Foraging is a popular pastime among rural residents of Maine, including Tom Seymour, author of Wild Plants of Maine. We talked with Tom recently and asked for some pointers about foraging in Maine. According to Seymour, a law was introduced to Maine’s local government which would ban foraging altogether, due to issues caused by malicious or unlearned individuals. Thankfully, that law was overruled, which means foraging is still allowed
1. Prepare to harvest by knowing the right time. Each plant has a perfect time of availability, the “window of opportunity.” Since plants come ripe in a regular succession, knowing when to expect your favorite wild edible puts you in the driver’s seat.
2. Collect and transport your harvest in baskets (my favorite method), brown paper bags or canvas bags. Never collect in plastic because it causes the harvest to sweat and wilt. They lose flavor and can mold in the wet plastic bag.
3. Be aware of plants that cause irritation to the skin when foraging. Poison ivy, virgin’s bower (wild clematis, a vining plant of edges and woodland trails), often mistakenly called “poison oak” and several other plants can cause mild to severe reactions in people. Know how to identify these plants. There are many great photos on the internet so as to allow you to identify these the first time. Watch out, since some people are affected just by being in the same vicinity. They don't even have to touch the plant to have an extreme allergic reaction.
5. Cook or prepare the plant according to suggestions from a trustworthy source. Wild Plants of Maine offers dozens of recipes in the back of the book. Within the section for each plant, I offer suggested preparations for each edible. You might find a few other recipes in other cookbooks. I particularly like fiddleheads with butter and salt and pepper.
6. When a wild edible plant is harvested, harvest extra then freeze, dry or can according to suggestions in Wild Plants of Maine. One example: I love goosetongue, or seaside plantain, Plantago juncoides. When home-canned, these have the same flavor and a similar texture as when fresh. Nothing says “summer in winter” like a jar of seaside plantain.
7. Here in Maine, plants have a short growing season. This means they change size and appearance in a short time. Get to know your favorite wild edible plants in all seasons. That way, you can locate groups of colonies of great, edible plants in the off-season and harvest them later, when they are ready for picking.I
8. When learning a new plant, note carefully every detail of the plant’s description in the book. If a plant matches everything else except for one detail, it is not the plant in the book. Each plant must match every, single thing in the plant description section. Take no chances, since there are some toxic wild plants out there. Don’t let this keep you from trying wild edible plants, though. Instead, know that you are safe when the plant in hand perfectly matches every item in the description.
9. When harvesting wild plants, never pull a plant up by the roots. Most wild plants are perennial, some are biennial and only a few are annual. Uprooting a plant kills it and takes it out of production. On the other hand, don’t worry about taking a good haul by snipping with clippers or cutting with a knife, since these plants come back year after year.