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Demeter's Rules of Foraging

Viburnum (nannyberry)
Life is full of rules.  Some rules may not make a lot of sense; like the old law about swearing while driving in Maryland. Traveling towards Ocean City on Route 50 in the summer months would prove this one ridiculous. Nonetheless, most citizens respect laws and the enforcement of said laws in order to live in harmony with their neighbors and protect their possessions and way of life.

Foraging has rules, too.  Rules in foraging are twofold: to respect and preserve natural resources, and to follow laws so that non-foragers don't develop the opinion that foragers are a bunch of law-breaking hooligans.  I'm not a 10 Commandment-kind-of rule-breaker, but I have always had a little authority problem.  And a speeding problem.  Anyway,  I do ascribe to these rules, and hope you do, too!

Rule #1: NEVER eat something that you have not identified with 100% certainty.  Let me repeat this in a different way just to get through to a few hardheads.  If you are not absolutely, without a doubt, positive that the plant in your hand is what you think it is, then DO NOT EAT THE PLANT! (OR MUSHROOM!, OR BERRY!). 

This sounds so commonsense that most people say "duh!."  But the commonsense reader would be shocked to find that when foragers get excited about a plant they sometimes lose their common sense. I have been on several hikes where I say "I think this is a ...(blah, blah, blah), but I need to look this up to be sure." And someone will say "so I can eat it?" And I say "NO, I am not sure."  Oookaaaayyy...  which leads me to...

Rule #2:  NEVER eat something unless YOU are 100% certain that the plant is what you think it is. 

So this is a rule that I have occasionally broken, but when I do break this one, I have 100% confidence in the person that made the identification.  For instance, I took a walk with Wildman Steve Brill who really knows his stuff, and I have attended wild food identification walks where I have tried some new things.  I won't try a new food if someone else doesn't eate it first, and if they don't have a history with the plant. 

For example, imagine taking a hike with someone who points out a plant and says "this is wild carrot," after which your friend eats some of the greens.  You also sample some of the greens.  Your friend then mentions  "I have not eaten this before, but it tastes pretty good."  You stop munching; you have read somewhere (like this blog), that wild carrot has been confused with deadly water hemlock.  Unfortunately, the damage is done and you are dead.  Or getting a liver transplant.  I have a friend who had a liver transplant after eating mushrooms.  It's no joke.

Rule #3: Try a small amount of the plant/fruit/mushroom

So you have positively identified a plant 100%.  Now you can try a little nibble, but don't go crazy.  Give yourself several hours (or a whole day) to make sure you don't have an allergy or sensitivity. 

On a foraging hike with Wildman Steve Brill, I pointed out some mugwort, or Artemesia vulgaris, to one of my companions.  Steve mentioned that he couldn't eat mugwort because he is sensitive to members of the ragweed tribe, to which mugwort belongs.  How many potential foragers would fail to make these connections? 

Rule #4:  Practice responsible foraging for sustainability

Pop Quiz:    Say you find a Soloman's Seal plant (Polygonatum genus).  You can easily identify the plant, and know the root is edible and can be used medicinally.  So do you dig up the root?

The short answer is no: you should never dig up a solitary plant!  Since the plant propagates by the root, if you dig it up you would destroy the plant as well as future plants.  When harvesting root vegetables, take only a small amount, say 10-15% max of the available plants. 

This doesn't mean you can't go crazy on some foraging foods.  Berries and nuts are one area where a forager can take all they want, because Mother Nature will make more!  Harvesting fruits won't damage the tree or plant for future harvests, like harvesting some greeny leafs, shoots, and roots.

Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); first year growth
Take only the part of the plant which is intended for use; please don't pull up a plant by the roots just to eat the leaves. Unless the plant is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), an invasive species that is difficult to eradicate.  Garlic mustard is one of those plants that you can indulge in with abandon.

The bottom line is that a responsible forager needs to practice sustainable foraging so the plants will propagate and be available for future years.

Rule #5:  Respect Private Property and obey "NO Tresspassing" signs

This rule is a criteria of decorum which allows people to live more harmoniously with their neighbors.  The respect for property lines may be a little frustrating to foragers, especially those with *ahem* "authority issues."  However, trespassing is a big no-no, UNLESS you really have a desire to piss off your neighbors and have a visit from a local constable.

Okay, I admit to a little "covert" foraging.  BUT, I recognize this is wrong and could ultimately land me in jail.  The best alternative is to get to know the landowners surrounding your stomping ground and ask for permission. 

Laetiporus Cincinnatus (Chicken of the Woods)
This spring I found a beautiful Laetiporus cincinnatus, or Chicken of the Woods;  a large, orange, sulfer shelf mushroom that grows on the ground.  I was stoked, since I have never seen one on our little peninsula (wetlands with lots of pine trees but little else).  The problem?  This beauty was on someone's property.  Umm, like down their driveway and almost to the front door of the house.  Covert recovery deemed improbable and stupid.  With each passing day I watched the specimen fade and eventually rot.  What a loss :(

One day while out for a jog I saw the property owner walking his dog down the street.  I stopped hime and exclaimed "I loved your Laetiporus!"  After he got over his initial impression that I am nothing short of a total whacko, we started discussing wild edibles in the area.  Turns out he even had a pic of the shroom on his phone!  Long story short, I now have permission to check out stuff on his property, and I got to know my neighbor a little better!

Do you have any more ideas for foraging rules?  If so, please comment on this post!


  1. Good rules! I usually don't see folks discussing #3. I am often the one who brings this up.

  2. Chicken of the woods grows on trees. Not on the ground.

  3. "Never eat something you haven't identified with 100% certainty" a difficult one for me as I don't believe you should say/think your 100% certain of anything!