When I started my foraging TikTok here in Columbus, Ohio, I was immediately met with a tidal wave of both enthusiasm and skepticism from fellow city dwellers.
“I don’t have all that in my city”
“Um, some of us don’t live in the woods”
“Where do u live with all that green around you??”
While we do have our fair share of wide open spaces in the Midwest, you know as well as me that it’s not all forest and cornfield. Many of us live in major metropolitan areas, and most of us can successfully forage there—with a little curiosity, a little luck, and a little common sense. Here are my tips for being a city-dwelling Midwestern forager:
1. Get to know your immediate surroundings first.
Want to begin foraging, but it seems overwhelming? Don’t you worry—no one is going to make you memorize an entire Samuel Thayer book. Start small! Try identifying the weeds in your yard. You’ll probably find some plant friends that are more useful than some of the plants that are there on purpose.
2. Get a guidebook for your area, join a local foraging Facebook group, or go on a socially distanced walk with a knowledgeable friend.
We in the Midwest are lucky enough to have the Midwest Wild Edibles and Foragers group on Facebook. In more localized groups for states and cities, you’ll find perfectly up-to-date finds—keeping you from feeling the most supreme FOMO when folks Cincinnati are finding pawpaws three weeks before you can.
If social media isn’t your jam, grab a guidebook! “Midwest Foraging,” by Lisa M. Rose, is an amazing place to start, with its color photos and approachable writing.
3. If you’re not on your own land, leave no trace.
I’m the last person to tell someone not to harvest tons of ramps on their own property, though you should always be thoughtful, but once you’re in a shared space, you have to be forward-thinking while harvesting. What you want to gather may not seem like a lot, but what if five other people do the same thing? Would there be a noticeable impact over time? (For some quick-growing and invasive plants, the answer is no!)
4. Try focusing on invasives.
One way to make sure you don’t need to be conservation-focused while gathering is choosing to gather invasives in your area. Here are three of my faves that show up across the around this time of year here in the Midwest:
This plant is best known for its edible and anti-inflammatory leaves. (Slap one onto a bug bite the next time you’re out and about and see how quickly it stops itching!) I like the immature and mature seed spikes. The younger, flowering spikes are great sautéed in a little olive oil, with a few cloves of field garlic. The older spikes are filled with seeds that make a great flax seed substitute, my fellow vegan bakers. They add a savory, nutty flavor to crackers and breads.
I know we typically look out for the scourge that is garlic mustard in the spring, but you may a resurgence in the early fall. Catch the young rosettes now to stretch the last of your basil in a pesto, or to add a peppery bite to a fall salad.
Autumn olive berries are a fall favorite in my house. Small, red, and flecked with metallic spots, these berries grow densely along the branches of invasive shrubs. Incredibly bright and tart, they lend themselves to jams and jellies if you can beat the birds to ’em. The more you gather, the fewer are left for birds to spread! If you miss the berries, that’s okay. The shrub’s gorgeous flowers, also edible, will be back on the branches again before you know it.
5. Use your noggin!
Heavily trafficked areas like highway corridors are a no-go! Avoid any area with a high heavy metal presence. I’d give those spaces a minimum clearance of sixty feet. That’s a huge bummer for folks like me who eye the elderberries along local highways each year, but you’re doing future-you a huge favor by letting those go. If you can, do a little bit of research on the soil quality in your neck of the woods. Odds are an intrepid local researcher or university or government cohort has some info for you on the internet.
Lastly, learn your local laws. In lots of areas, the laws are vague, but make sure you do a little research before heading into a busy park with a basket and bucket!
Foraging can seem so daunting when you’re first starting, but you can choose how deep you want to dive. Just want to gather fruit for jams? Sick! Really into foraging salads, and pretty meh on nuts? Cool! Super into pawpaws and one kind of mushroom? Rad! It’s a choose-your-own-adventure hobby, and I can’t wait to see what adventures you find out there!