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In the Weeds: A Beginner's Guide to Foraging

Senior Digital Food Editor

Foraging. It’s a buzzword you'll soon start hearing everywhere, if you haven't already (foraged fiddleheads or ramps are on all the hip spring menus). It's also an ancient way of gathering food.

“Foraging is not associated with Dumpster diving,” laughs Ava Chin, urban forager and author of "Eating Wildly," addressing a common misconception. "Yes, is it a kind of 'freeganism,' but no, I do not eat roadkill. Foraging is a way of learning about the edible plants that are all around us, whether in a city, a suburban yard, or a state park.”

Nowhere near the wilderness? Ava wants you to know that the "concrete jungle" actually hides many wild edibles. “You can find a variety and abundance of wild foods in a city or in the suburbs.”

A number of edible plants and mushrooms can be found throughout the country, in fact. Ava cites the wild plant lambsquarters -- a relative to spinach, quinoa, and beets, and one of most nutritious plants, she says. “It’s prized in Greek, Persian, and Bangladeshi cuisines, but here it’s a weed, hard to find to buy in even a farmers’ market." Yet lambsquarters grows “everywhere from semi-arid L.A. to busy avenues in Brooklyn.” Ava has found it on “college campuses, in friends' backyards, parks -- almost everywhere.”

Dandelion greens are ubitquitous and highly nutritious.

Lambsquarters is a good plant for a beginning forager to seek, but even better is the dandelion. With its distinctive leaf shape and bright blossom, the dandelion is easy to recognize. Plus, it's higher in beta-carotene than carrots -- and packed with iron and calcium (take that, spinach!). Once you gather some dandelions, try these recipes.

If you intend to forage this weekend, you’ll catch the last of this year's ramps. Many foragers find this wild plant by its pungent smell. Morels, the much-prized mushrooms, are also in season now, but they're very elusive -- and mushrooms in general should be left to more experienced foragers.

How to Get Started

If foraging sounds like an appealing pursuit, Ava says you should start by having someone show you what is edible and what is potentially poisonous, as there are many lookalikes. “There are more and more guides leading foraging walks, so it’s not hard to get started.” She also recommends studying classic guidebooks such as Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" and "Edible Wild Plants" by Thomas Elias & Peter Dykeman. She also recommends downloadng the app iplants (which she jokes is the reason she bought her first iPhone).

When foraging, always follow the sustainable code of conduct: Never take an entire plant, aim to take no more than 20 percent of any plant, and never touch the plant's root structure (so the plant can continue and reproduce).  

Where to Forage

In busy urban or suburban areas, forage only in areas that are far from street traffic and a safe distance from where dogs are walked. Legal foraging areas vary from one municipality to another; a local foraging guide will be able to advise on this. And on private land, you need the permission of the landowner to forage. 

The Sweet Side

Foraging is not all dark leafy greens and potentially dangerous mushrooms. In fact, June means mulberry season. These large, juicy fruits are another “starter forager crop,” as Ava says. They can be deep red, almost black, pink, or white, depending on species. Mulberry trees are prodigious fruiters, so though it can be hard to identify the tree by its leaves, there’s no doubting the cascade of berries you'll find scattered on the ground beneath it -- what she calls “a rain of fruit.” The berries are very sweet, can be eaten out of hand (best washed first), and kids love them. Try adding them to your favorite mixed-berry recipes. We like them in Macerated Berry and Creme Fraiche Parfait, and baked desserts like Rhubarb-Berry Crumbles, as well as in a smoothie.