Foraging 101: If It Looks Like Food and Smells Like Food, Get a Third Opinion
“And then the final step is to—well, let me check my notes here,” the group leader says before he divulges the last phase in determining whether a wild plant is safe to eat. “Yep, the final step is to swallow. Then you wait.”
Keeping my head still, I scan the other people in attendance: a few backpackers feverishly scribbling in their Moleskine journals, one woman holding up a camcorder, a little blond boy swatting bugs from his bare, bumpy legs. This group of 20 or so strangers, congregating on a quiet street in suburban West Chicago, just learned the universal edibility test: a six-step process that takes at least 24 hours to complete and bears the risk of a poisonous death.
Am I the only one who thought that this wild-edible-plants workshop was going to have more to do with sustainable eating and less to do with simply (fingers crossed) surviving?
The group leader, whose name I've already forgotten or never learned, grins and adjusts his hat—a thick, napped-leather hat that works great for boiling water when you’re stranded in the wild, he says.
I recall the event’s online description. It referred to the natural landscape as “an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet.” It said I’d learn “how to gather wild, edible plants and how to prepare these plants to taste.” It seemed like the perfect way for me to exercise my city-stifled green thumbs.
All right, I think. We’re ruling out poison first; we’ll talk about pesto variations next.
The leader, half exposed in his cargo shorts and sandals, pulls bug spray from his bag and strongly advises everyone to bathe in it. I already drenched my long pants and long sleeves at home, but I apply a second coat when the can is passed to me, taking care not to miss any spots, not even behind the ears. It’s an unseasonably cool, clammy late-spring day, the first day in June, and there are so many mosquitoes that I can actually hear them swarming. And we haven’t even entered the woods.
The unmarked forest entrance awaits our group from about 25 yards down the street. Above the flittering tree line is a gray sky, consistent in color but moving fast. Someone in the group asks, “What if it storms?” Our leader stops, cranks his body to face us, and reminds us that you don’t get to choose the weather in which you survive.
True enough, I think. But you can choose the weather in which you garden, and isn't that sort of what we're doing out here? Sort of?
Without further ado, we begin our walk toward the edge of the woods, where we will hopefully survive and presumably start to identify, harvest, and dust off our dinner.
We stop, not yet to the forest. Our leader hunches beside a large leaf shooting from the grass next to the road. It’s burdock, our first edible-plant spotting of the day. Topped with a tender green oval, burdock looks like a salad waiting to happen. But no, our leader explains. The leafy portion of the plant is nutritional rubbish compared to the root, which should be double boiled, preferably in a hat, in order to subdue its natural bitterness. Bitter is the best taste description he can conjure up before shifting his focus to two other specimens also growing on the side of the road, speckling the lush, wet grass with touches of yellow and violet.
Dandelions, our guide tells us, are completely edible, both raw and cooked, from root to flower, in all seasons when they're present. They are high in many nutrients, especially vitamin C. No comment on flavor. Creeping charlie is the other invasive species he urges us to reconsider—although he doesn't quite nail the sell. Interesting is the adjective he chooses to describe the flavor of the fresh leaves—which I’ve previously read are used as salad greens in some countries. Our leader recommends drying the leaves and steeping them as you would tea. He says the drink “gives you a relaxed feeling.”
I’m beginning to need some of that relaxed feeling. I’m starting to itch. The sky is starting to softly rumble. I’m about to follow a strange man into the forest.
“Oooh, you know what this is?” our leader asks as he scurries a few feet ahead, kneels down, and begins to dig up his fourth roadside discovery. “Now, you have to get this from the very root. It would be easy to do if you had a shovel, but all I have is my machete.”
We watch as he pries a hole in the ground beneath what looks like overgrown grass. He soon pulls up a cluster of long, green blades, each sprung from an individual bulb about the size of a marble. He doesn't have to tell us what he’s found, and no one asks him to explain its flavor. Our noses immediately know that we’ve stumbled upon some wild onion. In a moment that’s obviously rehearsed but charming anyhow, our guide asks us not to cry.
Though the sky continues to darken, the onion's food-like smell, still hanging in the air, is all the encouragement I need to follow through with this trek into the woods. Clutching a couple of bulbs and burdock roots, I walk ahead with the group, daydreaming of what I can cook.
Our next stop is at a wild mulberry tree right at the forest's edge, where our leader confirms that ripe mulberries are edible and delicious. He also weaves in a lesser known detail that makes the young blond boy’s ears stand up—unripe mulberries, like the pale-green ones we are looking at, have a mild hallucinogenic effect.
In a messy single-file line, on no particular path, we continue to weave through the trees, ducking beneath low branches and stepping over large roots. I’m at the back of the group, by choice, just in case I decide to turn around. After about 10 minutes, I see our leader’s hand lift into the air up ahead, signaling that he’s found our next edible plant. It's spearmint, he says. Perfect for if you “ever have a hot date while you're stranded in the wilderness.”
I take a few steps to the left, trying to get a better view of our leader and the spearmint he’s crouching beside. I try a few steps to the right, my feet sinking deeper into the wet forest floor the more I move around. I hear our group leader start to talk about reed grass, which is edible only in the spring.
My heart jumps as leaves rustle behind me. I turn around slowly. I’m relieved to see that it’s one of the other group members, a brawny man in his late 20s with red hair flowing from his baseball cap down to the middle of his back. He isn’t concerned that he can't hear or see our leader. He’s moving through the woods with confidence, hunting for something clearly more exciting than reed grass. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch him. He bends down and investigates something beneath the leaves. Before long, he returns to the back of the group, using both hands to cradle what looks like an old aquarium decoration.
"Have you ever seen one of these?" he asks me and a few others, holding out his fleshy, pinkish-brown find. "It's a crested coral mushroom, and it's edible." I marvel at the mushroom and look back in the direction where he found it, instantly convinced that mushroom would taste nice with onion and root vegetable.
"And here's more of that spearmint," he says, pointing down by my feet. I’m standing in it. I pick a piece from the ground, rub it between my fingers, and inhale its mild but refreshing scent.
Goodbye group leader, hello redheaded guy. I'll have a full menu in no time.
The group moves ahead. When we reach our next find, there’s room for everyone to curve around and listen. Using his foot to point at a small, singular purplish petal stemming from the ground, our guide says, "There's something very important you need to know about jack-in-the-pulpit, and about the other plant we're about to talk about, mayapple. They're both extremely poisonous unless you eat them the right way and at the right time." The group gets quiet; I zone out. Any plant that might kill me is no plant I care to handle.
I look around. Redheaded guy is still admiring his mushroom, completely oblivious to the dozens of mosquitoes attached to his arms and legs. A fellow group member notices the infestation at the same time and hands over some bug spray. Redheaded guy declines.
Woah. This guy is intense—or crazy.
"Now we're going to head out to the marsh," our group leader says. "I hope no one minds getting their shoes wet."
As we make our way out from under the forest canopy and onto the marsh, I see that the sky has grown substantially darker. Our guide repeats the thing about not getting to choose the weather in which you survive. On cue, it begins to rain—hard.
Our group leader raises his voice to talk over the weather. "The second to last edible plant we're going to look at today is by far my favorite,” he says. “It tastes like corn on the cob."
"Cattail," he says as he gestures out toward the thousands of tall, tan, swaying cattails covering the marsh. "The only problem is, cattail has an evil look-alike. A highly poisonous look-alike."
I look around for redheaded guy. He’s nodding his head. The group leader makes a beeline to a plant he has spotted across the marsh. It’s a small flowering plant with periwinkle petals. He says it’s blue flag iris—cattail's poisonous look-alike.
A flash of lightning causes murmurs to spread across the group. A woman asks, "So, how do you tell the difference?"
Wait wait wait. What am I missing? Blue flag looks absolutely nothing like cattail.
The group leader pulls his machete from his belt and begins to dig up the blue flag. He’s mumbling that it takes skill to tell them apart. But it’s very important to tell them apart because one tastes just like corn on the cob and one is deadly. You don't want to accidentally eat blue flag. You won't last too long. There are minor differences. You have to be very careful. He loosens the plant from the ground and lifts it over his head to show off its stringy root.
A man asks, "So does blue flag's root look different than cattail's?"
The group leader responds that he isn’t sure; he's never compared the two side by side before. Today we will, though.
I search for redheaded guy. When my eyes find him, he’s holding and investigating a cattail, one step ahead of the leader. He lifts up his specimen and announces to the group, "Yeah, cattail's root is rounder, you see?"
I squint my eyes, trying to see through the heavy raindrops falling on my face.
The group leader says, "I don't know about that. Plus, you didn't get it at the root. That's the base of the stem."
"Oh, I thought..." redheaded guy trails off. His freckled cheeks turn pink as he brings his inadequate cattail close to his body.
The group leader checks his watch and tells us to head back the way we came. It’s time to try to find garlic mustard. We maneuver our way back through the marsh. My socks are squishy with wet mud, and the storm is picking up speed, but I don’t care. My eyes and mind are fixated on my foraged foods—the ones I picked at the suggestion of two men with different opinions on edibility.
We reenter the forest, trying to retrace our footsteps back to the other side. Suddenly the man in front of me stops to point out that we weren't the last creatures to cross this path. Deep, fresh hoof prints, probably left by deer, have completely obscured our original markings. As I admire the indentations, I hear our guide call out from behind.
"You guys! Come back! You've gone the wrong way!"
I turn around without a word, without making eye contact with the man who’s led me astray. I look down once again at my “onion” and “root vegetable” and “mint,” which I’ve spent the last couple of hours proudly clutching in my pruney fingers. I lift them to my face and breathe in. Now they smell only sort of like food. I tuck my cold fists into the pockets of my sweatshirt, letting my harvests fall back to the earth. I follow the group out of the forest, daydreaming about where I can stop for tacos.
Friendly but generally nervous 20-something who prefers to be holding a cold beer so that she can blame her sweaty palms on the condensation.