How to forage? Guidelines for the beginner
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894)
One of the great aspects about learning about foraging is that you can practice and increase your existing skills at any time when outside! No equipment is required to study and learn about plants! Although the best way of learning is on a foraging course with an experienced guide, much can be learnt on your own. In the final anaylysis, it will be your willingness to learn, explore and engage with plants, that dictates how much you learn.
Although endeavouring to keep the technical language down to the absolute minimum, to become adept at foraging requires the learning of some polysyllabic terminology; such is the nature of botany and attempting correct plant identification. Essentially, if you can closely observe and count, you can learn about plant identification!
As with any language, botany needs to be practised before it can be understood. Often initially confusing, technical languages are vital because they help to specify about stuff and to prevent confusion. Technical words are typically precise.
For example, take the word sessile, which, when talking about fruits or leaves, means without a stalk. By any other way of describing this, it needs more than one word to explain the meaning!
Apart from a preparedness to learn some basic botanical language, over the course of the foraging year you will also find that you require: a good plant identification book (make sure you get a dedicated field guide), some pens, a pen-knife, secateurs, possibly a pruning saw, gardening gloves and rubber gloves, as well as a hand trowel, hand basket, some paper bags, sharp eyes, patience, and practice!
To become comfortable using botanical language, start with looking at a plant leaf you already know. Let’s say a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), clover (Trifolium pratense), nettle (Urtica dioica), elder (Sambucus nigra), or blackberry (Rubus fruticosus) leaf. You may already have them nearby or in your garden. Pick one and take it inside to look at it. Closely observe it, and supplement your existing knowledge of the plant alongside the information given here, and that from a recommended authoritative field guide.
Look at the leaf colour and shape. Is the leaf you hold ‘simple’, i.e. on a stalk on its own. as shown by the nettle and dandelion; or are they ‘compound’, made of many leaflets attached to one stalk as displayed by the, elder, ash, or blackberry leaf?
A leaf may also be pinnate, being made of leaflets in opposite pairs, such as elder. Or it may be simple, yet oppositely and deeply-lobed, and not cut to the mid-vein – so that a flange of leaf is always present. Dandelion is an example of such a leaf, otherwise known as a pinnatifid, or pinnately-lobed leaf. The common clovers have three leaflets, and these are typically described as tri-foliate or ‘trefoil’.
It is vital to examine the stalk and all of the leaf for any hairs and other features such as grooving, colourings, angles, and so on. Always check the colour of the undersides, noting features such as pronounced veins, prickles, etc.
Are the leaf stalks and stems hollow or solid? Are the leaf margins (edges) toothed, wavy, or without any feature? When attempting to identify closely related and similar looking plants, the answer to these questions and a few others will be vital, and their discovery should soon lead you to correct identification.
Where possible when identifying plants, always take a field identification book to an unidentified plant in the field, not the other way around. If you do not know the plant you are looking at it is fair to say you will not know how abundant or rare it is!
We naturally come across plants from a range of angles, and different light levels. The individual colour, height, and spread (with resultant shading) produced by any particular plant species, gives an overall textural impression of the plant, both to the eye and the mind, whilst set against or still a part of its surroundings.
An amalgamation of information pours in via our senses, from which the brain will create a ‘fac simile’ for each of the different plant species, and hopefully logs the information into our long-term memory.
When regularly out foraging, and intent on finding the same plant again, the brain begins to identify and sift through the different plant shapes in a way that compares to how we recognise people’s faces. We may not see a friend for many years, but can still instantly recognise them, even though their features may have altered dramatically. Something similar undoubtedly happens when foraging for and spotting plants otherwise hidden within the ‘green wall’.
Search and research, it’s the foragers way. When coming across a new plant, gather as much information about it from its particular environment as possible. By consciously observing the colour and shape of plants from a range of angles, and getting to know plants in the same site at different times of year, you will begin to appreciate their habit and form, and the important premise that plants are ever-evolving in form, slowly but surely revealing different aspects of themselves.
As mentioned before, observation is possible to do anywhere, at any time. If you consciously practice looking at plants closely, you cannot help to begin to see plant species revealing their particular individuality, when blending in, or standing out, of its immediate environment.
An increasing knowledge of plant shapes, silhouettes and life-cycles enables you to decipher distinctive signs from a distance, helping you more easily find plants.
By revisiting areas you have previously encountered as the seasons progress, you come to familiarise yourself with all the different stages of plant growth. For example, knowing the shape of a plant’s skeletal flowering stalk means you can find the new growth from considerable distance in the early part of the year, purely from the signposts of last!
Nature offers small windows of opportunity to harvest certain plants and especially plant parts on the same part, such is the nature of the continual metamorphosis of plants. The foraging year has been analogised to being on a carousel. It’s a good analogy. For if you miss the one full moon opportunity of the year to harvest sycamore sap (Acer psuedoplatanus), or the few days of prime opportunity to gather fresh, green ash ‘keys’ (Fraxinus excelsior) for pickling, there is nothing to do but wait for it to come around the following year. These windows, even when closed, can deepen our understanding of plant life, by allowing us to see the interweaving cycle’s of nature more clearly.
Overtime you will notice that individual species, will, give or take a few local adaptations to conditions, always produce a distinctive shape, colour, look, and feel to the eye, and especially within its particular preferred habitat. And as you forage in new places, or revisit previously visited areas, you will begin to appreciate the distinct plant communities that are present in different habitats. Sometimes plants are exclusive to a particular habitat, sometimes not. Experience can guide you.
One example of a plant community would be the heath-land plants which enjoy very acid soils. Many plant species will have certain niche habitats which offer them opportunities to grow where others cannot. Our saline tolerant plants, such as those found by the coast and on estuaries are good examples. More foraging tips on habitats and where to forage are available on this site