9 foraging tips from Alexis Nikole Nelson, social media’s ‘Black Forager’

Every Wednesday at noon, the Voraciously team goes live to answer your questions about food and cooking. Sometimes, we invite an expert to give readers direct access to the information and advice they’re seeking.

On April 6, the Internet’s favorite foraging guide, Alexis Nikole Nelson, joined us to answer reader questions about foraging. Nelson, known on TikTok as @alexisnikole and on Instagram as @blackforager, delights millions of viewers with joyful, informative videos showing how to identify food in nature and explaining how she likes to prepare and preserve it.

The food TikTokers we can’t get enough of

Here are a few foraging tips from Nelson that stood out from the Q&A. These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. You can find a full transcript of the chat here.

What are your best tips for not dying while foraging?

This is truly a wonderful question! My biggest tip for not dying while foraging is to never put something in your mouth unless you’re 100 percent sure about what it is. There’s no shame in the “taking something home to do more research where I have better Internet” game! When I’m in new places, I still take samples home or to my hotel or what have you to further research. Another pro tip: When eating something new, start small! You never know when you may discover a new allergy.

What’s your preferred way to ethically harvest ramps, and what’s the best way to stretch them across multiple meals?

Step one to ethical ramp harvesting is an awareness of how prolific they are in your area. If I was in New York, even if I saw a large patch of narrow-leaf ramps, I’d leave them due to the dance they’ve been doing with the endangered list for the last decade or so.

If you’re in an area where they’re not on a watch list of any kind, assess the size of the patch. Think ahead — if, say, 20 other people came across this patch during the next month and took the amount you plan to take, what would be left?

I only gather leaves (one leaf from a multi-leafed ramp) so that plant can continue to photosynthesize and survive another year. If you’re hankering for bulbs, I’d suggest invasive field garlic (allium vineale) instead. Also delicious, and also everywhere!

I salt and dry my leaves so they last all year with their flavor intact.

The problem with foraging is that it becomes less and less sustainable as more people do it. Each person has less incentive to leave anything behind for next time, since it’s more likely that someone else will come along and claim it. Other than keeping our spots secret, how can we encourage sustainable foraging practices?

I try to encourage “future focused” foraging and also try to hype up common and invasive plants just as much as I do ramps or morels, because honestly the reason everyone goes buckwild for the latter two is marketing! If more people foraged but were foraging things like mallow, black mustard, garlic mustard, nonnative bramble berries, we’d actually be doing our ecosystems a world of good.

Maybe I’m a little too optimistic, but I really believe that when people interact more with green spaces, they take better care of them and develop a relationship with them, which would be the biggest win of all.

Do you think there’s enough in nature to wild forage for everyone?

I think if we focused on plentiful invasives (like knotweed, which grows several inches a day this time of year), there would be more than enough to go around. The issue is folks hyperfocusing on just a few plants!

I see so many berries in my area that are not listed on the Internet resources I’ve found for identifying local plants. Are there authoritative guides for identifying regional berries?

A local foraging guide and iNaturalist are great learning tools! For DC, I’d suggest the book “Mid-Atlantic Foraging,” which will cover a whole lot of them. The iNaturalist app shouldn’t be considered definitive in finding out if you can eat something, but rather a tool to use to direct your research. iNaturalist is regularly surveyed by botanists, biologists and expert foragers, so you can also look at a map of your area and see what’s already been found (and if an expert has confirmed the ID yet).

Is there a way to tell if animal waste is on foraged plants, and does rinsing make the foraged food safe?

What I remind new foragers is that the veggies from the grocery store have been grown in fertilizer that often has excrement or urea in it, so just like you clean those veggies before eating, you do the same with your foraged finds.

I love a water and vinegar wash! Dunk your finds while scrubbing in a bowl of water and vinegar, and then give them a rinse before eating or putting in the fridge.

How much of your diet is foraged food?

The percentage varies during the year. During the winter, it gets low, to around 10 percent, since it’s just what I managed to save and preserve during the year (trying to save more this year, though!). Around now it picks up, and in late summer when some higher calorie snacks are in season (acorns, pawpaws, persimmons, etc.) I can have entire days of foraged food!

What are the two or three foods you forage that you think, “Why doesn’t everyone eat these all the time?”

Dandelions and Japanese knotweed! Both are crazy prolific, and tasty and easy to ID.

I’m getting back into foraging, and I’d love to know what some of your favorite books or reference materials are!

All of Sam Thayer’s books are indispensable! I can’t recommend them enough.

Want cooking tips for specific items? Check out the full transcript.

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