As a young child, I had the normal habit of sticking everything in my mouth. Like many of my childhood habits that I should have broken, I have the annoying habit to this day of absentmindedly chewing on nearby objects, ranging from straws and pens to leaves and twigs. As an adult, I’ve turned that annoying habit into a cheap and exciting way to supplement my groceries by turning to the food that grows all around us.
Our ancestors lived off of the land, and while pavement and sprawl has replaced much of that natural landscape, we still can find plenty of snacks and delicious treats if we just look around. There are some skills to develop, and a few rules to follow, but you can turn a walk in the park into a picnic with only a little effort and some reading. I’ll walk you through the beginning steps right now so you can be foraging in no time.
First, learn a few fruit and berry sources in your area. Public parks and local public schools often have a fruit tree or two in a few places, typically apple or pear. Just learning to recognize these trees and watch them for signs of fruiting is a great first step. Large fruits are easily recognized, and typically there are no poisonous lookalikes, at least in Pennsylvania. When you find wild or semi-domestic fruits, eat a bite or so the first time. Once you have eaten from a source successfully once, you can increase your intake because you know you didn’t have an adverse reaction.
Berries are a little harder. If you are unsure of a berry type, take a plant sample. Samples with berries, leaves, and twigs will usually be sufficient for identification. Then, head online or to the internet to find out the type of berry. Before you sample the berry, you should be 100% sure that it isn’t poisonous. If still unsure, take it to a local expert in plants and have them do an identification. Often arboretums, greenhouses, and plant centers will have someone capable of identifying the fruit.
Wild nuts and seeds are usually abundant if you know where to look. Butternuts, chestnuts, or walnuts can typically be found almost anywhere in the United States. Rosehips can be harvested from plants around town in the Fall. In my area, there is an overabundance of ginko seeds, which must be carefully prepared, but it is delicious when made correctly. Books will help you determine what you can find in your area, and most places have websites with a list of local edibles.
Wild greens are the most fun, but also the hardest to break into. If you want to go this route, I recommend that you consult a book first. Many take practice to spot or have special preparations, but when done correctly, are excellent. Once you know what is in your area, you will find tons of it. For example, at my parents house in North Central Pennsylvania, I could eat milkweed once a week for 3 months of the year without making a dent in the wild population.
On that note, be respectful when your harvesting damages the plant. You should never harvest more than 1/3 of the plants that you find, and less if you suspect others are doing the same. Everyone shares the wild harvest, and being greedy hurts the community and the plant population.
Mushrooms are potentially life threatening, so I always recommend having an expert to help you at first. Look for mushroom walks in local parks in your area, as these will identify what you will expect to find while also helping you identify what to steer very far away from. Remember, the 100% sure rule is for all things you eat, and with mushrooms, I want my confidence and the confidence of an expert before I risk my life eating one.
I’ve harvested salads of tree leaves and knotweed shoots, prepared nuts that I’ve found in school parking lots, and eaten more mulberries than any person probably should. I take pride in my survival skills, thrifty habits, and culinary versatility right here in the city. If you are thinking of becoming a harvester, Welcome to a fun and interesting hobby.