1. Be sure. Only eat a plant if you are 100-percent certain you’ve identified it correctly. Many edible plants have poisonous look-alikes, especially when it comes to fungi. In addition, only some parts of certain plants are edible while others are poisonous – for example, rhubarb stalks are edible but rhubarb leaves are not. Rather than play Russian roulette with your health, seek out an expert and get a good guidebook (or two or three).
2. Location matters. Although you should wash anything you pick before eating it or cooking it, you also want to avoid harvesting from any areas where contamination with toxins (pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, road salt, car exhaust, waste, etc.,) is possible. That means skipping roadsides, dog parks, and areas near homes and other buildings. You may have to go off the beaten path to find pristine, wild plants, but that is half the fun.
3. Be sensitive to the environment. Although many edible plants grow like weeds because, well, they are weeds, some, like wild ramps, are fragile and slow-growing and quickly becoming endangered. In general, treat the woods and fields from which you harvest with respect, making sure to only take a fraction of whatever patch you find, especially if you’re digging things up by the roots. Never harvest an endangered species. However, thinning and pruning wild plants can actually increase their abundance.
4. Pay attention to the timing. To all things there is a season. Unlike going to the supermarket where you can be sure to find strawberries at any time of year, foraging is a time-sensitive art in which you must watch and wait and then make hay while the sun shines. Many plants have several edible parts (stalk, stem, leaves, flowers, seeds) that will be ready to harvest at different times. Again, find an expert and/or get a good book to guide you in this intricate process of learning the language of each species.
5. Protect against ticks, poison ivy, and sunburn. Wear long pants, long sleeves, and a good hat. Be sure to check for ticks when you get home and, if you think you may have brushed up against any poison ivy, wash well with Tecnu or another soap that is specially formulated to remove poison ivy oils.
6. Eat in moderation. If you’re trying a wild food for the first time, eat just a small amount of it, as some foods can create digestive upset in certain people in larger amounts.
7. Share the bounty. Invite friends and family to share in the delicious fruits of your labors. Good food tastes better with good company. And you just may inspire them to join you the next time you go out, too.