Strawberries, mushrooms and a lot in between: Here are some backyard foraging tips
Interest in backyard foraging is on the rise in Nova Scotia
Walking along a trail in Port Williams, N.S., Sean Laceby stops often to point out edible flora. He carefully pulls forward the branch of a spruce tree to show its bright green tips, crouches near the ground to identify wild strawberries, lists all the things he could do with the red and white clover growing at his feet, from steeping tea to making a salad. Every few steps, there's a new edible plant or fungus that the average person might not recognize.
Laceby, a chef passionate about foraging, runs Gourmet by Nature alongside his wife, Tara Laceby. The business aims to teach Nova Scotians how to safely and sustainably use the wild food and game around them.
"People are really trying to figure out a where their food comes from," Laceby says.
He adds that for many, COVID restrictions might make foraging more appealing: "People are opening up to the fact that we're home, we can't go and do anything. What can we do while we're here?"
Laceby's guess that more people are in foraging as a result of the pandemic seems to ring true. Christopher Wildbore, who started a Facebook group called Backyard Foraging in Nova Scotia in 2015, says that roughly 2,000 new members joined in May — a much higher growth rate than usual. The group now has over 6,400 members, with new people added every day.
Though foraging can be an exciting hobby to pick up, it can also be overwhelming, especially considering the safety risks and environmental factors involved. If you're looking to get started, here are a few tips and tricks from four seasoned foragers across the province.
What exactly is foraging?
Foraging can widely be defined as searching for and collecting wild food. Though the term generally includes fishing and hunting, we'll be focusing on plants and fungi. People forage for a host of different reasons, ranging from medicinal to practical to financial.
"I just wanted to save money, and it seemed like a superpower to be able to find food," says Benjamin Kendrick, a forager based in Springhill, N.S. "A lot of people are starting to realize that there's a lot of food out there, and there's a lot of resources to learn."
David Meuse, a cultural ambassador at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre and the leader of the community's Mi'kmaq Medicine Walks, explains that foraging also has a long history with the Mi'kmaq, who traditionally harvested and stored plants throughout the year to prepare for winter and early spring. Beyond foraging for food and sustenance, plants and fungi were often used for healing and crafting (traditions that some still continue today). Through medicine walks, Meuse educates people on this culture and its history, sharing stories and showcasing how to identify and use certain foods or medicines.
Meuse emphasizes that foraging can be a meaningful way to harness enthusiasm toward nature — something as simple as picking apples or berries for a pie can be a valuable learning experience for children and adults alike.
What can you forage in Nova Scotia?
There are far too many things to forage to name them all here. Chances are, you're surrounded by wild food without even knowing it.
Meuse explains that different types of berries — including chokecherries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries — can be foraged in slightly different time frames throughout the summer, with blackberries often lasting well into the fall. Some, like elderberries, are often sought out because they're high in antioxidants.
Kendrick, who's especially interested in fungi, explains that there's a wide range of edible mushrooms in the province as well:
- Dryad's saddle tends to appear in late spring, around the same time as fiddleheads.
- There are different types of edible bolete mushrooms that come out in the summer, all of which Kendrick vouches for as being tasty.
- Lion's mane pops up in the fall, which people are interested in both for food and for the medicinal claims that have long surrounded it.
There are plants you might not expect you can forage: types of seaweed, common yard weeds like clover and broadleaf plantain, and even flowers like violets. A wide range of edible foods means there's a wealth of possible recipes to use them in, too. Interesting ideas from the foraging Facebook group include jelly made from dandelions or violets, salads using wild greens, spruce tip syrup, floral tea and much more.
Where can you forage?
Just about anywhere (so long as it isn't sprayed by pesticides!). Foraging is often a very local experience, with many relying on the plants that grow in their own yards or neighbourhoods.
It's worth noting that different plants will grow in different areas, so what you find near the beach will likely be very different from the wildlife in a marsh. Laceby also notes that if you're foraging along a popular trail where people walk their dogs, you should avoid picking things directly along its edges.
If you live in a city, Meuse recommends making your way into nature if you can. Beyond finding more wildlife to pick, removing yourself from the city can be a refreshing way to connect with a new environment.
How to stay safe
Lots of edible wild food has less-edible dupes. It's easy to mistake the wrong kind of ferns for those that produce edible fiddleheads, or to confuse poison-hemlock for Queen Anne's lace. You should never consume anything you're not entirely confident about.
If you're starting out, go for things you're already familiar with — Wildbore recommends dandelions as an easy-to-identify plant that's great for beginners. If there's a different wild plant you feel particularly comfortable with, start with that one instead. When it comes to fungi, Kendrick recommends sticking to "oddballs": mushrooms so unique in appearance that you can't easily mistake them, like shrimp of the woods or hedgehog mushrooms.
"If you look for mushrooms that look like the ones you're familiar with in the grocery store, that's probably going to be how you get yourself hurt," he says.
Finally, Laceby recommends only trying a little bit of a new foraged food at a time. This can be an important way to make sure that your body won't have a negative or allergic reaction to whatever it is you've picked.
How not to hurt an ecosystem
Though foraging is generally an environmentally friendly way to source your food, it's important to make sure you're not taking too much. As a general rule, avoid taking more than a third of any plant.
"It's just being mindful," Meuse says.
He recommends foraging with a recipe or a purpose in mind to make sure you're only taking exactly what you need to. If you see something you didn't plan on bringing home, you can always make a note of it and come back another day.
"It's not about trying to hurt the province, it's not about taking too much of any plant," Laceby adds. "It's about respecting our environment and learning from our environment."
What do you bring with you?
Every forager will have a different list of essential tools. You can't go wrong with waterproof shoes, a pocketknife and a basket or a cloth bag to carry what you've picked (avoid plastic, which can make plants or mushrooms sweat).
Some also bring field guides, gardening spades, clippers, compasses and more. Wildbore suggests carrying a notebook to keep track of what you find.
Guided tours and medicine walks can be an invaluable, hands-on way to learn from experts. If in-person education isn't an option, there's a wealth of information available both online and in books — field guides with pictures and YouTube videos run by trusted experts can be great places to start. Finally, if you're particularly interested in mushrooms, it might be worth checking out Nova Scotia's Mycological Society.