever heard of confirmation bias? That's our human tendency to look for information that supports our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore information that contradicts them.

New foragers who come on my tours will often point at interesting-looking plants or mushrooms and ask me, "Is this edible? What about this one?" I know how exciting it is to discover how much around us is food! However, can you see why this question can be dangerous?

If you're hoping that every plant around you is edible, it's far easier to miss the possibility that it's a poisonous look-alike.

That's why it's incredibly useful to go out on a forage with a picture already in mind of what you're looking for, and knowledge of its false friends.

It can also be incredibly useful and interesting to go looking for poisonous species. Familiarize yourself with the most toxic species in your area, and see if you can find them.

In Europe, I recommend learning to ID foxgloves (especially before they flower), hemlock water-dropwort, and hemlock as soon as possible. If you're interested in mushrooms, learn to ID deathcaps, destroying angels, and deadly webcaps.

Friend or foe? The carrot family is full of delicious edible and deadly look-alikes.

Tip #4 - Learn from multiple sources.

There are SO many foraging resources out there! Learn from every one and everything you can.

Absolutely nothing beats going out with an expert. Foraging is soaring in popularity, and there are loads of guides around the world who offer hands-on learning experiences on the land. I myself regularly run intro foraging workshops in Berlin.

But there are so many more resources, too.

For English-language foraging guides for northern Europe, I've learned tons from the websites of Galloway Wild Foods, Eatweeds, and Wild Food UK.

YouTube has phenomenal foraging material, ranging from overviews to in-detail what's-in-season-now guides. UK Wildcrafts is a great channel, as is Buschfunkistan (despite the cringe name; in German).

Absolutely find a few guidebooks and reference books that work well for you. Each is useful in a different way, and you can never have too many! I happen to live in Germany and speak German, and have had great luck finding excellent books in my local bookstores. Here's a great review of English-language European foraging guidebooks.

I've also found the plant ID app PlantNet extremely useful to help me narrow down what a new plant might be. The app uses AI to rank the likelihood of what a plant might be, based on photos of flowers, leaves, or seeds. It also directly displays the Wikipedia article for each plant in-app. A word of caution: never, ever use an app as your only method of ID. (Personally, I haven't yet found any mushroom ID apps to be at all useful.)

Tip #5 - Make friends with plants.

I mean it. You might not recognize a person after a first meeting, right? But as you start becoming friends, you stop relying on their physical characteristics - height, eye color, hair color - to pick them out of a crowd. Regardless of their clothes or haircut, you can recognize a friend without even thinking about it.

The same goes for plants and mushrooms. Plants often change their appearance through the seasons or years, for example with different leave shape and size when they're flowering or different colors based on the soil or amount of light they receive. Mushrooms of the same species can look radically different in shape, size, and color.

Spend time together. Check back in often. Make friends with them.

And don't panic if you just don't jive with some species. There are some I just can't hold in my head, too, regardless of how many times I look them up! Some relationships weren't meant to be. Focus on the ones who make you feel good to spot along the path.

Tip #6 - Forage responsibly.

Foraging gives us a chance to practice an alternative to our extractive, scarcity-driven culture. It offers a way of approaching nourishment from the living world that is new to most of us living in the Western world, and ancient to many other folks.

When we forage, we must do it with care. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks of the Honorable Harvest, not so much a set of rules for foraging as an approach, a way of being.

"This simple list may seem like a quaint prescription for how to pick berries, but it is the root of a sophisticated ethical protocol that could guide us in a time when unbridled exploitation threatens the life that surrounds us." – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Read the list. Hold it. Practice it. It's the only way to keep the abundance of our living world alive.

There's so much to learn.

But you're already on your way. I hope these tips have been helpful for you as you're getting started. Join one of my upcoming foraging workshops to keep honing your skills.

Is it time to dive deeper into relationship with the earth and yourself? Book a complimentary discovery call to learn how 1:1 work with me can support your journey of reconnection.



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