I first made this post on another platform that I no longer use just before the Spring Equinox, but foraging can be done in all seasons, even in Winter. Nuts and seeds are harvested in the colder months. There’s still plenty of time to forage before the cold sets in if you’re not into being outdoors in such weather! It's late Summer now as I revise this post. I hope you will find it helpful.
Wild Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis)
Though I have some years of experience in this area, I don’t believe we can ever stop learning. I don’t think I could learn to identify every herb and their proper use in my lifetime. Processing is also of great importance but that’s a post unto itself. That said, I am humble while working with plant Spirits and their medicine and willing to learn more always. And I still double-check certain plants before adding them to my harvest basket. Some of this may seem obvious but to someone who has little outdoor experience, a list of supplies and basic rules can be helpful.
I could never cover everything there is to know about foraging in a simple blog post. I will, however, leave links to further information for those who wish to know more.
Echinacea purpurea is on the at-risk list. So please don't wildcraft. They are super easy to grow.
A good field guide is the most important thing you will take along. How will you know what to harvest if you don’t know what you’re looking for, what it looks like, or why you might want it in the first place? Which guides you use will depend upon your region. I live in the Ohio River Valley, so I choose guides that are specific to the Eastern and Central United States. If you live in Oregon for example, you will have some of the same plants I do, but you will also different ones, many of which I am only just now learning about from other plant nerds who live in that region. Learning about what grows in other places is fun and fulfilling but knowing your own is a priority.
For your own safety please do not use cute “GreenWitch” books with coloring book style pictures in place of a field guide. You need real pictures to get a positive ID. I know this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many are “learning about plants” from these types of books. Peterson Field guides are excellent, as well as those from the Audubon Society. My Peterson guide is amazing. It even offers some toxicology and medicinal information, but some of the pictures though adequate are rather small, so I use this book along with others, the internet, and my own photos. I don’t mind this so much as I’d rather have a small book in my backpack than a large one. “Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada” by Andy MacKinnon is also highly recommended for my region. Again, you’ll have to track down the proper guides for your own. Consider buying used if available. Please use a real field guide!
Gloves: They’ll be necessary for harvesting plants like nettles, or thistle. An ordinary pair of garden gloves should do fine. Check the clearance rack at shops like Home Depot or other garden centers at the end of the growing season for great discounts on quality gloves. I’ve had these for going on six years now! They were a little on the pretty side for my personal taste, but they get the job done and I paid $4.00 for the pair! A good pair of gloves need not be expensive.
A cutting tool: A good sharp knife will do for most things. For some plants, you may not have to use a knife at all. Others, you’ll want shears for thick or woody stems. This will depend on what you plan to harvest. One of my favorite plants, the Plantain is safe for beginners and is easily harvested without a blade. A digging forks can be helpful for harvesting roots
My basket is from a fair trade company called All Across Africa
A basket: Or something else to collect your harvest. I love my harvest basket, it’s my favorite thing on Earth almost but guess what? A reusable shopping bag will do the same thing. There is no need to buy anything fancy unless you just fall in love with something and really want it. Please do not take plastic grocery bags into the forest or meadows. They are easily picked up by a gust of wind and very easily become litter and a danger to wildlife so use common sense when choosing a container.
Me staying hydrated on a hike a few years ago. The heat index was 103 F! Water: You’ll want to take some along especially if you’re going to be out for many hours as I tend to do. A day in the forest for me can easily turn into a nine-hour thing. I also take a few snacks like fruit or nuts; my favorite is homemade fruit leather as it weighs almost nothing. Try to pack light and avoid the use of plastic bottles if you can. At the very least, keep your litter contained. The number of plastic bottles left behind in the woods and along hiking trails is infuriating. A hydration backpack has been very helpful. I can carry the water I need and snacks as well. When I’m thirsty I just grab the tube and drink.
My herb and recipe journal is just a moleskin with a homemade sticker slapped on it. A journal: A book to write in will help you keep track of what you’ve found and will enable you to add more notes when you are home in front of your computer. I use google a lot for clearer and larger photos if needed. Depending on where you are you may be able to do this from your phone while you’re out which is quite helpful. If you’re like me and intend to get as far away from civilization as possible, you won’t have service and will have to wait until you’re on the road or back home. A camera: You’ll want to have one with you. A cell phone camera is fine. Some of my best were taken with my outdated iPhone. I also photograph plants that I have no intention of harvesting, simply because I like to know what they are. I have hundreds of photos of plants I’ve never harvested or used, but I know what they are, and I know how to use them if I should ever need. This goes along with ethical foraging. Don’t take what you won’t use. Don’t take more than you need. More on that below. I’d also like to add that plant identification apps are fun and can help you learn but do not rely on them for a sure ID. These apps are not good enough to properly ID all plants ESPECIALLY look-alikes. It may come back and tell you that Poison Hemlock is Queen Anne’s Lace. To someone who knows the clear differences, these plants don’t look so much alike, but they certainly look similar enough for an application or a new forager to misidentify. They also most often grow close together. This is an example of what can turn into a deadly mistake if we aren’t informed and careful. Take the time to learn from many sources and study many real plants and photos of real plants from different angles and at different times of the growing season.
Did you know sassafras is classed as a precursor to the drug MDA? Though it is was banned by the FDA, leaves made into filé powder, a key ingredient in authentic Creole cooking.
Basket of yarrow Achillea millefolium
Insect repellent: You can even try making one from harvested herbs. A watered-down Yarrow tincture can be a good repellent against mosquitos, ticks, and flies. City foraging can be done. One of the very few things that annoy me (I say very few because I feel the herbalist community is one of the kindest, down to Earth, and accepting communities that I’ve encountered for the most part.) is that I think city dwellers get left out of the conversation a lot. While it might be a little more difficult or may take a bit of planning, city foraging is possible if you follow just a few safety precautions. In some cases, there might be more public places to gather as opposed to being in a rural area like myself, where all of the property is private, and cannot be foraged on without knowing someone. Since 2017, a pilot project called the Bronx River Foodway has run a public forage garden out of a small waterfront plot called Concrete Plant Park. I hope to see this become a trend I and have read of other places starting food forests. When foraging in town your main concern is pollutants.
Make sure your area of choice has not been treated with pesticides. Avoid plants growing right along the roadside and the areas around trees in urban areas where people walk their dogs. Ask locally if unsure if an area has been used to dump waste. Do not collect near industrial plants or factories. In urban areas try untreated large parks. Always make sure foraging is allowed wherever you go. Many National and State parks prohibit foraging as well as wildlife preserves. This will vary by city and state. Some local municipal parks allow it, some don't. So check first with your local department of Natural Resources. Daniel Boone National Forest here in Kentucky offers foraging permits for $20 per species up to ten pounds. Your state may have something similar. Most good medicinal herbs grow in disturbed areas and open fields so there may be lots of good foraging if you know what to look for. Abandoned rail lines are a good place to find uncontaminated herbs but use caution and do not go to an unfamiliar or abandoned place alone for your own safety. If you harvest young shoots you can minimize pollutants.
The roots of Cichorium intybus (Chicory) is an ingredient in the New Orleans French market coffee
Consider your timing. Technically you could gather your herbs at a time when it is convenient for you, but the very best time will be early morning once the dew has evaporated since plants produce their oils at night. Generally speaking, we would harvest leaves as they start to unfurl in the Spring and early Summer months. Berries are ripe if they come off the plant with a gentle tug. I harvest roots like poke and valerian in the Autumn when the leaves have died back and the energy of the plants have gone below. Be mindful when harvesting roots. Some plant roots like Valerian are harvested only after the plant is a couple of years old. There are other things you might consider. You can harvest yarrow anytime. The leaves can be used as medicine, even after the flowers have died back, but did you know its medicine is most potent after a three-week drought? Ethical foraging is extremely important. Be considerate of the Earth and animals. Some plants can be harvested with little concern for over harvest. Plantain and Goldenrod are good examples of this. There’s so much Goldenrod in my area that it’s the state flower! Other plants like echinacea and white sage are on the at-risk list. It’s mind-boggling to me that plants so simple to grow become endangered. If you use either of these plants, please consider growing your own. Some plants that are common and not at risk like sorrel I have transplanted into my own garden, others I take only small amounts from. Never harvest everything and never take all from one area. Take a little here and there. Be kind to nature and pollinators. View the at-risk and species to watch lists here:United Plant Savers
Phytolacca americana or pokeweed is abundant in my region and can't really be over-harvested. One poke root can supply you with enough medicine for years. It is a key ingredient in my black drawing salve. Lastly, if you intend to transplant herbs you find into your own garden ( highly recommend) I cover the roots with some moistened paper towel so they don’t dry out and keep them in a small lunch box to keep them fresh while out for the day. There is a lot more than I can be expected to cover in one post. Check out some of my favorite free resources below to learn more. If I had to choose a favorite it would easily be David Canterbury’s Materia Medica series on YouTube. He comes with a very straight forward, no-nonsense approach to identifying the plants, and how to properly use them in first aid or as a food source on the spot in the wild.Materia Medica Herbal Jedi is another favorite. I’ve learned a lot from Yarrow Willard’s channel. He offers a wealth of information and some recipes in a fun and lighthearted fashion. Herbal Jedi Plight to Freedom is great for ID and also for learning about the ways the Indigenous people of the US have traditionally used wild herbs as medicine. It should be noted that the information given on his channel is for educational purposes only. Plight to Freedom Eat the Weeds is fantastic! The name is self-explanatory. Wonderful information on food and medicine making is shared here! Green Deane is such a great teacher. Eat the Weeds Mountain Rose Herbs Channel also provides a lot of information on processing your harvest. The videos featuring Rosemary Gladstar are exceptional. She’s basically the fairy godmother of Herbalism. There is much to be learned from her and she comes off as a very kind person as well. Mountain Rose Herbs Thanks so much for reading. It isn’t easy to cover all the details in a blog post, but I hope I’ve done a fair job in leading you in the right direction! Happy foraging! -Sabbatha .