Becoming a Better Forager
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
This article is an idea that I've had for a while and is going to be a little different from the usual content that I write. We're going to talk more about a mindset and practice instead of the specifics of a certain plant or mushroom! Hopefully this provides you with an idea of how I approach learning more in this space, and provides you with some methods that you can use to increase your own knowledge! As with my last article on spruce trees, you can thank my Patrons for choosing this topic. I'll thank them as well, because their support means the world to me. Thank you to everyone who believes in and values my work enough to support me on Patreon, you know who you are!
Now, let's talk about how to become better foragers!
Firstly, what does it mean to be a forager? The actual definition of 'forage' is, "to search widely for food or provisions", a 'forager' being someone who engages in that activity. But what does it mean to you? There are many different ways to approach foraging, from the simplest form of eating a few berries and dandelions here and there, all the way to providing as much of your food as possible through foraging, and of course everything in between. There are foragers who focus on medicinal and herbal practices, others who are interested in trying new exotic flavors, some who want to feel more connected, and others that are just interested in the food resource! They're all foragers though.
Personally, I forage because I'm passionate about wild foods and using those foods in my cooking, but I also do it because I love the challenge of learning new things and the treasure hunt of trying to find them. I love the broadened culinary experience wild foods provides, and the connection and appreciation that I cultivate with nature and my surroundings through these plants and mushrooms. I also love to educate in this space and teach foraging to all of you! Very few people appreciate a perfect dandelion, but the foragers do.
The idea in this article, "becoming better", doesn't mean striving to learn every edible plant and mushroom in existence. That would be a good lesson in futility considering there are an estimated 300,000 edible species of plants and who knows how many mushrooms! Becoming better should mean whatever feels right to you! Maybe that's as simple as knowing the edible species around your yard and garden, maybe you want to learn a couple new species every year and slowly progress your skills, or maybe you really want to become a student of the plants and mushrooms and devour as much information as you can get. All of these options are equally valuable as long as you feel fulfilled while doing it! There are ways to approach the idea of becoming better no matter what your goals are.
Learning Through Classes
For most people, the ideal way to learn more about foraging is with a teacher! You get hands on experience and immediate ID confirmation. All you have to do is absorb the knowledge and focus on learning the features of the plants or mushrooms in question! You also get some personal connection to the teacher and other class attendees, which creatures a sense of community. Plus, who doesn't love hanging out with a bunch of plant and mushroom nerds?! There's always more to learn, so I try to take classes with other foraging teachers whenever I can fit it into my schedule! Even if I don't learn much from the class I get to build that sense of community, and I'm supporting a fellow forager!
Information about my class offerings can be found on the Class Page of this website. The classes I specialize in are small, customizable, and usually in private settings where we can focus on whatever you're interested in learning! My availability is fairly limited because I work full-time during the week, but I have been steadily increasing my offerings as I can. I hope to offer some online classes in the future as well, but I'm still developing those.
You may also consider taking a class with Erica of Wild Food Girl! She has several events already planned for the year, and more that may come along later. I've taken a few classes with Erica myself and they're always entertaining and filled with info!
Another well-known local foraging instructor is 'Cattail' Bob Seebeck! Bob posts his class schedule for the year on his website, Survival Plants. I haven't had a chance to take a class with Bob yet, but I've heard only good things!
A final option for classes when it comes to mushroom identification is to join your local mycological society! Below I have links to a couple of the Colorado-based societies located on the Front Range. Typically you can get an annual membership for $25 or $30 that includes attending forays and other meetings they have throughout the year! I occasionally lead forays for the societies as well, so it's another chance to get a class with me!
Aside from the above mentioned options there are a handful of other teachers with occasional availability, but most of the instructors, myself included, aren't regularly available. In addition to the lack of consistent availability, classes can also be cost prohibitive for some people. So, if you're limited by these factors or some other factors like location, your next best bet is to self-teach using books and the internet!
Learning With Books
My main resource when I want to look up a new plant or reference one that I'm learning is to head to my 'library'! As you can see, I have a fairly substantial collection of foraging and foraging-adjacent books, and since taking that picture it has grown by several. I've always loved books; I love having shelves full, myriads of colors and topics on display. If you were a fly-on-the-wall when I'm trying to look something up you would see me pull out a couple and flip through, stacking them neatly on my desk until I find what I'm after. Sometimes they get put back, nice and neat, and other times they stay out on the desk so I can reference them again to reinforce whatever information I was initially after.
The picture above was taken after I got a couple requests to show off my entire book collection. I went through each an every one on my Instagram story, you can still find those highlighted on my Profile Page there! You can also find some book recommendations on my Resource Page, and my brand new Forage Colorado Amazon Page which contains book lists for Plants, Mushrooms, and Cooking. I get a little cut of any purchase you make through my Amazon links, it doesn't cost you anything extra and it helps me out so thank you!
That all said, how can you use books to become a better forager? There are a few different approaches to this, but I'll tell you what I do. When I get a foraging book I read through the entire thing, usually just by reading 30 minutes to an hour before bed most nights. This initial read is meant to create a 'foundation' of what that book has in it, I don't expect to retain too much from it at that point. After the initial read I will pick a few things from the book to research further. This could be a species that I know of but haven't fully studied, or something that I think I've seen, or maybe one that I've only just heard about. Whatever the case, I will reread the information about those, and then usually hop online to do some more research (more on that in the next section).
This process of reading about and looking at the same species over and over creates a 'search image' in your brain. You may not be aware of what you're doing, but I can almost guarantee that eventually you'll find that plant you're after because you've built up your search image for it. Our brains are very good at pattern recognition! Consider the last time you got a new car and then started noticing all the other people with the same make and model! It's not because everyone recently got the same car, it's because your brain learned to recognize that car after becoming familiar with it. Same idea for learning plants and mushrooms! As I mentioned above, I highly recommend including the internet during this search image building process, here's how.
The internet is a powerful tool. It also has a decent bit of misinformation, so be sure of your source and reference multiples whenever possible! Many people are not huge fans of Facebook, myself included in some aspects, but I've learned so much from the foraging groups that the positives outweigh the negatives by quite a bit. If you're on Facebook I definitely recommend joining groups that pertain to the topics you're interested in learning! For one, you get to be part of a community of like-minded people who want to talk about, share, and learn the same stuff! Plant and mushroom nerds!
Secondly, every time you visit that group and scroll through the posts you're reinforcing your search images. It might just be a light reinforcement on a bunch of species, or maybe you find one really good post that covers a brand new species. Exposing yourself to that information regularly helps you to better retain it! The final, though maybe most important, benefit of Facebook groups is that you will have a place to ask questions, post photos for identification help, and get feedback!
Here is a list of some local groups and pages that I would highly recommend checking out. This is definitely not all of them, so if you're interested in something specific take a look around, I bet there's a group for it! There are also many national and international groups, so expand your search to those if you're curious about seeing what else if out there! I should note that many of the pages below also have associated websites that you should definitely check out as well!
Rocky Mountain Foragers (started and managed by yours truly)
Colorado Mycological Society (group for the society based in Denver)
Pikes Peak Mycological Society (group for the society based in CO Springs)
Colorado Morel Mushroom Hunters (only morels, managed by me)
Wild Food Girl (Eric's Facebook page, full of great info)
Forage Colorado (my page which gets a daily posts shared from Instagram)
Modern Foragers (a great resource especially for burn morels)
Hunger and Thirst (Butter is a local forager with some amazing recipes)
The Backyard Forager (Ellen is another wonderful source for recipe ideas)
In addition to the social media side, there are also some amazing websites that you should know about when researching foraging, plant and mushroom ID, or looking for recipe inspiration. Don't forget to check out the websites for the above pages/groups as well! Here's a non-comprehensive list, if you have others that you think I should know about please share!
Mushroom Expert (this is usually my first stop when I'm researching mushrooms)
Wikipedia (surprisingly useful for info about plants and mushrooms)
iNaturalist (community driven database full of observations for plants, fungi, and more)
Mushroom Observer (a fungi-centric community driven database)
Forager Chef (Alan Bergo is my go to when I need recipe inspiration)
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (Hank Shaw's website is also loaded with recipes)
Fantastic Fungi Virtual Cookbook (tons of crowdsourced mushroom recipes)
Southwest Colorado Wildflowers (great resource when looking into CO plants)
Methods to 'Become Better'
So, now that we've gone over a variety of resources for you to reference and learn from, let's talk about how to actually put that into practice! There are a few different methods that I personally use, but there are many ways to go about increasing your own knowledge. These are methods that work for me, you should definitely adapt these to fit best with your personal learning process!
Give Yourself a Challenge Method:
The basic for idea for this method is that you simply challenge yourself to learn and become confident enough to eat a new species. This can be done over whatever time span you're comfortable with! I always have the 'self-challenge' of eating at least one new mushroom species every year. Some years I eat several, like in 2019 when I had eight new species (photo below), but often it's only one or two per year. This method is simple because it doesn't require much planning initially, you can just eat the first species that you can confidently identify! If you want to get a little more specific then maybe one of the next methods would be better for you!
Left to right: indigo milkcap (Lactarius indigo), golden oyster (Pleurotus citrinopileatus), shrimp of the woods (Entoloma abortivum), honey mushrooms (Armillaria ostoyae), grey morel (Morchella tomentosa), honey mushrooms (A. mellea), yellow coral (Ramaria sp.), club coral (Clavariadelphus truncatus).
From Books to Fields Method:
The idea with this method is to be a little more focused with your researching and planning before heading out to forage. Take some of those books or online resources we talked about earlier and choose a couple species that seem interesting to you. Those species could be ones that you think you've seen before, or ones that might be currently in season, or maybe they just sound tasty! No matter how you decide on the species, the next step is to research them more. Build up that search image, get used to its features, habitats, and growth stages. Give your brain patterns to start recognizing, then get outside and see if you can find it! Maybe pick at least two species so you have a fail-safe if you can't find one of them.
This is probably the method that I use the most to increase my own knowledge. With time the process will become easier and you'll start picking up species without a ton of research, but initially I would suggest that you really focus on the research process. Teach your brain how to learn about plants and mushrooms before you start overloading it with too many different species.
The "I Found This, Can I Eat It?" Method:
The title of this technique is a bit of a joke, and poking fun at many foraging beginners, but I make the joke out of love. On those previously mentioned Facebook groups it's a common occurrence to have someone post a photo or two of a random plant or mushroom and ask, "can I eat it?". Now, this is a great method to quickly increase your knowledge, but it should be done in the right way, which isn't the way I just covered!
Here's what you should actually do when you use this method of learning. I have also provided a full example of this process at the end of this section!
Find a species that you're interested in learning about.
Before disturbing it, take multiple in-focus photos of the species, get multiple angles and take plenty, worst case you have to delete a few photos!
Get clear photos of any and all notable features:
Plants - top and bottom of leaves, stalks, flowers, fruits, seeds, parts from the previous year if present.
Mushrooms - top and underside of cap, features of the stipe (stalk), gills or other spore dispersal structures, spore color, substrate it's growing from, etc.
Make notes of the habitat and any habitat related features (ie. 5,000ft, bank of a river).
Note any traits that might not be evident in a photo, such as scents or textures.
Once you've successfully documented the species in question you have some options. For plants it's usually better to leave it be and come home with just your photos, unless there are some more observations that you need or want to make at home. For instance, comparing to photos in a book, or having the actual plant in hand while you do more research. That's okay, but please remember to be respectful of the resource! There's no reason to collect a bunch of the same plant or mushroom when you have no idea what it is. You could very well be damaging a native and sensitive species. Removing a leaf or flower from a plant isn't usually going to do any harm, but remember, if you dig up a plant you are permanently removing it from the population. Please think hard before deciding to dig up a plant, roots are rarely useful for ID purposes anyways.
For most mushrooms it's difficult to get underside photos so it's okay to disturb them in order take those photos. You'll also be required to disturb them if you want to get a spore print! Further, mushrooms are the fruiting body of the fungi, you're typically not going to hurt the mycelium by picking a mushroom. It's main purpose is spore dispersal and many species actually like disturbance as it knocks more spores loose. If you do pick a mushroom but don't plan to bring it home, consider breaking it up and spreading it around to help disperse more spores.
Once you have your photos, notes, and possibly a sample, it's time to identify the species! We'll talk about how to go through that process in the next section because you have some options. First though, let's look at an example of the process I just described!
You can see in the example above I've taken multiple clear photos of the plant species in question. These were taken in April so the plant was just starting to flower and didn't have any seeds or fruits available to photograph. If you're having trouble getting a plant identified, you may have to return later in the season when it flowers or goes to seed to find some specific traits. In fact, I highly recommend learning what a plant looks like in all of it's stages, not just the stage that's best for eating.
My notes for this plant:
Found growing in a horse pasture in Northern Colorado around 5,000ft.
The leaves and flowers smell similar to parsley or celery.
Diminutive compound leaves, purple flowers in small umbels with white papery bracts.
I was familiar enough with the parsley, carrot, celery family to place this in Apiaceae, and was fairly certain it was in the Cymopterus genus. This sort of deducing comes with time and familiarity, it's okay to start without any ideas of an identification!
After some online research and referencing some other sources, I identified this plant as Cymopterus montanus or another very similar species, there are a few that are close in appearance.
Becoming Confident In Your Identifications
The final piece of the puzzle that I'm going to touch on in this post is getting plants and mushrooms identified, and becoming confident in those IDs. This process is one that can take some time, and that's okay. You should be 100% confident in your identification of a wild food before deciding to consume it. If you aren't confident, don't eat it! That confidence can take a a couple hours to gain for the simple species, but it can also take years for the more complicated ones! Everyone will become comfortable at their own pace, it's okay to decide not to eat something because you're a little uncertain. Wild foods are awesome, but they aren't worth getting sick or worse over. Be confident before consuming!
So, you have your notes and photos of a plant, or you've learned one from books or the internet and you think you found it! What's next? Well, if you've researched it enough before hand you might already feel comfortable enough to consume it! If that's the case, and you're 100% sure of its identity, then go for it! Otherwise, you'll want to seek ID confirmation for the plant or mushroom in question. Here are some options:
Ask an expert! I offer priority help for identification and other questions to my top tier Patrons, check it out if you want a direct line to ask me all of your ID questions! I'm also happy to help anyone with identifications, I just might not get back to you right away.
Post your notes and photos to one of the Facebook groups mentioned above! Those communities love to help out with identification questions!
Consult your books and online resources! This process isn't as "instant" as the previous two, but I guarantee you will learn faster and retain more if you do the initial research yourself. Being forced to look up botanical terms so you understand what 'umbels' and 'bracts' are teaches you more than just being given the identification in the long run.
Finally, you can try using an app to help guide you. In the past, apps have been pretty unreliable but in recent years some decent options have started showing up. I've had decent luck with Google Lens and iNaturalist, and I've heard good things about PictureThis. Of all the identification options, this method is the least recommended, but it can help steer you towards an ID if you find something that you don't know!
You shouldn't take a positive ID from any of these sources as the go-ahead to eat the plant or mushroom in question. Remember, you have to be confident in the ID as well. I want to reiterate how important this is. It's okay to get a confirmation online or from an expert and still decide to skip eating something because you're not ready. In the photo I shared earlier there were two species of honey mushrooms. I photographed, picked, spore printed, keyed out, and got online confirmation for Armillaria ostoyae a handful of times over the course of 3 years before I was comfortable enough to consume them. The below photo is the first time I documented finding honey mushrooms, Sept. 2016. I err on the side of extra caution because that's part of my process. I've never been ill from making a mistake with wild foods and I've been foraging for over 20 years. Ultimately, you should do what you feel comfortable with.
That's all I have for you on this topic, for now! As I wrote this I came up with some more article ideas for the future. Things like becoming more comfortable cooking with wild foods, and going into more details about search images. I also realized that I'm way more comfortable writing articles about the specifics for plants and mushrooms! This one took a bit of extra effort to get my thoughts out, hah! I'm happy with the results though!
Anyhow, I think this article has gone on long enough! I hope you find the processes and methods I've described useful, and I hope they help you to Become a Better Forager.