Identifying and harvesting wild edible and medicinal plants can be a lot of fun for the nature lover. Maybe you are just looking to identify some of those “weeds” that you come across on a daily basis. Maybe you are a survivalist looking to learn which plants you can rely on to eat in a survival situation. Or maybe you already use medicinal plants purchased at the health food store to supplement your diet. Many of these plants can be found locally for free if you just know where to look and how to prepare them. Whatever your reason, I have compiled here a guideline of tips and hints to help you get started.
I can’t stress enough the importance of using field guides to positively identify the plants you come across. I’m not talking about just one either. People make mistakes and I have found some in different guides. It is very important to cross reference all plants with several books to make sure you are on the right track. Look at the pictures and read the descriptions carefully so no mistakes are made. Make sure all the identifying characteristics match the plant you are looking at. One characteristic such as color and shape of the flower is not nearly enough. Many useful plants have look-a-likes. That is, plants that look similar but are in fact very different and sometimes poisonous.
Poisonous plants and look-a-likes
As I just stated, many plants can have poisonous look-a-likes. Search these plants out in your field guides and in the wild. Know the characteristics that separate the edible one from its non-edible look-a-like. No two plants are exactly alike. There are always characteristics that differ between two species.
When I do plant walks for people, I often start with several poisonous plants, not to deter them from foraging but to make them aware that there is a very real danger involved. You should spend time searching out poisonous plants so you become familiar with these as well. Start with plants like poison ivy. You will want to be able to identify this one at a glance to avoid it and its annoying effects. Look at all the characteristics of poison ivy. Don’t just rely on the three-leaved theory. If you go out of your way to avoid three leaved plants because you know poison ivy has three leaves, you will be leaving out many, many great edibles. Remember strawberry, raspberry, and clover all have three leaves too.
Different habitats and seasons
Know your plants throughout the four seasons. Spring can be especially tricky as all this new growth begins to erupt from the ground. Many different plants will look the same in early spring. It helps to watch your favorite plants in one spot for at least a full year. That way you can track the similarities and differences and recognize your favorites year round.
Also understand that many plants are very habitat specific. Different species need different conditions in order to thrive. Most field guides are helpful in this area of identification. Study the range maps and habitats listed in the field guides. This can help narrow down possibilities when you are having trouble distinguishing one from another.
Learning and remembering
When I first started learning local wildflowers I was overwhelmed by the number of different ones just in my area. Honestly, I had no idea where to start. There are so many it would take several lifetimes to know all aspects of every plant. Understand this and accept it as fact. Don’t get overwhelmed. Start with a few common ones and expand your knowledge from there. It helps to draw the plants you are studying. That way you are forced to look at minute details that you might miss if you were to just look at a picture. I set up what I call plant profiles which is a page of hand drawings and written details about each. You would be surprised at the amount of information you digest when doing this. Another fun way to remember and study plants is to start a herbarium. You can take samples of plants, place them between pieces of newspaper and then tuck them under a stack of books. Let them dry for a few weeks then glue them onto acid free cardstock paper. Make sure to label them properly and add written details about the plant, where you found it, etc. Also, make sure you note the color of the flower because this can change during the drying process.
Collecting, harvesting and the caretaker attitude
Once you feel confident with the plant that you have found it is time to harvest it for use. Before you do this, though, keep several things in mind. First, there are edible and/or medicinal plants that may be protected in your area. Know the plants that are illegal to harvest and avoid using them. Chances are these plants are protected because they are rare and endangered. The I0nternet is a good source for finding lists of endangered plants in your state. Also keep in mind the time of year. Some plants may only be edible during certain times of year. Milkweed, for instance, is rather toxic due to the milky latex it produces but in early spring before the “milk” begins to form you can eat the young shoots and pods. Many plants are edible all year round but are better when harvested during certain times of the year. Cattail has a very edible rootstock but late in the season it turns woody and tough.
Lastly I want to talk a bit about harvesting with the right frame of mind. A few of my mentors teach harvesting with what they call a “caretaker attitude.” By this I mean taking plants, or anything for that matter, with a certain respect and reverence for the life that you are removing. Never remove all of the plants from one area and always spread some of the seeds for future generations. By harvesting in a caretaker manner you can actually help the remaining plants by thinning and removing only some to allow room for others to thrive. When plants are collected for use it is no different than killing an animal for food. You are still taking a life to fuel your own life. Just because a plant doesn’t bleed or have eyes or communicate in the way that animals do, it does not mean that the life you are taking is any less significant.