by John Slattery
The concept of foraging has become quite popular in the U.S. over the past several years. Many people are venturing out into the forests, meadows, mountains, deserts, or simply their backyards in search of nutritionally dense food with exceptional and unique flavors, unique to their local ecology, or bioregion. What’s really important is that people are reconnecting with the landscape and sourcing their own food.
These wild flavors represent the terroir of our local region, a natural response to the environmental conditions of a place. In addition to macronutrients (fats, carbs, protein) and micronutrients (eg. vitamins & minerals), we find secondary plant metabolites as well, such as bioflavonoids, polyphenols, & bitter glycosides present in all wild plants.
It is a symphony of flavors and impressions which can fluctuate over a season, or even within a day depending on various environmental factors. The discovery of endless nuances of flavor awaits the avid and curious forager. As well, any beginner can appreciate the unique flavors and benefits of wild-foraged foods through taste and the enriching phenomenon of direct experience.
We learn in a variety of ways, each of us inclined to gather information about our world and organize it within our particular orientation towards the world. Foraging engages our senses directly, in a multitude, perhaps innumerable variety of ways. Whether it’s the glare of the low, early morning sun in my eyes as I reach for ripe saguaro fruit high atop the cactus, or feel the cool breeze across the back of my neck as I stoop to pick up acorns while smelling the onset of autumn through the moist decay of plant material all around me, I am immersed in a vast sensorial chamber packed full of information that is derived from a sentient engagement with all the rest of life surrounding it. A truly humbling and mind-boggling situation to endeavor to comprehend even within a small section of a forest, or an area of sight within the desert, each their own set up environmental factors, each unique, each tremendously complex.
Here, the learning begins by doing, by feeling, by using our senses to engage with the world around us. This is perhaps the oldest “work” we’ve ever known. Fully engaged with our surroundings in search of sustenance. For many years, generations even, we have been enabled to seek sustenance far more casually, with little to no thought of the process, and simply enjoy what we are served. As a forager, we become actively engaged with the process, and the process is far more than the end goal of food in the belly. It is all the empty space in between, the engagement of the senses, the insights, the relationships we discover within the web of life. It is now more than a trip to the market, it is a journey, a healing experience.
One of the simplest ways to start foraging is by identifying all the plants in your yard. Most people do not realize they have edible and nutritious foods growing in their yard (If you live in the Southwest US, check out my book, Southwest Foraging). There are many edible “weeds,” yes, but there are also numerous edible perennial plants (plants that live for many years) found in landscaped areas, or that may occur naturally, perhaps due to seed distribution by birds. Getting to know these plants should be the beginning forager’s first priority.
Does that mean you need to hire a botanist to identify all the plants for you? Not necessarily. Or does it mean you need to purchase a field guide? Well, not necessarily. Simplest and easiest way to identify and get to know a plant is to spend time observing the plant. Then, regardless of which names (common or scientific) you know, if any, you’ll be able to cross reference any photos, written descriptions, videos, verbal descriptions, or herbarium specimens with what you know about the plant. And what you know comes directly from your lived experiences, your observations.
For instance, pick a tree or a shrub in your yard. Do you know, roughly, when its leaves turned color last year, or if they do change color? Or when it flowers? What do the flowers look like? Are they male or female? Are the leaves opposite each other, or alternate along the stem? Does the tree produce a fruit? What are the seeds like?
All of the above can be explore before you know the name of the plant. But you can gather all of this information, throughout the seasons, with your own senses. This is where the beginning forager would be wise to begin their journey. From there, the richness of knowledge expands and one’s enjoyment grows.