To forage: verb (of a person or animal) to search widely for food or provisions. From old French fourrager (verb) from feurre ‘straw’ or fodder (Oxford English Dictionary)
Foraging and gathering wild food is an inherent part of our genetic make-up and was “humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history” (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunter-Gatherers) All humans lived as hunter-gatherers until 12,000 years ago and research has found that these hunter-gatherer societies were highly egalitarian, with all members, male and female, young and old, being equal in power and respect. While making a claim that foraging makes societies more equal might be a bit of a stretch, this activity certainly has lots of other benefits for us that make it one of the most satisfying of pastimes.
While supermarket aisles have replaced woodlands and beaches as our source of food, the ancient ritual of seeking out food to share with our families and friends is still hugely satisfying. Foraging is FREE, an acronym for the many benefits of gathering wild food:
- Freshness – Wild food is usually fresher than shop bought foods, which are often shipped long distances and sit on shelves, losing flavour and nutrition.
- Remedies & nutrition – Many wild foods are remedies for common ailments and have their full complement of vitamins, minerals and trace elements, unlike much food nowadays grown in mineral-depleted soils. They are also good for immunity, as a diverse diet improves gut flora, as does a little dirt!
- Exercise – Foraging is great exercise and connects us to the natural cycles of the countryside, our woodlands, hills, meadows and streams. Research on the health benefits of the green gym and blue mind points to the positive impacts on human health and well-being of being outdoors and close to water.
- Environmentally friendly – By using plants that are in the wild, you save on energy, water, and transportation costs of shop-bought foods. While some might argue that foraging and nature conservation do not sit well together, it should be remembered that all food production has an impact on the environment.
Following on from this, while foraging is free (for us humans) it does have a cost for the plants that we pick from, which is why we need to understand the how of foraging to ensure our activities are sustainable.
How to forage
“I could so easily gather everything for my own pot, but I also enjoy watching the Common blue butterfly, striking dragonfly, buzzing bees, and birds that need to snack too; foraging is about sharing. If I overindulge, future grandchildren may not be able to enjoy these simple foraging pleasures” The Forager’s Kitchen, Fiona Bird
Plants form a vital part of the ecosystems we live in, and many animals, insects and other organisms rely on them for survival. The how of foraging is a fundamental part of coming to appreciate these landscapes and ecosystems, and their resilience and fragility. We consider plants like dandelions a nuisance in our gardens, and their abundance means we can pick them safe in the knowledge that we won’t impact on their numbers. However, other plants which were once abundant, such as Cowslip, are now much less common. This is due to the loss of traditional meadow habitat, and now “fields coloured bright yellow with the nodding heads of Cowslips” are a rare sight. Given that a 17th century recipe called for “the blossoms of a Gallon of Cow-slips, minced exceedingly small”, it is little wonder this plant is less common than it used to be.
So how can we forage sustainably, while ensuring we act as responsible custodians of the land? The following guidelines should help to ensure we take only what we need and do not damage wild plant populations:
- Rule of Thirds: Pick a third, leave a third for the bees, birds, and beasties, and a third for the plant to propagate.
- Try not to remove flower or seed heads unless the plant is common like Elder
- Avoid digging up roots – by picking only leaves, the plant will grow back again next year. You also need the permission of landowners to dig up plants
- Don’t completely strip a plant or area – pick from different plants and only forage where plants are plentiful and take care not to damage habitats by trampling over them
- Picking wild spring flowers such as Cowslip or Primrose is strongly discouraged nowadays due to declining populations. Grow them in your garden if you wish to eat them. You can also grow your own berries, herbs, and vegetables if you want to make jams and chutneys
Where to forage
Ireland has an abundance of wild places and habitats for the enthusiastic forager, including woodlands, hedgerows, peatlands, and coastal locations. However, care should be taken to avoid picking plants in nature reserves where removal of vegetation or berries is illegal without a licence. In addition, keep in mind the following:
- Don’t pick in an area that may have been sprayed with pesticides
- Avoid gathering plants near a busy road or an area where dogs are walked
- Do not eat any fruit that is starting to spoil or has fungus on it
- Be aware of tides if gathering on the sea shore
- Be especially careful of plants growing in or near water
When to forage
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” Ecclesiastes 3
Foraging is an experience in a particular time and place and is done in the moment, rather than as a means to stock up your larder for the winter. Chances are if you don’t prepare and eat what you gather immediately, it will gather mould or freezer burn and will end up in the bin.
Essentially, foraging in the spring is the best time to gather greens, autumn is berry time and summer yields both. You can download John Wright’s Foraging Calendar on the Guardian website for more detail on what is available at different times of the year.
What to forage
The number one rule of foraging is never to put something in your mouth unless you are 100% sure it is edible. This advice is particularly pertinent when picking mushrooms as identifying mushrooms can be a tricky business. Names like Death Cap, Destroying Angel, and Poison Pie, testify to the need to know your stuff. After that, the world is your oyster! The best thing to do is to get a foraging book or two from your local library, and decide which you’d like to buy as a guide. A few good ones are listed below, as well as some links to websites on identifying plants. It is worthwhile getting to know your plant families as some are safe to eat (such as the Mint and Mustard families), while others are generally or always poisonous (Buttercup and Carrot families).
And remember, if in doubt, leave it out!
- Food for Free by Richard Mabey
- Wild and Free: Cooking from Nature by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín
- Wild Food: How to Gather, Cook & Preserve by Biddy White Lennon & Evan Doyle
- Mushrooms by Roger Phillips
Plant and wildlife guides
- A Beginner’s Guide to Ireland’s Wild Flowers by Sherkin Island
- The Wildflowers of Ireland A Field Guide by Zoe Devlin
Botanical Keys (These require some knowledge of botany to use)
- The Wildflower Key by Francis Rose
- An Irish Flora by D.A Webb
Online Plant identification