Wild Harvesting - 5 Edibles for Fall Foraging
This blog post will guide you through the process of wild harvesting in the fall. This season is typically when many plants that are edible go into dormancy, but it’s important to know that there are still many edible and medicinal plants that can be harvested now. We’ll also discuss what tools to bring with you when out on a harvest.
Wild harvesting is an excellent way for foragers to enjoy nature at its best while providing sustenance for themselves or their families. It’s easy too– all you need is some knowledge about what plants are safe to eat, some time spent outdoors exploring, and a few simple tools like shears (or scissors) and knives (for processing). All of this information will be discussed below!
The first sign that we are into the full swing of fall is the sudden availability of “pumpkin everything.” I mean stores and boutiques alike offer spiced pumpkin lattes, pumpkin spiced hot cocoa, pumpkin pies, squash soups, and various baked goods as well. Local municipalities boast of fall festivals, hayrides, pumpkin carving contests, concerts, and the like. Farmers offer apple picking and bring vibrant arrays of harvested produce to market. Families gather for campfires, hot cocoa, and of course to show off their favorite flannel shirts. We enjoy clearer skies too, perfect for stargazing.
Indeed, mother nature herself seems to join in and celebrate right along with us. Dazzling showers of orange and red leaves fall to blanket the ground as cooler weather moves in. If you’ve ever been out on the trails during autumn, you’ll instantly feel a bit of nostalgia. The mind instantly brings up memories of crunching leaves underfoot, gentle breezes flowing through the trees, and the occasional dropping of acorns. All this is the perfect recipe for long scenic walks.
Yet, there is another fall delight that few of us are aware of. All around us, there is a hidden world. It is a dimension full of splendor and sustenance. You might even call it a “second harvest.” Today I want to invite you to explore this unseen realm with me. I want to offer you another autumn pleasure: wild harvesting.
Prepare for an Outing Into the Wild
Wild harvesting is the art of going out into nature and harvesting things to eat or use. Out in your local forests…or even in your own backyard, there are naturally occurring botanical medicines and delicious wild edibles. The key is knowing how to look for them and identify them. Let’s go on an adventure, shall we? Yes, let’s re-wild ourselves a bit. Be sure to bring your favorite basket, you never know what treasures we’ll find.
Before heading out, research your area. There are a few things to consider. Look up your local weather forecast and dress accordingly. Bring tools that will help you navigate and be safe. Pack your bag well. Here are a few items to add to your list.
Universal Staples for Your Excursion
- Garden shears and/or a sharp knife, plus a trowel for digging
- Basket, pouch, or backpack, plus small plastic Bags (for collecting)
- Water for hydration
- A full-color botanical reference for your area
- Tick remover tool, antiseptic, and small first aid kit
- Navigation aids like a compass and map
- Flashlight, in case you get caught after dark
In coastal/wetland Areas:
A Word About Safety
Always be sure to bring a compass and a map of the local area. Give yourself enough time to get back before dark. Let your family know that you are stepping out to explore the forest and do a little wild harvesting & foraging. Also, let them know how long you expect to be gone. Though going for a walk into the wild areas of your town may seem pretty low risk, it’s still a good idea to keep those around you informed, in the event that you become lost or injured. If you have a large dog, be sure to bring them along for protection and companionship.
Also important, if you are new to foraging and wild harvesting, store photos on your phone of the plants you are looking to harvest. Familiarize yourself with plant properties and pay attention to the tiniest details. There are many harmful “look-alikes,” and you don’t want to inadvertently poison yourself.
Additionally, be sure to harvest plants from areas that you know to be pristine. Never harvest plants from areas that have been treated with chemicals, are located in industrial areas, or are from common areas where the quality is unknown. Remote natural areas or even in your own backyard, are the safest areas.
Wild Edibles: Nature's Grocery Store
1) Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium Album)
All varieties of lamb’s quarter are edible. If you do find it in your garden, leave it be, as it can help restore nutrients to your soil.
It makes a healthy addition to salads too. However, it is best to cook lamb’s quarters if eating them regularly. This is because cooking removes the oxalic acid that is present within the plant. Oxalic acid binds up calcium.
“Grassroot” and “Wild Spinach”
Region and Growing Conditions:
Lamb’s quarters are found nearly everywhere in North America and large portions of South America as well. The American Black foot Indians are known to have used this wonderful plant as far back as the sixteenth century.
It can be found in sunny or semi-sunny areas that have been somewhat disturbed. Near roadsides, in ditches, along walking trails, in vacant fields, near streams, and even in your own backyard, are all good places to look.
When and How to Harvest:
It can be harvested year-round. Look for new growth down and in between mature plants. Young, tender plants are the best tasting. You can cut off the entire top portion (about 8 inches) of a young plant.
The leaves, shoots, and flowers are edible. The seeds should only be consumed in small amounts since they can be toxic in larger amounts. Check out this wonderful recipe for Lamb’s Quarter and Wild Mushroom Quiche!
Uses and Health Benefits:
Lamb’s quarters are packed with calcium, potassium, Vitamin A, Magnesium, and Vitamin C.
2) Wild Acorns (Quercus alba)
The white oak tree, the fruit thereof.
Region and Growing Conditions:
The white oak tree grows throughout the eastern United States. You will usually find white oaks deep in Eastern forests or even in your local neighborhood. Acorns can be found still attached on the branches of an oak tree or freshly fallen on the ground underneath. If you find a grove of oaks, you’ve hit a veritable acorn gold mine.
Once the acorns are brown and mature, they are ready to harvest. Look for them in the fall. You can gather your acorns as early as September and well into late November.
After collecting, acorns must undergo a leaching process, immersed in a series of water baths, to remove tannins. Now the extracted tannins can be put to good use as well. Once leached from your gathered nuts, tannins can be used to preserve animal hides. Click here, to find out more.
Uses and Health Benefits:
Acorns are one of the most beneficial sources of nutrition to be found in the wild. Within these calorie-rich capsules (about 144 calories per 1 ounce) you will find satiating amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. No wonder hunter-gatherer societies have considered them to be a main staple crop. Here is an outstanding collection of recipes to try!
Acorns are loaded with omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A, B6, and E, Iron, Manganese, potassium, and Folate. They keep well throughout the year in a cool, dry spot.
Besides acorns, there are a variety of other nuts that you can harvest from the wild too.
There are black walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and beechnuts. Nature has provided a variety of nutritious nut edibles for our consideration.
Northeastern forests are full of delicious and highly nutritious edible mushrooms this time of year. I didn’t want to pick just one, so I have included a few different ones here. Here is a nice mushroom book to help you along the way.
- Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
- Crown Tipped Coral Mushrooms (Artomyces pyxidatus)
- Maitake/Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
- The Black Trumpet (Craterellus fallax), the “black chanterelle”
Chicken of the woods is found in the Eastern part of North America. Black trumpets and Maitake grow all across the United States. Crown tipped corals are found almost anywhere east of the Rockies.
Habitat and Growing Conditions:
Chicken of the woods always grows on dead or dying tree wood. Look for them on beech, oak, or cherry. Never pick them from other trees as they may cause gastric distress. Look for younger, softer specimens, as they are better to eat. This mushroom is also easy to grow yourself and can be cultivated in your own backyard.
Crown-tipped corals can be found on fallen trees. They never grow directly on the ground. They are most likely found on dead oaks.
Hen of the woods loves to hang around the base of living oak trees and they recur in the same spot every year. You can map out all of your favorite spots to forage! Indeed, a mushroom hunting treasure map!
Black trumpets are pretty hard to see. They dwell under live oaks, beech trees, and other hardwoods. They also like mossy areas. They can often be found in dark, damp areas. If you find one, you’ll likely find a bunch more around it.
Chicken of the woods can be harvested starting in August and lasting through October. You can forage for and harvest maitake mushrooms in the early fall and well into November, often just after the rain. Crown-tipped corals can be found during the summer and well into fall. Black trumpets emerge in July, and with enough rainfall last into October.
Chicken of the woods has an almost meaty flavor with a touch of lemon. Some even say it tastes like crab or even lobster! Delish! For this reason, it will make a wonderful substitute for meat in almost any dish.
Crown tipped corals make a great addition to soups and broths. They may be eaten raw or cooked.
For maitake mushrooms, trim off the softer outer parts and saute for a fabulously tasty meal. The maitake mushroom must be cooked before being consumed.
Black trumpets can be eaten raw or cooked, and they smell like sweet apricots. They pair well with fish, poultry, and fresh herbs.
Chicken of the woods is known to have antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory effects. It also helps with hormone balancing and may help with diabetes.
Crown tipped corals may have antiviral and antimicrobial properties. Plus they may help treat Alzheimer’s.
Hen of the woods is known for its immune-boosting and anticancer properties. Black trumpets may be high in vitamin B12 and may help with preventing cancer.
In our scientific community, more research needs to be done in the field of mycology, because fungi are simply amazing!
Precautions and Preparations
There are many look-alikes. Be sure to thoroughly investigate and study the mushrooms you intend to eat. Find an expert in your local area with whom you can confirm your finds. Follow tested preparation methods and be extra careful with mushrooms.
4) Wild Rose (Rosa Rugosa)
Wild rose has to be one of the most overlooked plants around. Not only is it beautiful, but it is also edible. It also has numerous medicinal properties.
“Beach rose”, “seaside rose”, and “rugosa rose.”
Many rose varieties in the US have become naturalized and are not truly native to the regions in which they are found. Truly native roses are known as “species roses.” The two main ones here in the states are the “Carolina rose” (Rosa Carolina) and the “swamp rose” (Rosa palustris). Regardless of the variety you find though, they all have similar properties and are safe to eat.
Habitat and Growing Conditions:
You can look for wild roses along beaches, on sand dunes, generally anywhere along the coast. You’ll also find them down walking paths, along roadsides, in parks, and around your local neighborhood.
The petals can be harvested anytime. It’s best to harvest wild rose hips just after the first light frost. They will be sweeter, softer, and turn a deep bright red. However, do try to harvest them before a hard frost.
The flowers, leaves, and seed pods are edible. We call the seed pods “rose hips.” However, it is advised to remove the seeds before consuming the pod.
Rose hips contain zinc, vitamins A, E, B3, D, and are loaded with vitamin C. In fact, rose hips have almost 6 times more vitamin C than oranges! The English are known for making a highly nutritious rose hips syrup to stay healthy in winter. Delicious jams and jellies can also be made from rose hips. Rose hips can even be used to make a wonderful wine.
A lovely rosebud tea can be made from collecting and drying the buds. The petals can be chopped, added to local honey, and made into a delightful spread. The leaves are edible too and can be added to salads.
The wild rose has so much to offer! Elements within the wild rose, boost the immune system, have anti-aging properties, help prevent urinary tract infections, soothe menstrual cramps, help with depression, and can even aid weight loss. The rose also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antimicrobial properties. Clinical information outlining the full range of benefits can be found here.
5) Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens L.)
Wintergreen is a small evergreen ground cover shrub that lives along the entire eastern territory of the United States.
Habitat and Growing Conditions:
It is found along the ground in the understory of forests and likes to live under the shade of hardwood trees. Look for it along woodland trails. It grows between 4 – 8 inches off the ground. Flowers and fruit of the plant are more likely to be found in areas of dappled sunlight. The roots are shallow and a small portion of the plant can easily be taken home and encouraged to grow in a shady or well-treed section of your property.
Its edible berries and leaves last throughout the winter and are a reliable source for food foraging, even into early spring. The fragrant and edible flowers emerge between April and July, depending upon the region. The bright red fruits are fully ripened by September and are known for their characteristic minty flavor.
The oils derived from wintergreen leaves can be used to alleviate headaches and muscle pain when applied topically. Wintergreen oils can be combined with arnica oil for enhanced effect. Additionally, the oil can also be used as a minty flavoring in food and beverage items.
Infusions can be consumed to reduce fever and ease joint pain. Steep the dried leaves to make a delicious tea. To learn more about wintergreen’s health benefits, click here.
Precautions and Preparations
Those that are allergic to aspirin should not eat wintergreen.
Armed with a little bit of knowledge, now it’s your turn to get out into nature and see what there is to be found. Wild harvesting is such a wonderful skill to learn and it’s something that can be shared with your loved ones. The next time you are out on the trails, be sure to bring some friends or the grandkids along. The next generation especially, has so much to benefit from learning this valuable skill.
Make the trip even more enjoyable by bringing a blanket and a picnic lunch. Wild harvesting can be an amazing way to spend your day off. The forest awaits!
Let me know your experience. What treasures did you find in your local wilderness? And how did it impact your dinner recipes?