It’s spring, which means it’s prime foraging season for edible plants. I went foraging mushrooms in Spain and I was hooked. So when Dave wanted we go foraging ramps for Loka Snacks I was all in. This beginner’s guide to foraging compiles all the research we did before heading out.
Foraging has become really popular in the last few years. Whereas once people hadn’t really heard of ramps (aka wild leeks) they are on many menus in Toronto right now. With a rise in popularity it also means they can be expensive. For a pop-up restaurant like Loka Snacks it’s not possible for us to pay $20/lb for ingredients, which means we need to go find them ourselves.
Foraging Rules 101
There are a few universal rules to foraging edible plants; it’s not a law but everyone tends to abide.
Respect endangered species. We were hoping to forage edible flowers only to discover the lovely purple plant was on Ontario’s endangered list. It’s not only illegal to pick but against our philosophy to respect the land. You may see a large patch of something endangered and think it’s no longer at risk but you could be jeopardizing the species fight back to normal levels.
Learn to identify edible plants. We use the Peterson Field Guide which is really handy because it identifies plants by colour. If you aren’t 100% sure you’ve picked an edible plant ask someone who knows. Never eat something if you aren’t sure it’s edible.
I was so excited when I picked this beautiful plant thinking it was an edible lily but no one could verify it was edible so I had to toss it. It’s not worth the risk.
Never over harvest. Never take more than 10-20% of the crop so that it will return next year. Unfortunately with foraging becoming more and more popular it means we risk endangering popular edible plants. Never forage more than you could reasonably use.
Don’t pick the roots. Foraging the roots means the plant can’t continue to reproduce. So if you’re looking for leaves or flowers leave the remainder of the plant.
This one is more difficult than it sounds as the edible part of wild ginger is the root and it’s practically impossible to take ramps without the root – so instead we just ensured we didn’t take too much of the plants. We were lucky as the land was abundant.
Be aware of the local water source and the quality of land. When you eat wild edible plants you’re also consuming the water it uses to grow. So if your plants grow near polluted water it means you’re basically drinking that polluted water. Cooking often cannot remove these harmful pollutants and it’s best to just stay away from plants that grow on polluted land or near water that may be contaminated by heavy metals or downstream from land used in agriculture.
Where to Go Foraging Edible Plants
First decide what you’d like to find as it really depends on where you’ll need to go. During ramp season you’ll need a forested area with an uphill slope near a water source.
Public parks can be great but you need to get there before the professional foragers arrive. It’s best to ask around with friends and family to see who has private land outside the city.
Avoid contaminated areas near highways, landfills, train tracks or factories. Stay away from land that looks like it may have been sprayed.
Avoid dog marking areas like the entrance to a park or where a field meets a forest.
Foraging in Cities and Urban Areas
Toronto has many public parks and green spaces but we were wary to forage in the city. It is recommended that a city should have 10-15 years of pesticide-free use before foraging. Unfortunately Toronto stopped spraying in 2009 so we have a few years to go.
That doesn’t mean we’re completely out of luck for food in the city. Not Far from the Tree rescues fruit around the city and we have a great vertical hanging garden on our back deck that is coming along well.
If your city has been pesticide-free for long enough check on the legality of foraging in the city.
What to Wear Foraging
This is not the time to wear your cute new shorts and flip-flops.
You’ll find foraged food in forests and dense areas of parks. Wear closed-toed shoes, long sleeves and pants. I prefer to layer as it can get warm. If you’re foraging in the spring a raincoat is wise.
In a backpack consider bringing gardening gloves, a trowel, small rake and scissors.
How to Cook Foraged Foods
Eating foraged foods is rewarding but also can be dangerous for many reasons:
Poisonous plants often look similar to edible plants.
Some plant parts are edible, some are not. We picked wild ginger the root is okay to eat but the leaves are flower are not. We also discovered they weren’t a good candidate for pickling because the vinegar increases the carcinogenic properties of the plant.
You may need to cook some plants. For example, morels can make you sick if you eat them raw.
Some edible plants have poisonous look-alikes.
Sometimes the season affects what part of plant is edible. For example stinging nettle shouldn’t be eaten after it seeds.
Once you determine the foraged plants are edible. It’s best to wash thoroughly before use. We realized cutting the roots on site was a good idea as they hold most of the soil. We also left ramps to soak in a bowl before we started the washing process. Adding a spoonful of white vinegar or lemon juice helps.
Is there anything we missed? Share your best foraging tips in the comments below.