Gathered Gifts of Backyard Foraging

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When you think of foraging, visions of primitive gatherers and their hunter counterparts might spring to mind. But in truth, you can gather edibles in your own backyard and nearby parks today. If you’re thinking about picking up a basket and heading out for your own fresh fare, take a look at the reasons why I’m wild about foraging, and what edibles are popular in our area.

Why Foraging?

Nature-to-Human Connection: For the most part, as 21st-century Americans, we tend to think food comes from the grocery store. But, if you’re like me, you value being able to plant a garden and eat from it. Foraging is that same concept – except Mother Nature has already planted the garden for you.

Nutritional Value: You are going right to the source, so many of the plants you find are unimproved species. Thus, you’re getting sustenance that’s highly nutritious and has a ton of vitamins and minerals thanks to their unaltered state.

Treasure Hunt: There’s something fun about going on a hunt and not knowing exactly what you might bring back for dinner. Sadly, what keeps many people from doing this is the thought that they might eat something unpleasant. That’s one reason why I encourage you to start in your own backyard or on a plot of land you are very familiar with. You’re likely to know what is planted there and can avoid anything that might be harmful or unsuited to your palate. Also, remember to forage only in places where you have permission. Above all, if you’re not sure what the plant is or how it has been grown, don’t eat it! It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

foraging

Photo courtesy Hortus LTD

Foraged Foods to Fill Your Plate

Dill Seeds: If you have been growing dill in the summer, you can harvest the seeds for spice use in the fall. You’ll want to clip the stems as they begin to brown. Place them in a bag, and keep in a dry area. As the stems begin to fully dry out, the seeds will collect in the bottom of the bag. I enjoy using dill seed to pickle squash and cucumbers.

Fennel Seeds: You may have used this anise-like spice to season a salad or pasta. If you have a patch of fennel growing in your yard, the late summer and early fall is a perfect time to gather the plant’s dried seeds and use them in your favorite dishes. Harvest them the same way as the dill (mentioned above).

Redbuds: I often pluck and eat these flowers during my garden tours at Moss Mountain Farms. There’s usually someone in the crowd who shudders at the thought of me being sick before we make it to the end of the tour, but I quickly explain how edible – and delectable – they are. Not only do they taste great, they make a beautiful garnish.

Cannas: Cannas taste similar to potatoes, making them a good choice for roasting and enjoying as a vegetable. In the South, we do not have to dig up our cannas in the fall. They return each year allowing us to grow some pretty large tubers – perfect for a hungry crowd. If you’re looking to add fiber to your diet, the outer layers are a great source.

Dandelion Greens: You can find dandelion greens growing on most American lawns. I like to pick the very young ones that are tender and mix them with arugula for a fresh salad. You can also cook with them. My friend Ellen Zachos, author of Backyard Foraging, suggests sauteing them with garlic and walnut oil for a heartier dish.

Mushrooms: These may be one of the first foods that come to mind when you think of foraging. However, it’s important to be cautious if you plan to seek out your own mushrooms. They are delicious, but eating the wrong ones could be deadly. As a general rule, shelf mushrooms, which are the ones that grow on trees, are usually very safe. The toadstools that grow in the yard tend to be the ones that can be potentially dangerous. If you’re not an expert on mushrooms, consult a guide before you head out to forage for them.

foraging

Photo courtesy Hortus LTD

The Do’s and Don’ts of Foraging Spaces

DO scour local, state-owned lands that allow foraging. For each state and area, certain guidelines apply, and the food must not be used for commercial sale in any instance.

DON’T forage in city parks. The densely populated areas need to retain their foliage and greens to allow the park to survive. What’s more, many humans have been in contact with the plants and you can’t be certain about their growing practices.

DON’T eat directly from sites where you aren’t sure how the plants have been grown. You might pick something that has been sprayed with pesticides, which you wouldn’t want to pop in your mouth after plucking from the vine.

DO consult websites and apps to see where other foragers are finding the best bounty. Falling Fruit (fallingfruit.org) allows you to type in your location and see nearby searchable areas along with comments from fellow foragers.

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