To be a successful forager, you need to know how to protect your own safety by identifying both safe plants and harmful ones with no possibility of error. You also need to know how to protect the environment, so the wild plants you eat today will still be there for other foragers in the future.
Before eating any wild plant, there are four important steps you need to take. Deane’s system for remembering the four steps, outlined on Eat the Weeds, uses the acronym ITEM: Identification, Time, Environment, and Method.
- Identification. The first rule of foraging safely is that you should never, ever eat any plant you can’t identify beyond all possibility of doubt. Deane stresses that you should never rely on pictures from guidebooks or from the web for identification, because plants don’t always look just like their pictures. The same plant can look different in different climates, and many edible plants have non-edible relatives that look very similar. So to be sure a plant is safe to eat, you should always check with a local expert – someone who knows not just which plants are edible, but what those plants look like in your specific area of the country. Over time, as you develop your foraging skills, you’ll learn to recognize plants on your own – but even experts should take the time to check a plant carefully every time they encounter it and make sure it’s the one they think it is.
- Time of Year. Part of identifying a plant is to make sure it’s growing or producing fruit at the proper time of year. If the plant you have in mind normally flowers in June, but the one you’ve just found is blooming in September, that could mean you’re actually looking at a different plant that’s a close look-alike. On the other hand, it could mean there’s something about the plant that you don’t know. For instance, the firethorn bush, Pyracantha coccinea, blooms and produces fruit only once a year in northern regions, but in Florida it blooms twice a year, in the spring and fall. So if a plant isn’t doing what you expect it to be doing for the time of year, you need to consult an expert to find out why before you eat from it.
- Environment. There are two reasons to check out a plant’s environment. First, the environment can help you identify the plant, because most plants have definite preferences in terms of water, soil, sun, and temperature. Second, it’s important to make sure the water and soil surrounding the plant aren’t polluted. For instance, a plant growing downhill from a major highway is likely to be watered with runoff from the road, which can contain traces of gasoline and other chemicals that could make the plant unsafe to eat. Plants growing on golf courses, in city parks, or even on a neighbor’s lawn could be treated with toxic pesticides that could make them unsafe. Identifying possible pollutants in a plant’s environment is often trickier than identifying the plant itself, but it’s just as important for making sure the plant is safe to eat.
- Method of Preparation. Many wild plants that are technically edible need to be carefully prepared to make them fit to eat. Acorns, discussed above, are one example. Others plants need to be peeled, soaked in salty water, or cooked multiple times. So before eating any wild plant, you need to know not only that it’s edible, but what you have to do to it to make it edible.
Deane stresses that even after you’ve followed his “itemizing” process, it’s still best to try only a little bit of a wild plant the first time you eat it. Even a plant that’s known to be safe for most people can trigger allergies or food intolerance for a few – and if you’ve never tried it before, you have no way of knowing whether you’re one of them.
Experts recommend exposing yourself to only one new plant at a time – ideally, no more than one per day – so that if you do have a reaction, you can be sure what caused it. Start by rubbing the plant against your skin to see if it causes a rash. If it doesn’t, rub it against your lips and see if there’s any reaction. If there’s still no problem, you can proceed to tasting a bit of the plant – just a few bites to start with – and see whether it causes any ill effects over the next day or two.
Even if you don’t have any reaction the first time you try a plant, Deane recommends limiting yourself to small portions the first few times you eat it. Sometimes an allergic reaction doesn’t show up until your body has been exposed to a substance once before. If you’ve eaten a few bites without ill effects two or three times in a row, you can feel confident about making this wild plant a regular part of your diet.