A woman picks berries and mushrooms from the lush vegetation on the forest floor.
Photo by Tanhu
Wild plant foragers find plenty of choices, from front yard to the forest
Hannah Hynes-Petty browses around her yard, searching for fresh salad ingredients. She plucks chickweed, purslane and dandelion greens.
“There’s a misconception that foraging takes place out in a forest or far away from home,” says the 24-year-old Eugene, Oregon, resident who teaches ethnobotany and herbalism for Wolf Camp and the Conservation College. “Foraging can happen right in your own backyard.”
Whether the search starts in a backyard or deep in the wilderness, foragers nationwide are gaining hands-on experience from experts who have found a passion for nature’s free edible offerings. From camps to classes to books, seasoned foragers are share expertise and hope to help people return to their gathering roots.
“Many plants considered to be weeds are highly nutritious and delicious,” says Hannah. “It seems counter-intuitive to weed out these plants from yards and gardens when they’re beneficial.”
Hannah’s classes focus on which plants are safe to eat, where to find them, when to pick them and how to fix them. Purslane’s succulent leaves taste similar to a tangy cucumber. Chickweed tastes similar to corn silk or a light grass. Dandelion greens provide vitamins and minerals, and often are boiled to remove a bitter flavor or sautéed in olive oil.
Foraging for wild greens, roots, flowers, mushrooms and berries in yards, along streambanks and in forests is gaining popularity for several reasons.
“It’s an easy way to supplement your diet with free nutrient-rich food,” Hannah says. “On a deeper level, it’s a way to engage with nature. Plants, their properties and botanical patterns are fascinating.”
A growing desire by consumers to learn about wild edibles helped propel rural coastal Oregon author Doug Deur to the New York Times bestseller list of travel books two years ago.
Sales are still steady for “Pacific Northwest Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Alaska Blueberries to Wild Hazelnuts.”
“The interest in gathering wild plants is rapidly expanding nationwide, involving a much wider range of people than was the case even a few years ago,” says Doug, an anthropology professor at Portland State University. “Consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the healthfulness of their food in light of industrialized, chemically based agricultural practices. At the same time, our technological world tends to disconnect people from their natural world.”
Doug believes another reason for his guidebook’s popularity is his inclusion of Native Americans’ eons-old foraging philosophy.
“Tribes I’ve worked with—from the Southwest to the Arctic—believe people should take care of the plants, and they will take care of you,” Doug says. “If you gather, you’re obligated to spread a few seeds and to not overharvest. Their reverence toward harvesting wild plants makes us think about our modern land-use practices.”
Hannah tells novice foragers to take a class from a qualified instructor or to accompany a knowledgeable person, and invest in a quality field guide. Her favorites include “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, and “Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate” by Portland-based author John Kallas.
The region provides a vast classroom offering a 24/7 pantry, with plants growing in diverse microclimates, from lush forests to dry grasslands. More than 2,000 mushroom varieties thrive in the region, with many growing only in the Northwest.
“We have thousands of plants to pick from,” says John, who estimates he has taught wild edible plant classes to 10,000 students regionally and nationally in rural and urban settings during the past 35 years. “There are more than 60 types of sea weeds alone.”
In addition to workshops, he shares advice at www.wildfoodadventures.com.
As if scanning a grocery list, John names a few of his favorite wild spring edibles.
“There are cattail shoots, oxeye daisies, mustards, sweet pea, carrots and burdock,” he says. “Coastal sea vegetables are out year-long, although there are seasons and permits required for gathering them.”
John advises students to get permission to forage on public as well as private lands. He emphasizes to avoid picking near roads, where plants absorb vehicular exhaust fumes, or along railroad tracks, where toxic chemicals have spilled and heavy metals may contaminate the soil.
“Always be positive of a plant’s identification,” he says. “A pleasant taste is not an indicator of edibility.”
Identification of edible plants has been passed down for generations among Native Americans, who have foraged for thousands of years.
“They still gather food in a specific, respectful way to perpetuate the life of the plants,” says Thomas Backman of Kamiah, Idaho, who teaches science at the Nez Perce campus of Northwest Indian College.
During a spring lab, students use a traditional long, sharp, digging stick to carefully extract edible roots.
“The idea is to dig a specific root without disturbing surrounding plants,” he says. “The plants’ seeds are then sprinkled in the hole, so new plants will grow and continue the life cycle.”
“Our saying is to tread softly when digging the roots,” adds Nez Perce language teacher Bessie Walker. “Each family has a traditional spot to dig.”
Like the roots, berries are picked carefully.
“It’s frustrating that some non-native pickers damage a huckleberry bush by cutting off an entire branch to pull off the berries later at home or at a campsite,” Thomas says. “Others have dug up bushes and planted them at home, which eventually kills the plant. We still can’t replicate the symbiotic relationship a huckleberry plant has with fungi in the soil where it grows. They’re best left in place.”
The Pacific Northwest’s wild mushrooms have become world renowned. They are especially coveted in Japan, where mushroom habitat has disappeared due to land-use practices.
No one can predict how a season will unfold.
“There are so many factors with snowpack, summer rain and humidity, it’s impossible to forecast,” says Kim Traverse, president of the Puget Sound Mycological Society and a mushroom hunter for 40 years. “Every season has its surprises.”
The value of the Northwest’s wild mushroom crop has been estimated at $23 million to $40 million annually, with thousands of pickers obtaining permits from the U.S. Forest Service.
“It’s amazing how little is actually known about the commercial wild mushroom trade,” says Langdon Cook, a Seattle-based author.
“It’s a fascinating, invisible economy and has been referred to as the largest legal cash business in the U.S.,” says Langdon, who worked in remote Northwestern forests alongside commercial pickers to write his book, “The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America.”
Lori Froehlich of Goldendale, Washington, has no desire to pick commercially. For her, finding morels in spring and golden chanterelles in fall is a priceless tradition shared with family and friends.
As a child, her dad taught her where to look. She learned to carefully slice mushrooms at the base of their stems to not damage the mycelium—the root-like network from which they grow.
“It was worthwhile whether we came home empty-handed or with our bags full,” Lori says. “Those experiences instilled in me a lifelong love of the woods.”
She describes autumn chanterelles as meaty and aromatic—“a bright golden spot in a forest of green, like finding a pot of gold or forest candy.”
Lori says to check with a U.S. Forest Service office to know where to hunt and how many you can gather.
While many wild mushrooms, plants and berries appear to be abundant, foraging advocates advise frugal harvesting so the plants continue to thrive.
Whenever Hope Stanton picks red huckleberries, thimble berries and blackberries near her home in Nehalem, Oregon, to make pies, jams and berry vinegar, she leaves enough for birds and other wildlife and seeds for a new generation of plants.
“It’s great that folks are relearning the value of our native plants,” says Hope, a member of the Native Plant Society of Oregon. “Let’s not trample and destroy them in the process.”
Hannah reminds her students to harvest honorably.
“Have a purpose in mind, and gather only as much as you will use and process,” she says. “Allow the biggest and best plants to remain so they can continue to propagate the healthiest population. Harvest about one-third or less of a plant and leave some root. Make clean slices, so the plant will heal.”
She looks forward to future outings.
“Spring is a wonderful time to harvest because plants are producing new buds and shoots,” Hannah says. “There are so many wonderful choices.”