Summer Guide

Beneath the Surface

The dos and don’ts of foraging

Dandelions (Courtesy pickpik.com)

One of my favorite ways to spend the summer months in Santa Fe is to wander around the foothills and mountains foraging for wild edibles. In many ways, there is wisdom to eating the wild, and craving these flavors goes back to our earliest origins as gatherer-hunters. We evolved eating many different foods, a biodiversity of wild plants much greater than the ones we eat today.

The number of different plants Indigenous Americans relied on was enormous: It is estimated that pre-European contact, people used over 2,600 different species for food and medicine. Even just 200 years ago, half the American diet came from the wild. Today, we primarily rely on just 30 domesticated plant species, and most of our agricultural crops are highly inbred monocultures that are generally less flavorful or nutritious than their wild counterparts.

Eating an array of wild foods is associated with higher rates of gut flora diversity, which correlates to better measures of health. Plus, spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels and restores our ability to concentrate and pay attention, increases our sense of well-being and purpose and makes us nicer—to other people as well as to the planet.

But despite these benefits, there are a few things to keep in mind while foraging so you don’t harm the wild things you want to eat or end up dead by consuming something you shouldn’t have.

Here are my rules for foraging:

Take your time. If you want to learn to forage, walk the same place many times over the course of a year before you harvest anything. Notice how the plants and bugs and birds change with the seasons. Look for signs of other creatures, and the humans that have walked here before you. Create a relationship with the place before you begin to forage there.

Find a guide. Like learning any new skill, finding a mentor will make the process much more fun and safe. If you can’t find someone to teach you, you can teach yourself. But remember to learn about the larger ecology of the place where you are foraging. Read up on the Indigenous history of the land. Find a local to talk to about their experience of growing up here and how things have changed. Don’t think that just because you’ve spent a summer here, you know your way around this place.

Ask permission. This may sound silly but you come asking for life, so be accountable to that. If you always hear a “yes,” you aren’t listening. Think of plants as having agency and life histories just like we do. In some cases, like mushrooms, there is a whole multi-species network sharing resources and coexisting. When trees need tremendous resources to produce their nuts and acorns, they borrow nutrients from the extensive underground networks of mushrooms and fungi. In other years, the trees store the captured energy of the sun by transferring it to the mushrooms. There are no individuals here. Every time you pick a mushroom, realize you are also impacting the trees.

Take only what you need. A general rule of thumb for foragers is to only take 10 percent of what you find and leave 90 percent behind for nature. But this highly depends on the specific plant you are harvesting, and the number of other people also gathering it in the same area. If everyone took 10 percent, there wouldn’t be anything left. So it’s important to know the growing habits of the plant you want to harvest. Some plants actually respond well to being picked, and will sprout more vigorously after a light pruning. Others take years to grow and reproduce, so over-harvesting them might quickly destroy the population. Think about how much you really need to take, and don’t be wasteful.

Embrace the unpredictable. While out foraging, you might find the thing you are looking for and you might not. There is no guarantee of a harvest. You can’t plan. You can’t expect. You don’t know how long it will take, what you will find or how much worse it will get. Take this unpredictability to heart, and don’t make finding something to eat the primary goal. Instead, use the time in nature to increase your empathy, cognitive flexibility and enter meditative and flow states, all of which are great for the anxiety caused by living in the modern world. If you happen to find a delicious wild edible, you will be even more grateful and excited because you weren’t so focused on it.

With this foraging framework in place, you are now ready to go try it! Here are five easy things to forage for during New Mexico summers (that most likely won’t kill you):

Lamb’s quarters

Lamb’s quarters—also known as wild spinach, goosefoot or quelitas. These weedy annuals have little green flowers and are found all over yards and empty lots. The leaves are very nutritious and generally triangular in shape with wavy edges. They’re also delicious. Cook them however you might use spinach in a recipe.

Dandelions

Dandelions—yes these are usually considered weeds, but are, in fact, super-nutritious for you, have many medicinal properties and there’s very little risk of over harvesting. All parts of the plant—leaves, flowers and roots—are edible. Whip up some dandelion wine and let’s have a party.

Purslane

Purslane—another weedy edible that is easy to find and full of vitamins such as A and C. With its flat, fleshy leaves that grow low to the ground, this plant is easy to identify and takes very little water to grow. It is found in open and disturbed ground. Purslane is excellent sautéed with lemon, or fresh in a salad, mixed with beans or added to a stew. If you can be patient, wait until the end of summer to harvest the small black seeds for a powerhouse of flavor and nutrients well-suited for bread porridge.

Wild currants

Wild currants—often found in canyon bottoms or along mountain trails, wild currants produce little bell-shaped flowers in the spring, which mature into red berries by the end of summer. The bushes are about as tall as a human. Some varieties have spines or bristles on the stems. While you might not find enough to make a jar of jam, these tasty little treats are a wonderful pick-me-up on a long hike. Remember to leave some behind for the 100 different kinds of birds that love to snack on these berries.

Rose petals and hips

Rose petals and hips—one of my favorite summer foraging treats are overwintered rose hips. They are often more seedy than the fresh ones, but the overwintering process makes them sweeter and jammier. They are great for teas, a source of vitamin C and are easy to find. Take some fresh rose petals as well, for adding to teas, desserts or salads. And return at the end of summer to gather the fresh rose hips so you have a supply all winter long.

Gina Rae La Cerva is the author of the book Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food. Signed and personalized copies of her book can be ordered from her website: ginaraelc.com

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