Foraging and Preserving Foraged Foods

Sharon January 13th, 2009

A lot of people don’t have gardens, and some never will.  Or perhaps they have small community gardens, small yards or containers that won’t allow them to produce as much food as they need.  One of the strategies you can use to increase your available space is to forage – to make use of edible plants that are growing wild. 

I’ve written a bit about how foraging for food is actually quite contiguous with agriculture here: http://sharonastyk.com/2008/05/19/farmer-hunter-gatherer/

I thought it would be useful to think about ways to preserve foraged foods.  But first, let’s start with the basics of foraging.

My three favorite foraging books are these.  First,  Samuel Thayer’s _The Forager’s Harvest_, which focuses on a band of about 40 common wild plants. He also includes a discussion of storing and preserving those foods.  Very useful, great pictures, lots of details, honest discussion of what tastes good, rather than being merely edible.

Next, there “Wildman” Steve Brill’s great book _Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places_.  Very clear, very well written, lots of good common sense information.  Despite the line drawings, he’s very good on identification.  He also has a great website here: http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/

My third favorite isn’t a foraging book at all – it is _Weeds of the Northeast_ by Uva, Neal and DiTomaso.  This book is obviously only useful to people who live, well, in the Northeast, although there are similar books for other regions.  The book doesn’t discuss edibility at all – its virtue lies in its pictures and detailed information about hundreds of weedy plants, some of which are edible.  It shows plants at every stage of growth, and is a great supplement when you are trying to figure out “is that a….”

A good internet resource is the USDA plant database: http://plants.usda.gov/  This source has some good info as well: http://www.wilderness-survival.net/plants-1.php.

 It is also worth noting that not all “wild” plants are truly wild (in fact, many plants that enjoy disturbed environments were brought for agricultural or ornamental purpose) – foraging doesn’t necessarily mean figuring out what wild lettuce is – it can mean knocking on the door of that house with the apples or oranges that is letting them drop on the ground and asking if they mind if you pick up the drops.  Many people don’t make full use of edible foods that they plant on purpose - or they may not realize that ornamentals produce edibles. 

It goes without saying that you should use common sense – don’t forage in areas that are routinely sprayed (you can call your town or city to get this information), wash everything under running water to remove traces of icky things, don’t eat anything you aren’t sure is safe, take lessons if you are going to mess with things for which there are a lot of toxic equivalents (I stay away from all mushrooms I’m not intimately familiar with and all of the wild carrot relatives (cow parsnip, water hemlock, poison hemlock, wild carrot, fool’s parsley), because it is possible to end up eating something very poisonous by doing so, and unless you are way better at this than me, I suggest you do the same), be polite and ask if you are using private property, try a little of something before you dive into it whole hog, to test for allergies, don’t take all of any plant or forage for rare plants.

Ok, now, what do you do with your foraged foods once you’ve got them? 

 Well, for some foods, it will be possible to store them in their natural state in a root cellar, or even on a shelf.  Nuts, for example, can be stored, well, like nuts, in the shell, or shelled and frozen.  Acorns can be stored as is.   Wild apples and pears are stored like apples and pears, although generally the wild varieties aren’t great keepers, I find – maybe better to make dried apples or applesauce.  Wild berries are often good made into jam, dried or made into wine.

Many wild foods are greens, and the greens generally have more nutritional value than comparable conventional greens.  This makes them great candidates for preservation by lactofermentation – the bitterness of some wild greens is actually a lovely counterpart of the sourness of lactofermentation.  We make dandelion and nettle kimchi in spring for example.

The other good use for these greens is drying – many of the most nutritious greens make an excellent, highly nutritious decoction or tea for herbal health.  We store both of the above greens as tea herbs by hanging and drying them.  I dry some burdock leaves for the bunnies and goats who love them (they are awfully bitter to human tastes) as well.  Lambs quarters dries gorgeously and can be tossed back into soups or mixed into mac and cheese, and chickweed is great thrown into soup. 

Wild herbs often dry well too – mint runs wild in my damp backyard, and wild thyme through a neighboring park.  Put them up for tea – often they have more essential oils than the cultivated version.

Many wild berries are extremely seedy and small, and often extremely sour.  The best use for them is either wine (chokecherry wine is great!) or jellies, where the fruit itself is strained out.  You can also cook them with a thickener and use a food mill to strain out pits and seeds, and make pie filling that way and can it.   

Making juices is another option – sumac lemonade, for example, can be made by soaking sumac berries before they get bitter (just after they turn red) for a while, sweetening it, and then canning the juice for 15 minutes in a water bath canner.  We’ve been known to make wild grape juice as well, and a friend of mine make highbush cranberry juice.

Many mushrooms are good dried – the only mushroom I really feel comfortable foraging at this point is morels, and we dry them.  I need to take a mushrooming class – but for those with a better skill set, many can be dried or pickled.

You can dehydrate ramps and wild garlic for a lovely, strong garlicky flavor.  I’ve made wild garlic vinegar also, which is terrific. 

Siberian Elm samaras, when harvested dry can be left to dry a bit more and stored like any legume for a months in a jar.  So will ground peanuts or ground beans. 

Burdock roots will keep for some weeks in a cold spot, and also dehydrate extremely well.  Cattail roots can be dried and pounded to create an edible starch.  Wild jerusalem artichokes keep like the fresh ones, in a root cellar.  Wild ginger roots can also be dried and used as a seasoning.

Rose hips keep large quantities of vitamin C even when dehydrated, as will elderberries berries.

Common plantain seeds dry well when the “rattails” are cut off and hung to dry.  We give a lot of them to the birds in winter, but a related species is the main ingredient in metamucil, so you can guess what purpose they serve.

Chicory root can be roasted, and then dehydrated, to make a long keeping coffee substitute. 

I’m told that fiddleheads freeze extremely well (thanks Kathy!)

Ok, I’m sure the rest of you have suggestions that I’ve forgotten – what wild foods do you preserve and store?

 Sharon

24 Responses to “Foraging and Preserving Foraged Foods”

  1. Rachel Griffithson 13 Jan 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Sharon:
    I came to your blog from TAE about 7 months ago. Thank you for the necessary, digestible information. You tell it like it is and keep me motivated!
    Rachel

  2. Theresaon 13 Jan 2009 at 2:07 pm

    I’ve only just started figuring out what’s edible on our three acres, but one happy discovery last year was how many saskatoon (service berry) bushes we have and how easily they dry just left out open on the kitchen counter. They end up being a little like currants and are just delicious in my morning oatmeal! Thanks for all the very useful information Sharon.

  3. steveon 13 Jan 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Good morning Sharon, it is funny to me as I never thought of myself as a “forager” per se, but we always pick wild blackberries. I have been doing this for over forty years, they make the best cobbler and jam. Thanks again for opening my eyes. Have a great day.

  4. autumnon 13 Jan 2009 at 2:15 pm

    As a rural land owner, I find that “foraging” is often synomymous with “stealing”. We had berries along the road just out of sight of our house and they were usually “foraged” before I picked them, as I prefer ripe berries. I realized it was people and not wildlife when I found a car load of people with containers stripping the berry bushes. We did not have any blackberry jam that year. A neighbor had a field of “wild” blueberries that were often “foraged” by people who assumed bushes growing in a mowed field were free for the picking.

    Desirable wild plants can be easily erradicated by too much foraging. While it is a good idea to know how to use many plants considered weeds, careful and knowledgable management is important for wild plant populations. Too many people out foraging wild plants is not a sustainable practice, and will add to the decline in biodiversity.

  5. Maeveon 13 Jan 2009 at 2:44 pm

    I had someone “forage” my lilac blooms one year, because they were “by the sidewalk”. I caught them in the act, and they weren’t even apologetic. If it had been food I’d planted, I would have been incensed. The sad thing? Is that if they’d just knocked on my door and asked if I minded if they took some lilacs, I would have said “not at all, go ahead”.

    So I can certainly appreciate Autumn’s comment!

  6. Emilyon 13 Jan 2009 at 2:52 pm

    I pickle purslane stems. When the stems get thick and less desirable for salad, I just throw 2-3″ lengths of clean stems into a jar of brine from another favorite pickle. After a few weeks, the brine has soaked in. Crunchy and good!

  7. Sharonon 13 Jan 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Autumn, I think that foraging is often not at all synonymous with “stealing” – walking onto someone’s property and stealing their berries isn’t “foraging” it is trespassing and theft. It is perfectly possible to forage ethically, and I encourage people to do so – I understand how annoying it is when people steal, but the two don’t inevitably go hand in hand.

    As for the danger to wild plant populations – it depends on what plants we’re talking about. Many are invasive or weedy – eating them won’t hurt plant diversity, it may help it. Getting someone to eat Siberian elm samaras, and thus reduce the spread of weedy trees is a good thing, for example. If enough people ate Japanese knotweed, we’d all be a lot happier.

    Again, I understand your frustration, but I think you are tarring things unjustly with one very large brush.

    Sharon

  8. Danon 13 Jan 2009 at 3:38 pm

    When illegal-”foraging” moves more and more into the necessity realm, these comments should be a keen warning of what we are to face.

    I hope the day isn’t coming where you’ll have to defend your gardens with guns, but I somehow doubt it.

  9. e4on 13 Jan 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Sharon, now that you can look at YouTube, have you seen this guy?
    http://henandharvest.com/?p=239

    He’s got something like 63 videos and counting, one for each edible wild plant. Shows you what it looks like, gives you a little background, tells you what you can do with it. And he signs off by saying “Toodles.” What more could you ask for?

  10. deweyon 13 Jan 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Too many people doing ANYTHING is not sustainable. Sharon is right on. I also wish more people knew what kudzu and garlic mustard were good for. Just a caveat, I’ve done some foraging in my time and always found that even under relatively good conditions (e.g., collecting walnuts in a park), I was probably burning more calories in the gathering and processing than I obtained from the food. There’s a reason hunter-gatherers are always skinny! Foraging is great for greens and fruits that add nutrients to your diet, but I wouldn’t do it for staples – ESPECIALLY not anything you must dig – unless you have a very close, convenient, dense population of the target plant.

    Another caveat, wild ginger has gotten some bad press recently because it contains some of the compounds from birthwort or snakeroot (its relative) that are toxic to the kidneys. AFAIK nobody has been reported to suffer kidney failure from wild ginger use, but if it’s rare, it might not have been identified as such. It might be better to avoid frequent long-term use, just to be safe. I realize mentioning this could play into the hands of the ag/pharma corporate right wing who want us to believe anything natural may somehow be poisonous – not so! Such safety issues for traditional food plants are quite rare.

  11. Kation 13 Jan 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I’ve long used a mix of catnip (ok, that’s storebought), chamomile (or, wild pineapple weed, as our local variety is correctly called), willow bark, and clover flowers as a tea for treating my migrains. The chamomile, clover and willow bark gathered first at my parents house as a teen, now from my own or neighbour’s yards as an adult. Rose hips have been something in massive supply all around me, all my life as well. Eatten by themselves when they come ripe (sometimes the rose petals even before the hips are ready), and dried for winter teas.

    This summer I learned to correctly identify Lambsquarters (have a jar full of dried that I’m looking foward to using in stew next time I make it), and I’m ALMOST sure I can correctly identify chickweed and hope to start preserving that this coming summer. I’ve hopes of gathering plantain, but never remember to get to it before the hubby mows it down in the summer. We also have a couple of chive plants on one side of our house, split off from a neighbour’s chive that has gone wild throughout his yard. (He splits or digs up plants as they start getting out of control or growing where they’re not wanted, and gives them to folks that DO want them.) We also gather wild strawberries (just enough for a palmful of sweet tartness for each of us, really) over at the inlaw’s, and the neighbourhood kids love stripping what few raspberries they can gather from the neighbour’s bushes. (He eats them himself occasionally, when he gets to one before the kids, but primarily leaves them for the kids to eat.) Wild blueberries grow in abundance in my area, as do wild cranberries (both highbush and lowbush, otherwise known as lingenberries). There are some fantastic berry patches up where my hubby and Dad have gone hunting moose in the past. I try to get up there every couple of years, for a 2 year supply for breads. (Freeze these, by and large, though we HAVE been known to make jam or jelly out of them.)

    I am ALMOST to the point where I’ll eat mushrooms enough that I’m considering foraging puffballs this summer. (A good Alaskan wild foods book I’ve got has great pictures and cautionary instructions for properly identifying proper puff-ball mushrooms.) Cattails have long been on my list of “want to try’s” but I have little way of actually getting to any of the couple spots I know they grow, the spots are on private property, and along heavily traveled roads. This is one I know for certain, but haven’t yet tried.

  12. autumnon 13 Jan 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Sharon, I admire and enjoy your writings that encourage people to grow their own food and learn to do things for themselves. Perhaps if your emphasis had been on eating weeds or using wild medicinal plants it would have not struck a negative cord with me. I have been interested in learning about and using native plants and weeds that grow on my property and growing others that will thrive without special care.

    However, “foraging” brings to mind people roaming about gathering available food. While this may be reassuring to those without gardens or the desire to garden, it is rather scary to people with gardens, plantings and property.

  13. Jennieon 13 Jan 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Rhubarb grows wild in a lot of places. This is probably one of those grey areas because I’m sure the property I collect most of mine from is owned by someone. But it’s abandoned and the house is falling down. *shrug*

    Also, another grey area, ditch weed. Even if you don’t partake of that particular substance, there’s a sizeable portion of the population that does and might be willing to barter for a bit of properly harvested ditch weed. The trick is finding some that isn’t sprayed.

    Heh.. I’m all about the grey areas here, my last suggestion is “decorative” plantings in parks. I know the city parks department in my town plants kales in the little flower beds in the neighborhood parks in the fall. Now I’m not saying go eat them as soon as they are planted, but maybe right before a weather event that will kill them, where’s the harm in harvesting and eating them instead?

  14. Dianeon 13 Jan 2009 at 4:48 pm

    The problem with foraging in all but the most sparsely populated areas is that it is not scalable. I have seen various examples of this, granted the problem is usually commercial collection, but it would also happen if too many people began harvesting wild foods for personal use. My first experience was with a reliable patch of chanterelles in the Rocky Mountains. I had collected small amounts (never more than 10%) for several years. One year I found the entire patch cut, just the bases of the stems remained. The next day I saw a fresh batch for sale at a local natural food store. Hmm. The patch never bore again. My other experiences are with shellfish in Narragansett Bay. Formerly abundant stocks can disappear quickly when even low-tech commercial harvesting begins. I enjoy foraging myself but I try to do it lightly and sometimes feel guilty. Invasive plants are another matter but even they won’t last long if too many people are hungry.

  15. deweyon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Autumn, neither Sharon nor any other responsible forager would suggest picking food from people’s planted yards, nor from posted or fenced wild lands. If you find it “scary” to have people “roaming about” collecting plants from abandoned, unused, or public land, I wonder whether there is not a class issue involved. Are you perhaps envisioning your garden being invaded by hordes of foraging non-landowners, in a more peaceful version of the survivalist’s vision of parasitical lower classes swarming his house for his food storage and/or meat? Or, perhaps, would seeing someone gathering dandelions from the vacant lot next door make you nervous for the same reason that seeing someone going through a dumpster in my neighborhood makes me nervous: those people are obviously poor, and perhaps dangerous or at least an unwelcome suggestion that “there goes the neighborhood”? I can’t say what does actually motivate your fear, of course, but I think you ought to think about it more carefully yourself.

  16. Sharonon 13 Jan 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Amber, sometimes we have personal uses of a word that aren’t really what the word means. “Foraging” in the context of wild foods simply means “harvesting wild foods.” The only example I give above of private property is how one should *knock on a door and ask* if people would mind letting them pick up drops. I’m simply not promoting anything like what you are worried about – you are reading things into this that are not there. I have gardens, plantings and property too – I understand completely the need and desire to protect them. But advocating responsible foraging is not a license for anyone to come steal food.

    On the other hand, we live in a society where an obscene amount of food goes to waste – some on public land, some on private. No one in the US at least needs to steal food – there is so much that people will allow for the taking at this stage. Later on, that may not be the case, but that’s not an argument against doing it now.

    Again, I spoke about “using common sense” and responsible and ethical practices, including asking permission, in the post above. I’m sorry you find this distressing, but I don’t think I’ve said anything that was inappropriate nor do I regret encouraging ethical foraging.

    Sharon

  17. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Foraging and Preserving Foraged Foods A lot of people don’t have gardens, and some never will. Or perhaps they have small community gardens, small yards or containers that won’t allow them to produce as much food as they need. One of the strategies you can use to increase your available space is to forage – to make use of edible plants that are growing wild. [...]

  18. autumnon 13 Jan 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Dewey, you might be correct about there being a class issue involved with my problem of people foraging berries on my property, but in a different way than you assume!

    When I was in my early 20’s I used all my savings (my college money) for a downpayment on a piece of rural property. For the next 16 years my husband and I built the house, outbuildings and gardens ourselves as we could afford them. Since we did not have trust funds or college degrees we had low paying blue collar jobs to fund our endeavors. The people foraging berries on our land and the neighbor’s land had summer homes on a nearby pond. They assumed the food was wild and free for picking since it was out of sight of a house. Perhaps it is difficult for someone accustomed to suburban and urban living to understand that land is not always abandoned, unused or public land just because there is no house in sight. It may also be difficult to comprehend the fact that people who were “foraging” were more affluent than the rural landowners.

    I was more than happy to share my bountiful dandelion crop with anyone who wanted to harvest them, one person collected enough to sell! (Tip: they are best early before the flower buds form) As the dandelions were in my yard, garden, orchard, and driveway it was always an agreed upon and mutually beneficial transaction.

  19. Andreaon 14 Jan 2009 at 6:28 am

    I discovered Serviceberries last year as well. They make beautiful sweet jellies!

  20. Lynneton 14 Jan 2009 at 10:30 am

    What do you do with Chinese elm samaras? I have not heard of this. We certainly have enough Chinese elms around here. They seem to grow without water. Of course they specialize in the area 3 inches from your house’s foundation, and get a bad reputation on that account.

  21. deweyon 14 Jan 2009 at 10:46 am

    Were there any signs in sight? We don’t have, and don’t want to have, the sort of society where every square foot of land is assumed to be off-limits. You don’t say how big your property is, but in some places, if you have a large wooded acreage and no signs posted, people assume it’s okay to cross the property line while hunting – and, of course, if you happen to back up on a state park there is no way of telling where an unmarked line is. Where I came from, it was customary for people who didn’t want hunters on their property to put up keep-out signs on the occasional tree around their boundaries, and they were usually respected.

  22. Laurieon 15 Jan 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I have no lack of forage in my own little backyard garden, and welcome the baby lamb’s quarters, pigweed, chickweed and purslane. Any of them that sneak by me and grow too big for my table are harvested for my rabbits and chickens. Dandelions, milkweed pods, nettles – yum! My family collects mulberries, elderberries, and black cap raspberries in summer (and puffballs in fall) when we take our dogs walking on public hunting lands. We are very careful to avoid both trespassing and over-harvesting.

  23. Colleenon 21 Jan 2009 at 3:14 am

    I would suggest folks check out ‘Healing Wise’ by Susun Weed.
    The first section details the Traditions of Healing. The second section is Green Allies and Deep Roots. In this second part, Susun delves into burdock, chickweed, dandelion, nettle, oatsraw and seaweeds. In each chapter; she has the weed ’speak’, shares some facts, leads the reader on a weed walk and then gives details on the properties & uses of each of the plants’ parts. She rounds the weed chapters out with recipes and fun & facts. The final section is the Herbal Pharmacy which details how to pick herbs and use them medicinally.

    Thanks in part to the encouragement of the Independence Day Challenge – I have preserved the following foods & medicines that I foraged from my yard….dried violet leaves, dried nettles, dried dandelion leaves, dried red clover blossoms, dried morels, nettle pesto, nettle vinegar, wild garlic vinegar, ‘Sweet Aunt Vi’ a la Susun Weed, nettle tincture, green black walnut hull tincture and wild berries (strawberries, blackberries & raspberries); frozen, in apple cider vinegar, in vodka, blended in honey and fermented with honey (metheglin).

    By the way, my nettle patch was started from seeds I wildcrafted from the edge of the parking lot where I work. I scattered them in a moist spot next to my compost bin several years ago. This past year I harvested fresh nettle tops every couple of weeks for most of the growing season. (Nettles should not be harvested after they go to flower – they irritate the kidneys.)

  24. Swift Antelopeon 27 Feb 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Imagine how the native people of this land thought when all these european foreigners started “owning” the land and “foraging” the land.
    It is entertaining reading about peoples property and sense of ownership of land that was there long before they were and will hopefully be there long after they’re gone. I will forage and eat the plants that have been placed upon this land, responsibly and with respect. I ask the permission of the plants only, it is their land.

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