To walk in a park, or on a trail…or well, even the back of parking lot, there is some much free food to enjoy on Whidbey Island, which sits in the Salish Sea in Washington State, just below the San Juan Islands, at the entrance to the Puget Sound. Whidbey Island is the largest island in Washington State, at 55 miles long and 1 to 10 miles wide (depending on where you are on the island), and has a total land area of 168.67 square miles. It’s an island that’s easy to get to, has many roads and a lot of wild areas to enjoy for free (Whidbey Camano Land Trust/Island County Parks/city parks), or for a nominal fee (Washington State Parks – 6 of them and many outlying areas beyond the actual parks that are part of the parks).
There is, simply put, so many places to gently practice foraging/wildcrafting on.
Having said that, there are ground rules for foraging. So that it doesn’t become something that is taken away from us.
Know your local environment:
Invest in a book or three for the area to learn what you can expect to grow here. Our maritime environment allows more to grow, as we have a longer grow period yearly. However, not everything grows well here. Or you might find something unexpected. My go to book is Wildflowers of the Olympics and Cascades. Yes, there are many apps out there, some free, some cost. I do not rely on those as you never know if you will have good cell coverage. Learning the old school ways of using books and going with a friend who knows it well. Once you learn it, you won’t need the books till you find something new. But also? Take clear, closeup photos that include the berries and leaves if you don’t know it – and ask someone who does. I have encountered people who thought Mountain Ash berries were Red Huckleberries – and they look nothing alike.
Have a foraging plan:
Once you know what to expect in plants, know the seasons. You don’t want to hike in July hoping there will be ripe Evergreen Huckleberries, but they are weeks out. It wastes your time, and gas. And you get disappointed. Follow the yearly weather patterns as well. For example, this year the weather was cold and wet for far longer than usual. Many plants and berries are/were weeks behind.
Only harvest from “clean” areas:
While behind parking lots can be quite safe to harvest berries in, I would never recommend from along a roadside, particularly on busy roads. Alongside urban trails can be an issue if it has invasive plants, and chemicals are used. This is an issue in some Whidbey Camano Land Trust lands. If you don’t smell well, go with those who do. I can smell herbicides easily (they are “heavy” and the stench sticks around). Dead or dying foliage is a sign as well. As well, be wary around NAS Whidbey (Navy base) on the north end of the island due to parts of it being a Super Fund Cleanup, and the ground water is contaminated with jet fuel and other contaminants.
The key is, the farther you go in from the parking lot, it is usually cleaner.
In some of the towns on the island there are trees and bushes that are food bearing in the public zone. Anything picked you will want to wash well. Between car exhaust, animals pooping and dirty humans, washing your harvest can be a good option.
Identify, Identify, IDENTIFY:
Until you know a plant is that plant, do not eat it. It’s scary how many people don’t recognize for example what Stinging Nettle looks like when young. Fully edible, but you touch it, it hurts. Mushrooms and Fungi are especially a real issue. You must be 100% sure what you harvested. Your life could depend on it. Never sample an item without 100% proof you know what it is. If unsure, ask someone who does know. Not picking, but learning identification is the hardest part. And in all truth: I just do not eat wild mushrooms/fungi because…no thank you on the risk.
Be conservative in your harvest:
It’s simple: Don’t be a greedy pig. Find an apple tree, don’t strip it. My method for years has been never take more than 10% of the harvest. Leave most for the animals.
Leave nature as good as or better than you found it:
Flowers are especially something to be careful with. Flowers produce seeds, as well as food often. You must be very conservative with removing flowers overall. Stripping flowers can lead easily to the death of the species in the local area.
And last but not least: DO NOT DIG UP PLANTS. This shouldn’t have to be said….but it does sadly. If you want to propagate, take a small branch off of a healthy large plant and grow it that way – if that is allowed where you are – better to ask a private property owner who will let you take some snips. It’s not hard to learn how to do. The problem with native plants is when you dig them up, and go to plant them elsewhere, they often die. They are often quite picky about where they live. On our land we have thousands of Evergreen Huckleberry plants growing. They like land where Madrona (Madrone) Trees grow, along with Cedar and Fir trees, acidic land that tends to be dryer. If you try to put them on land where it’s boggy/wet and full of Alder Trees….they won’t do well. They will die quickly.
Prepare and inform:
What does that mean? While I often will forage on a whim, my car or backpack has supplies. A hard plastic box, paper bags, Ziploc bags. Things to stash finds in. If you are taking cuttings, carry sterilized clippers (and yes, I mean sterile! Don’t pass plant diseases around!) Pack some water in case you get thirsty, and good walking shoes. If you’ll be in a marsh or wetland, proper boots.
Inform is just that: Make sure someone trusted knows where you are. Just in case you fell down and got hurt, they’d have an idea where you wandered off to.
Check out the legalities of your area:
Part of Whidbey Island falls under the National Park system (Ebey’s Reserve in Coupeville). National Parks have strict rules on foraging and harvesting – and have limits. State Parks have rules as well, and limits. You must keep it to “personal use” and not be harvesting commercially ever, unless you have the proper permits. Find the website for the area you want to visit and peruse it. Ignorance isn’t OK if you get caught. Do your research!
Ask if it’s OK to wander off trail. Ask if areas are closed to travel (think how the National Forest and National Park’s close areas near lakes to let them rest).
Don’t Blast Your Picking Areas:
The truth is….Instagram and similar have wrecked many areas. Share with others who appreciate nature – in person by mouth. If you trust they will be gentle with the Earth. While I might tag I’m in a park, I don’t include GPS to it – part of foraging is learning it on your own, and the hunt for it. If it is too easy, people will destroy it. Not always because they are bad, but because they don’t have to work for it. I won’t tell you what trail I took or where I am standing on Instagram.
My Favorite Areas in General To Forage On Whidbey Island:
- Deception Pass State Park (north of Oak Harbor, there are a number of sections of this park, including on Fidalgo Island)
- Fort Ebey State Park/Kettle’s Trail System (north of Coupeville)
- Rhododendron Park, (south of Coupeville)
- Fort Casey State Park (south of Coupeville)
- South Whidbey State Park (north of Freeland)
- Trillium Community Forest (north of Freeland)
- South Whidbey Community Park (“Castle Park”, outside of Langley)
The thing is? Go talk a walk or hike. Slow down. Look at plants. Take photos. Pull out your book(s) and compare. And soon enough, you will feel confident!