Food and medicine is growing freely and abundantly all around us! And most of us are walking, cycling or driving past this food and medicine every day without even realizing it.
We are a society that has largely become disconnected from the land. For many of us, our food simply comes from the grocery store and that’s the end of the story. For others, we’ve connected to the farmers who grow our food and maybe even have visited the farms, or we grow some of our own food at home. But, while we spend much of our time and money on growing and purchasing food, the earth is growing much of our food freely, right in our own yards, gardens, public parks and wild spaces!
Now, much of the industrialized society will say, “Yeah, but you’ve got to leave that for the animals!” Guess, what? There’s food and medicine for the animals, and for us, too! We can not only harvest in a sustainable way, but in a way that gives back to Earth and the plants and animals we share this Earth with. This is called reciprocity.
Whether it’s a deeper connection to Earth, healthier food or to simply reduce your monetary needs for food, this guide is here to help you harvest the abundance of food and medicine that is growing all around us. And yes, I can assure you, that there IS food and medicine growing around YOU, too!
I have foraged from the colder Northern climates of the Great Lakes region in both Canada and the United States down to the tip of Florida, from the Atlantic coastal states to the Pacific Ocean of California and the deserts and prairies in between, not to mention countries around the world. I’ve been to 49 states and six continents, and from West to East and North to South, food is growing all over! Cold climates, deserts and tropics all have their own abundance whether in the city or the wild. The resources exist to help you get started, but only if you apply yourself. Nobody else can learn this skill for you.
Let’s get started! In this guide you will find:
How to forage sustainably
How to forage safely
Top tips for new foragers
Books for foraging
Social media accounts to follow
Gatherings to attend
General Resources including the Find a Forager database, Find a Spring database and Falling Fruit – a foraging app and map. The Find a Forager database is designed to help find foragers and resources regional to you.
Videos to teach you foraging and inspire you
How to Forage Sustainably
This guide is to help you get started on your foraging journey. But before you begin foraging, I want to share that we foragers are not takers. As foragers, we desire to give to the Earth as much as we receive. Foraging is not inherently damaging to Earth, it is our inherent relationship to Earth and we can forage ethically and sustainably. I encourage all foragers and aspiring foragers to read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In this book, she shares the practices of reciprocity and the honorable harvest. My relationship to the land and to the plants evolved with much beauty from reading Braiding Sweetgrass. I also encourage reading the ethics and sustainable harvesting sections of Samuel Thayer’s Forager’s Harvest book series.
Become a steward of Earth through foraging!
Guidelines for Foraging Sustainably
Eat the “weeds” that are growing abundantly all around us. Many of the most desirable foods to forage are the “weeds” that we are already plucking from our gardens or killing in our yards. We can harvest these in great abundance without concern for over-harvesting. Lambs quarters, Dandelion, plantago, chicory, dock, burdock, nettle, mulberry, ground ivy, and poke are just a few of the common “weeds” to enjoy as food and medicine.
Be an “invasivore”. You’ve heard of an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore and now you’ve heard of an invasivore! There are many plants that have been introduced to areas that are growing prolifically and out-competing the native plants or damaging the ecosystem. When we eat plants that are invasive, we can be taking part in habitat restoration and doing an ecosystem service. One of my favorite non-native plants to eat in abundance is garlic mustard.
Harvest fruits, nuts and leaves as a new forager. Nuts and fruits are gifts to us by the plant and can generally be harvested in great abundance without causing any harm. On the other hand, roots, shoots and tubers tend to take more understanding of the plant and its life cycle to ensure a sustainable harvest.
Don’t harvest any plants that are rare. If there are native plants that are rare that you are excited about, form a relationship with them, but perhaps not one that involves harvesting them. Perhaps you can propagate these native plants that are struggling and harvest a portion of the population that you’ve contributed to creating.
Create a relationship with the plant and learn how much of it to harvest. This is another way of saying to get to know the plant. Some you can harvest endlessly, others are rare. Learn when to harvest, what part of the plant to harvest and how to harvest the plant.
The Honorable Harvest says to never take the first and never take the last. By following this guideline, you will be encouraged to look around you and explore. Learn about what animals and insects we share this food with, so you can make sure that your relationships with the plant are in harmony with their relationships with the plant.
Guidelines for Foraging Safely
Many of us know that food and medicine is growing all around us, but we are afraid to harvest it because are not sure what plants to harvest, or where to harvest them safely. There’s a reason why Alexis Nikole @BlackForager, who has over four million followers, ends most of her videos with “Happy foraging, don’t die!” It’s because a lot of people are afraid of dying. The good news is that if you follow some basic guidelines, death from foraging is pretty much out of the question. Here are some basic guidelines to foraging safely:
Only eat something if you are 100% sure that it is edible. It’s just that simple. Don’t eat ANY new plant unless you are certain that you have identified it correctly and know how to eat it correctly.
When trying a new food, eat only a little bit. This is helpful if you are breaking the first guideline of foraging safely, but it’s helpful even if you are 100% sure. Some of us have food allergies and by only testing a new food, we are likely to have a much less severe reaction if it turns out to be an allergen. There are some wild foods – like chicken of the woods or groundnuts – that cause upset stomachs in a fair number of people.
Only try one new food per day. This way if you have a negative reaction, you’ll know which plant you’ve had the reaction to. To be honest, I break this guideline about only eating a little bit all the time. It’s our choice how closely to follow these guidelines, but the safest thing to do is to follow them very closely, especially when we are new to foraging.
Don’t eat a plant with a phone app as the sole identifier. While phone apps can be a very helpful way to identify plants – and are quite often accurate – use them as a starting point for identification. Use ID books and foraging knowledge resources to fully confirm any plants.
If you read the in-depth introductions in Samuel Thayer’s book series, you’ll learn that foraging is far safer than mainstream society believes. These books go into exceptional depth and I highly recommend investing your money in them or checking them out at a library. I’ve found no better source that has all this knowledge in one place, based on decades of foraging experience.
Pollutants in the Environment
One of the most common concerns for foragers is pollutants in the environments. This can include pesticides sprayed in parks and along roadsides, toxic runoff from industrial sites, lead in the soil around houses, pollutants in empty lots in the city, exhaust fumes and heavy metals along roads and more. It can also include pathogens and parasites often found in animal poop. Here are some of my tips and general thoughts for safe practices.
Don’t be over-concerned about this. The food that we get at the grocery store – even organic – is likely nowhere near as pure as we think. The food we forage is generally as safe or safer than the food we buy at the grocery store. Our bodies have proven they can handle some pollutants without issue. I embrace that we live in a world that has been heavily polluted and I’m not going to let it prevent me from harvesting my food.
Avoid harvesting directly next to the busiest roads. Interstates have the most traffic and are the best to avoid. Rural two lane highways make for excellent foraging. A substantial portion of the food I harvest is from these roadsides.
Avoid power lines and municipally managed fence lines. Areas like these that are managed by municipalities or companies are often sprayed.
Pay attention to the flow of water. Pollutants often accumulate in water. I avoid harvesting from the roadsides where water from the road flows directly to and from any low points where pollutants would accumulate. On roadsides, I always prioritize harvesting uphill from the road, rather than below road level if I’m within about thirty feet of the road.
Avoid harvesting from heavily polluted water. Pollutants can more easily accumulate in water that has much flowage. Stormwater runoff ponds on the side of interstates or in cities can be some of the more polluted waters. Water that is really warm is more likely to have pathogens that can harm us, so extra caution could be applied to harvesting from stagnant, warm water.
Find out what the pesticide practice is in public parks. If there is a public park you’d like to forage in, you can reach out to the city or whoever manages the park and find out what their practices are. There are many public spaces where spraying rarely or never takes place.
Pay attention to the plants. At first, it may not come naturally, but with time you’ll start to notice differences in plants and environments. For example, you can tell the difference between a roadside that has been mowed and a roadside that has been doused with chemicals. If there are areas that are totally brown where the plants that are totally intact with all the leaves on them but everything is brown, that was likely an area that was sprayed. However, if there is an area that is totally brown and everything has been mowed back and it’s been dry, that could be an area that was only mowed and not sprayed.
This list is not all-inclusive, but these are some of my top tips. I have never had any real issues and I’ve been foraging far and wide in a variety of land and aquatic environments, urban and rural and I’ve never had any substantial issue.
Top tips for new foragers
Don’t over-complicate it. “Foraging” is a cool word for saying “eating food.” The term foraging is relatively new. Humans have been eating for tens of thousands of years and we’ve always been harvesting our food from the land. We all eat and we’ve known how to do it for a very long time. There’s no need to over-complicate it. By following the basic guidelines to safely and sustainably forage, we can forage without worry or concern.
Go out with a local forager. Find a forager in your area who will take you out foraging. This is one of the most enjoyable and easy ways to get introduced to the community of edible and medicinal plants growing all around you. I have created the Find a Forager database to help you find a forager near you! This could be a professional forager or someone who simply knows a handful of plants that they’ve been eating for years. Some foragers charge for class and I consider this money an investment in education. At the same time, the money spent can easily pay for itself with the food you learn to harvest and may save you thousands of dollars. Many different cultures still have intact foraging practices that they’ve never lost.
Start where you are. This could be your yard, your garden or a park down the street. Just get started!
Start with one plant. You only need to know one plant to eat one plant – like dandelion. Some people think they need to learn all the toxic plants before eating one, but that is not the case. Just learn one plant and incorporate that into your diet!
Start with easy plants. Start with the easily identified common plants, that can’t be confused with toxic plants. These are plants that are often widespread and abundant such as the “weeds” that you might already know but don’t know are edible. There are dozens and dozens of these easy to identify plants. In time, you can expand to more difficult ones.
Learn one new plant a time. If you learn one new plant per month for a year, that’s 12 plants. That’s quite a few new friends to have! If you’re super dedicated, you could learn one new plant per week for a year, that’s 52 plants. Within a year, you’ll be the plant wizard of your community. Or you could learn one new plant per month for five years, that’s 60 plants. Imagine being able to identify and eat 60 different plants in your community!
I am on Stolen Native Land
Many of us are foraging on land that was stolen from Indigenous people. LANDBACK is a movement that has existed for generations with a long legacy of organizing and sacrifice to get Indigenous Lands back into Indigenous hands. Currently, there are LANDBACK battles being fought all across Turtle Island, to the north and the south. Learn about the land you are foraging on through their website. For more information on this, read: I am on Stolen Indigenous Land – Land Acknowledgement by Robin Greenfield.
Foraging books are one of the most excellent resources that exist to learn how to forage. Not that long ago, there were very few books written by knowledgeable foragers, but now there are quite a few excellent books. I’ve shared some of my top foraging books below.
My absolute highest recommendation is to get Samuel Thayer’s first three books and then his field guide to top that off. These books are one of the best investments that a forager can make and they can quickly pay for themselves with the money you can save at the grocery store. His books are relevant across the entire United States, but more the East coast than the West coast.
There are many regional foraging books that apply to different ecosystems across Turtle Island and the world. I recommend finding the books that are created for your region. However, there are many books that are relevant across very large regions.
You can purchase these books, or check to see if they have them at your community library.
Here I’ve shared some of the colleagues I follow on social media. There are hundreds of foragers who share helpful tips and inspiration on social media, however, I’m just sharing a few. From here you can find many more foragers to learn from! You can find many more foragers to follow on social media through the Find a Forager Database.
Imagine spending multiple days immersed with expert foragers and other folks who are reconnecting to the Earth through learning the skill of foraging. These gatherings exist. Here I’ve shared a few with you.
Earthskills gatherings are often a wonderful resource to learn the skills of foraging, but there are so many more skills to be learned at these gatherings. These are weekend to week-long gatherings ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred (or even a thousand) people depending on the particular gathering. They are focused around teaching and learning the skills to work with the earth. Earthskills gatherings are a wonderful place to not only take foraging classes but to connect with other foragers in your region and build your community. The same goes for all of these gatherings:
I also host Foraging School! This is not regularly scheduled, but I am likely to host Foraging Schools each year and possibly in different regions of the country.
Watch my Foraging Series on YouTube
This series has extensive resources to help you begin your foraging journey. (See below for a selection of my recommended videos.)
Find a Forager Database – I created this database to help you find a forager in your area. There are over 300 foragers in the US database and 100 foragers in the international database. It’s likely the largest public forager database in the world. Through this database, you can also find foraging resources specific to your region.
Falling Fruit website and app – Thousands of people have taken the time and energy to map out foods that are growing freely all around us on the Falling Fruit website and app! There are hundreds of thousands of fruit trees and other edibles on the map already. I have used this in numerous cities to find an abundance of food. You can add the foods that you find as well. If you have trees in your front yard that you want to share, add them here!
Andy Firk is an incredible resource for growing food, foraging and living the good life. I highly advise going on as many of his plant walks as you can for some hands-on education in wild foraging. His website is one of the main sources for Florida foraging. His experts page lists over 50 Florida experts you can learn from.
Marc Williams is an incredibly knowledgeable forager of very high integrity. He teaches at many of the Florida events and spends a fair bit of time in Florida. He lives in the Asheville, North Carolina region.
Green Deane (Eat the Weeds) offers plant walks around the state of Florida and is one of the most knowledgeable wild foragers in the USA. His YouTube channel and website provide a plethora of information. Note: I do recommend Green Deane as an education resource, but as far as a community member, it is not so clear. He has said numerous racist things to members of the community. Part of me does not want to share his resources at all because of this, but he truly is an educational asset to the community.
Go to an Orlando Permaculture meeting or the Florida Earth skills Gatherings where you may meet some other foragers. If not foragers then certainly people growing food and eating the weeds, too!
Jon Martin or Fungi Jon is a local mushroom expert and hosted mushroom identification and foraging classes as well as offered private classes during my time there.
The Florida Herbal Conference is a conference that brings together a couple hundred herbalists, aspiring herbalists and people just dipping their toes into this world of plant medicine. There are foraging classes, generally focused more on the medicinals.
— This Foraging Guide was originally published in 2021. It was last updated December 2023.