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Forging for Food in Your Backyard: Safe and Fun Foraging

It’s a familiar sight come spring: green lawns sprinkled with yellow dandelions. “When I look at my lawn in the spring and see all those dandelions waving back and forth, seeming to say, ‘Here I am, pick me,’ I’m so happy. It’s funny to me that people buy all these chemicals to eradicate them; they’re food that’s nourishing,” says Joan Palmer, director of the Institute of Sustainable Nutrition in West Granby. “They are so good after a winter of heavy eating. They get your body ready for work and play and are better than going to the grocery store for some pitiful greens that leave you unsatisfied.”

Indeed one person’s nuisance is another person’s nutrition.

From garlic mustard to wild autumn berries, from dandelions to fiddlehead ferns, there are many wild edibles in this corner of Connecticut. However, consulting an expert is essential since many non-edible plants look like edible plants. But with the proper training one can learn to forage for interesting and nutritious ingredients in a sustainable and ethical way.

Many of those wild things are invasive plants and rather than pull them and throw them into landfills, Palmer says it’s better to take some and eat them. Each year the state spends upwards of $500 million, between private and public monies, to eradicate invasive species such as garlic mustard and wild autumn olive berries, according to the Connecticut Audubon Society.

“I do not believe our woodlands could sustain everyone foraging. We are overpopulated and we have to put some limits on it, but that said, there are things that are abundant. Wild things are not hybridized and they tend to be much more nutrient dense,” Palmer explains.

Aside from dandelions, another favorite for foragers are wild autumn olive berries. Now an invasive species they first arrived on the East Coast from Asia as an ornamental plant in the 1830s. The bright red, somewhat sour berry can be turned into jam or fruit leather. Chockful of vitamins, they also make for a cheery addition to oatmeal.

While it might be difficult to overharvest autumn olive berries would-be foragers should be mindful when looking for wild things to eat. If there are more than ten plants in a stand don’t take more than ten percent. If there are fewer than ten plants in a stand, don’t harvest.

“Ramps are so hot that people I know and love will clear a whole hillside. You shouldn’t do that, some things really take a long time to grow,” says Palmer.

Palmer recommends first-time foragers go out with experienced people and take classes such as those offered at the institute where you can learn kitchen medicine, making condiments, and general cooking.

Another must: always make sure to only pick plants growing where the soil is clean. Never eat anything growing in a pond where there is parking lot run-off, or downhill from a highway, or on a golf course, or even on your lawn if you use any kind of pesticides.

For some, mushroom hunting is the most thrilling thing to do as a forager. It is however something that must be done with the utmost care to avoid sickness or death. People must learn to positively identify a mushroom before eating it, warns Bill Yule, director of education for the CT Valley Mycological Society. “Every edible mushroom has a toxic look alike,” Yule cautions. Aside from the CT Valley Mycological Society, there is also the CT-Westchester Mycological Society. Both offer an education club, classes, and frequent walks to hunt for mushrooms.

Connecticut’s woods offer up a variety of edible mushrooms, from the elusive Morel and the King Bolete to what Yule calls the “foolproof four”—puffballs, oyster mushrooms, hen-of-the-wood, and chanterelles.

“The most traditional way to learn is with a mentor. But the best way to learn is to join an organized society. Then you are going out with a group of people whose only focus is this subject.”

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