Foraging With All the Senses

This is the time of year I get a lot of emails in which people send me photos asking me if I can identify a possible edible wild plant. When I can identify them with certainty from those images, I do, but often I write back something along the lines of, “It looks like . . . ” and send them a list of identifying traits to check. Most appreciate it, but sometimes I get a reply along the line of: Why can’t you just say if it is such and such . . .

First of all, if you are going to put it in your body, and you want my opinion on what it is, I want to be 100% sure so you can be 100% sure. If there is the slightest doubt, I’ll inform you what to look for.

The first spring leaves of wild carrots sprouting eagerly in the warm, full sun.

The first spring leaves of wild carrots sprouting eagerly in the warm, full sun.

You see, identifying edible plants (and mushrooms) is a process that uses all the senses. When I find a plant, I can look at it from every angle. I can touch it and feel its texture. I can dig it up and see its roots if I need to. I can crush a piece and smell it, touch it with my tongue. If it’s a mushroom, I can take a spore print, if necessary. It often takes far more than a photo to confirm the identity of a plant or mushroom.

Some things are very simple to identify from a photo, i.e., a dandelion? Note the question mark, because how do you know if that dandelion isn’t actually its terribly bitter, near look-alike cousin, wild lettuce. Or unrelated juvenile poppy, which can bear some resemblance when young and before blooming.

I eat wild carrots which are very common around here. Every year a couple people will email me to explain that eating wild carrots is crazy, they look like the extremely dangerous poison hemlock. Well, wild carrots are solid but hemlock is hollow. I can cut it open and confirm the identity of the plant based on that. Wild carrots also smell very strongly sweet and carroty, while poison hemlock has a stench. So, yes, a mere glance at each plant might trick a novice, but if you use all your senses and all the plant’s traits, you can make a positive ID.

Be sure you understand how to use all your senses and all the botanical/mycological traits if you eat a plant or mushroom. In time, you’ll learn a commonly harvested plant’s traits so well you’ll be able to glance at it and know. But also be wary of anyone who glances at a photo and says something is such and such. You only have to pop over to Youtube to discover the world is full of experts who have no idea what they’re doing.

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