I’ve become accustomed to wandering through the forest on a journey of discovery, guided by curiosity and unrestricted by time or other obligations. I like to gather items to add to my wild food pantry, and I collect mementos, the small items that bring the beauty of nature into my home.
Finding these treasures does not necessarily require a trip into the deep woodlands. Wild foods are all around, and you can learn to identify what to safely forage wherever you are. Jogging in the city or hiking in the country you can find edible flowers, berries, tender spring shoots, nutrient-rich greens, herbs, mushrooms, and a variety of edible roots.
When beginning your edible journey, research is key. Learn about the indigenous plants that grow in your area, or in the region, you plan to explore.
To assist with plant identification use a guide such as Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada which outlines a great variety of wild plants, how to identify them and how they are used. There are helpful and informative plant identification apps such as Picture This. Keep in mind that apps are not always 100% accurate and should be used as a starting point, not as the primary source of information when identifying wild foods.
Facebook groups are another great resource. Search groups by subject or category, and location by region or city, such as “Ontario Mushroom Foragers” to connect with experienced foragers and discover edible species that grow near you. These communities are helpful when you have questions or need some extra assistance identifying a plant or mushroom.
No matter where you are located, you are sure to find a foraging group, or resources specific to your area. Visit your local library, government natural resources website, or conservation website for more information.
Ontario Nature is a charity that protects wild species and wild spaces “through education, conservation and public engagement since 1931”. Their Guide To Harvesting And Processing Edible Plants is a comprehensive resource that covers proper harvesting, handling, preserving, and conservation of wild foods.
Here is a list of foraging gear that I don’t leave home without:
- Bags (cloth produce, paper, mesh–avoid plastic as it traps moisture and can spoil your food before you make it home)
- Basket (if you are harvesting something delicate like raspberries or mushrooms, you may want something more structured to protect fragile fruit)
- Water bottle and a light snack
- Bug spray
- Charged phone – with an app uploaded to help you identify plants and wildlife
- A pocket or online map of the trail or route you are exploring to help with navigation
- If you plan to mushroom hunt it is wise to bring a mushroom identification book too. For North American foraging consider the National Audubon Society: Field Guide To Mushrooms
*If you want something small, Opinel classic folding knives are a good choice. If you want something suited for multi-purpose deep woods foraging, take a look at this all-in-one survival knife. Opinel’s mushroom foraging knife is one of my favourites. The curved blade reaches around the mushroom stems for a precise, delicate cut and the cleaning brush (built into the handle), makes cleaning your mushrooms in the field a breeze, which keeps your entire harvest from being soiled and saving you clean up later.
Select a few wild foods that grow in your area then learn all you can about them. When you feel inspired, go for a walk to seek them out. With practice, you will begin to recognize species easily and identify them correctly.
I came home from a run one day, my pockets stuffed with stinging nettle. I couldn’t believe my good luck having randomly found them growing in a park. I did feel the sting from them, but when I finally sipped my nettle iced tea
I decided it was worth it.
Edible wild greens such as dandelion, wood sorrel, lamb’s quarter, and mustard greens are found in many countries. A combination of these would make a beautiful salad to start your meal. Wild mustard greens are peppery so you may not want to include the leaves in your salad mix. Taste a small bite and decide if you like the flavour. If you do, you can purée a small amount in a food processor and stir this into a honey vinaigrette to add a fresh and spicy flavour.
A cocktail with wild blackberry and mint syrup topped with a splash of gin and sparkling wine is a perfect aperitif and can be a fun conversation starter about wild food. Gently toss your foraged berries with sugar in a bowl. Set aside for half an hour, or until the berries release their juices and the mixture becomes syrupy. Use this delicious syrup in a cocktail or dessert.
TIP: If you plan to make cocktails on your camping trip be sure to remember to pack some sugar along with your other pantry items.
Add evergreens to your food or cocktails for a fresh and zingy boost of flavour. Harvest pine or spruce shoots in the spring. Other evergreens such as pine needles, and cedar leaves can be harvested anytime. Verify what is edible and taste as you go. Each will have a slightly different flavour, some are more bitter and earthy, some are more bright and citrusy.
TIP: You can preserve wild foraged food to enjoy any time of the year. Check out Voula’s guide to simple preserving techniques.
Before cooking with fresh evergreen needles it is best to finely chop them, or grind in a mortar and pestle. They do not break down during cooking. Combine ground needles with sugar or add salt. Try an evergreen combo of ground pine needles and juniper berries tossed with salt and pepper. It is aromatic and tastes like peppery citrus with a fruity floral finish and can be used to season roasts or steaks or add to your foraged mushrooms before sautéeing.
Use your foraged berries to make Stifado’s Danish Style Berry and Rhubarb Dessert or enjoy your berries simply macerated and serve with a galette like this Wild Berry and Nectarine Galette with Goat Cheese and Fresh Thyme, from Colleen at Grow, Forage, Cook, Ferment. And for a perfect ending try a digestive tea made with leaves from the blackberry bush you collected your berries from.
The next time you are out on a walk, consider taking time to putter and explore nature with curiosity. You may discover a new bird song, a beautiful flower, an old amazing tree or uncover the added bonus of ingredients for dinner and cocktail.
If you are new to foraging pick two or three ingredients that you want to find and learn all you can about them before heading out. If your goal is to add ingredients to your dinner use this list as a starting point and select one item from each of the three categories below.
Here is a short list of wild foods you can find in North America during the summer
Things That Flower & Fruit
Things From The Ground
Things That Are Green
Berry greens – raspberry, blackberry, blueberry etc.
Melissa Finn, Stifado