Finding healthy food, peaceful escape through foraging

Under the early morning summer sun, Amy Demers patiently waited for the other amateur foragers to arrive at Bluff Point Park in Groton. 

This was her eleventh time hosting a free foraging walk since founding the CT Foraging Club in early 2021. Although Demers also hosts foraging classes, the free walks are for people with some foraging experience. 

Demers usually doesn’t stray too far from her home in Wallingford, but every once in a while, she likes to forage through different parts of the state to meet new people and find new wild plants. 

“It’s almost like a scavenger hunt,” she said. “If you go outside and you’re on a hike or just walking in the woods and you can actually identify things and then take some home and cook them, it definitely makes hiking and being out in nature a lot more exciting.” 

Slowly, the foragers emerged from the parking lot. These were people from all different walks of life — there were solo foragers, a family of foragers, dragged-along-by-friends foragers, novice and expert foragers. 

Within five minutes of starting the walk, the group had already stopped twice to pick some autumn olives. Although Demers was technically the leader, some participants took charge, sharing their knowledge with everyone and pointing out which plants were edible. 

One of the first plants the group tried was black birch growing on the edges of the trail. There were audible gasps as everyone nibbled at the plant’s root, tasting root beer even though the plant smells like spearmint. 

“Unless you forage, you’re never going to be able to try those unique flavors,” Demers said. 

What is foraging?

According to the Khan Academy, humanity has been foraging for 95% of our species’ existence. It is based on the hunter-gatherer tradition, but the rise of farming, supermarkets and restaurants practically eradicated the need around the world.

The pandemic, however, has played a role in transforming foraging from a unique hobby with few practitioners, to a popular pastime as more and more people turn to nature for peace and a source of accessible, healthy food. 

The North American Mycological Association saw 60% membership growth during the pandemic and many of its affiliated foraging clubs nearly doubled in membership, according to NAMA’s chief operating officer Bruch Reed. 

Mycology is the branch of biology concerned with fungi. NAMA, founded in 1959, has about 2,200 members in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

“Mushrooms, we’re discovering increasingly, are the organisms that hold the world together in terms of the chain of life,” Reed said. “Like an apple is the fruit of a tree, the fruit of a fungus is a mushroom.” 

He explained that many mushrooms help decompose animals and other plants to help create nutrient-rich soil and feed the wild vegetation around them. 

Although most people go to hiking trails and forest reserves to forage, “Wildman” Steve Brill says that some of the best finds can be right outside your door in a yard or local park. 

Brill has been foraging in New York City’s Central Park for over 30 years and knows all the best spots to find edible wild weeds full of nutrients. 

“The biggest enemy of the planet in the urban parks are the lawn mowers,” said Brill. “But they are deathly afraid of coming too close to lampposts, sidewalks, and boulders … so those areas have plenty of the common, renewable edible weeds.” 

Some other places for urban forage are fields and lawns, hedgerows and on the edges of organic farms, meadows and wetlands. In these vast, open spaces, you can find numerous clovers, chicken of the woods mushrooms, or berries if you look hard enough. 

However, he recommends avoiding areas with high vehicle traffic, such as highways, and areas potentially covered in pesticides. 


Foragers should also be aware of park rules and regulations.

For example, on March 29, 1986, Brill was arrested by undercover police and park rangers for eating a dandelion. He was charged with criminal mischief and removing vegetation. 

“They searched me. I don’t know if [the police] were looking for weeds or weed, but they rode me off to the police station in handcuffs,” Brill said. “Then they made a very bad mistake – they turned me loose.”

Brill took his arrest in stride and immediately after being released, called all the news stations he could think of to share his story. On his court date, he brought prepared wild food for the reporters waiting outside the courthouse. 

The city has since updated foraging regulations for Central Park and Brill says people can be seen foraging there almost every weekend. 

In Connecticut, picking vegetation from state parks or forests is prohibited unless authorized by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Permits are primarily granted for educational and scientific foraging. 

However, mushroom foraging in state parks is allowed and has no restrictions. 

“Foraging has become so popular recently and I think some of our laws are outdated,” Demers said. “I think it would be helpful to our state if we made picking invasive plants legal at state parks because humans would be the predator that we don’t have for those invasive plants.” 

Whenever Demers hosts a walk at a state park, like Bluff Point, she advises the group not to take anything home and use the expedition to help identify edible plants for future foraging. 

In general, Demers doesn’t stress too much about picking the invasive plants in state parks since it helps create space for native vegetation to take root. 

“If there’s a piece of mugwort and I pick it I feel like I’m helping,” she said. “I’m not going to harm anything.” 

Rules on foraging in municipal parks vary by city and town. In New Haven, for example, it is illegal to collect mushrooms in city parks while Wallingford has no regulations, says Demers. 

Health benefits

Wild foods and mushrooms have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries in Eastern culture, especially in Asian countries, Reed said.

“Studying mushrooms for medicine in Western culture is in its infancy,” he said. Mushrooms “have been farmed for centuries, but mushroom cultivation is fairly new in the West but not over there.” 

A recent study published in the Advances in Nutrition journal found that eating 18 grams of mushrooms daily may lower a person’s cancer risk by 45% since fungi are packed with amino acids and antioxidants that prevent or slow cancer cells. 

Mushrooms can also help lower cholesterol, lower salt intake, stimulate a healthier gut and support your immune system, says UCLA Health

There have also been a few studies on therapeutic relief that psilocybin mushrooms, more commonly known as magic mushrooms, can provide.

Known as psilocybin therapy, the psychedelic effects of magic mushrooms can help longtime smokers quit and ease the anxiety of fatal cancer patients, according to the Center for Psychedelics Research and Psilocybin Therapy at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Researchers have also found that magic mushrooms can relieve major depression and be used as a treatment for alcohol abuse. 

Reed saw the positive impacts magic mushrooms can have on someone with a terminal illness first-hand, he said.

He had given a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer psychedelic mushrooms he had previously foraged. She used the mushrooms during a guided meditation. After she died, Reed received a letter from her thanking him for helping relieve her “terror, sadness, depression and confusion.”

“She came out the other side able to enjoy the rest of her life and find that perspective,” Reed said. “That is not something that should be underestimated in terms of its value to humanity.” 

In 2021, John Hopkins Medicine received the first federal grant for psychedelic treatment in over 50 years. The three-year study is funded by the National Institutes of Health and will focus on psilocybin’s effect on tobacco addiction. 

On the most basic level, however, foraging gets people outside, helps cultivate an intimate connection with nature and provides foods high in nutrients without pesticides, says John Wheeler, president of the Berkshire Mycological Society and mushroom forager of 34 years. Foraging can also stimulate the brain by helping develop a person’s knowledge of the local ecosystems and improve observational skills. 

“You might learn about biomedicinal mushrooms and get into medicine. You might learn about culinary arts; you might get into forestry because mushrooms are living and feeding the trees and helping fight off pathogens,” he said. “It is a multi-faceted education.” 

Foraging provides free food 

From a financial perspective, foraging helps lessen a person’s spending on food at a grocery store. 

“Obviously, food prices have gone up a lot, so you can go forage for berries and get large amounts of berries for free, or that same amount of berries from the grocery store could cost like $100,” Demers said. 

In a small area of woods near Demers’s house, she found 70 different hen of the woods mushrooms, equivalent to about hundreds of pounds. She dried most of her finds because she had collected so many. 

“I’ve definitely saved a lot of money by being able to forage almost whole meals sometimes,” she said. 

She hopes to one day start hosting foraging classes in low-income communities to teach residents how to access nutritious food and supplement whatever they get from grocery stores. 

Soon after founding the CT Foraging Club, Demers connected with two chefs, Jason Ehlers and Dylan Siedenburg, to create a Foraging to Table experience. 

She hosts an expedition and teaches how to identify different plants by touch and smell. Then, the Ditto Cooks, as they call themselves on Instagram, bring out a plate featuring all the food the group foraged. 

Demers forages before the event to provide Ehlers and Siedenburg with the key ingredients and they make up the rest with produce from local farmer’s markets. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of people in the United States that really realize that what they eat is killing or helping them,” Siedenburg said. “Teaching people that you can have a full, healthy, satisfying diet based on anything that has grown in your area, I think, is pretty important not only for agriculture, local business and community but also just for individual health.” 

In addition, the Ditto Chefs emphasized how eating wild foods from your local ecosystem can help boost immunity, especially for allergies. 

“When you think about nature as an ecosystem, everything is balanced,” said Ehlers. “If you live in a specific part of Connecticut and eat honey from that part, that’ll help your allergies. 

Also, foraged food just tastes better, they said. 

“The idea of using what’s around you and utilizing what you have versus taking it from somewhere else puts an aspect into flavor,” Ehlers explained. “It’s an aspect of the labor of love you put into it by using that energy around you.”

It is crucial to double-check, especially with mushrooms, if a wild food is toxic before eating anything. 

On the North American Mycological Association’s website, there is a toxicology page that details which mushrooms to avoid, how to treat poisoning and provides access to other resources. 

“People’s interactions with mushrooms should not be ruled by [toxicity] fear,” said Reed, the NAMA chief operating officer. “[You’ll be] missing out on some of the most wonderful, delicious luxury foods that North America has to offer that grow in abundance, including probably in their yard or nearby.” 

Still fun even if you don’t find much

The haul from the recent Bluff Point foraging walk wasn’t as fruitful as expected. 

Before heading home, only a few of the 20 foragers picked a handful of sassafras and autumn olives. 

Regardless, everyone enjoyed the serenity Bluff Point Park gave them. 

“It’s calming to be able to just walk in the woods alone and pay attention to the different plants and mushrooms that are around you,” Demers said. “It definitely makes you appreciate the land and the world.” 

Health Equity Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. To learn more about RFA go to Villalonga-Vivoni can be reached at [email protected].

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