When most of us are hungry for lunch, we pick up supplies at the grocery store or stop by the nearby cafe with the best lunch specials. Not Nick Spero. He goes outside and forages his own meal.
Spero is a biologist who's been foraging wild edibles since he was a little kid. He recalls learning about plants from his parents. "My father was born in Sparta [in Greece] and I think that was probably part of how they gathered their food," Spero says. "At an early age, I can remember my father driving down the road and pointing plants out and saying how his mother would want to stop and pick those plants and eat them."
Spero presents programs and leads walks on foraging at the Natural History Society of Maryland, teaching others how to identify a wild edible and the health benefits of eating them. (Note: Spero is a foraging professional and we urge caution when foraging on your own.)
"When you pick wild edibles, several considerations need to be carefully thought out: You need to pick responsibly, you need to pick ethically, and plants are living animals, so you just don't want to rip them out of the ground. You want to be thankful for what you pick and pick responsibly," Spero says. "Positive identification is really important with plants, so the margin of the leaf, the veins of the leaf all help with positive identification. And once you've picked things for years, you just get to realize what things are over time."
Spero says you should rely on positive identification when foraging — which basically means studying up and being sure you know what a plant is before picking and consuming it. He strongly recommends any of the foraging guides written by Samuel Thayer, an expert on edible wild plants.
"The first time you eat something, you should eat it sparingly, to make sure that your system is not going to have an adverse reaction to that," he cautions. "See how it goes and then try a little bit more, and then if you know you're OK, have fun."
"There is an old adage of taking a plant and crunching it up, taking a soft area of your body [like the inside of your wrist], rub it on, wait, see if there's any reaction. If there is no reaction, take the plant and rub it on your lips. Wait. Not seconds but minutes, half an hour. If there's no reaction, take a little bit, chew it [and then spit it out.] Wait an hour or so. If there's no reaction, eat a little bit, however you want to prepare it. If there's no reaction, you're probably safe." But this type of taste test should only be used as a last resort, he says. "I prefer positive identification."
Spero led us on a wild, edible walk at Eden Mill Nature Center in Pylesville, Md., a location he hadn't foraged in previously. Watch the video above to see how he picked and prepared lunch with cattails, garlic mustard, wood ear mushrooms and black locust flowers.