Identifying Wild Plants

Learning how to identify and forage for wild plants is a deeply satisfying experience, but it can also be very dangerous if you’re hasty or unsure of what you’re doing.  Always use multiple sources (like these books) and know the plant well before you do any tasting or touching.  Learn with an experienced guide, but if you insist on going it alone be sure to read these 10 tips for safety and success.

  1. Use multiple sources for identification.  No two are exactly alike and some have poisonous lookalikes.
  2. Look at the entire structure of the plant – all the little details.  The flower or fruit, colors, stem, leaves, and roots if possible.  All parts are important.  Also check for markers such as feel or smell.
  3. Know the plant intimately through repeated visits before you even think about tasting it.  This is also where you use that inner compass (gut feeling) to tell you whether you should meddle with a plant or not – even if you already know how to identify it.
  4. Do a precautionary test.  Once you have touched or tasted a small bit of a new plant, wait several hours and check for skin irritations, upset stomach, etc.  Those with food allergies are especially at risk, even with typically safe plants.
  5. Avoid major traffic or pollution areas.  Plants consume toxins from their environments, so it’s best to gather plants for food and medicine from areas away from high traffic.
  6. Know the season and nuances.  Some wild foods are only usable during certain stages of growth.  Others must be prepared in a particular way or they can be poisonous.
  7. Help the plants grow stronger.  Only take what you need, a little from one plant, a little from another, etc.  If you kill the plant what will you have for the future?  Help the plant spread (or not if it’s invasive) and avoid foraging endangered and rare plants when possible.
  8. Give thanks and respect – always.
  9. Too much of a good thing is bad.  Wild plants are potent so it would be unwise to over-indulge on one particular plant.  Variety is the spice of life.
  10. If in doubt (at all) – leave it alone.  A mistake could be fatal.

Caution:  Plants that are safe for some animals are not always safe for humans… likewise, plants that are safe for humans are not safe for all animals.

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