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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Building Your Confidence to Forage

With summer nearly here (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), foraging for wild edibles is becoming more and more doable for everyone. The best thing about summer is that even for those less adventurous eaters who prefer to eat those foods they know, there typically are plenty of familiar fruits available for foraging for those who don't mind expending a bit of effort.

Growing up in the American Midwest, one of my earlier memories is of my parents taking my siblings and myself to a huge park, filled with huge grassy patches and forest, and there were ridable mini steam engines that we'd sit upon for a ride on the train tracks through the forest. Being as this attraction was free, the wait to have your turn on the train was rather long. We'd spend the whole day there, running about the field while mom or dad would wait on line patiently for our turn to come.
One of my favorite things that my siblings and I did was picking apples from the 4 or 5 gnarly trees growing in the area. We'd climb the tree, inspect for any burrow marks, and then dig in to the most delicious apples you could imagine.
In the meantime, other people in the area would be buying expensive snacks from vendors near the line, and all the while we were chowing down on our delicious free snacks.


When I was a bit older, my siblings and I took swimming lessons at a pool situated in a park not too far from my house. We'd ride our bikes there together for the lesson, and before we'd go home, we'd fill our bellies and stain our hands with the dark purple mulberries growing from many trees in the park. We'd also eat blackberries and raspberries we'd find along the bike trail in the same path.

Last summer, my mother took my kids and me to a nearby community to the swimming pool. At the entrance of the pool grounds, there was a pear tree overflowing with pears. The ground was littered with rotten pears and there were a good ton more on the tree. What did I do? After asking permission from the pool managers, I filled as many bags as I could with delicious pears and brought them home to eat.

One last anecdote. I have a zoo pass and go with my kids to the zoo relatively frequently. The zoo is teeming with hundreds, if not thousands of carob trees, each loaded with tons of carob pods. (Literally. One carob trees can produce more than 1 ton of carobs each year.) As we walk along the path, we help ourselves to carobs, a delicious, nutritious, and satisfying snack, much cheaper than what is available at the snack bars.

When I remind people about the fruit that is growing everywhere, if only they make the effort, I get some concerned remarks, namely "How do you know that those fruit are really edible and its not some similar looking but poisonous species?"


The world has its issues and its beautiful things, but one thing it is not is a fairy tale. This is not Snow White; there is no evil step mother poisoning those delicious looking apples in a quest for vengeance.
In the real world, if it looks like an apple, smells like an apple, and tastes like an apple, it's an apple!
Same applies to any other fruit.

Yes, there are poisonous berries and plants, but they don't usually look like what is sold in the grocery store. If you see something sold in the grocery store growing on a tree/bush, you don't need to worry if its poisonous or not! Its not!

If you're really worried, one thing you can do is just learn to identify the leaves of the types of fruit you commonly eat. That way if you see a tree filled with what looks like those fruit, you have another thing to use to verify that its really a pear.

The biggest concerns when you find fruit on a tree are:
Pesticides/Herbicides
Bugs
and
Stealing.

Regarding pesticides- if you're picking fruit from a well maintained area, this is much more of a concern than if you're picking fruit from a tree in the middle of nowhere. Fruit trees in nature parks and in true nature usually aren't sprayed by pesticides, and are usually fine to eat. As with all foraging, the way to know if something was sprayed is by the presence of bugs and other animal bite marks.
Bugs and animals are everywhere, and they love fruit. If even little critters are willing to turn down eating the fruit, it means there's something pretty wrong with them and its likely they've been sprayed by something dangerous. Before I eat anything I forage, I make sure I can see bugs on and around the fruit, tunneled into the fruit, and ideally, if I can see little beak marks made by birds on some of the fruit. If I don't, I don't eat those fruit. They're highly suspect.

Now about bugs. I don't want to eat any fruit with bugs in it, and if you forage fruit, its very possible that you'll find quite a few buggy ones. What you need to do is just wash off the fruit very well, cut off any parts that have been eaten by bugs, and eat the rest. If you see any marks on the fruit that look like they might be burrow marks from bugs (in my experience, this usually is brown or black), cut away at it. If the mark goes deeper into the flesh of the fruit and isn't just on the surface, keep on cutting the entire burrow mark out. This may lead you to a nasty live bug chowing away at the inside of your fruit. (Eww! I know!) You may sometimes need to discard a whole fruit, but very often its just a very small area that needs to be cut out, and sometimes the entire fruit is good.

As for stealing- as with all foraging, ask permission! If you're picking something off of private property without asking permission, it is stealing. If its land owned by a company, like a pool, ask the management. If its owned by an individual, knock on their door and ask. If it is public property or in a natural park, find out your laws. In most areas, picking fruit from trees in parks and other public lands is completely legal and permitted. If its a nature reserve, the laws may be different and you need to find out. I know that in the nature reserve nearest to my house it is illegal to pick anything, fruit or not, as everything there is intended for the wildlife to eat, but in natural parks in the US, in my experience it is generally legal. Find out!

Don't be scared to forage. You can do it- its not as risky as some people would like you to believe.
Start out with the things you know that grow in your area. Summer time is the perfect time to get into foraging mode. Now go pick your delicious fruit today!


Would you feel confident enough to pick apples or pears or other well known fruit from trees in public areas or in nature, or would you still be unsure, even after this post? What would be your biggest concern? People looking at you funny? That its dangerous because of whatever reason? What reason? Or is there another issue that I didn't mention?


And just for curiosity's sake- anyone ever go on miniature steam engine train rides like I did as a kid?

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