Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Penny, the Self Taught, Crowd Sourcing, Non Orthodoxly Educated Forager and Instructor

Some of the people attending a recent foraging class of mine-
but are foraging classes the only way to learn?
I'll admit I'm not the typical forager, nor was my education and background in foraging orthodox. In fact, many "real" foragers will probably say disparaging things about the way I learned to forage, but I'm proud of my unorthodox ways.

I foraged here and there growing up, but mainly easily recognizable things like mulberries, apples, blackberries and wood sorrel, then after going on a weed walk with my family as a middle school student, added jewelweed seeds to my repertoire. But that's it.
I moved abroad when I got married and got really inspired by some foraging that some bloggers I was reading were doing, yet didn't think it was relevant to me since those bloggers lived in Colorado, New Zealand, and England. My grasp of the local language at that time left much to be desired so I couldn't easily learn about foraging from the locals, and the few books that I found on the subject were so horrible, to the point that they were dangerous (teaching poisonous plants as edible for one) that I gave up on the idea of foraging and decided to just admire people's foraging from afar. One day though, I discovered that a plant my Colorado friend was writing about grew all over my city- mallow- and that was the start of my tumble down the rabbit hole of my unorthodox wild edibles education, when I discovered that I could learn much about foraging from my international foraging friends and bloggers.

Why do I say unorthodox? Well, one of the big 'rules' in almost all online foraging groups that I'm part of is that you can't just rely on what you learn online- you need to have a local person show it to you. Yea, that. That's how I broke the rules.
I was foraging and teaching about foraging locally for years before I attended my first foraging class locally. And that one was even by a non local person.

The way I learned about foraging was mainly online. Lots and lots of reading in various foraging groups about what other people were foraging and trying to see if those things grew locally as well. Additionally, I tried learning to identify all the local plants I came across, and then, doing research about each one, scouring the internet, checking for multiple unanimous reliable sources whether it is edible or not.
Instead of just relying on one or two local foraging instructors I learned via crowd sourcing. While so many knock that, I would reckon that that is a much safer way to forage than the standard 'get a field guide, attend a local class' because people make mistakes. Books can have dangerously inaccurate information and instructors are not infallible either. I think about Lavar Burton's constant refrain in Reading Rainbow, "You don't have to take my word for it". Internet masses love to pounce on people for misinformation, making sure that the information given is correct (you know that famous cartoon- "Can't sleep! Someone is WRONG on the internet!"). That is why I feel very comfortable with learning most of what I know about foraging online, and a good chunk of that from foraging Facebook groups with tens of thousands of users, many of them world renowned foraging instructors.
When people have questions about the edibility of something or its uses the sheer number of people reading and responding and correcting reach other makes it such a wonderful learning tool, even if old school foragers will scoff at that method. When people aren't completely sure if they identified an edible plant correctly, by posting multiple pictures of the plant they found in such groups they can get an expert's opinion (or 100) instead of just relying on their own memory.

I know many who read this post probably still will think it's irresponsible to learn to forage online and not with a local teacher in person, but an incident happened locally that made me realize how much of a boon crowd-sourcing is for things like this, and it can even save a life.

Some people I know attended a local foraging class given by someone other than myself. After the class people shared what they learned with their Facebook friends and I saw that they'd posted a picture of a poisonous plant as one of the plants they'd learned. I commented on the picture, identifying it as a poisonous plant and they insisted that they were taught that it was edible.
To make a long story short, it turned out that the foraging instructor was taught by another local forager that said plant is edible, but it's not. Crowd sourcing for information about that plant would have let the instructor know that that plant is toxic and proven to cause irreversible damage to important organs in the body. Yes, the plant did have a history of being eaten in some countries, but that doesn't mean it isn't poisonous. I assume that it was a plant that people attempted to eat when starving, and because it didn't cause them p drop dead or get very ill immediately they kept on eating it and so it got passed on from one person to another via a chain that it is edible when it in fact is not.

And thus, I think crowd sourcing on the internet for information about edibility of plants, in addition to extensive googling, is probably a much safer way to forage than simply relying on books and/or local instructors.
I think crowd sourcing is so important that even when I teach my foraging classes I tell attendees not to take my word alone about the safety and edibility of a certain plant, but they should crowd source and do their research as well to verify everything m teaching them is, in fact, correct. Even if it ruins my credibility to an extent (though I think it ruins your credibility more to never admit you don't know something) safety is more important to me then credibility.

In addition to the safety aspect, my unorthodox style of learning about foraging has other benefits over learning locally with an instructor and local books. Because I am in touch with so many foragers from across the world I learn beyond the standard local wild edibles. Even the locals that have been foraging in their families for generations often don't know information about these local plants that I do from scouring the web and crowd sourcing.
For example, prickly pear cacti grow all over here, and locals eat prickly pear fruit all the time, but almost no one knows that the paddles are edible; meanwhile cactus paddles are regularly eaten in central America and even sold in mainstream grocery stores in certain parts of the US. I don't know of any local forager that knows that yucca flowers are edible, or redbud pods can be eaten like snow peas, that caper fruit are delicious, that myrtle berries or eleagnus berries are edible. The list just goes on and on. By combining local knowledge with worldwide foraging knowledge I'd say that my unorthodox, mostly self taught, mostly internet and crowd-source based education is a pretty good one indeed, and in fact, is the type of education I'd recommend to someone who wants to learn about wild edibles.

This post actually started out as the introduction to a post I was going to write about one of my and my kids' favorite forageable, black nightshade berries, something that locals here don't eat or know is even edible, something I learned about from my US based foraging friends, and had I had the standard local foraging background I never would have been able to enjoy. But the post on black nightshade will have to wait for another day.

Are you a forager? How did you learn? The traditional way or non orthodox ways like I did? Which way do you think leads to safer foraging overall? Which would you recommend to others?


  1. I'm with you. Though I learned quite a bit from my family, and even more from taking nature hikes (rangers would mention plants eaten by indigenous peoples, or some of the hikes were guided by Native Americans), a lot has come from books and the internet.

    My rule is simple: when I see something, I research it completely. If 3 or more reliable sources confirm it, and say the SAME THINGS (confirmation that has conflicting details doesn't count), then I will try it in a small amount first. Of course, it takes a while to determine who the reliable internet resources are.

  2. I am self taught also by looking at lots of things online, and family, like our family has eaten polk weed for centuries yet the experts say not to eat it,it has to be boild and strained and squesed out and reboiled strained and squesed out then scrambeled up with a egg. they say 5 servings a year and you want get sick. so far we have lived long lives.I am still looking for free food in the yard and ways to make natural meds. and i share this on you tube and my fb group,


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