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edibleandmed.gif (10658 bytes)INTRODUCTION TO FORAGING: Conservation and Safety

Excerpt from the book:

Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal
Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places

By "Wildman" Steve Brill

Poisonous plants, some of which are deadly,
sometimes grow alongside edible plants, so you must
identify every plant with 100 percent certainty before
you eat it. There is no other foolproof method to
determine whether something is edible. Look up all of a
plant’s identifying characteristics, and make sure they
match all your observations. Then, check the
accompanying descriptions of any possible look-alikes
(especially toxic species), to make sure their key
identifiying characteristics don’t match.

Cross-check any reference books you use, especially
regarding medicinal plants. Other sources may simply
repeat folklore from earlier books, without regard for
accuracy or safety. When you look up a plant in more
than one book, make sure it has the same scientific
name, or you may poison yourself with sloppy
semantics. Edible and poisonous plants sometimes have
the same common name, and names vary from region
to region and country to country. Scientific names are
universal, and longer-lasting.

Start by learning a few easy-to-identify plants well.
There are some people who’ve accompanied me on
my well-attended nature tours in and around New York
City who want to learn the whole country’s flora in one
afternoon. I am forced to announce that learning about
too many plants at once causes not only confusion, but
permanent brain damage. The malady is called
Dementia Botanica, and its first symptom is total
destruction of good judgment: Victims laugh at my

Don’t work with plants that have poisonous parts, or
become poisonous when they mature, until you have
years of experience with safer plants. There are plenty
of completely safe species to start off with. Wild foods
and instant gratification don’t always mix: You must
sometimes follow a plant through an entire year before
you know it well enough to eat. Many plants are the
easiest to identify in seasons when they’re not edible. If
you return to the same location throughout the year,
you’ll come to recognize them at their edible stages.

Learn the common poisonous plants in your region,
especially those that resemble edible ones. It will make
foraging safer, and it will provide a last resort if the
in-laws get out of hand.

Get permission to forage on private property. In New
York City, I'd occasionally snatch a few handfuls of
chickweed from someone’s lawn, with no problem.
But when I was in New Orleans, and was tempted to
examine a plant in an overgrown area on posted
property, my local friend told me never, ever to do that
there. In some regions, people literally do shoot first,
and ask questions later.

Find out if your foraging grounds have been sprayed
before you pick. Many parks prohibit spraying, but
some of the best plants grow in the partially-shaded,
disturbed habitats alongside railroad tracks. However,
railroads often spray their right-of-way with very
dangerous herbicides.

Wash your plants thoroughly under running water
before eating them. Any undesirable natural deposits on
their surfaces, such as traces of animal droppings, will
wash away. (Nobody in their right mind would pick
anything with visible animals droppings.)

Never collect rare or legally protected plants. There
aren’t usually enough of them to be worth eating
anyway, and we want to encourage environmental
recovery. Don’t even pick common plants where
they’re rare. You’ll collect them more rapidly where
they’re common, and they’ll probably be of superior
quality where they’re thriving. Collect only the parts of
the plants you’re going to use. Don’t uproot plants
when you’re only going to use the leaves. This is a
common error small children make. You can gently
explain the correct procedure.

Use common sense to assure that you don’t harm the
plants you're collecting. If you trample down bramble
bushes to get every last berry, you’re destroying future
crops. Leave more than enough mature plants to
reproduce and ensure that you have a future supply.
Take only what you’re going to use, and collect no
more than ten percent of any plant—less if you’re
sharing the foraging ground with other people. If you’re
collecting roots, be especially careful to collect only a
tiny fraction of the most common root vegetables,
since you’re destroying them.

Don’t collect near heavy traffic. Lead, the worst
pollutant in exhaust fumes, usually settles within fifty
feet of the road. Leave a much wider margin just in
case. Most gasoline today is unleaded, but the soil may
be contaminated from earlier times.

Leaves, roots, and stems contain the most lead. Fruits,
berries, and nuts accumulate the least. Some plants,
like wild onions, have a greater affinity
for.accumulating heavy metals than others.
Environmental geologists are just beginning to
experiment with such plants to remove contamination
from soil.

Faster-growing species tend to pick up less heavy metal
than more slowly-growing ones. As a jazz aficionado, I
have no affinity for heavy metal. But if you find a
tempting plant growing in a contaminated area, chances
are that with some persistence, you’ll also eventually
find it in a cleaner location. Most wild foods are called
"weeds" because they’re so widespread and prolific.
You just may not be spotting them yet.

Collect the right part of the plant in the appropriate
season. Be careful not to collect parts of poisonous
plants along with your edibles. A foreign family who
knew barely any English attended many of my New
York City park tours. Once, I pointed out a
non-poisonous, flavorless mushroom, then moved on
to lady’s thumb. The family insisted on picking the
mushrooms. I don’t know whether they were being
stubborn, or they didn’t understand me. Everyone else
was standing in the hot sun, waiting for me to discuss
lady’s thumb. I blew my whistle, signaled with my
arms, and even turned red in the face, but they
wouldn’t come over to where the rest of the group
was. I finally gave up and went over the new species,
cautioning everyone about the poisonous dogbane
growing alongside. Suddenly, a few minutes later, while
everyone was happily collecting lady’s thumb, I noticed
half a dogbane plant, oozing toxic white sap. Where
was the other half? I inspected the family’s bag first
(they had finally joined us), and sure enough, there it

Never collect water plants such as watercress without
having the water tested, especially if you’re going to eat
it raw. There are dangerous microorganisms that can
infect you, as well as other forms of pollution that can
contaminate the water. Your local Environmental
Protection Agency branch will test you water for
pathogenic microorganisms free of charge.

It’s much easier to avoid putting debris into your bag,
than sorting out trash later on. Put as little non-edible
material in your bags as possible. This saves
immeasurable time at home.

Put each species in separate bags. Enclose an index
card or label in each bag, with the name of the plant
and any notes, especially if you're attending a field
walk where the instructor identifies many plants. Seal
wild vegetables in plastic bags to keep them from

If you do bring poisonous plants home for study, be
sure they’re clearly labeled. Take further precautions if
necessary. Other family members may assume
anything in the refrigerator is fair game for snacking,
and small children may eat anything they can get into
their mouths.

Wash all edibles in luke-cool running water just before
you use them, but don’t store them wet, or they’ll spoil
more quickly (Microorganisms thrive in damp settings).
If you think a wild plant or a wild food dish has gone
bad, throw it out. Don’t risk food poisoning.


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