Yes, you can pick and eat wild plants. Naturalist Rachel Goclawski offers tips for identifying, eating and cooking with herbs, flowers and shrubs from your own neighborhood.

The New England weather is warming up and many of us will begin gardening outside this month. But did you know there is another way to live off the land that requires no tending to plants at all? It’s called foraging, the practice of identifying, harvesting and preparing wild foods and herbs.

Rachel Goclawski, a Millbury mom of two, is a Massachusetts-certified educator, naturalist and foraging expert. Her goal is to get more families heading outside to give foraging a try.

“Some of my fondest memories as a child are of the walks my grandmother and I would take together,” said Goclawski, explaining how she first was drawn to foraging. “She would teach me the names of the trees and flowers, and taught me to forage my first edibles. In many cultures, foraging is a gift that has been passed down from generation to generation, but few families keep this valuable tradition these days, so I have been teaching it to anyone who would listen, starting as a young child with the children in the neighborhood!”

As a programming partner with the Museum of Natural History, Sudbury Valley Trustees, Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts and Waters Farm Preservation, Goclawski teaches classes on foraging in several Bay State locations. It is an educational experience that can be enjoyed by all ages, she said.

“You would be surprised how many kids have no idea where their food comes from. Foraging is a great way for kids to learn, not only where whole food comes from, but the ecology surrounding that food, the natural history, nutrition it contains, and how the food or medicine played a role in Native American or culture’s histories," she said. "Through foraging, kids have the potential to learn about health, self-reliance, responsibility, the importance of listening and following directions, science, sustainability and appreciation for our natural world.”

In addition to the fun and learning, foraging can also be incredibly healthful if done right, said Goclawski.

“Wild food has much higher concentrations of nutrients than cultivated food, so it takes a much smaller serving of wild food to reach the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals they contain. Many wild foods and herbs contain high concentrations of disease-fighting nutrients such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Getting outside to forage relieves stress and inspires exercise.”

If you’re cringing at the idea of picking something wild and actually eating it, that’s because Goclawski notes many of us were raised with the perception that wild plants were off limits and dangerous. It is time to turn that notion around, she said.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone exclaimed their surprise at the huge amounts of edible and medicinal plants surrounding a typical parking lot or playground! Often people have been told as a child that some plant or flower is poisonous when in fact it is a valuable edible or herb,” she said.

Want to get started foraging in your own neighborhood? Start by learning together with your child, purchase a foraging guide or pick out foraging books focused on your region from the library and read them together. If possible, book a trip with a local foraging instructor, or seasoned adult who can guide you all on a walk, said Goclawski.

“The first edible plants you teach your child should be common, safe, age-appropriate edibles,” she said “In other words, edibles with no poisonous look-alikes. They should be plentiful and easy to find; weeds like violets, wood sorrel, and lamb’s quarters are a good start. Teach how to identify poisonous plants to avoid like poison ivy.”

And of course, safety first. Never eat an edible unless you already know how to properly identify and prepare it yourself, cautions Goclawski.

“This sounds like common sense, but even adults can get carried away when they find something new, or excited when they think they found a long-sought-for edible. Don’t hide your excitement from your child, instead, collect it and bring it home to properly identify it together with your child before consuming it in a small amount. This teaches your child a valuable basic to foraging which is proper identification for safety. Teach your child that they have to find all the key identifiers for that particular edible in order to safely identify it.”

You can find out more about foraging and Goclawski’s work by visiting her Facebook page at www.facebook.com/cookingwithmrsg.