Foraging or wildcrafting—the practice of finding and sourcing edible wild plants like fruit, flowers, leaves, and mushrooms in nature—has been a part of Indigenous foodways and culture for centuries. But in the past five or so years, foraging for wild plants has found new popularity in the worlds of fine dining and outdoors culture.
In 2020, urban foraging—foraging in city and non-wilderness areas—went fully mainstream when the pandemic forced people to get creative about finding fresh, affordable food while avoiding stores. It's difficult to quantify exactly how many people are practicing foraging or in what context, but academics at U.C. Berkeley have reported that during summer 2020 alone they observed "up to three times as many people as usual seeking information or sharing experiences about foraging on social media."
Through Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms like this popular foraging subreddit, foraging has begun reaching a wider audience, allowing newbie foragers to easily and more readily learn about wild plant species and identification, legal land use, foraging safety, and how to utilize fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients like edible mushrooms in home cooking. Morel mushrooms remain one of the most popular foraged ingredients, though wild onion and garlic mustard are also popular examples of edible plants high on many lists. Even less obvious wild plants like stinging nettle and flowers like dandelions make great foraged ingredients that are relatively widespread and easy to identify.
One rising star in the world of foraging is vegan food expert Alexis Nikole, aka @blackforager. Through her popular TikTok and Instagram accounts, she shares recipes for meals made from both common and rare foraged ingredients found in urban or wild environments. But Nikole also sheds light on how foraging can be a key tool for people who are food-insecure or live in food deserts (places where fresh and healthy food is largely inaccessible) as well as how foraging has historically been used by Black and other marginalized communities as a means of finding fresh food.
"For me, being a person of color out in the world foraging is super revolutionary, because it was something that was very intentionally taken out of my ancestors' hands," Nikole told media outlet Grist.
Another emerging effort to open up foraging knowledge to experienced or wanna-be foragers is the recently-launched Forager Goods & Co. Based in Portland, Oregon and founded by longtime forager and lauded chef Karl Holl, Forager Goods is a digital platform that offers advice, gear, food items created from locally-foraged goods, recipes, and more to everyone from beginners to experts. A portion of proceeds will also pay it back to nature by supporting local environmental and conservation efforts.
"We want to teach people to respect and care for the forest. The better educated people are about foraging, the better the forest is taken care of." - Karl Holl
"Forager Goods is about making foraging more accessible to people," says Holl, who is known for using foraging finds, especially morel mushrooms, in his cooking. "We also want to teach people to respect and care for the forest. The better educated people are about foraging, the better the forest is taken care of."
While there is a practical side to foraging, it's not just about finding and harvesting wild food. As Catawba Nation food sovereignty educator Linda Black Elk reminds us, foraging is also centered on balance between humans and nature, reciprocity, ethical and sustainable consumption, respect, consent, and rediscovering our relationship to the land. Foraging is also a means of obtaining medicinal plants. These are aspects of foraging that are rooted in Indigenous culture and therefore overlooked or buried in the zeitgeisty narrative.
"It's important to get to know the plants," says Black Elk. "It's like a relationship with a human being—you need to learn about them."
We asked experts like Black Elk and Holl to offer insight into sustainable foraging and how to be ethical, responsible foragers while taking care of the land, giving back to nature what we take, and contributing to a welcoming, inclusive community.
9 Ways to Be a More Responsible Forager, According to the Experts
1. Start with what you're comfortable with. Foraging varies wildly by geography, season, and native/non-native plants. If you want to learn how to forage, you've likely been told to be cautious, educate yourself about plant species to avoid poisonous plants, and be 1000 percent sure that whatever you've foraged is safe to eat. As Alexis Nikole recently shared with Thrillist, "I'm a huge advocate of never bringing anything home to cook, unless I'm 100 percent sure of what it is." For beginners, Holl recommends researching easy to identify wild edible plants in your area, like wild greens as a good jumping-off point. Joining local foraging groups so you can learn from pros is another option.
2. Forage for invasive species. Carnivore, herbivore, locavore...Linda Black Elk wants us to be "invasivores," a moniker that encourages foragers to seek out healthy, delicious, invasive plant species. "Many invasive plants have huge medicinal and nutritional benefits, and it helps free up habitat for native plants." Invasive wild plant species can be a huge issue, leading to the endangerment or decline of native plants, so harvesting them is a great way to help out your native flora.
3. Be respectful of other foragers. Don't reveal good foraging spots on the Internet. Seasoned foragers are sometimes wary of sharing good spots or info with beginners for fear that their favorite haunts will become overrun. It's far from an unreasonable concern, as social media and oversharing of outdoor information (cough, geotagging, cough) can definitely lead to overcrowding, degradation, or outright destruction of fragile wild places. Holl says that if you find a good spot, don't tag it on social media and only share such information with trusted individuals.
4. Leave the forest cleaner than when you came. As with hiking and camping, never litter while you're foraging, pack out all trash, and hold other people accountable, too. Holl makes it clear. "You should be clean [with your cutting] and care more than the last person," he says. That includes packing out other people's trash. Not everyone who enjoys nature is mindful of their impact, but you can be.
5. Be prepared for all weather. Just like with any outdoor activity, always be aware of what the weather is like and what the forecast is before heading off in search of goods. Pack the appropriate gear, including for emergencies.
6. Be aware of your surroundings. It can be easy to lose your sense of direction while out foraging. Holl stresses that you need to have your wits about you and know wilderness survival and preparedness. "You need to activate your senses and educate yourself," he says. This applies to wild animal encounters as well—you're encroaching on their home, not the other way around. Additionally, make sure that you're permitted to forage in any particular location as laws can vary on public and private land. On private land, you may need to ask permission from the owners or seek permits.
7. Be as sustainable as possible. Try to keep your impact and footprint——literal-and-nonliteral—as small as possible. This means don't forage with large groups, avoid creating new trails, and don't trample plants and other flora as you search for prized wild foods.
8. Be open to leaving things behind. Not every foraging trip needs to result in a big yield. Sometimes time enjoyed outdoors, increasing your awareness and education, is enough. If you find a small patch, it's best to leave it so it can grow in. If you find a large patch, don't take all of it. A good rule of thumb is to only take between one-tenth and one-third of a lot. In addition to being kind and leaving some for others to potentially find, it also helps prevent over harvesting and ensures the plant can regrow naturally.
9. Know the best way to harvest each plant. One of the best ways to make sure the plants you leave behind can successfully continue growing is to know the best way to harvest them. Linda Black Elk says that "Every plant has a preferred way to be harvested sustainably." So be sure to read up on local edible plants to know whether they can be pulled up, roots and all, or whether they should be cut.
More Foraging Resources
As foraging gains popularity as a form of outdoor recreation, it's important to educate yourself about its roots and ethics, especially with regards to Indigenous communities and how foraging allows us to decolonize our relationships with food and nature. To learn more about foraging and its history and culture from marginalized voices and communities, as well as hone and improve your foraging skills, check out the following resources.
The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer: This classic foraging book is often recommended as a great beginner's guide to foraging. It identities hundreds of edible plants around North America and comes with full-color photos to help with identification.
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Mushrooms: Mushrooms are a popular food item to look for while foraging, and this comprehensive primer covers hundreds of North American varieties with color photos, information about seasonality, and so much more. There's also a section on preparing and cooking mushrooms.
Pacific Northwest Foraging: With this handy field guide, residents of Southeast Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia can identify 120 edible plants throughout the region, from herbs to berries.
Northeast Foraging: Residents of the East Coast can use this regional guide, which highlights 120 species of wild edible plants commonly found in Eastern Seaboard states like New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, and others.
I-Collective: An autonomous group of Indigenous chefs, activists, herbalists, seed, and knowledge keepers, I-Collective's mission is to raise awareness of and promote Indigenous food sovereignty and historic and current contributions and innovations in diverse fields like agriculture, cuisine, and more.
Karlos Baca: A member of I-Collective, Karlos Baca is an Indigenous foods activist whose work is focused on Indigenous food sovereignty and decolonizing food systems. He's also the founder of Taste of Native Cuisine, a food cooperative and farm based on Southern Ute lands in southwestern Colorado.