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Safe and Sustainable Foraging

I often hear from people at both ends of the foraging spectrum: those who fear wild foods aren’t safe and those who feel that anything ‘natural’ can’t possibly hurt you. Neither is true, of course. Let’s take two minutes to look at foraging safely and sustainably.

There are some steps you need to take before consuming a plant or fungus. First and foremost, know with absolute certainty what it is. On the safety side, you also need to know what part(s) are edible, what time of year they can be eaten, and whether any special preparation is needed. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a great example of this. It needs to be heated or dried to get rid of the formic acid, and should never be consumed once it has started to flower due to the production of insoluble calcium carbonate rods that can damage the kidneys.


If you have health issues or are pregnant, it’s best to check with your health care provider before trying something new. Some plants interact with medications or contain compounds (oxalic acid and pyrrolizidine alkaloids are two common examples) that should be avoided by some people.


While we’re on the topic of safety, food handling is also important. This includes avoiding contaminated areas, practicing good food hygiene from field to kitchen, and taking extra precautions with aquatic species (for example, I soak Watercress [Nasturtium microphyllum] in freshwater with a water purification tablet before consuming).


On the sustainability side, you should know whether the species is common or rare in your area. For Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick you can find this information online from the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (accdc.com). Species ranked S5 are very common, and I wouldn’t recommend foraging anything less common than S4; those ranked S3 through S1 are of conservation concern. Species ranked SNA are non-native and of less (often no) concern.


Foraging sustainably means taking only what you need and not overharvesting. How much you can safely harvest varies from species to species. You can take a lot more White Spruce (Picea glauca) tips than you can Ostrich Fern (Mattueccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads, for example. If you’re collecting Dandelion (Taraxacum officinalis) greens or Burdock (Arctium minus) root, fill your boots! In all cases, it’s useful to remember that you are sharing your foraging area with other plants and animals, and to take care not to needlessly disturb things.


As a final note, here on PEI most of our land is privately owned and permission is required for access. If you don’t have land or don’t know someone who does, there are lots of publicly owned properties for you to explore. You can find them in the online PEI Public Land Atlas (http://www.gov.pe.ca/gis/index.php3?number=1017147).


I’ve listed my top 10 tips for safe and sustainable foraging. If you have others to add, I’d love to hear them. Comment below!

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