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Wild Food Forager

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If John Kallas were a contestant on Survivor, he thinks he would be voted off the show pretty quickly. That's not because he would be a weak competitor.

John Kallas has learned how to make a delicious meal from a huge variety of wild plants.
Courtesy of: John Kallas

In fact, it would be for the opposite reason -- his strength would be an asset to his teammates for a little while, but then it would likely become a threat to each person's goal of winning the prize.

Kallas is an expert in wilderness survival or primitive living skills, an area that includes wild food foraging. He would have little problem making all kinds of foods out of the hundreds of edible plants that grow in the wild.

"Wild food foraging is a recreational activity that involves going out into nature, collecting wild plants and eating their edible parts," explains Kallas.

That's a good definition, because most foragers look for plants. But Kallas notes that you could also forage for shellfish, clams, mussels or sea urchins. Most foraging involves foods that don't move away when you approach them, Kallas says.

It's not certain exactly how many foraging enthusiasts there are in Canada or the U.S. But Kallas says a growing number of people are developing an interest in the activity.

And more and more gourmet restaurants are adding wild foods to their menus.

Kallas runs Wild Food Adventures, based in Oregon. It provides excursions and workshops for those interested in this hobby. He says about 25 percent of those who attend his training are young people. And just like the baby boomers before them, they are gradually being won over into foraging.

"When you have something that has to do with the outdoors and with nature, there's always an influx of young people around college-age, as well as early professionals, who are very interested and start to pursue it," he says.

Foraging could be a group or individual activity. Foods could be eaten in the wild or taken home for preparation and consumption. But foraging does not always have to take place in the "wild." You could forage stuff from your own backyard or around parks.

You must, however, make sure you follow all laws on protected species. Make sure you are not trespassing. Foragers stress the need to forage responsibly. In fact, many have a written creed they follow on protecting the environment. They generally don't uproot whole plants.

Some foods may be eaten raw. Others need to be cooked. There are several kinds of wild foods, ranging from marshmallows to mushrooms to stinging nettles eaten as a green vegetable.

Wild foods or plants include dandelions, cattails, persimmons, arrowheads, chickweed, shepherd's purse -- the list is virtually endless.

Getting Started

Some of the items you might need include bags and containers in which to put the wild plants, a knife, a digger, gloves and appropriate clothing. Wear boots rather than sandals to protect yourself from thorns and poison ivy.

Experts also recommend some drinking water, a notebook and pen (if it's a workshop), a packed lunch if you're going to be out for a while, insect repellent and a whistle, so other members of a team can locate you if you should get lost.

This is a basic list. You may need other equipment (a stove and eating or cooking utensils, for example), depending on the circumstances.

Get some training. Some wild plants out there are poisonous. You need to know what to pick and what to avoid.

For example, you want to stay away from poison ivy and water hemlock, which is the most poisonous plant in the world. As small as a sweet-pea-sized bite of the water hemlock's root would be fatal.

"Find a teacher," cautions Kallas. "Find a person who is very experienced and learn directly from them. In place of that or in addition to that, go to a used bookstore and get three books on plant identification for your area, three books on edibility for your area and one book on poisonous plants for your area. Use these as references when you want information about a plant."

Another way to learn about foraging is to join a club or association. Unfortunately, there aren't very many groups that focus solely on wild food foraging. But several outdoors or nature clubs may include foraging or foraging education as part of their activities.

Work is still being done to create a strong national association.

"There is a National Wild Foods Association in West Virginia and they've started several other associations around the country," says Kallas.

"But it's not really national in the sense that there is no elected body, although they've helped sponsor other satellite programs around the country."

Check local resources to find out if there's any such program in your neck of the woods.

People with special mobility needs may be able to take up this pastime, depending on where the foraging takes place and their condition.

It may, however, be difficult to move through rough or steep areas with a wheelchair, at least without assistance. But those who are wheelchair-bound may still be able to join a group foraging in a local park, for example.

As Kallas' example shows, it is possible to make a career out of foraging.

Jonathan Forbes is another forager who has made a business out of what just started as a leisure activity. Forbes supplies processed wild food products to local stores and gourmet restaurants.

Moving from forager to wild food businessperson takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice, at least initially. "I've been putting everything I've earned into the business for the last four years and I'm not making anything yet," Forbes says.

"But I don't see why it won't be a profitable business in the future," he adds. "There's already a business for maple syrup and blueberries. The reason there's not a business out there right now for something like Oregon grapes is because people have never actually had the opportunity to try them."

Forbes has local pickers stationed across the country send him the wild foods he sells, often pre-processed in one way or another. He pays between $1 and $2.25 for a pound of wild plants, depending on whether it's a difficult one to pick. For plants that are harder to pick, the pay is higher.

"You have to know where the patches are," Forbes says. "Somebody who is a novice will have difficulty making a minimum wage at it. But if you know the land and you know where to look for patches, you can make a good deal of money from picking."

Or once you've gained all the expertise, you may want to take the path Kallas took and make a career out of teaching others. But again, don't expect easy pickings at this.

"There are probably maybe five people in North America who are actually making a career out of it," says Kallas. He has been teaching foraging for 20 years now.

"It's not a high-paying job. Most people, if they want to make money, would not do this. But if you are not interested in money but are interested in pursuing this because you love it, then you just do it. You won't make a lot of money unless it really catches on."


Botanical Society of America
1735 Neil Ave.
Columbus , OH   43210-1293

American Society of Plant Taxonomists
Laramie , WY   82071-3165


Stalking the Wild Asparagus
by  Euell Gibbons
Stalking the Healthful Herbs,
by  Euell Gibbons
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild, (And Not So Wild Places)
by  Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean

Wild Food Adventurer Newsletter

Plants Magazine

American Journal of Botany


Wild Food Adventures
Dr. John Kallas' Web site

Euell Gibbons
Read about the "father of wild food foraging"

For the Love of Mushrooms
Join a club of mushroom foragers

Forbes Wild Foods
How a forager turned a pastime into a growing business

Plant Families Photo Gallery
Learn how to identify wild plants
A treasure of links for the wild food forager

Poison Ivy
Learn about one plant you want to avoid while foraging

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