English News: How to Start Foraging, According to TikTokers

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There are more than 400,000 species of plants on Earth and at least half are suitable for human consumption—yet you’ll only find a small portion at the grocery store.

That’s part of the reason why Sam Thayer loves foraging. He started collecting wild food from the woods when he was a kid, and he still has cravings for delicacies he can’t buy. “Last year I gathered about 30 gallons of serviceberries”—blueberry-like fruits that grow on trees and shrubs—“and I make fruit leather and eat it as a snack year-round,” says Thayer, a naturalist who lives in Northwest Wisconsin and has authored an array of field guides. “I have about 8 pounds of Wapato, which is a tuber, in my pantry, and I grind it up into hot cereal for breakfast. I love it, and you can’t buy it.”

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Foraging spiked in popularity during the pandemic, when people who felt unsafe going to the store discovered it was a fun way to collect healthy, nutrient-packed food from the great outdoors for free. It’s possible to forage in all sorts of places, even cities: Thayer recalls an excellent salad he made out of leaves plucked from trees in Washington, D.C. For all these reasons, foragers have found a home on TikTok, where millions of people watch videos explaining how to harvest puffball mushrooms, gather and process black walnuts, and make wild violet syrup.

We asked a few of TikTok’s most popular foragers, including Thayer (aka Well Fed Wild on TikTok), to share their best tips on getting started.

Do your homework before setting out

It’s often easiest to get a feel for foraging in your backyard or at a local park. But make sure to check the rules first: Some parks, nature centers, and other public properties don’t allow foraging, says Gabrielle Cerberville—aka “Chaotic Forager” on TikTok—who’s based in Charlottesville, Va. To find out, check an online resource like your state’s Department of Natural Resources, or contact someone from the park you’re interested in foraging at, she advises.

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It’s also best not to forage where there’s obvious pollution, like near train tracks or next to busy highways. And while perhaps it should go without saying, don’t forage on private property unless you have explicit permission. Alexis Nikole Nelson—aka the “Black Forager” on TikTok—sometimes passes homes in her neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, with super unusual or eclectic plants. She leaves a note with her contact information, which “puts the ball in their court,” she says. “When I see a yard and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, three pawpaw trees and a persimmon,’ I know I need to become their friend.” 

Stock up on simple supplies

You don’t need much gear to forage, experts agree. Nelson likes to take a swiss army knife, which she might use to saw a branch that’s fallen across a trail or to cut a mushroom off a tree. She wears a backpack filled with cotton satchels that she can put her finds in to keep them separate and organized until she gets home; plastic grocery store bags also do the trick. As for what to wear? “I would love to say that I’m always in nice, sturdy hiking boots, but I find myself foraging in platform Crocs more frequently,” she says with a laugh. Closed-toe shoes are always a good idea when you’re venturing out in nature. 

Look for easy-to-identify fruits and veggies

If you’re new to foraging, look for what you already know, Cerberville advises—like dandelions. You can do a lot with the easy-to-spot flowers: “Every part is edible,” she says. “The roots can be roasted and brewed, kind of like coffee. They’re also really good ground up and put into coffee cake or different sorts of baked goods.”

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Flowers like lilacs and roses, meanwhile, can be turned into a simple syrup that looks and tastes like honey, Cerberville says. Or, you can add them to a salad for a splash of color. You might also recognize field garlic, a common weed that can be used as a substitute for garlic or onion powder. To figure out what’s in season near you, join local foraging groups on Facebook. Members tend to post photos of their daily finds, which can inspire your search.

Only eat something if you’re positive you know what it is

A rule of thumb: Don’t put something in your mouth if you can’t identify it with 100% confidence. If you’re uncertain, check your field guide, Thayer recommends. When a forager eats something they shouldn’t, it usually stems from carelessness, not misidentification, Thayer says—someone shoves a weed or mushroom into their mouth, for instance, without attempting to figure out what it is.

Don’t over-complicate your recipes

People tend to relish the scavenger-hunt aspect of foraging—but once they get home, they aren’t sure what to do with their finds, Nelson says. Some feel like their entire dish needs to be foraged, a TikTok-worthy concoction that wouldn’t be found in any cookbooks. Take the pressure off, she advises, and consider which foraged ingredients could stand in for ones you already love.

Nelson enjoys spinach and artichoke dip, for example, so she now makes it out of foraged lamb’s quarters (wild spinach) and burdock (a root vegetable). And instead of blueberry muffins, she makes serviceberry muffins. “You don’t have to rebuild the wheel,” she says.

Be respectful

Foragers tend to be ecologically conscious and committed to preserving and protecting the land. “We’re thinking sometimes years in advance about wanting to be able to come back to the same spot and enjoy the same bounty,” Cerberville says. It’s essential to be mindful of how you move through the environment, leaving no sign that you were there.

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Another rule of thumb: Take only what you need. This helps ensure the plant or fungi will continue to grow back—and that there will be some left for the other people and animals that pass by next. Take mushrooms, for example. “Deer eat mushrooms, squirrels eat mushrooms,” Cerberville notes. “It’s really important that when we’re talking about sustainability, we’re thinking not just in an anthropocentric way, but in an ecologically deep way where we’re considering the needs of everything around us.”

Have fun

People have different reasons for foraging: the food is healthy, it saves money. “But those are just the excuses we make up,” Thayer says. “The secret is, it’s fun.” He describes searching for and collecting wild food as awe-inspiring and gratifying. “It’s such a profound joy when you come across a lake where the wild rice is ripe, and you’re like, ‘We’re going to get our year’s supply of rice today,’” he says. He recalls a recent visit to a nearby farm where, with the owner’s permission, he picked 76 gallons of hickory nuts. He pressed them into cooking oil and gave bottles away to friends and family. “Foraging has the self-reliant joy of being connected to what it is to be human,” he says.

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Everything you need to know before making wild violet syrup or serviceberry muffins. 

 

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