I would like to go over some important points for anyone who may participate in my tours or who is interested in learning to forage on their own. I apologize for being so long winded, but I do hope you will carefully read and consider all this information before beginning this journey with me, so I can spend more time covering the fun stuff on the tour and less time nagging you.
First, I want you to be aware of my qualifications. I have none. I am not an herbalist, a botanist or a horticulturalist. I am a high school dropout with a GED and a life long passion for wilderness survival. I am self educated in the areas that interest me and I have a tendency to become obsessed with things that I find interesting, which helps me to learn more quickly, I believe. I will be honest with you concerning the depth of my knowledge and experience, whether I have personally used a plant, or just read about them, or if I cannot yet be 100% certain on a plant's identity. I am teaching because I believe I have learned enough valuable information to be worth passing along to others who may know less, but there are many real experts out there that have a lot more wisdom to share than me, and I'd encourage you to seek out as many as possible.
So, why is identification of useful plants a worthwhile skill to learn and develop? The first thing that comes to many people's minds is wilderness survival, and it is a good reason. Anyone could find themselves in a situation they were not prepared for and it is good to know what is growing around you that you may be able to eat or use to treat your injuries.
For those with a prepper mindset, knowledge of useful plants plays a very valuable roll in emergency preparedness. In the religious community to which I belong, we are counseled to have a one year supply of food and water as well as a 72 hour portable survival supply kit for each family member. This is usually more than sufficient to cover most unforeseen circumstances like natural disaster, unemployment, things along that line, but if we were to face a permanent change in our way of life, if there were no longer grocery stores, hospitals and modern conveniences, how valuable would it be to have extensive knowledge about the bounty of nutritionally dense food and powerful medicine that the Creator has placed on the earth for our use?
Gardening is a very useful skill for these reasons too, but personally, I don't seem to have much of a talent for it. I am grateful that the plants we cover in these tours are what most people consider "weeds" and "invasives", because it means that they are plentiful, and they will grow with very little, if any effort or encouragement on the part of humans.
For me, though, the biggest reason to make foraging a regular part of my family's life was financial. I had already made all the changes to our food budget that I could possible think of, buying in bulk, cooking from scratch, canning and freezing, shopping around etc, and still found I needed to cut back more to make ends meet. I knew it was time to buckle down and turn my lifelong interest in wilderness survival into something that would be a blessing to my family. I'm very lucky to live in a place so rich with plant life to learn from, and in a time when I have access to such a wealth of information almost instantly.
Most foragers I know are environmentalists, it's natural to want to care for and preserve something you love so passionately. It's important to always harvest in a sustainable way, the plants we harvest from are plentiful and weedy and we never strip an area bare, always leave enough behind that it can reproduce next season. Where possible, take the parts of the plant that you will be using and leave the root system and enough foliage that the plant will still be able to photosynthesize, if the root is what you are after, harvest no more than one plant for every three that are growing in the area. Make a point of spreading seeds in areas they will likely grow. Never harvest plants that are rare or endangered.
Some people think that foraging is destructive by nature, I strongly disagree with this. If you forage in the way described above, you are behaving like a natural forager, no different from the birds and squirrels. Most edible plants have developed certain evolutionary traits that give them a symbiotic relationship with natural foragers. In fact, they are dependent on them to pollinate and spread their seeds.
Obviously, if you want to harvest from land that does not belong to you, it's only right to obtain permission from the property owner first. Most people will be happy to let you remove what they consider to be weeds from their lawns as long as they understand what it is you are asking.
Foraging is safer than most people think it is. Certainly safer, when done correctly than most of the food that is mass marketed (and government regulated) these days. However, everyone who considers eating something that grew in the wild should be very aware of dangers posed by poisonous plants, as well as environmental contaminates. What you harvest and where you harvest it is crucially important, as well as knowing the proper method of preparation for the specific plant you wish to consume. Some edibles are poisonous if not properly cooked, others are deadly when not completely ripe.
Plants get nourishment from the air and the soil, they also soak up toxins from these sources as well. A cattail growing in a wetland where raw sewage is dumped, has filtered all of that nasty stuff through it's cells, and contains the same toxins as the water in which it grows, likely in much greater concentration. I've observed drainage ditches on suburban roadsides to be rich in a diversity of edible plants. I think this is likely because when it rains, all of the water from everyone's yards gets washed into the ditches, along with all of the seeds from all of the weeds in everyone's yards, and unfortunately, all of the residue from all of the chemicals they use to maintain their useless patch of decapitated greenery. It is better to avoid foraging in areas like these, as well as along busy streets where plants are frequently exposed to car exhaust, although they are still excellent for observation and education, and there is no reason you can't collect seeds or plants from this area and introduce them into healthier environments. It's also not a bad idea, whether you are actively foraging or not, to include supportive supplements in your diet. Probiotics, either in the form of vitamins or naturally fermented foods to support your digestive system, and a diuretic, like dandelion or yellow dock tincture to detoxify the whole system and support healthy liver function.
Proper plant identification means every individual characteristic of a plant matches that plant's description in at least three credible sources (not Wikipedia). That means the roots, the stalks, the leaves, the flowers, the stamens and petals, the seeds, everything. If it's a 99.9% match, it's not a match and it's not the plant you want it to be. It could be a close relative, it could be a weird hybrid or mutation, but do not put it in your mouth until you are 100% sure of it's identity. If you poison yourself, you give us all a bad name, especially those of us trying to teach this skill. Identification also means knowing the habitats, seasons and growing patterns of the plant you want to identify. If a plant you are looking at is known to grow only in the tropics, and you live in the arctic circle, chances are you are mistaken about it's identity. Same goes for a plant you spot on a dry, sunny hillside that is only known to grow in wetlands and swamps. Also, if a plant is known to flower in the fall and you see it in midwinter, you may want to reconsider your assessment. Some plants can change dramatically in appearance throughout the year, and watching a plant through it's whole growing cycle is an excellent way to make certain of it's identity. There's no good reason to be in a hurry, good things do come to those who wait.
Acquiring a base knowledge of botany and learning how to identify plant families can be an invaluable tool for the forager. For instance all members of the mustard (Brassicaceae) family, the mint (Lamiaceae) family, and the mallow (Malvaceae) family are edible, with varying degrees of palatability and digestibility. So if you know how to identify the family, you can theoretically experiment safely with plants that you are unable to identify down to the species. There are members of the mint and mustard families that I know of, however that can cause severe digestive upset, which could be deadly in a survival situation. There is also a possibility with anything new you consume that you could have a sensitivity or an allergy that you were not previously aware of, so it's always good advice to start small and wait an see.
Knowing families can also help you to know what plants to avoid. I've decided to steer clear of all plants in the carrot (Apiaceae) family until I have a decade or so more foraging experience under my belt, as toxic members of this family can be extremely hard to identify and in many cases, contain powerful neurotoxins that spell certain death when consumed even in extremely small quantities. So although wild carrot, or queen Anne's lace, is prolific in this area and easy to distinguish from it's closest look alike, poison hemlock, and this botanical family is highly valuable to mankind for it's contributions of valuable herbs and spices and vegetables, for my own experimentation, I am not yet willing to take the risk. I will be learning as much as possible along the way, just not using these plants yet. Similar statements could also be made about the nightshade (solanceae) family, which includes many common garden vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes, as well as wild edibles, but has been used for thousands of years to poison kings and dignitaries.
Finally, I want to make a note about herbal medicine. It should never be assumed that because a medicine is derived strictly from plants that it is weaker, safer, or less effective than a manufactured pharmaceutical, neither are they necessarily free from side effects. Our Creator has blessed us with everything we need to treat and cure all manner of afflictions and keep our bodies healthy, if we know how to use it. the properties contained in these plants are very powerful and effective, and are in fact, what modern medicine is made from. It is always good to consult with a trained and experienced herbalist before using any herbal medication. Many plants that have powerful toxic properties also have powerful medicinal properties and should only be administered by a professional, others are likely perfectly safe and can be prepared and administered at home without worry, but as with food, I think it's a good idea to start with small doses and wait and see.
I also want to let you know, that you are very capable of becoming a master forager, no matter what you think of your natural weaknesses, or capacity to learn, understand, or memorize. The human brain has an amazing pattern recognition feature that kicks in naturally when it realizes what you are trying to do. We are pre-programmed to survive off the fruits of the land, and that primitive instinct has not left us, even though modern society has tried to force it out of us. Keep at it, develop a healthy obsession, and use it when you got it, and I promise it will come. This is how our ancestors lived, and they only survived to pass their genes along to us because they were good at it, we have that power within us as well.
Lastly, here are a few of my very favorite sources for information on plant identification and information for beginners:
www.eattheweeds.com and www.youtube.com/user/eattheweeds
There are also a number of groups on Facebook where you can connect with hundreds of experts from all over the world and get advice and direction in your journey.