Field Forest Food
Make your next trail run a foraging adventure
Illustration by Daniel Yagmin
The rain pours in sheets as I run through the woods on Bainbridge Island, a stone’s throw from downtown Seattle. I am completely soaked—it feels as if I’ve just walked in on the forest taking a shower and chosen to jump right in. Noisy plastic bags are tied to my hydration belt, and I’m wearing bright red, elbow-length dishwashing gloves.
The mud and the rain, even my ridiculous appearance, fuel the purpose of my run: I am on a serious mission. Turning a corner on the trail, I find what I have been looking (and running) for. The forest brightens where some trees have been felled and I spy a blanket of native stinging nettle thriving right up to the edge of the trail.
I snap off tender tips with glee. Filling an entire bag with nettles, I am thankful that my hideous gloves save me from getting stung. I am careful to leave plenty for the next potential picker. I tie the bag shut, lean into the last hill and run home.
I reserve a few leaves for tea (a cure for seasonal allergies), then blanch the rest to take away the sting, and make nettle pesto and pasta. The strong, nutty flavor of nettles makes the pesto more robust than standard basil fare. And since I harvested the nettles during my run, it becomes one of my most memorable post-run meals ever.
My recent foraging pastime has given my runs more purpose, and a heightened appreciation for the bounty of superfoods right underfoot.
Five to Forage By
Research. Learn to properly identify edible wild foods, as well as their (sometimes poisonous) imposters. Find out when and how to harvest and prepare the plant and enlist an experienced forager to learn proper identification in the field.
Avoid toxic areas. Be leery of parking lots, yards, polluted streams, etc, where pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and dangerous bacteria may lurk.
Play by the rules. Learn the rules in any area you intend to forage. Keep in mind that foraging may be encouraged, managed by harvest limits or completely prohibited.
Forage respectfully. Use sustainable, ethical methods for gathering food. Learn how to identify a healthy plant versus one that should be left alone. For example, leave ferns with broken or picked fiddleheads, as losing more than two to three fiddleheads can kill the plant.
When in doubt, leave it out! Never harvest a plant without being 100-percent certain of its identity.
Finding wild edible plants on a run is easier than you might think. If Martha Stewart was able to gather weeds from a prison yard during her incarceration, the message is clear to me: Anybody can be a forager in this day and age. Trail runners are ideal candidates.
Langdon Cook, author of the book Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st-Century Forager, has been blogging (www.fat-of-the-land.blogspot.com) about his foraging adventures ever since friends inspired him by saying, “Living like a hunter-gatherer is good for the soul.”
Now Cook says, “I’ll bushwhack all over creation in search of morels, porcini.” He is half-serious—Cook is well known for his approach to treading softly and foraging ethically.
Best of all, Cook makes foraging seem completely natural. He suggests newcomers start with weeds commonly found in the U.S. like stinging nettle, miner’s lettuce and, the most ubiquitous of all, dandelions.
“Dandelions can be harvested at several growth stages: young leaves as raw or braised salad greens; buds sautéed; flower petals for breads and wine; and even the root, roasted, to make a coffee-like beverage or ice cream.” He continues, “Other weeds can be easily learned: lambs-quarters, chickweed, watercress, thistle and so on.” These are abundant in most parts of the country, but a quick reference check can inform you on the most common weeds in your area.
With experience, you may start to recognize edible plants all around you, and their bountiful gastronomic possibilities. I’ve salivated over Cook’s accounts of full meals created from foraged foods: Epic salads or savory mushrooms and mussels, washed down by homebrews from blackberries or dandelions.
California trail runner Philip Stark forages regularly on his trail runs and by-foot commutes to UC Berkley, where he is a professor. Compared to the work of maintaining a backyard garden, says Stark, “It’s a lot easier to pick a salad on my way to work.”
If dandelions are the gateway to eating weeds, foraging on the run may be the gateway to changing everything about the way you eat, and run. Stark’s interests have grown to eating “as far upstream on the food chain as possible,” and even trying a little long-distance persistence hunting. Last fall, with a motley crew of minimalist-shoe runners, Stark chased pronghorn antelope through the Red Desert of Wyoming in hopes of killing one for dinner. Though no animal was caught, and meals consisted of foods purchased and brought to camp, the experience deepened his passion for gathering food in its purest form: the wild.
Suggested Wild Edible Plants by Region
Southwest Various parts (stem, pulp or flower) of Cereus, Prickly Pear, Saguaro and Yucca cacti (Some cactus varieties can act as a natural laxative so consume sparingly.) Try also pine nuts, mesquite beans, lambs quarter
Midwest Ramps (wild leeks), wild asparagus, mountain herbs/flowers, huckleberry, acorns, persimmon, morels
South Chicory, cattail roots, tree nuts, millet, clover and sassafras
Northeast Fiddleheads, nettles, wild spinach, porcini, chicken of the woods, beechnuts and berries (especially blueberries and coastal strawberries)
Pacific Northwest Berries (especially salal, currents, black, salmon and thimbleberries), nettles, chanterelles, peppercress, fiddleheads and sorrel (Chopped, steeped leaves make a refreshing post-run lemonade-ish drink.)
Urban Settings Urbanites need not despair! Dandelion–every part of the dandelion is edible and good for you! Also look for chickweed, sow thistle and miner’s lettuce.
Before you become giddy with visions of noshing edible weeds on your next run, be clear that the idea is to safely forage. Enjoying wild food should be a celebration of a good run, not the cause of an untimely death at worst, or a weeklong bout of diarrhea at best, because you ate something you shouldn’t have. Both scenarios happen every year. Research as much as you can about your choice of edible plant, as well as any look-alikes, with the help of experienced foragers.
“Field guides are great, but there’s no substitute for learning from an expert,” says Cook. “Identifying edible species in their habitat is far superior to looking at pictures in a book.” Native species, as well as poisonous impostors, can vary by region so learn from someone familiar with your area. Take a field trip with your regional mycological society (trust me, if there are mushrooms, there’s a mushroom club), or try a workshop with a local expert.
And know the rules. Find out what’s allowed within the federal, state, local or Native American jurisdiction before your run (see sidebar “Five to Forage By”). Harvest ethically—find out how to sustainably take your share, and refrain from over picking in well-used areas.
Pockets of land around the country have been trashed by irresponsible or profiteering foragers, which have threatened the near wipeout of some highly sought edible plants. Unprecedented foraging of wild leeks due to a seemingly insatiable appetite in the restaurant business has brought outright bans over harvesting the wild plant in national parks within Tennessee and North Carolina where it once flourished. Wild ginseng and other popular herbal plants like black cohosh and Echinacea have been listed as threatened by conservationists as well. Luckily, in the Pacific Northwest, most mushroom populations continue to thrive despite a growing industry.
Environmentalists and long-time mushroom enthusiasts have reported damage done to forest floors by zealous pickers with irresponsible methods. Don’t be one of them. Be mindful of your impact on the ecosystem that nourishes you.
Typically, you don’t have to leave the trail to find good sources of food. “Many of our wild edibles can be found right alongside trails,” says Cook. “Some [edibles] are ‘edge species’ that thrive where different habitats meet. Trails create these mixing zones with high biodiversity.”
As a kid, I associated being in the outdoors with great snacks, and when I started backpacking as a teenager, I was drawn as much to GORP as I was to promising vistas. I still love that stuff, but once I saw my trail runs as opportunities to collect thimbleberries and fiddlehead ferns, my relationship to the outdoors completely changed. Now the pursuit of a wild salad has me logging more miles than the want for fresh air and exercise.