A Beginner’s Guide to Foraging — A Forager’s Life

— Words extracted from A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature by Helen Lehndorf

Helen Lehndorf is a life-long forager and Manawatū-based writer. In Helen’s latest book, A Forager’s Life, she seamlessly weaves memoir with foraging principles, practices and recipes. It’s an intimate story and a promise that much can be made of the world around us. 

Helen’s endearing stories of foraging in and around New Zealand are captivating. You’ll be gently led along by Helen’s stream of consciousness writing style and brilliant use of unconventional descriptors.

The book also delves into Helen’s experience of feeling like she slipped between worlds when her child was diagnosed with autism. A read for literacy lovers, gloves off gardeners, parents, and anyone who enjoys nature. 

While her book is both engaging and beautifully written, Helen also shares practical advice and guidance for aspiring foragers. Below is a snippet from her helpful appendices: A beginner’s guide to foraging.

But first, an example of Helen’s way with words – an excerpt of her discovery and affection for nasturtiums (p152):

“This peppery crawler grew more beautiful to me the more time I spent with it. I learned the bright flaring trumpets were frost tender and would slump into a dead dark mass in the cold. The flowers were the shape of gnome hats, and the lily-pad-shaped leaves seemed to float above the plants, like little umbrellas. In the early morning, the round leaves cradled dew drops that shone like gems.”

– The nasturtium, Helen Lehndorf from A Forager’s Life

Helen Lehndorf. Photo by Anthony Behrens.

A Beginner’s Guide to Foraging

— Words by Helen Lehndorf. Extracted and abridged from A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature.

Foraging gear

The main thing a foraging wardrobe needs is practicality: sturdy shoes, weather-appropriate clothing, harvesting bags and tools, and, most importantly, lots of roomy pockets.

I prefer a light cotton cross-body bag so that my arms are free, the bag won’t slip off my shoulder and the opening is wide for ease of collecting. In this larger cotton bag I carry some smaller cotton bags and a sharp pocketknife. Some foragers prefer sturdy kitchen scissors, others use plastic Stanley knives because they are small and light.

Seasoned foragers are generally opportunistic folks. Because I never know when I might stumble across something interesting and edible, I carry pocketknives in all my bags. I have scissors in the glove box, secateurs in the boot, and bags within bags tucked everywhere – endless Russian dolls of bag carrying, just in case.

Then there’s processing and preserving your finds – you’ll need the usual array of cooking and preserving equipment in your kitchen. It’s useful to have some wide, shallow wicker baskets for drying herbs. Fraser found an excellent electric dehydrator for me on Trade Me. I’ve found most of my kitchen equipment at the op shop.

When to forage

Generally, the optimal time to harvest is a fine day, after the morning dew has dried but before the heat of the afternoon (if it is summer). With greens, always go for new growth where possible, as the older a plant grows, the more dense and tough it becomes. Flowers are best picked before they fully open because they will travel better and will unfurl once in water. A bloom picked at its full expression will droop quickly in a vase.

The guidelines

1. Always apply commons sense.

Make decisions for the benefit of all human and more-than-human beings in the ecosystem you’re exploring. How can you be helpful to that place, in that moment, on that day? (One great way to help any natural environment is to pick up rubbish – especially plastic rubbish. If there is an overwhelming amount of rubbish, report it to the local council so that it gets cleaned up quickly.)

2. Ask permission where permission is needed.

Don’t wander into private property without permission. Check local-council guidelines for foraging in parks and reserves.

3. Be certain about a plant’s identification.

If you are new to foraging, get a couple of good plant-identification books. A pocket-sized one is good so you can take it on your expeditions.

There are some good plant-identification apps available. PlantNet, iNaturalist and PlantSnap are all free at the time of writing. Don’t rely too much on images on the internet, however, unless the website is highly credible. Photographs are often mislabelled. Consider that plants can present quite differently in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Some professional foragers run courses or foraging walks. Or just ask a friend with foraging knowledge to teach you a few plants each time you go for a walk together.

4. Be pollution aware.

City soils and urban streams can sometimes be contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides and other chemicals. Avoid foraging from industrial sites or sites where you aren’t sure of the recent history.

5. Apply the rule of fourths.

When harvesting plants, there’s a loose rule of fourths. Leave a quarter for the plant (so it can retain its vitality and reproduce), a quarter for whatever else relies on the plant in the ecosystem (animals, insects, soil regeneration), a quarter for other foragers, and take a quarter for yourself (although you’ll often take much less, depending on the plant).

Never take all of a plant. (The exception to this would be an invasive plant, if in harvesting it you are doing conservation work for the wellbeing of the land. Some examples of this would be wilding pines, banana passionfruit vine and gorse.)

6. Slow down, take your time, go deep.

If you’re starting out as a forager, you’re probably hungry to learn as many plants as you can, which is understandable – the enthusiasm of a beginner’s mind! However, once you’ve learned a selection of plants, choose just one or two that particularly appeal to you to go deeper with. Learning the full spectrum of a plant’s offerings is a relationship, so try slowing things down to be in that relationship at plant speed rather than human speed. By this I mean, observe the plant through all the seasons, experiment with different ways to eat it or make home remedies from it. Observe how much use you make of what you’ve foraged, too. Do you enjoy the dishes? The herb teas? Do you enjoy the processing needed when you harvest a lot of seasonal fruit? There’s little point in foraging things you don’t like to process, eat or drink. Your preferences will form over time as you experiment.

You could start a foraging journal, where you draw the plants or glue in photographs of them and write down your observations. Look out for them whenever you’re out walking. Do they start appearing to you in other ways, through art, in books, even in conversation? Plants seem to speak through synchronicity, appearing in all kinds of unusual places once we’ve begun a relationship with them.

7. Always say thank you.

In the moment of harvesting, say thank you to the plant, the tree, the elements, the land you have harvested from, the mana whenua of where you’re standing. Gratitude is the secret ingredient in an ecologically sound foraging practice.

Words extracted from A Forager’s Life: Finding my heart and home in nature by Helen Lehndorf

© A Forager’s Life. By Helen Lehndorf. Published by HarperCollins New Zealand

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