Foraging, like hiking and camping, is a way to stay socially distant and get in touch with nature. If you enjoy being distracted by every little detail on the trail, foraging might just be for you.
Erick Blomberg, an engineer from the Green Bay area, has always been an avid outdoorsman. Eight years ago, he began seriously foraging for food, and his expertise has earned him the title of Group Expert on the Wild Foods Wisconsin Facebook group, a group of over 14,000 members who often turn to the group for advice, identification help and recipes.
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For Blomberg, foraging comes with an abundance of benefits, not the least of which is that it’s budget friendly and an easy form of exercise.
“It’s also nice knowing you’re eating something that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides or treated with antibiotics,” he says.
However, hunting for wild edibles can also be a tricky practice. Blomberg forages by three main principles: Is it safe? Is it legal? Is it ethical?
Is it safe?
Per Blomberg, ensuring a positive identification means more than confirming a plant’s general physical features. Oftentimes, edible plants will have more dangerous doubles that, if misidentified, can lead to stomach upset and more. Morel mushrooms are a delicious and stubbornly seasonal mushroom that can be found in the Wisconsin woods, but they have a toxic lookalike, aptly nicknamed the false morel, that can induce serious side effects like nausea and fatigue. Other plants are only edible at certain stages, like the Mayapple, or when cooked properly, such as the elderberry.
“As far as safety goes, people obviously need to be very familiar with what they’re eating, and they need positive identification,” Blomberg explained. Identification includes not only color and general shape, but also leaf and flower patterns, stem textures, spore prints, location, conditions and much more. He recommends doing some research beforehand and having multiple confirmations before eating. Books are a good tool to use, and wild food Facebook groups can often confirm identification.
Is it legal?
In Wisconsin, we have a great deal of freedom in terms of harvesting fruit and fruit bodies from our woods, especially when it comes to state-owned land.
“If [the food] is on state-owned land, you can generally harvest just about anything you want,” says Blomberg. “You normally can’t cut plants on state property, but you can pick the fruit body like nuts, fungus, but you can’t cut the plants.”
There are a few exceptions, such as wild asparagus and watercress that you can cut the plants for harvest, and if you are foraging on your own private land, you can harvest freely. However, there is a handful of plants that have a specific harvest season and require a permit to forage, such as wild rice and wild ginseng.
Blomberg clarified that county foraging regulations can be different. While he finds that county parks and land are often more relaxed, he recommends checking with the official figure, whether that be the game warden, sheriff or park ranger. Milwaukee County Parks, for example, do not permit foraging.
Is it ethical?
The ethics of foraging are far less fixed. Over-harvesting is often a major concern for foragers. Blomberg points to ramps, a popular allium edible similar to garlic and spring onion, as a prime example.
“In some places, you could probably pick a dump truck [of ramps] and you wouldn’t even touch the local ecology,” Blomberg says. “But if you’re talking about somewhere around Milwaukee where there’s a lot of people and a lot of interest, those kinds of plants can easily get over-harvested.”
Blomberg states that just because we can harvest a plant does not necessarily mean we should, and that ethical foraging also means leaving enough behind so the environment is minimally impacted and so the plant can continue to produce for the future.
WHEN BEGINNING the hunt for wild edibles, it’s good to start in your own backyard. Blomberg says urban foraging often provides the opportunity to find edibles that can add some extra flavor and aromatics to your palate.
“You’re not looking for the bulk of your meal,” Blomberg explains before describing some options. “You’re looking for something that adds some flavor.”
When foraged ethically, ramps can add a savory kick to any meal. Chicory, a purple flower often found on the side of the road, has a root that can make a coffee, and prickly ash fruit is a local alternative to Szechuan peppercorns. There are even some foods that are easier to forage in the city, like acorns and certain mushrooms, because they’re easier to spot in freshly mowed grass than amongst the brush.
There are still reasons to take caution while foraging in urban areas, especially where there’s a decent amount of runoff, but Blomberg says that urban edibles are typically still safe to eat. Oftentimes, wild edibles are used in landscaping, such as apple trees and berry trees. If your local foraging find is on private property, be sure to check with the owner before helping yourself.
Next time you take a stroll through your neighborhood, keep your eyes peeled for potential wild edibles. You never know what you might be able to add to your next dish.
4 Places to Go Foraging Near Milwaukee
WHILE FORAGING is not permitted in any of Milwaukee’s county parks, you still have a few options if you want to go searching for wild edibles. Here are some hot spots for foraging within a 30-minute drive of Milwaukee County. In all cases, be sure to double check your identification, never eat what you cannot confirm and be sure to leave some behind for Mother Nature.
1. Havenwoods State Forest
6141 N HOPKINS ST.
This is the only urban state forest in the entire state of Wisconsin, and being state-owned property, foraging is free and available. Here, you can find wild berries, wild asparagus, mushrooms and edible nuts.
2. Minooka Park
1927 E SUNSET DR., WAUKESHA
All of Waukesha County Parks permit foraging for personal use, and they boast no shortage of goodies. At Minooka, you can spot wild grapes, wild berries, mushrooms, ramps and, if you’re lucky, some morel mushrooms in spring.
3. Pike Lake State Park
3544 KETTLE MORAINE RD., HARTFORD
As you take the trails through this park in the Northern Kettle Moraine, look for oyster mushrooms, ramps, garlic mustard and wild violets.
*Your own backyard
You’d be surprised what you can find. Many of the weeds that have become incessant nuisances are actually coveted edibles. Every part of the dandelion from root to flower is edible. Lambsquarters, a common garden weed, is often considered “nature’s spinach” and is often used to replace the spinach found in grocery stores. Clover is commonly found in lawns, and it’s edible from root to blossom, and you can eat them raw, boiled and even sautéed.