It’s foraging season once again and I feel that more than ever we’re being encouraged to get out and pick our own. Sometimes it is hard to know where to start. What I am not going to do in this blog is tell you how to ID something. There are a number of better sources out there that will help you do this. What I will be doing is giving you my 5 key steps to becoming a successful forager.
Firstly I will tell you the best piece of advice I was even given when it comes to foraging, I will say it a few times during the blog but it doesn’t hurt to say it multiple times: IF IN DOUBT, DON’T EAT IT! For your safety I cannot emphasise this enough. I’d much rather go down to the shops or market and get something safe to eat than risk eating anything dangerous.
Step 1: Figure out what you want to forage for.
This may sound like an obvious or even a silly first step. However, there is world of wild food out there – mushrooms, berries, flowers, roots and more. It takes a life time of dedication to become an expert in even one of these areas. To start with, pick what type of food you want forage for and concentrate on that. It’s much easier to start with just a few species and get to know them really well than it is to try and learn everything at once.
Step 2: Go on a good course.
I find it much easier to learn when someone shows me how to do it rather than reading or looking at pictures in a book. There are many experts out there willing to share their knowledge with you and make you top notch foragers. They will be able to share the information with you in a far more personal manner and might have insights or anecdotes that will help you remember what’s good and what’s not. They will also be able to give you so much more information than is in the books. You might want to take your chosen book with you on the course so you can make notes in the margins. Going through professional bodies such as the British Mycological Society and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) will ensure you are being educated by the best.
Step 3: Buy the right equipment
Invest in the right equipment to help you identify and harvest your wild treats. You won’t always have your teacher with you, so a good book and/or notebook is the next best thing. Read a few books and see what works for you. Personally, I like books with plenty of good quality pictures that I can use to compare to the specimens, good descriptions, clear warning of any poisonous similar plants/fungi and I like families of plants/fungi to be grouped into sections – this helps as you get more familiar with different groups and leads to speedier identification, for example you can say “This mushroom looks a lot like a Cep” and go straight to the group that look like Ceps rather than have to search through the entire book. A foraging basket, a good foraging knife and a hand loupe/field loupe magnifying lens are also essential.
Step 4: Be patient, take your time.
The second most valuable piece of advice I can give you is to take your time. As I said before, people dedicate their lives to becoming expert foragers. I know that when you get the foraging bug you really, really, really want to get out there and come home with dinner on your first trip out. Before you put anything into your mouth (or your dinner), get comfortable identifying your chosen group and any of their poisonous counterparts. Some of these wild foods are edible with a caveat, such as they cannot be eaten with alcohol or a certain percentage of the population are allergic to them. It is little things like this that you need to be aware of. It may take multiple courses and months of learning before you truly are comfortable telling your mushrooms or berries apart. It is far better to take your time to learn all the subtle differences than to make one mistake that may end up costing your life and the lives of anyone you feed it to. You can always take samples in to horticulture centres and have your identification verified.
Step 5: If in doubt, don’t eat it!
Finally I will say it again and I will say it until I am blue in the face. If you even have a niggling doubt about something you have picked DO NOT EAT IT. Your safety and the safety of others should be your main priority.
Royal Horticultural Society https://www.rhs.org.uk/
British Mycological Society http://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/
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About the author: Kirsty Jackson is a PhD student at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. She studies bacterial and fungal symbioses with legumes and loves all things fungi! She also runs science outreach events. Follow her on twitter (@kjjscience)