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Collect these tips for safe foraging

August 21, 2018

Lauren Hughes, a local forager and library aide, has edible plant radar that goes off constantly.

On a quick walk through Quarry Hill Park, she paused every 10 or 20 feet to point out another edible stalk or shrub — wild grapes, dock seeds, milkweed, burdock, wild parsnip, and more.

“These are going to be really tasty in about a month,” she said, examining small, greenish fruits on a wild plum tree near the entrance to the park. “I’m excited.”

That radar is no less acute when she’s downtown.

“In the cracks in the pavement, I’ll see parsley and be like, ‘Ooooo!’” she said. “But then I’ll remember — ‘How many people have walked on that?’ On the way to work, I’ll probably see 10 good things to eat. Of course, it’s not anywhere I’d want to pick them.”

Dangerous detour

The fear of road pollution and limited foraging area aren’t the only pitfalls urban foragers face, though.

Last week, a Washington County author/blogger’s book on edible plants was recalled for including potentially dangerous ingredients.

Johnna Holmgren published “Tales from a Forager’s Kitchen” in May, which included recipes using raw mushrooms and elderberries.

Online concern from other foragers and health experts led to a full book recall by parent company Crown Publishing and Rodale Books.

A statement read, “We are encouraging retailers to return their stock, and we are offering a full refund to consumers who have purchased the book. ... We are all committed to publishing books that offer reliable and comprehensive guidance about their subjects and we regret the inconvenience to our booksellers and readers.”

While people may react differently to foods, Sammie Peterson, a naturalist at Quarry Hill Nature Center, said most foragers are far more cautious about recommending foods that may cause illness to others — even in small quantities.

“It ruins the whole movement, in a sense,” she said.

But foraging, she and Hughes say, is still a fun, exciting, rewarding hobby.

Here are their tips.

Be skeptical. As buyers of the forager’s cookbook found out, printed information can be inaccurate or incomplete. “The best way to guard against this is to cross-reference by looking into a variety of (preferably printed) sources,” Hughes said. “Also, there is no substitute for talking to someone who has first-hand knowledge of the thing you are thinking of eating. In my classes at the library, I only talk about plants that I myself have eaten.” Hughes also tends to check for poisonous lookalikes, she said, as books may not communicate that there are other, similar-looking plants out there. Peterson agrees. “Check at least three sources, and if you’re at all uncertain, have someone show you what it looks like in person,” she said. “The phrase, ‘If in doubt, throw it out,’ is very, very important.”

Start small. Hughes carefully checks how to prepare foods properly before she tries them. She also never eats raw mushrooms. “If one book has a recipe for raw morels but every other book you have looked at says to always cook mushrooms, I would decide it wasn’t worth it to me to try that recipe without learning much more,” she said. “Also, remember that many common foods that we love and trust must be prepared to become edible and palatable. Cashews and almonds actually have to be heat treated to remove trace toxins. It’s good food, it just needs some preparation.”

Only trying a tiny bit of a food also helps the body adjust to new foods, and reduces the risk of an allergy or reaction that foragers may not know they have.

Sometimes, only parts of a plant are edible, Peterson added. And she never eats raw mushrooms. “Sometimes, in a class, you tell people something’s edible and they just chomp on it,” she said. “That enthusiasm’s great, but hold back a little bit until you fully know what you’re working with.”

Keep it legal. The biggest problem with foraging the city isn’t finding safe, delicious plants — it’s making sure you can get them from places with legal access. Public parks are protected against foraging, and obviously, private property is a no-go. Hughes tends to forage in her backyard, as many weeds — like dandelions, burdock, or chickweed — are actually nutritious. Peterson goes one step further, and requests permission to remove those invasive weeds from some property owners’ backyards — after all, it’s a win-win. Some mushrooms and berries are legal to forage in state parks, Peterson added.

Have fun! Although Hughes acknowledges that the above tips are important, with a little common sense and research, she says foraging is immensely rewarding. “There are so many plants all around us that can bring so much fun and joy! From raspberries and wild plums to hickory nuts and maple syrup, the opportunity to get outside and interact with your environment and your food is deeply satisfying and provides you with better food than you can buy,” she said. “You’ll never experience better flavor than sun-ripened fruit you’ve picked right off the stem.”

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