Foraging for Beginners
Nature in Your Neighborhood
Every Spring, I get the strong urge to return to my hunter-gatherer roots. I dream of walking through the forest, with a basket at my side, collecting nuts, berries, and mushrooms. This Spring, I decided that I would turn that dream into a reality. While researching foraging guides for Pittsburgh, I discovered that this return to the "simple" life is actually not that simple at all, especially for a beginner. There are some hidden rules, guidelines, and lots of expected prior knowledge when it comes to foraging. The great thing is that there are thousands of resources available: websites, blog posts, Facebook groups, and entire books dedicated to the subject. While this is very encouraging, it can also be incredibly overwhelming. So, if you're anything like me, and the foraging community seems a little bit intimidating, confusing, and you have no idea where to start, then you're in the right place. You can think of this as a beginner's guide to the beginners' guides. Throughout this post, I'll go over three easy steps to begin your foraging journey.
Phase 1: Research
Before you actually go out into your neighborhood, I would recommend doing some background research to familiarize yourself with what you will be foraging. What edible plants are available in your area at this time of year? What do they look like? Where can you find them? What can they be used for? Do they have poisonous lookalikes? Make sure you can identify the plants/mushrooms by sight before you head out! Below I have listed some of the edibles you might find around your neighborhood during the early spring.
Dandelions– You'll find these everywhere, whether it's in your back/front lawn or even in the cracks in the sidewalk. You can identify them by their beautiful yellow blooms and green stem. Dandelions have many uses; you can use the roots to make a coffee substitute and the flowers to make fermented dandelion wine! Those are just a couple of examples though, do some more research to see other ways you can enjoy dandelions!
Onion Grass– These tall shoots of bright green grass are available pretty much all year round! If you spot some larger, more tubular-looking grass, pick a piece, and see if it has a distinct garlicky smell. If it does, you've found onion grass! You can use them as you would regular onions or chives, and you can of course use them to season your mud pies like I did as a kid. A word of caution: they have a poisonous lookalike called Star of Bethlehem. Just be sure that the plant has that garlicky smell, and you should be good to go.
Spruce Tips– This one surprised me! You can actually eat the young growth on branches of spruce trees in the springtime. The flavor depends on the type of spruce tree, I've had ones that just taste a lot like pine, and some that are pretty citrusy. You can put them in anything you'd like, it can be used similar to an herb. Or if you want to get a little fancy, you can even make a syrup.
Phase 2: Know the Rules
- Unless you are 100% sure what it is, DO NOT EAT IT! Misidentification can lead to serious health complications
- Unless you have permission from the owner, do not forage on private property.
- You also cannot forage in public parks in the city of Pittsburgh - see City Code 473.01a(3)
- Do not overharvest
- A good rule of thumb is to leave more than you take.
- Never pick the first thing you see - it could be the last!
- Be mindful of pesticide and herbicide use around your neighborhood. You don't want to eat anything that has been sprayed, so take notice of the places that might be contaminated. This is especially prevalent for weeds like dandelions or invasive species like onion grass
Phase 3: Get prepared
With this beginner foraging guide and the examples I gave you, you won't really need many supplies to forage. Once you get more advanced and start looking for rarer and harder to find plants, you might need some additional things.
Before you head out, there are a couple of things I would recommend you bring:
- Backpack or bag to carry your finds
- Hiking shoes (or any shoes you don't mind getting dirty)
- Pocket knife or shovel (if you're trying to dig up some roots)
Now you are ready to go! The exciting thing about foraging is that there are so many edible plants you can find and so many ways to eat them! In the upcoming late Spring and Summer, you'll have even more options to choose from as the weather gets warmer. Fall, and even Winter, offer their own varieties as well.
Raeanne Heuler - Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Intern