In an expanding "foodie" culture, people go to great lengths to get the best ingredients, seek out the most aesthetic desserts, and buy natural and organic. Less noted, though, is the movement of "foragers": people who "eat wild" on a regular basis, supplemented by naturally growing, edible plants for which they search in their local communities, whether urban or rural.
"Foraging as part of a lifestyle is not really new," says mycologist Karen Snetselaar, Ph.D., professor and chair of biology. "Guidebooks for food foragers have been around for years, as well as publications like Mother Earth News."
Still, more and more people are taking to the woods -- and streets and parks -- to find common plants and fungi such as dandelions, chanterelles and berries. Chefs at boutique restaurants have also picked up on the trend, as the push to use local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients grows. But, as Snetselaar points out, foraging isn't for everyone and shouldn't be taken on as a casual hobby.
"People new to foraging have to be very careful. There are many plants and fungi that are poisonous or have parts that are poisonous," she says. "Wild parsley looks a lot like poison hemlock, for example. The growing environment is also a factor, because plants will sequester toxins that are introduced to the soil or fall on their leaves, like pesticides."
Snetselaar offers this advice to novice foragers:
1. Educate yourself. Photo guides and iPhone apps do not sufficiently show plants and their parts for those unfamiliar with vegetation to distinguish the subtle differences that prove a plant edible or poisonous. Instead, learn the terminology associated with classification and rely on a more academic guidebook that has diagrams and shows a plant's relative size.
2. Learn from an expert. Taking a seasoned forager as a guide is a safer and more informative way to learn what to pick.
3. Forage in untainted environments. Though people have been known to forage in urban settings, be wary of vacant lots and roadsides, where unknown pollutants can lie both underneath the soil and on vegetation itself. Do not forage where fertilizers and weed killers have been used and always wash plants before eating.
4. Check ordinances in parks and protected lands. Many state and national parks do not allow visitors to disturb protected environments by removing plant life and endangering regrowth.
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