Foraging: How, When And Where

Garlic mustard greens grow along a footpath in Lexington, Va.
Garlic mustard greens grow along a footpath in Lexington, Va. (By Stephanie Gross For The Washington Post)
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

For a successful foraging outing, you will need a solid knowledge of the land and plant life, plus a lot of serendipity. Here are some tips on when to go, what to pick and how to make the most of your free meal from Mother Earth.

· Morel season varies from year to year and among locations; however, Raymond LaSala, president of the Mycological Association of Washington (301-907-3053,, says the morels in this area usually start to appear around the second week of April and last through mid-May. If the weather stays cool and wet, the season may stretch through the month or longer in higher altitudes. LaSala suggests the higher elevations of Shenandoah National Park, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Morels aren't the only mushrooms in the woods this time of the year; expand your repertoire with wine-cap stropharia, fairy rings, pink bottoms, shaggy manes and slippery Jacks.

· Never forage on private land without permission, and check signs or contact the city, state or national park office for rules on public land. (Rock Creek Park, for example, does not permit foraging.)

· When pulling a plant from the earth, leave the root or base in the soil, if possible, to extend its life. Just pinch it from the bottom of the stem.

· On foraging expeditions, bring gloves (stinging nettles burn like red ants), lots of plastic baggies, water, and field books and maps. Wear sturdy hiking boots, long sleeves and pants. Brambles hurt and ticks bite.

· Beginning foragers should team with an expert who can distinguish between edible and toxic wild foods. If you can't find a foraging friend, the Mycological Association of Washington organizes public forays; the next one is tentatively scheduled for Saturday. Also, never eat an unidentified plant or berry.

· Read field guides and become familiar with regional greens, nuts, mushrooms and berries. John Kallas, founder of the Oregon-based Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables, recommends starting a small library that includes books on plant identification and edibility. His Web site ( lists some suggested titles.

· Before eating your finds, soak morels in salted water to suss out any critters; clean unwashed greens thoroughly in water with a few drops of bleach.

· For information on morels, including recent sightings, check Morel Mania (, ( and the Great Morel ( For more on foraging, "Wildman" Steve Brill is sort of the father of foraging: He leads wild-food tours and talks in the Northeast and runs an informative Web site ( featuring data on dozens of wild edibles, plus recipes. Katie Letcher Lyle has written a number of books about edible plants (with recipes), including "The Foraging Gourmet" and "The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts"; both are available through

-- Andrea Sachs

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