THE MERRELL BLOG: WHAT'S NOW. WHAT'S NEXT. LET'S GET OUTSIDE.
Savoring the Finest of the season: Setting the table with Foraged, Wild Foods By Lisa Rose Starner
As a child, my family went hunting for morels and my first pie I made in my first college apartment was one from foraged mulberries. As I became a regular forager, I started gathering the easy plants for meals at my table -- the dandelions, the violets, the nettles, the burdock, the garlic mustard. All easy to identify, easy to prepare.
My love for plants has grown so much that I can identify so many trees, flowers, vegetables, seeds, etc. in my gardens & neighborhood to use for food, fiber & plant medicine. I feel so empowered with that relationship to the wild world around me. And this is something, too, that my own children are now learning as they work alongside me in the garden and accompany me on hikes in the woods.
It excites me to see that foraging is becoming more and more popular a skill, especially as urbanites yearn to connect to the land around them. The uncultivated spaces around us offer many different plants that can be used as wild foods and herbal preparations to keep us well. But where to start? How to venture into developing your skills as a forager?
So where to start? Get outside.
As a forager and herbalist, frequently I am asked "What's outside now that I can forage or harvest?" or "How do I know what's edible?" or "Where do I start if I want to forage?"
My answer usually is, "If you want to forage, you'll have to get outside." Being outside, taking time to learn the land and plants around you is key not only in learning what plants are edible, but it helps cultivate within you a relationship to the land around you. It helps foster an understanding of place and over time, this relationship will lead to being a steward of the land in the most true sense.
Additionally, being a forager and plant medicine maker requires that I pay attention to the cycles of the year beyond the bloom times of basic fruits and vegetables. Several years ago I didn't know at first when the burdock would be ready to harvest or at what point in the spring the nettles would be just too big to use. Now I can intuit the subtle changes in the weather and how that might affect a wild rose harvest or perhaps even a wild mushroom bloom. This is a skill that will develop the more and more you are outdoors observing nature.
Pick a place that you are familiar, map it, and watch
Foraging, at its essence, is being able to rely on the wild plants that live around you. So in thinking about your *getting outside* -- step into your yard (patch of grass, even) right outside your doorstep to start your learnings. Pay attention to the plants that live around you. With a field guide, sketchbook and perhaps a camera in hand, begin to document the plants that you see.
Make a map of the area. Draw it out by hand. Look it up in Google Maps to see where you *are* — take note of the significant geological structures like lakes, streams, forests (gypsum mines!) and also the manmade, built constructs in your community like highways, factories, etc. This is where you live.
Then, begin to go outside on regular walks where you live, intentionally taking time to *notice* all that is growing. Take note of the new plants that will come up across the season.
Add the plants you notice to your map. Take photos, draw pictures of plants to learn them more intimately. Don't get caught up in learning their names at first. Collect these photos and take plant clippings if you need, and from there start your ID process.
Foraging 101: Ethics, ID & Plant Populations
It's wise, for a multitude of reasons, to know for certain the plants before you do any harvesting. Don't harvest unless you can positively ID the plant of interest. This is both respectful of the plant and also can help prevent you from making yourself seriously ill from harvesting the wrong plant or harvesting and eating the wrong plant part. Safety first — poisoning is possible, and a drag.
Get a few basic plant ID guides - the Peterson Field Guides are easy to procure as are the field guides by The Nation Wildlife Federation. If you do not want to invest in field guides for plant ID, head your nearest library or nature center for field guide resources.
Online writings by foragers Steve Brill, Sam Thayer, Leda Meredith, Lagdon Cook, Butter Powered Bike and Hank Shaw are great resources for recipes. And while written for an herbalist audience, New York herbalist 7Song authors an excellent primer on ethical foraging and wildcrafting. Read it here.
No field guide or resource is completely exhaustive, and you'll find yourself seeking out a multitude of resources on your foraging learning journey. There are also more and more app-based field guides popping up, and they vary in functionality. But technology increases, I am sure one day we will have access to an app that is like a Shazam for plants! And even then, I am sure we will also still need to rely on those field guides.
Beyond positive plant ID, it is important not to harvest until you can affirm that the harvest won't negatively impact the plant's population. Some things to ask: Is it local to your area and is it plentiful and even considered an invasive species (like Garlic Mustard)? Is it a threatened plant? Should I only be clipping the tops so the plant can regenerate? Are more people harvesting this
plant and will my harvest, too, stress its abundance in our region?
Of course, also be sure to have legal permission to be gathering from the lands that you want to forage. Parks all have various
rules about foraging and if it is private land, it’s good karma to ask permission rather than trespass. And who knows if you ask them to got along with you, you might make a new friend or two!
Easy plants to learn to ID
My favorites? I always point out to beginners plants like Plantain, Dandelion, Burdock, Wild Mints, edible berries like Mulberry, Raspberry and Blackberry. Depending on where you live, you may also have Purslane, Garlic Mustard, Nettle and Elderberry. And then there are the Pine needles, the Sassafras leaves, the Crabapples and Elderberries.
Once you begin to learn what grows around you, you will find yourself foraging at all times of the year. It's quite a rewarding and gratifying way to add nature's bounty to your table.
And one last thing before you head out: Foraging isn't about free forest food for the taking. It's about relationships with the plants around us. Do no harm, and leave the places from which we harvest in better shape than what we found them.
So from here put on your boots, grab a basket, head out to the woods and have fun!
Recipe: Foraged Nettle & Michigan Morel Risotto
1/4 pound young nettles (about 3 big handfuls - it will wilt like spinach)
12 oz risotto/arborio rice
1 onion, chopped
4 Tablespoons butter
1/2 cup dry Michigan white wine (an extra glass for the chef)
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 oz grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup chopped fresh Michigan morels (if lucky) or fresh shitakes
¼ cup chopped, fresh parsley
Salt, pepper to taste
Heat the stock in a large saucepan.
Wash the nettle leaves. Blanch for 2 minutes in boiling salted water, drain and chop very finely. Set aside to add at the end. Cook onion and morels gently in half the butter in a large saucepan for a few minutes until tender.
Add rice and cook over a slightly higher heat for 2 minutes while stirring. Pour in the wine, deglazing the pan. Cook, uncovered, until all the wine has evaporated, then add about 1 cup boiling hot stock; leave the risotto to cook, stirring occasionally and adding about 1/2 cup boiling stock at intervals as the rice absorbs the liquid.
After about 14 - 15 minutes' cooking time the rice will be tender but still have a little 'bite' left in it when tested. Add the prepared nettles and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring.
Take off the heat and stir in the remaining butter which will melt and make the rice look glossy;
Sprinkle with the freshly grated Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir gently and serve immediately.