Have you ever come across an unknown plant or mushroom while hiking and wondered whether or not it’s safe to stick it in your mouth? Well wonder no more. In our July-August 2023 issue, we discussed the various field trips offered through the Natural Resources Foundation (NRF) of Wisconsin, and this year, they have seven hands-on foraging trips where you’ll learn what’s edible, medicinal, and 
otherwise beneficial.

These field trips, including Introduction to Foraging, are meant to give all levels of foragers tips and tricks when it comes to identifying desirable fungi, plants, nuts, and berries. Trip leader, herbalist, and forager Vince Aiello (fireandforaging.com) says, “There’s hundreds and hundreds of plants you can pick throughout the season. The spring is clearly the best for greens, berries come in the midsummer, and in the fall are nuts and all kinds of mushrooms.”

Even if you’re all about the mushroom hunt, Vince makes a good case to sign up for a springtime foraging field trip. “I’ve made a salad with basswood leaves, they’re just delicious; violet leaves; winter cress; watercress. You can make a full-on salad with wild lettuce. The wild lettuce you get is the forerunner to the lettuce you get in the grocery store. It looks like looseleaf lettuce; it grows on a tall stem.”

You’ll also learn about the ubiquitous flowers, needles, and berries that make brilliant fresh teas. Vince is quick to point out that whatever you’re eating in nature has roughly three to four times the nutrient density of the commercially grown food you’ll find in the grocery store. You can save a little money by just foraging in your backyard.

“Violet, mitsuba, wood sorrel: these are probably growing in your backyard,” says Vince. “Just go out and grab them to bring your salad to the next level. Dandelions are probably the best plant you can eat. It’s antiviral. It’s really rich in nutrients. You can eat the flowers. You can eat them when they first come out, and they’re like artichokes. You can eat everything on them. You could dig out the roots in the fall and make a coffee out of it.”

All that said, mushrooms really are what get a lot of people excited about foraging in the first place. There’s something alien about them that really draws people in, and there’s still so much we have to learn about their uses beyond the culinary. Aside from morels, if it’s mushrooms you’re looking for, fall is your best bet.

“You have hen of the woods, chicken of the woods, and there’s one called shrimp of the woods,” says Vince. “Shrimp of the woods is bizarre. It starts off as one kind of fungus and gets the spores of another one into it and has what they call an abortion—it’s an abortive entoloma. If you battered it up and ate it with cocktail sauce, you’d have a hard time not believing it’s some kind of shrimp. We found pounds of them on other walks I’ve led.

“I don’t just talk about edible plants, but I talk about medicinal as well. There’s one called gravel root. Years ago, I was on a plant walk and this herbalist said it gets gravel out of your body. I thought, ‘What does that even mean?’ Of course, somebody asked, and the herbalist said, ‘Stones. Gall stones. Kidney stones.’ I like to present it that same way and make the walks fun and exciting.”

Alongside the known benefits of plants like yarrow and jewel weed, the former great for healing cuts and the latter for poison ivy, bee stings, and sunburns, Vince believes there’s a good chance the next century of medical breakthroughs will come from mushrooms. They not only improve gut and brain health, but “there’s this factor in mushrooms called TNF (tumor necrosis factor) which actually starves off tumor cells. The more you start digging into mushrooms, the crazier it becomes.”

With so much around, it might be easy to get carried away, which brings up ethical foraging. Gathering mushrooms and berries? Go nuts…I mean take a meal’s worth. Bushes and mycelia produce what they produce before the fruits and fruiting bodies rot away. When it comes to the green stuff, try to only take around 10 percent so you don’t deplete the area. As Vince says, “Foraging is environmental stewardship at the individual level.” Also, be sure you have permission to forage on private land or in a state natural area.

This article is in no way a substitute for the real thing, and the best way to forage is to get out there and do it. Once you’re a member of NRF of Wisconsin, it’s easier than ever to find the right field trip for you thanks to the new online tool, which features a clickable map showing where and when field trips take place. You’ll also receive a guidebook in the mail with a passcode on the back, which is used for registration.

Kim Kreitinger, NRF of Wisconsin field trip coordinator, says, “The field trip program is super popular, so a lot of the trips fill up pretty quickly. Having said that, there are always a lot of good trips that have openings, and that’s something we highlight throughout the season. … We are trying to be more accessible to all people, all abilities, and all income levels.” Now is the right time to find the field trip for you and enjoy so much of what Wisconsin has to offer.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer who can’t see the fungi for the flora.

Forest Bathing & Foraging: Donald Park in Mount Vernon
Sunday, May 19, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Leaders: Kate Bast & Vince Aiello

Introduction to Foraging at Festge County Park in Cross Plains
Saturday, May 25, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Saturday, June 8, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Saturday, September 7, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Leader: Chris Gavin

Olson Oak Woods Mushroom Foray in Verona
Saturday, June 22, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Leader: Jessica Ross

Foraging for Wild Edible Plants in Arena
Saturday, August 3, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Leaders: Kelly Kearns & Kate Cooper

Forest Bathing & Foraging: Hoyt Park in Madison
Sunday, October 13, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Leaders: Kate Bast & Vince Aiello

Find out more at wisconservation.org.