Foraging for Edible Plants With Steve Brill

The benefits of finding your next meal in the woods.

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Foraging Expert Steve Brill

Foraging Expert Steve Brill

Foraging expert Steve Brill “in the field,” teaching a class in New York’s Central Park.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Violet Brill.

Image courtesy of Violet Brill.

Foraging expert Steve Brill “in the field,” teaching a class in New York’s Central Park.

Foraging expert Steve Brill has shared his foraging wisdom at schools, museums, parks departments, environmental organizations, and with scout troops since 1982. He’s written three books and an app, stars in a DVD and maintains a website at Wild Man Steve Brill

An Introduction to Foraging

Hundreds of common, renewable, edible and medicinal wild plants grow throughout America. Many are so common people destroy them as “weeds.” They’re delicious recipe ingredients most people who love to cook, including famous chefs, don’t know about. They’re highly nutritious, and they’re fun to learn about, find and use.

My History With Foraging

As part of my exercise regime, I was bicycling past a local park in Queens, New York City, where I lived, when I saw some ethnic Greek women, dressed in traditional black garb, collecting something. I stopped and asked what they were doing but couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. It was all Greek to me! But I came home with a bag of wild grape leaves, which I readily stuffed. They were delicious. When I returned to the same park in the fall, the trees were festooned with fox grapes, the wild forerunner of Concord grapes, and they’re scrumptious too. I got books on the subject and began learning all the wild foods I could find. I had so much fun foraging, I thought other people might enjoy it too, and that led to my foraging tours.

Foraging Ground Rules

The types of wild foods you can find in backyards, parks and local natural areas across the country are the same food types you buy: herbs, greens and shoots, fruits and berries, nuts and seeds, roots, mushrooms and even seaweeds. In this series, we’ll focus on common, easy to recognize species that grow in gardens. But first, some ground rules:

  • It’s absolutely necessary that you identify anything you eat with 100 percent certainty before you eat it. You can eat any plant once, but you may not be around to eat it a second time. If you’re not certain, either invite the boss over for dinner, show the plant to an expert or watch the plant through the seasons as more features appear that may confirm or refute your identification.
  • Once you think you’ve found an edible plant, go through all the features and check them against your reference sources. If the plant has poisonous lookalikes, go over all the features of the toxic plants and those characteristics by which you can tell them apart. Do the same for nonpoisonous lookalikes.
  • Start off looking for plants that are the easiest to recognize, that have no poisonous lookalikes and are the most common and widespread. Hold off eating plants that have poisonous lookalikes, such as wild carrots (which resemble poison hemlock), or that have poisonous parts and require special preparation until you have experience with safer species -- although you can’t be harmed by simply trying to identify anything you find.

Foraging and Conservation

It seems as though removing plants from natural habitats would be environmentally destructive, but that is not so. Most, but not all, wild foods are renewable resources. The faster you pick dandelions, Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard, the faster they grow back. And mulberry trees aren’t going to roll over and die no matter how many berries you eat.

Of course, a few edible wild plants are rare in some locations. Those you should leave alone, or look for them where they’re common, when harvesting would be more efficient anyway. If you collect small proportions of common plants where they’re common, take only a small fraction, and — with the exception of common root vegetables — leave the roots in the soil to regenerate, you’ll be able to forage for these plants year after year. Using such common sense methods I’ve had large groups of people foraging with me in the same places year after year for over three decades with no environmental impact whatsoever.

The real danger to wild plants is habitat destruction, so take whatever actions you can to support those who are protecting our planet. Indirectly, teaching kids to forage will promote a love of nature and the environment and lead to more environmental protection in the future. I work with kids all the time, and it’s amazing to see what they’re capable of. Some of them have even grown up to become school teachers who bring their classes on my tours, and others teach their students about the environment in many other ways as well.

What to Bring

Foraging is easier if you’re prepared. Bring appropriate clothing — extra layers and a warm hat, warm socks and gloves if it’s cold. Bring plenty of water (or ice water in an insulated container), special clothes that wick away sweat, and a broad-brimmed hat in hot weather. Don’t forget a snack or lunch, and a navigation device (compass or navigation app) in unfamiliar terrain. Bring plastic bags for veggies and herbs, containers for berries, and work gloves for thorny berries, nettles and digging.

A small, sturdy shovel or trowel is much better than using a stick for roots, but beware of flimsy trowels, those with crimped blades instead of cylindrical shafts, commonly sold for soft garden soil. They break as soon as you try to dig in wild soil.

Poisonous Plants

It’s important to be familiar with poisonous plants that resemble edible plants, and you should pick the poisonous plants to identify and study them. Look at their images and go over their identifying characteristics. But keep them away from anyone in your household who may forage in the refrigerator, find them and think you’ve picked something edible! And be sure to keep them away from young children.

Some poisonous plants look very similar to edible ones at certain stages. Other times the resemblance is minimal, but people still wind up poisoning themselves through carelessness, mainly because edible and poisonous species can grow side by side, and the two species have been collected together. So check out the poisonous lookalikes that have major differences to edible plants as well as the similar-looking species, learn what the differences are, and be sure to pay attention when harvesting.

Ready to Begin!

This should get you up to speed on the subject of foraging. Now all you need to do is learn all the plants!

Editor's Note: The content of this article is provided for general informational purposes only. Be cautioned that some wild plants can be poisonous, and poisonous plants sometimes resemble edible plants which often grow side by side. It is the responsibility of the reader, or the reader’s parent or guardian, to correctly identify and use the edible plants described. HGTV does not guarantee the accuracy of the content provided in this article and is not liable for any injury resulting from use of any information provided.

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