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Gathering Wild Edibles
by Peggy Deland

Wild Morel Mushroom
wild morel mushroom
- photo by Thomas Jones
If you know what to look for, the forest -- or even your backyard -- can be a smorgasbord of gourmet delights. Before cultivation, hunter-gatherer societies lived entirely off of game and wild plants. Although game seems like a more plentiful food source, the bulk of a hunter-gatherer's diet came from plant sources. Plants are easy to dry and store without modern conveniences, and provide the carbohydrates and micronutrients necessary for good health.

A surprising variety of food can be found in the wild. Many wild edibles are difficult or impossible to produce commercially, and are rarely seen outside of the gourmet aisle in grocery stores. For example, morel, chanterelle, black trumpet, and porcini mushrooms sell for $20 or more per pound, but are readily available -- for free! -- in the wild. Wild hazelnuts, black walnuts, blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries can also be found throughout wooded areas in the United States.

Health Benefits

When you gather from the deep woods, you know that the plants you find haven't been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But wild edibles offer more benefits than being all-natural.

Commercially grown plants have been selectively bred or genetically modified for four traits --shelf life, size, appearance, and resistance to disease. As a result, flavor and nutrition often suffer. The edible plants you find in the wild won't win any prizes for their beauty, but they're often tastier and healthier than their commercially produced cousins.

Wild Strawberries
wild strawberries
- photo by Jon-Eric Melsæter
Wild strawberries are tiny, often only a little larger than a pea. But they're plentiful, free, delightfully sweet, and pack far more flavor than a huge, grocery store strawberry. Black walnuts are virtually impossible to find in a store, but they have an intense, complex flavor that makes commercially grown English walnuts pale in comparison. Wild carrots are ugly. They're not even orange. But they're packed with fiber and, if properly prepared, delicious.

Where to Gather

Wild edibles can be found throughout the United States, but the widest variety can be found in the Midwestern states. If you have a few acres of wooded land, no matter where it is, you should have no problem supplementing your family's diet with wild fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs. Natural grass yards are another place to find wild sources of food. Hint: don't kill the weeds -- many are edible.

Many national forests allow gathering, although there are sometimes limits placed on how much you can gather. For example, several national forests in Washington State allow you to gather a few quarts of wild mushrooms each day. There are usually no limits on wild vegetables or berries. Call your state forest service if you're unsure of the rules in your area.

Avoid gathering wild edibles from roadsides or grassy areas near parking lots. Chemicals from exhaust fumes can contaminate porous foods like mushrooms and berries. Although the food may be safe to eat, it's likely to have an unpleasant flavor. Similarly, you shouldn't eat anything you gather from an area that may have been sprayed with pesticides or weed-killing solutions.

Wild Blackberries
wild blackberries
- photo by Jef Poskanzer

Despite what media hype may have led you to believe, the vast majority of wild plants are edible, or at least harmless. After all, who would read a news article titled, "Man Eats Wild Mushrooms, Suffers No Ill Effects"?

On the other hand, there are a few poisonous plants to watch out for. Most of the truly dangerous ones are mushrooms and berries.
With a little research and plenty of caution, it's not hard to avoid becoming sick from eating wild plants. Never eat anything you gather from the wild, unless you are absolutely certain of what it is. It's even more important to be able to identify dangerous plants than it is to identify safe ones. The National Audubon Society publishes several excellent field guides to wild plants and mushrooms.

Responsible Gathering

In general, don't gather from more than 75% of the wild plants you find. Don't uproot mushrooms; cut them above the ground to avoid damaging the underground network they grow from. Leave overripe berries behind, so the seeds can produce more bushes and replace the ones that die during the winter. Cut only the leaves from wild greens. Leave behind a few nuts for the squirrels, especially if you hunt.
Related Articles:
Gathering Wild Mushrooms
Morel Mushroom Hunting

It's easy to get carried away when gathering wild edibles, especially hard-to-find gourmet mushrooms. If you pick bare every small patch you find, you may find the area barren when you return the next season. Gather responsibly, and the same fertile patch of ground will provide edible delights for years to come.