There is an astonishing abundance of edibles growing wild in and beyond our backyard. One of the first teachings is, that ‘edible’ does not necessarily equal palatable, tasty, filling or easy to prepare. In other words, just because something is edible, doesn’t mean you might want to bother. For example, many grasses are edible, but why would you want to eat grass (aside from a severe survival situation)?
Learning what is edible and how to identify these in your area would be an overwhelmingly daunting task if you tried to learn all of them at once. It’s a lot easier if you gradually learn one at a time. For instance, find one plant that you have been recommended or that you have seen and are curious about and start with this one. Learn by positive identification.
That is, learn to be sure about the habitat and characteristics of this one plant.
Don’t only learn by what it is not. If you only learn by negative identification (ruling out possibilities) at some point you will get tripped up by another similar appearing plant you’ve never encountered before.
Remember to involve all of your senses. Photos only show so much. For example, Cat’s ear and dandelion can be instantly discerned from each other, by feeling the leaves (fleshy for cat’s ear, papery for dandelion). Stumped if that’s nettles? The stinging will tell you for sure!
The plants you encounter along the path of correctly identifying your first foraging friend, will probably lead you to your next one. One by one, you will build up a solid familiarity with the wild food around you.
With all the excitement about getting food for free, people new to foraging often forget about the concept of respect. Wild food is not only a resource for humans to gorge on. It’s also a gift for all the beings who can benefit from it. That’s not just us. Wild plants we can eat will go away if abused. Remember your manners. Only taking the excess. Always leave plenty so that the plant is able to continue to thrive. Remember to leave them alone, if there’s only one or only a few. Allowing the population to build and become robust. Keep in mind not to take too much from one spot, take a little from here and a bit from there. Only snip off the parts of plants you need, don’t rip the whole plant out, and therefore kill it. Only take what you can realistically use before it goes bad. You may not be the only forager enjoying this bounty, as well as all the wild critters.
With manners firmly in mind, where can you forage in NSW aside from your backyard?
Let’s start with where you definitely can’t go picking plants or catching animals: National Parks, Nature Reserves, Marine Parks and Aquatic Reserves. Beware of foraging for members of threatened ecological communities. And watch out for Intertidal Protected Areas and Significant Roadside Environment Areas. (www.awe.gov.au/environment/biodiversity/threatened/communities/nsw-act)
In other spaces such as parks, crown land, quiet roadsides, laneways and abandoned vacant land, the laws vary wildly. To say they tend to be obscure is a huge understatement. Most foragers use common sense in not taking vast quantities or any at all, leaving the area undamaged by their activities, avoiding protected plants (that’s most native plants) and making sensible efforts to ask permission if it is possible for them to do so.
On a health note, there are places you don’t forage from to avoid making yourself very sick:
• Sprayed areas are covered in toxic chemicals. They are often coloured by pink or blue dye. If not, they are recognisable by being a suspicious dead or dying patch i.e. along a fence line, in an area otherwise doing fine.
• On busy roadsides the plants can be accumulating or covered in the chemicals and heavy metals from exhaust fumes.
• Popular dog walking places aren’t ideal either because dogs will have toileted everywhere and we can pick up many infections from dog poo.
• Abandoned or vacant blocks should be treated with caution. First, find out what was going on there previously before taking edibles. You’re looking for use of chemicals and heavy metals.
• What’s happening upstream? Check for road run-off, or use of harmful chemicals or heavy metals that may be flushing down into the area before picking something to eat from beside a waterway.
What can you find out foraging?
You’ll be able to find fruits, especially berries, some nuts, lots of leafy greens, flowers, mushrooms (if you know what you’re doing), seaweed and seafood.
Starting with edible weeds and escaped garden flowers & fruit plants is usually simplest as they are definitely not protected species.
Most wild leafy greens are weeds and the greens in particular need an addendum to the ‘edible’ doesn’t equal palatable theme. Many edible leafy greens are useful as garnishes but not so much as meals. Even so, there are far too many meal-worthy greens to list. A few easy ones to start with are dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), cat’s ear / flatweed (Hypochaeris radicata), chickweed (Stellaria media), Warrigal Greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides) and purslane (Portulaca oleracea).
Did you know magnolia flowers taste like mild ginger? Nasturtiums are sweet, while their leaves are peppery and their seeds make substitute to capers. Rosehips (sieved to remove the hairs) cook into a beautiful jelly. You can eat any flowers of the edible herbs, most vegetables (maybe not parsnip) or fruit trees. There are so many edible flowers it’s ridiculous, but honestly you would treat most of them as edible garnishes.
The fruits will be native berries like lily pilly, native raspberry and native strawberry. Maybe you’ll spot some cape gooseberry, bush lemons, escaped fruit salad plant (Monstera deliciosa) and a selection of citrus. There are midgen berry public plantings around and other edibles on street trees. Guava, Brazilian cherries and to a lesser extent, loquats take off like weeds from gardens. All figs are edible, though many wild ones are seedier than you may be used to. Mulberries are dotted around and if you’re lucky you’ll find avocados and coffee beans. This is only a partial list!!
There is an abundance of Indigenous foods to learn about, far more than the few common berries mentioned. Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre regularly runs bush food walks and similar learning experiences and has a number of excellent written resources.
Foraging – a combination of free food, new tastes, satisfying time out in nature, careful observation, knowing your neighbourhood and attunement with seasonal changes. It becomes an ongoing practice which can really anchor you into a sense of place.
Artwork and words by Fiona Morgan
References & further reading
• The Weed Forager’s Handbook: A Guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia by Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland.
• Useful weeds at our doorstep – by Pat Collins
• Wild food plants of Australia by Tim Low
• The Wild Edible Database (db.weedyconnection.com)
• Milkwood (www.milkwood.net)