Foraging Handy Hints

Over the last few years there has been a significant increase in the number of celebrity chefs and tv cookery programs incorporating wild foods in to their cooking. This combined with the appeal of sourcing food that is free and has zero food miles, has resulted in a significant public interest in foraging wild food for themselves. However, most people have some trepidation in going out and collecting from the hedgerows and rightly so as there are many poisonous plants and fungi that if eaten by mistake can cause significant harm and even death, with some notable cases of poisoning having hit the headlines.

Making a positive identification using even the best guide books can be a daunting prospect for the novice forager, to the extent where many never make the leap from finding and identifying to collecting and ultimately cooking a wild plant or mushroom.

It is not hard to see why. Foraging utilises all the senses and often touch and scent can play as large a part in the identification process as appearance, often these may not be described in a typical guide book. I’ve yet to find a book which describes how the acrid smell of a freshly crushed Hedge Woundwort leaf starts to smell like mushroom after a minute or two!

On top of this most books will depict a plant in full bloom, but the flowering plant may bear little resemblance to how it looks for the rest of the year when it isn’t flowering. A good example of this being the common Broad-Leafed Dock which most people can recognise by its large, thick stemmed leaves. However the leaves on the flower stem are smaller, narrower and more pointed and bear such little resemblance to the normal leaves that I have seen people flatly refuse to believe it is the same plant.

With larger plants, in order to depict the whole plant, you often find the pictures in some guide books may lack the detail of key identification features such as the leaves. A good example of this is Foxglove. When flowering the plant is often 1.5m tall and thus a picture of flowering Foxglove in some books is unlikely to show enough detail of the leaves to allow a forager to distinguish the leaf from Comfrey. This could have disastrous consequences as Foxglove is extremely toxic.
Add to this the amazing diversity within most species arising from soil and light conditions as well as genetic variation and you begin to understand why so many would be foragers fall at the first hurdle.

By far the best way for a beginner to take their first tentative foraging steps is to attend a foraging course run by a reputable company. There is nothing to compare with being shown a plant in the field by a knowledgeable expert, where the key identification features can be pointed out as well as any possible lookalikes with which it may be confused. On such courses students can feel the difference between a Foxglove leaf and a Comfrey leaf. They can see the subtle differences between Sorrel and Lords and Ladies, and smell the difference between Ramsons and Lily of the Valley. This first-hand experience sticks in the mind in ways that no illustration can ever do. Smells particularly can be very subjective and even if a book does describe a plant’s scent it may not present its self to all foragers in the same way. A good example is Ground Ivy which many people think has a minty smell but a significant number of people detect different aromas including diesel, lavender, cannabis, etc.

That is not to say there are not good guide books around, there are many. I certainly recommend choosing several to assist with the identification process but this can often result in carrying what feels like an outpost of the British library around with you. Unfortunately most plant and fungi identification guides do not advice on the uses, and by the same token most of the foraging books aren’t always brilliant for identification processes resulting in the need to purchase yet more books to learn how to prepare wild foods. An instructor on a reputable foraging course should be able to recommend a selection of books both for identification purposes and preparing plants once obtained. This will then allow the student to build on the knowledge obtained on the course and eventually gain the experience and confidence to forage for themself. This rarely happens overnight but with perseverance and the right introduction most people will arrive at the stage where they have the confidence to not only identify but make that leap of faith to move on and prepare and eat a selection of wild plants.

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