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Take a Walk on the Wild (Foods) Side

Gathering edible and medicinal plants from local woods can be fun and exciting. They're often nutrient-dense and void of harmful chemicals and genetic tinkering. They're also beautiful and delicious, but a foraging education is a must before ingesting any unidentified wild plant. If you spend any time in nature, learning about which plants are safe to eat and which aren't is sensible information to have."Foraging is a fun act," says Evan Short, who has been foraging mushrooms for 14 years and often sells them at local growers markets. "You get to explore beautiful areas and watch them change over the seasons. Plus, plants come back every year, so it's like seeing an old friend."Mushrooms are a forager's favorite. While there are relatively few species that are poisonous, those that are can be deadly if ingested, Short warns.Mushrooms aren't the only wild edibles that are potentially lethal. Joe Kreuzman, director of the Coyote Trails School of Nature, says that fear is the biggest barrier people face when they first feel an interest in wild edibles."The biggest mistake is not getting off the couch," he says. "Or people feel overwhelmed. But break it down. Say, 'I'm going to learn 10 basic plants this year.' It will open the door to a lifetime of learning."It's crucial to educate yourself before even thinking about eating something you pull from the wild. There are courses you can take, as well as books to read.Jon Carlson, a clinical herbalist at the Vitalist School of Herbology, warns that many beginners "mistakenly think it's very simple," adding that experienced foragers study for many years and never stop learning.

Kreuzman says that before ingesting a plant in the wild, beginners should take it to an experienced forager or local extension office for identification. And be sure to cross-reference it with at least three reputable field guides, especially those that are region-specific.No matter where you forage or what you find, the very act of gathering your own wild edibles or medicinals puts you in league with others who are becoming more aware of their environmental footprints and the devastating pace with which human's are outgrowing Earth's resources.But it's not all about the environment."The first time you harvest 10 or 15 wild edibles and put them into your evening salad," Kreuzman says, "and you experience the tastes and textures and throw in some wildflowers, and the kids get into it —that's pretty cool."

Take a Walk on the Wild (Foods) Side