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Foraging Guidelines You Need to Know

Elderflower shrub with it's white elderflowers.

Foraging can help you cultivate a deeper connection with the earth and gets you free food. Learn how to do so responsibly with these foraging guidelines.

woman harvests elderflower from a shrub in an open meadow

When I first started foraging, I, like probably most foragers, was enamored by the thought of free food. Nutritious things I didn’t have to plant, water or pay for? Oh hell yes! I’d gather up all I could find. But, as I continued my practice of foraging, I learned that these leaves, berries, flowers, and nuts weren’t so much free as they were gifts, and the practice of foraging for wild plants has come to mean much more to me than just free food.

Why I Forage

Foraging has allowed me to deepen my appreciation for the native flora, and learning about the plants, their history, and the native people who once tended or gathered them. It allowed me a platform to cultivate awareness of to the cycles and seasons and to hone my observation skills. When I moved to a new city, mornings spent out foraging allowed me to develop a sense of home, learning my new environment as I encountered old plant friends and new ones, too.

Wild plants are usually the most nutritious of foods we can eat, a way to feed our rewilding souls and bodies, providing us with the nutrients our wild ancestors evolved on and in the seasons we need them most. Such as miner’s lettuce or stinging nettles

Yet, in our modern times, there aren’t enough natural resources and wild plants to sustain us all. If everyone suddenly shifted from the grocery store and the farm fields to gather from the wild, our forests would be trampled and the native plant populations destroyed.

If you, like I, are one of the people who are privileged enough to have the opportunity to gather wild foods, that means we hold the responsibility to forage armed not just with baskets and knives, but informed foraging guidelines and with respect. Even a few clueless or careless individuals can bring harm to an environment, or, to themselves. Don’t be that person. Learn and follow these best practices.

woman stands in a large expanse of mugwort

Foraging Guidelines

Learn about the Plant Before You Collect

How does it reproduce? What season is it best harvested in? What wild creatures eat this plant? What pollinators visit? These questions should help guide you to responsible harvesting.

Correctly Identify the Species

Know exactly, 100% sure, what the plant or plant part is that you are gathering. Plants can be wonderful, delicious and powerful healers, but they can also make you sick or even kill you (remember Socrates?). It’s best to learn from another person, such as a friend who is experienced or a group class led by a professional teacher. There are also many foraging books, and ones specific to your region are the best.

Plant identification doesn’t require tons of botany knowledge or complicated Latin names. Remember that human beings are hardwired to develop a sense of being able to know what a plant looks like, and be able to remember it, find it, and identify it again. It’s how we evolved and survived for centuries.

Start Small

Not with small plants (although, small plants are totally cool), but with small amounts. Even if a plant is totally safe to eat, start off collecting a very small amount and making sure it doesn’t make you sick and that you even enjoy eating or using it.  Just like our everyday foods, individuals might be allergic. Something your partner loves to eat might give you a rash. Or, you might think it tastes like dirt and never want to eat it again!

Woman cuts the tops of stinging nettles with clippers.

Avoid Foraging from Areas that are Polluted

In general, you want to avoid foraging for food in areas that are on the side of roadways or where dogs are regularly walked. Avoid areas and lawns that have been treated with fertilizers or herbicides.

That said, there are no “pristine” wild spaces anymore. Are berries gathered from the side of a country road any different than eating those from a farm field sprayed with poison? Is the change of a dog peeing on it worse than eating GMO and processed food? Learn about the plant, how it grows, know your own area, and make your own choices.

Forage Legally

Make sure you’re allowed to forage in your area. Private property requires permission from the landowner. Regulations pertaining to foraging on public land vary from park to park. At least in California, state parks usually don’t allow foraging and have large fines (although, I’ve foraged for kelp on state beaches no problem). National forests or parks vary, and they frequently provide permits for certain items, like mushrooms. You can usually find specifics by going to the specific park, open space, state forest or reserve website.

Woman and her dog collect dandelion flowers from a park.

Harvest Only Responsible and Sustainable Amounts

Only take what you will use. New to the plant? See the ‘start small’ above.

Some foraging guidelines say to take no more than 20%- of the plant or the population. But, then what happens when the next person comes along? 

Instead, don’t take the first plant you find. I recently interviewed a textile artist for an article (did you know I’m also a freelance writer?) who forages for her dyes and described her ethical foraging practices, which are great forging guidelines to follow. She makes sure not to take the first plant she sees, because it may be the last, nor the first of the season. She doesn’t take the first blossoms of the year because those are foods for pollinators, and she stops collecting flowers or berries around the Harvest Moon or the Autumn Equinox and instead leaves those for wildlife.

These guidelines are echoed by wisdom from Native Peoples, which describe such a beautiful practice. Don’t take the first plant you find. When you come across the plant your interested in, greet the plant like a new acquaintance, tell the plant who and why you are there. The plant will then send the message along on the wind, so the others will know to expect you and will welcome you.

Pick up trash.

No explanation needed. Leave the area cleaner than you found it.

woman in a grey dress holds out a handful of dandelion flowers

These last two are optional foraging guidelines, but ones that I think are crucial to helping you on your path of reconnecting with our Earth.

Adding these to my foraging practices have shifted me away from thinking of just “free food” to a more holistic experience. I encourage you to keep these in mind when on your next foraging trip.

Give Reciprocity for the Gift the Earth is Giving You

View your foraging bounty as a gift, and give a gift back to the Earth.

“Gifts from the Earth and from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. Because the earth has given us a gift, an ongoing relationship opens between it.” -Braiding Sweetgrass

What does a gift back to our Mother look like? Native people often left tobacco or another sacred herb as an offering. Some people leave a small stone they picked up elsewhere. It’s not about copying another culture’s practice but giving back in a way that is meaningful to you. Sometimes, I’ll leave a strand of hair or sing a song. But usually, I spend extra time searching for trash to haul out to properly dispose of, even if I just really want to head home.

Accept What is Given

Foraging is not like going to the store with a grocery list, you don’t always get what you come for. It can be frustrating to not find something you were really hoping for. Instead, accept that this wasn’t the day, and be grateful for the experience of spending the day outside. Keep these words in mind:

Foraging provides “goods and services not purchased, but received as gifts from our Earth. A gift comes to you through no action of your own, free, having moved towards you without your beckoning. It is not a reward; you can not earn it, or call it to you, or even deserve it. And yet, it appears. Your only role is to be open-eyed and present.” -Braiding Sweetgrass

Want to explore more ways to deepen your connection to the earth? Check out my one-on-one rewilding programs!

woman holds a basket filled with elderflowers

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