Clare Walker tugged on a branch of a sapling at Irvine Nature Center, pulling off a three-lobed leaf. “Do you smell that?” she asked, rubbing the leaf between her fingers. A minty, lemony scent rose from her hand. “This is sassafras. The roots were the original source of root beer, and if you dig them up, you’ll recognize that smell right away.”
As Walker roamed outside on a clear, late-spring day, she pointed out otherwise unremarkable plants that are good to eat or make into medicines.
That towering weed crowned by a spray of white flowers? Garlic mustard, good for pesto, and an invasive plant that should be plucked anyway. A carpet of bright green leaves revealed itself to be wood sorrel, excellent in salads with its citrusy snap. A familiar greenish purple weed is dead nettles, a plant that appears so frequently on Walker’s table that her children long ago gave it a nickname: “the fuzzies.”
Walker has long taught classes in foraging at the Owings Mills nature center, where she is the director of programming. But since 2020, she has noticed a surge of interest in the courses, especially among young adults. The ancient practice of looking for edible plants — an activity that consumed the days of our distant ancestors — suddenly seems revolutionary. Across the Baltimore region, an increasing number of people are taking up foraging. They’re gathering toothsome plants and mushrooms in fields and forests and their own backyards, posting finds on social media and swapping recipes that sound like dishes from a fairy tea party.
A 2017 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that 105 foragers surveyed in Baltimore City and County reported finding more than 170 different species of edible plants and mushrooms. Many longtime foragers say they, too, have seen soaring interest in the pastime, especially among those who took up hiking or cooking from scratch (remember the sourdough bread craze?) during quarantine. Moreover, concerns about the supply chain — a concept many had never thought about before the pandemic — led some to want to be less reliant on grocery stores. Plus, foragers say, there is a certain spiritual or ecological impulse that propels people to consume nature’s bounty.
“Humans have lost their connection to the earth and this is a way to get it back,” said Kayce Heister, 39, a holistic health practitioner from Frederick County. She had just finished a lunch of fiddlehead ferns and buttered garden snails, which she described as “the mussels of the land.”
Heister has been foraging for more than a decade, but created a TikTok channel this year to share foraging tips and amassed 63,000 followers in just a few months.
In a recent video, she holds up a dandelion and asks, “Do you want to know what this little flower can do for your health?”
More than 500,000 people watched Heister discuss the nutritional and medicinal benefits of dandelions, one of Heister’s favorite foods to forage. She sends her kids out to collect the flowers, then fries them into fritters. She makes salads with the young tender leaves. And she makes healing concoctions with the roots, which she, like others interested in natural healing, believes can help the kidney, liver and heart. (Scientists have not studied the effects of dandelions on humans, although research shows they can be beneficial to farm animals.)
“People think dandelions are weeds, but they are one of the best plants on the planet for our health,” said Heister. “If you look at the plants that are very abundant, they are often good for us. This is Mother Earth’s way of providing for her inhabitants.”
For Heister, a descendant of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, foraging is a way to find healing in the earth and connect with her heritage. She collects and cooks mushrooms from her property in Union Bridge, including chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, and morels, a particular delicacy. She makes medicinal tinctures, teas and salves from stinging nettles and turkey tail mushrooms.
For some, foraging is primarily a form of walking meditation. Rodolfo Arvinzu, 46, a Navy veteran from Gaithersburg, can spend as long as six hours hunting for mushrooms in green spaces near his home. “When I’m out there, everything else melts away,” he said. “I get a sort of runner’s high out of it.”
Arvinzu said that growing up in a large extended Mexican-American family in California, he foraged all the time without knowing the word for it.
“We would run around and climb trees and eat the fruit: apricots, figs, these small deep purple plums,” Arvinzu said. He rediscovered foraging a few years ago and now leads hikes in which he shows participants how to find seasonal mushrooms.
For Anne Gonnella of Ellicott City, foraging was an outgrowth of her family’s love of nature. Gonnella, 52, has spent many hours exploring her family’s property and nearby woods with her two children, whom she home-schools. The girls, ages 9 and 12, pluck and eat redbuds in early spring, stuff their mouths with tasty wineberries at this time of year, and nibble on autumn olives in the fall. Occasionally the family will eat an entire meal that comes from their property: a deer shot by Gonnella’s husband, sauteed mushrooms, fresh wild greens.
“We teach the kids how to be outside and how to pay attention to everything around them,” said Gonnella, a computer user experience specialist. “When you’re a kid and you find out something is edible, the next step is to eat it. To interact that way with the world is really awesome. Being that connected opens your eyes to how you fit into the world and what you can do to protect it.”
Like many foragers, Gonnella and her family gather only plants that are invasive — and therefore should be removed to make space for native plants — or species that are native to Maryland but grow in abundance. Walker, the nature center employee who holds a doctorate in environmental studies, calls this “ethical foraging.”
“There are a lot of things out here that are edible, but they’re struggling to hold on among all of the invasive plants,” Walker said. Take mayapples. Although the tiny fruits tucked under umbrella-like leaves are edible, Walker does not disturb them because the plants are an important food for box turtles. One native plant that causes ecological concerns is the ramp, which appear in early spring and is beloved for its fresh, green garlic flavor. Overzealous foragers can quickly wipe out a stand of ramps, which takes years to establish. Walker worries about foragers who traipse through otherwise untouched land; they might carry the seeds of invasive plants on their clothing, and disturbing native plants could open the door to invasive plants taking over.
Then there are the legal concerns. Foraging is illegal in most national parks, although some do allow visitors to take small quantities of certain plants or mushrooms. In Maryland state parks, it is illegal to “remove, disturb, damage or destroy” a plant. However the state’s Department of Natural Resources encourages foraging (presumably on private lands), and even published a cookbook last fall of foraged foods, including a recipe for “Chocolate Ant Bars” that begins with instructions for luring ants from their nests.
Most foragers, then, begin close to home in city or county parks that allow foraging (or where rules around it simply aren’t enforced), in vacant lots, or their own backyards.
The next challenge is to figure out what can be safely eaten. Some novices find an experienced forager to show them around or take a course, such as those that Walker offers at Irvine. Many use guidebooks and apps to identify plants and mushrooms. And foragers turn to social media for advice; there are at least three Maryland foraging groups on Facebook. Some foragers have attracted large followings on social media. Alexis Nikole Nelson of Ohio, who posts as “the Black forager,” has more than 3.6 million followers on TikTok.
An important thing for new foragers to learn, of course, is how to identify poisonous plants. This can be tricky. For example, celery, carrots, dill, parsley and cilantro all belong to the same family of plants and have certain features in common, Walker said. But so does a deadly cousin of these plants: hemlock, which grows wild in the area. Some plants, such as sassafras, the original root of root beer, can be poisonous in large doses or when not prepared correctly. Walker recommends that beginning foragers focus initially on plants that are easy to recognize such as violets, garlic mustard and pawpaw, a banana custard-flavored fruit of a native tree. “I don’t want to scare people off, because there is a great number of good things to eat and just a few poisonous plants,” Walker said.
Walker noted that there was a similar surge of interest in foraging in the 1970s, due to the back-to-the-land ethos of the era. However, there was little focus on the flavor of foraged foods in the ‘70s, she said. ”There’s a difference between edible and palatable,” she said.
In recent years, upscale restaurants centered on wild ingredients (including the aptly named Foraged in Station North), and glossy cookbooks have introduced a new generation of foragers to exciting delicacies. One of the cookbooks in Walker’s collection, “Forage, Harvest, Feast”, features whimsical and beautiful dishes, including fried milkweed buds, elderflower madeleines, and fir and lemon ice cream.
Many foraged species quickly wilt and could probably never be mass-produced, Walker explained, making these ephemeral flavors all the more precious. On a recent morning, Walker cooked up young milkweed shoots that she had picked moments before. Later in the season, milkweed builds up toxins in its leaves, but they are edible when prepared correctly during spring and early summer. While milkweed is best known for being the sole food eaten by monarch caterpillars, nibbling on the young plants does not rob the caterpillars of their food source, Walker said. In fact, pruning the plants in spring means there will be more tender leaves for the caterpillars when they emerge in late summer.
As she blanched the milkwood shoots, Walker described the true joy of foraging: researching and closely observing plants. Choosing to pluck plants in ways that will benefit native species. Picking the right plants at the right time. And then there is the taste.
Blanched, then rolled in a bit of butter and a pinch of salt, the milkweed shoots were green, crunchy and refreshing — the very taste of spring.