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Foraging the in the 21st century

As a kid growing up in the middle of a forest in southern New England in the 80's, one of my favorite books (and definitely my favorite non-fiction) was "How to Stay Alive in the Woods" by Bradford Angier. While I never attempted some of the suggestions - like hunting ducks by hollowing out a big gourd in order to put it on your head so you can then swim up to them unnoticed and grab them by the feet - I spent a lot of time walking around the woods foraging for bits of the forest that I could safely consume, carrying the book with me, dog-eared to page 33. That was where the edible vegetation guide was.

My most used book growing up - How to stay alive in the woods


At the time, less rural folk may have thought I was strange or at least a little eccentric for eating all the bits of trees and plants that I could, but today this has become a hip and trendy thing to do. I remember trying many times to prepare lichen in a way that didn't taste like dirt, but I was never successful. Now a quick internet search brings up this tasty (looking) lichen salad, and a whole host of other recipes that make it seem easy.

I was constantly trying to prepare lichen in a way that didn't taste like dirt.
I would not eat this lichen, btw. I have no idea what these red blooms are, but standard survivalist knowledge says "stay away..."

There are all sorts of resources now for foraging wild edibles and preparing them to make gourmet (or at least palatable) meals.  There are guides for how to use survivalist knowledge to determine if a particular plant is edible or not, and there is a lot of interest from chefs, environmentalists, and the general public about eating foraged food.  While the current popular trend status may wane over time, the need to be more efficient with our food consumption globally will only increase.  Foraged food will likely continue to find it's way onto dinner plates around the world.  What seems to be missing, in my view, is a comprehensive scientific guide of what can be eaten and what's in it.

Sure, there are a lot of foraging experts, and there are guides that list many of the wild edibles that are commonly eaten, but there are still a number of holes in the knowledge:

  • These guides tell you what to eat but not what is in them in terms of vitamin or nutrient content
  • Some plants that are widely eaten are known to contain some level of toxins which people should be aware of but is often not included in guides
  • Testing the edibility without any scientific tests of the chemical makeup does not let you know if there low levels of toxins in a plant - you will only find out if you have a sensitivity or if you eat too much.
  • There are thousands of plant species that have not been tested yet

So for me, being an information junkie, I am frequently made aware of this data gap.  Whenever I do an internet search for nutritional value or chemical content of a particular plant that I may be interested in, there is always incomplete, and often conflicting information that comes up.  Many of the more popular plants are well documented, but I have yet to find a definitive database where you can find verified nutritional content of any bud, flower, fruit, leaf, stem, bark, or root of a particular plant species.  Right now, I am seriously considering to start this work as a free open-source database project.  If anyone is interesting in contributing, especially if you have knowledge of how to perform the required scientific tests, let me know!  I'm going to start with all the plants that I have around my yard.  Break them down and send them out for testing, then get it all input into a standardized database which is easily searched and cross referenced with recipes.  All of this costs money of course, so any help in figuring out how to get this testing done affordably would be incredible.