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Foraging On My Mind

January 19, 2011

This past autumn was a spectacular time of year for us.  Matt and I had put up most of the summer’s bounty, allowing us to turn our attention to foraging the backroads of Muskoka.  It seems that there is an endless number of things that can be found if you take time to enjoy the countryside.  And, despite experiencing longer winters and a much shorter growing season than areas a 100 kilometers south of here we still have an extensive variety of edible plants and berries. 

Now, late autumn the foraging in this field is over. But, during the spring and summer months this is a wild edible plant hotspot and provides us with wild leeks, milkweed pods, choke cherries, raspberries, and blackberries.

If you’ve ever foraged before you know how addictive it can become and I’m not really sure why.  Maybe, like with so many things “it’s the thrill of the hunt.”  There is a seductive sense of mystery created when you start searching for foods to forage.  You never know when, where, or what nature is going to offer up and there is an element of surprise lurking around each and every corner. Or, perhaps it goes back to some primal human instinct and the need to collect and gather in preparation for the long winter ahead?    Whatever the reason, it is present in both of us.  Stumbling upon a patch of wild leeks can send a jolt of excitement through my spine and the fact that we’ve got to walk through knee-deep mud to dig them up only makes it that much more exciting! 

Large Elderberry Bush

Over the course of the summer, we discovered berry ladled elderberry bushes, choke cherries galore, milkweed pod covered fields, wild leeks, not to mention the obvious sumac berries, wild blackberries, crab apples, and rose hips.  It was a smorgasbord of deliciousness, all calling out to be responsibly harvested and turned into something we could enjoy until next year. 

Foraging Rose hips ~ best picked after a good frost...some time in late September. Photograph courtesy of Turnbull Photography.

The truth of the matter is that there just wasn’t enough time to get to everything we found.  Matt and I are very conscious of both the environment and our surroundings.  It is important when collecting wild edible foods to be both cautious and courtesy.  

First, do your homework.  Know which plants and berries are edible and which ones may be harmful or even poisonous.  There are lots of excellent field guides available that can become useful resources.  When looking for books and information on wild foods you will want to make sure the information is specific to the geographical area you forage and that it has lots of photographs that will help you identify each species.  Doing some reading before hand and carrying a useful guide will assist you in making educated choices about identification and sustainable harvesting practices.  Be aware that many edible plants can look similar to harmful or poisonous varieties.  So be sure to be safe! 

Second, pick and collect only what you can prepare and be sure that you are doing it in a sustainable manner.  If you want to enjoy nature’s bounty for years to come you can not forage endlessly without consequences so learn about sustainable harvesting and be respectful.  Sometimes this means collecting only a small amount and moving on or leaving it for another year.  It may be helpful to keep track of the areas you forage in a notebook.  Record the location, plant or berry species, the size and health of the area/patch, the time/month the food is ready to harvest, as well as the weather conditions from year to year.   This information will help you determine the health of the areas you forage as well as where, when, and what you pick each year.   For example, this year we experienced a relatively dry summer and as a result our regular wild blackberry patch had very few berries.  The previous summer the crop was glutenous and we picked and put up several batches of jam while still leaving tons for the birds and bears.  This year we decided it was best left untouched. 

A selection of butters, curds, jams, and jellies that were created from our foraged foods. Photograph courtesy of Turnbull Photography.

I know this post is coming well before the foraging season begins but it might be a great time to get those helpful resources together and decide what you want to look for.  With our gardens, fields, and sideroads covered in several feet of freshly fallen snow I can’t help but daydream about getting back outdoors in search of some wild eats.  This year, we’d like to expand our foraging adventures and add to our list fiddleheads, sumac berries, and some leafy greens like wild spinach, wood sorrel or chickweed.  Knowing what, where, and when to  look for wild foods is half the battle. 

In late summer, fields of blowing milkweed silk give away the location of a potential place to forage the pods.

We’d love to hear about your experiences foraging or if you’ve never foraged before but are curious…tell us about it?  Are there any books on wild foods, foraging, or edible plants you can’t live without?   When do you do most of your collecting?  What do you forage?  And, what do you make?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 11:18 pm

    I really like how you explain how to forage sustainably in this post for those that want to forage and wild craft ethically but don’t really know what it means. Thanks Turnbulls!

  2. January 20, 2011 12:39 am

    I have always wanted to forage but I have to learn to identify edibles. I had no idea rose hips were edible! My parents had rose hips growing on their roses. My brother-in-law has wild blackberries growing on his property. This summer it was fun to pick the berries.

  3. Matilda permalink
    January 21, 2011 5:27 am

    I foraged some sloe and elderberries and A LOT of apples and blackberries. The biggest success was at the same time an experiment. Instead of throwing away the pulp of the sloe after making sloe syrup, I boiled it with an apple and some sugar into a kind of marmalade or fruitbutter. It tastes kind of weird (bitter and sour), but at the same time it has a very lovely flavour. I eat it on top of my tahin-sandwiches.

    I live in Sweden where we have the so called “Allemansrätt” (the freedom to roam:ätt), and this makes it easy to find and pick berries and other eadibles.

    • January 21, 2011 9:31 am

      It’s so cool to hear about what you are picking in Sweden. And, we appreciate you taking the time to share your foraging and canning experiences. Thanks!
      We first experienced the right/freedom to roam while in Scotland and it was a totally new and wonderful experience. As long as you are respectful of people’s property and animals you can go basically anywhere…very different from here.

      • Matilda permalink
        January 21, 2011 4:59 pm

        Yes, of course you have to show respect for other people´s property! I would never pick anything that belongs to someone. That’s also important within the “allemansrätten”. But it is truly great to be able to go anywhere – also to cross other people’s land and don’t have to walk around it.
        My plans for the foraging of this summer is elderberry flowers (for syrup), more blackberries – I LOVE them, more apples – since the chutney I made this year was so tasty and also to pick and dry some of the wild mint I saw growing close to the sea. And I plan to follow your adventures and to let you inspire me! Thanks for the grate blog.

  4. January 22, 2011 9:43 pm

    Those elderberries look really familiar. I am afraid to forage though, I don’t know enough!

  5. January 23, 2011 6:00 pm

    To forage is to live. Ok, I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s such an energizing, satisfying, challenging, rewarding way to spend time! My two favorite books are by Sam Thayer: The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. Indispensable. Sam combines deep practical experience with solid research and he’s an excellent writer. Passionate and humorous. I also really like John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants. It’s very thorough, and like Sam’s books, has numerous excellent photos.

    • January 24, 2011 9:14 am

      I’m going to check out those two books by Thayer…THANKS! We have the Edible Wild Plants book and it’s great.

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