Homesteading is all about becoming more self-reliant, and learning to forage is one great way to do this. However, part of becoming a responsible forager is to be responsible for your own safety by learning which plants you can and should collect and use, and which you should avoid. After all, there are plenty of poisonous plants out there, and even the safe plants can harm you if you harvest them from a contaminated environment.
Here are a few tips for safe foraging to ensure that your wild food harvesting habits won’t get you in trouble:
1) Talk to a Local Expert
Local experts will often know little tips and tricks that the books and websites won’t mention, and they will have specific knowledge about how the plants look and behave in your area.
If you can’t find an expert in your area, books and websites are an acceptable way to learn wildcrafting. However, they can’t warn you if you’re about to make a mistake. Use caution and consult multiple sources to minimize your risks.
2) Know Your Environment
Physical hazards include thorns, holes, ledges, wild animals, biting or stinging insects, moving vehicles, quicksand, and volcanoes. Just keep your eyes open and don’t stick your hands and feet anywhere you won’t be able to see them.
Chemical hazards can be a bit trickier to detect. Don’t wildcraft from locations that get sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. (If you don’t know, ask. You don’t want to eat that stuff.)
Avoid foraging beside busy roads. When it rains, the ditches are irrigated by vehicle-waste runoff. Many municipalities will also spray herbicides along the sides of rural roads. Apparently, this saves money compared to running the mowing trucks. But it also ruins many lightly trafficked areas that I would otherwise love to forage from. Areas around trash storage, treated wood, and industrial waste should also be avoided.
Only harvest plants from pure waterways. Streams and rivers can carry dangerous waste for miles.
Respect private property. Don’t go foraging around someone’s house after dark. Getting mistaken for a burglar and shot would just ruin your evening. And why were you foraging in the dark, anyway?
Lastly … you know what poison ivy and poison oak look like, right??
3) If a Plant Doesn’t Match, Don’t Use It
Sometimes you’ll come across a plant that looks ALMOST right, but something doesn’t quite fit. You may have found a subspecies or variation. Then again, it might be a dangerous look-alike. It’s best just to leave that one alone until you can get a firmer identification.
4) Avoid (Most) Plants With White Sap
This one has a number of exceptions. Some plants, like dandelions, are perfectly safe. Others might be safe once they’ve been correctly prepared. But as a general rule, if a plant has white sap, leave it alone.
5) Avoid Plants With White Berries
This rule has almost no exceptions. Plants with white berries are plants that do not mess around. Don’t even touch them.
6) Be 115% Sure About Mushrooms
Mushrooms take the term “poisonous” as a personal challenge. Some of them, like the death cap mushroom, reportedly taste good. To make things worse, mushroom look-alikes can be very tricky to tell apart.
On the flipside, mushrooms are delicious and a lot of fun. They can be wildcrafted safely, if you choose the right type. Some mushrooms, like morels and puffballs, are reasonably safe for beginners to gather. Just exercise due caution, research their appearance and look-alikes, and go out with an experienced guide until you get the feel for it.
7) Seeing an Animal Eat It Does Not Make It Safe
Animals can eat a lot of things that would make us sick or dead. They usually know what’s good for them. They don’t know what’s good for us. Don’t copy the animals.
Lastly, remember that experience trumps theory!
It may be very helpful to watch a video or read a book about wildcrafting. But until you’ve actually gone out to harvest and use a plant yourself, you can’t rely on that skill. Issues will often come up that books and videos can’t prepare you for. Theory is great for laying a foundation of knowledge, but experience is the ultimate teacher…