Foraging Safety Reminders, Week Ending 5/3/2020

You guys, it’s almost poke season.

And while I am very excited – because pokeweed is delicious – I still feel some hesitation about cooking and eating this wild food. Because if done wrong, pokeweed is poisonous.

Which is why I wanted to reiterate some safety guidelines for foraging. I have seen a dramatic uptick in foraging interest since the start of the COVID-19 “situation” here in the U.S. and I think it will continue as more people realize the fragility of the American food industry. I believe we will see more supply chain disruptions in the coming months, which will drive (inspire?) more people to eat locally & seasonally, grow more of their own food in whatever gardens they can manage, and look for free wild food in their surroundings.

First and foremost: always be 100% sure of your identification of plant (or fungus). The photos on this blog do not count, as I am still figuring this stuff out myself! Consult multiple books, with lots of good photos, and/or reputable websites. Best of all, take a class or study with an experienced mentor. Some plants are just hard to identify, but others have poisonous lookalikes that can make you sick if harvest the wrong thing. Do NOT nibble on a plant to confirm whether or not it is edible! Make sure you know what the plant is first. The “classic” foraging example is confusing wild carrot / Queen Anne’s lace for poison hemlock. But daylily shoots can be confused with inedible irises, and young milkweed looks very similar to the poisonous dogbane.

Once you have the right plant (or fungus), make sure you prepare it correctly. As mentioned above, poke can be toxic. The roots and older plant parts are always poisonous. Only the young shoots are edible, and only if boiled to within an inch of their lives. (I’ve heard mixed reports about the berries, and I’m not going to try myself to find out!)

The hens are very concerned about my plans to eat that pokeweed
The hens are very concerned about my plans to eat that pokeweed

Other examples: elderberries and morel mushrooms should not be consumed raw because they contain compounds that need heat to break them down. Stinging nettle and wood nettle need a quick bath in boiling water to remove their sting. Other wild edibles – such as knotweed and dryad’s saddle – become inedible as they grow, so can only be enjoyed young. Acorns are downright unpleasant until they have gone through the lengthy process of leaching out the tannins. And I STILL haven’t figured out how to get black walnut meat out of the shells efectively.

On a related note, introduce any new foods in small amounts until you know for sure how your individual GI tract (and others you may be feeding) responds. A very simple (and noisy) example is sunchokes, as the inulin they contain can (will) cause gas the following day. Totally worth it, by the way, but can be surprising the first time, and in large quantities the gas can be very uncomfortable. Daylilies can also cause digestive upset in some people.

Last but not least – and maybe this should have been mentioned first – be very aware of your surroundings while you forage. Roadsides can be polluted with car emissions and runoff. Areas near agricultural fields may have been sprayed with herbicides or other chemicals that linger in the soil and end up in plants. Do not trespass. Parks or nature centers may have an abundance of wild food in their boundaries, but may also have strict rules about removing anything from the premises. Before foraging in deep woods, know something about finding your way with a compass (NOT your smart phone’s GPS) or landmarks in the woods. If you are studying the ground intently as you walk – say, hunting for mushrooms or nuts – you can easily get disoriented and lost. (Ask me how I know…) And be careful for poison ivy, ticks, and spiders which may also call the wild their home.

There is food out there in nature, waiting for you if you take the time to look. But use some basic (some would say “common sense”) safety measures!

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