Becoming a Better Forager

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!

A small portion of my book collection!

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

Leading a mushroom foray in 2019, there's a matsutake under the pinecone litter at my feet.

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

Stack of foraging and foraging-adjacent 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.

Learning Online

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!

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!

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).