Identify Methods of Identification

This week, I had planned to blog about my little cluster of ripening grapes and what I was FINALLY going to do with wild grapes (Vitis spp.) now that they were within reach.

Wild grapes are starting to ripen in September
Wild grapes are starting to ripen in September

Then I remembered that almost every time I mention wild grapes, I also describe the host of wild inedible (or downright poisonous) lookalikes to avoid. At which point I realized I have never shared the resources at hand for identifying plants. 100% positive identification is paramount when foraging, because it’s not like your garden where you know which seeds you planted (except for when you don’t, like the weeds that inevitably pop up), or the grocery store or farmer’s market where all the produce is clearly labeled.

The number one resource is an experienced guide. There is no substitute for another human being with extensive knowledge of the local ecosystems and what you might find (both good and bad) therein. Many locations have classes, and I even hope to start offering my own early next year if you’re in the MD / WV / PA area. Humans are advanced pattern detection machines on two legs, and an in-person guide can distill the relevant information for you in a way that no book or app can.

I will mention apps next, because odds are you will have your smart phone with you, rather than reference books. Remember that apps can make mistakes (well, so can humans), so cross-reference multiple sources before harvesting and eating anything new for the first time. The app I use most is Seek by iNaturalist. It has relatively good identification ability, it can ID animals and fungi as well as plants, and the ID page includes range and seasonality information which I feel is critically important to foraging. If you think you found chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.), for instance, but it’s September – not impossible, but most chanterelle sitings in Maryland are in July. In this case, it might be worth double checking whether you actually have a jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus spp.)

Jack-o-lantern mushrooms are a toxic lookalike to chanterelles

Other apps I use include PlantNet, which can be helpful for, um, plants if Seek can’t identify them and Shroomify for mushrooms. Shroomify includes geography and seasonality information as well as clearly labeled information about edibility. Some other foragers use Google Lens and Picture This, but I don’t have personal experience with either of those.

Another digital resource may be a state or location specific inventory of local plants and animals, native or otherwise. In my area, this resource is the Maryland Biodiversity Project, which catalogs the natural biodiversity found in this small state. This can include helpful information about which counties a plant occurs in… wait, no. Which counties a plant has been observed in. For example, there’s no reported sightings for kudzu (Pueraria montana) in Frederick county, even though we know for a fact I found a huge patch last year. You can also see useful things like that kudzu tends to flower in September, based on the observation photos. There’s also no reports of ramps in Frederick county, but they have been found in all the adjacent counties, and April is clearly the best time to look for them, apparently in habitats similar to those favorited by mayapples.

Online resources include local Facebook groups, although these may be fraught with other inexperienced foragers and thus shouldn’t be used as the only (or primary) source of information. If you can’t find a Facebook group for foraging in your community, you could probably start one (although running a Facebook group can be a huge hassle). I personally prefer to lurk on these groups, rather than offering opinions, because I would hate to be “that guy” who accidentally steered someone wrong with an identification!

You could also perform an internet search, or consult other foraging websites, although I don’t have specific “go to” pages to recommend.

Books are another great source of information, and there are more foraging books now than ever before. (Wow, I’m trendy!) My personal favorites include:

  • Anything by Samuel Thayer – he goes into deep detail about different plants, rather than the several-page-summary of many other foraging books (I recently went off my book diet to add his third book to my personal collection!)
  • The Northeast Foraging (Leda Meredith) and Southeast Foraging (Chris Bennett) books, which are the exact opposite of Thayer, covering a lot of plants at a summary level

(Note that Forage, Harvest, Feast is not in this list because I primarily consider it a cookbook, even though it does include some basic information about identification.)

When evaluating foraging books, make sure to look for color photos (rather than drawings or black and white photos) of many different parts of the plant in question. Photos of poisonous lookalikes can be very helpful as well. If possible, locate books specifically about your area rather than “Wild Edible Plants of North America” (for instance). Or a book that (on closer inspection) primarily targets the opposite coast of the country.

On a somewhat related topic, you can leverage books like Botany in a Day which focuses on plant identification in general, rather than foraging specifically. If you can learn the patterns of plant families – like how all members of the mint family (Lamiaceae) have a stem with square cross-section for instance – that can help narrow down your options when you encounter a new, unknown-to-you wild plant.

Last but not least is the Universal Edibility Test. I don’t generally recommend this, unless you find yourself in a survival situation – a relatively uncommon occurrence in modern day North America! Also remember that “edible” doesn’t necessarily mean “good!”

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