Part 2: Foraging Essentials
Hello again all you amazing Outdoor Mums!
In my last blog post, I introduced myself and my kids, Arthur and Sybbie, and tried to portray why foraging is such an awesome pasttime! If you missed that post, click here to catch-up if you need to! In this blog, we'll be exploring some foraging essentials - what items and equipment you'll need to take with you; the best times of the year to forage; and the best locations (both rural and urban) for success! Let's get to it!
Here's a home truth - You really don't need a lot of equipment to start foraging - many of us will remember foraging for blackberries as a child with nothing more than a plastic carrier bag from the corner shop! I've even stuffed a few fortuitously-found Chanterelles in my hoodie pocket whilst out on a walk! To be a bit more prepared though, there are a number of items that you may wish to consider taking with you on a forage, and these are discussed in more detail below!
Foraging Baskets and Other Containers
These come in all shapes and sizes, from the traditional and pretty wicker shopping-style baskets that Maria has over her arm in the Sound of Music, to strapped, lidded varieties that can be worn over your shoulder, and even special foraging backpacks. They all serve the same purpose – to safely store your precious finds, but also allow air to enter the receptacle to make sure your items don't prematurely wilt, or “sweat”, which certain finds will do without ventilation, especially mushrooms. Wicker baskets also allow spores, seeds and pollen, to fall through the cracks, dispersing them as you walk and perpetuating the growth cycle of your foraged plants. Whilst many mamas may love the idea of a traditional woven basket, others (and quite often many dadas), may not be quite so keen! You'll be carrying this basket wherever you forage, so some thought should go into the ease of wrangling it, the dog, and the kids, especially if you may need to carry them at any point, and, if it matters to you, your credibility on the street!
Having a few small, plastic Tupperware boxes with lockable airtight lids is very handy on a forage. If you come across a wonderful stand of ripe raspberries, for example, and decide to throw them in your basket, they will bounce around as you walk, turning to mush, staining your basket, and everything else in there, bright pink. Placing these in a lockable Tupperware box will prevent this from happening. Tupperware boxes are also handy to stop the contamination of foraged items by strong flavours, such as wild garlic or water mint. There's nothing worse than arriving home to find all of your items all have that pungent garlicky aroma, and placing these in a locked Tupperware box will safely keep stinky items separate from your other finds. Finally, a Tupperware box can act as a vital safety barrier if you come across something you cannot identify there and then, and want to take it home with you for further study. Rather than throwing that weird orange mushroom you've just found into the basket along with everything else, it is far safer to isolate it in it's own container, away from the other items you plan to eat, to reduce any risk of confusion or cross-contamination if it happens to be toxic.
Foldable Foraging Bags are also a great way of keeping your equipment to a minimum and are very handy if you have to take a lot of other things with you (like kids, nappy bags and other essentials!) out on a forage. These ingenious little devices attach to your belt and open out to form a small bag that you can store your finds inside, keeping your hands free for other things.
A Pair of Scissors or a Foraging Knife
A pair of sturdy scissors is very useful on a forage to make a clean break in the stem of a plant you want to harvest. We use scissors a lot, particularly for tall plants, such as Rosebay Willow Herb and the wonderfully honey-scented Meadowsweet, but also for aquatic plants that we want to harvest above the water-line, like Water Mint. There are obviously some safety considerations with this, so perhaps it is better for mum or dad to do the snipping, until the kids are sensible enough to handle a pair themselves.
A very popular alternative to scissors is a “foraging” or “mushroom” knife. These are often used to slice the stems, leaves and flower spikes of plants; the stipes of mushrooms above ground (so the underground parts are not damaged for next year's crop); and to dig out the roots of plants from the soil, such as dandelions. These special knives have a hooked blade (resembling a miniature bilhook) and often have a brush attachment on the hilt for removing mud and debris from the caps of mushrooms, roots and other plant parts. Some foragers are also happy to use a small, non-folding pocket knife instead. As useful as this tool is, it is, at the end of the day, a sharp knife, and it would be sensible to assume that many parents may feel this would be inappropriate for use around, or indeed by, young children. Luckily, a good pair of scissors are just as effective, so however you feel about it, there are alternative options.
Although not always needed, a thin pair of gardening gloves for you and your kids can sometimes come in handy – especially for harvesting nettles or their seeds, raspberries, blackberries, or digging in the ground for Pignuts. Your fingers will thank you for it! If you'll be digging up roots, then a trowel will also be necessary. Before you go digging up any plants - I'll be doing a blog post on foraging and law soon, which will provide more information about digging and uprooting plants for their roots during a forage, as permission may be required to do so.
Other Picking Tools
If you're planning on picking hips, haws or firm berries, particularly smaller ones like Bilberries, then a Scandinavian Berry Picker will come in very handy. These ingenious devices make light work of collecting berries, pinching them off the stems and into a small holding space whilst leaving twigs and foliage behind. The berries can then be tipped into a Tupperware box or other receptacle and stored in your basket alongside your other finds.
Extending Apple Pickers can also be extremely useful, particularly for getting into the high branches of fruit trees. They are usually comprised of a long extending pole with a combined "catcher" and sack at one end, and they work in a similar way to a berry picker, pinching the fruit off the branch and storing them safely in a net sack or cloth bag. This prevents the fruit from falling out of the tree and being bruised. These can be used to collect other fruit as well, such as pears, plums and damsons, and are invaluable items to store in the boot of the car for when you drive past a tree full of ripe fruit!
Both of these tools are not essential, and can be a little expensive, but are certainly worth it for the time they save, allowing you to collect a big harvest for a crumble in no time at all.
Field Guides & Books
It may sound unbelievable, but some plants, and most fungi, don't actually always look like themselves! You can hold two Chanterelle or Cep mushrooms side by side and see some pretty big differences between them. There can be variations in colour, shape, size and height. Rosebay Willowherb is pretty easy to identify when it's in bloom, but without those beautiful purple flower spikes on the top, they quickly just blend in with the plants around them and become “green leaves”, and this is true for many plants in your garden, from buttercups to daisies – do you know what they look like without their unmistakable flower heads?
As most plants only bloom for a few weeks of the year, we really need to be able to identify them even when some of their major characteristics (like flowers) are not present, such as when they're young, and when they're dormant, otherwise we could only forage “sometimes”, and trust us, when you and your kids get the bug, you'll want to forage “all the time”! The easiest way to do this is with a book. A Pocket variety is essential when out and about, and is always available in the field so you can reliably identify what you're looking at if you're unsure. Larger, more detailed books can be kept at home and used to ID unknown finds that you may have brought back with you.
With the onset of the digital age, Plant and Fungi Identification Apps have become a popular way of identifying wild edible food. They work, quite simply, by taking a photograph of the plant or mushroom in-situ using your mobile phone, and the app then trawls it's database, bringing up a series of possible matches for a positive ID. Whilst this sounds like a dream come true for a forager, these apps can sometimes be very inaccurate, providing incorrect, and occasionally seemingly random identifications that could have serious consequences if you then went on to eat the find based on this information. These apps can't always see the small details that may be required for an ID, such as gill-spacing in mushrooms, or the length of a leaf, stem or cap, which doesn't bode well for a 100% certain ID, which is what you always need with wild edibles.
That is not to say they shouldn't be used - I'm not going to lie - we have such an app, and do use it occasionally, but only ever do so as a starting point for an ID. The app provides us with a narrowed-down list of possible options, which we then use for further investigation using field guides, books and/or the internet to validate it properly. They are therefore handy things to have - and can really help you out if you come across something you've never seen before - providing you have signal, that is!
Other Useful Field Items
A mini First Aid Kit - for those inevitable bumps, cuts and knee scrapes!
Wellies (or waders for the kids).
Thin waterproof jackets – to keep the wind and rain off!
Hats, gloves and scarves, depending on the season.
Waterproof trousers would also be useful, especially if you'll be kneeling down a lot.
A walking pole, staff, or a big stick - handy for checking footing in the forest or the depth of streams and other waterways.
Insect Repellent and after-bite for those pesky biting insects, especially if you're heading to an area well-known for midges, such as The Kielder Forest or the West Coast of Scotland.
A Tick Tool or two - handy for removing them from you and your kids (and a separate one for your dog!).
If you're travelling out to forage with young kids, then it may be a good idea to throw a change of clothes into the boot, as they will likely get muddy or wet, or both!
A camera for capturing those amazing childhood moments!
Where to Forage
A most wonderful thing about foraging, is you certainly don't have to live in the countryside to do it. There are plenty of things to forage in built-up urban areas, such as dandelions, nettles, plantains, linden flowers, and blackberries; and in inner-city parks and green spaces, it's possible to find other amazing edibles, such as sorrel, wild garlic, cleavers, ox-daisy, elderflowers, apples, cherries, shaggy inkcaps, even ceps! Many of the wild edibles on The Grizzly Forager website can be found in towns and cities, so don't dismay if getting to a rural greenspace isn't always possible!
Obviously, the variety of plants increases the further out from the city you get, with farmland hedgerows, grasslands, woodlands, forests, and moorlands offering some wonderful wild food that you won't find in the urban environment. These include such delicacies as bilberry, wild raspberry, heather, wood hedgehogs, chanterelles, wild thyme, meadowsweet and rosebay willowherb, to name a just a few. If you do live in the city, then it's usually only a very short trip out in the car before you come across a suitable place to forage for these kinds of items.
The main haunts for most foragers include deciduous, coniferous and mixed woodland; various grasslands, including pastures, meadows and moors; waterways, such as lakes and rivers; and the urban environment, and these are described in more detail below. These aren't hard and fast rules however, as many locations can contain multiple environments - for example, you can often find rivers, streams and grassland meadows within woodland environments, as well as canals and grassland parks in urban environments. The key thing is to get out and explore and see what's available near you!
A deciduous, or broadleaf, woodland is predominantly filled with hardwood trees that shed their leaves every autumn. These environments are often very old due to the slow-growing nature of the trees that live there, and some are even classed as "Ancient", with tree specimens often reaching five hundred years old or more. Common trees to see in these environments are Oak, Beech and Birch, but other trees can also be found there too, such as Horsechestnut, Willow, Ash and Sycamore. Being so old, they often have very well established plant and mushroom species dwelling within them, so are often considered to be a prime place to forage. Many plants and some of the best edible mushrooms are often found in these environments.
A coniferous woodland is commonly called a "forest" and is predominantly filled with fast-growing, needle-bearing softwood trees that are mostly evergreen, and so don't shed their needles every autumn. These environments are often relatively young in comparison to deciduous woodlands, and are usually planted for commercial purposes, such as timber production. As such, they are frequently cut down and harvested every 20-50 years, before being re-planted. Conifers are the most common types of tree to see in these environments, which includes Scots Pine, Larch, Spruce and Fir. As they are mostly man-made and managed plantations, it is uncommon to see broadleaf or other types of tree in coniferous forests, and where this does occur, these trees are usually naturally seeded. Despite their young age, forests do teem with life, and a broad range of plants and mushrooms can be found within them, such as bilberry, raspberry, wood hedgehogs and milkcaps.
As the name suggests, a mixed woodland consist of both deciduous and coniferous trees. These can sometimes be arranged in clearly planted stands or groups of a certain species of tree all together in one area of the wood, clearly separated from other tree types. Alternatively, they can also be arranged in a more interspersed fashion, with multiple species of both broadleaf and coniferous trees all growing together naturally in a randomised growth pattern. Mixed woodlands are often former coniferous plantations that have had deciduous broadleaf trees deliberately introduced to increase the bio-diversity of tree and wildlife species, but can sometimes be natural, unplanted woodlands of ancient origin. Because they contain both deciduous and coniferous trees, the range of plants and mushrooms that can be found in a mixed woodland can be quite diverse, although the relatively young age of many of these environments often means that some populations of these plants and fungi may not be fully established, and therefore don't appear in abundance.
As already mentioned, the urban environment can house a multitude of edible plants and mushrooms. Just heading out into your garden or yard will likely yield numerous wild edibles, such as dandelion, plantain, bittercress and bramble. Streets too, are often lined with ornamental trees that can provide plenty of opportunity for foraging, including Linden, Apple, Pear, Cherry and Elder, and numerous mushrooms can also be discovered here and there, from Shaggy Inkcaps on small grassy pockets to Dryad's Saddle or Oyster Mushroom on decomposing tree stumps. Heading away from the concrete jungle and into inner-city green spaces such as parkland, scrubland, wasteland, golf courses, canals or even cemeteries, will also bring a wealth of wild food. You really don't have to travel far!
Grassland is usually defined as an area of land where the vegetation is dominated by grasses. Grasslands can be found in many places, from the heaths, parklands and scrublands of inner-city environments, to the fields, paddocks, and pastures that make up the agricultural landscape of suburban and rural areas. Agricultural grassland especially, is often surrounded by hedgerows, bridleways and other green spaces, that in themselves, also make excellent foraging locations. Travelling further afield may take you to other, more natural and rugged grassland environments, such as moorland or heathland. All of these areas are packed with wild edibles - hedgrows especially, are often treasure troves of wild food, due to the nourishment they receieve from the rich soil in the fields they encircle - and fields and pastures are also home to numerous wild flowers and edible mushrooms, such as agarics, parasols and waxcaps.
Like grasslands, waterways can be found in a variety of locations, from inner-city ponds and canals, to woodland streams, lakes, reservoirs and riverbanks. The well-watered and fertile banks of Britain's waterways are ideal for foraging for wild food, but some edible plants also grow exclusively either in, or very close to water, such as Watermint, Watercress, various reeds, and wild flowers, such as Scabia and Valerian. Whilst waterways are beautiful, they can also present serious danger in the form of slippy rocks, fast-flowing currents, and other natural hazards, such as algae blooms and water-borne parasites, so extra care should be taken when foraging these areas, especially with children. I'll be covering waterway safety and other hazardous environments in the next blog post, so keep your eyes peeled for that!
When to Forage
Unfortunately, understanding where to forage is only half the battle! In order to be a successful forager, you also need to know when to forage, which can sometimes be quite difficult! Generally speaking, the most fruitful times of the year to forage are during late Summer and early Autumn. During these times, many plants are producing flowers, berries and nuts, and many mushrooms are sending out their first flushes of fuiting bodies (the parts that we eat), so there's a huge range of options available to us. That is not to say that the other times of the year are no good for foraging - on the contrary - Spring offers many delicious wild greens, such as Sorrel and Wild Garlic; early Summer is the best time to forage for Elderflowers, and even the icy cold of Winter can yield many delicious fungi, such as Winter Chanterelles, Wood Ears, and Oysters mushrooms, as well as providing loads of opportunities for fun (snowball fights, anyone!?).
If you'd like to explore what's available at different times of the year, I've developed a handy Forager's Calendar, which can be accessed and used (for free!) by clicking here.
Next Blog Post
In the next blog post, we'll be exploring Foraging Safety - the Golden Rules of foraging with kids, and a number of other risks that you may need to be aware of.
The Grizzly Forager is a free education resource site designed to encourage and teach parents how to confidently and safely forage with their kids. It's filled with step-by-step instructions, safety notes, activities, and useful hints and tips for engaging children with nature and wild food, accompanied by beautiful and inspirational real-world photographs of the Author's children in nature.
Created by experienced forager-dad, safety expert, and professional photographer, John, the site contains detailed information for over 85 wild foods that are safe, child-friendly, and easy to identify, with separate sections for edible Plants and Flowers, Mushrooms, Fruits, Berries and Nuts, and Tree Sap. There's also an extensive Recipe section, that contains a range of simple dishes, from condiments, pickles and sauces, to starters, mains and desserts, all made with the wild-food finds on the site.
If you want to learn how to safely forage with your kids, immerse them in the beauty of the natural world, help them develop essential transferable skills, and watch them learn and grow into happy, conscientious, nature-loving wildlings, then this is certainly the website for you - a definitive guide to foraging with children unlike any other freely available resource.
📖 A Definitive Guide to Foraging with Children
🆔 Detailed ID Notes for over 85 Wild Foods
🚸 Easy to Follow Child Safety Section
📅 A Foraging Calendar
🍲 Extensive Recipe Section
🎨 Wild Nature Activities for Kids
📷 Beautiful, Real-World Photographs
💸 Completely Free to Access and Use!