Foraging can be a fun way to put good eats on the table

Megan Sheridan, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Photo courtesy of Matt Normansell via the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

As winter’s chill works itself into a thaw and green begins to color the landscape, it is prime time to sleuth out some of Wisconsin’s most delicious hidden gems.

Foraging is an endless, wide-ranging skill that is also a frugal way to fill your pantry and fridge. It’s especially useful when people seek out activities that encourage outdoor, solo fun.

But how do you get started?

Matt Normansell, a foraging educator and owner of Eden Wild Food, provides the simplest advice: Be curious.

“Fire up your curiosity,” he said. “Look but don’t seek. Start to look at what’s around you and build a relationship with your environment.”

Think of your favorite fruit or vegetable. There is likely a Wisconsin equivalent growing not too far from your home. Start there and learn as much as you can.

“Don’t think about ‘learning’ foraging,” said Sam Thayer of Forager’s Harvest in Bruce. “Think about learning one plant or one mushroom thoroughly and well.”

“It’s not like learning a new language, where you have to know the grammar and a whole bunch of words to start using it. You just need to know one, whether that’s black raspberries or asparagus.”

Thayer considers foraging to be a cumulative skill and by learning one plant or fungi well, you can build on that knowledge to discover a greater variety of forageable things.

Growing Interest

With more people seeking a wide breadth of solo activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Normansell has seen increasing numbers join online groups and search digital content, although in person classes are currently on hold.

“I have noticed an increase in traffic on the online groups, and demand for digital content in the foraging world seems to be on the increase,” he said. “In times where being close to people has become problematic, foraging is a pastime that’s very COVID-friendly.”

Eden Wild Food and Foragers Harvest each have websites featuring extensive foraging information, including learning opportunities and details on where to purchase foraged goods. Visit Eden Wild Food and Forager’s Harvest.

Both Normansell and Thayer began foraging in earnest as children and learning from family, which means that, yes, foraging is a family-friendly activity.

Being curious, inquisitive and lower to the ground, kids can get in on the hunt and have success, too, as long as they’re not putting any unknown harvests in their mouths as snacks along the way.

Where can I forage?

The rules of where you can forage in Wisconsin are slightly different, depending on the ownership of the property.

Private lands: If you’d like to forage on private land you do not own, ask permission.

Federal lands: Foraging is allowed; however, the rules can differ from place to place. For instance, the St. Croix Wetland Management District allows foraging of berries and mushrooms for personal use. On the Apostle Islands, fruits, berries and nuts can be foraged for personal use, but collecting other natural objects such as rocks, wildflowers and driftwood is not allowed. There are foraging limits in the Apostle Islands of one gallon per person, per week of fruits, berries and mushrooms and five gallons per person, per week for apples. Check with the property manager of federal lands before you start.

State lands: Foraging is allowed on state properties. Take a look at the sidebar below for specifics on what kinds of foraging are permitted.

County lands: Counties can set their own rules for foraging. Foraging is not allowed in Milwaukee County Parks, for instance, but is allowed in Dane County Parks, which goes so far as to recommend park locations to find in-demand foods — Dane County Parks Foraging.

Municipal properties: These also can set their own foraging rules. Call your local parks department or municipal clerk to find out what restrictions may apply in your area.

It’s important to note that you do not need to live in a rural community to forage. You can forage in your back yard, so to speak, even if you don’t have one.

Foraging Ethics

Outside of the rules placed on properties by governing bodies, there also are some ethical standards for foraging.

“Never take more than you need and try and understand the life cycles of what you harvest to ensure what you are doing is always sustainable,” Normansell said. “This especially can include eating invasive species, which have the added benefit that you can take as much as you like, e.g., autumn olive, garlic mustard, etc.”

Also, if you have to damage a plant or tree in order to harvest, like cutting or breaking a branch to get at good fruit, don’t do it. It could cause further harm and reduce the next season’s harvest.

Foraging Seasons

Like many Wisconsinites, Thayer has deer season and the fish opener on his mental calendar every year. Outside of hunting and fishing, he also makes note of about 100 other seasons for things like blueberries and spring greens.

“For me, my entire emotional experience of a year is like a constant cycle of things I’m excited about one and then the next and then the next,” Thayer said. Foraging can happen nearly year-round, but most opportunities start in March and run through November.

“The climax of the summer brings forth a bounty of wild fruits,” Normansell said. “The late summer fungi are still around, but the real stars of the fall fungi are starting to pop.

“This is the time when you never quite know what you will come home with, but you’re usually guaranteed to find something.”

Thayer’s best advice is the simplest: “When you’re looking for food, look for disturbance.”

Areas that have seen disturbance — whether it’s flooding, fire or deposits of material like dead leaves or compost — are likely to have a bounty of vegetables.

Here are the seasons for some of the state’s most popular “found foods.”

  • Morel mushrooms: It can start as early as March and run as late as May, depending on where you live in Wisconsin. Prime time for morel mushrooms occurs with daytime temperatures in the 60s and overnight temperatures in the 40s. A little bit of rain and a little bit of sun help these mushrooms spring up.
  • Ramps: Also known as wild leeks, ramps are an onion-y favorite of many foragers. They are most easily spotted around the same time as morels, in spring.
  • Asparagus: This is also a springtime harvest, and some say one of the easiest to find because it is hard to mistake it for another plant. Keep an eye out starting in midApril, and always remember to leave some intact spears behind— asparagus that goes to seed grows more asparagus next season.
  • Blueberries: Likely, you’ve picked some up before at your local farmer’s market, but finding them on your own is easy, especially if you live in the northern two-thirds of the state. They’re typically ready for harvest starting in early July and running through mid-August.
  • Black raspberries/black caps: These berries tend to show up in the peak of summer, usually around mid-July. They’re milder than the conventional raspberries picked up in the grocery store but still quite sweet.

Foraging Safety

A lot of foraged food, especially mushrooms and berries, have look-alikes or go from being edible to inedible, or vice versa, as they ripen/age.

“Don’t eat something unless you’re 100% certain of what it is and that it’s safe to eat,” Thayer said. “People have heard of poisonings, but when you look into specific cases, it’s generally people eating unidentified plants. It’s very rare that it’s a misidentified plant.”

Normansell said poisonings are often the result of wishful thinking, such as hoping to find chanterelle mushrooms and instead finding and eating jack-o’-lanterns, putting you in severe gastrointestinal distress.

Wild greens and foraged asparagus perfectly complement a wild turkey burger. Photo courtesy of Matt Normansell via the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

“The biggest mistakes in foraging come from trying to seek out a certain plant or fungi, and more than its fair share of poisonings historically come from a bad case of wishful thinking,” he said.

Also, pay attention to where you harvest. If you’re near a roadway or farmland, what you’re foraging may have come in contact with fertilizer, herbicides or pesticides as well as dirt and exhaust. As always, anything foraged needs a good wash before eating.

Recipe: Morel and asparagus creamy pasta

—3 ounces fresh morel mushrooms, wiped clean
—4 tablespoons unsalted butter plus a splash of olive oil to taste
—1 small shallot, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon), or substitute a red or yellow onion
—1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut on the diagonal into 11⁄2-inch slices
—11⁄4 cups heavy cream
—2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (dried are OK if they’re from a good source)
—Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
—6 ounces linguine or fettuccine
—3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (must be fresh; dried and processed just won’t do)

If the morels are on the big side, cut them in half lengthwise. You want them about the size of your thumb.

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the diced shallots and cook for about one minute but do not brown. Add optional olive oil.

Add the morels and saute, stirring occasionally until tender, probably seven to 10 minutes. Add the sliced asparagus, cream and thyme and simmer until the asparagus is tender but not too soft and the sauce is slightly thickened, probably five minutes on medium heat. Season as desired with salt and pepper.

On another burner, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and toss with the asparagus and morels. Grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano over it all and toss gently to coat the pasta, morels and asparagus with unctuous cheese.

Serve immediately.