Munchies, mysticism, and medicine: Why New England foragers love wild foods
Like many people, Amy Demers found herself with an excess of free time during the early days of the pandemic. She had foraged for wild foods with her parents as a child and used her newfound spare time to pick the hobby back up.
Soon, she began searching for others in the area who also enjoyed foraging, but wasn’t able to find anyone. She then started the Connecticut Foraging Club Instagram page in the hopes of finding other like-minded people.
“The first walk, I had no idea if anyone was going to show up or not,” Demers said. “We had, like, seven people.”
Now, the club’s monthly walks attract, on average, about 35 people. One walk had over 100 attendees, all of whom have their own motivations and favorite plants.
Demers’s favorite finds are mushrooms.
She said she is fascinated by mushrooms because, taxonomically, they are somewhere between plants and animals. Mushrooms are also only edible for one or two days after they fruit, making them harder to find. She said her health has actually improved since the pandemic.
“I don’t know if it’s the mushrooms or not, but I haven’t gotten sick in a few years,” Demers said. “And I’m a physical therapist, and I work as a physical therapist and I work with people all day long.”
Demers also forages for plants, which she eats or dries to make into herbal tinctures. Despite the long history of human reliance on herbal medicine, modern research on the medicinal benefits of most wild plants is very limited. But many foragers swear by some of these remedies.
Becca Ainley went to herbalism school on a whim and gained knowledge that came in handy when, years later, she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease, which she described as a "brutal journey."
“I was in the hospital for, like, a week, with 106-[degree] fever,” Ainley said. “Even in Connecticut, we just don’t have enough medical knowledge about [Lyme].”
Ainley used plants like Japanese Knotweed and burdock to help with inflammation, and a variety of other plants to curb the side effects from her medication.
“Antibiotics, they do harm a lot of your gut bacteria,” Ainley said. “So if you can support yourself with herbs that are going to enrich your gut bacteria, you have a nice marriage between the two. So, I’m not saying, ‘Don’t take Western medicine.’ If anything, use them together.”
Consulting with your physician first is probably a good idea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ainley no longer suffers from Lyme, but still enjoys foraging for wild foods to eat.
“I feel like it really gives you a childlike wonder when you happenstance upon a mushroom and you get to eat it,” Ainley said.
That "childlike wonder" is what originally drew Jay Jacobino to foraging as well.
“I've always been into fantasy elements — like sword-and-sorcery, and stuff like The Witcher,” Jacobino said. “So, for me, it kind of started off more as an extension of my own nerdiness. And I really liked the fact that I can make my own potions, my own teas, and stuff like that.”
"Potions" refers to tinctures — concentrated plant and mushroom extracts that many foragers use as dietary supplements or medicine.
“I like getting lost in the woods and just seeing what I can find,” Jacobino said.
That sense of adventure is partly what inspired Lisa Richard to bring her two children on a foraging walk at the Ansonia Nature Center. She said the foraging walk was an extension of her desire to get her children, Brooks, 9, and Beau, 7, connecting with nature.
“I'm trying to get them off the tablets, off the TVs, off all the screens,” Lisa said. “We would have been on a nature walk, which we do all the time by ourselves — but we just walk right by plants, and we have no idea what they are. Now we know what we can eat and what we can’t eat.”
But Brooks is entering a younger generation of foragers who have learned to marry technology with nature.
“There's this app — it’s called the iNature app,” Brooks said. “Say I saw a mushroom. I took a picture, and [the app] tells you what it is.”
There are numerous websites and apps that help foragers find and identify wild plants, making foraging more accessible than ever before. And experienced foragers have taken to social media, which Ainley said has brought an influx of people into the foraging community.
But she said this is a double-edged sword, because there is a dangerous element to foraging. Any time spent in the woods can lead to injuries or encounters with wildlife. Jacobino, who likes to travel off the beaten path (literally), said his bravado has put him in some sticky spots.
“I was foraging in my backwoods in Torrington, Connecticut, and a black bear chased me, basically for like a solid mile,” Jacobino said.
High-speed bear chases aside, the more common danger for foragers is toxic plants and fungi. Reliance on algorithmic plant identifiers and short online videos does not always provide enough information to make informed choices.
“I've seen videos of people finding mushrooms that are poisonous thinking it's something else, and they don't even really look alike,” Ainley said. “I just want everyone to know that cross referencing really important. Even just going out there — touching, smelling plants before you actually pick them. Get to know your environment, and don't just go picking things willy-nilly.”
Recent research shows that at least 3% of poisonings nationwide are from plant ingestion.
Demers also echoed the importance of thoroughly researching any plant before eating it.
“If it's a plant I don't know, I'll usually just start with Google Lens, and that will give me an idea of what it could be,” Demers said. “And then I'll just do a lot of research from there.”
Having detailed information about a plant will also help in the event that a forager accidentally ingests a toxic plant, or has an allergic reaction to an edible one. Demers said that noting as much detail as possible about a plant can help foragers differentiate between edible plants and toxic lookalikes.
“Knowing the toxic and poisonous species is probably more important than knowing the edible species when you're starting out,” Demers said. “I would start with learning the ones that are toxic, and then go from there.”