Foragers tap nature for food, fun, financesSomebody left nature's gate open, and people are streaming into the wild.
By: By Mike Tighe, La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Superior Telegram
Somebody left nature's gate open, and people are streaming into the wild. Folks join the hunt to find edible plants, roots and yes, even weeds, for a variety of reasons, including health, budget and adventure.
"It's a growing trend," said Abe Lloyd, who will be keynote speaker at the fourth annual Midwest Wild Harvest Festival Aug. 24-26 at the Wisconsin Badger Camp in Prairie du Chien. "There's a lot of interest lately because people are becoming more aware of the health benefits of returning to our more evolutionary diet."
Known variously as the paleolithic diet, or the Stone Age diet and even the caveman diet, the regimen is based on the belief that the prehistoric human diet of wild plants and animals millions of years ago is nutritionally beneficial.
Another reason to tap the wild is the products are free, said Carla Bloem, director/naturalist at the Houston (Minn.) Nature Center.
"It's a really great thing, because some people have trouble paying their groceries," she said. "There are lots of wild plants, such as nettles and wild parsnip, that are good to eat. You can go out and get all kinds of weeds that are edible. It's a really great skill."
Such plants also can help people with allergies. "I was allergic to almost every food on the planet," Bloem said, but she found a host of wild plants she could eat.
In addition to such health factors, Lloyd said, "People are born with an innate sense that foraging is fun."
"I used to love picking berries as a child because I could feed myself. I didn't have to depend on my parents," said Lloyd, who earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Northland College in Ashland, Wis., in 2001.
Jumping into the wild food stream also is more Earth friendly, he said.
Although interest is picking up, many naturalists wish even more people would look into foraging.
Andrea Benco, a naturalist at Perrot State Park near Trempealeau who occasionally leads edible plant walks and talks, said, "Sadly, I just see the same faces. That's too bad, because it's a great way to get connected to the world around you."
By the same token, foragers also don't want people running amok and stripping the land.
"Many herbalists and foragers are more concerned than in the past about over-harvesting," according to Laurie Stiers-Foltz, a clinical herbalist and nurse practitioner in La Crosse.
"As more people are interested, there is more risk of valuable native plants getting picked to the point of extinction. Goldenseal and American ginseng roots are primary examples," said Stiers-Foltz, former treasurer of the Coulee Region Herbal Institute.
"Among gatherers, it is a general rule to take no more than 10 percent, and then only if you observe that there is a sizeable established patch of your desired plant. Otherwise, no matter how much you want to harvest, you should leave it alone," she said.
Some harvesting also is illegal. Perrot State Park's Benco said people are welcome to collect berries, mushrooms and nuts for personal consumption at state parks, but it's against the law to gather such munchies to sell.
Although the drought has shriveled some of the wild crop and pickings get slimmer around this time of year, some berries and mushrooms still are available, Benco said. And the fall is a big time for walnuts and hickory nuts.
People interested in trekking down the foraging trail should start slowly, with simple things such as berries and leeks, Lloyd advises, noting that delving into roots requires knowledge and experience.
And the first thing fledgling forest food foragers must do before going all Hannibal Lecter on wild things is learn what plants actually are edible.
"Definitely get educated, because there are deadly look-alikes out there," Benco said.
Underscoring that thought, the Houston Nature Center's Bloem said, "Absolutely don't eat anything unless you can identify it positively, especially berries and mushrooms. If in doubt, don't eat it."
Bloem cited the water hemlock's similarity to Queen Anne's lace. "If you eat water hemlock," she warned in an ominous tone, "you're going to die."
(c)2012 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)
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