What is Wildcrafting?
Wildcrafting is a term used to describe the act of harvesting wild plants for food and medicine. Wildcrafting, which is also commonly referred to as foraging, is an ancient activity that is practiced the world over. Traditionally, wildcrafting was a practical necessity; plants were harvested for medicine or food using knowledge that was often passed down from one generation to the next. Today, however, people forage for reasons that, more often than not, go beyond basic sustenance and survival. Wildcrafting is increasingly seen as a meaningful way to eat better, to connect with the natural environment, and to reconnect with primitive traditions.
Wildcrafting 101: The Basics
- Always carry a field guide
- Never eat a plant or mushroom unless you are 100% certain that it is safe to eat
- Avoid foraging near roads or in places in which pesticides or herbicides might be present.
- Be attentive to local laws (Some parks, for instance, do not allow foraging).
- Research your region so you can determine appropriate harvesting seasons, edible plant species, and locations.
Wildcrafting: The Health Benefits
Unlike domesticated crops, wild plants have never been manipulated. Domesticated crops are typically bred to be uniform, pest resistant, and to give a high yield; they are also likely filled with residual herbicides and pesticides. Case in point: Over 70% of store-bought potatoes contain chlorpropham, an herbicide that is used to kill weeds and to keep the potato from sprouting. In addition, domesticated crops tend to have a higher water content, less taste, and more empty calories than their wild cousins. Wild plants are free from manipulation, genetic or otherwise, less likely to be laced with toxins, and they also tend to be perennials, which are typically richer in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients compared to domesticated crops.
Does Wildcrafting Harm The Environment?
Traditional wildcrafting has been practiced for hundreds of thousands of years without causing measurable harm to the environment. However, it is fair to say that there are instances, both past and present, in which careless foraging and excessive harvesting has harmed the environment. The question of whether or not wildcrafting is harmful to the environment is entirely dependent on the ethics of how it is practiced. In other words, when practiced responsibly, foraging and harvesting wild food and medicine is entirely sustainable. The opposite is also true.
How to Be an Ethical Forager
Ethical wildcrafting can be boiled down to a few simple rules of thumb: Only harvest plants that are abundant, don’t harvest plants unless you know how to harvest them correctly, harvest no more than what you can use, and always take the broader ecosystem into consideration.
Never harvest a plant or mushroom unless you can answer “yes” to all three of these questions:
- Can the plant be harvested without harming its surrounding ecosystem?
- Can the plant be harvested in such a way that doesn’t threaten the continuation of the plant species?
- Can the plant be harvested without depriving wildlife of necessary food.
Is Wildcrafting Safe?
Wildcrafting, at its core, has changed very little over the centuries. It has always been, and it will always be a learned skill that centers around careful plant identification. Many plants and mushrooms are poisonous, so careless foraging can indeed be dangerous, particularly when it comes to mushrooms. However, wild plants have been eaten safely throughout the world for hundreds of thousands of years; so while a measure of caution is justified when wildcrafting, it is not a dangerous activity if appropriate precautions are taken. Beginning wildcrafters should consider taking a foraging class and should always carry a field guide that is specific to their region. If in doubt, throw it out. Also, if wildcrafting in a suburban area, one should avoid harvesting plants that are close to roads or places where herbicides or pesticides might be present.
Gearing up for Wildcrafting
You can forage for wild plants without any tools to speak of. However, the right tools will allow you to forage more efficiently. In most cases, equipment that is simple, packable, and lightweight will serve you best. What is the ideal foraging gear? The answer depends entirely on what you are harvesting. A good knife, a bag or container, and a digging tool, however, will serve you well in most situations in the field.
In most cases, a mid-sized knife is the ideal blade for foraging. It can cut sprigs and stalks, and it can also be used to loosen soil and dig out roots. When the harvest requires a delicate touch—such as with leafy greens—a small pocketknife or scissors is the better tool.
Foraging Bags & Containers
One of the charms of foraging is that you never know what you will find. You may, for instance, set out thinking you will be harvesting berries and then find yourself harvesting wild nettles instead. For this reason, when foraging it is best to carry a variety of bags and containers. A container with solid sides is best for berries, breathable cloth bags are best for mushrooms, and plastic bags work well for most everything else. It’s also wise to carry a few paper towels that can be spritzed with water and then wrapped around wild greens that might wilt quickly.
Digging Tools for Foraging
A small gardening shovel is the best tool for roots and tubers. A knife or a sharp stick can sometimes be used in a pinch, but a shovel is ultimately more efficient. Another excellent option is the Japanese Hori Hori tool. Often referred to as a “dirt knife” or “digging knife,” a hori hori is essentially a heavy blade that tapers to a point with one sharp side and one serrated side. A hori hori digs like a spade but also works as a multi-purpose cutting tool.
5 Popular Wildcraft Herbs & Plants
Dandelions: Dandelions taste a little like arugula, and they have more nutrients than kale. Every part of the dandelion is edible, but they taste best in the spring when they are young. Try making dandelion tea, add the greens to a salad, or better still, dip the flowers in tempura batter and then fry them in cooking oil.
Cattails: Cattails are easy to identify and plentiful. Most of the cattail is edible, but the tender shoots, harvested in spring, are typically considered the tastiest. You’ll want to do a little technique research before you harvest a cattail, but the basics are as follows. Cut the cattail at the base of them stem. To prepare the cattail for eating, separate the outer husk from the shoot by peeling off the layers of the stem until you get to the center core. Then cut the white tender part off at the bottom of the core (the first 4-8 inches). You can eat the shoot raw or cooked. In taste, it’s comparable to a cucumber. It’s tasty sautéed or simply cut it in thin slices and eaten raw in a salad.
Watercress: Watercress grows in shallow, cold running water. It grows nearly everywhere in the U.S. It tastes bitter in the heat of summer, so it should be harvested in the spring or fall. Watercress is similar to mustard greens and has a slightly peppery flavor. It’s excellent sautéed with garlic and salt.
Stinging Nettles: Stinging nettles are one of the most nutritious edible plants you can find, they are easy to identify, and they have no toxic look-alikes. Harvest them when they are young, before they flower, and make sure you wear gloves for sting protection. To eat nettles, blanch them in water to remove the sting-causing chemical, and then enjoy them like any garden green. In some regions in Italy, they make a nettle pesto in spring called pesto d’urtica.
Chickweed: Common chickweed is prolific in much of North America, and it grows abundantly in winter and spring when many other plants are dormant. It’s also very tasty. Chickweed is an excellent addition to a salad and it’s a great source of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Get Outside and Enjoy a Taste of the wild
Not only is Foraging fun and rewarding, it teaches how to interpret nature, to harvest its bounty, and to understand its seasons. Foraging is a powerful counterpoint to our screen-centric world of fast food and ready-made conveniences. Foraging reconnects us to our past and reminds us that we can only truly move forward if we are willing to embrace ancient wisdom and time honored skills.
Shop Wildcraft Foraging Gear at Get Lost!
Now you’re probably wondering, where do I get started? Before heading out on your first wildcrafting journey, we suggest doing thorough research on your region's foraging opportunities and be sure that you have the materials and supplies needed to be successful and keep yourself safe. With years of wildcrafting experience, our team at Get Lost is more than happy to answer questions and help supply all the foraging gear you’ll need!