I’ll start with the required “Don’t forage next to a roadway” bit. Every foraging guide says this, and I’m sure you’ve heard it. Try to be at least 100 feet away from busy roads, and you may want to decide whether or not water from the road is likely to wash over the area that you are standing in. Otherwise you risk contamination from pollution, including lead from car exhaust. Besides, that’s just gross. Who wants to eat motor oil?
Make sure you do not damage the local supply. Do not over-harvest and damage the local ecosystem. Take no more than 10% (unless it is an invasive species, then feel free to harvest the lot to make room for natives to flourish). This leaves enough for local wildlife, if you take too much and they eat the rest you could end up with nothing to return to. Plus, that plant could have been fulfilling an important role in the ecosystem and its loss could upset the balance. Best practices would include replenishing the local supply by making cuttings or planting seeds to replace what you’ve taken, and giving a boost to the supply by leaving a bit of fertilized water.
Actually, the actions of migrating Native Americans are responsible for part of why certain plants are so rooted into our ecosystem. They tended to the natural food sources along their migration paths. Imagine what that would have been like, and follow their lead. This would have meant using native species that already exist within that area, and would have been to place the plant where it had a favorable microclimate without a lot of invasive soil tilling, pouring down of fertilizers, etc. Perhaps sometimes planting fish or compost with plants you wish to give a good start to, and then let the plant’s growth patterns adapt to the area without a lot of fuss. Maybe sing it songs occasionally, or dance for it. Hey, why not? Live a little.
Be aware. Really take in the area where you stand. Get to know it. For pagans, this could be interpreted as me reminding you to attune to your environment (and certainly don’t forget that), but I’m saying more than that.
Slip into the role of the caretaker of nature, by keeping your eyes, ears, and nose open you may become familiar with the patterns of that particular ecosystem, and you therefore will be able to notice changes within it. Perhaps you find things that need encouraging, or problems that may need tending to. Do so in an educated manner though, and with organic and sustainable methods.
Love your foraging grounds, and take care of them. Take an extra bag for litter, and tidy up a bit. Recycle what you can.
Make sure you know exactly what you are gathering. I’ve run across too many sources that do not tell you that the plant you may wish to eat has a dangerous lookalike. Do a search on lookalikes yourself, and make sure you know how to tell them apart. Sometimes when you learn to tell the difference, it’s obvious at a glance. For instance, spurge is frequently listed as a lookalike to purslane, but easily distinguished by the white milky sap. I only needed to see the sap once (and that was just to be sure) before I learned how to tell these plants apart by sight.
Other times it may be more difficult. Chickweed, when not in bloom, closely resembles scarlet pimpernel, which is toxic and doesn’t sound like a lot of fun if it’s introduced accidentally to a salad. Also, they like the same growing conditions and can sometimes grow right next to each other. So, every time I pull up non-flowering chickweed, I look for a row of hairs on the stem that I know lets me know I have the right plant.
So know exactly how to identify what you are looking for, even if it means you have to be patient. Sometimes you need to watch the plant go through several seasons so you can see the shoots, blooms, and seeds before you can be positive what you have. I’ve heard that people who see the telltale feather-like branches of the asparagus in the fall will then mark them and come back in the spring for the tasty young shoots (though I’ve never been lucky enough to run across one).
Make sure you know the potential toxins for your plant and how to deal with them. Some sources are so strong on the cautions that you may end up being afraid to touch anything, but others won’t warn you enough. Some cautions are things to keep in mind that you don’t actually have to be too concerned about.
For instance, purslane is high in oxalic acid, which can cause calcium to precipitate out of your blood, leading to both a decrease in your body’s calcium and possibly kidney stones. However, unless you are prone to kidney stones, have a calcium deficiency already, or were planning on making purslane the bulk of your vegetable diet, this information isn’t all that critical. A lot of the time, the benefits of a wild food will outweigh the more minor issues (such as the omega-3 fatty acids in purslane). Often food preparation can overcome a plant’s issues. The oxalic acid in purslane can be boiled out, and then the water dumped (not used as stock). When the fear mongers get you all worked up about something, don’t forget that there are potential toxins in everything. Moderation and a healthy liver take care of most of it.
On the other hand, some sources don’t warn you enough about known issues. Such as the tannins in acorns. Acorns need to have the tannins leeched out of them to be edible by being boiled several times until the water runs clear. Once that is done, they are fine. Until you do that, they can damage your kidneys. I’ve seen multiple sources say that you can pop raw acorns in your mouth. That disturbs me. When I was twelve, if I had heard that I would have been eating raw acorns all day long in the park where I played, and I would have risked my kidneys shutting down as a result. It’s a good thing that my little tomboy butt had already read enough about wild foods to know better. I certainly did eye the little nuts, but was too lazy to go about grinding them into flour.
Drug interactions are one caution that many sources completely overlook. I hate it when I see someone recommend St. John’s Wort without mentioning anything about prescription meds at all. This herb has negative interactions with an amazing amount of medications, Drugs.com lists 766 of them at this time, 120 of them are listed as severe interactions. Some of these are more common than you think. Birth control pills are a fairly common prescription. St. John’s Wort will make them stop working. Personally, I’d rather soothe my anxieties with something else, I don’t think a midlife baby would ease my stress.
I’m not going to list all interactions on my pages, but you should be aware of them if you are taking any medications. Do a search on Drugs.com before taking a medication or foraging a wild herb, just in case. I don’t always find my plants there, but often they will list an herb’s interactions as well as effectiveness in treatment and toxins. My general rule is before I put something in my mouth that I wouldn’t find in a grocery store, or if I plan on consuming it in larger than normal quantities, I do a search on it.
Read more than one source about your plant. I don’t know how many times I’ve been reading a source that I consider to be excellent, and then all of a sudden it goes and does something stupid. This is definitely a subject that you need to read more than one book or website on, find as much information as you can.
This is true for herbalism as well. Every author is human, and therefore prone to making mistakes even when well educated. It’s impossible to know absolutely everything on any given subject, so the more sources you find the better. Not just to avoid danger either, you can get some great tips and ways to use what you find that way.
Know what plants to avoid. Even if you aren’t currently looking for a certain plant, it can’t hurt to be aware of some dangerous plants and common toxic plants that resemble foraged plants. Start learning about them now, it will make it more likely that you remember the information later.