Before you forage: Wilderness ethics and safety

One of my favorite things about eating wild foods is the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the ecosystems that surround us. The ability to find sustenance in unexpected places is a meditation on our place in the natural world and an education in ecology, topography, and seasonality.

It should also be a lesson in sustainability. Just because we’re not out there actively tending these plants doesn’t mean that our activities have no impact on them, and each of us has the responsibility to forage in ways that minimize our impact on the ecosystem. Many parks prohibit foraging, so know the pertinent regulations in the area you’re visiting. Leave enough of any specimen to ensure the health and viability of the plant. Avoid areas that are likely to be contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, car exhaust, or other traces of human activity.

Most importantly, know what you’re harvesting. If you’re unsure, leave it in place. Get in the habit of observing plants throughout their life cycle and knowing when each species is at its peak. Plants–and mushrooms in particular–can look very similar depending upon their stage of growth, so be aware of any dangerous lookalikes and be rigorous in cross-referencing identifications.

When in doubt, don’t eat it.

Remember too that much of this kind of plant lore is part of our collective heritage, so seek out local folks who are familiar with your region and its plants and who are willing to share their knowledge.

Reading list:
(These are guides I have used; I will update this list as I find new sources)

Alaska’s Wild Plants, Janice J. Schofield

All that the Rain Promises and More, David Arora

Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, Steve Trudell and Joe Ammirati

Northwest Trees, Stephen F. Arno and Ramona P. Hammerly

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska, Pojar and Mackinnon