Wildcrafting: There is a free lunch — and here is how to find it
Free food and free medicine are just two of the latest reasons people are renewing their interest in wildcrafting and foraging. The ultimate locavore experience, wildcrafting is cheap, easy, and yes, even safe.
After more than 25 years of teaching classes about herbs and weeds, I realized the easiest way to learn about them is the way that they appear in nature. In cycles, with each year being slightly different, depending on the weather, or the mood of the area. Events change the plants. Planned and spontaneous events change what I notice and report on.
Nature is constant. You can't put it on hold, you can't ask the berries to be ripe only when you have free time to pick them. Learning can be constant, too. Some days you'll want to pay lots of attention, others you may hardly notice the life around you. So I started a daily tweet on what I'm aware of, what's in bloom, in fruit, developing roots, sending out shoots. A daily tweet on which plants can be harvested, which parts, what to do, and how. That seems like a great way to be inspired, to look around, and — most importantly — to learn. I'll repeat those tweets here, and also elaborate on them, as well as use photos - a valuable tool in learning to see.
There are skills you need to be a forager. First and foremost, you have to be able to slow down and pay attention. Walking and biking are ideal activities to support a foraging interest. You can't see the plants very well in a fast-moving car.
Wildcrafters need to be able to see individual plants beyond the green mass of life. This may be a trait best suited for kids. They seem to be fast learners. But it is never too late. And it's pretty amazing to learn plant identification and use when you're older. It's like having a very old friend who you finally had a long talk with. Who would've known they were so interesting and helpful!
A sense of smell and taste are pretty essential, not only for the motivation (oh, bergamot in the field, crushed spearmint, ripe raspberries, wild horseradish, so many wonderful smells...) but also this is a key part of identifying plants.
Access to plant ID books or knowing how to search the internet for positive IDs is essential. An expert teacher or friend is great, but certainly in the beginning you'll want confirmation of identity rather than relying on beginners' skill (and luck?!).
You also need to learn about the poisonous plants in the area, and especially be able to tell them apart from lookalikes. Pretty easy with the green plants, shrubs and trees. Mushrooms are much more difficult, and also usually much more important. I would never teach mushroom ID in a blog or tweet.
I don't know if it's a skill or a personality trait, but a willingness to wade in, investigate, search out, have patience, look around and interact with your environment is critical. Eat a little dirt once in a while, try things unwashed, get some mosquito bites, and have fun in the process. A lot of people think this kind of fun is nuts. Why not go to the store and buy stuff? Well, that's a whole other post.
You may want to learn two or three plants a year, or you may want to watch and try everything as it goes by. You may be experienced, but looking for more ideas and that inspiration to put what you know to use. Whatever the reason, I want to share this knowledge and I want to teach people to enjoy nature to a far greater extent than you may have thought possible.
In the end, I forage because I love the taste of wild things, I love being out in nature where I can find interesting things to harvest, the quality of the resulting food or medicine is outstanding, and I love participating in this most basic of human activities. Humans have been wild harvesting since the beginning. The last 100 years, as it fell out of practice, are the exception. Reawakening this most basic instinct is a very simple thing to do, and for many people a life-affirming process. Try it out. You may be surprised.
Dogs forage as well. My dog enjoying fallen Mulberries near 7th and Liberty. photo by Linda Diane Feldt