9 Foraging Tips from Alexis Nikole Nelson, “Black Forager” on Social Media

Every Wednesday at 12 p.m., the Voracious 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 are looking for.

On April 6th, Alexis Nikole Nelson, the web’s most popular foraging guide, joined us to answer reader questions about foraging. Known as @alexisnikole on TikTok and @blackforager on Instagram, Nelson delights millions of viewers with happy, informative videos that show how to identify foods in nature and how she loves to prepare and preserve them.

The grocery TikTokers we can’t get enough of

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

What are your top tips for not dying while collecting?

That is really a wonderful question! My number one tip for not dying while foraging is to never put anything in your mouth unless you are 100 percent sure what it is. There’s no shame in taking some home to research more where I have better internet! When I’m in new places I still take samples home or to my hotel or whatever you have for further research. Another pro tip: if you’re eating something new, start small! You never know when you might discover a new allergy.

What’s your favorite way to ethically harvest ramps, and what’s the best way to spread it out over multiple meals?

The first step to ethical ramp harvesting is an awareness of how productive they are in your area. If I were in New York, I’d leave them even if I saw a big patch of narrow-leaved ramps because of the dance they’ve done with the endangered list for the last ten years.

If you are in an area where you are not on any watch list, estimate the size of the patch. Think ahead – if, say, 20 other people come across this patch over the next month and take the amount you want, what’s left?

I only collect leaves (one leaf from a multi-leaf ramp) so the plant can continue with photosynthesis and survive another year. If you’re craving onions, I’d suggest invasive field garlic (leek vineale) instead of this. Also delicious, and also everywhere!

I salt and dry my leaves so they last year-round 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 something for the next time since someone else is more likely to come along and claim it. Aside from keeping our spots secret, how can we encourage sustainable foraging practices?

I try to encourage ‘future-thinking’ foraging and also try to cheer common and invasive plants as much as ramps or morels because honestly the reason everyone is going crazy over the latter two is because of the marketing! If more people were looking for things like mallow, black mustard, garlic mustard, and non-native blackberry berries, we would actually be doing our ecosystems a favor.

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

Do you think there is enough wild food in nature for everyone?

I think if we focused on abundantly invasive species (like knotweed, which grows several inches a day at this time of year) there would be more than enough to get around. The problem is that people only focus on a few plants!

I see so many berries in my area that aren’t listed in the internet sources I found identifying local plants. Are there binding guidelines for identifying regional berries?

A local feeding guide and iNaturalist are great learning tools! For DC I would suggest the book Mid-Atlantic Foraging which will cover a fair amount of it. The iNaturalist app should not be viewed as the definitive way to find out if you can eat anything, but rather as a tool you can use to guide your research. iNaturalist is regularly interviewed by botanists, biologists and experienced collectors, so you can also see what has already been found (and whether an expert has already confirmed the identification) on a map of your area.

Is there a way to determine if animal waste is on harvested crops, and does rinsing make the harvested food safe?

What I do remind new collectors is that the grocery store veggies were grown in manure that often contains excrement or urea. Just as you clean these vegetables before eating, do the same with your collected finds.

I love a water vinegar wash! While scrubbing, dip your finds in a bowl of water and vinegar, then rinse before eating or refrigerating.

How much of your diet consists of animal feed?

The percentage varies throughout the year. It gets low in the winter, down to about 10 percent, as I’ve just managed to save and conserve during the year (although I’m trying to save more this year!). It’s picking up about now, and by late summer when some higher calorie snacks are in season (acorns, papayas, persimmons, etc.) I can eat whole days with food!

What are the two or three foods you look for that make you think, “Why doesn’t everyone eat this all the time?”

Dandelion and Japanese Knotweed! Both are insanely productive and tasty and easy to identify.

I’m starting to forage again and would love to know what some of your favorite books or reference books are!

All of Sam Thayer’s books are must-haves! I cannot recommend them enough.

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

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